Category Archives: Climate Change

Crash in Oil Prices Should Bury Peak Oil Once and For All

by Arun Gupta Telesur January 29, 2015

In 1977 Isaac Asimov wrote of “The Nightmare Life Without Fuel.” Writing in the wake of the first Middle East oil shock, Asimov imagined cars and air conditioning becoming distant memories, cities mined for valuable minerals and hardware, and the last barrels of oil hoarded for agricultural and military purposes. A future of scarcity seemed in the cards after the 1979 revolution in Iran followed disrupted global supplies, reviving gas lines and rationing in the United States, and sending oil prices to a stratospheric $117 a barrel in today’s U.S. dollars.

The U.S. economy plunged into recession for the second time in a decade. Inflation, food prices and unemployment all shot up. Energy-importing Third World nations were devastated as expensive crude depleted their treasuries even as the U.S. Federal Reserve jacked interest rates, triggering the debt crises that remain unresolved to this day.

But high prices didn’t last long as Saudi Arabia opened its spigots to replace Iran as the West’s top oil supplier, oil exploration boomed in Texas, and vast new fields in the Gulf of MexicoNorth Sea and Alaska ramped up. By the mid-1980s two-hour lines at the filling station were a hazy childhood memory as I’d zip up to the pump and fill my gas-sipping Nissan Sentra for $5.

We are now replaying that era of energy shocks radiating from the Middle East, tight energy markets, expensive oil and an oversupply and bust. The cyclical nature of the fossil-fuel industry disapproves a concept that’s gained wide support, especially on the left, even though it’s flawed in every way: “peak oil.”

Asimov never used the term peak oil in his essay, but that was the underlying idea. Shell Oil geologist Marion King Hubbert developed peak oil theory in the 1950s, predicting domestic U.S. oil production would peak by 1970 and decline steadily thereafter. In exploiting an individual oil field, Hubbert contended, production ramps up quickly and hits a peak at about which time about half the recoverable oil has been extracted. As the oil becomes increasingly difficult and costly to pump out, the field goes into decline. Think of the production as a bell-shaped curve. The top point means half is gone and half is left. But because population and the economy continue to grow, so do energy needs. Hubbert held that his theory about an individual field was applicable to the continental U.S. oil production and even the entire world, which he predicted would peak around 2000.

After that, as one website describes, comes the nightmare future. “Worldwide demand for oil will outpace worldwide production of oil by a significant margin … the price will skyrocket, oil dependent economies are liable to crumble, and resource wars are liable to explode.”

Except panics over looming shortages are as old as the oil industry itself. One snake-oil salesman in 1855 implored buyers to purchase his petroleum-based cure-all “before this wonderful product is depleted from Nature’s laboratory.” The U.S. government warned numerous times in the 20th century that oil supplies would be depleted in a decade or two. The infamous 1972 Limits to Growth projected that by 2013 the world should have run out of “aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc.” Peak-oil theorists like Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes, Richard Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler have been declaring peak oil for more than twenty years but production keeps rising.

Despite this dismal track record many leftists embraced peak oil during the Bush era. It was a secular version of end times in the post-9/11 world. If movement building seems insurmountable, then it’s tempting to find solace in building post-carbon, do-it-yourself communities and wait for the wells to run dry at which point everything from the “war on terror” to climate change is resolved.

Fervent peak oilers are neo-Malthusians, believing the relentless growth of population and society on their own will outstrip natural resources. While Malthus’s ideas were discredited on scientific, historical, and economic grounds in the 19th century, they live on in peak oil, peak waterpeak mineralspeak soilpeak food and peak everything.

From a scientific perspective, peak oil posits geology as determining oil supplies. Of course oil is a finite and non-renewable resource, but the last decade of spiraling oil prices was caused by Middle East wars, Wall Street commodities speculation, and ecological disasters like Hurricane Katrina, not by natural limits. It’s the socio-economic system that determines how much oil, along with every other commodity, is produced, distributed, and consumed. Grasping why peak oil and its variants are flawed offers a deeper understanding of the global energy order, the politics of climate change, and capitalism itself.

Even the term peak oil is problematic, obscuring how the energy industry works. We may imagine oil as gushing out of a steel derrick in a barren desert, but energy companies are after hydrocarbons in any form. Cars on a highway could be powered by fuel derived from tar sands, natural-gas or its condensates, shale oil, biofuels, heavy oil, or coal-to-liquid. One scenario by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates such non-conventional sources could account for more than one-third of all oil produced by 2030.

Then there is the concept of a peak. Even though Hubbert was off by only one year—domestic production peaked in 1971—production looks nothing like his bell curve over time. It rose after each seventies shock, went into a twenty-year funk after the mid-eighties crash, and in the last five years it has soared to near its 1971 peak.

The inherent flaw of peak oil is that it naturalizes capitalism. Energy reserves are determined by price, investment and technology. The current oil boom, driven by innovations in fracking and drilling, tar-sands production, low-cost investment capital and persistently high oil prices, have smashed Hubbert’s theory to bits like brittle shale.

The inaccuracy of peak oil hasn’t stopped prominent figures like Paul Krugman and George Monbiot from flirting with the concept. Monbiot admitted his error in 2012, correctly noting the problem is not too little oil, but too much: “There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground.” On the left, Michael Klare has pushed versions of peak oil in books like Resource Wars and The Race for What’s Left. In 2005 Klare declared that “the world is headed for a severe and prolonged energy crunch in the not-too-distant future.” In 2008 Klare wrote that “the current energy crisis is almost certain to be long-lasting.” In 2012 he asserted that “oil prices are destined to remain high for a long time to come.”

