Adam Aron’s The Climate Crisis: Science, Impacts, Policy, Psychology, Justice, Social Movements

Adam Aron has written an ambitious book, one he intends to be the book on the subject of the climate crisis; and he has succeeded in many ways, especially for those who want as many of the specifics as possible.  He has written a book carefully supported by evidence and much research that not only includes the science behind “global heating”—his term for “global warming”—but also argues for the necessity of generating sufficient public pressure to facilitate political will to force governments and corporations to take action to keep fossil fuels in the ground, while transitioning to an electricity-based infrastructure and society.

The Climate Crisis

Aron’s first three chapters are not anything that someone familiar with the issue of climate change would not have seen before, although he has put them together in a coherent package that is quite useful.  He joins the information with charts that well illustrate his points.  He notes that James Hansen testified to Congress in 1988 that human activities were affecting the planet to dangerous levels, and that “Since his testimony, more than 50 percent of all greenhouse gases in human history have been emitted…” Further, Aron argues, “Time is now running out to keep global heating from reaching levels that would be catastrophic for millions of species and for organized human existence as we know it” (p. 7).

He describes the history of efforts to stop climate change, climate science, and impacts of these changes.  Most importantly—and he refers to it numerous times throughout the book—“… as the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading and internationally recognized “expert” on climate change-KS] recognized in 2018, even a 66-percent probability of keeping [planetary warming below 1.5 degrees Centigrade] would require cutting 2010-level emissions by about 45 percent by 2030” (p. 57).  [According to statistica.com, greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 were 46.99 billion metric tons; a 45 percent cut would limit emissions to approximately 21.5 billion tons; the actual emissions in 2022 were 53.79 billion tons-KS.]

The importance of not exceeding a warming of more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade is monumental; it is the upper limit, according to general scientific consensus, to prevent potentially irreversible effects of climate change (Chu, 2023).  Above 1.5 C, it gets riskier as the temperature increases, ultimately risking crossing “tipping points,” beyond which processes initiated cannot be stopped or reversed, such as a river boat going over a waterfall!


The fourth chapter looks at capitalism and the climate crisis.  It is in the fourth chapter where things get interesting and he opens up ideas that heretofore have been confined overwhelmingly to those who are political radicals of one sort or the other; here, he essentially connects the climate crisis with capitalism.

In Chapters 5, 6, and 7, he focuses on how people who deny climate change develop their beliefs, and he suggests how that can be counteracted.

In Chapters 8, 9, and 10, he focuses from moving people to getting them to engage in collective action.

Aron begins Chapter 8 with a quote from long-time environmental activist and author, Brian Tokar, who argues that the problem of the climate crisis “is not a technical problem to be ‘solved’, but rather a systemic problem, rooted deeply in social and economic structures.”

 Aron talks about national responsibilities for greenhouse gas emissions, noting that the New York Times argues that “just twenty-three wealthy, developed countries have been responsible for half of all historical CO2 emissions, while more than 150 nations have shared responsibility for the other half.”  He further notes that “the USA ,,,  by itself is responsible for almost a quarter of all of these historical emissions,” and then comes Germany, the UK, Japan, and France, with the rest being western European countries and Australia” (p. 192).

Further in this chapter, Aron focuses on the problems of “extractivism,” the metal mining and projects to extract raw materials from the Earth to help advance the supply of renewable energy.  And here he’s generally focusing on multinational corporations’ effects on developing countries.

The rest of the chapter is extremely interesting:  he focuses on technical and market solutions to the climate crisis.  In doing this, among technical fixes, he considers large hydropower projects (dams); bioenergy, biomass, and biofuels; new nuclear power plants; and geoengineering.  Under the section on market fixes, he considers cap-and-trade efforts, carbon offsets, and carbon pricing or taxing.  In short, he argues, “… the only sure way to prevent more global heating is to leave remaining fossil fuels in the ground and invest in a fast and massive build-up of renewable energy sources” (p. 220).

And what I find especially of interest in this chapter is that he carefully examines and largely refutes all of the various proposals put forth by multinational capital and most of their controlled governments, including projects advanced by the US government.  To carefully address these various proposals in the way that he did should provide activists with ammunition to knowledgably oppose these kinds of projects.

Chapter 9 is where Aron provides a technical and social framework to guide climate action.  He starts off by quoting another climate activist and author, this time Stan Cox, who argues “to free ourselves from fossil fuels as soon as we can, to establish ecological stability and to ensure fair shares for all” is our goal.  Aron follows that path.

