Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2016

Before the Flood; The Ivory Game

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,Film,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio

Two documentaries with the imprimatur of Leonardo DiCaprio can be seen in New York City and likely in theaters around the country given his clout as one of Hollywood’s superstars. Both of the documentaries are timely and excellent. They also raise questions about the role of tinseltown progressives. With DiCaprio, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Angela Jolie, John Cusack and others not so well known picking up where Jane Fonda left off years ago, it is a good time to consider their role in social change. Since there is a natural and even reasonable tendency on the left to regard such personalities as superficial phonies, a close look at DiCaprio’s trajectory would be useful.

“Before the Flood” opened yesterday at the Village East Cinema in New York and features DiCaprio in a kind of Michael Moore narrator/main character role. (The film will also be shown on the National Geographic channel on October 30th.) As the title implies, this is about climate change and certainly a follow-up to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that helped to draw attention to arguably the most important environmental question we face today even as Gore’s film failed to provide adequate answers. Whether DiCaprio’s film succeeds in answering them is open to question although it is undeniable that the average audience member will come out the theater with a much better idea of the problems we face.

The film is a kind of odyssey with DiCaprio meeting with people all across the planet who are on the front lines of climate change. Mostly he is content to allow people to speak freely even when they come close to denouncing him as part of the problem. When he meets with Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, he allows her to excoriate the West for demanding sharp cutbacks in fossil fuel usage across the board when her country and others like it are mired in poverty. After we see an Indian peasant turning cow dung into a patty that is used almost universally in the countryside as a primitive stove fuel, Narain remonstrates with DiCaprio:

Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future. We have 700m household using biomass to cook. If those households move to coal, there’ll be that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone tells you that the world’s poor should move to solar and why do they have to make the mistakes we have made…I hear this from American NGOs all the time. I’m like, wow. I mean, if it was that easy, I would really have liked the US to move to solar. But you haven’t. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.

There was nothing like this in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and as such makes this new film far more credible.

One of the things you will learn from “Before the Flood” is that Western Europe is making great strides in developing alternative energy sources. Not only that, so is China which is far Greener at least on climate change than the USA. To some extent, this is likely the result of China’s need to reduce air pollution from coal-burning plants even if it had nothing to do with the coastal flooding that can put cities under water everywhere, including China. Since protests against unclear air have roiled China, the Communist Party must have felt a need to defuse the situation. Furthermore, since lung cancer does not discriminate between rich and poor, the elite obviously would prefer to enjoy its wealth in good health.

If advances are being made in alternative energy sources, there continues to be profit-driven assaults on the world’s great rainforests that serve to absorb carbon dioxide and hence slow down climate change. One of the more shocking examples is the deliberately set forest fires in Borneo, a first step in clearing land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a key ingredient of junk food. When DiCaprio visits a shelter for orphaned orangutans, you really have to wonder what kind of mad world we are living in when a bag of Lays potato chips can fuel the extinction of such a gentle and intelligent beast.

There are three interviews that epitomize the shortcomings of a Green outlook that is not rooted in a critique of the capitalist system. DiCaprio gives Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw a platform to advocate for a carbon tax that he feels will reduce its use just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking. We assume that the inclusion of Mankiw, a life-long Republican who served in George W. Bush’s economic advisor, is meant to illustrate the possibility of uniting all sides of the political spectrum in a battle against extinction.

The carbon tax is based on the idea that markets can be the solution to climate change after the fashion of Obama’s cap-and-trade that provides incentives for reducing carbon emissions. But as long as the market system prevails, there will be enormous pressures to be cost-effective. This might entail allowing big corporations to offset the expense of a carbon tax by drilling in areas of the world where labor costs are minimal, like South Sudan for example. Indeed, even as China is converting to alternative energy sources within its borders, it is stepping up drilling in the South Sudan.

As it happens, Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax but this might have something to do with the fact that it would likely benefit more than its competitors from a carbon tax that favors cleaner-burning natural gas over coal. Guess what. ExxonMobil has the largest natural gas reserves of any U.S. company.

As another example of progress in the fight against climate change, DiCaprio talks to Elon Musk in his “gigafactory” in the Nevadan desert. Upon its completion in 2020, it will produce 500,000 electric vehicles per year and batteries/cells equal to 85 GWh/yr. Musk is also a proponent of the carbon tax as this exchange reveals:

Elon Musk: What would it take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy? What kind of throughput would you actually need? You need a hundred gigafactories.

Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?

Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…

Elon Musk: No, the whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!

Elon Musk: The whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That’s it?! That sounds manageable.

Elon Musk: If all the big companies do this then we can accelerate the transition and if governments can set the rules in favour of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly. But it’s really fundamental: unless they put a price on carbon…

Leonardo DiCaprio: …then we are never going to be able to make the transition in time, right?

Elon Musk: Only way to do that is through a carbon tax.

