Starr Forum: Racing to the Precipice: Global Climate, Political Climate

Noam Chomsky speaking at MIT

MICHELLE NHUCH: I know you're not clapping for me. But anyway, on behalf of the MIT Center for International Studies, I'm Michelle, Director of Public Programs, and would like to welcome you to today's Starr Forum, which I'm delighted to see that everyone got the memo. First, however, I'd like to mention a few housekeeping items.

We have several upcoming events that we hope you're able to attend. The most recent one will be on April 6th, with the former Foreign Secretary of the UK, Jack Straw. He will speak on Brexit, Europe, and Trump. Yes, we've got a whole lot of good events in store for us.

On April 11th, we have an event on Digital Innovation and Africa, which will explore the consequences of Africa's leap-frog into new technologies. And on April 12th, we have a book talk with Ambassador Celso Amorim. He's Brazil's former Minister of Foreign Relations. His book is entitled Acting Globally, Memoirs of Brazil's Assertive Foreign Policy. Details for these talks and others are available on our website, or you can pick up a flyer on your way out.

Today's talk will conclude with a Q&A from the audience. For those asking questions, we really need you to line up behind the mics. We also ask that you are considerate of time and of others who want to ask questions, because this is a question and answer session, not a personal statement session.


Finally, it's truly an honor to introduce a man who needs no introduction. Please join me in welcoming Noam Chomsky.


NOAM CHOMSKY: First question, as always, is can you hear me? Yeah, OK. For quite a few years, I've been intrigued by an interesting debate that took place about 25 years ago between two great scientists, Carl Sagan, Ernst Mayr. They were discussing the likelihood of finding extraterrestrial intelligent life.

And Sagan, who looked at it from the point of view of an astrophysicist, calculated the number of planets more or less like Earth and concluded that the chances are quite high. Mayr, looking at it as a biologist, said, look, we have only one test case, namely Earth, which has had about 50 billion species. And we can raise the question what are the criteria for biological success on Earth, with 50 billion cases to look at.

And he pointed out that there is a striking regularity. The species that are successful, a lot of them around, basically, are those that mutate quickly like bacteria, or those that have a fixed niche like beetles, and they just stay there no matter what happens. And as you move up the scale of what we call intelligence, biological success declines.

So there are not many mammals. There are very few apes. The only reason there's a lot of cows is because we domesticate them. But by and large, biological success declines as intelligence increases.

Humans look like an exception, but that's a statistical blip-- just a tiny moment of evolutionary time-- last couple thousand years, actually. So his conclusion is that, I'll quote him, "The history of life on Earth refutes the claim that it is better to be smart than to be stupid." What it shows, in fact, is it's much better to be stupid than smart. That's the conclusion.

He also points out that the average lifespan of a species is about 100,000 years. We've doubled it. We're about 200,000, and so we're a little beyond the expected extinction point.

Well, that's the question I want to consider today. Is it better to be smart than stupid? It was addressed recently by a very good Indian writer. Amitav Ghosh has a book called The Great Derangement, Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

And in fact, our failure to address the most awesome challenge of human history-- with the possible exception of nuclear weapons-- is indeed a true derangement, and painful evidence for the plausibility of Mayr's thesis that it's better to be stupid than smart. Well, these are the two existential challenges that overwhelm anything else, completely overshadow all other discussions. And their severity and their imminence is illustrated graphically by the famous Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of American Scientists. It was initiated in 1947, right at the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

In 2015, and again in 2016, the hand was moved forward. Midnight means we're finished. The hand was moved forward to three minutes to midnight.

That's the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s, when there was a major war scare in the early Reagan years. The reasons that they gave were the mounting threat of nuclear war and the failure to deal with climate change. I'll quote-- what they said is, "At the time, the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon."

That was 2016. At the outset of the Trump term, they found-- I'm quoting-- "the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent." And they moved the clock to two and a half minutes to midnight.

The clock is ticking. Global danger looms. That's the closest to terminal disaster since 1953, when the United States and Russia exploded their H-bombs.

There is an important difference between these two existential threats. If by some miracle, we escape nuclear disaster-- and anyone who looks at the shocking record will realize that it's a miracle that we've gotten this far-- but if by some miracle, we do escape, at least we know in principle how to end the plague, get rid of the scourge. Global warming is different.

It's inexorable. We might pass a point of no return, when the damage that we've done is simply uncontrollable, irreversible. And it might not be far off.

The human species is, right now, undertaking an experiment to determine the answer to Ernst Mayr's question, is it better to be smart than stupid? And what I'd like to do now is to examine the course of the experiment, just by picking a few dates. So let's start with today-- could be any day, but we'll start with today.

If you looked at this morning's newspapers, you see a report on how we're dealing with the two existential crises. One on the nuclear threat, Christopher Ford, the National Security Council Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counter-proliferation under the Trump Administration-- he advises that we should reconsider the unrealistic goal of a world without nuclear weapons that has been advocated, among others, by extremist peaceniks like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry. And the reason for abandoning this unrealistic goal of these utopians is Russia's increased aggressiveness, which is, incidentally, a charge that's dismantled quite effectively in the current issue of a radical rag that's worth reading now and then, Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal.

On global warming today, this morning, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that the Arctic has less sea ice at winters end now than ever before. That means more dark ocean, hence more absorption of solar energy, more warming. And we're in a feedback loop. You know what that means.

The mean temperature for November was 23 degrees above normal. And at some points in the last couple of months, it went to more than 35 degrees warmer than normal. That's today's good news.

Let's go back to yesterday, quote from The Washington Post. Water temperatures at the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and near south Florida are on fire. They spurred a historically warm winter from Houston to Miami. In the Gulf, the average sea surface temperature never fell below 73 degrees over the winter for the first time on record.