He examines the technical feasibility of the transition to renewable energy by examining challenges for a near-total reliance on renewable energy sources—examining the cost; and land, raw materials, and energy requirements—and then advances a framework for political action, including economic support, regulations and policies, social programs, and strategies for combatting the compulsion for consumption.

The penultimate chapter, Chapter 10, is exciting.  Although he did not put as sharply as would have I, he argues the necessity of collective action to make the changes necessary:  “… the kinds of changes that will be necessary to complete the transition from fossil fuels in time to avoid the worst consequences of global heating are unlikely to take place without concerted governmental oversight and action, which in turn is unlikely to take place unless national decision makers are compelled to act by pressure from below” (253).  In other words, people have to get mobilized and organize themselves to force governmental officials to do the right thing when they are deciding these issues; without this grassroots mobilization, it is unlikely that the government will take necessary action.

In this chapter, Aron discusses social movement theory, including forms of organizing, types of struggle, frames of meaning, and locus at which social change is focused.  He then discusses social psychology theory.  Then he gives examples of climate change movements, during which he discusses 350.org, Extinction Rebellion, and the Sunrise Movement.  He then follows with an interview of Masada Disenhouse, the Executive Director of San Diego 350.  Then, interestingly, he discusses how an individual can be active without being an activist, which suggests a number of things one can do to contribute to making the world better without having to devote your life to activism, suggesting how they can contribute to the struggle.  This is something quite useful that I have not seen previously.

Altogether, he concludes his book with three “conclusions”:  (1) that international agreements will not be made workable until they have succeeded at the national level; (2) that to avoid catastrophe, fossil fuels must be left in the ground; and (3) that the key to widespread public support can only be won when individuals and collective efforts join together create active grassroots mobilization.

There is both a lot of excellent information and, in my opinion, political confusion in this book.  As far as I can tell, his analysis of the climate crisis is well done and congruent with many critical thinkers.  It seems excellent and is based on the best scientific knowledge currently available.

However, there are a number of areas that I feel are inadequate for his purposes and are worthy of further discussion.  I take them in turn.

Aron never considers conservation efforts; and “conservation” is not even listed in the index.  This is important because there are studies showing that we cannot replace all energy requirements met today by fossil fuels with renewables alone; we are going to have to considerably reduce our energy usage or continue to use fossil fuels.

His proposed “solution” or set of solutions is contradictory and inadequate; like many “Green New Deal” advocates, he has thoughtful ideas.  However, while he believes that capitalism is causing the environmental problems, his proposed solutions are limited to reforms—yes, fairly radical reforms in places—but they do not address the heart of the problem:  capitalism is killing us.  We simply cannot live as we are today, building onto the growth model, and ensure the survivability of large numbers of humans, animals, and many plants into the 22nd Century:  we are going to have to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and quickly.  From the science I’m reading, there is no alternative.

While I think he’s absolutely correct to specifically interrogate the role of capitalism in the role of climate change—and agree with many of his findings—I don’t think he goes far enough.  While I do not know if Aron considers himself a Marxist or not, his approach limits his work in ways comparable to how Marxist analysis is generally limited.

In other words, the strength of the Marxist approach is the focus on the economic system and the political institutions that support it (specifically, their version of the state).  And this is certainly a key part of any critical analysis. 

However, Aron ignores the issue of power and domination beyond the economic system.  In other words, I argue that there is more to the world than economics; that there is also a political realm that is not limited by economic production, distribution, and consumption.  [There are other realms as well—such as community and kinship—but I want to limit my comments here to the political aspect.]  In other words, this political realm operates on its own dynamic—the striving for power and domination—that is not constrained by economics.

This is important in that it allows us to include the concept of “Empire” in our analysis.  Basically, the idea of Empire incorporates much of human history, where those having power actively seek to dominate and control not only people and area of their own land, but also those of other lands, whether because of seeking economic resources (such as raw materials, natural resources, related production, and/or human beings for home-country development), geo-strategic advantages (such as naval base locations), or even social benefits [such as demonizing “others” (i.e., “minorities”)] so as to buy social acquiescence from the majority), or any other reason that those seeking this power can put forth; a capitalist analysis simply cannot encompass all of this without stretching itself all out of shape.

