Bill Black writes: Wall Street billionaires are freaking out about the chance that Bernie Sanders could be elected President. Stephen Schwarzman, one of the wealthiest and most odious people in the world, told the Wall Street Journal that one of the three principal causes of the recent global financial trauma was “the market’s” fear that Sanders may be elected President. Schwarzman is infamous for ranting that President Obama’s proposals to end the “carried interest” tax scam that allows private equity billionaires like Schwarzman to pay lower income tax rates than their secretaries was “like when Hitler invaded Poland.”
Schwarzman and Pete Peterson co-founded the private equity firm Blackstone. Peterson leads the effort to destroy the safety net in America. His greatest dream is to privatize Social Security so that Wall Street could increase its revenues by tens of billions of dollars. Blackstone is a major owner of Sea World, and it was in this sphere that Schwarzman went beyond his delusional rants about Hitler and became vile. When an Orca killed its trainer, Schwarzman lied and blamed the death on the trainer, claiming that Sea World “had one safety lapse — interestingly, with a situation where the person involved violated all the safety rules that we had.”
Schwarzman’s claim that the global financial markets are tanking because of Bernie’s increasing support is delusional, but it is revealing that he used the most recent market nightmare as an excuse to attack Bernie. The Wall Street plutocrats, with good reason, fear Bernie – not Hillary. Indeed, it is remarkable how vigorous and open Wall Street has been in signaling through the financial media that it has no problem with Hillary’s Wall Street plan. CNN, CNBC, and the Fiscal Times, under titles such as: “Here’s Why Wall Street Has Little to Fear from Hillary Clinton,” pushed this meme. [Continue reading…]
Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey writes: Few companies could announce a new office in the messianic way that Google did last February. Then again, few companies have ever built this sort of office.
‘Google’s presence in Mountain View is simply so strong that it can’t be the fortress that shuts away… the neighbours. It really needs to become a neighbourhood in Mountain View,’ intones the lead architect Bjarke Ingels of the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in the introductory video. The camera sweeps high over an edenic Mountain View in the San Francisco Bay Area. It pulls back to reveal Google’s proposed new office: a neighbourhood nested beneath glittering glass domes.
On approximately 3.5 million square feet of commercial land, Google intended to build a campus office that might best be described as a new part of town. Beneath the glass canopies, a thriving neighbourhood hosts stores, bike paths and modular office spaces. In building this new neighbourhood, Google hoped to expand their working space while accommodating the Mountain View population inclined to view them as a ‘fortress’. The utopian campus was meant to assuage fears that spiking numbers of Google employees would create a Google voting bloc, according to The New York Times. Such fears are understandable. As of 2013, the company employed roughly 10 per cent of Mountain View’s workforce and owned approximately the same proportion of taxable property. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: California’s attorney general is investigating Exxon Mobil on whether the company lied to the public and shareholders about the risks of climate change, and whether the company’s statements over the years constitute violations of securities laws and other statutes.
The investigation is similar to one started in November by the New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, for which the company has already produced thousands of documents.
Mr. Schneiderman, calling climate change “the defining issue of our time,” applauded the action taken by Kamala D. Harris, the attorney general.
“Just like any other publicly traded company, these energy giants have an obligation to ensure that their disclosures to investors of known and reasonably likely risks are truthful and not misleading, and to disclose to the public the risks associated with their products,” he said.
The California investigation was first reported by The Los Angeles Times, and was confirmed by people with knowledge of details of the inquiry. [Continue reading…]
Oxfam’s latest report, focused on an increasingly obscene wealth inequality and the stranglehold exerted by a global elite, had one central message: The era of tax havens that have made this possible must be brought to an end.
The headline numbers showed that the top 1% own as much wealth as the other 99% and – even more startling – that the richest 62 individuals own more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population (compared to 388 individuals in 2010). To put this into stark perspective, this group of 62 people own as much as the 3.6 billion people on the bottom of the heap.
Oxfam makes it clear that this distribution of wealth is not some incidental byproduct of rising worldwide prosperity. Since 2000, the poorest half of the world’s population has received just 1% of the total increase in global wealth, while 50% of that has gone to the 1% of people on the top of the pile – about 74m people. While the richest have been getting richer, the combined wealth of the poorest half of the planet has fallen by US$1 trillion (41%) in the past five years alone.