Galveston, Texas has tied or broken an astonishing 33 record highs since November 1st, while neighboring Houston had its warmest winter on record. Both cities have witnessed precious few days with below normal temperatures since late fall, and on and on. I apologize if this is unfair, but I can't refrain from quoting one of the comments by a reader on this news report.

He says, "The Republicans have all this under control. The plan is to have Jeff Sessions and Ted Cruz's dad stand at the shoreline with Bibles in hand. As the sky darkens and the water rises, they will raise their left hand, holding the Bible, and command the seas to settle. And if that fails, Plan B is to run like hell, and to blame Obama."


Couldn't say it better. It's a classic. And it captures the spirit of the times very accurately.

There was a second report yesterday in the business press, Bloomberg Businessweek. The headline was, "The Oil Boom is Back." And I'll quote it.

"The number of oil and gas rigs drilling in the United States has almost doubled since bottoming out at the lowest level in more than 75 years of records. While two dozen nations are coordinating to cut oil production and rein in the global supply glut, US producers are moving in the opposite direction. Over the last four months, output increased by half a million barrels a day.

And if that rate of expansion continues, the shale boom will break new production records by summer. The US now produces 9 million barrels a day. We are way in the lead.

This illustrates a very crucial fact of current history. The world outside the United States is taking steps-- halting steps, but steps-- towards facing the existential challenge to survival. Meanwhile, the United States, virtually alone, is racing towards destruction with enthusiasm and dedication, which is quite a remarkable fact.

Now of course, the oil industry has plenty of help in helping and moving as quickly as it can to destroy chances for survival. The IMF reports that the fossil fuel industry extracts a $700 billion annual taxpayer subsidy, which is not in the crosshairs of Mike Mulvaney, I'm sure. And the industry doesn't take chances. In 2016, it spent $117 million in campaign contributions while fielding 720 lobbyists in Washington to make sure that Congress gets the message.

And apparently it does. There's a recent Washington Post article which reports that many Republicans in Congress do recognize the severe threat of climate change. But they won't talk about it because of funding pressures from the fossil fuel industry.

That's particularly true since Citizens United opened the floodgates even wider for a flood of corporate political funding, which means you toe the corporate line or you're out. Well, that's yesterday. These reports are quite typical of the daily fare. Pick almost any day, you find similar things.

Let's continue to review the experiment that humans are undertaking. I'll just pick a few recent dates from the last few months. So start with November 8th. That was an important day in history for several reasons.

Several events took place on November 8th. One of them was very important. Second one was extremely important, and the third was absolutely astonishing.

The very important one was the election in the United States. Plenty of coverage of that, so I don't have to talk about it. The extremely important one took place in Morocco. In Morocco on November 8th, about 200 countries were gathering in what's called COP22, the International Conference under UN auspices, to try to deal with the problem of global warming.

The goal of the conference was to put some teeth into the Paris negotiations the year before, COP21, December 2015. That conference had aimed to establish a verifiable treaty. But it couldn't do it for one reason-- the Republican Congress would not accept any binding commitments.

So therefore, the world had to settle for something less, namely informal agreements. And COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco was supposed to carry this forward. Well, on November 8th, the conference began.

On November 8th, the World Meteorological Association delivered a report which, in their words, confirms that 2016 was the warmest year on record-- a remarkable 1.1 degrees Centigrade above the pre-industrial period, sharply above the previous record set the year before, and in fact approaching the desired limit that was set in Paris as the goal, and other dire reports which I won't read. But you can pick them up on the internet, if you want. That was the World Meteorological Association.

But then the deliberations essentially ended. The election results came in from the United States. The conference essentially stopped-- nothing more to discuss.

The only question was whether it would be possible to salvage anything from the wreckage, with the world's most important country-- the richest, most powerful country in world history-- having all three branches of government committed to racing to destruction. What could be done? And there was some hope.

They looked at one country as the possible savior, namely China. That was November 8th, the extremely important event on November 8th. The conference went on, but concluded without issue.

Well, the third event was absolutely astonishing, namely, the leader of the free world is leading the world to disaster. The world is looking to China to save it. And what's the reaction? Silence-- not a word about it.

Pick up the newspapers on November 9th, listen to BBC on November 9th and the days that followed, and you'll see nothing about this. Here's one of the most astounding events in history-- the world's most powerful country, most powerful country in history, extraordinary advantages, incomparable, racing to lead the world to disaster, and the world is hoping that maybe China can somehow save us.

Can you think of an events like that in history? Not a word about it. That's the astonishing fact of November 8th. That's November 8th.

Let's move forward to March 1st, talk about both the world and the United States. In the world, a study was released showing that tens of thousands of miles of permafrost in Northwest Canada are rapidly melting, along with accelerating decline of permafrost in Alaska, Siberia, and Scandinavia. And it pointed out that this could lead to massive, huge release of greenhouse gases-- CO2 and methane-- which is accelerated, of course, by the unprecedented Arctic heatwave which gets radically worse every year. That's the world.

In the United States, the Trump administration, on March 1st, decided to help the process along by rescinding the so-called Methane Rule which limits release of methane from oil and gas drilling sites on federal lands. So that's a way of accelerating the oil boom, and increasing the flow of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a far more dangerous than CO2, even though it's short lived.

There was also, on March 1st, announcements of sharp cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency staff and programs, and also an edict banning research. We don't want to learn about these things. That was March 1st.

Let's turn to March 16th. The world-- a new study was released on the damage to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world's greatest living structures, which is damage that's quite intensifying. And the report said that it's by far the most widespread and damaging of recent mass bleaching of coral reefs since 1998, with wide-ranging disastrous effects that most of you know about. Well, that was the world.

