Seize the Means of Carbon Production

Why capitalism is bound to fail in its half-baked efforts to tackle the existential crisis.

If there were a single question on climate change during Tuesday’s Democratic debate, we likely would have heard the same lukewarm talking points that bombard voters whenever they have the nerve to ask about our impending doom. A carbon tax would’ve been mentioned, with some tepid debate over it. The same goes for nuclear power, a favorite of Cory Booker. The need to expand natural gas, a long-heralded ‘transition fuel,’ might have been touted by Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden. Even Elizabeth Warren, a self-proclaimed progressive, wants to base climate change action around the oxymoron ‘green manufacturing,’ which is reliant on the idea that eternal demand for more stuff is compatible with a sustainable lifestyle. (Spoiler: it’s not.)

All these candidates’ plans converge somewhere: harnessing the powers of the almighty market forces to tackle climate change in the classic American way — producing more stuff. It’s how we got over the Great Depression, and, to a certain extent, the Great Recession, too. Americans like stuff. We like letting the market do its thing. But this compulsive production of stuff and complete deference to the market has filled our oceans to the brim with plastic. It’s flooded our landfills with dangerous chemicals, and infiltrated our groundwater with cancer-causing compounds. It’s the litter you see on the sidewalk, and the packaging you throw away on just about everything you buy. It’s the invisible emissions that are causing the hundred-year storms you see every time you turn on the TV.

The truth is, when we let the market do its thing, we get climate change. The industrial revolution is the sole reason humanity was able to produce this much carbon in such a geologically short timespan. Now, companies like Shell and Exxon are holding society hostage because they have won the market. Capitalism gives them no reason to care about the wellbeing of society — their only concern is the safety of their profit margins.

Capitalism, at its heart, is an economic system based on self-interest alone. Many self-proclaimed capitalists embrace that fact. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of ... the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” That’s why fossil fuel companies can do what they do. But it’s also why climate plans that keep the market for energy intact will always fail. There is no market left to be won. If we as a species want any hope of a survivable future, we must intervene in the market and promote the interests of society ahead of the interests of profit. For too long, we have allowed the lines between ‘profit’ and ‘social good’ to blur.

If capitalism does not promote welfare for the sake of welfare, or human progress for the sake of human progress, then it, like any other selfish system, is prone to the tragedy of the commons. The ultimate motivation of profit or making a killing at the end of the cycle of innovation will always be a hindrance to progress on climate change. The wealthy executives at the helm of the fossil fuel industry have no motivation, under capitalism, to care about the well being of their fellow human beings or the earth from which they have made their profits. If we actively promote, as a society, an economic system in which selfishness is the prime virtue, then that’s exactly what we’ll get — and the state of the planet will reflect what we chose.

Senseless EPA Plans to Roll Back Protections Against Lead Contamination

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After Scott Pruitt, the first EPA administrator, declared a ‘war on lead,’ the administration has packaged a dangerous overhaul of lead regulations in what misleadingly appears to be advanced safety precautions. On Thursday, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the agency’s plans to rewrite 1991 lead contamination rules, giving authorities more time to replace lead-leaching pipes. This comes in stark contrast to previous rhetoric from the administration, which claimed that combating lead poisoning in the wake of the Flint and Newark crises was a priority.

Currently, water systems with lead levels above 15 parts per billion must replace seven percent of their pipes each year until the levels return to a healthy mark. The administration’s proposal requires the replacement of just three percent of pipes when unhealthy lead levels are detected.

The rewrite will lengthen lead pipe replacement processes by 20 years, leaving untold more people vulnerable to lead poisoning. As many as six million lead pipes are still being used to carry water to residents across the U.S. Lead, a potent neurotoxin, can cause developmental delays in children, as well as stomach issues and abnormal behavior. There is no safe level of lead consumption.

The new proposal is more stringent in some areas, but stops short of replacing six million water pipes at risk of leaching lead, an expensive proposal that public health officials said was necessary to prevent further contamination crises. Instead, it gives local and state governments more time to replace even the most dangerous pipes.

The proposed regulations include more restrictive lead level standards for schools and daycare centers, as well as require customers to be notified of elevated levels within 24 hours. Water utilities must make the locations of their lead pipes publicly known. However, activists and environmentalists claim that these new standards won’t help avoid lead crises due to concurrent rollbacks.

Our Mountains Aren't Immune to Climate Change

Melting glaciers, temperature change, and changes to the water cycle threaten mountainous ecosystems across the world.

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In mountainous Colorado, the wildfire season is at least a month longer than it was in 1979.

That’s likely due to the massive 0.54 degrees Fahrenheit warming among mountain regions in the Alps, Asia, and United States. That has massive environmental effects on the rest of the regions, the worst of which scientists don’t know yet.

Mountain snowpack — the vital concentration of solid water that eventually trickles down through streams — is now melting earlier in the spring. Snow cover duration has also declined by an average of five days per decade, according to the IPCC.

That may sound insignificant, but it’s already having troubling ramifications on local plants and wildlife. Less snow cover means more frequent rockslides, avalanches, and even floods. These changes compound the disruption to wildlife that longer summers have, irreparably disrupting trophic levels and food chains.

Glaciers — one of the most important part of mountain ecosystems — have been extremely vulnerable to climate change. Their average size is shrinking, leaving less water available to local species and peoples. In the Alps, glaciers shrank by as much as 410 feet. The world’s glaciers have lost a total of 9 trillion tons of ice in the past 58 years.

