By the Way, Your Home Is on Fire: Climate Change and the Dangers of Stasis

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This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina fill the streets near downtown New Orleans, La., on Aug. 30, 2005. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

As the San Francisco bureaucrats on the dais murmured about why they weren’t getting anywhere near what we in the audience passionately hoped for, asked for and worked for, my mind began to wander. I began to think of another sunny day on the other side of the country 13 years earlier, when nothing happened the way anyone expected. I had met a survivor of that day who told me his story.

A high-powered financial executive, he had just arrived on the 66th floor of his office building and entered his office carrying his coffee, when he saw what looked like confetti falling everywhere — not a typical 66th floor spectacle. Moments later, one of his friends ran out of a meeting room shouting, “They’re back.”

It was, of course, the morning of September 11th and his friend had seen a plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. My interviewee and his colleagues in the south tower got on the elevator. In another 15 minutes or so, that was going to be a fast way to die, but they managed to ride down to the 44th floor lobby safely. A guy with a bullhorn was there, telling people to go back to their offices.

Still holding his cup of coffee, he decided — as did many others in that lobby — to go down the stairs instead. When he reached the 20th floor, a voice came on the public address system and told people to go back to their offices. My storyteller thought about obeying those instructions. Still holding his coffee, he decided to keep heading down. He even considered getting back on an elevator, but hit the stairs again instead. Which was a good thing, because when he was on the ninth floor, the second plane crashed into the south tower, filling the elevator shafts with flaming jet fuel. Two hundred to 400 elevator riders died horribly. He put down his coffee at last and lived to tell the tale.

The moral of this story: people in power and bureaucrats seem exceptionally obtuse when it comes to recognizing that the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply. The advisors in the towers were giving excellent instructions for a previous crisis that happened to be profoundly different from the one at hand. That many had the good sense to disobey and evacuated early meant the stairwells were less crowded when the second round of evacuations began. Amazingly, the vast majority of people below the levels of the impacts made it out of both buildings — largely despite the advice of the building’s management, not because of it.

Going Nowhere Fast

Sometimes the right thing to do in ordinary times is exactly the wrong thing to do in extraordinary times. That’s easy to understand when something dramatic has happened. It’s less easy to grasp when the change is incremental and even understanding it requires paying attention to a great deal of scientific data.

Right now, you can think of the way we’re living as an office tower and the fossil fuel economy as a plane crashing into it in very, very, very slow motion. Flaming jet fuel is a pretty good analogy, in its own way, for what the burning of fossil fuel is doing, although the death and destruction are mostly happening in slow motion, too — except when people are drowning in Hurricane Sandy-style superstorms or burning in Australian firestorms or dying in European heat waves. The problem is: How do you convince someone who is stubbornly avoiding looking at the flames that the house is on fire? (Never mind those who deny the very existence of fire.) How do you convince someone that what constitutes prudent behavior in ordinary times is now dangerous and that what might be considered reckless in other circumstances is now prudent?

That gathering in which I was daydreaming was a board meeting of the San Francisco Employees Retirement System. Ten months before, on April 23, 2013, in a thrilling and unanticipated unanimous vote, the city’s Board of Supervisors opted to ask the retirement board to divest their fund of fossil fuel stocks, $616,427,002 worth of them at last count — a sum that nonetheless represents only 3.3 percent of its holdings. That vote came thanks to a growing climate change divestment movement that has been attempting to address the problem of fossil fuel corporations and their environmental depredations in a new way.

Divestment serves a number of direct and indirect causes, including awakening public opinion to the dangers we face and changing the economic/energy landscape. As is now widely recognized, preventing climate change from reaching its most catastrophic potential requires keeping four-fifths of known carbon reserves (coal, oil and gas) in the ground. The owners of those reserves — those giant energy corporations and states like Russia and Canada that might as well be — have no intention of letting that happen.