Like the hardcore peak oilers, Klare confuses the energy economy with oil reserves rather than analyzing how economic, political, and technological forces turn tight markets into gluts, and booms into busts. While Klare tends not to endorse peak oil outright, he often quotes the ideas favorably. In recent years he has shifted to peak oil-lite, proclaiming the end of “cheap oil” or “easy oil.” Most any gas station these days refutes the “cheap oil” notion. The U.S. average is currently $2.03 for a gallon of gas, close to the inflation-adjusted average in the 1950s.

As for “easy oil,” that’s relative. In 1947 when the first commercial oil well was built out of the sight of land in the Gulf of Mexico it was an engineering marvel and in all of 18 feet of water. Today, Brazil has committed $82 billion to develop a “pre-salt basin” of oil under 6,900 feet of water and additional 17,000 feet of seabed. Japan is in uncharted waters with a pilot project to exploit methane hydrates, a form of frozen hydrocarbon on ocean floors that may be twenty-five times the size of all potential natural gas reserves. While there are uncertainties about these projects, especially methane hydrates, they show huge sums of investment are readily available to an energy industry that can rapidly innovate to develop profitable resources.

Klare, however, dismisses new hydrocarbon sources. He claims shale and tar sands oil is “tough oil” that “will have to overcome severe geological and environmental barriers.” The energy industry, however, doesn’t give a hoot about the environment. As Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, puts it, “[Its] business model is fundamentally at war with life on earth.” And just as low gas prices refute the end of cheap oil, the output from Canada’s tar sands, more than 2.5 million barrels of synthetic crude a day, and U.S. shale formations, nearly 4 million barrels a day, proves tough oil is meaningless.

It’s the quest for hydrocarbons in general and geopolitical maneuvers that’s made the current oil crash rapid and steep. The last major crash was in the mid-eighties, and that taught Saudi Arabia to plan ahead. It’s amassed $750 billion in currency reserves and is pumping oil at full tilt rather than give up market share. The Saudis are willing to weather low prices to punish rivals like Iran and to force some unconventional black gold like shale and tar sands into the red. Conspiracy theorists see Washington’s hand because of the pain inflicted on Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, which all need high oil prices to meet their budgetary needs, but as the Socialist Worker points out, “Saudi Arabia’s decision not to prop up prices is the product of its rivalry with U.S. oil producers, not coordination with U.S. policymakers.” Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize, the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the oil industry, contends we may be entering a new oil era where the United States supplants Saudi Arabia as the “swing producer” that can exert direct control over oil markets.

Critics contend that given ever-increasing thirst for hydrocarbons historically, any assumption about future usage based on current supply is dicey. That’s true, but “proven reserves” of oil and natural gas, which is the most conservative category, keep rising. One figure that has remained consistent over decades is the “reserve-to-production” ratio. In 1995 the world had an estimated 51 years of oil supply based on consumption that year. After burning through half-a-trillion barrels of oil since then, the global reserve-to-production ratio in 2013 was at 53.3 years.

While peak oilers snipe that Middle East producers overstate their supply, the opposite is the case. Officially, Saudi Arabia has 267 billion barrels of oil, but in twenty years, Saudi Aramco estimates it will have 630 billion barrels of recoverable reserves. That’s on top of current production rates of 4 billion barrels annually. The same is true for the United States, Canada, Venezuela, Iran, and Iraq. They can potentially produce far more oil than what’s listed in their reserves. One study of U.S. oil fields found the actual production was more than seven times the initial reserves reported. Conservative estimates of Brazil’s pre-salt oil fields put it at 14 billion barrels, which means they would eventually produce more than 100 billion barrels.

State companies like Saudi Aramco, known as “nationals,” often resist U.S. pressure to pump more oil because that could lead to a price crash. The nationals control 90 percent of global reserves, so many large fields remain untapped. The “majors”—corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron—are left to grab what they can, such as shale oiltar sands, or search in extreme environments like the Arctic Ocean. This tendency only reflects the market imperative to maintain profitability, not a harbinger of the end of oil. But since Klare focuses mainly on the majors, his view is one in which oil is rapidly dwindling. In 2005 he wrote that “in the absence of major new discoveries, we face a gradual contraction in the global supply of petroleum” because “major private oil companies are failing to discover promising new sources of petroleum.” Yet since 2003 global proved reserves have increased by more than 350 billion barrels, and that is in addition to over 300 billion barrels consumed in the same period.

Shortfalls in supply often stem from U.S. policy to control the global spigot of oil. Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in 2013 that because “a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy,” he was prepared to use military force to “ensure the free flow of energy from the [Middle East] to the world.”

Since the 1990s, Washington has disrupted many major oil producers. This includes the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, sanctions on Iran, and dirty tricks against Venezuela. Ironically these actions tightened the oil market such that domestic fracking and tar sands became profitable. But the world is not about some free for all scramble for oil as in Klare’s “resource wars.” He contends that “unsettled resource deposits—contested oil and gas fields, shared water systems, embattled diamond mines—provides a guide to likely conflict zones in the twenty-first century.”

Other than those countries Washington designates as rogue states—like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—every state accepts, even if grudgingly, the U.S.-managed global oil order. Even countries on the out are looking for an in. The drop in oil prices helped create the conditions for a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, and it may be pushing Iran to reach a deal with the White House over its nuclear energy program.

