070410 – Tuesday – more Kim Stanley Robinson

I know I wrote just the other day about the fact that I’m reading a book, Sixty Days and Counting, by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s a great book and an excellent finish to his trilogy on the global climate change crises.

When I wrote last time, I quoted a section from his book and I said that I hoped he’d forgive me for the transgression. Well, I’m afraid his book is just too good and I’m going to do it again. I expect his book company lawyers will be knocking on my door any day now.

The following is a discussion, from the book, between the newly elected President’s science advisory staff, led by Charlie, people from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change and people from the World Bank. They are not seeing eye to eye about the world’s problems and it makes for interesting reading. When I was reading this, I just wanted to stand up and shout, “Yes!”



This meeting with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN organization, might be a good venue for exerting some pressure. The IPCC had spent many years advocating action on the climate front, and all that while they had been flatly ignored by the World Bank. If there was now a face-off, a great reckoning in a little room, then it could get interesting.

But the meeting, held across the street in the World Bank headquarters, was a disappointment. These two groups came from such different world-views that it was only an illusion they were speaking the same language; for the most part they used different vocabularies, and when by chance they used the same words, they meant different things by them. They were aware at some level of this underlying conflict, but could not address it; and so everyone was tense, with old grievances unsayable and yet fully present.

The World Bank guys said something about nothing getting cheaper than oil for the next fifty years, ignoring what the IPCC guys had just finished saying about the devastating effects fifty more years of oil burning would have. They had not heard that, apparently. They defended having invested 94 percent of the World Bank’s energy investments in oil exploration as necessary, given the world’s dependence on oil – apparently unaware of the circular aspect of their argument. And, being economists, they were still exteriorizing costs without even noticing it or acknowledging such exteriorization had been conclusively demonstrated to falsify accounts of profit and loss. It was as if the world was not real – as if the physical world, reported on by scientists and witnessed by all, could be ignored, and because their entirely fictitious numbers therefore added up, no one could complain.

Charlie gritted his teeth as he listened and took notes. This was science verses capitalism, yet again. The IPCC guys spoke for science and said the obvious things, pointing out the physical constraints of the planet, the carbon load now in the atmosphere altering everything, and the resultant need for heavy investment in clean replacement technologies by all concerned, including the World Bank, as one of the great drivers of globalization. But they had said it before to no avail, and so it was happening again. The World Bank guys talked about rates of return and the burden on investors, and the unacceptable doubling of the price of the kilowatt hour. Everyone there had said all of this before, with the same lack of communication and absence of concrete results.

Charlie saw that the meeting was useless. … The bank guy was going on about differential costs, “and that’s why it’s going to be oil for the next twenty, thirty, maybe even fifty years,” he concluded. “None of the alternatives are competitive.”

Charlie’s pencil tip snapped. “Competitive for what?” he demanded.

He had not spoken until that point, and now the edge in his voice stopped the discussion. Everyone was staring at him. He stared back at the World Bank guys.

“Damage from carbon dioxide emission costs about $35 a ton, but in your model no one pays for it. The carbon that British Petroleum burns per year, by sale and operation, runs up a damage bill of fifty billion dollars. BP reported a profit of twenty billion, so actually it’s thirty billion in the red, every year. Shell reported a profit of twenty-three billion, but if you add the damage cost it would be eight billion in the red. These companies should be bankrupt. You support their exteriorizing of costs, so your accounting is bullshit. You’re helping bring on the biggest catastrophe in human history. If the oil companies burn the five hundred gigatons of carbon that you are describing as inevitable because of your financial shell games, then two-thirds of the species on the planet will be endangered, including humans. But you keep talking about fiscal discipline and competitive edges in profit differentials. It’s the stupidest head-in-the-sand response possible.”

The World Bank guys flinched at this. “Well,” one of them said, “we don’t see it that way.”

Charlie said, “That’s the trouble. You see it the way the banking industry sees it, and they make money by manipulating money irrespective of effects in the real world. You’ve spent a trillion dollars of American taxpayers’ money over the lifetime of the bank, and there’s nothing to show for it. You go into poor countries and force them to sell their assets to foreign investors and to switch from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, then when the prices of these crops collapse you call this nicely competitive on the world market. The local populations starve and you then insist on austerity measures even though your actions have shattered their economy. You order them to cut their social services so they can pay off their debts to you and your financial community investors, and you devalue their real assets and then buy them on the cheap and sell them elsewhere for more. The assets of that country have been strip-mined and now belong to international finance. That’s your idea of development. You were intended to be the Marshall Plan, and you’ve been the United Fruit Company.”

One of the World Bank guys muttered, “But tell us what you really think,” while putting his papers in his briefcase. His companions snickered, and this gave him courage to continue: “I’m not gonna stay and listen to this,” he said.

“That’s fine,” Charlie said. “You can leave now and get a head start on looking for a new job.”

The man blinked hostilely at him. But he did not otherwise move.

Charlie stared at him for a while, working to collect himself. He lowered his voice and spoke as calmly as he could manage. He outlined the basics of the new mission architecture, including the role that the World Bank was now to play; but he couldn’t handle going into detail with people who were now furious at him, and in truth had never been listening. … So Charlie wrapped it up, then gave them a few copies of the mission architecture outline, thick books that had been bound just that week. “Your part of the plan is here in concept. Take it back and talk it over with your people, and come to us with your plan to enact it. We look forward to hearing your ideas. I’ve got you scheduled for a meeting on the sixth of next month, and I’ll expect your report then.” Although, since we will be decapitating your organization, it won’t be you guys doing the reporting, he didn’t add.

And he gathered his papers and left the room.


Whooooo-ya … if only.

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