It is too bad that DiCaprio did not follow up with a question about lithium mining since this is the primary ingredient of the batteries he will be producing. I first became aware of its environmental impact in a film titled “Salero” that examined the life of a salt extractor in Bolivia whose way of life was threatened by the transformation of the salt flats into a huge lithium mine. Friends of the Earth details the possible outcome, which amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul:

Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. Holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface, leaving it to evaporate in ponds. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.

The salt flats where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities. The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, local communities claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used for humans, livestock and crop irrigation.

Finally, there is the interview with Barack Obama in which the chief executive worries about scarce resources becoming subject to competition between populations. This amounts to a national security issue according to the Pentagon. In a way, this has already taken place if you consider the possibility that the revolt in Syria was fueled to some extent by climate change. You can read about this in the December 17, 2015 Scientific American:

Kemal Ali ran a successful well-digging business for farmers in northern Syria for 30 years. He had everything he needed for the job: a heavy driver to pound pipe into the ground, a battered but reliable truck to carry his machinery, a willing crew of young men to do the grunt work. More than that, he had a sharp sense of where to dig, as well as trusted contacts in local government on whom he could count to look the other way if he bent the rules. Then things changed. In the winter of 2006–2007, the water table began sinking like never before.

Ali had a problem. “Before the drought I would have to dig 60 or 70 meters to find water,” he recalls. “Then I had to dig 100 to 200 meters. Then, when the drought hit very strongly, I had to dig 500 meters. The deepest I ever had to dig was 700 meters. The water kept dropping and dropping.” From that winter through 2010, Syria suffered its most devastating drought on record. Ali’s business disappeared. He tried to find work but could not. Social uprisings in the country began to escalate. He was almost killed by cross fire. Now Ali sits in a wheelchair at a camp for wounded and ill refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

If there is anything that casts doubt on the ability or willingness of American imperialism to preempt “national security” issues stemming from climate change, it is the situation in Syria that has deteriorated to hellish levels. The USA had zero interest in reducing conflict in the entire Middle East and North Africa, which to one extent or another is suffering from extreme weather conditions. Its general strategy is to support the status quo with one or another dictatorship keeping men such as Kemal Ali from getting out of hand. Oil will be sent from Saudi Arabia while men like al-Sisi and Assad keep the rabble in line. This is the shape of things to come in the 21st century and nothing will stop it except the revolutionary action of working people and farmers who have nothing to lose but their chains. This is a showdown that will force men and women in Leonardo DiCaprio’s social position to choose sides. I’d like to think on the basis of the convictions displayed in “Before the Flood” that he can be won to our side.

In the early moments of “Before the Flood”, DiCaprio recollects how as a young boy he began thinking about environmental questions. He became preoccupied with animal extinctions and wondered how they happened and how they could be prevented. Since we are part of the animal kingdom ourselves, we have an obvious interest in eliminating any environmental threats to our own existence.

Moving from those early musings to the current day, we see him in conversation with Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of “The Revenant”, a very fine film about one man’s struggle to reach civilization after being mauled in the wilderness by a grizzly bear. In a way, this was nature’s revenge since the man was a hunter who like thousands of others in the early 1800s helped to bring many creatures to the edge of extinction. We see director and actor looking in horror at a photograph of one of these hunters before a small mountain of pelts. DiCaprio shakes his head at this gruesome spectacle and asks why such men could not see the impact that they would have on nature.

That kind of irrational, cruel and ultimately self-destructive behavior is the subject of the documentary “The Ivory Game” that opens in theaters everywhere on November 4th as well as on Netflix. DiCaprio served as executive producer for the film that is directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson.

As the title implies, this is about the wholesale destruction of African elephants through poaching. The main market for their tusks is China, where the nouveau riche value artwork made of ivory. Like the rhinoceros tusks that end up in useless cures for a variety of ailments ranging from impotence to cancer, China is a primary cause of the enormous loss of living natural resources that cannot easily be replaced.

The film follows some of the men and women involved in eliminating the black market for ivory in both Africa and China. We meet the cops who are in pursuit of Shetani, a kingpin in the poaching business whose name is Swahili for Satan—appropriately enough. We also meet a young Chinese man who after being horrified as a boy by the slaughter of small animals in an outdoor market decided to take up their cause. He became an investigative journalist covering the ivory game as well as an undercover operative who secretly filmed the Chinese and Africans who take part in this sordid business.

As a further illustration of the insanity of the capitalist system, we learn that the men in the poaching trade and the shopkeepers in China who sell the handicrafts made of ivory want the elephant population to decline since that will drive up the price of their goods. Supply and demand, don’t you know? This becomes a vicious cycle that will eventually lead to their extinction.

As it happens, my earliest inklings into the conflict between capitalism and mother nature was a 1958 film titled “Roots of Heaven” directed by John Huston that I wrote about in July 2014:

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

So what do we make of Leonardo DiCaprio? To start with, it is good that he is involved with projects such as these. His name might help to fill seats in theaters that are outside the arthouse ghetto. It also helps that the two films have production values not ordinarily seen in documentaries.

