Protesters at a rally in Oakland cite the economy as a focus of climate activism. (Photo: Lily Rhoads, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
As we celebrate Living on Earth's 30th year on the air, we examine this decisive moment for the human species and our challenging relationship with our planet. Host Steve Curwood starts by meeting people who envision a future reshaped by an emerging energy system and new power structures, as we wean off of fossil fuels.
CURWOOD: 2021 marks an important milestone for Living on Earth. In April of 1991 Living on Earth started broadcasting weekly on public radio, and for these past 30 years we’ve been hitting the airwaves ever since. Biologist and Woods Hole Research Center founder George Woodwell helped inspire me to start this show when he told me that global warming from burning fossil fuels and forests would likely melt the Arctic. He explained that as the permafrost released its CO2 and methane, those added greenhouse gases would cause more warming and melt the arctic even more, which would add yet more carbon to the atmosphere. At some point these self-reinforcing reactions, this feedback loop, would be beyond human control.
[MUSIC: Miles Davis “Milestones” on Milestone, Sony Music Entertainment Inc.]
CURWOOD: As a journalist it seemed to me that if what George described was allowed to get out of hand, little else would matter much for society. So I decided that climate change and so many other environmental stories needed reporting, and here we are. Now many things have changed since 1991 and science has made some amazing advances. The human genome was sequenced, and gene therapy began. The Hubble telescope gave us fantastic views of deep space. Technology gave us the world wide web, which made e-commerce, Google and Facebook possible, and the invention of the smart phone put the world in our pocket. And in politics and society, South Africa ended apartheid and freed Mandela and the US elected its first president of direct African descent, Barack Obama. But the numbers show we are still failing to preserve the climate. Over the last 30 years human-caused emissions have increased by 60 percent. Today the atmosphere holds the equivalent of about 500 parts per million of CO2. That is not good news. We began the industrial age in 1760 with concentrations of CO2 at about half those levels and we are now living through the hottest decade in modern human history. As a result we are seeing record breaking heat waves and wildfires from California to Siberia, floods, rising sea levels and shrinking Arctic sea ice. Not to mention, record-breaking Atlantic hurricane seasons, searing droughts and massive tornado clusters. And all this climate disruption is a result of just a single degree centigrade rise in average earth surface temperatures since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But our broadcast today is not simply a look back or lament. We are also looking ahead, to shine a light on some possibilities to head off climate disruption before civilization as we know it becomes untenable. We will consider the possibilities of economics, politics, applied science and technology to address climate disruption, though so far they have fallen short. So, we will look to see what they may be missing. And since we humans have caused the climate emergency, we’ll also consider how we can think differently about our place on this planet. For some clues we’ll look to some ancient wisdoms and contemporary anthropology.
[MUSIC: Brian Rolland’s “Along the Amazon” on Dreams of Brazil, On The Full Moon Productions]
CURWOOD: Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but there are two striking trends that run parallel to the alarming rise in global warming gases. One is the astonishing growth of economic wealth, and in recent years that increase in wealth in the US has been confined to the very richest. In fact, most families in the US have seen little or no gain, with many losing economic power, as many young adults today can’t afford to buy homes like the ones they grew up in. The other trend is the loss of confidence in government action at the national and local levels and the failure of international rules governing climate change emissions to go beyond the honor system. The concentration of economic and political power related to those trends has historically thrived on the extraction and burning of fossil resources. Climate policy critics including Van Jones, Kristina Karlsson and Bill McKibben say that has to change, if we are to halt our present march toward climate Armageddon.
JONES: The first industrial revolution hurt the people and the planet, too. —the next industrial revolution has to help the people and the planet.
KARLSSON: Meaningfully addressing climate requires an economic transformation in basically all corners of our economy.
MCKIBBEN: I think we’re reaching a turning point. I think that the political power of the fossil fuel industry has begun to wane after a century or two of waxing. And our job is to accelerate that to push hard for really rapid, rapid change.
CURWOOD: There are plenty of ideas about how to preserve a livable climate. And the conventional answer so far has been to double down on approaches that have yet to work, including unproven technology. To save us many advocates say we need market-based solutions such as pricing carbon and technologies such as renewable electricity from solar, wind and other clean energy sources to power our lives. They say we just need to update the systems of the Industrial Revolution that relied on abundant fossil fuels:
GROSS: We had all this energy available, a huge quantity that had never been available before. And that allowed just a complete revolution in the world: revolutions of transportation and manufacturing, all kinds of things that we just never been able to do before.
CURWOOD: Samantha Gross was a senior climate and energy official for the Obama Administration. Now at the Brookings Institution, she notes that by the twentieth century, oil had become the most valuable commodity on world markets.
GROSS: If you were to design a fuel to be used for transportation, you really couldn't do a lot better. It's very energy dense, it has a lot of energy within it for its weight and its size. It's easily transportable. It's a liquid, so it works in an internal combustion engine. It's really an excellent transportation fuel.
CURWOOD: So, she calls for new technologies to power the world while avoiding more climate disruption.
GROSS: We absolutely need both cleaner energy and more energy. There's roughly a billion people in the world right now who don't have access to modern energy services. And so, dealing with climate change, while not providing those people with a better standard of living is no solution at all.
CURWOOD: When climate change first hit the headlines the fossil fuel industry and pushed back on the perceived threats to their profits. Some fossil fuel companies spent millions on disinformation campaigns to stoke climate denial. But now as climate dangers can no longer be ignored and the world is going greener, big capital is excited about new prospects for growth.
