The Conscience of a Moderate

Angels by the River: A Memoir by James Gustave Speth is pleasantly written but painful to read. Speth knew about the dangers of global warming before the majority of today’s climate change deniers were born. He was an advisor to President Jimmy Carter and advised him and the public to address the matter before it became a crisis.

Carter and the U.S. capital of his day weren’t about to take the sort of action needed. Remember, Carter was despised for a speech promoting green energy and celebrated for a speech declaring that the United States would always go to war over Middle Eastern oil. Ronald Reagan and his followers (in every sense) Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama wouldn’t come within 10 miles of a reasonable approach to climate.  But Speth has spent the decades since the Carter administration trying to maintain a career within the system, a choice that he acknowledges has required compromises. Now he’s pushing for radical change and takes himself to be a radical because he was arrested at the White House opposing a tar sands pipeline.

Here’s a photo of Speth at the White House wearing the campaign symbol of the man at whose house he was protesting (Speth doesn’t discuss the uniqueness of this form of opposition).

Speth writes as if President Obama were trying to protect the planet from Republicans, in contrast to the real-life Obama who has sabotaged climate talks in Copenhagen and at other summits over the years. Speth gives Democrats a pass, promotes electoral work, pushes nationalism, and believes the world needs U.S. leadership to address climate change. I think the evidence is clear that the world would be fairly well along if the United States would just stay out of the way and stop leading the destruction.

This image is from a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Speth’s book tells a story of racist and sexist Agrarians who wanted to resist corporatism but didn’t really do so; of “moderates” who blandly hinted at opposing segregation but didn’t; of a Carter White House that didn’t act; of a Clinton Administration that decided against even pretending to act; of a statement Speth wrote immediately after September 11, 2001, in which he took a both-and position, supporting both insane war and sane peaceful policies; and of the age of Obama in which one admits that the facts demand swift radical change while embracing lesser-evilism, not in voting but in activism and speech (that inevitable tendency being the main reason some of us oppose it in voting).

Of course I’m being unfair and Speth won’t necessarily have any idea what I’m talking about. He doesn’t have a chapter dedicated to nationalism, he just frames all of his proposals in terms of being a good patriot and fixing one’s country — even though the problem facing us is global. And when he worked in the Carter Administration he actually did good work and got things done. We celebrate — hell, we practically worship — whistleblowers who spent decades doing bad work, murderous work, before speaking out. Here’s a man who did good work, who nudged things in a better direction for decades, before speaking out in the way he does now. With most people contributing little or nothing to the sustainability of the planet, and with radicals living through decades of failure just the same as moderates, Speth is not someone to criticize. And his book is quite valuable. I just want to nudge him a bit further.

Speth’s account of his childhood in South Carolina is charming and wise. His account of unfulfilled dreams for the South and of undesirable Southern influence on the rest of the country is powerful. Instead of losing its bigotry, the South took on the North’s consumerism. Instead of losing its consumerism, the North took on the South’s reactionary politics, including what Speth calls “antipathy toward the federal government” — I would add: except for that 53% of it that’s dedicated to killing foreigners. Speth’s account of the Nashville Agrarians’ opposition to corporate consumerism is valuable. It’s not that nobody knew; it’s that not enough people acted. Of course, with my focus on the problem of war (which somehow, at best, squeezes into the last item on each of Speth’s lists of issues) I’m brought back to wondering where we would be if slavery had been ended differently. I know that we’re supposed to cheer for the Civil War even though other nations (and Washington D.C.) used compensated emancipation and skipped war. I know we’re supposed to repeat to ourselves over and over “It’s not Lincoln’s fault, the slave owners wanted war.” Well, indeed they did, but what if they hadn’t? Or what if the recruits had refused to fight it for them? Or what if the North had let the South leave? It’s difficult to bring up such questions while simultaneously convincing the reader that you know none of this actually happened. So, for what it’s worth: I’m aware that’s not how it happened; hence the need to bring it up. As it is, Vietnam has gotten over the war of the 1960s, and the U.S. South can, at long last, get over the war of the 1860s if it chooses to.

