What the New Report Tells Us about Climate Change​

Dianne Feeley

December 19. 2018

The October 2018 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), a UN body made up of scientists, confirmed the need to limit the rise in CO2 to 1.5 degree Celsius. This point, suggested in the Paris Agreement, had been demanded by island countries that faced obliteration with a two-degree rise. In reviewing recent scientific studies scientists concluded that we have a dozen years to cut the use of fossil fuels in half, and reduce them to zero by 2050.

Although alternative energy sources exist, sharply reducing the use of coal, oil, natural gas and methane worldwide is a Herculean task. Yet it is essential if we are to rein in CO2 and prevent nature’s feedback loops that will threaten mass extinction and the collapse of civilization.

Yet many politicians and corporations contemplate allowing CO2 to rise as much as 3.5-4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. They assume that a yet-to-be used carbon capture and storage technology can solve the problem. Their unwillingness to develop and implement an emergency plan demonstrates that if we are to survive, we must find ways of dramatically cutting emissions. This involves educating ourselves and massively confronting these forces.

The truth is that the economic system, based on profit for the few, is detrimental to our health and safety and needs to be replaced. The propaganda of the system promotes growth and consumerism that stand in the way of understanding how humans can survive on earth. Part of building a movement to end the extraction and use of fossil fuels is confronting the ideology of capitalism, and developing a sustainable society.

What Happened?

Scientists explain that for the last 11,000-12,000 years the geology of the earth has had a relatively stable climate and the pace of change was slow enough so that nature’s feedback loops were able to absorb and adapt. They have now concluded this geological era, known as the Holocene, has been replaced by an unstable environment where the rise in climate and the pace of change has overwhelmed nature’s capacity to absorb and adapt. Further, they see human activity is responsible for the dramatic change, dating the new era to the mid-20t​h​ century, hence the new “Anthropocene” era.

While industrialization in the 19​th​ century ushered in the use of coal as an energy source, the post-World War II economy of huge war expenditures and the development of thousands of new chemicals have taken us over the tipping point. We have now passed the one-degree rise in CO2. Just since 2000 carbon dioxide has risen ten times faster than during any sustained rise over the last 800,000 years!

We now see climate change affecting our daily lives. [Here asked members for examples and this what they came up with]:

  • The change in climate means that the yearly cycle of life is off. Some days are warm and flowering trees start sprouting only to have their buds wither when the weather changes.
  • Some areas suffer from drought while others are flooded.
  • We see hurricanes destroying areas of the world with greater intensity than ever before.
  • The massive forest fires that are raging in California are more intense than they have been in the past.
  • The melting of the ice caps has led to the rise in ocean temperatures and the loss of ocean life.
  • The loss of some species is as high as 70%. This includes coral reefs, birds and mammals, who face severe habitat loss.
  • Tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world who can no longer sustain their lives because of drought or rising sea levels and now seek refuge in other countries.

The Reality

We need to understand that even if we were able to halt the use of fossil fuels through an emergency program, the change that has already occurred will persist for centuries.

However these emergency measures would lessen the pressure on feedback loops and give nature—of which we are a part—time to adapt.

What is the difference between a 1.5 degree rise and a two-point one? The IPCC report provides a concrete example. With the lower rise the Arctic Ocean will be ice free only one time per century whereas with a two-point rise it will be once a decade. There will be fewer heat, rain and drought extremes.

Between the two points the planet’s ice sheets become increasingly unstable and increase the potential for greater sea level rise. A lower increase means less risk of habitat loss for many insect, plant and animal species. Climate-related risks, including forest fires and the spread of invasive species, would be less threatening.

Of course, given the attitude of fossil fuel investors and politicians, even stopping at the 2-degree point would be difficult. That would require a 20% reduction by 2030, reaching zero by 2075. However, even this would mean destruction for many people and species.

What Can We Do?

Given the position of the Trump administration and how it has aggressively moved against even the paltry steps to rein in CO2 through vehicle emissions and the Clean Air plan, one might feel discouraged. According to Harvard University researchers these rollbacks may lead, in the United States, to at least 80,000 premature deaths per decade and respiratory problems for a million others. Add to that the failure of most U.S. unions to even recognize the serious problem.

Yet some states and cities, however inadequate their program, have initiated important reforms. These range from curbing emissions to banning plastic bags. It seems to me that at the local and state level there is more opportunity to affect change over the next couple of years.

