Abandoning the planet to the polluters

December 1, 2009

Chris Williams explains why the high expectations for the Copenhagen climate summit have turned to despair that anything substantial will be accomplished.

REPRESENTATIVES OF 192 countries will gather in the Danish capital of Copenhagen in mid-December to thrash out a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol--an international treaty meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid catastrophic changes to global climate--when it expires in 2012.

The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, but didn't come into effect until 2005 because some of the larger states refused to ratify it--most infamously, the United States, which has still not done so.

With global warming predictions and evidence of its effects getting more definitive (and scarier) almost by the day, there were high hopes a few months ago that countries would take the international deliberations at Copenhagen as seriously as the situation demanded--particularly with a new American president formally committed to taking real action to dial back incipient planetary heat-death.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave this assessment of the importance of Copenhagen:

In every era, there are only one or two moments when nations come together and reach agreements that make history, because they change the course of history. Copenhagen must be such a time. If we do not reach a deal at this time, let us be in no doubt: once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement in some future period can undo that choice.

Abandoning the planet to the corporate polluters
Abandoning the planet to the corporate polluters

But after months of the slow, corrosive drip of statements from various government spokespeople minimizing what was likely to be accomplished at Copenhagen, Barack Obama finally admitted in mid-November what had grown increasingly obvious to all: Copenhagen was unlikely to achieve anything substantial, and quite possibly would achieve nothing at all.

The international foot-dragging has been led by the rich, developed world, which has refused to offer serious short-term emissions targets or aid to developing countries to pursue a low-carbon future. But the award for the least progress on climate change undoubtedly goes to the U.S. for its sterling efforts in Congress to ensure the least possible disruption to business as usual--and, as a result, a bleak future for humanity.

Increasingly exasperated and desperate climate scientists warn that emissions have to start declining by 2015 and peak by 2020 at the latest if we are to stand any chance of forestalling average global temperatures increasing past the critical threshold of a 2 degree Celsius increase.

However, the industrialized countries have offered a combined cut of just 10-17 percent of their emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. That sounds good, except that the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated two years ago that emissions needed reducing by at least 25 to 40 percent to even stand a 50-50 chance of avoiding the 2 degree Celsius threshold.

If the rich countries--which are both more responsible for climate change and more able to plow money into avoiding it--aren't getting serious, why should any other country?

Of course, the politicians claim to be setting "hard and fast," "binding" targets for impressive-sounding 80 percent reductions in emissions, to be fully implemented by 2050. But it's not too hard to see through a strategy that disingenuously puts off real change to an undefined future four decades from now. We can't trust politicians now, while they're in office--let alone after they're dead.

FOR THE U.S., the train wreck of Copenhagen is coming on the heels of the disastrous Waxman-Markey energy bill this summer, which enshrined so-called "cap and trade"--where a maximum level of emissions is set by sector, and polluters are free to sell the right to pollute under that cap--as the central method by which the U.S. would reduce its carbon emissions.

The bill, which is stalled in the Senate anyway, would, according to optimistic projections, reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 4 to 7 percent from 1990 levels, an utterly inadequate decrease.

One of the many other reasons that even several mainstream environmental organizations condemned the bill is the fact that it hands out 85 percent of the carbon permits for free--in direct opposition to Obama's original campaign pledges. If passed, this will make lawful a vast new arena for profit-taking through casino gambling--the extension of derivatives markets to the very air we breathe.

The threat of fraud and huckstering of all kinds was testified to by, of all people, inveterate climate-change denier Don Blankenship, CEO of the coal company Massey Energy. Massey, infamous for the repetition with which it violates health and safety regulations, produces 20 percent of the country's coal, principally in Central Appalachia.

According to James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Space Center at Columbia University and the first climate scientist to warn of the danger of global warming in the late 1980s, Massey's mountaintop-removal project at Coal River Mountain is "ground zero in the fight against climate change." Hansen--one of those increasingly desperate climate scientists, and someone more at home in a lab than a jail--was recently arrested as part of the mass grassroots campaign to stop Massey from blowing the mountain (the last one intact in central Appalachia) to smithereens to grab the coal that lies just beneath the surface.

