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Our Planet Is Heating Up. Why Are Climate Politics Still Frozen? – The New Yorker

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Our Planet Is Heating Up. Why Are Climate Politics Still Frozen?

Centuries after colonial and corporate powers set the stage for our environmental crisis, governments remain convinced that the market will solve it.

October 25, 2021

Extractive economies shift burdens and risks down the world’s hierarchies.Illustration by Robert Beatty

In 1621, the Dutch East India Company—the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or V.O.C.—arrived at the Banda Islands with a formidable navy. The global spice market was fiercely competitive, and a number of European powers had already sailed to this Indonesian archipelago and tried to strong-arm the locals into accepting various treaties. The V.O.C. had recently sought a monopoly on the spice trade with the islands, home to the precious nutmeg. Nutmeg, valued for its culinary uses and its medicinal properties—rumor had it that it could cure the plague—had long been traded across vast networks that traversed the Indian Ocean and linked Africa and Eurasia. At one point, a handful of the seeds could buy a house or a ship. But the V.O.C. couldn’t secure a deal. The islands lacked a central authority; instead of kings or potentates, they merely had respected elders.

Frustrated, the Dutch turned to a military tactic of extortion they called brandschattingen—threatening an enemy with arson—and swiftly delivered on the threat, torching the villagers’ houses, food stores, and boats. Dutch forces captured and enslaved as many of the Bandanese as they could, and murdered the rest. Soon after the massacre, the V.O.C. became, by some measures, the largest company in human history, worth more than ExxonMobil, Apple, and Amazon combined.

“Like a planet, the nutmeg is encased within a series of expanding spheres,” Amitav Ghosh writes in his illuminating new book, “The Nutmeg’s Curse” (Chicago), which begins with this grisly episode. Surrounding the nutmeg core are other layers, notably a lacy red mantle called mace, which is itself traded as a precious commodity, while the exterior of the dried seed is grooved with ridges that evoke geological structures. Ghosh carves through the historical layers of the global exploitation of nutmeg and the genocide and domination that made it possible. “No trade without war, and no war without trade,” Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the fourth governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, declared.

Ghosh has a larger point. Extraction, violence, empire: all these perennials of human history tend to march together. The global marketplace, created and shaped by forays like the V.O.C.’s in Indonesia, is fixated on growth in ways that have led to an era of depredation, depletion, and, ultimately, disruptive climate change. Ghosh wonders whether our planet, after four centuries of vigorous terraforming, has begun to turn against its settlers, unleashing wildfires, storms, and droughts. It sounds like nature’s own version of brandschattingen.

Given that the heedlessness of the global marketplace got us into the climate crisis, you might be skeptical that more of the same will get us out of it. But many governments have adopted a hair-of-the-dog approach, embracing market-based solutions such as emissions trading and carbon taxes. The results have been discouraging: global emissions have been rising quickly, and we’ve fallen short on nearly every indicator of climate progress. (The aim has been to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 or two degrees Celsius, in the hope of avoiding the most catastrophic scenarios of climate change.) Although market-based approaches can yield incremental improvement, there’s little evidence that they can produce the “transformational” change that U.N. scientists say is necessary.

If the market is still treated as a default source of solutions, Ghosh suggests, it’s because, in a world created by corporations such as the V.O.C. and colonial sponsors such as the imperial Dutch, everything, including the planet, is considered a resource to be exchanged or exploited, and progress and “rationality” are measured in impersonal dollars and cents. Profit and security are reserved for those at the top of the world’s hierarchies, and are achieved by shifting the risks and the burdens toward those at the bottom. Some people get a storm-surge barrier—a specialty of certain Dutch multinationals—and exquisitely climate-controlled interiors; others watch their villages be swallowed by the sea.

If you’re wedded to market solutions, you’ll insist that our failure to act arises simply from suboptimal legal rules and market conditions. Maybe all we need are a few technical adjustments in pricing or institutional design. But our paralysis didn’t arise from happenstance. Every decade that we delay comprehensive climate action is another decade that certain companies can profit from their stake in the world’s energy system. Activists and reporters have exposed well-funded and elaborate misinformation campaigns sponsored by these companies. The revelations haven’t made much difference.