We need to keep a few principles in mind as we work to curb the extraction, production and transportation of fossil fuels:

  • Promote a “just transition” for the workers in an industry that needs to be shut down or transitioned. Workers should not suffer from the decisions corporate leaders and politicians made. They have the right to a decent and safe environment for themselves at worker and at home. The community also needs a “just transition” as it depends on the economy the fossil fuel industry has built.
  • In moving to an economy that is not based on fossil fuels, we need to be aware that not all people face the exact same problem. The more vulnerable portions of society—whether we are talking about African Americans, immigrants, the indigenous, the marginally employed, those who live on islands or along the coast, children—are in greater danger. In the transition, we want to end the inequality that capitalism demands.
  • We would like to build an anti-capitalist awareness as we work. The broadest public needs to be aware of who are the ones who brought us to the edge of destruction.

It is important to point out that at other times society has faced dire situations. Since I live in Detroit, I’ll mention that the U.S. government ended car manufacturing in order to build war material for the Second World War. While it’s true that politicians and corporate heads see a reason for war that they may not see in curbing climate change, the reality that society can rise to solve problems helps overcome the sense that nothing can be done. Change begins with a minority, but can change the world.

No Plant Closings! Plant Conversion to Save Workers and the Planet

Wendy Thompson

December 18, 2018

What would it take to keep these assembly and transmission plants open?

As autoworkers have begun to formulate demands for the opening of the 2019 contract negotiations, GM upped the ante by announcing the loss of 14,000 jobs with the closure of three assembly plants and two transmission plants to add to the two million manufacturing jobs already lost due to plant closures. Immediately the workers at the Oshawa, Ontario plant walked off their jobs, taking their fight to the city streets. Later in the day, they rallied at their local headquarters where UNIFOR president Jerry Dias vowed to fight to keep the plant open.

Chevrolet builds T-17 Staghound armored scout cars in Flint, Mich., during World War II. Chevy built 3,800 Staghounds, most with the 37 mm cannons shown here, between October 1942 and April 1944.
Chevrolet builds T-17 Staghound armored scout cars in Flint, Mich., during World War II. 

At the other end of the spectrum, some politicians are already telling GM they have only to ask workers what must be done to get their agreement, as if more concessions will save these jobs and despite GM’s $2.5 billion profit in the third quarter of 2018.
What would it take to keep these assembly and transmission plants open? GM’s CEO Mary Barra explained that the corporation can no longer be considered an auto company but one transformed by a technology based on electrification and autonomous driving with “a vision of a world with zero emissions. ”However no product currently matches that vision. By closing these plants GM can save $6 billion by the end of 2020. Ironically, one of the vehicles being eliminated is the Volt, an electric car crossover that is an actual contribution. In its place GM will continue to promote SUV’s and trucks, revealing their utter hypocrisy.
The arrogance and determination in Bara’s announcement shows the corporation’s strategy: First, they attempt to head off any notion that workers have the power to seek any better conditions of employment in the upcoming contract. Second, they place the corporation’s reorganization on the backs of the workers. Nothing could make it clearer what Wall Street considers important than to have GM’s stock to go up by six percent due to this announcement.

These closings are despite enormous tax breaks GM has received and will continue to receive. In Detroit there was the destruction of an entire community through the use of eminent domain when they built the now-to-be-closed plant. In its place is threatened acres of cement to complement the many acres of bare land and devastation that continue in Detroit from the many previous years of job loss thanks to the auto industry. Oshawa, Baltimore and Lordstown communities as well as others will be equally traumatized.

GM announced the plant closings to the public without forewarning the UAW or Canadian union leaders. These closings are a violation of negotiated contract language. Once again the joint approach adopted by both unions in its relations with the auto companies can be seen as utterly worthless.

While rank-and-file workers have been demanding the protections and necessities they need to lead fulfilling lives for themselves and their families, UAW leaders have been ready to cooperate in meeting the company’s needs and have been accepting personal benefits, ripping off so-called negotiated joint funds. In fact, past concessions even allowed the outsourcing of such plant departments as maintenance and material handling, reducing jobs.

A decade ago the U.S. and Canadian governments bailed out General Motors. Washington’s terms also demanded that autoworkers, who had no say in the corporation’s decisions, make a total wage and benefit package that was no greater than that of non-unionized workers. While union officials on both sides of the border supported the bailout, Autoworkers Caravan, a grouping of autoworkers and retirees, drove to DC and put forward an alternative plan. They opposed the provision for workers to sacrifice for the corporation and called for the establishment of a mass transportation system that could drastically reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Any idled plant could be converted into manufacturing buses, trains or products needed for converting to alternative energy sources such as wind turbines. They pointed to how quickly auto companies had converted to war production during the world wars to indicate this program could begin within months. Instead nothing was demanded from General Motors, and it made a swift recovery. Plants that could have been converted were torn down, eliminating thousands of potential jobs.