Plus, the man puts his money on the line. He recently donated $1 million to an anti-poaching campaign. While he certainly can afford to make that kind of contribution, we can at least respect him for making it. I also invited you to visit his website where you can see other initiatives that he is funding. I am not sure if there is anybody doing more than him to protect wildlife and the ecosphere, at least in Hollywood.


There were some autobiographical details in “Before the Flood” that I found interesting. It turns out that DiCaprio’s father was both a creator and marketer of underground comics and evidently part of the counter-culture. For some reason that only the father could explain, he put a poster of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” on his young child’s bedroom wall. DiCaprio became obsessed with the images, especially the one to the right that depicts hell. It is that image that evokes what our planet will look like unless the forces of destruction are not confronted and defeated.

Like most people in his milieu, DiCaprio is a Democrat as Wikipedia notes:

During the 2004 presidential election, DiCaprio campaigned and donated to John Kerry’s presidential bid. The FEC showed that DiCaprio gave $2,300 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the 2008 election, the maximum contribution an individual could give in that election cycle, and $5,000 to Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Well, the $5000 shelled out to Obama might have been wasted but the million dollars to save the elephants was much better spent.

On balance, we are better off with DiCaprio as a spokesman for causes we believe in rather than him standing on the sidelines doing cocaine and navel-gazing. In the final analysis, it is the working class and its allies that will transform the economic system that hastens climate change and the extinction of African elephants but we should be looking for all the help we can get in a monumental struggle upon which everything rests, including the survival of life on earth.

This is the speech he gave to the UN on April 22nd, 2016. I’d like to think he wrote it himself:

Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, for the honor to address this body once more. And thanks to the distinguished climate leaders assembled here today who are ready to take action.

President Abraham Lincoln was also thinking of bold action 150 years ago when he said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

He was speaking before the US Congress to confront the defining issue of his time – slavery.

Everyone knew it had to end but no one had the political will to stop it. Remarkably, his words ring as true today when applied to the defining crisis of our time – Climate Change.

As a UN Messenger of Peace, I have been travelling all over the world for the last two years documenting how this crisis is changing the natural balance of our planet. I have seen cities like Beijing choked by industrial pollution. Ancient Boreal forests in Canada that have been clear cut and rainforests in Indonesia that have been incinerated. In India I met farmers whose crops have literally been washed away by historic flooding. In America I have witnessed unprecedented droughts in California and sea level rise flooding the streets of Miami. In Greenland and in the Arctic I was astonished to see that ancient glaciers are rapidly disappearing well ahead of scientific predictions. All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me.

There is no doubt in the world’s scientific community that this a direct result of human activity and that the effects of climate change will become astronomically worse in the future.

I do not need to throw statistics at you. You know them better than I do, and more importantly, you know what will happen if this scourge is left unchecked. You know that climate change is happening faster than even the most pessimistic of scientists warned us decades ago. It has become a runaway freight train bringing with it an impending disaster for all living things.

Now think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we had the means of stopping this devastation, but simply lacked the political will to do so.

Yes, we have achieved the Paris Agreement. More countries have come together to sign this agreement today than for any other cause in the history of humankind – and that is a reason for hope – but unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough.

Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. An upheaval and massive change is required, now. One that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race, inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you.

We all know that reversing the course of climate change will not be easy, but the tools are in our hands – if we apply them before it is too late.

Renewable energy, clean fuels, and putting a price on carbon pollution are beginning to turn the tide. This transition is not only the right thing for our world, but it also makes clear economic sense, and is possible within our lifetime.

But it is now upon you to do what great leaders have always done: to lead, inspire, and empower as President Lincoln did in his time.

We can congratulate each other today, but it will mean nothing if you return to your countries and fail to push beyond the promises of this historic agreement. Now is the time for bold unprecedented action.

My friends, look at the delegates around you. It is time to ask each other – which side of history will you be on?

As a citizen of our planet who has witnessed so much on this journey I thank you for all you have done to lay the foundation of a solution to this crisis, but after 21 years of debates and conferences it is time to declare no more talk. No more excuses. No more ten-year studies. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that effect our future. This is the only body that can do what is needed. You, sitting in this very hall.

The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them.

Lincoln’s words still resonate to all of us here today:

“We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

That is our charge now – you are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it. Or we – and all living things we cherish – are history.

Thank you.

April 17, 2015

Water, capitalism and catastrophism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Living Under the Shadow of a Sixth Extinction

Water, Capitalism and Catastrophism


Two films concerned with water and environmental activism arrive in New York this week. “Groundswell Rising”, which premieres at the Maysles Theater in Harlem today, is about the struggle to safeguard lakes and rivers from fracking while “Revolution”, which opens at the Cinema Village next Wednesday, documents the impact of global warming on the oceans. Taking the holistic view, one can understand how some of the most basic conditions of life are threatened by a basic contradiction. Civilization, the quintessential expression of Enlightenment values that relies on ever-expanding energy, threatens to reduce humanity to barbarism if not extinction through exactly such energy production.