In other words, Empire allows us to understand how one capitalist—or usually, one group of capitalists—can either seek to dominate or protect itself from another group of capitalists:  by mobilizing the productive capacity of multiple capitalists and converting some of their economic resources into military weaponry under military leadership of armies, navies, and air forces, as well as other forces such as the CIA and/or the NED (the so-called National Endowment for Democracy), they extend the reach of their power.  Thus, capitalists within an empire are able to project their control and/or defend their land in ways simply unavailable through general capitalist production.  And, when used offensively, an empire can secure more economic resources, geo-strategic advantages and/or social benefits for enhanced capitalist production and profitability not only in the “home” country but in the subjugated lands as well.

Aron makes the same mistake that many leftists today make:  they do not recognize that the United States of America is the homeland of the US Empire, the greatest, strongest, and most destructive empire (to date) that the world has ever seen.  Accordingly, there is no discussion in this book of the US Empire seeking to maintain control over as much of the world as possible since at least 1945, if not earlier.

Nonetheless, the cost of the US Empire has been great on the world’s peoples, with the costs escalating dramatically since 1981, with the Reagan Administration but continuing under both subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations.  Its military is the single largest polluter in the world, and each invasion involves much killing and destruction, and is an environmental nightmare that continues for decades if not longer:  Vietnam is still suffering from Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance utilized in the American war, which ended in 1975, and Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering as well, along with the other countries bombed by the US Empire but not invaded (Libya, Syria, and former Yugoslavia come immediately to mind although the list is much longer.) 

Over $18 trillion dollars of US taxpayer money has been spent on the Empire’s war machine alone—I refuse to call it “defense”—over the past forty years, resources stolen from the American people that could have been utilized for advancing education, providing health care, improving the infrastructure, addressing social inequities, aiding environmental recovery, addressing homelessness, and mitigating against climate change here at home.  Somehow, this was not mentioned, much less addressed, by Aron.  [While I am commenting specifically on Aron’s positions, I do not mean to demonize him; most leftists still do not understand the US Empire, and I am arguing it is way past time that each of us incorporate this understanding into our respective analyzes.]

However, an Empire cannot depend solely on its economic and military power alone; it must gain acquiescence if not active support from its “home” population; after all, this home population is where it has got to obtain “soldiers,” the cannon fodder, for the imperial armies.  Thus, there needs to be a cultural apparatus to tell the population that basically—and traditionally—“war is good business; invest your sons” (and more recently, daughters), and encourage them to do so.  This gets projected in many ways, starting with the education system, and this usually includes the religious system, but this is where plays, novels, TV, radio, film, and much of social media come into importance; seize the imagination, seize the acquiescence! 

If you think I’m exaggerating, think about all of the cultural energy in the United States that goes into sports (both local high school and college, as well as professional); explicit sexual material (“pornography” and all things related); celebrity gossip; beauty, fashion, and modeling; and news production; each intended to draw attention away from problems such as hunger, poverty, and inequality, much less capitalism, war, empire, and the climate crisis.

And these “diversions” are not “small” things; each of these areas require overall investments in the multiple billions of dollars, seeking even greater profits.

And we on the left have generally failed to include the mainstream corporate media and their role in “setting the agenda” in our analysis as to what people should focus upon.  During Fall 2023, an incredible amount of attention was paid to Donald Trump’s attempted coup on January 6, 2021—as it should have been—but there was so much focus on the details of this that the climate crisis had all but disappeared from US news reporting.  Then, after October 7, 2023, when Hamas launched its military attack on Israel, almost all coverage was of Israel as “victim,” and for a long time, was the only perspective seriously reported; it was only after massive protests across the US that some news from a Palestinian perspective or even from critical Israeli sources even was shown.

At the same time, despite all of the extravaganza, our political elections are generally devoid of providing substantive information and addressing real issues, usually only providing to audiences of Americans the “thinking” of those who have been able to raise the most money from the rich.  Money buys further attention which, in turn, attracts further financial contributions, which allows the successful candidate to represent the interests of contributors, not constituents.  And much of the political “debate” is in-fighting among political candidates; and almost as soon as one election cycle is completed, other candidates emerge and start the diversionary process anew, always seeking money, time, and attention.

At the same time, however, even these people are constrained by the interests of the “news” producers, who do not allow candidates to address issues inimical to their’s, or to go beyond their limited parameters; think how little time has been devoted to the climate crisis in contemporary mainstream political discussion/debate.