Over the decade GM, like Chrysler and Ford, imposed harsh conditions on its workforce. New hires earned half the wages and fewer benefits than those already employed, but more frequently were hired as “temporaries.” This process of building a two-tier workforce weakened the union, as one person working next to another might make significantly less, have a lesser health care package, little job security and face a future without a pension or health care in retirement.

When workers demanded an end to this practice in 2015 negotiations, the company and UAW officials worked out an eight-year bridge in wages for a four-year contract. The contract barely passed. Workers who voted no pointed out that the bridge didn’t bring up the benefits of the lower-waged worker, restore cost-of-living adjustments to the wage package, or provide healthcare for workers who would retire. The contract also didn’t curb the companies’ ability to keep workers on temporary status or hire workers through an outsourced company.

Given the reorganization of the Big Three, which Chrysler and Ford are already implementing, U.S. and Canadian auto workers must make a decision: to fight for their right to a decent job or submit to further layoffs and concessionary bargaining.

After the Oshawa workers announced their determination to oppose their impending layoffs in the streets, a quickly organized union meeting began to discuss strategy. Someone raised the idea of a possible plant takeover. A fight back committee is being organized. Jerry Dias has called for a united strategy with the UAW, and ties are being established between the affected locals to share ideas on how to build the struggle. Obviously any strategy needs to be tied to how the talents and experience of the workers can be used to build something useful for the 21st Century.

There is no better demand than the call for the development of a mass transportation system that autoworkers could build. Of course corporations like GM are just paying lip service to moving toward zero emissions. Yet, public and union support can be brought to bear due to the need to keep the plants open. If we are to deal with the already visible signs of extreme climate, filling these plants with the products necessary to save the planet offers a concrete way forward. We need to demand buses for mass transit — and if GM isn’t interested, then federal and state money (or in the case of Ontario, provincial money) can retool to build the mass transit system North America needs.

It will take the energy of autoworkers and their communities in all of North America — including Mexico — to accomplish a takeover and reorganization of these plants. Workers’ livelihood and our very planet depend on it!

Wendy Thompson, L. 22, UAW, Retired President, L. 235, UAW, American Axle, Detroit Gear & Axle. She worked for 33 years in a plant that was a GM plant for her first 22 years and then was sold in 1994 to American Axle. Now it is closed.

California Wildfire Death and Destruction – 2018 Edition

Ansar Fayyazuddin

November 22, 2018

(Bertolt Brecht, from the Caucasian Chalk Circle)

The California wildfires raging in the north and the south of the state have left such horrific devastation in their wake that biblical metaphors of disaster come easily to mind. “Armageddon” and “inferno” appear regularly as descriptors in newspaper accounts of the disaster.  The photographic images of the aftermath of these wildfires recall destruction wrought by aerial bombing and scorched earth warfare but resemble most closely the iconography of post-apocalyptic cinema and therefore of fiction. The loss of human life is staggering in number and the manner heart-sickening.

The Camp Fire in the north and the Woolsey Fire in the south of California are the latest wildfires that continue to wreak devastation.  As of this writing, Camp Fire has resulted in at least 79 deaths, 10,623 destroyed homes, the scorching of 150,000 acres of land and 5 injured firefighters.  The Woolsey Fire burning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, has already resulted in at least 3 deaths and the destruction of 1400 homes and businesses (LA Times 11/19).

Numbers are good starting points but they cannot capture the trauma and horror of what is transpiring.  On their own, they also cannot tell the story of the failures of local, state and federal governments in preventing or mitigating these horrific tragedies.   Natural disasters are only partially “natural”. They are rarely singular and their predictable recurrence is matched only by the equally predictable failure to prepare for them.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

These disasters have a way of laying bare not only the physical mechanisms of natural phenomena but also the priorities of our economic system as well as the underlying social hierarchies and systems of injustice that remain hidden in the routine of everyday life.

Natural disaster?

California wildfires are both natural and unnatural and it is helpful to pick apart and examine these different aspects.   Wildfires are fires propagated through wild vegetation. California wildfires are seasonal and occur during periods when the wild greenery is sufficiently dry to be able to sustain fires.  Winds, which themselves have seasonal and, overall, predictable patterns, propel the fires along paths of favorable terrain. Due to seasonal patterns of rainfall in California, the driest periods are the most prone to wildfires.  Late summers tend to be when the wildfire season begins and it is typically over by November when rains start to fall. Wildfires are a natural part of the ecology of California and their location and paths are well known.

