In this interview, Graciela Chichilnisky, a world leading economist and one of the major climate change forces in our era, talks about the reality of climate change science, the reasons why some corporate interests continue to deny the facts about it, and explains why climate change may represent the greatest geopolitical challenge facing humanity.
Marcus Rolle: Despite the international scientific community’s consensus on climate change, there are still people who deny that climate change exists or that it is caused by human activity. In fact, some of those naysayers have been funded by corporate interests such as ExxonMobil, as revealed by Exxon’s former in-houses climate change expert Lenny Bernstein. However, the evidence for global warming is overwhelming. Why, specifically, are some corporate interests bent on hiding the truth about climate change, and what’s your opinion on the effects of global warming?
Graciela Chichilnisky: Some of the naysayers have been funded by corporate interests as was revealed by Lenny Bernstein, the in-house climate change expert of Exxon. Lenny fought me tooth and nail in Kyoto during December 1997, while I designed and then wrote the Carbon Market into the United Nations Kyoto Protocol. At the end the carbon market prevailed and is now international law, and ironically it is now advocated by six of the largest oil companies in the world and this includes ExxonMobil.
Corporate interests are far reaching and they can permeate the entire economy and the politics of a nation as a whole. In the case of fossil fuels the situation is compounded by the central role played by energy in the economy. Fossil fuels are all about energy, and energy is the mother of all markets. Everything is made with energy, your home, your car, your food and the computer on which this article is written and read. For this reason the right to use fossil fuels is very basic and it is close to land’s rights; as land’s rights, the rights to fossil fuels can be the cause of wars. It is all about values. Some say that the right to fossil fuels is about the right to use the earth’s resources, which were provided by God to humans, and they hold this as a human right whether or not burning fossil fuels can cause catastrophes and damage irrevocably the rest of the world.
Tackling climate change is like abolishing slavery. It is so deeply felt that it can cause wars. 150 years ago it was nearly obvious to everybody that slavery must disappear, because of basic human principles and of the most sophisticated arguments about freedom, civil rights and even economics. Yet 150 years ago the US fought a fratricide war that was the bloodiest in the nations’ history, and tore the nation apart to defend the right to own slaves. The South lost, but it nevertheless attempted to resuscitate the war many times despite that.
US historians say that the economic value that is at stake from abolishing fossil fuels is about the same as the value that was involved in eliminating slavery in the US 150 years ago. The abolition of fossil fuels can destroy today the largest balance sheets in the planet: these are the balance sheets of the largest oil companies. It is not surprising that emotions and economic interests of that size run amok and cloud reason.
MR: You have said that climate change is the mother of all geopolitical challenges. Can you elaborate a bit on this?
GC: Climate change is all about the use of fossil fuels: over two thirds of the world’s CO2 emissions that cause climate change come from burning fossil fuels to produce energy. Fossil fuel energy is today the basis of industrialization, and its use since WWII is what is causing climate change. The period since WWII is when the world economy globalized, where the North and the South wealth gap increased deeply and became three times larger what it was before, when abject poverty led over 1.3 billion people to live below the level of satisfaction of basic needs, and on the brink of survival. The Bretton Woods institutions were created after WWII: the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and they were dominated by the US that become nearly 60% of the world economy after the destruction of Germany and Japan. The Bretton Woods institutions used financial tools, denominated in US dollars, to encourage and coerce 80% of the planet’s population in the developing nations to follow a resource intensive form of economic development, leading to the over-extraction and exports of their fossil fuel resources and other important natural resources at the lowest prices ever – except perhaps for the prices we face today –and their overuse in rich nations. Fossil fuels are intimately connected with globalization – indeed they are the basis of the current wave of globalization. Fossil fuels are the basis of industrialization and they are traded through international markets: the international markets are dominated by rich nations, and these markets grew three times faster than the world economy as a whole since WWII. In these markets, poor