Will Hutton writes: There has always been a tension at the heart of capitalism. Although it is the best wealth-creating mechanism we’ve made, it can’t be left to its own devices. Its self-regulating properties, contrary to the efforts of generations of economists trying to prove otherwise, are weak.
It needs embedded countervailing power – effective trade unions, law and public action – to keep it honest and sustain the demand off which it feeds. Above all, it needs an ordered international framework of law, finance and trade in which it can do deals and business. It certainly can’t invent one itself. The mayhem in the financial markets over the last fortnight is the result of confronting this tension. The oil price collapse should be good news. It makes everything cheaper. It puts purchasing power in the hands of business and consumers elsewhere in the world who have a greater propensity to spend than most oil-producing countries. A low oil price historically presages economic good times. Instead, the markets are panicking.
They are panicking because what is driving the lower oil price is global disorder, which capitalism is powerless to correct. Indeed, it is capitalism running amok that is one of the reasons for the disorder. Profits as a share of national income in Britain and the US touch all-time highs; wages touch an all-time low as the power of organised labour diminishes and the gig economy of short-term contracts takes hold. The excesses of the rich, digging underground basements to house swimming pools, cinemas and lavish gyms, sit alongside the travails of the new middle-class poor. These are no longer able to secure themselves decent pensions and their gig-economy children defer starting families because of the financial pressures. [Continue reading…]
I didn’t watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, but news reports alerted me to this passage:
A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.
It’s easy to view politics as a marketplace in which trading is taking place as competing constituencies haggle over power. From that perspective, the only question is which group best represents your interests and if no such group exists, politics then becomes a dull spectator sport. Such a marketplace is inevitably dominated by the loudest voices.
Even if that characterization is reasonably accurate, it is likely to have a constricting effect.
Politics seen as jostling power groups, makes those groups into somewhat static entities and it saps a spirit of inquiry.
If the activity of asking and answering questions — an activity that needs to be driven by curiosity — seems pointless, it gets replaced by a much less constructive exercise: the solidification of opinion through affiliation.
In other words, politics is reduced to the question of who you want to stand with and who you stand against.
In the Republican response to Obama’s speech, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said:
Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.
It would be easy to dismiss these appeals from Obama and Haley to reduce the level of rancor in politics as simply calls for a cosmetic change — as though politics can be reformed by making it more pleasant. But I don’t think these calls for a tone change should be trivialized.
The dynamic at issue is driven by the cycle of attention-seeking and attention-giving.
Donald Trump’s success has had less to do with either his financial independence or his alignment with a large segment of the population, than it has with his skill in co-opting the services of the mass media.
He took reality TV to the next level (cliche intended) by turning a presidential campaign into a form of mass entertainment. Trump supporters commonly say that a significant part of his appeal is that they find him entertaining. The tedium of politics has been turned into a raucous circus with Trump as ringmaster.
He couldn’t have done this without the help of a media which salivates at each and every opportunity to boost ratings and make more money.
Ultimately, this is an issue of American values. If creating wealth is the axis around which American life turns, then the media will inevitably function like every other branch of commerce.
The health of any society, however, requires a balance between self-interest and collective interests.
If government, the legal system, the media, education, medicine, and the arts, are controlled by commerce then we all end up as the slaves of profit.
Simon Romero writes: On a glacier-filled island with fjords and elephant seals, Russia has built Antarctica’s first Orthodox church on a hill overlooking its research base, transporting the logs all the way from Siberia.
Less than an hour away by snowmobile, Chinese laborers have updated the Great Wall Station, a linchpin in China’s plan to operate five bases on Antarctica, complete with an indoor badminton court, domes to protect satellite stations and sleeping quarters for 150 people.
More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.
But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.
“The newer players are stepping into what they view as a treasure house of resources,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who specializes in Antarctic politics. [Continue reading…]
The Atlantic reports: A funny change has happened this year: People have become tepidly optimistic about climate change.
That’s not because the UN climate negotiations currently underway in Paris look like they might succeed, or because the United States is finally getting serious about a clean-energy policy. And it’s not because humanity is any less likely to overshoot the 2-degree Celsius target that spells dangerous levels of global warming.