This challenge not only faces those of us now living under capitalism but our descendants who will be living under a more rational system. No matter the way in which goods and services are produced, for profit or on the basis of human need, humanity is faced with ecological constraints that must be overcome otherwise we will be subject to a Sixth Extinction. Under capitalism, Sixth Extinction is guaranteed. Under socialism, survival is possible but only as a result of a radical transformation of how society is organized, something that Marx alluded to in the Communist Manifesto when he called for a “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

read full article

April 8, 2015

Naomi Klein, Jodi Dean and the debate over “Green Keynesianism”

Filed under: economics,Global Warming,Green Party,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

this changes everything

Despite its obvious intention to challenge the corporate-dominated status quo, some Marxists fault Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” for supposedly straddling two opposing and mutually exclusive systems: capitalism and socialism. For every criticism, there has been a defense of “This Changes Everything” from other Marxists, including those who have had long-standing affinities with the critics–thus demonstrating that deep divisions do not have to stand in the way of a unified movement. As such, the debate is a reminder that as long as our primary focus is on challenging capitalist rule, there is no reason why we cannot air out our differences in the public arena without the schisms that have harmed out movement in the past.

In a December 30, 2014 Jacobin article, Sam Gindin praises Klein for attacking capitalism as the source of climate change but faults her for leaving too much “wriggle room” for capitalist reform. By hammering away at “villains” such as the Koch brothers et al, the left can effectively let the system off the hook. While Gindin does not identify her as a Keynesian—the term that is widely identified with the leftwing policy studies base of the Democratic Party—he leaves the impression that she is not much different than Bill McKibben. When he writes that “It is one thing to ask how we can organize ourselves better to register our dissatisfaction and to pressure or lobby corporations and states to modify some of their ways within capitalism”, it is clearly a warning that Klein’s agenda is one of capitalist reform.

read full article

September 2, 2014

A Return to Rockaway

Filed under: Ecology,energy,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

This is a video I recorded last weekend in Rockaway, Queens—the epicenter of Hurricane Sandy. It is a follow-up to the video I made in November 2012, shortly after the hurricane had inflicted major damage in Rockaway including the deaths of local residents.

It is a report both on how the peninsula has recovered as well as the threats now posed by a natural gas pipeline being installed underneath Rockaway as part of a nationwide network built by the Williams Company, an outfit that can be described as the BP of natural gas pipelines.

April 13, 2013

The Koch brothers hedge their bets

Filed under: energy,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

Richard and Elizabeth Muller

There must be something wrong with me. Here I am at the age of 68 still getting worked up over some Koch brother’s funded op-ed piece in the NY Times. If I had stopped reading newspapers 33 years ago after dropping out of the SWP, maybe I could have launched a career writing fiction. What is it that they recommend for people like me? A chill pill?

The offending piece is titled “China Must Exploit its Shale Gas”. My first reaction was to wonder if it was some kind of onion.com spoof. Not a day goes by without a disaster in China attributable to some profit-driven shortcut. Some reminders. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake caused 7000 inadequately constructed schoolhouses to collapse, thus costing the lives of 5000 children and another 15000 injured. As predicted, the Three Gorges Dam has had a terrible environmental impact, producing erosion on 80 percent of the adjacent land. One last instance to dramatize how risky it is for China to “dig deep” for any resource, including coal. Although producing just 35% of the world’s coal, China is responsible for 80% of coal miner fatalities. For example, a gas explosion at the Nanshan mine on November 13, 2006 killed 24 people. The mine, like so many, was operating without any safety license.

The op-ed piece written by one Elizabeth Muller encourages Obama’s pro-fracking and pro-nuke (what? You were expecting a Green?) Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz to push China to go full blast in hydrocracking (ie., fracking) since this would alleviate global warming. As China’s chief energy source right now is coal, this would cut down on greenhouse gases. I guess that makes sense given China’s current situation–exchange air pollution and climate change for carcinogenic, flammable water.

At the bottom of the article, Ms. Muller is identified as the co-founder and executive director of Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit research organization focused on climate change. Gosh, as the head of something called Berkeley Earth, you’d expect her least of all to be wearing Birkenstocks and driving a Prius. But more importantly, that branding would ensure her to be Greener than Green, right?

Being an inveterate “cui bono” investigator, I went to the Berkeley Earth website and checked out the donor page, which is divided into three “phases”. Guess what? In phase one, they got $150,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the largest chunk. Bill Gates’s Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research kicked in another hundred thou. A brief search revealed that Gates’s main interest in all this is to promote geoengineering. An opinion piece by Naomi Klein on October 27, 2012 described Gates’s stake in this jury-rigged technology:

Bill Gates has funneled millions of dollars into geoengineering research. And he has invested in a company, Intellectual Ventures, that is developing at least two geoengineering tools: the “StratoShield,” a 19-mile-long hose suspended by helium balloons that would spew sun-blocking sulfur dioxide particles into the sky and a tool that can supposedly blunt the force of hurricanes.