nations that house 80% of the world population over-extract the earth’s resources within their territory for exports, and export them at prices that are lower than replacement costs, leading to sustained poverty, while rich nations who house 20% of the world’s population overuse the world’s resources and benefit from them at very low prices. This implacable process has led to a 3x increase in the world’s wealth gap between the poor South and the rich North since WWII. The image is just 20% of the world’s population siphoning and overusing the great majority of world’s resources. But the process has reached its natural limits: the increasing inequality between rich and poor nations in the world economy and the corresponding overexploitation of resources is the cause of the global environmental crisis of our times. It is threatening every nation in the world. Global environmental risks are worst for the poor nations, but every nation is at risk from the massive overuse of resources our lopsided economies and international trade policies of the Bretton Woods institutions caused. Climate change means the rise of the seas which has the same level all over the world. While the poor will suffer more, rich nations will suffer $trillions in economic losses, according to OECD reports in Paris, and will face massive immigration flows that will threaten their institutions, as the Pentagon anticipates. Read more
In this new interview, Graciela Chichilnisky, a world leading economist and one of the major climate change forces in our era, talks about growing up in Argentina and the legacy of the Peron revolution, her struggles with gender discrimination in a male-dominated world of science, and the need to design new global institutions to address climate change.
Chichilnisky has published scores of books, including Saving Kyoto, and some 350 scientific articles in the world’s most prestigious economics and mathematics journals. The Washington Post calls her an “A-list star” and Time Magazine a “Hero of the environment. In addition, Chichilnisky has made revolutionary contributions to the world economy – like creating the concept of Basic Needs and the UN Carbon Market.
Marcus Rolle: You were born in Argentine and your father was a minister in the Juan Peron government. What was it like growing up in Argentina at the time of the Peron reign?
Graciela Chichilnisky: When I was a child, Buenos Aires seemed a magical place at a magical time. Buenos Aires is a lively and beautiful city, people were interesting and intense. In reality, Buenos Aires then reminds me of New York now: a graceful old city full of live, intensity and culture. And the Argentine countryside is extraordinary – Patagonia is a huge empty land of glaciers, cattle, sheep, whales, penguins and pink flamingos. The peaceful beauty of the Atlantic Coast, the majesty of the snowy Andes that have some of the tallest mountains in the world, the Iguazu Falls in the North boundary with Brazil, the enormity of the Pampas, it was all magic.
My father was a Professor of Neurology at the University of Buenos Aires and a minister of Public Heath under Peron and he built hundreds of hospitals all over Argentina. He was the doctor of Eva Peron and a friend of Juan Peron, who admired him. I still have some of the letters that Perón hand wrote to my father. Life under Peron then was intoxicatingly eventful. Evita took on the landed oligarchy and stood firm with the “descamisados” – the shirtless. In reality Evita and Peron represented the industrial revolution while the landed gentry represented the Spanish aristocracy. Landowners vs shirtless. The land in Argentina is so enormously rich and fertile – comparable only to the Ukraine and the Great Lakes in the US – that Argentina in the 1950’s was bound to become one of the richest countries in the world. But the forces of darkness won and there were coups d’etat that removed Peron after Evita’s early tragic death, the military dictators made torture a staple and dedicated the nation to exports of natural resources such as wheat and meat. No industrialization and a war pitting the landowning oligarchs against the labor unions. This destroyed the social advances of Peron and his intentions of industrializing Argentina. Even today a visitor can observe the industrial revolution that never happened. Eventually however and with the help of Margaret Thatcher – her best role perhaps – the military lost its prestige and was unmasked as brutal and incompetent and nowadays everybody is a Peronist. The recent presidential elections pitted one Peronist candidate against another. Even my spell corrector knows how to spell Peron and Evita and despite their errors they emerged as the heroes of the people – and the military-religious complex as the villains of the people. In a way the entire world now needs a Peronist revolution to counteract the enormous inequality of wealth that was created during the period of globalization and is destroying everything and the most basic human values along with the rest.
