Author Christian Parenti says activists can harness the power of the state to solve the climate crisis

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      One of America's foremost alternative journalists and authors has called on environmentalists to rethink the role of governments and their relationship with nature.

      In a thoughtful public lecture last night in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's, Christian Parenti said that the climate crisis is reviving the influence of the state in economic and social life.

      "Whether its return will mean more repression, more inequality, more class segregation or whether it will mean a return of planning and some economic redistribution and trying to address the underlying problems—these are open questions," Parenti said. "Its return, I think, is pretty inevitable. We can already see this in the extreme weather events that are part and parcel of climate change."

      Parenti, a contributing editor of The Nation, mentioned that in the past two years, there have been 25 weather-induced crises in the United States that have each cost more than $1 billion.

      "The total costs for extreme-weather-related disasters over the last two years now: $188 billion," Parenti added. "A lot of these are actual costs in the strict economic sense of the word—a loss of existing wealth rather than a transfer from one party to another, the destruction of existing infrastructure."

      These disasters have forced governments to respond—and Parenti suggested that this will continue for the foreseeable future.

      In his last book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Parenti demonstrated how global warming—in conjunction with neoliberal economics—is fomenting devastation for hundreds of millions of people living between the tropic of Cancer and tropic of Capricorn.

      Droughts in some of the warmest countries in the world have caused famine, mass migration, and civil war.

      Last night, he said that part of the problem in rethinking the role of the state is the legacy of neoliberal economics.

      Parenti stated that this has imbued politicians and the public with the notion that the state is not usable, not important, it's withering away, and it can be ignored.

      This hard-core right-wing idea has taken hold even though in most western industrialized countries, the public sector's share of gross domestic product has not shrunk.

      "Grover Nordquist, the American antitax zealot, says he doesn't want to eliminate the state," Parenti pointed out. "He just wants to reduce it to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. But in reality, what neoliberalism has done is merely reshaped the state."

      By that, Parenti said there is less public housing and more publicly funded prisons. He added that there has been an attack on public schoolteachers at the same time as there has been an expansion in the number of prison guards.

      "So there is no diminishment of the state," he emphasized. "There is a qualitative transformation of it to a more repressive or right wing project that serves the immediate interests of economic elites better than the social democratic compromise that came out of the Great Depression and the World War II did. So the state has not gone away."

      Therefore, he argued that progressives should harness the growing influence of the state and its legislative powers to address the climate crisis.

      But Parenti said this can't be accomplished if they look upon the environment as something separate from human civilization.

      "There's a nature-society distinction," he explained. "Nature is good, civilization is bad. Nature is good and takes care of itself—it has this kind of internal coherence and balance. And if you accept that distinction, that takes human beings out of nature—and doesn't see civilization as part of nature—then the implied solution is a retreat. This is the classic view of nature that we've inherited from the West and really from capitalism."

      Parenti, on the other hand, argued that if progressives look upon nature along with human labour as essential ingredients in the economy, then they will be more willing to use powers of the state to protect it.

      He cited the "pioneering work" of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has relied on U.S. federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act to thwart ecologically harmful projects.

      "They do stuff like hold up the development of power plants in the name of some totally uncharismatic weed that happens to be an endangered species," Parenti said. "And this drives the right totally berserk."

      He also said that a landmark 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision launched by Massachusetts et al., v. Environmental Protection Agency et al. ruled that greenhouse-gas emissions needed to be regulated because they are dangerous to human health.

      "If the [U.S.] federal government did this, followed the law, and imposed these rules on the economy, they could essentially impose a de facto carbon tax," Parenti declared. "It would mean that industry is free to burn fossil fuels, but would pay major fines. And those fines would essentially wipe out the profitability of fossil fuels."

      At the same time, he said it's imperative that governments, which form a significant portion of the gross domestic product, accelerate the move to cleaner alternatives through their massive purchasing power. This will create economies of scale for producers of renewable energy, narrowing the price gap with fossil fuels.

      Parenti argued that all of this is doable if progressives recognize the power inherent in the state rather than looking upon government as an entity in retreat.

      "We have the technology," he said. "There is plenty of money to do this. And we actually have the laws in the largest economy in the world. The question is politically, why aren't we doing this?"




      Feb 20, 2014 at 1:45pm

      This is the right approach, arguably more boring than flipping over cars and taking journalist's cameras away whilst wearing scarves, but if you can get regulations written a certain way, why then The Man is working for us.

