This month will mark a critical juncture in the struggle to avoid climate catastrophe. At the COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, negotiators will be faced with the urgent need to get the world economy off the business-as-usual track that will take the Earth up to and beyond 3 degrees Celsius of excess heating before this century’s end, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet so far, the pledges of rich nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions have been far too weak to rein in the temperature rise. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s climate plans hang in the balance. If Congress fails to pass the reconciliation bill, the next opportunity for the United States to take effective climate action may not arise until it’s too late.
For the past several decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most forceful and persuasive voices confronting injustice, inequity, and the threat posed by human-caused climate chaos to civilization and the Earth. I was eager to know professor Chomsky’s views on the roots of our current dire predicament and on humanity’s prospects for emerging from this crisis into a livable future. He graciously agreed to speak with me via video chat. The text here is an abridged version of a conversation we had on Oct. 1, 2021.
Professor Chomsky, now 92, is the author of numerous bestselling political works, translated into scores of languages. His critiques of power and advocacy on behalf of the political agency of the common person have inspired generations of activists and organizers. He has been institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1976. His most recent books are Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance, with Marv Waterstone, and Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet, with Robert Pollin and C.J. Polychroniou.
Stan Cox: Most of the nations that will be meeting in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference on October 31–November 12, 2021, have made emissions-reduction pledges. For the most part, those pledges are wholly inadequate. What principles do you think should guide the effort to prevent climate catastrophe?
Noam Chomsky: The initiators of the Paris Agreement intended to have a binding treaty, not voluntary agreements, but there was an impediment. It’s called the Republican Party. It was clear that the Republican Party would never accept any binding commitments. The Republican organization, which has lost any pretense of being a normal political party, is almost solely dedicated to the welfare of the superrich and the corporate sector and cares absolutely nothing about the population or the future of the world. The Republican organization would never have accepted a treaty. In response, the organizers reduced their goal to a voluntary agreement, which has all the difficulties that you mentioned.
We’ve lost six years, four under the Trump administration, which was openly dedicated to maximizing the use of fossil fuels and dismantling the regulatory apparatus that, to some extent, had limited their lethal effects. To some extent, these regulations protected sectors of the population from pollution, mostly the poor and people of color. But they’re the ones who, of course, face the main burden of pollution. It’s the poor people of the world who live in what Trump called “shithole countries” that suffer the most; they have contributed the least to the disaster, and they suffer the worst.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As you write in your new book, The Path to a Livable Future, there is indeed a path to a livable future. There are ways to have responsible, sane, and racially just policies. It’s up to all of us to demand them, something young people around the world are already doing.
Other countries have their own things to answer for, but the United States has one of the worst records in the world. The United States blocked the Paris Agreement before Trump eventually got into office. But it was under Trump’s instructions that the United States pulled out of the agreement altogether.
If you look over at the more sane Democrats, who are far from guiltless, there are people called moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, a democrat from West Virginia and the leading recipient of fossil fuel funding, whose position is that of the fossil fuel companies, which is, as he put it, no elimination, just innovation. That’s ExxonMobil’s view, too: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” they say. “We’re a soulful corporation. We’re investing in some futuristic ways to remove from the atmosphere the pollution that we’re pouring into it. Everything’s fine, just trust us.” No elimination, just innovation, which may or may not come, and if it does, it will probably be too late and too limited.
Take the IPCC report that just appeared. It was much more dire than previous ones and said we must eliminate fossil fuels step by step, every year, and be free of them completely within a few decades. A few days after the report was released, Joe Biden issued a plea to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil cartel to increase production, which would lower gas prices in the United States and improve his position with the population. There was immediate euphoria in the petroleum journals. There’s lots of profit to be made, but at what expense? It was nice to have the human species for a couple of hundred thousand years, but evidently that’s long enough. After all, the average life span of a species on Earth is apparently around 100,000 years. So why should we break the record? Why organize for a just future for all when we can trash the planet, helping rich corporations get richer?