The United States on March 16th, the Trump budget was released. Environmental Protection Agency is virtually dismantled. It's now pretty much run by Senator Inhofe and his associates.

Inhofe, for years, has been the leading climate change denier in the Senate. He is an extreme fundamentalist. And his position is that if God is warming the Earth, so be it. It would be sacrilegious to interfere with God's will.

That's the view in the most powerful, advanced, sophisticated country in the world. And that's the least of it. For action and research on climate, the EPA is actually a small actor.

Far more important is the Department of Energy. It's now in the hands of a guy who had decided to get rid of it a couple of years ago, before he learned that it controls nuclear weapons. So we'd better keep it, but not entirely.

The Office of Science, according to the budget, in the Department of Energy, is scheduled to lose $900 million dollars. That's nearly 20% of its budget. Its $300 million ARPA energy program is eliminated completely. That's along with deep cuts in research programs at the EPA and the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and also a 5% cut to NASA's earth science budget.

The budget generally is of unusual savagery, even for the Paul Ryan wing of the Republican establishment, which is effectively running the show now behind the Trump/Spicer/Twitter facade that's designed to grab the headlines every day. The budget, if you look at it, is a vicious attack on the working class and the poor, and lavishes even more gifts on the wealthy and the corporate sector. And along with a process which can only describe, I think, as the talibanization of America in accord with the Bannon, Sessions DeVos ideal of a society which they've described based on Judeo-Christian tradition of white supremacy, destruction of the humanities, arts, public schooling, and on the side, medical research. That's the goal towards which we're aiming at home while we race towards destruction internationally.

Practically every issue of science journals provides more grim forecasts. Those of you who read the science journals regularly are familiar with this. So one recent paper in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics by James Hansen and 18 other scientists carries out a comparison between today's climate and the climate of 120,000 years ago, which had approximately the same temperatures or slightly warmer temperatures than today. That led, 120,000 years ago, to a sea level rise of 20 to 30 feet, when much of the polar ice disintegrated.

The paper predicts in the near future killer storms stronger than any in modern times, disintegration of large parts of the polar ice sheets leading to melting of huge glaciers. That's taking place rapidly, especially in the Antarctic, where it's the most dangerous. And they predict a rise of sea sufficient to begin drowning the world's coastal cities before the end of the century. Hansen says we're in danger of handing young people a situation that's out of their control, with precipitous rises in sea level not too far down the road, other dire consequences.

There are other studies that indicate that climate change is occurring faster than at any time over the last 100 million years, by some estimates far faster. Last year, as you probably know, atmospheric CO2 passed the symbolic level of 400 particles per million. That's considered a crucial danger point.

That's the first time in four million years, and possibly irreversible. That's only a small sample of many such reports. They're constantly in the major science journals, sometimes making it to the media.

Meanwhile, the Republican wrecking machine is systematically dismantling the institutions that offer some hope for decent survival. And it's not just Trump. It's the whole Republican Party leadership at the national level, also much of the local level.

And so in North Carolina, for example, a couple of years ago, there was a scientific study commissioned by the Coastal Resources Commission. And it estimated that the sea level will rise by 39 inches by the end of the century. There was a response by the Republican-run state legislature. They passed a law that barred state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents anticipating a rise in sea level-- rational reaction.

There was a pretty good comment on it by Stephen Colbert. He said, this is a brilliant solution. If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal-- problem solved.

That captures quite well the mentality of the Republican Party leadership. A few years ago, Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor who succeeded in sinking Louisiana even deeper into the abyss. He warned Republicans that they are becoming what he called "the stupid party."

The respected conservative political analyst Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute-- they describe the party or maybe the former party as a radical insurgency that has abandoned parliamentary democracy. Perhaps a simpler characterization is the utterly outrageous charge that they are the most dangerous organization in human history, dedicated to the prospect to ending the prospects for human survival. That is outrageous, no doubt, but the more interesting question is whether it's wrong. I leave that to you to think about.

I already mentioned Paris 2015, COP21, Marrakesh 2016. Those are two crucial examples. The 2016 primary campaign was quite remarkable in many respects, primarily those that weren't discussed, namely the attitude of the candidates to climate change, which barely got a word of commentary.

Every single candidate denied that what is happening is happening, with the exception of the sensible moderates like Jeb Bush, who said it's uncertain, but we don't have to do anything, because we're producing more natural gas thanks to fracking, or John Kasich, who was supposed to be the adult in the room, who did at least agree that global warming is probably happening. He's Governor of Ohio. He said, we're going to burn coal in Ohio, and we're not going to apologize for it. That's the sensible guy.

As far as the media were concerned, they ignored it. There was almost nothing mentioned about this. After all, it's only the most important issue in human history.

And you can't really blame the media for this, because they're following a concept of objectivity that's taught in journalism schools. Objectivity means reporting accurately what's going on within the Beltway in Washington circles. So you got to report accurately what they're saying there.

If you talk about something else, it's bias or opinion or something. But it's not genuine reporting. So since what's going on within the Beltway-- including the Democrats, incidentally-- is denial or ignoring, or in the case of the Republicans, flatly denying what's happening is happening, then you don't report it, because it's not within the Beltway. It's not objective.

Well, even a sea level rise that's much more limited than what's anticipated is going to inundate coastal cities, and more significantly, coastal plains like in Bangladesh, where there will soon be tens of millions of people fleeing, probably in the fairly near future. These are flat plains which are going to be inundated, and many more later. That's going to make today's refugee issue a tea party.

The chief environmental scientist in Bangladesh says that these migrants should have the right to move to the countries from which all these greenhouse gases are coming. Millions should be able to go to the United States. That just fits the current mood in what has long been the richest and safest country in the world, and also the most terrified.