And yet, the consequences of such elections can have profound impacts on people around the globe, both abroad and at home.  They behoove those of us who are politically aware to participate, at least to certain extents.

In short, this larger “ideological apparatus” is as important to the Empire as is the economic system or the war machine although perhaps not as immediately noticeable.

And, once established, cultural norms become especially important because of the dominative power they project over subjects; questioning established norms, and especially challenging them individually, risks making oneself vulnerable to counterattack, however defined, but covering the range from denigration, mockery, to being made to feel vulnerable and, ultimately, physical violence.

Thus, central for effective cultural domination is the establishment of individualism as desirable; “I don’t want to be with anyone else; they’ll betray me, they’ll cheat on me, they’ll make me limit my desires.”  And they may persuade me to look at things differently than I would on my own.

Yet—and this is the key point—individualism precludes resistance at much of any level.  And this is illustrated by the old saying, “You can’t fight City Hall,” a warning, if there ever was one, of the futility of challenging power, whether structurally, culturally, or even normatively.

However, that saying and all it suggests can be easily undermined by simply adding one word, which illuminates the power of collectivity:  “You can’t fight City Hall alone!”  Add that one word, and you change everything:  broadscale social change, while perhaps extremely difficult it might still be, is now possible when you seek others to join you in the same project.

This is where we come back to capitalism, which is essential to confront.  The fact is that capitalism is killing us.  And it’s killing us through growth; an essential requirement of capitalism is that it must grow to survive; i.e., it is a growth machine.  And it is so much of a growth machine that it must grow beyond what is needed for survival or even living at a sustainable level by every human being on the planet; it must create the demand for growth beyond what is naturally there.  In other words, to put it in terms perhaps more metaphorically understandable, it is like a cancer that must continue to grow even if it destroys the host, ultimately causing its own destruction and demise.

In plain language, we either kill the cancer or we kill the host:  there is no alternative.

The point I’m making here is that Aron is basically on target:  our established production system threatens the existence of humans, animals, and most plants on this planet.  By utilizing fossil fuels for energy, each—oil, coal, and natural gas which, when burnt, attack the atmosphere surrounding and protecting the planet from the sun’s rays by emitting “greenhouse gases” (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and low altitude ozone)—are contributing to the escalating threat to survival of living things on this planet.

As Aron has explicated, for over 100 years, scientists have shown that adding carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere has raised the temperature of the Earth.  We now know that for over 800,000 years—no misprint!—the amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere have never exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm).  Yes, natural processes, such as exploding volcanoes have released CO2 into the atmosphere, causing heating to increase and decrease over time, but never in this time period has it ever exceeded 300 ppm.  Until around the year 1950. Today, according to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), one of the most scientifically renown bodies in the world, it is 422 ppm (see NASA, 2023).

As the greenhouse gases have attacked the atmosphere, which is overwhelmingly made up of oxygen (78%) and nitrogen (21%), it has allowed more heat from the sun to get inside of the atmosphere and keep more of what gets in for a longer period of time.  This has warmed the planet approximately 1.1 degree Centigrade since the 1850-1900 period, roughly the beginning of widespread industrialization.

While that might not seem like much of a warming, nonetheless, it has caused myriad changes to our planet.  Most importantly, it has melted glaciers and the ice that cover the planet, and this has led to rising oceans, changes in weather patterns around the world (with increased deaths and destruction by hurricanes and typhoons, along with more deforestation and increased fire damages), death of coral reefs (the home of plankton, the base of the aqua-marine food system that feeds approximately one-third of the world’s population), etc., etc.  And the melting ice does not reflect as much sunlight back into space, keeping that heat inside the atmosphere, and further increasing the temperature of the planet, which leads to more ice melting….

To prevent this problem from escalating further, emissions must be stopped and, ideally, the CO2 and associated chemicals removed from the atmosphere; but in any case, stopped. 

And not in the real-distant future:  if we don’t make major changes by roughly 2030, we’re going to see the beginning of extermination of the human species by the turn of the 22nd Century, a mere 77 years from now.  That’s within the lifetimes of many of us, and certainly within the lifetime of Gen Z’s children.

This is why incorporating empire into our analysis is so important:  it allows us a way forward beyond which a simple capitalist analysis does not.  By arguing that the United States is the physical homeland of the US Empire—the site of economic production to produce the military weaponry, the financing that enables its use, and the location of politicians who can decide to use/not use it—the US effort to dominate the other countries of the world (usually through political and economic domination, instead of the traditional territorial acquisition) is foregrounded and brought into focus. 