A more accurate view of the global oil order is provided by physicist and geopolitical analyst Tom O’Donnell who terms it “one global barrel.” He argues that the pre-1973 oil system had no meaningful open market, making it a form of mercantilism. Back then the majors backed by Western states controlled the production of oil-rich countries. Supply disruptions to one company could affect an entire consuming country. The new system developed after Third World states nationalized oil companies. The global oil order now works through the market, mainly the London and New York commodities exchange, and is dominated by U.S.-protected Gulf States in OPEC and managed by international institutions such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Energy Agency. Above it all is the U.S. government.

Klare implies national interests still reign supreme and nations are constantly on the brink of war over shrinking energy supplies. While China may chafe at U.S. control and Russia and the United States are at odds, the global oil order is marked by conflict, competition and cooperation at the same time and often in the same place. In Russia, Western oil companies continue to do business despite sanctions. In Iraq some opponents of the war crowed that Russian and Chinese oil companies that won concessions there marked the “declining influence of American capitalism.” But the scope of revamping Iraq’s oil infrastructure is so large that much of the lucrative drilling and exploration work is going to U.S. oil services firms. More important, Washington policymakers are generally indifferent to who is producing Iraq’s oil as long as it flows freely into the global market and U.S. influence holds over the Iraqi state.

If we could fast forward through time to find when oil production and consumption peaks, that would tell us nothing about the social impact. The 1980s crash was due to an increase in supply and drop in demand. Oil consumption may seem to march in lockstep with population and economic growth, but it is elastic. A barrel of oil today generates three times as much economic activity as it did in 1976. Unbelievably, U.S. oil consumption was lower in the first half of 2014 than the high point in 1989. Factors include lower car usage and increasing fuel efficiency that hit a record of 23.6 miles per gallon in 2012. Yet most European economies produce 50 to 60 percent more economic activity per unit of energy as does the United States. We could slash our oil consumption in half in a decade with a concerted effort. It could keep going down until oil is reserved for far more valuable uses such as road building, metal making and specialized lubricants, chemicals, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

Oil consumption needs to drop dramatically because of the dangerous planetary effects. But that has nothing to do with peak oil. It’s a matter of how we reorganize our society and economy on the surface of the earth so we stop using the stuff that’s under it.

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To Fight the Unpredictable Effects of Climate Change, We Need an Unpredictable Movement

Report on the Flood Wall Street Direct Action 

by Arun Gupta Counterpunch September 23, 2014

In April 1990 I helped organize the Earth Day Wall Street Action. More than 1,500 activists from the United States and Canada traveled to New York on the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day with the goal of halting the New York Stock Exchange for a day. We got close, with hundreds of protesters and cops clashing in front of the exchange doors. We wanted to expose corporations wrapping themselves in the façade of environmentalism and identify them as criminals responsible for scorched-earth business practices.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return, and on  Monday, September 22, I ventured down to the financial district for the Flood Wall Street Direct Action. The following are impressions of what happened today, not the back story to the organizing. And they are more tactical than strategic observations.

Foremost, the turnout exceeded everyone’s expectation. Many thought a thousand people or less would show up. By the time the march left Battery Park in Southern Manhattan the count was 2,500. There seemed to be a lack of coordination on the part of direct action organizers, while the NYPD took a surprisingly hands-off approach. It still lined the streets with interlocking metal barricades, so the protest only made it as far as Broadway, around the iconic bull sculpture, before settling in for the day. Activists trickled in all day and the consensus was 3,000 people took over the streets at the peak.

However, there was no organized system like a spokescouncil or general assembly to encourage them to stay put and decide the next steps. Nor were there resources like food, blankets, and water to enable a large enough number of people to hunker down, which would make the cops hesitant to arrest them all.

There was a large media presence, including many mainstream media outlets. Flood Wall Street drew in more participants thanks to the Sunday march that drew an estimated three hundred thousand. The march was timed to influence the U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23. The international nature of the summit and the media pack helped limit the NYPD’s notorious aggression.

There was a world of creative art, but not much affinity group organizing. Some artists were hired to coordinate the art. Paying them to produce quality art was part of the media and image strategy for the Sunday march. That’s perfectly fine. Movements should pay people for their labor, although there has to be limits to avoid professionalizing. This was the most money-rich protest I have ever seen. There were three Jumbotrons on the Sunday route, and one organizer said they usually cost $10,000 a pop. Art making was also central to Flood Wall Street. I would speculate focus on visual symbols led the art to be overdeveloped and may have compounded the underdevelopment of strategic organizing for the direct action. The Monday protest was fun. There were huge banners, parachutes, giant balls of carbon, bands, costumes, and performers. But the strategy was little more than a mass sit down in the streets.

The NYPD strategy was to outlast the protesters, and it worked. Cops were blasé about activists disassembling metal barriers. They would not rush to fight them, like they always used to. Often they didn’t notice because there were so few cops on the lines. They would come over after ten minutes or so, retrieve the metal sections and reassemble them. All day long there were scattered gaps in the barricade line, enabling a free flow of people in and out of the area. Thus, there was no kettling, which is highly unusual for a mass direct action.

