This interview was originally published on August 12, 2014. Mr. Williams tells Paul Jay that the fabulous profits made from fracking oil and gas took climate change off Obama agenda, and while coal emissions may be down in the US, coal exports have grown exponentially.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
We’re continuing our discussion with Chris Williams. And he wrote in the piece I’ve been referring to—-and if you don’t know what piece it is, you really should watch the rest of it. Of course, we’re going to show you an image of the headline here, but you really want to watch the first segments. But here’s another quote from that piece:
“In contrast with what the IPCC says needs to happen, the IEA stated what is the most probable path for the United States, ‘By around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer (overtaking Saudi Arabia until the mid-2020s). With increased oil and gas production from fracking, deep off-shore deposits and exploiting reserves in the Arctic, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030’.”
First of all, thanks for joining us again.
CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS, ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST, ACTIVIST, AND AUTHOR: Thank you.
JAY: So you’re saying all this should actually stop.
WILLIAMS: Yes. We know that emissions have to be declining by at least 5 percent a year, starting essentially now. And they’re going up, because they are not only digging out of the ground more oil and coal, but they’re still looking for more. And we know now, all of the science tells us and the latest IPCC report tell us, that the vast majority of what they already have, let alone the extra that they’re still going out to find, cannot be burned if we’re going to remain within the benign climate that we’ve experienced for the whole of human civilization as it’s existed for 10,000 years.
And we have no idea what is on the other side of the hill, because we’re kind of in this valley, and we’ve been oscillating back and forth a little bit for the last 10,000 years, and we’re likely to go over onto the other side into a completely different climate regime, with lots of instability in the meantime, whereby all kinds of things will be disrupted, not just by extreme climate events, but by the way in which rainfall patterns are changing. They’re becoming more intense. The rainy seasons are shortening. Dry seasons are elongating, which is what I’ve been finding out about more in my travels this year. And if you can’t make any predictions about weather because now it’s changing so often and all your bio indicators are out that you’ve relied on–in traditional agriculture, anyway–for the last few hundred years, how are you going to have agriculture? I mean, agriculture is the basis of human society. So if we’re having difficulty growing food, then you can imagine, and particularly in a nuclear-armed world based on nation-states, what kind of direction that’s going to go in, with climate refugees moving around from country to country or trying to move around and many of the things that we’re already starting to see in terms of the heat deaths–tens of thousands of Europeans died in the early 2000s. We’ve obviously had Hurricane Katrina in the United States, and more recently Hurricane Sandy in the city that I live in, which cost $50 billion as well as massive levels of disruption. And this is just the foretaste of worse things to come. And even knowing all of those things, we’re still looking for more–or at least the oil companies and the state-controlled oil corporations are looking for more places to extract oil and gas from, as well as coal.
JAY: Well, fracking has opened up this whole new world for American energy resources. It’s to some extent even changing the world of geopolitics. It’s hard to imagine that you could see the American state or the American elite turning their back on such opportunities.
WILLIAMS: Particularly when you look at the way in which the kind of carbon intensity of the United States, because of its historical development very recently compared to many other countries and the kind of the urban sprawl, the way in which the infrastructure of the country is based on cheap energy, right, from fossil fuels, makes it much more difficult than Europe to make some changes. And on top of that, it’s got enormous reserves, which will bring in vast quantities of money in terms of coal, now fracking for oil and fracking for gas, to the extent that it could become something that Richard Nixon was the first person to talk about, energy security, and the idea that the U.S. won’t need to import any more oil and gas, it will be exporting those things, because of fracking and because of deep [off]shore drilling in the next ten or 15 years, especially if they then end up in the Arctic, which Obama has authorized. So I think at least for the United States it’s more like full steam ahead with an expansion of fossil fuel production on all fronts. And if we’re not using as much coal here, then there are new coal terminals being built on the West Coast to ship it to China. And so, yes, emissions from coal are going down.
JAY: And even in Baltimore, in the port, there are great, enormous piles of coal going somewhere.
WILLIAMS: Right. Exactly.
JAY: I assume that must be from Pennsylvania.