And those who think it's better in Europe can turn to a recent poll showing that a majority of Europeans want a total ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. So the idea is first, we destroy them. Then, we punish them for trying to escape from the ruins that we've created. And we have a name for it. We call it a refugee crisis.

Well, thousands of people, desperate people, drowned in the Mediterranean fleeing from Africa, where Europe has a certain history with which you're not unfamiliar. The same is true of the United States and Central America, of course, and the Middle East. And in fact, the so-called refugee crisis is actually a serious, severe moral and cultural crisis in the West.

Well, these two existential crises are related. The Himalayan glaciers are melting. And in the not-too-distant future, that could threaten the water supplies in South Asia, which are already at dangerously low levels.

So 300 million people in India are reported to lack adequate drinking water right now. That could very easily spark conflict between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed states constantly at the brink of nuclear war. Right now, in fact, a nuclear war would destroy India and Pakistan, but much worse than that, could very well lead to nuclear winter, meaning global famine, which pretty much ends organized human life on Earth, which is not very removed, if you think it through.

Well, that leads us to one final date to look at, one of the most important dates of human history, namely the end of World War II. It was a moment of joy, but also of horror, with the dawn of the Nuclear Age. I can remember very well my own feelings on August 6-- horror at the events and their constant implications, their import, and astonishment that so few people seemed to care about it, either about the enormity of what had just happened, or about the fact that we had entered into what will be the final era of human existence, the Nuclear Age, the moment when human intelligence had succeeded in developing the means to instantaneously destroy us all.

1947, shortly after, the Doomsday Clock was instituted. And the hand was set then at seven minutes to midnight. We're now, remember, at two and a half.

Well, we have not only entered the Nuclear Age, but also the so-called Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which human activity is dramatically changing the environment. There have been debates about the proper date for the inception of the Anthropocene, but the World Geological Society has made its decision. It settled on 1950 as the beginning of the Anthropocene.

That's partly because of radioactive elements that were dispersed across the planet by the nuclear bomb tests and other consequences of human action, including the sharp increase in greenhouse emissions. So the Nuclear Age and the Anthropocene basically coincide. These are epics of the post-world War II period.

We are also now well into what's called the sixth extinction. It's expected to be similar to the fifth extinction that was 66 million years ago, when a huge asteroid hit the Earth, destroyed 75% of species, ended age of the dinosaurs. It opened a way for small mammals to survive, and to expand, and evolve, and ultimately become us about 200,000 years ago. For a long time, humans had fairly limited impact. But by now, in the post-war period, we've succeeded in becoming the next asteroid, destroying species at an enormous rate, perhaps ourselves not too far in the distance.

There are careful studies of species extinction, and they have some interesting results. They show that this extinction is different from its predecessors in an interesting respect. The earlier ones were species-neutral. Species just disappeared across the board.

This one is different. It's mostly larger animals that are disappearing disproportionately. And that actually runs through the history of proto-humans, our human ancestors, early human ancestors, back around a million years.

As they expanded their territory, large mammals declined. And of the many species closely related to us, only one survives, which raises some questions that you might ponder. And that includes the lingering question Ernst Mayr-- is it better to be smart than stupid?

Now, we have a few years to answer this question-- not many. So how are we answering it? Well, one step was George W Bush's abrogation of the ABM Treaty followed now under Obama-- Bush and now Obama-- followed by ABM installations right near the Russian border, allegedly for defense against non-existent Iranian nuclear missiles.

You can believe that if you believe the tooth fairy, which Russia doesn't. They have good reason to regard it as a first-strike weapon. Strategic analysts understand missile defense to be on all sides.

The next step was offering NATO membership to Ukraine. Ukraine is the Russian geostrategic heartland. That was George Bush, but the efforts have been pursued by Obama and Clinton.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would at least end nuclear tests, which would be a considerable step forward. But it can't go into force until it's ratified by the few holdouts. Three are crucial-- the nuclear weapon states that refuse to ratify it-- China, Israel, and the United States.

The major nuclear powers, US and Russia, which have overwhelming preponderance of nuclear weapons, are both expanding and modernizing their arsenals in quite dangerous ways. That includes tactical nukes that can be scaled down to battlefield use under low-level command, could easily lead to a very rapid escalation if there were any conflict. And any conflict between Russia and the United States is essentially terminal for everyone. That's pretty obvious.

The flashpoints are becoming more serious. Right at the Russian border-- notice, the Russian border, not the Mexican border-- that's a fact worth considering. And it's a result of expansion of NATO right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This was in violation to verbal promises to Mikhail Gorbachev, verbal promises that NATO would not expand. The phrase was "one inch to the east." That meant East Germany. Nobody was thinking about anything beyond-- that NATO would not expand one inch to the east if Gorbachev agreed to unification of Germany.

And a unified Germany joining NATO, a hostile military alliance, is a pretty remarkable concession in the light of the history of the past half century, when Germany alone had practically wiped Russia out two times. Well, that was the agreement, but verbal. NATO at once expanded to East Germany, then beyond under Clinton, right to the Russian border.

There is recent archival work by a University of Texas young historian, Joshua Schifrinson, that was published in the MIT journal International Security, worth looking up. He very strongly suggests that President Bush-- number one, the statesman Bush-- and Secretary of State James Baker, who were the negotiators-- strongly suggests they were consciously deceiving Gorbachev, pretending to make an agreement which they intended to violate, and were very careful not to put anything on paper. So when Gorbachev complained, he was told it was just a gentleman's agreement.

And the unstated implication was, if you're stupid enough to believe in a gentleman's agreement with us, it's your problem, not ours. Well, Gorbachev did propose a vision of what he called a common European home, Brussels to Vladivostok, security system with no military alliances. That's a fading dream. George Kennan and other senior statesmen had warned right away that NATO expansion is what they called "a tragic mistake, policy error of historic proportions." That's Kennan.