What Kate Aronoff shows, in her timely book “Overheated” (Bold Type), is that the “old-school” approach to corporate climate denial has given way to new, subtler strategies. Yesterday’s denialists insisted that climate change was a hoax, funding dodgy science and blitzing coöperative media outlets such as Fox News with industry “experts.” But under mounting public pressure many companies have withdrawn their support from denialist think tanks like the Heartland Institute; those companies are now funding academic research at big-name universities that shy away from overt climate-change denial.

Our Planet Is Heating Up. Why Are Climate Politics Still Frozen
Cartoon by John O’Brien

One of the new strategies is to acknowledge climate change but to put polluters in charge of remedying it. Aronoff describes a 2018 proposal by Royal Dutch Shell, billed as a pathway to two degrees Celsius, that would have maintained similar levels of fossil-fuel production for decades. The scenario depended on carbon removal deployed on an immense scale—orders of magnitude above our current capabilities, and with potentially dangerous implications for food, energy, and water security. Earlier this year, Shell was rebuked by a Dutch court, which ordered the company to reduce its carbon emissions by forty-five per cent by 2030.

Despite such setbacks, oil and gas corporations have largely succeeded in slowing the energy transition that threatens their bottom line. Even from a technocratic perspective, though, our inaction on climate is irrational. Any serious long-term financial projection should take note of the fact that mass death, disease, and destruction are likely to make everybody worse off. One recent study estimates that as many as a billion people could be displaced during the next fifty years for every additional degree of warming, implying a level of social upheaval that might involve pitchforks. Even the International Energy Agency, an organization started by Henry Kissinger, now calls for a halt to all new oil and gas fields. Giant corporations such as Chevron and Exxon have been attacked for their inaction on the climate crisis not just by Greenpeace supporters but by their own shareholders, who insist that the safety of their investments depends on cutting emissions.

Why haven’t governments and political institutions forced a course correction? That’s a question taken up in “White Skin, Black Fuel” (Verso), by Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective, of Scandinavia. The book shows how, in the political arena, arguments about economic rationality get woven together with hierarchical structures and the pursuit of domination, portending what it calls fossil fascism. In particular, its authors are struck by how the European far right has used the “funnel issue” of hostility toward immigration to promote hostility toward renewable energy.

“Migrants are like wind turbines,” France’s Marine Le Pen has remarked. “Everyone agrees to have them, but no one wants them in their back yard.” To the north, the far-right Finns Party (formerly known as the True Finns) led a national campaign against wind turbines, featuring a press conference in which a man wept over the damage he believed the structures had inflicted on him and his family via infrasonic waves. The Party even published a cartoon—detailed in “White Skin, Black Fuel”—in which a Black man dressed only in a grass skirt makes hysterical climate predictions, flanked by a diminutive woman, evidently a Finnish regulator, who insists that “we have to spend more on wind turbines.” Oil companies have learned subtlety, but these far-right parties have other priorities.

“Even after fulfilling their ambitions in the region, the officials of the V.O.C. were never satisfied with their spice monopoly,” Ghosh writes. He attributes this reaction to a framework he terms the “world-as-resource,” in which landscapes are considered to be factories, and nature, like a native population, is viewed as a proper object of conquest. In Indonesia, the V.O.C. eventually followed up the massacre of a people with an effort to extirpate a botanical species. When the price of nutmeg fell, the company tried to limit the global supply of the spice by eradicating every nutmeg tree outside the Dutch plantations on the Banda Islands.

Spectacles of destruction like these would seem to reflect the often maligned workings of the profit motive, as people such as Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes have stressed. But Ghosh, mulling over why the world has been so slow to decarbonize, thinks that this explanation is incomplete. He wants us to reckon with broader structures of power, involving “the physical subjugation of people and territory,” and, crucially, the “idea of conquest, as a process of extraction.” The world-as-resource perspective not only depletes our environment of the raw materials we seek; it ultimately depletes it of meaning.