She adds:

 The geopolitical ramifications are chilling. Climate change is already making it hard to know whether events previously understood as “acts of God” (a freak heat wave in March or a Frankenstorm on Halloween) still belong in that category. But if we start tinkering with the earth’s thermostat — deliberately turning our oceans murky green to soak up carbon and bleaching the skies hazy white to deflect the sun — we take our influence to a new level. A drought in India will come to be seen — accurately or not — as a result of a conscious decision by engineers on the other side of the planet. What was once bad luck could come to be seen as a malevolent plot or an imperialist attack.

 Ms. Muller’s husband Richard founded Berkeley Earth and now is the institute’s Science Director. Doing a bit of research on him, you discover from Wikipedia that he is the director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project that Koch funds as well. But interestingly enough, that project confirmed that temperatures were rising despite suspicions that it would fall within the skeptic’s camp.

This of course has some bearing on Elizabeth Muller’s op-ed piece that accepts the science but proposes a remedy that will likely kill the patient—mother earth. The only conclusion you can be left with is that the Koch Brothers are hedging their bets. If governments move more and more in the direction of eliminating “dirty” greenhouse emitting energy sources like coal, then why not push natural gas and hydrocracking?

Tina Casey of Triplepundit.com ties everything together and puts a red ribbon around it:

 The green blogs were buzzing last week with news of a new bombshell report that affirms the role of human activity in global warming. Studies affirming climate science are nothing new to say the least, but this one was produced through the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST), under the auspices of well known climate skeptic Richard A. Muller. The kicker is that BEST is partly funded by the Koch brothers, who have become notorious for their financial support of the “climate change denial machine.”

Hence the bombshell, and with it a lesson in the perils of corporate funding  for scientific research. But is it really a bombshell? Take a closer look at some of the Koch brothers’ energy investments and pair that with another BEST funder, and it’s clear that the new study works in favor of the Koch interests, not against them.

The Koch brothers and natural gas

First off, it’s important to note that not all fossil fuels are due for a quick and brutal end once the so-called climate “skeptic” movement is neutralized.

Fossil fuels will continue to feature prominently in the U.S. energy landscape during a transitional period to low-carbon energy, and proponents of natural gas have positioned this particular fuel to play a key role in the transition, based on the idea that it is “cleaner” than other fossil fuels.

It’s also worth noting that natural gas is not necessarily deserving of this advantage, at least not when it is obtained through fracking.  Fracking is a highly controversial drilling method that involves pumping a toxic chemical brine underground. It has been linked to water contamination, greenhouse gas emissions, and even earthquakes.

Be that as it may,  Koch Industries is heavily involved in natural gas, as detailed in an article last spring by Lee Fang in the Republic Report. Its recent activities in the natural gas industry focus on services for fracking operations including pipelines, storage, processing, and supplies.

BEST, Novim and natural gas

That pretty much explains why the new report from BEST is not such bad news for the Koch brothers after all.

In fact, the report is not such bad news for the natural gas industry as a whole, judging by another major funder behind BEST, a non-profit organization called Novim.

According to its website, Novim initiated and sponsored BEST in line with its stated mission, which is “to provide clear scientific options to the most urgent problems facing mankind.” Novim’s mission also focuses on cost/benefit analyses, and it claims to report its findings “without advocacy or agenda.”

That’s all well and good, but Novim’s news page currently leads off with an Associated Press article asserting that evidence of water contamination and public health impacts from gas drilling is “sketchy and inconclusive.”

Other featured articles include a New York Times piece touting increased natural gas production (with a veiled reference to new fracking technology) as a critical factor in carbon emissions management, and a love letter to fracking in the form of a Yale study review published in Forbes.

Aside from BEST, Novim is also involved in at least one other research project with implications for the natural gas industry, an analysis of methane leakage from natural gas drilling. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and critics argue that the leakage effectively neutralizes the low-carbon advantage that natural gas is supposed to have over other fossil fuels.

He who laughs last, laughs BEST…

As for the methodology behind BEST, some critics are already lining up to shoot it down but according to a recent article in The Guardian, others are having themselves a bit of a chuckle over it. For all the media firestorm surrounding BEST, so far it pretty much confirms conclusions about global warming that had already achieved general acceptance back in the 1990′s.

At any rate, regardless of the science it’s a win-win for the Koch brothers. Either the critics are right and BEST contributes little or nothing to the body of climate science, or it is a valid study that happens to support Koch Industries’ investments in the natural gas industry.

Who’s laughing now?

