Who is the enemy leading us to climate catastrophe?

UPDATE: A complete list of climate series pieces is available here:
The Climate series: a reference post.

We started this Climate Catastrophe series with a number of posts that look at the numbers. That series is listed here.

The bottom line based on the numbers:

■ Elite consensus says global warming must stay below 2°C (3½°F) — and even that will cause a great many changes in human habitation.

■ There’s a mass extinction scenario at 3°C (5½°F) warmer. Will our species be among the 20–50% expected to die off? Perhaps.

■ Yet the planet is on track for an astounding 7°C (12½°F) increase by 2100 — certain death for our species. This is the “do nothing” scenario, the path we’re now taking.

This is a suicide course, obviously, for the species. How do we change that? The answer takes us into the political realm.

Why can’t we fix this?

It would be easy to assign blame to any number of sources. We could talk about human complacency, or the fact that the last generation to live will not be ours. We could mention the numerous nations of the earth, all of which must pull together, each of which has an economic interest not to.

We could talk about the stars, or the moon, or the fact that so many of us are rubes (sorry, underlings). We could blame electro-chemical impulses of the brain, or the networks for showing us so much sports.

We could blame the Tea Party, the Democrats, or the Sunday talks shows (for never talking about it).

But for Bill McKibben in his excellent Rolling Stone essay (and for me) there’s really only one party to blame — especially if you want your blame to be effective and not impotent.

If you blame the rubes, for example, or our common rubicity, you will get nothing done. To paraphrase someone, the rubes you will always have with you; trying to change that is a loser course of action.

But all of the lesser agents of our destruction have just one puppet-master, a very small group — the Oil Barons, those who are profiting. McKibben (my emphasis and paragraphing throughout):

But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.

“Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.” …

They’re clearly cognizant of global warming – they employ some of the world’s best scientists, after all, and they’re bidding on all those oil leases made possible by the staggering melt of Arctic ice.

And yet they relentlessly search for more hydrocarbons – in early March, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told Wall Street analysts that the company plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas.

Hold onto that name Rex Tillerson; we’ll come back to him.

McKibben does an excellent job of working out the incentives that drive these companies — both the obscene profits, and this:

Much of that profit stems from a single historical accident: Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break[.]

No restaurant can pile its garbage in the street for free. No dry cleaner can pour its spent poison fluid down the drain. Oil Can Henry can’t dump its oil-can oil in front of the building next door. But hydrocarbon producers can treat the air as private property, and fill it with their waste.

McKibben then talks about the “carbon tax” solution, but let’s wait on that (the next post will focus on solutions).

Instead let’s go back to Mr. Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil and part of its top controlling class. I want to focus your mind a bit further than McKibben has done.

It’s not the corporations; it’s the people who run them

Did you notice that I mentioned the oil barons, and McKibben talked about the industry? These aren’t quite the same.

I want to make a few points about corporations. The points may be obvious, but it’s useful to keep them in mind. They are:

(1) Corporations are not people, and they don’t have ideas or will. They are empty vessels.

If you took a neutron bomb to the home office of MegaCorp.com and let it rip, the building, filled to the brim with inventory and IP, would be empty of humans and a dead thing. You could wait for weeks for the offices to act; they wouldn’t.

(2) This is especially true today, since the corporation now serves a different function than it was designed for. At first, a corporation served to make its stockholders moderately wealthy — or at least wealthier.

Modern corporations serve one function only — to make the CEO class obscenely rich, even at the expense (that’s a Bain link) of the corporation itself (yes you, Carly Fiorina).

Thanks to the incentives in the post-Reagan tax code and the capture of Boards of Directors by the CEOs themselves, controlling the modern corporation — being the Jack Welsh of your world — is a straight path to big-league power and wealth. You’ve arrived.

As I’ve said many times, in a number of ways:

Corporations loot the nation.
CEOs loot the corporation.
CEOs then buy everything on earth they want or need.

In the western world, the corporate controlling class lives higher than the kings and presidents who serve them. That’s not invective, but a simple fact.

Call it my Flow-of-Funds Rule. Money flows right through the corp into CEO pockets, just like warm beer flows through you on a night of heavy drinking. Your body retains only what it needs. The receptacle gets the rest.

(3) Thus the modern corporation is no more than a power-extender for its hosts, the CEO, CFO, COO and so on, who use it to feed on all the wealth of the world. A perfect image of the relationship between CEO and corp is Ripley and the powerloader from the film Aliens:

The modern corporation serves no other function for its controlling class than to allow that class to live like this (h/t Paul Krugman):

“It’s incredible, right?” shouts Jeff Greene over the roar of the two-seater dune buggy’s motor. “It’s 55 acres!”
Still in his whites from this morning’s tennis match, he’s giving a personal tour of his Sag Harbor estate, barreling at 30 miles per hour through the vast forest of scrubby pines and soft moss of its gated grounds.

“Beautiful nature here!” A blur of deer goes by, and the trees break to reveal the summer sun glinting off a grassy lagoon. Greene slows by its shore.

“This is our swan pond, and this is our private beach,” he says, gesturing toward a slip of white sand encircling the edge of the North Haven Peninsula. “It goes all the way to the ferry. Three thousand feet of beach,” he adds, a smile spreading across his tanned face. …

“I’ve got a huge, huge position in mortgage-backed securities,” he says. “I started accumulating them in 2009, when the market was really down and things were really scary.” That’s also when he picked up this property for around $40 million (half the 2007 listing price), which he and his wife have christened “Greene Haven.”

“I wish we could spend more time here,” he says. “Honestly, we have so many great homes.”

This is why they exist, what they live for. This is victory, what is good in life. The purpose of the powerloader is to extend its master’s reach. The purpose of the corporation, the same.

Ask yourself — if the CEO of Chevron could triple his personal wealth in a day by burning the corp to the ground and salting its earth, would he do it?

Why would he not?

McKibben fingers the fuel industry; I blame the people it serves

I bring this up for a reason, and not just to play with fun prose. As you’ll see when we talk about solutions, McKibben builds his strategies around the real enemy. As a result, he focuses on the fossil fuel industry.

Me, I wouldn’t focus on the powerloader, but the person inside, the various Rex Tillerson’s of the world. To motivate a corp, you have to motivate its master.

This is a subtle difference perhaps, but as I hope you’ll see when we get there, a useful one.

Yours in usefulness,


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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