WILLIAMS: Most likely, because people talk about emissions have gone down here, which is true, because there’s been a switch to gas, which is fracked gas. And yet that coal is not–it’s not as if it’s not still coming out of the ground. Coal exports have gone up exponentially. And so the U.S. is also responsible for the ecological devastation that is visiting China, I mean, in terms of the air that they’re trying to breathe, because of the coal plants that China is building on using United States coal.
JAY: Well, one of the things that’s been getting in the way of an agreement is that the big countries are saying there has to be an international agreement or one country gets this competitive advantage over the other. And then you have countries like China saying, yeah, fine, maybe we’re the biggest emitter of carbon now, but you were for 100 years, and we need to catch up, we have a right to catch up, in terms of development. And you’re hearing that from many other countries. What do you make of that debate? Because it seems to be deadlocked.
WILLIAMS: Yep. I mean, they’ve been negotiating—-I was at the last round of negotiations in Warsaw, which was part-sponsored by a Polish coal company. So they’ve been deadlocked for 19 years. Those treaty negotiations have been going on for almost two decades. And yet they’ve gone nowhere. And, in fact, in many ways they’ve gone backwards. And why is that? How do we explain that?
I think capitalism is not just limited, in terms of the solutions that it comes up with, by the ideology that it’s adopted over the last 30 years or so, neoliberalism, by the power and size of the corporations that happen to be involved in fossil fuel production, and also by the need to grow all the time, but also by this international competition. I mean, individual corporations compete, but so do countries. And it’s true, what you’re saying: if one country adopts stricter standards, then it starts to lose out to another country that doesn’t. And so it’s this race to the bottom in terms of environmental standards, in the same way that we’ve seen a race to the bottom with globalization in general for human standards. And so how do you overcome that? Nobody wants to give an inch to another country if it comes at the expense of their own economy. And that’s why we get all of this geopolitical posturing around what is going to go on if–.
JAY: You saw some geopolitical collaboration in ’08. The crisis was so profound that instead of turning into trade wars and other things we’ve seen in the past, there was a certain amount of rationality. You know, it wasn’t so good for the ordinary people in the final analysis, but in terms of saving capitalism it was more rational than going to war.
And in terms of the role the Fed played and the financialization in Europe, I mean, they did kind of contain the situation somewhat collaboratively. I mean, the Fed put money into European banks, even European corporations. They gave money into Asia. As the manager of global capitalism, they understood that if they didn’t play this role, the whole thing would really collapse. That was a galvanizing event triggered by this financial shenanigans that led to the meltdown of Lehman Brothers and so on.
It’s almost–if you go back to the Pearl Harbor thing, I mean, Pearl Harbor, America wouldn’t get into a war without a Pearl Harbor. And you had that even talked about. These people that wrote this document, Project for a New American Century, prior to 9/11 said, the only way we’re going to assert our power around the world is with a new Pearl Harbor, and they got it with 9/11. I mean, does it need that kind of event before Americans will feel this at home?
WILLIAMS: Well, I mean, if you look at all the polls, there are majorities of people in the United States now who think two things, one, that global warming is happening. They see it, right, even if it’s not reflected in the media. And two, they want the government to do more about it. In fact, a majority now wants the government to do more about it even if it means higher prices for gasoline. So it’s actually not–this argument that the politicians use that Americans don’t want this and they don’t want that, that’s not true with regard to climate change. It’s actually coming from the politicians and the mainstream media, that they are not reporting on the fact that actually most people in the United States want their government to do more than they’re doing, which is essentially nothing.
JAY: What do you think happened? Because in ’07, ’08, in around that period, the media was actually full of climate change stuff. I remember being in Times Square, and ABC had a week of climate change stories. You could kind of look up, ’cause I believe it’s ABC has the windows there and you can see into them. And climate change was everywhere. And then all of a sudden–in fact, it’s not long after Obama got elected, actually–the whole thing stopped.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think Obama bears a lot of responsibility for that, actually, because he was campaigning in 2007; he said that climate change was a bigger issue than health care and he wanted to tackle it as one of the two most important things and the most urgent things that he did in his first administration. And then he backed out, right? And then he didn’t do anything. He didn’t bother. With the cap-and-trade thing that he came up with the 2010, I know it didn’t get through Congress, but it was never pushed. And it was pathetic anyway. And many environmentalists, even mainstream environmental groups, said it would actually be worse to have that bill than not have the bill. But after that, he instructed people not even to talk, to use the phrase climate change. So it’s not surprising, then, the media didn’t report it. And, actually, in the last election, that he won, not a single presidential or vice presidential debate mentioned to the phrase climate change, because they were only talking about clean energy.