November 8, 2012

A trip to post-Hurricane Sandy Rockaways

Filed under: disasters,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

November 2, 2012

Help pay for this ad

Filed under: Global Warming,Green Party — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

Donate here

March 21, 2012

The Island President

Filed under: Film,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

My first inkling that there was something a bit “off” about The Island President, a documentary opening at the Film Forum in NYC on March 28, was when the opening credits revealed that the Ford Foundation was a co-producer. Since the film is a profile of recently deposed Maldives Islands president Mohamed Nasheed’s efforts to reverse the global warming that is threatening to turn his country into a new Atlantis, I had to wonder how such mainstream backing would influence the film’s editorial content.

The Island President is directed by Jon Shenk, who is best known for Lost Boys of the Sudan, a film that deals with the problems two Sudanese youth have adjusting to American life. This is a deeply moving film that thankfully eschews Nicholas Kristof moralizing about Sudan’s civil wars despite the fact that they were fleeing Janjaweed violence.

After seeing some of the obvious mainstream environmentalist bias of The Island President, I did a bit more investigation of Shenk’s previous work and was disconcerted but not that surprised to learn that he co-directed Democracy Afghan Style, a documentary shot in 2003-2004that features Larry Sampler, described on Shenk’s website as “a logistical expert whose military precision is balanced by a hard-won understanding of how things can go wrong in the field.” In fact Sampler is a long-time USAID functionary, part of the killing machine that has made life miserable for the average Afghan.

Notwithstanding all these warning signs, The Island President is a stunning look at what amounts to the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. If there is a rise of three feet in sea level, the Maldives will be completely inundated. You can imagine the impact of a tsunami there, as the one that occurred in 2004. But even more threatening would be a “normal” rise in sea level that would have little impact on, for example, most cities in the imperialist North. But not every city would be immune, as President Nasheed pointed out when he arrived in New York for a speech to the United Nations. The island of Manhattan is at about the same sea level as his nation’s capital. Just this week the N.Y. Times reported about the danger that New York and other coastal cities faced:

About 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming, according to new research.

If the pace of the rise accelerates as much as expected, researchers found, coastal flooding at levels that were once exceedingly rare could become an every-few-years occurrence by the middle of this century.

By far the most vulnerable state is Florida, the new analysis found, with roughly half of the nation’s at-risk population living near the coast on the porous, low-lying limestone shelf that constitutes much of that state. But Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey are also particularly vulnerable, researchers found, and virtually the entire American coastline is at some degree of risk.

“Sea level rise is like an invisible tsunami, building force while we do almost nothing,” said Benjamin H. Strauss, an author, with other scientists, of two new papers outlining the research. “We have a closing window of time to prevent the worst by preparing for higher seas.”

Mohamed Nasheed was Maldive’s Nelson Mandela, leading a 20 year pro-democracy movement against the brutal kleptocracy run by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After suffering torture and repeated imprisonments with long periods of solitary confinement, he was elected president in 2008.

Of all the urgent tasks a reform administration was facing, catastrophic flooding was at the top of the list. In a cabinet meeting, he told his appointees that the world had to understand that Maldives was like Vietnam. Global warming was like communism. Unless it was stopped in the Maldives, dominoes would fall everywhere else—a remark that evoked embarrassed laughter from a top official who apparently had a better sense of recent history than the President. When Nasheed drew the same analogy in a speech to the United Nations, one could hardly escape the feeling that his worldview was far too much in line with Cold War mythologies, a weakness that would inevitably shape his approach to Climate Change.

This was confirmed by the role he played at the Copenhagen Conference that amounted to taking sides against India and China for selfishly putting their own development needs above those of the planet. While India and China’s rulers have as about as much regard for sustainable development as do the imperialist powers, they rightfully make the point that their nations are not nearly as responsible for greenhouse gases as the U.S. and other advanced countries. In an article titled Rich Countries Sabotaging Climate Talks that appeared in the October 5, 2009 Guardian, John Vidal observed:

The G77 plus China group is incensed that rich countries appear to be seeking to establish a new agreement that would force developing countries to cut emissions, but allow rich countries to do little.

In the talks, the US has said it wants a new approach which would move away from a legally binding world agreement to one where individual countries pledged cuts in their national emissions without binding timetables and targets. It is a change from the top down approach of Kyoto, in which total emissions targets are determined by the science, to one in which individual countries pledge their own emissions cuts.

This is seen as undermining the Kyoto framework, which took many years to build, and has until now been the foundation for committing all countries to cut their emissions. The US team in Bangkok declined to respond to today’s criticism.

Developed countries have so far refused to show their hand on what their emission cuts should be. The UN’s Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that to keep below a 2C rise in temperatures they need to cut their emissions by 25-40% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels. But developing countries are calling for an aggregate cut of at least 40%.

But with fewer than 10 days of formal negotiations left before the Copenhagen talks begin, poor countries are complaining that they are being expected to cut emissions but the US and others are being allowed to get away with minimal cuts.

The film is more urgent than ever in light of the coup that removed Mohamed Nasheed from office on February 7th this year. Although he was replaced by his vice president Mohammed Waheed Hassan, there are suspicions that the military was acting at the behest of the former dictator. Reporting in the N.Y. Times and Washington Post have been singularly useless at pinpointing the exact causes.