MR: At the age of 17 you went to the US to study at MIT as a graduate student under some rather unique circumstances. Would you relate the background of the events that brought you to the US?
GC: I was finishing high school when I started taking University courses without permission – there I met wonderful professors and students who opened my eyes to the world of science and mathematics – it was a great privilege. But towards the end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s the military staged several coup d’etats and in one of them they closed down the University in Buenos Aires. One MIT professor who was there at the time, the famous Warren Ambrose, a well known Mathematician, decided to take 6 Argentinian students to MIT to continue their studies, since the University had been indefinitely closed down. All of them were graduate students who were taking doctoral courses in Mathematics – except for me who never went to college. MIT accepted me, a single mother without a college degree, as a Special Graduate Student in Mathematics and the Ford Foundation gave me a scholarship. After a year of very hard but enjoyable work I came on top of the Mathematics PhD class at MIT — and then I became an official PHD student in Mathematics at MIT. This led me to obtain to a PhD in Mathematics, and then another PhD in Economics at UC Berkeley – two PhDs to compensate for the fact that I never got a college degree! Read more
In this highly insightful interview, climate change authority and leading economist Graciela Chichilnisky talks about the catastrophic threats that climate change pose to the future of the world if we fail to coordinate global actions aimed at the curbing of emissions and the removal of carbon dioxide from the air through the revolutionary technology available. Professor Chichilnisky also argues, however, that technology isn’t magic, and that what is required for tackling global warming with carbon negative technologies are fundamental changes in the way the global economy and its institutions have functioned in the post-war era.
Marcus Rolle: You have been for many years one of the leading forces in climate-change efforts. How do we define climate change?
Graciela Chichilnisky: Climate change means a major shift in climate patterns, such as dramatic increase in the violence, frequency, length, and severity of climate events, including superstorms, tornadoes, typhoons, major floods, and long severe droughts, as well as other climate related environmental disasters. These events increase both in intensity and frequency as energy in the atmosphere increases, which occurs when the mean temperature increases. Climate change also means dramatic changes in long term climate patterns such as desertification, the alteration or the reversal of major ocean currents, changes in the sea level, melting of the planet’s polar caps, and glacier periods.
MR: What evidence do you think supports the argument that climate change is taking place and that the global mean temperature is driven up by human interference?
GC: The statistical evidence conforms to the definition just provided: the planet’s polar caps are indeed melting, and the sea levels are indeed rising. This has been measured and is directly observed. We have increasingly violent, frequent, lengthy and severe climate events, major floods and unusual severe droughts that do not correspond statistically to standard deviations from the mean. Thousands of scientists from all over the world who report to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have come to the conclusion that changes in temperature are associated with changes in the concentration of greenhouse gases, of which the main one is CO2, and that mean temperature is increasing due, for the most part, to the burning of fossil fuels – coal, natural gas and petroleum -– for economic purposes: industrialization. Read more
In these times of urgency, when weak and lazy minds would like us to oppose “thought” to “direct action”; and when, precisely because of this propensity for “thoughtless action”, everything is framed in the nihilistic terms of power for the sake of power – in such times what follows might mistakenly be construed as contemptuous.
And yet, as new struggles unfold, hard questions have to be asked. They have to be asked if, in an infernal cycle of repetition but no difference, one form of damaged life is not simply to be replaced by another.
The force of affect
Indeed the ground is fast shifting and a huge storm seems to be building up on the horizon. May 68? Soweto 76? Or something entirely different?
The winds blowing from our campuses can be felt afar, in a different idiom, in those territories of abandonment where the violence of poverty and demoralization having become the norm, many have nothing to lose and are now more than ever willing to risk a fight. They simply can no longer wait, having waited for too long now.
Out there, from almost every corner of this vast land seems to stretch a chain of young men and women rigid with tension.
As tension slowly swells up, it becomes ever more important to hold on to the things that truly matter.