The authors of “The Nutmeg’s Curse,” “Overheated,” and “White Skin, Black Fuel” have different stories to tell about our bafflingly self-destructive climate politics. But they mesh into a broader narrative about hierarchy, commerce, and exploitation. An account of why climate politics is broken, needless to say, won’t tell us how to fix it. Still, these authors do venture some ideas. The second half of “Overheated” sketches out the contours of a “postcarbon democracy”; we learn about ongoing political efforts to redistribute the ownership of utilities from investors to communities, and about the promising 2018 struggles of public employees against the governments of fossil-fuel-reliant states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. “The Nutmeg’s Curse” sees potential in what it calls a “vitalist” politics, and in an associated ethic of protection that would extend to “rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.” Ghosh identifies this ethos, in contrast to the world-as-resource view, with peasants and farmworkers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—places and people long seen as peripheral to history. He also draws our attention to legal victories by indigenous peoples, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling, in 2012, that the rights of the Sarayaku people, in Ecuador, had been violated when an oil company dug wells on their lands without consulting them; and court rulings that side with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

These victories aren’t on the scale of the challenges we face, and the political proposals may feel airily idealistic—more of a wish list than a to-do list. Still, getting serious about climate change, as these micro and macro histories make clear, means aiming higher than defeatist “realism.” Climate catastrophe isn’t going to be averted simply by our changing the way we think about the planet and its peoples—but it’s likely to arrive sooner if we don’t. ♦

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The inflation debate could preview the next big shifts in Canadian politics – CBC.ca

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The most interesting battle of the 44th Parliament’s early days has been the recurring back-and-forth between Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre.

This running debate between two of the most prominent figures in Canadian politics maps out some of the fault lines that might define the present and near-future of the national debate.

Once one of Stephen Harper’s most enthusiastically combative lieutenants, Poilievre has spent the past two years cultivating an online following — even playing footsie with some of the Internet’s conspiracy theorists.

This past spring, six months before the fall election, Erin O’Toole decided he didn’t want Poilievre to be the Conservative Party’s spokesperson on fiscal matters and shuffled him to another job. O’Toole’s team insisted it wasn’t a demotion — though it’s not hard to imagine that Poilievre might have been a bit too edgy for the non-threatening and moderate campaign O’Toole ran this fall.

But Poilievre was returned to the position of “shadow finance minister” after O’Toole and the Conservatives stumbled to a disappointing election result in September. Poilievre now seems like something of a spiritual leader for the Conservative side.

Before the election, Poilievre enthusiastically attacked federal spending and the Bank of Canada’s purchase of government bonds. He now points to this fall’s inflation figures as vindication of his arguments. On Twitter, he has adopted the oh-so-clever hashtag of #Justinflation to underline his claim that the prime minister is to blame for recent price increases.

‘Just inflation’ catches on

Poilievre also has taken to using the phrase “just inflation” during question period — barely skirting the rule against using another MP’s proper name — and four other Conservative MPs joined him in doing so in the House on Tuesday.

Inflation has dominated questions from the Conservative side through the first week of the 44th Parliament. So Freeland was prepared when she and Poilievre faced each other directly last Thursday.

After Poilievre needled Freeland for acknowledging that inflation is a “crisis” and challenged her to admit that it’s a “homegrown problem,” Freeland stood and listed off numbers that suggest Canada’s level of inflation is in line with the rest of the G20.

At her next opportunity, Freeland referred Poilievre to the words of a National Post columnist (“The Conservatives may not want to listen to me about inflation, but I suspect they read the National Post”) who wrote that inflation is a “global phenomenon” and also described Poilievre as “charging out of his corner, arms wind-milling.”

Poilievre tried again and Freeland challenged him to tell Canadians that he thinks a pandemic is a time for “austerity.”

In her own way, Freeland is a good match for Poilievre — and each might define something about their respective sides.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, sits beside then-Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland as they take part in the APEC Summit in Manila in 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

 

An erudite former journalist, Freeland is one of the key figures of the Trudeau era. She was the Liberal leader’s first star recruit nearly a decade ago, then the woman he chose to put front and centre against Donald Trump, and the deputy prime minister he needed after the bruising campaign of 2019. Now she is the first woman to be put in charge of federal fiscal policy.

Poilievre, who casts himself as a populist fighter, is also a keen student of rhetorical combat. He once said that his approach is based on an understanding of the minutiae of legislation and a mastery of “simple facts.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals — content to drown the proceedings in values statements — have not always shown much interest in trying to win question period. In her own news conferences, Freeland has tended to prefer long and careful explanations.