      Environmental law is very hot right now, and that's why.

      The Charter right to security of the person is an interesting avenue for the interpretation of laws, but even the existing law forbids poisoning and endangering, I believe. These fights are tedious and require up-front funding, a ton of research, and able advocates, but I can't see another way forward.

      (Another *actual* way forward. Yes, you can make a resolution in your study group to overturn the capitalist system and replace it with an autonomous collective that works in harmony with the earth spirit Gaia, but SFW.)


      Feb 20, 2014 at 1:51pm

      Highly dubious claims that governments are willing to take a tough stand on climate change.

      First of all, Canada is a resource economy. If you take resource development out of the country, it would have serious problems making ends meet. There's no major high tech industry, no manufacturing anymore. This is especially true in Vancouver, where we mostly rely on building condos to keep a major part of the economy afloat.

      Second, politicians are greedy. Even the so-called progressives that Christian wants to rely on to implement policies which will stop climate change. Case in point: Gregor Robertson. By not restricting foreign ownership, Gregor and the provincial govt are encouraging urban sprawl, because as homes become more expensive near Vancouver, people have to move farther away.

      Christian seems to be living in a make-believe world in which natural resources are not needed. Mind you, all those condos built downtown need natural resources to be harvested and turned into inputs.


      Feb 20, 2014 at 5:08pm

      nothing any progressive does will stop 'climate change'. what a farce.

      I have always thought

      Feb 21, 2014 at 12:09am

      'climate change' is such an inappropriate name.

      It should be called 'man induced climate change hypothesis" and this is why:

      climate change has been changing since the formation of our planet.
      We have been coming of a glacial period for about 10,000 years. About 9,800 and some years before the age of industrialization age; 9800 years before we began to emit large quanties of CO2 levels.

      The geological record records eustatic sea levels 150 m greater than present day and times where it has been 100 m lower.

      All these record extremes weather events we record are based on less than 200 years of accurately recorded historical climate data. "The Warmest temperatures in 20 years... The Coldest winter in 30 years

      200 years /4 500,000, 000 is a 0.000000045% of daily recorded daily climate for earths history. To assume that a 30 year temperature high/ low or precipitation high/low is not integrated into some larger 100 yr, 1000 yr, 10 000, 100 000 year, or 1 000 000 year cycle is ignorant. Once again 200 years of daily histortical climate data is 0.0000000045% complete record of earths daily climate history.

      If you were an engineer would you build a bridge based on the successful completion of 0.0000000045% of the architectural design . If you were an investor would you invest based on reading 0.000000045% of that companies financials.

      Is it scientifically proven that CO2 absorbs wavelengths of light different from that of oxygen and water causing the atmosphere to heat. Yes.

      Has every process which plays a part in controlling global climate patterns, controlling CO2 concentrations been quantified? no.

      What role do the oceans play on controlling co2 levels? What is the flux between the ocean and the atmosphere?
      How does phytoplankton or carbonate production play a role? How do siliclastic rocks act as a buffer?
      Rate of technological advances?
      Milankovich cycles?
      Volcanic eruptions?

      Climate change climate change climate change.
      My favorite thing about climate change? Our society and quality of life, it literaly runs on petroleum. How do you think starbucks transports its coffee cups and pastries to its various stores? It doesn't take a scientist to figure out that the transportion of goods requires petroleum. But how many of you are willing to sacrifice your morning latte's, and blueberry scones for change?
      You just point and blame.


      Feb 21, 2014 at 1:51am

      Mark; Less than half of our economy is resource based, and the loss of manufacturing jobs is primarily the fault of our oil industry. (look up dutch disease) You seem to be living in a make-believe world, where we can pollute forever and not worry about the air we breath, the water we drink, or the food we eat.


      Feb 21, 2014 at 9:40am

      "This will create economies of scale for producers of renewable energy, narrowing the price gap with fossil fuels."

      This is mathematical illiteracy. Fossil fuels are used to produce renewable energy. You'll have to use fossil fuels to produce the technology that will replace fossil fuels? This laughable logic is why the hard-core right prevails. Progressives don't live in the physical world.

      It's not a "production" problem. It's a consumption problem. But that has to be ignored because progressives wouldn't be able to fly around on planes with their smartphones tweeting about their latest book. They'd have to return to doing "natural labour" which ain't gonna to happen.

      The first thirty minutes says it all.