A new cultural temperament is gradually engulfing post-apartheid urban South Africa. For the time being, it goes by the name “decolonization” – in truth a psychic state more than a political project in the strict sense of the term.
Whatever the case, everything seems to indicate that ours is a crucial moment in the redefinition of what counts as “social protagonism” in this country. Mobilizations over crucial matters such as access to health care, sanitation, housing, clean water or electricity might still be conducted in the name of the implicit promise inherent to the struggle years – that life after freedom will be “better” for all.
But fewer and fewer actually believe it. And as the belief in that promise fast recedes, raw affect, raw emotions and raw feelings are harnessed and recycled back into the political itself. In the process, new voices increasingly render old ones inaudible, while anger, rage and eventually muted grief seem to be the new markers of identity and agency.
Psychic bonds – in particular bonds of pain and bonds of suffering – more than lived material contradictions are becoming the real stuff of political inter-subjectivity. “I am my pain” – how many times have I heard this statement in the months since #RhodesMustFall emerged? “I am my suffering” and this subjective experience is so incommensurable that “unless you have gone through the same trial, you will never understand my condition” – the fusion of self and suffering in this astonishing age of solipsism and narcissism.
So it is that the relative cultural hegemony the African National Congress (ANC) exercised on black South African imagination during the years of the struggle is fast waning. In the bloody miasma of the Zuma years, these years of stagnation, rent-seeking and mediocrity parading as leadership, there is hardly any center left standing as institutions after institutions crumble under the weight of corruption, a predatory new black élite and the cynicism of former oppressors.
In the bloody miasma of the Zuma years, the discourse of black power, self-affirmation and worldliness of the early 1990s is in danger of being replaced by the discourse of fracture, injury and victimization – identity politics and the resentment that always is its corollary.
Rainbowism and its most important articles of faith – truth, reconciliation and forgiveness – is fading. Reduced to a totemic commodity figure mostly destined to assuage whites’ fears, Nelson Mandela himself is on trial. Some of the key pillars of the 1994 dispensation – a constitutional democracy, a market society, non-racialism – are also under scrutiny. They are now perceived as disabling devices with no animating potency, at least in the eyes of those who are determined to no longer wait. We are past the time of promises. Now is the time to settle accounts.
But how do we make sure that one noise machine is not simply replacing another? Read more
In light of the events concerning institutional reform in South Africa over the last two years, Achille Mbembe’s essay on the political life of the black majority is both timely and important. As other commentators have noted, however, the premises of his arguments are somewhat off-base. While T.O. Molefe critiques the connection Mbembe establishes between black majority rule and the actual material power and say in structural issues in South Africa, Nomalanga Mkhize argues that if the current generation does not have the terms to say what they mean it is because they have been failed by the education system. My own points of disagreement with Mbembe involve the pathologisation of black narrative, specificallyfically as this pertains to the aftermath of Apartheid, the resonances of which can be felt to this day. In what follows, I briefly engage with these concerns and points of disagreement.
Although concentrating primarily on the issue of movements such as Rhodes Must Fall for the greater part of his essay, Mbembe connects this to criticism of the ANC government and what he perceives as a politics of impatience and a pathology of victimisation among the black middle-class. With regards to the latter, he argues that there is no real discussion going on about politics because the terms of communication have been delimited by the appeal to affect, to “raw emotions and raw feelings [which] are harnessed and recycled back into the political itself”. This appeal, he maintains, leads to a shutting down of conversation because at any point black people can just say that “you would not understand unless you have endured the same”. There are several reasons why this leap in logic is problematic.
Firstly, Mbembe is collapsing distinctions between strata of political life for black South Africans, strata which are interrelated but distinct. On the one hand, we have the black-led ANC government which has been criticised for not meeting the promises of democracy, for corruption, and so on. On the other hand, we have the disillusionment with the socio-political dream of the Rainbow Nation where all people are treated as equally in the eyes of the law, God, socially, etc. Likewise, located within these systems are the black poor, working class, middle-class, and the elite. Any discussion of political life must therefore account for the levels of difference, difficulties, and privileges as signified by the political location of these subjects.