The cops had red lines, but otherwise were willing to cede more physical and tactical ground than normal. They let the crowd have Broadway around the bull for nearly four hours. Around 3:45 p.m., before the Stock Exchange closing bell, everyone marched up to Wall St. They tried to push east to the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, where the George Washington Statue is located. There were only a few police at the first line of barricades. A little organization and the protesters could have easily pushed through. Getting through the second line and into Wall Street would have been much tougher, but not impossible.

I watched as protesters momentarily breached the barricade, cops grabbed one guy, and pulled him through. Normally that’s the moment when cops pile on and injure the protester. Instead, they just tossed him into the crowd on the sidewalk. No arrest and no beat down.

As the shoving matched intensified, the NYPD white shirts deployed their fists and a few blasts of a chemical irritant, probably pepper spray. It’s easy to tell how much of a threat the NYPD considers a protest by how many commanders, who wear the white shirts, it deploys. At the Wall Street barricade I counted nearly twenty white shirts at one point. They are notorious for pounding on people with their bare fists; they don’t need any surplus military gear to punish and intimidate. For a few seconds, during the height of shoving, two white shirts slammed their fists on the hands of protesters to loosen their grip on the metal barricades. Seconds later chemical spray wafted through the air, instantly forcing the protesters back. It had an unusual floral smell.

The combination of police waiting out activists and the lack of organization and support meant by 6:30 p.m. about 75 percent of people in the streets had drifted away. I did so as well at this time. Less than an hour later at a close-by bar, where many Flood Wall Street organizers had decamped, I got word arrests were happening. There was apparently a decision to engage in orchestrated civil disobedience. I told numerous people at the bar the arrests were happening, but most everyone already seemed to know and they did not seem overly concerned about returning right away. One well-respected organizer was not pleased that many of the main Flood Wall Street organizers left the streets to go to the bar.

During the whole day multiple squadrons of fifty to a hundred burly cops, whose mission is to squelch protesters quickly, were stationed at different points a block or so away from the action. There was not the overwhelming force of past protests with thousands of cops. One activist told me he heard two cops talking in the bathroom at a restaurant. They said 90 percent of cops were at the U.N. I talked to one community affairs cop who claimed they were taking a “calmer” approach. He said it was more effective compared to aggressive policing that is the norm, but it seemed like he was parroting the official line. He acknowledged this strategy was determined from on high.

Why was the NYPD so hands off? I haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years of protest in New York. There are the factors like the U.N. Climate Summit, the heavy media presence, the legacy of Occupy Wall Street, and space created by the large parade on Sunday. (Calling that event a protest is inaccurate.) Post-Ferguson many police departments probably realize over-reaction can backfire. The NYPD learned that with the Union Square pepper spray incident in September 2011 that catalyzed city-wide support for the Zuccotti Park occupation, and then the Brooklyn Bridge arrests a week later that turned the movement into a nationwide phenomenon.

Additionally, there are New York City specific factors like the cops who killed Eric Garner in July on Staten Island and Mayor Bill de Blasio rehiring Bill Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton, of course, instituted the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing in the nineties in New York that de Blasio opposed in his surprise election victory last year. Bratton favors “Broken Windows” policing. It’s a smaller net than stop and frisk, but it’s still racially biased in practice without being based on any evidence that arresting pan handlers, graffiti artists, and turnstile jumpers reduces violent crime. Taking a light hand against Flood Wall Street enables de Blasio to score points with the public and media, while insulating his administration from criticism that it’s making only cosmetic changes to biased policing policies. To be fair, de Blasio may even be serious about curbing the NYPD’s penchant for violence.

Since the burden is on the NYPD to prove it has reformed its heavy-handed ways, the light police response should be seen as what it is: a one-off event. Additionally, while there was a more enthusiastic spirit at the end of the direct action today among veteran activists, there is a consistently lower level of organization over the last fifteen years of direct actions since Seattle.

One activist, Laurie Arbiter, summed up the feeling of many activists why actions like Flood Wall Street are on the frontlines of the climate justice fight. “It was unpredictable,” she said, unlike the Sunday march that felt scripted to many. “Climate change is unpredictable as well.” In other words, while marches are important and necessary, mass organized political chaos in the streets is more likely to destabilize the status quo, bringing forth a new social equilibrium.

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. It’s almost the same exact amount of time since James Hanson warned Congress in 1988 that there was near certain proof that carbon dioxide emissions were the prime culprit in global warming. The Monday action was only the first phase of what will have to be an ever-more powerful movement to flood Wall Street once and for all.

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How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign

by Arun Gupta Counterpunch September 19, 2014

I’ve never been to a protest march that advertised in the New York City subway. That spent $220,000 on posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join a march to save the planet, according to one source. That claims you can change world history in an afternoon after walking the dog and eating brunch.

Welcome to the “People’s Climate March” set for Sunday, Sept. 21 in New York City. It’s timed to take place before world leaders hold a Climate Summit at the United Nations two days later. Organizers are billing it as the “biggest climate change demonstration ever” with similar marches around the world. The Nation describes the pre-organizing as following “a participatory, open-source model that recalls the Occupy Wall Street protests.” A leader of 350.org, one of the main organizing groups, explained, “Anyone can contribute, and many of our online organizing ‘hubs’ are led by volunteers who are often coordinating hundreds of other volunteers.”