Speth was a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council which helped win important struggles to halt a major expansion of nuclear power, to implement the Clean Water Act, and to protect wetlands. He also did great work at the World Resources Institute. Yet, he writes, there have been countless victories during an ongoing major defeat. “Our environmental organizations have grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to go downhill. The prospect of a ruined planet is now very real. We have won many victories, but we are losing the planet.” Speth recounts the perils of working as a D.C. insider: “Once there, inside the system, we were compelled to a certain tameness by the need to succeed there. We opted to work within the system of political economy that we found, and we neglected to seek transformation of the system itself.” And of being a global insider: “Thus far, the climate convention is not protecting climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, the desertification convention is not preventing desertification, and even the older and stronger Convention on the Law of the Sea is not protecting fisheries.”

Speth’s conclusion is not entirely unlike Naomi Klein’s. Speth writes in this book: “In short, most environmental deterioration is a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today, and long-term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism.” Klein quotes Speth in her book: “We didn’t adjust with Reagan. We kept working within a system but we should have tried to change the system and root causes.”

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    June 24, 2014 The Scandal Of Fiddled Global Warming Data

    When future generations try to understand how the world got carried away around the end of the 20th century by the panic over global warming, few things will amaze them more than the part played in stoking up the scare by the fiddling of official temperature data. There was already much evidence of this seven years ago, when I was writing my history of the scare, The Real Global Warming Disaster. But now another damning example has been uncovered by Steven Goddard’s US blog Real Science, showing how shamelessly manipulated has been one of the world’s most influential climate records, the graph of US surface temperature records published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

    Antarctic Sea Ice On Turbo-Steroids…Mutates To A Behemoth…Sets Quantum All-Time Record High Extent! 27. September 2014

    In track and field a sprinter setting a new world record in the 100 or 200-meter dash by a few hundredths of a second is already considered a sensation. Now, imagine a sprinter breaking the 100 or 200-meter dash record by a whole half second, or a pole-vaulter beating the old record not by an inch or two, which would be spectacular, but by an entire foot! That would be unworldly and observers would call it a mutation leap forward.

    • MCB

      I saw that ML. Instead of discussing Climate Change ad nasuem, we should focus on more tangible aspects of humanity like pollution, resource utilization, etc… Ostensibly, if we took care of those, we’d take care of any “man caused Climate Change” too.

  • kimyo

    some free, yet extremely useful advice for the carbon crowd: speak the truth on corn-based ethanol. speak the truth on compact fluorescent bulbs. speak the truth on carbon credits. speak the truth on recycling. speak the truth on nuclear power’s cradle to grave inconvenient carbon mega-emissions (that means you, monbiot, and you, hansen. and michael moore, you moron.).

    unless you admit that each and every one of these programs is a complete and utter failure, you will never convince the ‘middle third’ to support carbon taxes.

    you have a third of the people in your corner. a third vehemently disagree with you. the ‘middle’ third is losing trust in you. prepare, cause if the hiatus turns into cooling, you will lose them completely.

    if you continue to support financial / ecological disasters such as corn-based ethanol or cfl’s or if you keep telling us how fukushima proves that the designs work as planned, people are going to start to realize you’re also lying about hurricane activity and antarctic sea ice levels.

    when they’re living thru this: You just lived through one of the snowiest periods in NYC’s history while huffpo keeps telling them: The Planet Just Had Its Warmest September On Record, Continuing Hot Streak they’re going to start to look more closely at: Bureau of Meteorology ‘altering climate figures’

    Dr Marohasy has analysed the raw data from dozens of locations across Australia and matched it against the new data used by BOM showing that temperatures were progressively warming.

    In many cases, Dr Marohasy said, temperature trends had changed from slight cooling to dramatic warming over 100 years.

    BOM has rejected Dr Marohasy’s claims and said the agency had used world’s best practice and a peer reviewed process to modify the physical temperature records that had been recorded at weather stations across the country.

    It said data from a selection of weather stations underwent a process known as “homogenisation” to correct for anomalies. It was “very unlikely” that data homogenisation impacted on the empirical outlooks.

    prepare the populace for the possibility of cooling, unless of course you plan to use your 30% as a ‘mandate’ to force thru carbon measures which, in all likelihood, will end up INCREASING carbon emissions while enriching the connected (ie: kochco writing the carbon rebate tax code. supporting example: affordable care act, written by / massively benefiting big pharma/hmo’s at the expense of the 99%).