In one of the more spurious takes on the coup, the Wall Street Journal blamed Islamists:

This paradise for wealthy tourists has shown a very different face in recent days, where hard-line Islam is an increasing part of the political scene and played a role in overthrowing the democratically elected government.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s ouster of President Mohamed Nasheed, his political adversaries fomented opposition among conservative Muslims by claiming Mr. Nasheed’s government was trying to undermine their faith.

A group of Islamist organizations organized a rally in December in Male, the capital, which was attended by thousands of people protesting against Mr. Nasheed for failing to defend Quranic law and calling for a ban on spas and liquor parlors catering to foreign tourists.

On Friday, after prayers at Male’s central mosque—a donation from Brunei—Ahmed Yusry, an eloquent 22-year-old with a bushy beard who works on a tourist boat, said he had attended the December rally because of fears Mr. Nasheed was pushing a Western secular agenda.

“We are a 100% Muslim county. We should go with all the rules of Islam,” he said.

Although the Wall Street Journal had a reputation for maintaining a firewall between its lunatic-right editorial pages and its impeccable reporting, one cannot help but feel that Murdoch’s ownership of the paper is eroding that firewall based on this unlikely scenario.

Haruge.com, a Maldives-based website committed to democracy and human rights, makes the case that the coup was orchestrated by some of the nation’s superrich hotel owners:

In the series of events that led to the 7 February 2012 coup in the Maldives that ousted the first democratically elected President of the country Mohamed Nasheed, several Maldivian businessmen joined the 200 or so protestors who gathered on the Republican Square, adjacent to Police and Defense Headquarters in Male for close to three weeks. The protest, and the ensuing coup, is believed to be funded by key businessmen in the Maldivian tourism industry as well as by a half brother of former president Gayoom, MP Abdulla Yameen. Both Gasim and Yameen were seen addressing the protesters as well as the Police and Defence officers attending them, offering them to ‘join with us in return for taking care of them’.

Meeting with the press yesterday, ousted President Nasheed said “at least four resort owners are heavily involved in this” but he mentioned only Mr Gasim Ibrahim, owner of the Villa Group, “only because he was seen in the protests and has been openly vocal about his support to topple the government”, and refused to comment further until an investigation was carried out. Mr. Gasim Ibrahim has been running a hate campaign on Villa TV, a local channel he owns along with several five star hotels in the Maldives, an airline, airport, as well as several other businesses. He fell out with President Nasheed soon after he lost the 2008 Presidential Elections to Nasheed. Although he was an initial coalition partner in the Nasheed Administration, he resigned within weeks into the new government citing dissatisfaction with President Nasheed. Both MPs Gasim and Yameen were also arrested in 2009 for allegedly attempting to ‘bribe’ Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) parliamentarians.

Not surprisingly, the United States was eager to embrace the undemocratic regime that ousted a popularly elected and widely supported reformer, as Agent Press Francais reported:

The United States on Thursday recognized the new government of Maldives President Mohamed Waheed as legitimate and urged him to fulfill a pledge to form a national unity government.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also said Robert Blake, the top US diplomat for south Asia, telephoned former president Mohamed Nasheed to tell him Washington backed a “peaceful resolution” of the crisis on the archipelago.

“We do,” Nuland told reporters when asked if Washington recognizes the new government as the legitimate government of the Maldives. She called Waheed the president and Nasheed the former president.

Blake, the assistant secretary of state for south Asian affairs, will travel Saturday to the Maldives to meet with both Waheed and Nasheed, who charges he was ousted in a coup, as well as civil society.

“He will be encouraging this national unity conversation,” she added.

In other words, another Honduras.

January 22, 2010

Alexander Cockburn and the Oregon Petition

Filed under: Ecology,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

Alexander Cockburn, fading fast

Dr. Arthur Robinson: circulated Oregon Petition as well as publishing Dr. Edward Teller

In responding to Alexander Cockburn’s atrocious commentary on climate change over the past few years, my tone has been characteristically acerbic. Since Cockburn is one of my major writing influences, it should come as no surprise that I often take the same tone that he does. But all the while when I am responding to him, it is hard for me to suppress a feeling of sadness and worry that his outstanding mind is beginning to fade.

When I first ran into his writing in the Village Voice in the early 1980s, after having resigned from the SWP, I was amazed at his investigative reporting skills. Like a radical version of “Sixty Minutes”, he had a way of digging up the dirt on any number of malefactors. That’s why I am so dismayed by his seeming inability to check the sources he uses in writing about climate change. Perhaps he is unaccustomed to using search engines on the Internet but when he decided to cite Zbigniew Jaworowski as an expert on climate change, he apparently failed to turn up this character’s long standing relationship with the Lyndon Larouche cult, something I was able to do in less than 15 minutes. I fear that he is so into his climate change denialism that he lacks the ability to fact-check his own material. Since he is such a dominating figure, I doubt that his partner Jeff St. Clair has the backbone to take him on even though it is quite likely that he disagrees with him.