Given a choice between the bottom line and the fate of the Earth, the corporations have chosen to deny the scientific facts (at least publicly), avoid the conversation or insist that retrenching is so onerous as to be impossible. At the same time, they have been up-armoring political action committees, funding climate change disinformation campaigns, paying off politicians and, in many cases, simply manipulating governments to serve the corporations and their shareholders rather than humanity or even voters. It’s been a largely one-sided war for a long time. Now, thanks to climate activists worldwide, it’s starting to be more two-sided.

The Things We Burned

An extraordinary new report tells us that 90 corporations and states are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all the carbon emissions that have changed our climate and our world since 1751. Chevron alone is responsible for 3.52 percent of that total, ExxonMobil for 3.22 percent and BP for 2.24 percent. China since 1751 is responsible for 8.56 percent — less, that is, than those three petroleum giants. It’s true that they produced that energy, rather than (for the most part) consuming it, but at this point we need to address the producers.
The most terrifying thing about the study by Richard Heede of Climate Mitigation Services in Colorado and the chart of his data that Duncan Clark and Kiln, a data-visualization firm, made for the Guardian is that 63 percent of all human-generated carbon emissions have been produced in the past 25 years; that is, nearly two-thirds have been emitted since the first warnings were sounded about what was then called “global warming” and the need to stop or scale back. We on Earth now, we who have been adults for at least 25 years, are the ones who have done more than all earlier human beings combined to unbalance the atmosphere of the planet and thus its weather systems, oceans and so much more.

It’s important to note, as so many have, that it’s we in the global north and the rich countries for whom most of that fuel has been burned. And it’s important to note as well (though fewer have) that, according to the opinion polls, a majority of individuals north and south, even in our own oil empire, are willing to change in response to this grim fact. It’s the giant energy corporations and the governments in their thrall (when they’re not outright oil regimes) that are stalling and refusing, as we saw when a meaningful climate compact was sabotaged in Copenhagen in late 2009.

The most stunning thing about that chart illustrating Heede’s study is that it makes what can seem like an overwhelming and amorphous problem specific and addressable: here are the 90 top entities pumping carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. With its own list of the 200 biggest fossil fuel corporations, the divestment movement is doing something similar. Next comes the hard part: getting universities, cities, states, pension funds and other financial entities to actually divest. They often like to suggest that it’s an impossible or crazy or wildly difficult and risky move, though fund managers shuffle their funds around all the time for other reasons.

Once upon a time, similar entities swore that it was inconceivable to end the institution of slavery, upend the profitable economics of southern plantations and violate the laws of “property”; once upon another time, you couldn’t possibly give women the vote and change the whole face of democracy and public life, or require seatbelts and other extravagant safety devices, or limit the industrial processes that produce acid rain, or phase out the chlorofluorocarbons so useful for refrigeration and destructrive of the ozone layer. Except that this country did all of that, over the gradually declining protests that it was too radical and burdensome. When radical shifts become the status quo, most forget how and why it happened and come to see that status quo as inevitable and even eternal, though many of its best aspects were the fruit of activism and change.

We tend to think that sticking with something is a calmer and steadier way to go than jettisoning it, even though that rule obviously doesn’t apply to sinking ships. Sometimes, after the iceberg or the explosion, the lifeboat is safer than the luxury liner, though getting on it requires an urgent rearrangement of your body and your expectations. The value of fossil fuel corporations rests on their strategic reserves. Extracting and burning those reserves would devastate the climate, so keeping most of them in the ground is a key goal, maybe the key goal, in forestalling the worst versions of what is already unfolding.

The curious thing about fossil fuel divestment is that many highly qualified financial analysts and, as of last week, the British parliament’s environmental audit committee suggest that such investments are volatile, unsafe and could crash in the fairly near future. They focus on the much discussed carbon bubble and its potential for creating stranded assets. So there’s a strong argument for divestment simply as a matter of fiscal (rather than planetary) prudence.

According to many scenarios, divesting energy company stocks will have no impact, or even a positive impact, on a portfolio. The biggest question, however, is what constitutes a good portfolio on a planet spiraling into chaos. The best way — maybe the only way — to manage a portfolio is to manage the planet, or at least to participate in trying. How will your stocks do as the oceans die? Or — leaving out all humanitarian concerns — as massive crop failures decimate markets and maybe populations? Is the fate of the Earth your responsibility or someone else’s?