No, it’s because the two renewable-electricity-generating technologies that advocates hope will one day power much of human society—solar and wind—have both plunged in price in recent years. According to a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, on-shore wind is competitive with fossil-fuel-burning plants in many parts of the world. And if you factor in coal’s devastating public-health costs, it’s already much more expensive than solar or wind. [Continue reading…]
Even if the world celebrates a Paris climate deal on December 11, the process will still have to be regarded as failure. Let me explain why.
The basic reason is that the unequal distribution of carbon emissions is not even on its agenda. The historical responsibility of the West is not on the table, nor is a method of national carbon accounting that looks at how the emissions a country consumes rather than produces. Instead, what is on the table are expanded and new mechanisms that will allow the rich, Western countries to outsource their emission cuts so they can paint themselves green.
When the figures are in, 2015 is likely to be the warmest year on record and we’ve just reached 1℃ temperature rise since the industrial revolution, halfway to the 2℃ widely agreed to be the upper safe limit of global warming. It’s the fastest surface temperature increase in the world’s known geological history. We are now entering “uncharted territory”.
The dangers of global warming have been known – even to oil company executives – since at least the early 1980s. Yet, despite 25 years of UN-led climate talks, the world is burning more fossil fuels than ever.
This is not simply the fault of big emerging economies such as China, India or Brazil. Instead, what we are dealing with is the fundamental failure of neoliberal capitalism, the world’s dominant economic system, to confront its hunger for exponential growth that is only made possible by the unique energy density of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.
In September, Climate Change News reported: At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.
“In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.
It was July 1977 when Exxon’s leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.
A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.
“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.
His presentations reflected uncertainty running through scientific circles about the details of climate change, such as the role the oceans played in absorbing emissions. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. “Present thinking,” he wrote in the 1978 summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon’s ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.
Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. [Continue reading…]
In October, the Los Angeles Times reported: Back in 1990, as the debate over climate change was heating up, a dissident shareholder petitioned the board of Exxon, one of the world’s largest oil companies, imploring it to develop a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its production plants and facilities.
The board’s response: Exxon had studied the science of global warming and concluded it was too murky to warrant action. The company’s “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.”
Yet in the far northern regions of Canada’s Arctic frontier, researchers and engineers at Exxon and Imperial Oil were quietly incorporating climate change projections into the company’s planning and closely studying how to adapt the company’s Arctic operations to a warming planet.
Ken Croasdale, senior ice researcher for Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, was leading a Calgary-based team of researchers and engineers that was trying to determine how global warming could affect Exxon’s Arctic operations and its bottom line. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times now reports: The New York attorney general has begun a sweeping investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how those risks might hurt the oil business.
According to people with knowledge of the investigation, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to Exxon Mobil, demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents.
The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.
The sources said the scrutiny would include a period of at least a decade when Exxon Mobil funded outside groups that sought to undermine climate science, even as its in-house scientists were outlining the potential consequences — and uncertainties — to company executives. [Continue reading…]
Scientific American reports: Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue, according to a recent investigation from InsideClimate News. This knowledge did not prevent the company (now ExxonMobil and the world’s largest oil and gas company) from spending decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation — an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public.
Experts, however, aren’t terribly surprised. “It’s never been remotely plausible that they did not understand the science,” says Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University. But as it turns out, Exxon didn’t just understand the science, the company actively engaged with it. In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. Exxon even spent more than $1 million on a tanker project that would tackle how much CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. It was one of the biggest scientific questions of the time, meaning that Exxon was truly conducting unprecedented research.
In their eight-month-long investigation, reporters at InsideClimate News interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists and federal officials and analyzed hundreds of pages of internal documents. They found that the company’s knowledge of climate change dates back to July 1977, when its senior scientist James Black delivered a sobering message on the topic. “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s management committee. A year later he warned Exxon that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees — a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today. He continued to warn that “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” In other words, Exxon needed to act. [Continue reading…]
InsideClimate News reports: As he wrapped up nine years as the federal government’s chief scientist for global warming research, Michael MacCracken lashed out at ExxonMobil for opposing the advance of climate science.
His own great-grandfather, he told the Exxon board, had been John D. Rockefeller’s legal counsel a century earlier. “What I rather imagine he would say is that you are on the wrong side of history, and you need to find a way to change your position,” he wrote.