I will join the march, as well as the Climate Convergence starting Friday, and most important the “Flood Wall Street” direct action on Monday, Sept. 22. I’ve had conversations with more than a dozen organizers including senior staff at the organizing groups. Many people are genuinely excited about the Sunday demonstration. The movement is radicalizing thousands of youth. Endorsers include some labor unions and many people-of-color community organizations that normally sit out environmental activism because the mainstream green movement has often done a poor job of talking about the impact on or solutions for workers and the Global South.

Nonetheless, to quote Han Solo, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Environmental activist Anne Petermann and writer Quincy Saul describe how the People’s Climate March has no demands, no targets,and no enemy. Organizers admitted encouraging bankers to march was like saying Blackwater mercenaries should join an antiwar protest. There is no unity other than money. One veteran activist who was involved in Occupy Wall Street said it was made known there was plenty of money to hire her and others. There is no sense of history: decades of climate-justice activism are being erased by the incessant invocation of the “biggest climate change demonstration ever.” Investigative reporter Cory Morningstar has connected the dots between the organizing groups, 350.org and Avaaz, the global online activist outfit modeled on MoveOn, and institutions like the World Bank and Clinton Global Initiative. Morningstar claims the secret of Avaaz’s success is its “expertise in behavioral change.”

That is what I find most troubling. Having worked on Madison Avenue for nearly a decade, I can smell a P.R. and marketing campaign a mile away. That’s what the People’s Climate March looks to be. According to inside sources a push early on for a Seattle-style event—organizing thousands of people to nonviolently shut down the area around the United Nations—was thwarted by paid staff with the organizing groups.

One participant in the organizing meetings said, “In the beginning people were saying, ‘This is our Seattle,’” referring to the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial that was derailed by direct action. But the paid staff got the politics-free Climate March. Another source said, “You wouldn’t see Avaaz promoting an occupy-style action. The strategic decision was made to have a big march and get as many mainstream groups on board as possible.”

Nothing wrong with that. Not every tactic should be based on Occupy. But in an email about climate change that Avaaz sent out last December, which apparently raked in millions of dollars, it wrote, “It’s time for powerful, direct, non-violent action, to capture imagination, convey moral urgency, and inspire people to act. Think Occupy.”

Here’s what seems to be going on. Avaaz found a lucrative revenue stream by warning about climate catastrophe that can be solved with the click of a donate button. To convince people to donate it says we need Occupy-style actions. When the moment comes for such a protest, Avaaz and 350.org blocked it and then when it did get organized, they pushed it out of sight. If you go to People’s Climate March, you won’t find any mention of the Flood Wall Street action, which I fully support, but fear is being organized with too little time and resources. Nor have I seen it in an Avaaz email, nor has anyone else I’ve talked to. Bill McKibben of 350.org began promoting it this week, but that may be because there is discontent in the activist ranks about the march, which includes lots of Occupy Wall Street activists. One inside source said, “It’s a branding decision not to promote the Flood Wall Street action. These are not radical organizations.”

Branding. That’s how the climate crisis is going to be solved. We are in an era of postmodern social movements.

The image (not ideology) comes first and shapes the reality. The P.R. and marketing determines the tactics, the messaging, the organizing, and the strategy. Whether this can have a positive effect is a different question, and it’s why I encourage everyone to participate. The future is unknowable. But left to their own devices the organizers will lead the movement into the graveyard of the Democratic Party, just as happened with the movement against the Iraq War a decade ago. You remember that historic worldwide movement, right? It was so profound the New York Times dubbed global public opinion, “the second superpower.” Now Obama has launched an eighth war and there is no antiwar movement to speak of.

Sources say Avaaz and 350.org is footing most of the bill for the People’s Climate March with millions of dollars spent. Avaaz is said to have committed a dozen full-time staff, and hired dozens of other canvassers to collect petition signatures and hand out flyers. Nearly all of 350.org’s staff is working on climate marches around the country and there is an office in New York with thirty full-time workers organizing the march. That takes a lot of cheddar. While the grassroots are being mobilized, this is not a grassroots movement. That’s why it’s a mistake to condemn it. People are joining out of genuine concern and passion and hope for an equitable, sustainable world, but the control is top down and behind closed doors. Everyone I talked to described an undemocratic process. Even staffers were not sure who was making the decisions other than to tell me to follow the money. It’s also facile to say all groups are alike. Avaaz is more cautious than 350.org, and apparently the New York chapter of 350.org, which is more radical, is at odds with the national.

But when the overriding demand is for numbers, which is about visuals, which is about P.R. and marketing, everything becomes lowest common denominator. The lack of politics is a political decision. One insider admitted despite all the overheated rhetoric about the future is on the line, “I don’t expect much out of this U.N. process.” The source added this is “a media moment, a mobilizing moment.” The goal is to have visuals of a diverse crowd, hence the old saw about a “family-friendly” march. Family friendly comes at a high cost, however. Everything is decided by the need for visuals, which means organizers will capitulate to anything the NYPD demands for fear of violence. The march is on a Sunday morning when the city is in hangover mode. The world leaders will not even be at the United Nations, and they are just the hired guns of the real climate criminals on Wall Street. The closest the march comes to the United Nations is almost a mile away. The march winds up on Eleventh Avenue, a no-man’s land far from subways. There is no closing rally or speakers.

An insider says the real goal was to create space for politicians: “If you can frame it as grandma and kids and immigrants and labor you could make it safer for politicians to come out and support. It’s all very liberal. I don’t have much faith in it.”

