The World This Week: Hurricane Harvey and Melting Arctic
Circuses trump melting ice or ferocious hurricanes in a world where materialism has gone mad.
On August 27, the New York Post carried a photo of Floyd Mayweather knocking out Conor McGregor. This was followed by a story on the outrage generated by a firefighter’s comments, “What Are You Smoking?” Even Hurricane Harvey that has devastated Houston only made it to the bottom of the page.
Headlines across most of the world are similarly unedifying. Yet this has turned out to be a significant week for many reasons. On August 21, Chile’s constitutional court approved a law that partially lifts the country’s ban on abortion. In this Catholic country, the new law decriminalizes abortion in three cases: when the mother’s life is at risk, when pregnancy is the result of rape, and when the fetus has a fatal defect. In 1989, General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship outlawed abortion completely in the twilight of its reign. President Michelle Bachelet, the first woman to be elected to Chile’s top job, championed the new law rolling back Pinochet’s decree.
Appositely, Bachelet is the daughter of a dissident general who died after torture in Pinochet’s prison. She celebrated the court decision to approve Chile’s new law that takes the clock back to 1931. That year, Bachelet’s country adopted a new health code, which approved abortion in limited circumstances until Pinochet brought in his draconian blanket ban.
On the other side of the world, the Indian Supreme Court suspended the “triple talaq” law that allowed Muslim men to instantly divorce their wives by simply uttering the word “talaq” three times. Zakia Soman, the co-founder of the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement, hailed the decision. She was part of the legal battle to end this oppressive practice. In an article at Fair Observer, Bushra Tariq, a young female lawyer of Indian Muslim origin, explained the significance of the decision and rightly argued that it marks not the end, but the beginning of a long-drawn struggle for equality by Indian Muslim women.
Even as Chile and India made reasonable reforms, Cambodia and the United States regressed.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has told Cambodia Daily to “pack up its things and leave” if it did not pay its $6.3 million tax bill. Human Rights Watch decried the onslaught on the media. It called upon the Cambodian government to “end its escalating campaign of politically-motivated harassment, intimidation, and legal action against the media, nongovernmental groups, and human rights defenders.”
True to form, US President Donald Trump also lashed out against journalists. He gave a combative speech in Phoenix, Arizona, damning the media for dishonesty, lack of patriotism and deepening divisions in the country. In a campaign-style speech, he threw red meat to his core supporters. Trump railed against immigration, promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and “probably terminate” the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. Trump followed up his rhetoric by pardoning Joe Arpaio, “America’s toughest sheriff” who was convicted of criminal contempt. As sheriff, Arpaio, an early Trump supporter, defied a court order to stop traffic patrols targeting immigrants whom they suspected to be illegal. Trump tried to have the case dropped. That did not work. So, he has followed that up with a pardon that does not quite seem kosher. Surprisingly, even Paul Ryan, the insignificant, ineffective and invertebrate speaker of the House of Representatives, has demurred.
Significant as each of these events may be, none compares to Hurricane Harvey. Even more significant is the fact that the first tanker crossed the northern sea route from Europe to Asia through the Arctic without the protection of an ice-breaker.
THE IRONY OF HURRICANE HARVEY
Harvey is the strongest hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years. As heavy rains batter the state, an estimated 2,000 people have been rescued already. Houston has been hit by “catastrophic flooding” that may get worse as rains are expected to continue till midweek.
Ironically, Houston is the heart of the US energy sector. With its gleaming skyscrapers and gargantuan freeways, Houston has long been the city of Big Oil, the giant companies that dominate the oil industry. For decades, the worthy men who led Big Oil have enabled people worldwide to drive their cars, carry their groceries in plastic bags, and use Vaseline to moisten their lips. Some of the best scientists, engineers and managers have worked in the oil industry. They have tapped oil from the searing deserts of the Middle East, the freezing ice of the Arctic, and the treacherous depths of the seas. Only 200 years ago, most human beings would have deemed the achievements of the oil industry to be the feats of gods.
Yet these gods have not proved to be entirely benign. As in The Mahabharat and The Iliad, they have been capricious. Their great technological achievements have gone hand in hand with dark arts that would make Mephistopheles proud. The Guardian reports that Shell had a clear grasp of global warming 26 years ago. A 28-minute Shell documentary from 1991 has been rediscovered and has proved to be uncannily prescient. It outlined the catastrophic risks of climate change, warning “of extreme weather, floods, famines and climate refugees as fossil fuel burning warmed the world.” The film’s predictions about temperature and sea level rises have turned out to be remarkably accurate. Yet Shell never shared this film with the public and carried on with business as usual.
In recent years, Shell has carried out highly polluting tar sand operations and controversial explorations in the Arctic. It also spent millions lobbying against policies to curb climate change. Shell has not been alone in undermining efforts to curb the oil industry. Exxon Mobil is currently under investigation not only for overvaluing its reserves, but also for misleading the public on climate change. In 2015, Bill McKibben accused Exxon Mobil of helping “organize the most consequential lie in human history.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then-CEO of Exxon, dismissed the charges as unfounded.
In a paper published on August 23, 2017, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes assessed 40 years of Exxon Mobil’s climate change communications. They conclude that the company misled the public on climate change even as its scientists advanced the science. In another paper published on January 23, 2002, Sybille van den Hove, Marc Le Menestrel and Henri-Claude de Bettignies examined “the ethical dilemma for the oil industry, in the form of tension between profits and CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions.” Invariably, the authors found that the quest for profits triumphed. Oil companies strove to weaken the perception that greenhouse gas emissions, due to human activity, were causing climate change. They also tried to avoid responsibility and limit damage to their fundamental business.