For the People Who Will Be 87 in the Year 2100

In that pretty room, a few dozen activists and one San Francisco supervisor, John Avalos, a great leader on climate issues, faced off against the San Francisco Employees Retirement System board and its staff who talked interminably about how wild and reckless it would be to divest. And it was then that it struck me: inaction and caution may seem so much more rational than action, unless you’re in a burning building or on a sinking ship. And that’s what made me think of the World Trade Center towers on the day they were hit by those hijacked airliners.

It was as though the people in that room were having different conversations in different languages in different worlds. And versions of that schizophrenic conversation are being had all over this continent and in Europe. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, and across the California system of higher education are launching this conversation with the university regents and I already dread the same foot-dragging performances I’ve been watching here for almost a year.

There’s already a long list of institutions that have committed to divestment, from the United Church of Christ and the San Francisco State University Foundation to the Sierra Club Foundation and 17 philanthropic foundations. Staff leadership at the Wallace Global Fund, one of the 17 divesting, said, “Who in our community could proudly defend, today, a decision not to have divested from South Africa 30 years ago? In hindsight, the moral case seems too clear. How then might we envision defending, 20 years from now, keeping our millions invested in business-as-usual fossil energy, at precisely the moment scientists are telling us there is no time left to lose?”

In fact, many climate activists point to the divestment movement that focused on apartheid-era South Africa as a model. That was a highly successful campaign, but also a relatively easy one for many of the companies being pressured to withdraw from their investments, subsidiaries and other involvements in that country. After all, many of them weren’t all that involved, financially speaking, to begin with. What worked then won’t work now, because the situations are so profoundly different.

The San Francisco Retirement Board finally voted to engage in shareholder activism, their first and most timorous step. This is the procedure whereby shareholders chastise a corporation and ask it to change its sorry ways. Such activism, which was meaningful when it came to South Africa, is meaningless when it comes to carbon. Politely asking ExxonMobil or Chevron to divest from fossil fuel is like asking McDonald’s to divest from burgers and fries or Ford to divest from cars. It’s sort of like a mouse asking a lion to become vegetarian. The corporations are not going to quit their principal activity and raison d’être; it’s we who need to quit investing in them — the step the board was balking at.

Climate activists speak the language of people who know that we’re in an emergency. The retirement board is speaking the language of people who don’t. The board members don’t deny the science of climate change, but as far as I can tell, they don’t realize what that means for everyone’s future, including that of members of their pension fund and their children and grandchildren. The words “fiduciary duty” kept coming up, which means the board’s and staff’s primary responsibility and commitment are to the wellbeing of the fund. It was implied that selling 3.3 percent of the portfolio for reasons of principle was a wild and irrational thing to support, no less do.

But it isn’t just principle. The pensioners receiving money from the board will be living on Earth, not some other planet. Exactly what that means in 10, 20 or 50 years depends on what we do now. That we, by the way, includes money managers, investors and pension-holders, as well as politicians and activists, and you who are reading this. What, after all, does “fiduciary duty” mean in an emergency? Can you make sound investments on a planet that’s going haywire without addressing the causes of that crisis? In such circumstances, shouldn’t fiduciary duty include addressing the broader consequences of your investments?

What does the future look like for a person paying into the pension fund who will be 60 in 2050? One of my brothers is a city employee paying into that fund. What will the future look like for his younger son, who will be 87 in 2100? A retirement board fund manager spoke of emulating Warren Buffett, who recently bought Exxon shares. Buffett is 83. He won’t be around for the most serious consequences of his actions or Exxon’s. My sweet-natured, almost-walking, brown-eyed nephew Martin, who turned one on Sunday, will. I likely will, too, because it’s getting wilder on this destabilized planet, and even two decades hence is looking pretty grim.