    • Nonanon25

      What is “the hiatus”, or is this a rant? Truthfulness isn’t required of activism, although it might help. It’s required of the Speth’s of the world, and not after the fact.

      The devil isn’t going to announce his plans for anyone to see, but anyone who can see, recognizes his handiwork.

      I’ll pass on reading his autobiography, as I’m not an environmental activist, or on the outside looking in.

      • kimyo

        the hiatus: although carbon emissions continue unabated, global temperatures have been flat for 14 – 17 years, depending on the source of the data.
        Global warming ‘hiatus’ puts climate change scientists on the spot

        Theories as to why Earth’s average surface temperature hasn’t risen in recent years include an idea that the Pacific Ocean goes through decades-long cycles of absorbing heat.

        “All other things being equal, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will have a warming effect on the planet,” Curry said. “However, all things are never equal, and what we are seeing is natural climate variability dominating over human impact.”

        Curry isn’t the only one to suggest flaws in established climate models. IPCC vice chair Francis Zwiers, director of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria in Canada, co-wrote a paper published in this month’s Nature Climate Change that said climate models had “significantly” overestimated global warming over the last 20 years — and especially for the last 15 years, which coincides with the onset of the hiatus.

        The models had predicted that the average global surface temperature would increase by 0.21 of a degree Celsius over this period, but they turned out to be off by a factor of four, Zwiers and his colleagues wrote. In reality, the average temperature has edged up only 0.05 of a degree Celsius over that time — which in a statistical sense is not significantly different from zero.

  • Nonanon25

    One more Insider suddenly gets a conscience and writes a book to cash in on their career. I suppose it would be helpful to know the causes of why the reactionary policies of an Imperial federal government have all failed, except they didn’t. Carter was the last best POTUS this country has had, unless you’re a neocon. Maybe that’s George’s problem with Speth, he worked for a peanut farmer from the South.

    I’m with George all the way with being anti-war, except war sometimes comes to you. I’m not a pacifist, and I believe on of the legitimate roles of government is securing the peace. The difficulty in this regard as in most things political, is how to achieve it.

    It’s obvious what works and what doesn’t. What is missing is the will to fix what doesn’t, and arrive at a consensus over what priority problems should be addressed.

    The US federal government is the most powerful force in the world. To what end will it be used, and the proof appears to be the expansion of global dictates. Reagan began an Imperialist expansion, which has seen countless lives being lost, and to what end? Ongoing wars in Syria and Ukraine over energy and the loss of individual freedom. What’s next? A continuing struggle for every last natural resource on the planet. There’s no need to fight over the fisheries, because the ocean’s are dying. Food crises will continue foment unrest in importing countries.

    The thirteen hundred year struggle against the spread of Islam, depending on which side you’re own, may be the greatest current threat to world peace. As I stated, sometimes war finds you, and these globalists, notably China, Russia, and the US, and the internationalists, notably the financiers, are unwilling to cede on any matter.

    Would George be willing to cede that it is the internationalists that are at the center of the current struggles over energy, and behind the rise of ISIS?

    How then, does one overcome this pestilence and blight on the whole of mankind? How, indeed!

  • lew

    I have to disagree with the AGW part of this.

    Nobody, and I mean nobody, who has enough scientific/technical background to understand it and who has studied the issues with intellectual integrity and an open mind, believes that the climate models can predict anything.

    Just considering the models themselves, we do not have the technology to predict the weather 3 weeks from now AND NEVER WILL because of chaos effects, how can we imagine that we can predict the climate 3 centuries in the future? Is climate somehow less complex, less governed by chaos, than the weather? Are climate models somehow exempt from the limitations of weather models which we know exist, precisely because we can them via their predictions and the accuracy thereof. Climate models can only be validated against the past. That doesn’t work for the stock market, there is no epistemologically-sound reason to believe it works for climate models or any other models based on historical data.

    Other critiques focus on the data, the contradictions in the data, etc. Any one of these chains of evidence invalidates the entire AGW hypothesis.

    This is a case where there is a right answer, you have to study the issue to understand it, and if you do you come to the right answer. If you don’t have the right answer in your head, you haven’t studied the issue. Period.

    AGW is complete BS, a mass delusion, a secular religion.

    Mark Twain : “It is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled”.

    • lew

      3 decades in the future.