Rising temperatures also cause premature melting, leading mountain rivers to flow earlier than normal. Indigenous people who depend on these glaciers are seeing their ways of life collapse. As recently as this past September, mourners in Switzerland held a vigil for the disappearing Pizol Glacier, a cultural landmark. In August, Icelandic scientists said goodbye to their first glacier lost to a warming climate. If more melt, it can have disastrous effects.

According to NASA, the Muir Glacier in Alaska has significantly shrunk since the 1800s. From 1941 to 2004, the glacier lost 2,625 feet in thickness, a testament to what warming temperatures can destroy. As a whole, Alaskan glaciers lost an average of 46 gigatons of ice each year from 2003 to 2010.

As temperatures increase, these disappearances are only expected to become more frequent. If we manage to decrease global emissions in the next few years, glaciers in the Alps are slated to lose 66% of their ice. If we don’t get our act together, they will only retain 5% of their ice.

Some studies claim we have less than a few years to avert rapid glacial melt. A team of researchers published a study in Science that warned glacial melt rates could be anywhere from ten to 100 times faster than previously thought.

Runoff, water from rain, snowmelt, or other surface sources, is also expected to change in mountainous locations. The IPCC has warned that unmitigated warming will cause unpredictable runoff patterns, making current water storage and delivery infrastructure obsolete. In 2016, a study in six mountain ranges in the Western U.S. demonstrated that changes in runoff and precipitation will place mountain towns at a heightened risk of flash floods.

Fracked Gas Explosion in Louisiana Could Burn for Months More

The latest incident illustrates just how dangerous fracking is, despite claims to the contrary.

A gas well in northwestern Louisiana blew out in late August, igniting a burn at the site that has already lasted about a month and, according to experts, could last up to two more.

The fire has been suppressed at times due to the surfacing of “produced water,” a euphemism for tainted water from the well. That water can also spray over nearby towns, raining untold chemical waste on residents up to a mile away. One local resident claimed that the produced water killed trees and left a heavy fog in its wake.

Produced water can contain “oil residues, sand and mud, naturally occurring radioactive materials, chemicals from frac fluids, bacteria, and dissolved organic compounds,” according to the American Geosciences Institute. It can also contain the carcinogen radium, heavy metals, and other chemicals that fracking companies are not required to disclose. Studies show that many chemicals used by fracking companies have no previous testing.

The Louisiana Department of Energy Quality maintains that readings near the site of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, and other compounds have been at normal, acceptable levels. Residents have not been warned of potential health impacts of the produced water, angering environmental groups that cite potential negative health effects.

A screenshot from drone video of the site in Red River Parish, Louisiana. Credit to Phin Percy Jr.

Fracking companies do not have to disclose the chemicals they use, comparable to a “secret sauce” recipe. This makes blowouts especially dangerous because communities and environmental authorities don’t know what chemicals are being released.

Long-term blowouts can have severe environmental effects as well. The burning gas releases an exorbitant amount of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, causing significant greenhouse gases that weren’t factored into emissions projections.

The fire can reportedly be seen from five to ten miles away, but officials have insisted that the blaze poses no threat to air quality. Still, the death of trees near the blowout is reportedly causing some residents to consider legal action.

Fighting Coal Isn't Enough. Fracking Is Just as Bad.

Coal has become the quintessential dirty fossil fuel. It’s one of the most harmful to the planet when burned, and the industry is notorious for its treatment towards workers and communities. However, the prospect of a future without coal seems bright; former coal companies are investing in renewable energy, and former giants that won’t make the transition are facing bankruptcy. Rick Perry, who once pledged to revive the coal sector, is resigning after a failed reign as Energy Secretary. More and more coal-firing plants are being phased out of operation. These developments are certainly something to be positive about in a wake of demoralizing environmental news.

It might appear that a combination of market forces and greater environmental awareness are beginning the long-awaited end of coal. The once-ubiquitous fuel is finally being robbed of its market share by cleaner energy. But is it for the better?

The decline of any fossil fuel is certainly something to celebrate, but coal’s slow death might not help us meet our climate goals any quicker. Fracking, the process of drilling for gas deep within the earth, is already well known as a destructive practice for both the environment and the communities who live near the drilling. Despite these risks, the fracking industry is soaring, with the United States increasing its drilling more than any other country. And according to a report, those increases put us on track to release an additional 1,000 coal plants’ worth of greenhouse gases by 2050.

It’s not just the increase in fracking that’s putting us on track for catastrophe. Continuing drilling in the Permian Basin at its current level would take up 10 percent of the emissions in the 2.7 degrees Celsius carbon budget, which is, according to U.N. scientists, the benchmark for averting climate collapse.

It seems that every time the environmental movement wins, fossil fuel companies bounce back with another way to reverse the progress we’ve made. But fracking doesn’t just harm the atmosphere — like coal, it has an ability to harm entire communities that live near its wells. A 2016 EPA report found that fracking contaminates water sources through leaking fracking fluid, poorly constructed wells, and neglectful disposal of wastewater. Areas affected by fracking can also experience an influx in earthquakes.

The first step in fighting fracking is calling for an immediate outright ban. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris have supported an immediate ban on new fracking ventures. Others, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have been quick to assert that natural gas is a great ‘transition fuel,’ despite being a source of copious amounts of methane. 

Although fracking is cleaner than other fossil fuels, it’s still a fossil fuel, keeping us dependent on dirty sources of energy instead of expanding into renewables. Methane, which leaks from fracked gas, is a potent greenhouse gas hundreds of times more destructive than carbon dioxide. In an era when we only have 12 years to get our climate act together, we can’t take any chances on more carbon. It’s time to support a fracking ban, and start building solar panels, not oil wells.

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