Here’s what I wrote the board before the meeting:

“Not only prosperity but human health and food supplies depend on a stable climate, but it’s getting less stable all the time. How much we will lose, how much we will salvage depends on whether we act now. I get it that the board’s first responsibility is to the financial wellbeing of the fund. Even more so it’s to the pensioners, from those now receiving benefits to the youngest person paying in. But nothing exists in isolation: the stock market depends, whether or not Wall Street remembers, on weather, crops, strong markets for products and the rest of what a stable world provides. And even a nice pension would not assuage the need of pensioners afflicted by tropical diseases moving northward, extreme heat that disproportionately affects the elderly, rising sea levels that take away billions of dollars of coastal California real estate — including SFO runways and the city’s landfill areas. Crop failure and rising food prices, water shortages, dying oceans, climate refugees.”

Or as a leaked UN report recently put it, “The planet’s crop production will decline by up to 2 percent every decade as rainfall patterns shift and droughts batter farmland, even as demand for food rises a projected 14%.”

I have great faith in the human ability to improvise, but there are limits to what can be done about a shrinking food supply and a growing population. The word not used in this cautious, conservative report is mass famine, which is very bad for your stocks. And infinitely worse for the people who are starving.

Another new report says, “Europe’s financial losses related to flooding, which now total about 4.9 billion euros a year, could increase almost 380 percent to 23.5 billion euros by 2050.” There are other versions of these dire projections about Asia, the Americas and Africa. Studies about the future impact of climate change are one thing that’s not in short supply. You can focus on the oceans and fisheries, on polar ice, on species, on food supplies, floods, fires, hurricanes and typhoons — and in the language of the market, indicators are that catastrophe is going way, way up. How much depends on us.

Your House Is On Fire

A few weeks earlier, I went to a demonstration at the State Department’s San Francisco office with a NASA scientist friend who’s an expert on what makes planets habitable. She told me that we on Earth have been blessed by the remarkable stability of temperatures over the long haul and that for any planet the window of temperature in which life will thrive is pretty small. We’re already at the upper end of the viable temperature for an inhabitable planet, she told me. I’ve heard the news delivered a thousand ways about what we’re facing, but her version made me feel sick — as if she’d told me my house was burning down. Which she had.

I was in Japan for the first anniversary of what they call the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that Americans often call Fukushima (a reference — speaking of the unforeseen and of the failures of authorities — to the six nuclear power plants trashed by the tsunami that began to fall apart in various highly radioactive ways). The country’s earthquake building codes worked well: hardly anyone was killed by the giant quake. Its tsunami alert system worked superbly, too: almost everyone was given plenty of time to evacuate.

But a lot of people didn’t move fast enough, or they trusted the sea walls and sea gates to protect them, or they evacuated to the right level for tsunamis in living memory. In many places, the waves were higher than any tsunami since 1896, and about 20,000 people died in the inundation, 90 percent by drowning. The most horrible story I heard as I toured the wreckage and talked to officials, survivors and relief workers was about an elementary school. Its teachers argued about what to do: one of them took several students to safety; the rest of the school, teachers and small children alike, stayed put and drowned. Unnecessarily. Reacting strongly to a catastrophe is often seen as an overreaction, but the real danger is under-reaction.

During 9/11, survival meant evacuating the south tower of the World Trade Center. In 2011, survival on the northeast coast of Japan meant going uphill or far inland. Our climate crisis requires us to evacuate our normal ways of doing things. That will not always be cheap or easy, but divestment can be done now with no loss, even possibly with an upside, say many financial analysts. In any case, it’s the only honorable and sane thing to do — for the young who will be alive in 2064, for the beauty and complexity of the world we have been given, including all the other living things on it, for the sake of the people who are already suffering and will suffer more because of the disruption of the elegant system that is the Earth we inherited.

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit author most recently of The Faraway Nearby spent time at Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and wrote about Occupy often for TomDispatch in 2011-2012. This essay is adapted from her introduction to Nathan Schneider’s new book, Thank You, Anarchy (University of California Press).
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  • JonThomas

    Very well expressed.

  • Anonymous

    Very important and worthy of everyone’s attention. Thanks, Rebecca.

  • Joan Harris

    I would include the coal industry as well.