And it's now leading to rising and serious tensions on the traditional invasion route through which Russia was virtually destroyed twice during the past century by Germany alone. The risk of terminal nuclear war is not slight. And that's one of the two reasons why the hand of the Doomsday Clock is moving so close to midnight.

With some justice, European historian Richard Sakwa writes that NATO's prime concern now is to manage the risks created by its existence, which is quite accurate, I think. And it bears on Ernst Mayr's conclusions. That's how we're dealing with one of the two crises.

What are the others? How about global warming? Well, we're answering Mayr's question by unilateral withdrawal from the world's efforts to address the crisis-- not just withdrawal, but replacing their efforts with a dedicated race to the precipice even more rapidly, by sharp increases in fossil fuel use-- that includes coal-- and refusing the promised subsidies to poorer countries to develop renewable energy, and dismantling the regulatory apparatus so that profits can boom, along with threats to survival.

And we can't stress too strongly the enormity of the fact that the United States is alone in the world in this respect since November 8th, and the no less astonishing fact that this extraordinary development barely registers in the so-called information system. Should have regular screaming headlines, and be the most prominent issue in the academic and intellectual world, which is more evidence about the great derangement. And no less astonishing is the fact that, while the richest and most powerful country in world history, with incomparable advantages, is leading the effort to intensify the likely disaster-- while that's happening, efforts to avert the catastrophe are being led worldwide by what we call primitive societies-- the First Nations in Canada, tribal and aboriginal societies elsewhere.

So for example, Ecuador, which has a large indigenous population sought aid from European countries, rich European countries to allow it to keep its oil reserves underground where they ought to be, even at a cost of considerable profit. The aid was refused. Ecuador revised its constitution in 2008 to include what are called the "rights of nature having intrinsic worth."

Same in Bolivia with an indigenous majority. And quite generally, the countries with large and influential indigenous populations are well in the lead in seeking to preserve the planet. While the countries that have driven indigenous populations to extinction or extreme marginalization are racing towards destruction, which is perhaps something more to think about.

Outside of the world center of devastation and destruction, which is right here, some things are being done-- not enough by any means, but not negligible, and an indication of what can be done. So Denmark is aiming to reach 100% renewable electricity within 20 years, and in all sectors by 2050. Germany, which is the most successful state capitalist economy, has tripled renewable energy for electricity in the past decade, aims to increase it by almost half by 2025, more than 80% by 2050, and by then, to have reduced greenhouse gas reductions to 80% or 90% of 1990 levels.

China, which is still a huge polluter, is well in the lead in production of solar panels, and also development of advanced solar technology. It claims to be phasing out coal plants. In the United States, Hawaii passed a law mandating that all the state's electricity will come from renewable sources no later than 2045. And right here, several Massachusetts Democrats have filed a bill that's SD 1932 if you want to look it up, which requires that the state use a 100% renewable energy by 2035, and mandates elimination of all fossil fuels in the state by 2050-- so 100% renewables.

San Diego is the first large city to have a plan to run on 100% renewable energy, and cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035. And that's, incidentally, a bipartisan effort. The Republican Mayor endorsed the climate action plan that was unanimously approved by the Democrat-controlled city council in December. That's San Diego.

And in fact, at a period when the federal government is in the hands of bulls in the china shop, states and cities can still do quite a lot. And the federal government could also do so, in the right hands. So one of Hillary Clinton's programs was to shift all households to total renewable energy in four years. It's quite feasible-- would create many jobs, along with weatherization and other forms of conservation. And federal regulations in recent years have had some positive effects, unfortunately, counterbalanced by support for greater fossil fuel production.

There's a final assessment by the Obama administration that was published in Science, the journal Science a couple of months ago. It reports that in 2015, total energy consumption was 2.5% lower than it was in 2008, while the economy grew by 10%. Now the reduction is by no means enough, but it does remind us that growth is not, in itself, a menace to the environment.

It depends on what kind of growth. So for example, development of a rational mass transportation system, or development of renewable energy, or growth in education and R&D-- that's growth. And it can all improve prospects for addressing the crises, while also significantly improving lives.

The Obama assessment reports that about 2.2 million Americans are employed in the design, installation, manufacture of energy efficiency products and services, as compared with half that number employed in the production of fossil fuels and their use for electric power generation. And the current oil boom, which I mentioned earlier, creates almost no jobs, because it's almost all automated. Again, it's nowhere near enough, but not insignificant, and more important, an indication of what can be done.

And there's good reason to think it can. Harvey Michaels is Research Director of Energy Management at Sloan School here. He's shown, I think persuasively, how ambitious but feasible measures beyond those now contemplated internationally-- that's internationally apart from the Republican US-- such measures could meet the goal of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees Centigrade. That's considered the major danger point.

Ernie Moniz, now back at MIT, has produced figures about declining costs for clean energy technologies that lead him to conclude, I'll quote him, that "Climate change may have inspired the energy revolution, but price makes it Inevitable," and maybe even in time, at least with enough effort. Replacing fossil fuels by renewable energy is the major issue. But it's not the only one.

The UN Economic Program summarizing recent scientific studies estimates that industrial meat production contributes about 10% to 25% of total greenhouse gas emissions-- not so much CO2 as methane and nitric oxide, both greenhouse gases. The variation in the estimates depends on whether the figures take into account deforestation and other land use changes associated with livestock. Livestock is about 80% of agricultural emissions.

This is mostly industrial meat production, which is quite vicious, as you know. It's designed to maximize profit, with animals treated as efficient production elements-- awful effects on animals, but also a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Actually, pre-capitalist animal agriculture didn't have those problems.