WINSTON: We're talking about what many would say is probably the largest new economic opportunity, right?
CURWOOD: Andrew Winston is a sustainability consultant for major corporations and co-author of the 2006 book, Green to Gold, which became popular among fortune 500 executives.
WINSTON: In the past and the 90s 2000s. It's the internet, it's, you know, the growth of connection and mobile. Now, it's the clean economy. And you know, I think we're talking many, many trillions of dollars of market in, you know, transportation in different kinds of fuels and building efficiencies in regenerative agriculture, I mean, just the whole range of things that are in multi trillion-dollar markets. So, the companies that take advantage of that, just like, you know, any former kind of industrial revolution, we've had any of the major Waves of Change, the companies that are prepared for it, and conserve that future, do very well, and the ones that don't, and kind of stick to how they've done things forever disappear.
CURWOOD: But even with the advent of electric cars like the Tesla and pricing of solar power well below that of coal, the growing profits of green tech have yet to halt the climate emergency. More is needed, says Kristina Karlsson, program manager for the climate and economic transformation team at the Roosevelt Institute.
KARLSSON: The markets will have to be a part of this, we can't do this without private money. But focusing on those types of mechanisms alone will not get us anywhere near where we need to be in terms of mitigating climate, and it will also further deepen the unequal structurally racist outcomes that that system has already created.
CURWOOD: She says systemic racism has distorted government policies and spending when it comes to environmental justice and climate justice at home and abroad.
KARLSSON: All fiscal policy, even if it seems completely unrelated to climate will have climate implications. So, it's, it's really a framing argument and a sort of a policy development principle that saying, you can't, you can't ever be climate blind as you're making choices.
CURWOOD: And Kristina Karlsson adds that if human rights and fairness guide the conduct of governments and businesses it would have a more positive economic impact in the long run than self-centered free market approaches.
KARLSSON: Climate is already an economic cost and an economic drag on our economy. Not only are we actually spending money to mitigate climate disaster that's happening now. But we're also seeding risk in our financial system by not dealing with the issue that we all rely on fossil fuels, you know, so we are actively paying for inaction. And as the more we put it off, the more these economic costs are going to compound over time.
CURWOOD: Some of the costs include lives lost to the burning of fossil fuels, as some 8 million people around the globe and more than 300,000 in the US die each year from fossil fuel pollution, most from disadvantaged groups.
[MUSIC: Brian Rolland’s “Blues for doc Watson” on Long Night’s Moon, On The Full Moon Productions]
Treating people as more or less disposable inputs for the economic system helped to create the climate crisis, observes activist and lawyer Colette Pichon Battle.
BATTLE: That we could commodify this earth that we can commodify, the river, the tree, the water and the land. This is all rooted in a philosophy of extraction, and exploitation. This is the, this is the underbelly of our great society.
CURWOOD: The flaw in this thinking she says is the belief that economies can infinitely expand, even though we live on a finite planet with limited resources. And seeking efficiencies by cutting costs and resiliency can have inhumane results, like the millions left frozen in the dark without water during the Texas power grid disaster in February of 2021. The state failed to consider climate related risks linked to the shifting polar vortex.
BATTLE: If you understand what's accelerating this human accelerated climate impact, you get to our economy. You get to capitalism. You get to extractive and exploitative practices that are rooted in a very dark past.
CURWOOD: So, looking forward to what could solve the climate crisis some say it comes down to who has power.
WILKINSON: I think in so many ways, money and power are really the crux of the of the issue, right?
CURWOOD: That’s Katharine Wilkinson, co-founder of the All We Can Save project and editor of the breakthrough book on climate solutions, Drawdown.
WILKINSON: Money and power is so much of what has kept us stuck in the status quo. It's so much what has caused denial delay, blockading by standing.
CURWOOD: According to Katharine Wilkinson, money determines who has the power to either maintain the status quo or transform the system, so to make the changes needed to save ourselves from climate catastrophe we have to think beyond dollars and cents, beyond national indicators like GDP.
WILKINSON: We've somehow somehow seem to have landed on GDP is like the one big needle that we're all hearing about, you know, you tune into the news. And that's the key performance indicator that you're going to hear about, about how we're doing as a society. And, of course, sort of when we think about things that were laid bare by the pandemic, while it was you know, the gap between how the markets seemed to think we were doing last year and how average people were doing last year, we're wildly divergent. And if that sort of doesn't reveal some insanity to us, I don't know. I don't know what will.
CURWOOD: Katharine's done a lot of thinking about how to build a green economy, and to her a lot of it requires reframing the issue.
WILKINSON: I think a lot of times, our mind goes to oh, so that means, you know, installing wind and solar power. And that means retrofitting, building and building alternative transit. And I think all of that is true. But I think it also means recognizing, where we already have a quote unquote, green economy, but we've never seen it as such. So, for example, most care jobs right, the care economy is largely a green economy. It's largely a low carbon set of industries. Interestingly, predominantly held by women, and women of color.
CURWOOD: She foresees a green economy that is built upon unity, and says we’re moving in the right direction:
WILKINSON: Even as wealth inequality widens, even as concentrations of money and power in some way as are growing larger and larger, in a smaller and smaller set of hands. We're seeing the collective right rise up in various ways, as the corrective, the collective as the corrective to that situation and the collective as the means to shift the deployment of money and power towards a just and livable future.
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