  • Frank N. Blunt

    perverse & shameful analogies & inappropriate comparisons; true, people are monsters, cruel, & criminal although the climate is not a catastrophe like the inhumanity I’ve experienced; I can indicate more immediate issues needing attention although resource transition is in another category from injury, injustice, torture, & other horrors

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Chicken Little.

    I’d ask you to point out which/whose climate model has actually demonstrated a causal link between higher atmospheric CO2 and ANY climate impact (whether it be “warming” or “change” or “disruption”), but I can already see that a) data isn’t one of those things that informs or influences you, and b) the Occupy Oakland Poop Smearers are more rational now that you’re no longer participating.

  • Trurl

    Great blog. When I was not long out of college I interned with an organization in Washington dealing with global population issues. It was an eye-opener. I can tell you that along with your excellent proposal, people need to divest themselves from the idea of large families; if you really feel the need-have one child only. My mother is 84 this year. In her lifetime, the global population has tripled. No amount of conservation can keep up with that kind of growth. That is the other fire most people, including many who label themselves green, don’t want to think about. Personally, I like my modern technological life. But I also know that my standard of living cannot be shared by 7 billion. If we want to retain what we have for the future, we need to think about a future where human population itself is at a sustainable level.

  • Nihilist

    we have met the enemy, and it is us….

  • Anonymous

    The idea of what hurts you hurts me or empathy was articulated as our aim of evolution by Pierre Teihard de Chardin. His Universal Consciencness has played a natural role in my investment strategy and natural inclination to find meaning.

    Seeing the poor results and lack of control tied to indiscriminate investments my work 401k money convinced me discriminate investing could be done with better results. But even if it couldn’t the intrinsic reward of rewarding and being part of good things and services was an added value. Though i started very late my money compounde for several years at about 35% before my interests have more turned to the broader need to stop things like KeystoneXL and agitate for more fair and transparent markets.

    Mention this because nobody watches your money like you will and the more we share the more we can realize the real profits of seeing tangible connections with our money and the good it can produce. While underperforming the markets for last 5 years I have seen indiscriminate investing wining the battles so far but slowly the tide may be turning when you see high profile people like Gore, Styer, and others leading the charge to make a difference making money and making money work in the right way for the right world we want our children to live in. The first edge one gets when starting to focus on the ethical and socially valuable companies is you can avoid the Enron’s, Madoff’s, and gimmicks stll prevalent and keeping corruption holding on in fear and denial.

  • Anonymous

    This is a fascinating blog and a very important discussion. My question is: does divestment cut it? If we want to reduce the rate at which fossil fuels are pumped and dug out of the ground, does divesting (of shares in the companies that do it) do anywhere near enough? If not, what more can we do?

    Reducing consumption could be a zero-sum game if they pump it out anyway, even if they make less money doing so it will still foul the environment. How much of a reduction in demand would it take to push the price down far enough to cause wells to be shut in?

    Divestment is a statement, but while it might depress demand for the shares and cause them to decline in price, that does not change the value of the underlying cash-flows. The dividends will still be there. Something else is needed if we want to change that.

    I don’t know the answer, but I am afraid divestment is not enough.

  • Anonymous

    It is a multiple effort. Puting a cost to carbon that reflects the hidden costs like off the books health and environmental coasts makes alternatives and efficiencies the clear winner on several levels. I think the industry of carbon, especially the dirtiest of Tarsands is in a mad rush to inventory and extract as much as possible before government comes up with a sound energy and climate change policy.

    I remember that last days of ending Apartheid when children left school to lead the nation in a final act of shameing the regime. The First Nations have vowed to use theri bodies to stop the any pipes from Tarsands and makes saying No to KeystoneXL critical for their efforts to stop the destrucion of their lives.

    I think we need collective action like we had during the 70’s when the oil embargo made us slow down and we saw a reduction in hwy. deaths by 25%. Once people understand the intrinsic rewards of slowing down and connecting what they do to others it could reverse the mad idea of growth for the sake of growth and real appreciation can begin.