When I asked what the metrics for success for, the insider told me media coverage and long-term polling about public opinion. I was dumbfounded. That’s the exact same tools we would use in huge marketing campaigns. First we would estimate and tally media “impressions” across all digital, print, outdoor, and so on. Then a few months down the road we would conduct surveys to see if we changed the consumer’s opinion of the brand, their favorability, the qualities they associated with it, the likelihood they would try. That’s the same tools Avaaz is allegedly using.

Avaaz has pioneered clickbait activism. It gets people to sign petitions about dramatic but ultimately minor issues like, “Prevent the flogging of 15 year old rape victim in Maldives.” The operating method of Avaaz, which was established in 2007, is to create “actions” like these that generate emails for its fundraising operation. In other words, it’s a corporation with a business model to create products (the actions), that help it increase market share (emails), and ultimately revenue. The actions that get the most attention are ones that get the most petition signers, the most media coverage, and which help generate revenue.

Avaaz has turned social justice into a product to enhance the liberal do-gooding lifestyle, and it’s set its sights on the climate justice movement.

The more dramatic the emails the better the response. It’s like the supermarket. The bags and boxes don’t say, “Not bad,” or “kinda tasty.” They say “the cheesiest,” “the most delicious,” “an avalanche of flavor,” “utterly irresistible.” That’s why climate change polls so well for Avaaz. It’s really fucking dramatic. But it’s still not dramatic enough for marketing purposes.

One source said the December 2013 email from Avaaz Executive Director Ricken Patel about climate change was a goldmine. It was headlined, “24 Months to Save the World.” It begins, “This may be the most important email I’ve ever written to you,” and then says the climate crisis is “beyond our worst expectations” with storms and temperatures “off the charts.” Then comes the hook from Patel, “We CAN stop this, if we act very fast, and all together. And out of this extinction nightmare, we can pull one of the most inspiring futures for our children and grandchildren. A clean, green future in balance with the earth that gave birth to us.”

Telling people there is 24 months to save the world is odious, as is implying an online donation to Avaaz can save the planet.

The same overblown rhetoric is being used for the People’s Climate March: It’s the biggest ever. There is “unprecedented collaboration” with more than 1,400 “partner” groups in New York City. Everything comes down to this one day with the “future on the line and the whole world watching, we’ll take a stand to bend the course of history.”

Presumably the orderly marchers behind NYPD barricades will convince the governments of the world that will meet for the Climate Summit that won’t even meet for another two days that they need to pass UN Secretary­ General Ban Ki-­moon’s “ambitious global agreement to dramatically reduce global warming pollution.”

Moon is now joining the march. But it’s hard to find details, including on the Climate Summit website, as to what will actually be discussed there. The best account I could find is by Canadian journalist Nick Fillmore. He claims the main point will be a carbon pricing scheme. This is one of those corporate-designed scams that in the past has rewarded the worst polluters with the most credits to sell and creates perverse incentives to pollute, because then they can earn money to cut those emissions.

So we have a corporate-designed protest march to support a corporate-dominated world body to implement a corporate policy to counter climate change caused by the corporations of the world, which are located just a few miles away but which will never feel the wrath of the People’s Climate March.

Rather than moaning on the sidelines and venting on Facebook, radicals need to be in the streets. Join the marches and more important the direct actions. Radicals need to ask the difficult questions as to why for the second time in fifteen years has a militant uprising, first Seattle and then Occupy, given way to liberal cooptation. What good is your radical analysis if the NGO sector and Democratic Party fronts kept out-organizing you?

Naomi Klein says we need to end business as usual because climate change is going to change everything. She’s right. Unfortunately the organizers of the People’s Climate March didn’t get the memo. Because they are continuing on with business as usual that won’t change anything.

One prominent environmental organizer says that after the march ends, “The U.N. leaders are going to be in there Monday and Tuesday and do whatever the fuck they want. And everyone will go back to their lives, walking the dog and eating brunch.”

The future is unwritten. It’s not about what happens on Sunday. It’s what happens after that.

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Disaster Capitalism Hits New York

By 2080, New York City could be fortified with a belt of steel--or ringed with wetlands, as in this architect’s vision.

By 2080, New York City could be fortified with a belt of steel–or ringed with wetlands, as in this architect’s vision.

The City Will Adapt to Flooding — but at the Expense of the Poor?

By Arun Gupta     In These Times      January 28, 2013

For more than a decade before Hurricane Sandy, oceanography professor Malcolm Bowman, head of the Storm Surge Research Group at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, warned that a superstorm would someday drown New York City. There were plenty of precedents, he noted, such as the 1992 nor’easter that crippled train lines and Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999, which dumped a foot of rain in 24 hours and caused flash flooding.

“My middle name is Noah,” laughs Bowman, who looks the part of an old salt, with a tanned complexion and trimmed white beard. “The flood’s coming, you better build the ark, get everybody aboard.”

In 2008, Bowman was asked to join Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York City Panel on Climate Change, and he recommended that the city build surge barriers like those protecting London and the Netherlands. But his advice wasn’t heeded. According to Bowman, “the panel thought that it was too ambitious, too expensive, too futuristic.”

Now, in the aftermath of the most devastating storm New York has ever seen—one that claimed more than 100 lives in the region, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, and notched a record storm surge of 13.8 feet in Lower Manhattan—an idea that was once seen as implausible now seems inevitable. One poll found that 80 percent of the public favors fortifying the city with surge barriers. “Money shouldn’t be a problem,” declared the New York Times. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has thrown his weight behind barriers, as have the state’s top Congress members and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the frontrunner in this year’s mayoral contest.