Freeland pushes back

For those reasons, Freeland’s recent efforts stand out.

After former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz told CTV on Sunday that inflation in Canada was not caused by federal spending, Freeland waved his words in front of the Conservative benches — and reminded the Official Opposition that Stephen Harper appointed Poloz to preside over the bank.

On Tuesday, she corrected Conservative MP Gerard Deltell on the rate of inflation in Germany and challenged Poilievre to specifically identify which pandemic support program he would have cut.

But as more voices have jumped into the inflation fray, Poilievre has pivoted slightly to focus on the rising cost of housing.

On Monday, Poilievre raised the case of a 27-year-old constituent who couldn’t afford to buy a house and wanted to know why prices had increased so much over the last year. In response, Freeland pointed to the money families would save thanks to the federal government’s push for expanded child care.

Vulnerabilities on both sides

Poilievre came back to note that his constituent wouldn’t be able to start a family until he could afford to buy a house.

There are unanswered questions for both sides here.

Freeland might not be directly responsible for the cost of groceries or the price of a detached home in Southern Ontario, but if neither issue resolves itself, the Liberal Party will have to worry about dealing with a frustrated electorate.

On housing, the Liberal election platform at least included a plan — one that was rated higher than the Conservative offer. But that might not be enough on its own to solve the problem.

The sky-high cost of housing is a significant point of vulnerability for the Liberals. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Poilievre’s hawkish stance on government spending, meanwhile, is undermined by the fact that his party just ran on a platform that promised nearly identical levels of spending. And the one major cut the Conservatives were willing to campaign on — walking away from billions in promised spending on child care — might be impossible to pursue if Ontario joins the federal child care plan.

Regardless, the cost of living and public spending will be some of the most valuable terrain in Canadian politics for the next while.

A fall economic statement is expected this month, with a budget due in the spring. So Poilievre and Freeland are likely to see a lot of each other in the coming weeks and months.

Beyond that, you can use your own imagination.

If O’Toole were to lose his tenuous grip on the Conservative leadership, attention would quickly focus on Poilievre — either as a potential candidate or as a potentially influential figure in deciding who leads the party next.

Whenever Trudeau decides to step aside, Freeland will be foremost in the pool of possible successors.

But we don’t need to get ahead of ourselves. There is already much to confront over the next year. And much might depend on how well Freeland and Poilievre make their respective arguments.

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Austria's Kurz quits party and parliament, stunning national politics – Reuters

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Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz gives a statement as he resigns from all political duties, in Vienna, Austria, December 2, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

VIENNA, Dec 2 (Reuters) – Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz, who resigned as chancellor in October after he was placed under investigation on suspicion of corruption, said on Thursday he was quitting politics in a surprise move that leaves a power vacuum in his party.

Kurz has been the dominant figure of his People’s Party and Austrian political life since 2017, when he became party leader and then chancellor, winning a parliamentary election and forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party. He told a news conference he was leaving politics altogether.

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Reporting by Francois Murphy; editing by John Stonestreet

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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The Message From Glasgow: Climate Politics Is Local – Forbes

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The COP26 Glasgow summit was probably disappointing with little to show by way of policy progress. The conference president, Alok Sharma, noted: “We can say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 (degrees Celsius) within reach, but its pulse is weak.” If this is the state of climate politics, it is depressing. Post Paris, aggressive decarbonization was supposed to be up and running. And the best we can say after the Glasgow summit is that it is alive!

Glasgow did move the policy needle a bit. Countries agreed on new rules for carbon trading, tackling methane emission, curbing deforestation, and phasing down coal (although ironically, coal consumption is up this year). In addition, developed countries promised to provide $100 billion annual climate aid between 2021 and 2025.

Did Glasgow influence U.S. climate policy? It neither accelerated nor derailed Biden’s climate agenda. The reason is that climate politics is increasingly local. This is not to say that global climate conferences are a waste of time and resources. They shine the spotlight on climate issues and increase their salience. These conferences also motivate politicians (who probably do not want to look bad among their peers) to make climate pledges. For some, a weak pledge is superior to no pledge. For others, weak pledges demobilize the climate movement by creating an illusion of policy progress.

What Did Biden Hope to Achieve at Glasgow?