Despite the predictable paths of California wildfires, developments of towns and places of residence in these wildfire corridors continues.  The towns of the poor and the rich may both lie in these well-worn paths of wildfires but for historically distinct reasons. The examples of Paradise and Malibu are instructive.

In the overheated real estate market of California, poor and working people are often priced out or otherwise forced out of their homes to seek cheaper abodes elsewhere.  The inhabitants of Paradise, a town of 27,000 eviscerated by Camp Fire, are an example of such a low-income community with many of them living in mobile homes. Paradise is in Butte county and has a long history of fires.  According to an LA Times report (11/13/2018), it experienced massive fires in 1927, 1943, 1951, 1961, 1964, 1990, 1999, 2000 and 2008.

The super-rich in Los Angeles county have also faced destruction of their homes including from the current Woolsey Fire but for quite distinct and independent reasons.  Malibu, an emblem of the super-rich, faces wildfires regularly and predictably but remains a great place for real estate investment. Besides access to beaches, Malibu offers significantly cooler temperatures during the dogdays of summer.  In the words of Mike Davis, the (by rights) ecologist-laureate of Los Angeles, “stand at the mouth of Malibu Canyon or sleep at the Hotel St. George for any length of time, and you eventually will face the flames. It is a statistical certainty. (p.98, Ecology of Fear (1998)”

Associated Press

The inhabitants of Paradise were forced to evacuate in the face of the encroaching Camp Fire.  Many were caught in a death trap as traffic on the roads leading out of Paradise came to a standstill.  The evacuation was almost entirely carried out privately by residents but, as recounted in moving accounts of solidarity, many tried to help their neighbors, friends and families flee. California authorities, local and statewide, failed to provide adequate help with the evacuation whether by directing traffic or by providing transportation.  The death toll in Paradise continues to rise as the hundreds currently missing are slowly accounted for.

The story of Malibu is starkly different.  Mike Davis, in his account of the 1993 Malibu wildfire, wrote, “Defended in 1993 by the largest army of firefighters in American history, wealthy Malibu homeowners benefited as well from an extraordinary range of insurance, landuse, and disaster relief subsidies.  Yet, as most experts will readily concede, periodic firestorms of this magnitude are inevitable as long as residential development is tolerated in the fire ecology of the Santa Monicas. (p. 99, Ecology of Fear)”  These advantages of the rich continue to the present. As the Guardian reported, insurance companies provide wealthy homeowners with wildfire protection through private firefighting companies that offer prevention services as well as responding when wildfires threaten their property.  This time around many Malibu mansions survived thanks to this private service.

Climate change

Adding to the challenges of wildfires, seasonal weather patterns are changing due to climate change. Over the past century, California has warmed by about three degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the state’s hottest and driest years have occurred during the last two decades.  That extra-warmed air sucks water out of plants and soils, leaving the trees, shrubs, and rolling grasslands of the state dry and primed to burn. In addition, also due to climate change, rainfalls have been delayed on average—now coming only in November or even December.

The current season of wildfires is part of a record breaking succession, with the previous record set in 2017 which had surpassed  a new record, set only in 2015. Climate change appears to be the driving force behind these catastrophic changes.

Beyond death, injury and destruction of property by the fires themselves, the acrid smoke is being carried well beyond the confines of the fires.  The smoke poses health risks of its own. Particulate matter in the air has made the air quality so low in many parts of California that residents are encouraged to stay indoors.  Amid public health debate about whether or not masks help and who should wear them, it is clear that governments have left people to fend for themselves, rather than making sure that the right kind of masks are available to all who need them.  Despite this being a public health problem, there is no public provision of the recommended types of mask.

As Trump deploys over 5,000 troops at the US-Mexico border at a cost of $200 million to illegally prevent a caravan of 4,000 children and adults from seeking asylum in the United States, the fight against wildfires remains in the hands of overstretched firefighters with inadequate resources.  Many of the firefighters are inmates of the California prison system and paid $1/hour for the time they spend fighting fires. In interviews conducted by Democracy Now, the inmates describe 20-hour days fighting fires while weighed down by equipment and supplies that include food and water for day-long shifts in the scorching heat.  A prison guard described these inmate firefighters as the “backbone” of California’s wildfire fighting strategy.

Nature is not our enemy

Ordinary Californians suffer once again from catastrophic wildfires whose effects on the population could have been mitigated or altogether prevented with planned, affordable and safe housing, adequate resources for firefighting, and public health initiatives.  Beyond mitigation, only aggressive action to reduce climate change will prevent these catastrophic wildfires. Nature is not our enemy. We must live in harmony with it or continue to repeat the disastrous tragedies that come with attempting to conquer it.