Bowman and his Storm Surge Research Group have sketched out a plan that could cost an estimated $25 billion and centers on a five-mile-long “Outer Harbor Gateway” between Sandy Hook, New Jersey and the Rockaway peninsula. The barrier would be a belt of landfill, stone and reinforced concrete, possibly topped with a highway that would provide an alternate route from the mid-Atlantic to New England. Thirty-foot-high sand berms would be piled on Sandy Hook and the Rockaways to prevent flood waters from circumventing the gateway. Another gate, this one a mile long, would be built in the upper East River to stop surges coming in from the Long Island Sound to the north.

Proponents say the funding question could be solved by making the highway bypass a toll road. The next step is for Congress to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study, which experts say could take five years and cost more than $20 million.

Despite the costs, storm barriers seem more a question of when, not if, given that risks of more powerful storms barreling in on higher sea levels will increase exponentially as the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt ever faster. Scientists say coastal cities should plan for sea levels to rise by seven feet by the year 2100. In Brooklyn and Queens alone, says Bowman, “you have to worry about the two to three million people who live less than six feet above high-tide level.” Since it would be virtually impossible for millions of people to abandon New York anytime soon, planners are trying to figure out the best way to hold the next hurricane at bay.

The ultimate gated community

To provide answers, the city tapped Jeroen Aerts, a professor of risk management and climate change at University of Amsterdam, to compile a cost-benefit analysis of flood-risk management strategies. Aerts says that, based on economic assets at risk, New York is the second most vulnerable port city in the world, after Miami. He cites an estimate that by 2080, the metropolitan area from New York to Newark, N.J. will contain about $2.15 trillion in assets that could be damaged by extreme storms. Compared to that—or even the $71 billion post-Sandy repair bill for New York and New Jersey—the $25 billion estimate for storm-surge protection looks like a bargain.

However, Aerts warns, “Don’t put everything on storm-surge barriers.” Because nothing is foolproof, he advocates “a multi-layered safety system.” This includes back-up measures such as updating zoning and building codes, strengthening insurance policies and committing more resources to evacuation if the barriers do fail, as they did in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Nonetheless, flood barriers will be the front line of coastal defense. Aerts maintains that barriers are not just about safeguarding glittery skyscrapers. “Everyone benefits from storm-surge barriers because the whole city is protected, not only the developers.”

So far in the cost-benefit calculations, however, some people have been given less consideration than others. When asked if New York’s poor, who comprise 41 percent of the city’s population based on living-wage standards (21 percent by federal guidelines), had been considered in the initial discussions, Aerts says, “That’s a new issue. We didn’t discuss it, no.” He adds that the thinking has changed after Sandy as planners realize low-income groups “are the most vulnerable not just because of the structures they live in, but because of their coping capacity.”

This is precisely what worries critics. “Chances are, public policy is going to support only those developments that are high end, and are able to muster the most sophisticated and advanced flood protections,” says Tom Angotti, director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development. “Everyone else, the one- and two-family homes, are not going to be able to make it, unless they’re mansion owners who have deep pockets.” Indeed, in early December, the city announced that it will “update its building code to require more stringent protection against floods,” such as by requiring all new and rebuilt homes to exceed federal guidelines on elevation, which will raise housing costs significantly.

This change will severely affect low-income people, Angotti says. “Many renters will find that there will be no more rental housing to afford because now it will be too expensive.” But it is public housing residents—79,000 of whom were trapped by Sandy in decrepit towers without electricity—who will be the big losers. Angotti says that because public housing is already on the road to privatization, “Sandy provides an opportunity for the closure of public housing in the Rockaways, Coney Island, possibly Red Hook, which would open up new opportunities for private real estate development.”

It’s all part of the “market mentality,” says Angotti. “Let the market handle it, and the market will exclude low-income people without them even having to say it. It will just be as if it were a natural thing.”

While everyone pays for flood works, individuals are left exposed to market forces, and big real estate developers reap the benefits. The invisible hand never pauses. After Sandy, one developer snatched up a publicly subsidized 1,093-apartment complex on the Rockaways and is counting on raising rents to profit from the investment—which means pushing out low-income tenants. Along the New York and New Jersey coast, speculators are preying on homeowners desperate to unload damaged houses for less than half their pre-storm value. Meanwhile, Arverne by the Sea, a billion-dollar luxury complex on the Rockaways, emerged virtually unscathed because it was designed to withstand hurricane forces.

Scientists say that by the time sea levels rise by one meter—which could take from 50 years to more than a century—barrier islands such as the Rockaways will have to be encircled by levees to survive. So until then, if left unchecked, wealthy homeowners and middle-income renters will continue to flock to these desirable waterfront regions.

Because adaptation focuses on protecting economic assets, and because coastal communities rely on the business, taxes and revenue that come with development, local building restrictions tend to crumble in the wake of storms like a sand castle at high tide. For example, after Hurricane Hugo pummeled South Carolina in 1989, regulations were eased to allow rebuilding on islands near Charleston such that “megastructures perched on fat pilings” have replaced small, modest homes, according to the Wall Street Journal. Despite the obvious dangers and devastation to barrier islands such as Fire Island, where Sandy caused 30 years’ worth of erosion overnight, Cuomo, Bloomberg, Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all vowed, “We’re rebuilding.”