Biden’s stated objective was to reclaim U.S. leadership on global climate policy. Of course, it is not clear what the U.S. gains by exercising this leadership? Vanity? A nostalgia for post-cold war Pax Americana?

And it is certainly not clear why U.S. leadership would further the global climate agenda. Does the U.S. have the financial or coercive power to motivate other countries? Is the U.S. the shining light that guides the world on climate issues?

The brutal truth is that the world has moved on without U.S. climate leadership. China leads in renewable technologies and the European Union in policy innovation. America’s economic and coercive power is declining, as demonstrated in the huge budgetary deficits and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And its moral power – give us a break! Domestically, the U.S. has made modest progress in climate policy. Unfortunately for Democrats, blaming Trump for climate problems no longer works. Biden’s own party held up the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House of Representatives, which  provides substantial funding for climate projects.

Biden’s second objective probably was to reassure his domestic base about his commitment to climate issues. Chinese leader Xi Jinping did not attend the Glasgow meeting with little domestic backlash. Imagine the domestic backlash if Biden stayed home!

So, Biden attended along with a sizeable U.S. delegation.  He said the right things and in the right tone. But is this sufficient to satisfy the U.S. climate movement which wants to see Biden deliver on the climate promises made during the campaign? The reality is that intra-party differences, the fight between the progressives and the moderates, is derailing progress on climate policy. The failure to persuade Democrats to implement his climate agenda undermines Biden’s international and domestic credibility as a climate champion.

Intra-Party Squabbles and the Virginia Election Shock

Historically, U.S. presidents have exercised the bully pulpit power to mobilize legislators behind their policy agendas. But this requires the President to enjoy high levels of public support. And citizens probably support the President, who they perceive to be following the right policies and is able to deliver on them.

After a strong start, Biden has lost public support. As per RealClear politics, his net approval (approval-disapproval) has fallen by almost 30% points: from positive 20.3% 0n January 28 to negative 10.7% on November 27.  

Democrats’ loss in Virginia and a near loss in New Jersey gubernatorial races have further undermined Biden’s image as a leader who can get things done. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) noted: “The voters of Virginia and the voters of America gave us the presidency, the Senate and the House. They expected us to produce.” Indeed, within a few days of the Virginia election shock, the House passed the stalled bipartisan infrastructure bill. Arguably, Biden’s climate credentials in Glasgow and at home would have been stronger, had the House passed this bill earlier. But Biden’s own party denied him this opportunity.

Biden has another signature issue, the Build Back Better (BBB) bill, which has been passed in the House and is being considered in the Senate. This provides an additional $555 billion for climate projects. Does Biden have the political muscle to persuade Democrats to pass it? The problem is that Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ) want cutbacks which the House Progressives might not agree to. This will be the second litmus test of Biden’s leadership and legislative skills.

Enter Inflation and Gas Prices

Over the summer, many suggested that inflation is temporary.  Very few do so now. While scholars debate what caused it, inflation will weaken Biden’s Presidency. Americans have become accustomed to a low inflation economy with stable prices. Inflation is already affecting real household incomes as people pay more for electricity and for gas. For example, the average U.S. gasoline prices have increased by 50% since last year: from $2.27 per gallon to $3.40 per gallon.

How has Biden responded? With panic and confusion. He has asked OPEC countries to increase oil production and has authorized releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The deeper problem is that the climate movement implicitly promised a painless transition to a decarbonized economy. Yet, there will be pain, be it in terms of losing fossil fuel jobs or higher energy prices. Biden clearly did not prepare Americans for this inconvenient truth. The insistence on reducing fossil fuel production at home while asking for increased production abroad invites accusations of policy inconsistency from Republicans, blue-collar labor unions, and fossil fuel communities.

Overall, the U.S. climate policy is in a bit of turbulence. Inflation, COVID, the Afghanistan fiasco, rising urban crime, and supply chain shortages are contributing to Biden’s unpopularity. Infighting among Democrats conveys the image of a “do nothing” party, to use Truman’s famous words.  Democrats have about 11 months until the midterms, when Republicans will probably win back the House. This means that the window to make legislative progress on climate policy is slowly closing. Does Biden have the political muscle to compel Democrats to focus on their agreements and not play up the disagreements on climate policy? This probably is the key issue to watch for until the November 2022 midterm elections.

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