But more worrisome is the possibility that Alexander Cockburn has grown intellectually flabby over the years. I imagine that cranking out dozens of articles a year must take a toll on one’s mind. I have been programming for 42 years now and I know what it means to be burned out. Of course, I would switch jobs with him in a heartbeat even though I wouldn’t wish that disaster on the financial records at Columbia University.

The most recent occasion of Cockburn nuttiness was a January 4 Nation Magazine article titled “From Nicaea to Copenhagen” that is not worth reviewing in any kind of detail since it mostly rehashes old arguments with an aggressiveness buttressed by the British email hacks that were posted on the Internet. The opening sentences sets the blustering tone for the remainder of the article: “The global warming jamboree in Copenhagen was surely the most outlandish foray into intellectual fantasizing since the fourth-century Christian bishops assembled in 325 AD for the Council of Nicaea to debate whether God the Father was supreme or had to share equal status in the pecking order of eternity with his Son and the Holy Ghost.”

In the February 8th issues, there are a number of letters attacking this article that Cockburn responds to in his trademark supercilious fashion. One thing in his response did catch my eye: “More than 30,000 scientists have signed the Oregon Petition, which refutes the AGW theory.” (Anthropogenic global warming.) My first impulse was to find out more about the Oregon Petition, something apparently that Alexander could not be bothered with.

Perhaps he might have not heard about this very useful online resource called Wikipedia. If he had, he might have found an entry for “Oregon Petition” that reveals the following:

The original article associated with the petition (see below) defined “global warming” as “severe increases in Earth’s atmospheric and surface temperatures, with disastrous environmental consequences”. This differs from both scientific usage and dictionary definitions, in which “global warming” is an increase in the global mean atmospheric temperature without implying that the increase is “severe” or will have “disastrous environmental consequences.”

Well, what the heck. Who cares about scientific usage when you have bigger fish to fry? After all, Cockburn is dead set on establishing a vast conspiracy involving 99 percent of the world’s scientists and major corporations bent on developing nuclear power. When you are in the business of uncovering conspiracies, who wants to be bothered by petty details? Like the ability of jet fuel to melt steel?

The article that was attached to the petition also appeared to be damaged goods:

The article followed the identical style and format of a contribution to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific journal, even including a date of publication (“October 26”) and volume number (“Vol. 13: 149-164 1999”), but was not actually a publication of the National Academy. Raymond Pierrehumbert, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Chicago, said that the article was “designed to be deceptive by giving people the impression that the article…is a reprint and has passed peer review.”

There were also problems with the signatories, some of whom appeared to have little connection with climate science as the Seattle Times reported in 1998:

Several environmental groups questioned some of the names in the petition. For instance: “Perry S. Mason”, who was a legitimate scientist who shared the name of a TV character. Similarly, “Michael J. Fox”, “Robert C. Byrd”, and “John C. Grisham” were signatories with names shared with famous people.

It also seems that Cockburn failed to check what www.sourcewatch.org had to say about the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM), the outfit that circulate the petition. One of its founders is Arthur Robinson, who was a biochemist not a climate scientist. Surprise, surprise. According to its website, it also markets a home-schooling kit for “parents concerned about socialism in the public schools” and publishes books on how to survive nuclear war. Like the Larouchite fellow traveler Zbigniew Jaworowski, the OISM tends to pooh-pooh the danger of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Just the kind of people Alexander Cockburn would normally have a violent aversion to, unless of course they shared his screwy ideas about climate change. Sourcewatch reports:

It published two books, Nuclear War Survival Skills (foreword by H-bomb inventor Edward Teller), which argues that “the dangers from nuclear weapons have been distorted and exaggerated” into “demoralizing myths.” Robinson also co-authored another civil defense book titled Fighting Chance: Ten Feet to Survival, in collaboration with Gary North, who like Robinson is a conservative Christian. North is also a prolific author of doomsday books with titles such as None Dare Call It Witchcraft; Conspiracy: A Biblical View; Rapture Fever; and How You Can Profit From the Coming Price Controls. Following his collaboration with Robinson, North built a web-based marketing empire built around apocalyptic predictions that the Y2K bug would make the dawn of the 21st century “the year the earth stands still.

When I read about the shoddy reality of the Oregon Petition and the group that circulated it, I almost felt a tear coming to my eye as I considered the sheer fecklessness of one of America’s most respected radical journalists. How the mighty have fallen.

December 18, 2009

Alexander Cockburn’s latest nonsense

Filed under: Global Warming — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Alexander Cockburn in the December 18-20, 2009 Counterpunch Weekend Edition

“As for the nightmare of vanishing ice caps and inundating seas, the average Arctic ice  coverage has essentially remained unchanged for the last 20 years, and has actually increased slightly over the last 3 years.”

* * * *

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.