  • Anonymous

    A report written by a respected environmental policy think tank on our declining water supply across the greater US Southwest has found us about 2.5 billion acre-feet short on water supply before the end of our current century just across our region. (Ackerman and Stanton, Stockholm Environment Institute, 2011).

    Another recent report written by the Colorado Governor’s office is forecasting a State water shortage in just Colorado of 50,000 acre-feet annually by 2050, a forecast which grows as it ages too.

    Another recent report from Denver Water has recently claimed that our regional population growth rate and the over-used and declining Denver Basin Aquifer meet sometime between 2025 and 2027 too, and that the Ogallala Aquifer to our east that waters our eastern plains agricultural industry will be depleted 10-20 years later too.

    Another recent report on Mexico City’s water supply has found a 40% shortage of water to accommodate future growth by 2030, and the same general forecast has been made for the US too. (Patricia Pina, Harvard Kennedy School, 2011, Mexico City, US Director of National Intelligence, 2030 Study, 2012).

    And you are worried about growing enough food? Frankly, the only sustainable course of action will be to rapidly move toward urban hydroponic agriculture as otherwise there won’t be nearly enough water to grow crops in dirt.

    Worse yet, what happens toward the end of the century when our planet runs of our phosphate for chemical fertilizer, which then cuts crop yields in half? Isn’t regional sustainability planning fun?

    Yes, if our children are to have half a chance of living out their natural lives without struggling for water and food, let alone enjoying a semi-stable life without having to become climate refugees in their lifetimes, divestment of companies that recklessly produce carbon and even methane or nitrous oxide for profit is critical.

    We must move as quickly as possible toward renewable energy and any attempt today to prolong the life of our fossil fuel industry will only make the lives that our children and grandchildren get to live more difficult.

    It takes about 30-40 years for carbon dioxide released today to be absorbed and become nearly neutral, and numerous recent climate change predictions that include the added climate change effect of ever rising natural Arctic methane emissions have forecasted a global average temperature rise of 4-5 degrees Celsius by 2050-2060.

    Worse yet, on the same growth in GHG emissions path just through 2050, before 2100, more than 90% of our planet’s population will be driven extinct by catastrophic heatwaves, water supply evaporation, and soils rendered infertile too.

    So how soon do we have to quit using fossil fuels to prevent this from
    happening, as if it does, by 2050 or 2060, at just the median recent forecast, as many as 2 billion people worldwide will be
    driven from their homes and become refugees, and the rest of the livable
    area of our planet will not have the sustainability necessary to absorb
    them either.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Chicken Little.

    I’d ask you to point out which/whose climate model has actually demonstrated a causal link between higher atmospheric CO2 and ANY climate impact (whether it be “warming” or “change” or “disruption”), but I can already see that a) data isn’t one of those things that informs or influences you, and b) the Occupy Oakland crew (most notable for smearing poop) are more rational now that you’re no longer participating.

    Or would you rather have this comment removed — because actually supporting your sky-is-falling scare-mongering (promulgated to promote a leftist agenda, not some scientific imperative) with some demonstration of proven causality isn’t possible?

  • Anonymous

    I support divestment.

    Anything to keep the “shareholder activists” from putting forth absurd proposals for shareholder vote is an improvement in business efficiency.

  • Pam Driscoll

    You get what you focus on. If you put your money/energy/time into fossil fuels, you are contributing in the destruction of our (once) stable climate. There ARE sound investments that doesn’t include fossil fuel, big pharm. big ag, mining and logging industries. Look into investment firms that are socially and environmentally conscious. When you buy something, you vote for it!

  • Pam Driscoll

    By investing in local communities with sustainable methods we help create a more humane and loving world as well as mitigate climate change. There are ways to design/plan our lives that benefit all. I am outraged at the torture humans inflict on wildlife, factory farmed animals, vivisection, zoos, circuses, etc and by developing and conducting our lives in organic, sustainable ways, these practices would go by the wayside. As well as clear cut logging, massive fishing, etc. We need to shift towards self sustaining, permaculture methods of community building for emotional, spiritual and physical health for ALL life on this precious planet Earth.