No wonder: in the opening days of the oil-friendly Bush-Cheney administration, Exxon’s chief lobbyist had written the new head of the White House environmental council demanding that MacCracken be fired for “political and scientific bias.”
Exxon was also attacking other officials in the U.S. government and at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), MacCracken wrote, interfering with their work behind the scenes and distorting it in public.
Exxon wanted scientists who disputed the mainstream science on climate change to oversee Washington’s work with the IPCC, the authoritative body that defines the scientific consensus on global warming, documents written by an Exxon lobbyist and one of its scientists show. The company persuaded the White House to block the reappointment of the IPCC chairman, a World Bank scientist. Exxon’s top climate researcher, Brian Flannery, was pushing the White House for a wholesale revision of federal climate science. The company wanted a new strategy to focus on the uncertainties. [Continue reading…]
Venkatesh Rao writes: If scientists are right, and there is no reason to think they aren’t, averting climate change will require such large-scale, rapid action, that no single energy technology, new or emerging, could be the solution. Neither could any single non-energy technology, such as video-conferencing as a substitute for travel, solve the problem on its own.
There is always a possibility that a single cheap and effective solution will emerge, rendering expensive interventions moot, but few climate experts are willing to trust the future to that unlikely prospect.
The challenge therefore, is one of rapid, concerted deployment of a portfolio of emerging and mature energy and non-energy technologies. This means accepting a certain level of attendant risks. The Volkwagen emissions scandal illustrates these risks well: Aggressive forcing, through EU policy instruments, of the adoption of diesel engines (which are better suited to reducing emissions) created incentives that led to sophisticated gaming.
The Volkswagen scandal won’t be the last or the worst. Unlike many of the other objections put forth by climate skeptics, the objection that managing moral hazards at a planetary scale might prove impossible is a solid one.
Assuming we do manage to significantly accelerate deployment without cancerous levels of corporatist corruption, if emissions targets still remain out of reach, some growth must be temporarily sacrificed. At the same time, investment across the portfolio of energy technologies will need to continue.
In other words, we are contemplating the sorts of austerities associated with wartime economies. For ordinary Americans, austerities might include an end to expansive suburban lifestyles and budget air travel, and an accelerated return to high-density urban living and train travel. For businesses, this might mean rethinking entire supply chains, as high-emissions sectors become unviable under new emissions regimes.
What [Bill] Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.
Of the previous six energy revolutions of comparable magnitude — wind, water, coal, oil, electricity, and nuclear — only nuclear power had anywhere near the same level of early-stage technocratic shaping that we are contemplating. Among technological revolutions outside the energy sector, only space exploration, nuclear-weapons technology, and computing technology have had similar levels of bureaucratic direction.
None of these are true comparables, however, for one critical reason. In each historical case, the revolution was highly focused on a single core technology rather than a broad portfolio of technologies, and a managed transition of infrastructure at civilization scale. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Like California, much of Brazil is gripped by one of the worst droughts in its history. Huge reservoirs are bone dry and water has been rationed in São Paulo, a megacity of 20 million people; in Rio; and in many other places.
Drought is usually thought of as a natural disaster beyond human control. But as researchers peer deeper into the Earth’s changing bioclimate — the vastly complex global interplay between living organisms and climatic forces — they are better appreciating the crucial role that deforestation plays.
Cutting down forests releases stored carbon dioxide, which traps heat and contributes to atmospheric warming. But forests also affect climate in other ways, by absorbing more solar energy than grasslands, for example, or releasing vast amounts of water vapor. Many experts believe that deforestation is taking place on such a large scale, especially in South America, that it has already significantly altered the world’s climate — even though its dynamics are not well understood.
“A lot of people are scrambling to make observations in the Amazon this year, with the expected big El Niño coming,” said Abigail L. S. Swann, an eco-climatologist at the University of Washington. “It’s expected to drive significant drought over the Amazon, which will change how much water trees have available.”
Humans have long settled in places where there is adequate and predictable precipitation, and large forests play a crucial role in generating dependable amounts of rainfall. Trees take up moisture from the soil and transpire it, lifting it into the atmosphere. A fully grown tree releases 1,000 liters of water vapor a day into the atmosphere: The entire Amazon rain forest sends up 20 billion tons a day. [Continue reading…]