JAY: But something happened, because there were forces building up within the elites, and I think within Wall Street, that saw there’s a lot of money to be made about the greening of America. Again, you can debate whether it ever would have been effective in actually fighting carbon emissions or not, but there was a building up of capital ready to go into this new green economy. I think everybody who looks at this says there’s a convergence between the economic crisis and the green crisis, which is, if you really build a new green economy, you can deal with employment and all kinds of other issues, assuming you have those objectives. But even from the point of view of finance, they seem to find, oh, well, there’s ways to financialize this; let’s really push it. And then all the air went out of it, even from that side.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. And I think that’s connected to the expansion of fossil fuel production. I mean, there was the 2005 energy bill which facilitated fracking, and they found a lot more gas and a lot more oil, ’cause you can frack for oil in the same way that you can frack for gas. And now there are new oil fields all over the place. There’s also the technology that we can go deeper and deeper into the ocean and below the ocean, which is part of the reason for the Deepwater Horizon, which also happened in 2010. And it’s amazing that you’ve got this supposedly environmental president, the biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, and the people who are then given control of cleaning the place up are the people who caused it in the first place, who didn’t even have a [crosstalk]
JAY: So there’s just so much money to be made out of fracking, let’s not distract people by talking about climate change.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I think there was a moment when–what you’re talking about: there was extra money, and even some of the oil companies diversified a little bit and bought up wind and solar production companies or created their own. But now they’ve sold them all off and now there’s just enormous amounts of money and lots and lots–you know, this idea of peak oil, that we’re about to run out of oil or have started already on the decline, is out of the window. I mean, it was never true anyway, but now it’s blatantly obvious, even if they’re exaggerating a little bit, that there are enormous quantities of fossil fuels left in the ground, even if they’re more difficult to get. But as long as it’s profitable–we know that capitalism responds only to that as its prime motive–then they’ll extract it. And that’s what we’re seeing. And so oil is now $90, $100 a barrel. They’re making so much money from that that they’re naturally going to invest. I mean, they’ve got tens of billions of dollars to expand further into Asia, the ex-Soviet republics. And they’re now going into the Arctic. They want to go into the Antarctic. They’re off the coast of Brazil. There are always new places that they’re looking that were seen as unprofitable before that have now become profitable.
JAY: And putting so money much money in this new exploration, they’re showing great confidence that there never will be any regulation they need to worry about.
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And the CEO of Exxon just said that, because somebody had raised–it was raised with him that, look, aren’t you lying to your shareholders about the valuation of your company? Because you’re going to have to not take this out of the ground. He said, that’s not going to happen; you don’t have to worry. And he was quite clear about that. So he knows that nobody is really serious about stopping this.
So then the question becomes, well, how would we go about stopping that? Why aren’t they responding when, as you were saying earlier earlier, this is an existential threat to their system and the way it runs in many ways? And they did respond in 2008 with trillions of dollars, which kind of goes to my point that actually if the people who run the world, right, the global elite, the 1 percent, however you want to call them, if they wanted to solve climate change, they would have done it already. Right? ‘Cause they saved the banks. And when they wanted to win a war, and something they were really concerned about doing, they immediately switched all of domestic production from cars and so on and so forth into military hardware.
JAY: Yeah, over a matter of what? Six months or something.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, exactly. GM, they were all told, no more domestic production; you’re making jeeps, you’re making tanks, you’re making planes.
JAY: But that’s the only time they will allow such state intervention, when there’s a war.
WILLIAMS: Exactly. So the question is: how do we force the system as it currently exists to change to do things that we need it to do, which is not related to killing lots of people in very efficient ways or bailing out their friends in the banks, who are the cause of the financial crisis in the first place?
JAY: Okay. We’re going to pick up the discussion and talk a little bit about what some people think is a solution, geo-engineering. How real is that? We can throw stuff up in the air and solve the problem and keep getting fossil fuel out of the ground and using it as we please.
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“Chris Williams is a longtime environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. He is a professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University and chair of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute, and a regular contributor to the International Socialist Review.”