Blankenship's reasons for opposing Obama's vaunted cap-and-trade legislation are highly revealing. In a recent interview for Environment & Energy News by Monica Trauzzi, Blankenship had this to say:

Blankenship: [T]here's so many people that are going to gain from the theory [of human-induced global warming], and so much of the cap-and-trade allowances will go to corporations that have multinational interests, that I think there's plenty of reasons to question both the science and the motive.

Monica Trauzzi: Yes, and there will be winners and losers when it comes to a cap and trade, but why are there so many companies, including members [from] your industry and the electric utility industry, that have come on board with the idea of a cap and trade and the passage of legislation, yet you continue to disprove the science?

Don Blankenship: Well, they have allowances that are being given to every company; all the utilities are sort of being bought off with allowances. The American public is being kept in the dark about what's going to happen to their power bills and to their jobs.

There are just all kinds of reasons for multinational corporations to be in favor of it. They will build windmills in foreign countries, and bring them into this country and make a lot of money at it. They will have factories in other countries that are advantage[d] even more so than they are today over American industry. So it's bad for the American worker, but that doesn't mean it's bad for multinational corporations.

This amounts to an astounding, yet entirely accurate, admission by a member of the U.S. ruling elite--the CEO of one of the companies set to gain millions in government bribes under the proposed cap-and-trade legislation--about who is going to profit and who is going to pay.

Yet cap and trade will barely make a dent in its stated purpose: to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

CAST YOUR mind back a little over a year ago to the euphoria that greeted the public pronouncements of presidential nominee Barack Obama.

Among other notes struck by the campaign, candidate Obama made several impassioned appeals for support from the millions of Americans concerned with ecological degradation, particularly those worried about the growing threat of massive shifts in global climate. Use your vote to propel him into the White House, we were told--place your trust in President Obama, and in exchange he would deliver a new, cleaner, greener energy future.

It was with a rousing sense of optimism that millions of Americans, particularly young voters and students, took Barack Obama at his word--to put an end to the cynicism and corruption of business as usual, and retool the American economy with a clean energy future.

Obama swept triumphantly into Washington, riding on the back of statements such as: "For too long, politicians in Washington have been beholden to special interests, but no longer. Our new, responsible energy policy recognizes the relationship between energy, the environment, and our economy and leverages American ingenuity to put people back to work, fight global warming, increase our energy independence and keep us safe."

As recently as September 22, Obama addressed the UN climate conference in New York City and said:

That so many of us are here today is a recognition that the threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing. Our generation's response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it--boldly, swiftly and together--we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.

No nation, however large or small, wealthy or poor, can escape the impact of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten every coastline. More powerful storms and floods threaten every continent. More frequent drought and crop failures breed hunger and conflict in places where hunger and conflict already thrive. On shrinking islands, families are already being forced to flee their homes as climate refugees.

Stirring words. Yet now, a mere two months later, expectations of a meaningful deal at Copenhagen have shrunk to nothingness. A comprehensive treaty is not likely until mid-2010 at the earliest. As U.S. midterm elections loom, it is almost certainly going to be pushed back further still. The U.S. remains, even without George W. Bush in power, the most recalcitrant world power, alongside Australia, when it comes to climate legislation.

How can we explain the pattern of unapologetic backsliding and catering to the vested interests of the fossil-fuel lobby and their paid representatives in Congress that has characterized every aspect of Obama's environmental policy?

It might seem that even by the logic of an economic system predicated on profit-maximization, something meaningful needs to be done. With cities buffeted by increasingly violent storms and lashed by rising seas, and fertile agricultural land made useless by unpredictable droughts or flash flooding, leading to tens of millions of climate refugees fleeing starvation and disease, it is going to be hard even for the capitalists to keep making money.

Can they really be that short-sighted? Is it just the intransigence of the Republicans, a handful of recalcitrant Democrats from fossil-fuel states and the fossil-fuel lobby itself that has fatally weakened a president seriously committed to bringing meaningful environmental policy change to Washington? Or are there deeper issues at stake?