Quote from the UN report, "Under natural conditions, which were maintained for thousands of years and still widely exist around the world, there is a closed circular system, in which some animals feed themselves from landscape types which would otherwise be of little use to humans. They thus convert energy stored in plants into food, while at the same time fertilizing the ground with their excrements. Although not an intensive form of production, this coexistence and use of marginal resources was, and still is in some regions, an efficient symbiosis between plant life and animal life and human needs." But the capitalist industrial production and profit maximization has changed all that.

I mentioned that with the federal government now turned into a wrecking machine, states and cities can do quite a lot. And that same is true for every one of us. There are major issues of education and organizing that have to be faced.

And again, some of these are unique to the United States in the developed world. One of them is the extraordinary power in the United States of fundamentalist religious doctrines. So about 40% of the population dismiss the threat of global warming on religious grounds.

They regard it as either certain or highly probable that within a few decades, the Second Coming will put an end to the problem. Well it's important to remember in this connection that the United States is a kind of a cultural outlier in some respects. Prior to the Second World War, the United States was by far the most powerful economy, but it was not a major center of scientific or general culture. So if you wanted to be a physicist, you'd go to Germany. If you wanted to be a writer and artists, go to Paris, and so on.

I had personal experience with the residue of this when I was appointed to MIT in 1955. One of the teaching assignments was to help scientists and engineers fake their way through reading exams in French and German. That was a residue of the fact that before the war, that's where the scientific literature was.

It took a while for this to be phased out. By that time, it was almost all in English. But by 1950s, it was an anachronism.

The changes are very real, but they've affected only part of the country. Much of the population is still pretty much where it was pre-World War II. And that's a major task for the educational system.

And the prospects right now, at least, don't look good, not with the DeVos, Sessions, Bannon conception of education. The Trump administration has to do something for its huge evangelical popular base. That involves driving the United States even farther off the spectrum of the modern world with the talibanisation project that's now under way.

There are major challenges, no doubt. There are also quite a few rays of hope. I mentioned some of the measures that are being taken by state, local governments, even national governments around the world to address the crises-- not enough, but not negligible, indication of what's possible.

And there are other reasons for optimism. One of them has just been reported by, of all places, Fox News. They ran a poll on popularity of political figures.

And in first place, by a huge margin, was Bernie Sanders-- even more among the young, who are the hope of the future. There are ample opportunities, but you have to grasp them. And all of this takes us back to Ernst Mayr's question, is it better to be smart than stupid? It's a question for you to ponder, and like it or not, for you to answer, and without too much of a delay.



MICHELLE NHUCH: [INAUDIBLE] mics for your questions.

AUDIENCE: Hello. Thank you very much, Professor Chomsky. With all these sort of existential crises, if you were to put yourself in the body of a 20-something-year-old growing up today, how would that shape your life decisions with these two crises?

NOAM CHOMSKY: If I was 20 years old?


NOAM CHOMSKY: Pretty much the way I did when I was, what was it, 16 years old on August 6th, 1945. I happened to be a junior counselor in a summer camp. And the news was reported in the morning, broadcast to everyone-- atomic bomb wiped out Hiroshima.

Everyone went on to their next activity-- a baseball game or whatever it was. I didn't know how to react. I just left, and went off into the woods, sat there for a couple hours thinking, what does all this mean?

And afterwards I decided, look, you just have to devote your life to this. And I think that we're in a worse situation now. And there's plenty that can be done.

The opportunities are far greater now than they were in the past, thanks to what's been done by people like you in earlier years, like MIT, say. You could never get an audience like this 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, in the 1960s, MIT was a very conservative campus. Almost nothing was going on.

About a dozen undergraduates just changed the place enormously, and it's been very different ever since. And that's happened all around the country, which means that you have a legacy that you can build on-- plenty of challenges, but plenty of opportunities. And the question is, do you decide to grasp them or not?

AUDIENCE: So thank you. I'm wondering, Noam, how much emphasis you would place on the possibility of finding solutions addressing the problems you've laid out, outside the framework of the current political system in the United States? And how much emphasis you would give to the necessity of taking this political system head on and changing it? And what do you think we need to do to change the system to open up the possibilities that you're talking about?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I think there are good grounds for changing the nature of the political system pretty radically. I mean, a system of organization of production, let's say-- just keeping to that-- which is geared towards profit maximization, not use, is inherently destructive. A system of institutional organization in which the basic functioning institutions are totalitarian, like a business, top-down control.

You fit somewhere in it, take orders from above. Given below at the bottom, you rent yourself. That's inherently, I think, humanly and socially destructive.

So there's plenty of changes that could be made. And we can think about them. And in fact, you can try to build within the existing society pieces of what might be a more democratic and humane future society.

It's even being done. But you can't change the political system radically unless the great mass of the population comes to a recognition that we're in a situation where the changes that have to be made can't be made, and will be resisted within the current system. And we're nowhere near that. So I don't think the question arises as a practical question. It does arise as a question to have in mind in choosing tactics and strategies.

AUDIENCE: Hi, Professor. So as we all leave this lecture hall today, what do you want us to take away from your talk? I mean, I know you left us this one question to ponder about, but beyond that? And the reason, in the last few months, there have been many talks on climate change on the political climate here-- speakers including former Secretary of State John Kerry and also a Nobel Laureate, Mario Molina who discovered CFCs. But beyond discussions, in terms of actions, what do you want all of us, and also people watching through Facebook, to do?

I came from a city called Duisburg in Germany. And it used to be part of the heartland of the German coal and steel industries until recent past couple of years ago, they implemented new energy policies to basically shut down all these factories that were harming the environment to such a radical degree. And even though it practically crippled the German economy in terms of coal and steel production, ultimately, the environment benefited a lot from that.