Meanwhile, high oceanside rents will push low-income workers to less expensive locales either outside the city or in remote neighborhoods, where they lack support networks and face overcrowding, underfunded services and hours of commuting.

If the free market goes unfettered, that two-pronged dystopian scenario could play out on a broader scale across the U.S. coast. While storm barriers can guard New York City’s flanks, it’s impossible to seal the 3,700 miles of Atlantic and Gulf coastline with seawalls and levees. Unique coastal cultures such as the Cajun in Louisiana, Seminoles in Florida and the Gullah and Geechee of the Southeast will likely vanish if their lands disappear beneath the waves. By the latter part of the 21st century, the wealthy will probably cluster in those seaside cities and resorts that can afford flood barriers and hardened towers. Coasts not armored against rising seas will push inland, and their developed areas may shift to live-at-your-own-risk ramshackle dwellings for middle- and low-income groups seeking seaside relief from deadly heat waves brought on by global warming.

Soft Infrastructure

An alternative proposal for climate-change adaptation, more complementary than competing, inserts the social back into the debate. If barriers and berms are “hard infrastructure,” then “soft infrastructure” is the flip side. Adam Yarinsky, a principal of the New York-based Architecture Research Office and co-author of On the Water: Palisade Bay, which developed the concept of soft infrastructure, says the idea is to “emulate the way nature responds to storm events [by building] in planted natural systems of shallow water as opposed to a vertical seawall that tries to define an absolute line between water and land. It allows for a more fluid, dynamic tidal zone, which has the benefit of dampening wave force from a storm surge.”

Yarinsky and his colleagues acknowledge that soft infrastructure cannot replace surge barriers. Aerts, the risk-management expert, explains, “If you have oyster banks or marshlands it doesn’t matter, the surge is going over it. Wetlands help to reduce the strength of waves, but it doesn’t reduce the height of the waves.”

But soft infrastructure can be an important complement to surge barriers by allowing for controlled flooding that can replace seawalls in some areas, cleaning up blighted ecosystems and serving as a blueprint for viable, mixed-income, mixed-use communities. Proposals reimagining New York’s waterfront, grouped in a recent exhibit titled “Rising Currents” at the Museum of Modern Art, include a working waterfront of sustainable oyster beds, fish farms and algal biofuels; seeding the bay with flood-tempering barrier islands, wetlands and breakwaters; and redesigning flood-prone areas with sunken forests, porous streets and hanging buildings to allow water to enter in a controlled fashion.

Soft infrastructure has the potential to address the failings of public housing, which warehoused the poor away from services, from jobs and from the civic and cultural life of the city. Building a “new aqueous city” of flood-resilient housing on the water, fringing the urban edges with parks and wetlands, and creating a working waterfront would result in desirable housing, recreation and jobs that are denied to many New Yorkers. While this has the potential to turn into boutique urban living, Yarinsky’s co-authors, architects Guy Nordenson and Catherine Seavitt, argue in favor of creating “flexible and democratic zoning formulae for coastal development that … increase community welfare and resilience to natural disasters.”

It’s an exciting vision, but democratizing urban planning is a difficult task at best, and it runs counter to how developers manipulate government to generate private wealth. Angotti points out that the rampant waterfront development of the last decade under Bloomberg has the government’s fingerprints all over it. Rezoning jacked land values “10, 20, 40 times” overnight while the city funneled subsidies, loans and tax breaks to private developers building on those lands.

If it isn’t a problem to find money for surge barriers, as the New York Times asserts, then, given the political will, money can surely be found to develop soft infrastructure that benefits more than developers and million-dollar condo owners. Angotti suggests that instead of burdening the public with the costs, big developers should be made to pay for barriers designed to fortify their “luxury enclaves” and to fund protection for the city’s most vulnerable communities. Taxing the wealthy, high-end developments and corporate skyscrapers would generate money for both hard and soft infrastructure.

But political will does not develop out of thin air. To achieve this vision will require broad-based social mobilization by the people who really make the city run. They must assert their right to remake urban space around communal, democratic, liberatory and cultural experiences, rather than ones based on individualism, consumption, spectacle and accumulation.

One thing is certain: Rather than allow the political conversation to revolve around cold cost-benefit calculations, we must redefine the problem in social and ecological terms to make people’s needs and natural approaches central to the solution.

Of course, neither hard nor soft infrastructure can hold back rising seas forever. Retreat is inevitable. Even the Dutch, who are at the forefront of adapting to rising seas (as 26 percent of their country is below sea level), plan to eventually abandon 20 percent of their land, according to scientists.

In the United States, says Orrin H. Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, “Virtually every port city up and down the East Coast is talking about getting gates.” But some cities are doomed. “Miami, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale are sitting on top of very porous limestone” that is as much as 75 feet thick, Pilkey says. A levee is “not going to make the slightest difference. The sea level is going to come up right inside behind it.” A two-meter rise will mean “a thousand-plus miles of shoreline will have to be abandoned,” he adds. Bowman says New Orleans is in a similar boat. Caught between “subsidence”—sinking land—and rising sea levels, “its days are numbered.”

By the year 2300, sea levels could easily be 12 feet higher, and if Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets melt entirely, sea levels will rise by 200 feet, entombing virtually all coastal cities under the ocean. In the meantime, says Bowman, “We need to look beyond the next election cycle, the next quarterly bottom line of the corporation. Let’s give it our best shot for, say, 200 years. Then maybe we have to abandon it and the city as you know it dies.”

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