Even if there weren't deeper issues--and clearly there are--it seems only fair to ask: How can the population of the planet, all 6.5 billion of us, have our futures effectively held hostage to the narrowly defined class interests of a few dozen members of Congress and CEOs of major fossil-fuel corporations? Apart from any number of other questions, what does this say about the rationality and democracy of our system of government if this is the case?

This isn't to minimize the power of the climate-change lobbyists, which has become a disturbingly serious business in its own right. Since 2003, the number of climate-change lobbyists has risen more than 400 percent, from 525 in 2003 to 2,349 in 2009. That's a somewhat mind-boggling five lobbyists for every member of Congress.

But the lobbyists' efforts at subverting the democratic process couldn't be as effective as they so clearly are without reaching the ear of an already receptive audience in Washington.

GIVEN THE long lead times required for designing and building power plants and electrical infrastructure, energy policy is, by its nature, a process that requires long-term planning.

The U.S. developed its post-Second World War energy policy in a time of expanding and seemingly endless domestic supply. It wasn't until the 1970s that American oil production peaked. Hence, the cheapness of gasoline and the energy profligacy that characterized U.S. products and appliances--from the enormous cars, to household goods and industrial processes, to urban, suburban and now "ex-urban" sprawl--was never seen as a problem.

In contrast, Europe and Japan had no energy resources of their own, particularly before the discovery of North Sea oil in the late 1970s. Governments were forced into examining geopolitical trade-offs associated with a "foreign dependence on oil" decades before the U.S., and they designed their economies, infrastructure and cities accordingly. The compact towns, houses and cars, and the relatively efficient public transit systems that characterize Europe are the result of this.

So the mystical ways of the American love affair with large gas guzzlers (SUVs are also 50 percent more profitable than regular cars to vehicle manufacturers) and the European predilection for small, more efficient cars have their roots in the specific contours of each region's development, not some psychic disorder of the people.

Because of this historical development, the U.S. is the most energy inefficient of all the developed countries, with higher per-capita energy requirements and carbon emissions. Plus, it is behind in the technology that the Europeans and Japanese have long research histories in. and thereby a competitive advantage.

This explains why the EU--apart from a more organized, active and conscious citizenry that has placed greater environmental demands on its leaders--is pushing for stricter environmental controls and restrictions on carbon emissions. The EU countries are more than aware that this will enhance their existing competitive advantage and further weaken U.S. capital, at a time when the U.S. is struggling to maintain its global pre-eminence.

The U.S., therefore, in order to shield its own capitalist enterprises from enhanced competition from old powers--or rising new ones such as China and India--has to use all of its waning, but still dominant, influence to procrastinate, obfuscate and slow down any requirement for real energy restrictions that would put it even further behind.

An example and a counter-example will round out this point. The ramshackle or non-existent nature of public transportation or public spending on modernizing infrastructure projects in the U.S. is legendary. Around 95 percent of Americans commute to work by car, often as the sole occupants of the vehicle, because that's how U.S. cities were designed.

In many cities, according to a recent report in the New York Times, urban sewage systems are falling apart due to underinvestment, which results in public waterways being routinely inundated with untreated human excrement and commercial waste, leading to 20 million Americans falling ill per year. Underinvestment in bridges has already led to bridge collapses and deaths.

If Congress is incapable of putting money into maintaining or updating the basic infrastructure of capitalist normality necessary for a functioning market economy--such as safe bridges and sanitation--how much less capable or willing is it to allocate money to climate change legislation that will only further weaken America's position as hegemonic global power?

On the other hand, there is one area that the U.S. remains pre-eminent by many orders of magnitude--its military. Hence, the U.S. turn to overt military solutions to counteract growing economic problems.

When the American ruling class wanted to do something after September 11, for example, it transformed and militarized the planet, while torturing its way across the Middle East and destroying civil liberties at home. In other words, when the ruling class is invested in a project, it commits real money and makes sure it gets done--not on a timeframe of decades, but in months or years.

The lesson is clear. If we want something done, we have to organize and fight for it.

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