NOAM CHOMSKY: From benefit--

AUDIENCE: From the energy policies that crippled the economic force which was coming from the steel and coal industries in Germany, in West Germany, near the Rhine [INAUDIBLE]. But here in America, even though we're having so many discussions about what can we do in terms of the economy.

NOAM CHOMSKY: What can we do? Lots of things.

AUDIENCE: I feel like we have-- it's more of a question of balance. How much do we want to sacrifice of our economy in order to save the environment? But then some of us, it's just not a matter of action, but more of a matter of discussing things and talking about it. And I just-- I guess the question is--

NOAM CHOMSKY: What can we do?

AUDIENCE: Exactly, what is the bigger point of your lecture? other than to ponder this question?

NOAM CHOMSKY: So you people here, what can you do? All sorts of things-- I just mentioned, in fact, a number of them. Say, for example, the bill that's pending in the Massachusetts state legislature.

If it was passed, it could have a big impact. It could put the state on a direction in the near future towards a 100% renewable energy, which San Diego's already moving towards. And San Diego is not exactly a bastion of liberalism. If that can be done there, it can be done here.

But it's not going to happen unless there's plenty of pressure for it. I think there are three legislators who put it through, and virtually nothing is known about it. So one thing that people can do, out of thousands, is try to work to get measures like that passed, not only in the state, but even in, say, Cambridge, like San Diego.

Another thing you can do is move very directly. Even simple things like replacing light bulbs with LED bulbs has a pretty significant impact on energy production. And that can be done. To do it on a significant scale takes organization and activism. But that's one thing you can do.

As I mentioned, the most popular candidate and political figure in the country happens to be Bernie Sanders, overwhelmingly among young people. That popularity-- he calls his opposition a revolution. But that's an indication of how far the country has shifted to the right.

In fact, his policies would have been quite acceptable to Eisenhower. In fact, if you go back and read Eisenhower's comments on the New Deal, he said anyone who questions New Deal policies doesn't belong in the political system. That's just about everybody by now, except Sanders is calling for New Deal policies.

Eisenhower's comments on the significance of unions, labor unions, are almost unimaginable today, but correct. And that's the right wing in 1950s. So yes, we can shift the spectrum back to the days when social democratic policies were considered legitimate, and you can go way beyond that.

There is an election coming up in 2018. The Democrats, among their failures, have been essentially the Obama Democrats, basically destroyed the party. There's nothing, almost nothing left except at the presidential level.

The Greens have the same fallacy. They've focused on the presidential, the quadrennial extravaganza, haven't built the party at the local level-- school boards, state legislature, city councils, governors, the whole system, which has to be in place if anything's going to happen. The Koch brothers understood this. The right wing has understood it, and in fact, built such a system even on a minority base. Hasn't been done on a majority base, but it certainly can be.

There's the beginnings of establishing, say, cooperatives, or worker-owned enterprises, run by their own members. These are things that not only can be done, but are being done. There's a whole range of possibilities that can be pursued if you choose them, if you choose to do it. There's just no shortage of things.

AUDIENCE: It's an immense pleasure to listen to you. I'm a little bit off topic, but I don't think I will have a chance ever to ask you that. What do you think about the meddling, the Kremlin in our election?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Sorry, I didn't hear. Could anybody--

AUDIENCE: The meddling of Russia, the Kremlin, in our 2016 election.

NOAM CHOMSKY: I'm sorry, but-- I don't--

AUDIENCE: The meddling of Russia, allegedly, in our election.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Oh, the meddling of Russia in our elections. That has most of the world cracking up in laughter.


Literally, suppose every charge is correct. Let's say the most severe charges are correct. That's not even a joke as compared with what we do constantly.


Just take a minor example-- what we do with Russian elections. In the early '90s, when Yeltsin was Clinton's favorite, he was supposed to be the hope for the future. When he destroyed the parliament and overthrew the formal democratic system, he was strongly supported by the United States. In 1996, when he was extremely unpopular-- for pretty good reasons, because the shock treatment, the sort of free market policies imposed by American advisers, just wiped out the economy and led to the death of millions of people.

It was highly destructive. It led to the rise of the oligarchs, many of them former apparatchiks in the Communist system who stole the resources. It was a total disaster. And Yeltsin was the symbol of it.

Clinton moved in quite openly. There was nothing secret about it-- very openly, with everything from loans to advice to direct involvement to try to make sure that our fair-haired boy won. That's 1996.

And these are minor examples. The kind of thing we do constantly is just overthrow the government, institute a military dictatorship, and not in the distant past. It just happened under Obama, 2009 in Honduras.

There was a mildly reformist government. The tiny elite of super-rich who run the country didn't like it. He was kicked out in a military coup. The United States is one of the very few countries that supported it, and claim that the election taken place under military dictatorship was legitimate.

That's basically supporting a military coup to overthrow a parliamentary government. Is that meddling in the election? You know it just goes on and on like this. So as I say, this is just making the United States kind of a laughingstock in the world, even if every single charge is correct. Most of them have no basis.

AUDIENCE: Thank you.

AUDIENCE: So the silence in the media right now regarding climate change, an existential threat to humanity, is pretty deafening. And you provide an explanation for that in your book, Manufacturing Consent-- that there are certain filters that limit the range of acceptable political discourse. I'm wondering, though-- it seems like in this recent election cycle that maybe some of those filters are being circumnavigated by increased use of the internet and more democratic social mass media. Do you think that the election of Trump, the insurgent primary of Bernie Sanders, and the sudden outcry from major media outlets about fake news and the end of truth are a sign that maybe this propaganda system is breaking down? And if so, what does that mean for the ability to sort of break the silence regarding these existential threats that we face?