Big Oil was spectacularly successful in its propaganda war in the US. It managed to sow doubts not only about climate change but also about its causes. As of last year, the Pew Research Center estimated that only 48% of Americans believed that human activity caused global climate change. Even a few years ago, this percentage was much lower. Part of the reason is that the American education system is downright awful. The country may be home to MIT and Berkeley, but many of its high schools look upon evolution and climate change as satanic ideas.
Besides, the US is the mecca of capitalism. Money talks, mammon rules. For years, Big Oil’s disinformation campaign worked like a charm. Fox News, far-right and alt-right media outlets religiously propagated the myth that the evidence for climate change was ambiguous and that we did not quite know or understand its causes. Along with media entities prostituting themselves for profits, hordes of politicians genuflected to Big Oil. They had good reason to. Elections in the US cost an arm and a leg. The oxygen of advertising and media attention is essential to win at the polls. Cash from Big Oil has caused the political demise of many an inconvenient candidate, making it exceedingly difficult for politicians to change the dominant narrative. Only when Al Gore was politically dead did he resurrect himself as a champion of the environment.
Yet most Americans are still not convinced that Gore is right. Two and a half months ago, President Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. The June 4 edition of The World This Week examined Trump’s decision, concluding that he was following the precedent set by George W. Bush when he jettisoned the Kyoto Protocol. In the mecca of capitalism, growth, jobs and consumption are sacred. The quest for profits is absolute. Milton Friedman, the high priest of capitalism and adviser to Pinochet, even suggested privatizing the country’s national parks. Fossil fuels in general and oil in particular are fundamental to the prosperity of the US economy. Therefore, any fetters on the economy are not entirely welcome, especially if they are for the dubious notion of climate change by the effete Old World that Americans left behind to craft a new destiny for themselves.
The peculiar conditions of the US make it an energy intensive society. Its big houses, inclement weather, endless suburbia, long distances and love of burgers are based on fossil fuels. To combat climate change, Americans will have to change the way they live and make significant sacrifices. Few politicians can sell such an unpalatable fact to their voters.
Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny climate change. On December 2, 2015, this author called climate change a clear and present danger, “endangering the lives of billions of human beings and threatening the survival of other species” and launched Fair Observer’s 360° series on the subject. The October 30, 2016 edition of The World This Week highlighted that vertebrate population sizes have declined by 58% with freshwater populations falling by 81% between 1970 and 2012. Ironically, a ferocious hurricane has now struck the headquarters of Big Oil and the home of refineries that process 5 million barrels a day.
MELTING ICE AND BURNING QUESTIONS
Hurricane Harvey will soon subside, but melting glaciers present a more long-term problem. In the Himalayas, “intensive shrinkage” of glaciers is affecting water discharge of many prominent Asian rivers, increasing risks of major environmental disasters and threatening to throw the lives of hundreds of millions into turmoil. In Antarctica, rising temperatures over the last 50 years have caused a steady growth in moss. As in the Himalayas, Antarctic glaciers are retreating. Climate change is literally turning Antarctica green. The Arctic has already been doing so as sea ice melts to record low levels. Now, a tanker has sailed from Norway to South Korea across the Arctic without using an ice-breaker. This marks a seismic change in the state of the environment.
Christophe de Margerie, the 300 meters-long tanker, is named after the late CEO of Total. It was carrying gas from Norway to South Korea. Not only was the journey across the Artic much shorter, but it was also much cheaper than sailing through the Suez Canal or around the Cape of Good Hope. Russian President Vladimir Putin rightly declared that “this is a big event in the opening up of the Arctic.” For centuries, sailors have sought a navigable northwest passage. Now, climate change has enabled it.
In the last century, explorers competed to explore Antarctica. In this century, the race for the Arctic is now on. Norway, Denmark, Canada, Russia and the US are looking to exploit the Arctic for oil, natural gas and precious metals. In 2007, a Russian submarine planted its country’s flag on the seabed under the North Pole. These countries are competing for a bigger share of the lucrative Arctic pie and cooperating to make the pie bigger. Christophe de Margerie is named after a French oilman who dealt closely with Putin. The tanker carried Norwegian gas to energy hungry South Korea, the biggest shipbuilding country on the planet. It opens up magical new possibilities for increasing trade, growth, jobs and wealth.
Yet the melting ice in the poles and the mountains raises burning questions. Are the people who run oil companies or countries competing for the Arctic evil? Or are they prisoners of the system they operate in? What are the CEOs of Shell or Exxon Mobil supposed to do when custom and law itself decree that they must maximize profits and value for shareholders? Is it fair for The Guardian to blame Shell for hiding the 1991 climate change documentary when it threatened the company’s existence itself?
Each time this author has been watching videos on YouTube, the advertisement for Grant Cardone’s “10X Growth Con” keeps popping up. It is classic Americano hyperbole that promises to be the best experience of your life with billionaires giving you the keys of success and elevating your “freaking soul.” Headlines on television or newspapers are not as much about a tanker crossing the Arctic but Mayweather knocking out McGregor. Conveniently, the former earned $300 million from the fight at the rate of $10 million a minute, while the latter made $100 million at $3 million a minute. Before people damn the US for its crass materialism, they could do well to remember the footballing circus in Europe and the cricketing tamasha (cheap spectacle) in India where players are being bought and sold at stratospheric prices precisely when debts are rising, inequality is soaring and poverty is rising.
Ancient Romans warned of a time of public squalor and private splendor. As the Roman Empire declined, circuses came into fashion. Like Mayweather and McGregor, some gladiators were making a fair bit of cash even as the civilization itself crumbled. Ancient Indians spoke of maya, the philosophical idea that excessive stimuli distract human beings from fundamental realities. One could argue that McDonald’s, Ferraris and Facebook distract us from uncomfortable issues such as deprivation, degradation and disparity. Are we headed for doomsday or is humanity capable of mending its ways?
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