Wall Street to Planet Earth: We Don’t Mind and You Don’t Matter

Published on Dissident Voice, by Chris Williams, Sept 27, 2013.

… As the entire planet is an interlinked set of ecosystems which together form the biosphere, changes in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere and its ability to retain the sun’s heat, inevitably lead to disruptive changes elsewhere. Loss of polar ice, leading to sea level rise (up to 1m by 2100, assuming some reduction in emissions), will threaten the existence of low-lying island nations as well as major cities; the continuing acidification of the oceans (killing off the basis of the food web: coral, phytoplankton and shellfish) and more climate disruptions, an increased number of hotter days and extreme weather events. 

Even with some real action to reduce emissions, scientists predict that the earth will very likely overshoot what is considered to be the “safe” limit of average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius.

However, if the world continues with business as usual, average global temperature between 2080 and 2100 is predicted to be 2.6-4.8C higher than today. At the higher end, this would make life for many species, including ourselves, untenable across significant areas of the globe and cause the disintegration of complex ecosystems. It’s important to remember that the IPCC has been criticized for being too conservative in its estimates, because of the consensus nature of decision-making imposed by national governments on the UN body.

Considering that a large percentage of its value is based on fossil fuel reserves, in and of itself, all of this would be very bad news for Wall Street. The stock exchanges of London, Sao Paulo, Australia and Toronto have 20-30% of their valuation from fossil fuels. As of 2011, the top 100 coal and top 100 oil corporations are collectively valued at $7.42 trillion, or half the annual GDP of the United States. If these stock markets suddenly lost up to a third of their value, the effect on the world financial system would be cataclysmic (previous largest drops, in 1987 and 2007/8 have not exceeded 20%).

However, what really hammered the last nail into the coffin labeled “fossil fuel corporations” and presumably stock markets the world over, and the reason I was so avidly fixated on the opening of Wall Street, was for the first time, the IPCC report put a budget on carbon.

The report indicated that, if we are to have any chance of staying below the crucial limit of two degrees Celsius of warming, we could only burn a maximum of 800-880 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC). As we have already set fire to 531 GtC as of 2011, and added that carbon to the atmosphere and oceans, we’re only left with approximately 350 GtC leeway.

How does that number compare to how much we’ve discovered and as is calculated in the reserves of fossil fuel companies and those held by governments, and hence the basis for their valuation on stock markets around the world? According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative report cited above, that number is 2795 GtCO2, 65% of which is from the most abundant and polluting source, coal.

The portion of reserves controlled by the top 100 coal and top 100 oil and gas companies is 745GtC02.

In other words, the overwhelming majority of oil, coal and gas reserves can never be fracked, drilled or mined out of the ground even though they are worth trillions of dollars on the balance sheets of those corporations. A suitably devastating prognosis for corporate survival that it would surely have to be reflected in market valuations the second the IPCC report went public … //

… The financial system, profit-based production and the growth imperative of capitalism are three of the core reasons why capitalism cannot prevent ecological disaster. The fourth Horseman of the Climate Apocalypse is the nature of inter-state competition otherwise known as imperialism, which acts as the international counterpart to domestic competition between corporations, and prevents binding and effective international agreements on climate change.

The historically contingent reason is that capitalist growth for the last 150 years has been predicated on fossil fuels and the corporations which extract and process them; these entities are now some of the largest economic, and thereby political, actors on the planet, with a multi-trillion dollar vested interest in preventing change.

On top of that, examine the infrastructure of fossil-fuel dependent capitalism: hundreds of thousands of miles of oil pipelines snaking across every continent; over 200,000 gas stations in the United States alone; the roads and refineries; the pharmaceutical and petro-chemical complexes; the factories that manufacture 70 million new cars every year; the concrete, rubber and asphalt manufacturers and the vast military-industrial complex which ensures the control and flow of oil continues unabated at increasing rates; as fossil fuel extraction and refining technology is further perfected. By the laws of capitalism, these investments represent trillions of dollars in sunk capital that cannot simply be written off until their depreciation costs become acceptable to the original investors.

Science tells us what must happen; capitalism tells us that it doesn’t matter. Such is the psychosis buried at the heart of a system whereby money overrides physics. The fact that continued operation calls into question, in its current form, the sustained existence of our entire biosphere, still cannot overcome the remorseless logic of capital accumulation. Not for nothing did Marx declare the motto of every capitalist, “Après moi, le déluge!”

This should not be taken as an argument that fighting for meaningful reforms to make our lives less polluted, to buy time to slow down carbon pollution, and to build our confidence and organization, cannot be won under capitalism.

The title of this piece is taken from Civil Rights activist Charles Sherrod, a key member of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and its first field organizer. In the battles in the early ‘60’s fighting segregation, he recalled the police chief of Albany, Georgia, Laurie Pritchett, the architect of the strategy of “non-violent” mass arrests of Black protesters, dismissing even the existence of African-Americans with his comment, “You know Sherrod, it’s just a matter of mind over matter. I don’t mind and you don’t matter.”

The militant organization, resolve and passion for justice of tens of thousands of marchers, picketers and demonstrators proved Pritchett wrong: Jim Crow was smashed. A similarly tenacious and independent mass movement for climate justice should seek to enact a comparable level of change within the system.

But we also know that while racism may no longer be official government policy, it persists everywhere because capitalism requires racism. The system acts to perpetuate and constantly reinvent it in the same way it requires sexual oppression and war.

Therefore, we also need to recognize the need to replace capitalism with a more rational, cooperative, democratic and humanistic system in sync with our “species being” and nature. If we don’t, we will lose our only home.
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(see also: Welcome to our new blog: politics for the 99%).

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