NOAM CHOMSKY: I think that's very important. If you take a look at the Sanders campaign, it really hasn't been discussed as much as it should be, but it was a pretty astonishing achievement. I mean, for well over a century, American elections have been pretty much bought, and the evidence is just overwhelming.

The person who's done most of the work on this is Tom Ferguson, political scientist at UMass, Boston, used to be at MIT. He's got a book called Golden Rule, which studies the role just simply of campaign funding on outcome of elections and policies going way back into the 19th century, right through the New Deal, and so on. And it's startling results.

He has a recent paper that came out a couple of months ago looking at congressional elections from about 1980 up to the present, and just comparing campaign funding with electability. It's kind of like a straight line. You don't get results like that in the social sciences.

And it's nothing new. I mean, back in 1895, there was a great campaign manager then named Mark Hanna. And he was asked once, what's necessary to run a successful political campaign? And he said, well, you need two things. The first one is money, and I've forgotten what the second one is. That was 1895. It's gotten way more extreme since, and by now, it's out of sight.

After over a century of this, somebody comes along who nobody ever heard of. He uses a scare word, "socialist." He has no funding, nothing from the corporate sector, and nothing from wealthy people. Immediate totally against him, almost either ridiculing of or dismissing him.

He would easily have won the Democratic Party nomination, if it hadn't been for the party shenanigans to keep him out. That's a pretty amazing development. And what it shows is that the institutions are-- they look powerful, but they collapse as soon as the population becomes engaged.

They're basically very weak. Actually, that's an insight that goes back hundreds of years. One of the first modern works on politics is by David Hume, the great philosopher founder of classical liberalism. He has a study called First Principles of Government.

And he opens it by saying that there's a strange paradox in governments. He says, in every government, whether military run, more-or-less popular like England at the time, he says, there's a strange thing. People obey their rulers.

And why do they? Because power is in the hands of the governed. And if they want, they can take it.

And he says, by what miracle is this achieved? He says, only by control of opinion. If you can make people feel that they're powerless, and everything's futile, and they can't do anything, OK, then they'll obey. If not, they don't have to obey.

And that's much more true in pretty free countries like ours than, say, a military dictatorship. But the paradox is real. And it's in people's hands to overcome it.

And the Sanders campaign is one dramatic illustration of that. And what you say about alternative media-- it can be, too, if it's properly done. Also affects the major media, because they have to respond to it. So the institutional structure is basically quite weak, and can easily be changed.

AUDIENCE: Thank you.

AUDIENCE: Hi. I want to be hopeful about our major institutions, our systems of governance, and higher education in particular, and its ability to grapple with the immense challenge of climate change and its like. But sometimes I wonder if we really need something dramatically different. When I think about higher education, the world that I live in, mostly, do you think that there's completely new structures or approaches that we should be trying to create in order to deal with this? Because incrementalism maybe isn't doing so hot.

NOAM CHOMSKY: I think any of us could sit down at a coffee shop and think of much better ways to run the world-- better institutions, more democratic ones, more just ones, and so on. But thinking of that doesn't really help. You have to get the great mass of the population to be committed to creating it.

And you can do that incrementally. You have to work within the system that exists. You can do a lot of things within it.

You can have a vision of the future which people can take as a guideline for further action. And maybe, as I mentioned before, you can construct institutions of a future society within this one, like cooperatives, for example, like worker-owned enterprises. If they would extend, they would change the society enormously. And those are things that arise constantly, if you're willing to grasp the opportunity.

So take, say, the 2008 crash. One of the things that happened then, which was pretty interesting, was that the government essentially nationalized the auto industry-- basically just bailed it out. It was going to disappear. So the government, meaning the taxpayer, bought out the auto industry.

And then there were a couple of choices that could have been made. One choice is the one that was made without discussion-- namely, to turn it back to the former owners, maybe new faces, but pretty much same banks, and so on. So essentially turn it back to the former owners and have it go on doing exactly what it was doing-- producing cars.

There was another possibility-- turn it over to the workforce. Let them run it democratically, and have it produce what the society needs, which is not more cars, but rational mass transportation. That was another possibility.

But in order for it to be implemented, you had to have mass popular support for it. There was essentially none, so it didn't happen. And things like that happen even right locally in this neighborhood.

A couple of years ago, there was a small plant in the Taunton suburb of Boston, which was quite successful-- a plant making sophisticated parts for aircraft. It wasn't making enough profit for the multinational who owned it to keep it going, so they decided to put it out of business.

The union, progressive union, UE, offered to buy the plant and have it run by the workforce, which probably would have been profitable for the multinational. But for class reasons, they don't like that kind of thing. If there had been popular support, they could have won.

There wasn't any, so they didn't win. Things like that are happening all the time. These could lead to major changes in the society.

Are they incremental? In a sense, but their long-term consequences could be very, very great. And that's true of all kinds of things.

AUDIENCE: Thank you. Let's go grab some of those opportunities.

MICHELLE NHUCH: I think we have time for one more question.

AUDIENCE: Hi, everyone. I have [INAUDIBLE] question for everybody who is here, actually. Thank you so much. The first question is, how many of you have a car in this room?


AUDIENCE: How many of you have a car in this room? And how many of you run your car at least five minutes to warm up while you're getting ready? How many of you use paper or plastic plates? And how many of you replace their cell phones every year?

So being environment friendly requires being aware of mistakes that we do. And I would like to remind everyone here-- change only comes in baby steps of people who care. Let's show that we care about the environment. And let's rethink about what we buy and what we spend on.


NOAM CHOMSKY: I'm sorry.

MICHELLE NHUCH: There was no question, I guess, for you. On behalf of the Center for International Studies, I would like to thank everyone for attending this event. And please join me in thanking Noam Chomsky.


NOAM CHOMSKY: Thank you.

All photos courtesy of © Aníbal Martel