The US has been consciously trying to dominate the rest of the world since at least 1945, if not earlier—and that US governments under both the Democrats and Republicans increasingly have been diverting resources away from the American people since about 1981 so as to ensure the continuation of the US Empire (see Scipes, 2023a).  Accordingly, with this understanding, we can show the necessity of building global solidarity between “ordinary” Americans and the peoples of the world for the good of each of us.

From that, we can mobilize our resources to join together to challenge our respective forms of capitalism that is threatening to destroy us all.

We Americans must reject the US Empire’s efforts to dominate other people’s out of solidarity with the peoples of the world, as only through global solidarity do we have a chance to kill the cancer of capitalism; in other words, only by uniting in global efforts to refuse to overproduce can we have a chance to stop the climate crisis.

That will look different in diverse countries.  The imperial countries, who have tried to capture and monopolize the resources of the world, will have to give up usage of large amounts of them.  This is so as to give the formerly colonized countries additional resources to improve the lives of their peoples, and then keeping the rest in the ground.

In other words, by recognizing the US Empire, we activists are forced to look at all the countries of the world, and not just concentrate on our own.

Concurrently, the issue is do we forthrightly confront that problem collectively and try to come up with solutions addressing historical inequities and having the least impact on the largest numbers of people, or do we continue as usual, and let the rich make the decisions—either directly or through their bought-off politicians—which will hurt most of us dramatically and detrimentally?  That is the issue at hand.  Yet nowhere in this book is this laid out so forthrightly.

And finally, I must go even further.  To his credit, Aron recognizes that mere “policy positions,” scientific papers, etc., while necessary, are not sufficient to fight climate change; we need to mobilize the citizen to force the end of greenhouse gas emissions as well as other forms of environmental destruction.  He is clear on that.

However, in my mind, even that recognition is not sufficient.  We must have a program by which to try to win support from the US population as part of the global upsurge; for an earlier effort, see Scipes (2017).  But I’d also go further than Aron in another way:  he argues for mobilization, but that, too, is not sufficient; as I’ve argued elsewhere (Scipes, 2023b), we need to build organization as the foundation for mobilization.

In short, I argue that while Aron is raising critically important issues—and I give him credit for going as far as he has done—I don’t think he goes far enough in fully understanding them so that we can attempt to resolve them.

CONCLUSION

Overall, how do I see Adam Aron’s The Climate Crisis?  I think the scientific material to be quite strong, although I wish he could write more directly; his use of charts and graphs is quite helpful.

I am less impressed with his political “answers.”  However, he raises a lot of key points not usually included that have stimulated my responses, and I expect they will raise responses from others.

I think this is an important contribution, and definitely deserves additional attention.

References:

Chu, Jennifer. 2023.  “Explained:  The 1.5 C Climate Benchmark.”  MIT News, August 27.  On-line at https://news.mit.edu/2023/explained-climate-benchmark-rising-temperatures-0827.

NASA.  2023.  Evidence as to climate change:  on-line at https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.

Scipes, Kim.

—        2017.  “Addressing Seriously the Environmental Crisis:  A Bold, ‘Outside of the Box’ Suggestion for Addressing Climate Change and Other Forms of Environmental Destruction.”  Class, Race and Corporate Power.  On-line at http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/classracecorporatepower/vol5/iss1/2.

—        2023. “Forty Years of the United States in the World.”  Z Network.  On-line at https://znetwork.org/znetarticle/special-history-series-40-years-of-the-united-states-in-the-world-1981-2023/.

—        2023.    “Organizing to Save the World:  Building Organizations from the Group-up.” Green Social Thought.  On-line at http://www.greensocialthought.org/content/organizing-save-world-building-organizations-ground.

Cambridge University Press, 2023; Paperback; ISBN: 978 1108987158

Kim Scipes, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana, and a long-time political activist.  He has published four books and over 260 articles in peer-reviewed and specialty journals, general interest magazines, and local newspapers in the US and 11 different countries; a complete list of his publications, many with links to original articles, can be found at https://www.pnw.edu/faculty/kim-scipes-ph-d/publications/.  Scipes taught a course on “Environment and Social Justice” bi-annually between 2006-2022.

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