Both of these strata are further complicated by issues of capital and economic mobility. Black life is, in other words, multiferous and varied and cannot be accounted for or analysed using blanket terms such as “black South Africans”. “In the bloody miasma of the Zuma years,” Mbembe contends, “the discourse of black power, self-affirmation and worldliness of the early 1990s is in danger of being replaced by the discourse of fracture, injury and victimization – identity politics and the resentment that always is its corollary”. This generalisation does not do justice to the multiplicity of black life in South Africa. This means that if we are to start having a conversation about the political state of affairs in our country, there is indeed a need to come up with new terms of engagement, as Mbembe himself acknowledges.
Secondly, it is quite clear that Mbembe is directly referring to the recent nation-wide student ‘uprisings’ in his diagnosis of the mobilisation of affect and what he contemptuously calls “the fusing of self and suffering in this astonishing age of solipsism and narcissism”. This mobilisation, he argues, occurs within a discourse which anachronistically appropriates figures such as Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. Rather than condemning these associations, perhaps a more crucial questions should be: what kind of resonances do the student movements derive from Fanon and Biko and how are these resonances be remodelled to reflect contemporary circumstances? Two possible answers to these questions appear to be most relevant at present.
As exemplified by Mbembe’s own stance on affect, academia has a long and abiding suspicion of emotive language. Lewis Gordon and others have however highlighted Fanon’s use of anecdotal narrative to frame his philosophical musings. I would even go so far as to say that his philosophical and psychoanalytical observations stem directly from his engagement with his personal narrative. I do not share this suspicion of narrative, perhaps because I think there are certain dynamics which only come to light via the vehicle of narrative, rather than the stringent and sometimes over-policed language of academese. In the aftermath of human rights abuses such as apartheid, perhaps the main form of narrative that black South Africans can muster currently is that of the autobiographical. There is nothing remarkable or out of place about this, as many societies have adopted this strategy in the past (e.g. dearth of autobiographical writing on the Holocaust and slavery by survivors and/or their descendents). With regards to the uses of personal narrative to mobilise political thought, South Africa is by no means exceptional. This means that political mobilisation and, indeed its very language, need not adhere to established forms in order to be legitimate. In other words, the terms of engagement must be opened up to be more inclusive of all voices.
In his essay, Mbembe employs the psychoanalytical diction with reference to libidinal drives, while simultaneously attempting to regulate the terms through which the psychological impact of injustice on the psyche of black subjects. Rather than seeing expressions of pain as redemptive or as a means of gaining coherence with the self and with others, he instead perceives it as a destructive exercise. How do we heal if we are not able to express our pain? How is regulating the means through which this pain is expressed a constructive act? To be clear, I am not advocating for the freeflow acceptance of hate speech and racial hatred. Rather, I’m arguing that black people also need space to feel – yes, I’m using affect – themselves. Telling them that their stories do no intellectual work is misplaced. Is it not therefore possible that expressions of pain arise not so much out of victimhood, but rather as attempts to make sense of being survivors of an unjust past in order to come to terms with it and find ways or renegotiating a just future?
Perhaps it is the case that our discussions of political life are inadequate precisely because they neglect to factor in the psychological dynamics embedded within political discourse. What would be valuable would be to examine the ways in which the political and the psychological overlap to form a communal imaginary across all racial divides. It remains to be established how and in what form this kind of work could be undertaken.
Thando Njovane is a Flanagan Scholar and a literature PhD Candidate at the University of York. She holds a research MA from Rhodes University and has published on trauma and African fiction as well as higher education in South Africa. She is the founder and chair of Finding Africa, and a contributor to the Bokamoso African Leadership Forum