The people vs. the polluters

December 11, 2009

Chris Williams looks at the destructive impact of the proposed agreement on climate change being debated at the United Nations conference in Copenhagen.

"WE HAVE reached the deadline and there is no going back. Now is the time to capture the moment and conclude a truly ambitious global deal. This is our chance. If we miss this opportunity, we will not get a better one."

So said Connie Hedegaard--former Danish climate minister and president of the two-week climate summit in Copenhagen--on December 7.

One wonders if the "ambitious global deal" she was thinking of was the one leaked to the Guardian newspaper one day later that revealed the extent of backroom deals already being concocted by her own government, the U.S. and the UK.

The document sets out a plan to squeeze developing countries by shifting the costs of moving to a low-carbon future disproportionately onto the countries of the Global South, those least responsible for causing the problem in the first place. Not only that, but the draft proposal ices out UN oversight of any future treaty in favor of that well-known paradigm of environmental responsibility, the World Bank.

In other words, the bandits who have robbed the South blind for 400 years--and have created the climate crisis over the last 250--now want to enshrine banditry into the treaty to save the planet.

Petro-Canada oil refinery in Edmonton emits billowing clouds of smoke during a fire

Meanwhile, Australian climate ambassador Louise Hand declared that "Copenhagen can't be a business-as-usual outcome." Perhaps she missed the vote, but this is precisely what representatives of her own parliament just voted for--by refusing to pass legislation that would have set binding targets for emissions control through the so-called cap and trade scheme.

At the other end of the power spectrum, the tiny nation of Tuvalu, a collection of nine small islands in the South Pacific--a country unlikely to have a very long future if climate change continues along its same course--brought the conference to a rancorous halt with a desperate plea for a binding agreement.

Ian Fry, an official with Tuvalu's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said that the talks should end December 18 with a new set of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that was aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, plus another agreement that finally includes the U.S., which is not part of Kyoto.

"Being one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, our future rests on the outcome of this meeting," Fry said. "We are here to seal the deal. We are here to commit to a legally binding agreement that will guarantee the future of Tuvalu and the future of millions of people around the world...The time for procrastination is over. It is time to deliver."

Unfortunately for the 10,000 Tuvaluans, the people who are busily making decisions about their destiny have shown themselves completely uninterested in their fate--or that of much of the rest of the planet.

Members of the U.S. delegation in Copenhagen have already made it abundantly clear that they will refuse any deal that looks even remotely like Kyoto. Further, U.S. delegate will oppose any agreement that doesn't load responsibilities onto developing countries, particularly China and India.

Todd Stern, the top State Department climate envoy, said immediately after arriving in Copenhagen that President Barack Obama has no plans to sign onto the 1997 Kyoto accord. The only parts of Kyoto that the U.S. would consider incorporating into a new treaty are the use of offsets and market-based trading systems, measures that have proven ineffectual--except at making money for carbon traders. "We're not going to do Kyoto, and we're not going to do something that's Kyoto with another name," said Stern.

SO WHY has Copenhagen collapsed in fractious recriminations even before the conference has truly begun--even before tens of thousands of protesters turned out for demonstrations planned to start this weekend?

It was an outcome fully predicted by Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an article he wrote for the September-October issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, a mouthpiece for the more forward-thinking sections of the U.S. ruling class.

Levi gave a succinct picture of what to expect due to the competing imperial interests at play in Copenhagen:

The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are vanishingly small. And even reaching such a deal the following year would be an extraordinary challenge, given the domestic political constraints in Washington and in other capitals that make such an agreement difficult to negotiate and ratify.

Even were a deal to be struck, Levi adds that a global agreement on paper is "only half the problem." That's because there's no international ability for enforcement:

Even a blockbuster deal in which every country signed up to binding emissions caps would come nowhere near close to guaranteeing success, since the world has few useful options for enforcing commitments to slash emissions short of punitive trade sanctions or similarly unpalatable penalties.

A comprehensive international treaty that actually addresses the issue of climate change and will lead to meaningful and swift reductions in carbon dioxide emissions is, in fact, impossible for several structural and systemic reasons.

First, all countries are beholden to a world economy that essentially revolves around a single natural resource: oil. No capitalist entity, nor the individual nation-states that facilitate their global operations, can walk away from $13 trillion in investments that are tied directly to the oil extraction industry.

It isn't just about oil, but all of the associated industries and infrastructure that have been built up over the last 100 years of global economic development. All of the car and truck companies, road and pipeline construction corporations, the asphalt, rubber, electricity, fertilizer and petrochemical companies, and steel manufacturers are inseparably connected to fossil-fuel extraction and refining. The location and growth of large cities and ports the world over are completely bound up with the oil industry.

What's more, nine of the 10 largest corporations on earth, with turnover in the hundreds of billions of dollars, make their money from oil-related activities. To cut the oil-lubricated umbilical cord is to sever their relationship to profit, with catastrophic consequences for the parent company.

To drag down even one of these companies is unthinkable. Look at how the Obama administration bailed out the Detroit auto companies--rather than nationalize them and force them to reorganize and manufacture useful and more environmentally friendly products like wind turbines and trains.

These oil corporations and the politicians they bankroll, therefore, prefer to mortgage the long-term future of the planet to some amorphous hope in market-based solutions such as carbon trading. They want to pump money into so-called "clean coal," revive supposedly "environmentally friendly" nuclear power and develop socially and ecologically destructive agro-fuels like ethanol.

While none of these measures offer a real solution to climate change, business prefers to pursue them rather than seriously contemplate the demise of short-term corporate profits--even if, in the long run, they manage to turn the planet into a sun-ravaged hothouse.

IF BUSINESS is determined to pursue short-term profits at the cost of long-term ecocide, than governments will be compelled to support those efforts. Each country has to protect and, where possible, extend the influence and competitive advantage of its own national corporations. Every political, economic, military and diplomatic lever must be pulled to further those interests.

This dynamic naturally pits nation against nation as they squabble over the details and thrash out compromises based on the balance of world power, rather than a rational and objective appraisal of what's needed.

The Copenhagen conference is no different. The UN meeting and similar international conferences merely represent the neutral gathering points for each round of arm-twisting. National emissaries will maneuver to consolidate old positions of power, or secure new ground in the never-ending economic and political battle for supremacy--all shrouded in the polite language appropriate to diplomatic discourse in civilized society.

All this makes a meaningful agreement almost impossible, as every country seeks to angle for its own advantage--and insert escape clauses and exclusions that are large enough to drive a fleet of Hummers through.

Meanwhile, there is a clear schism between the competing interests of the developed and developing world, especially as the U.S., European Union and Japan try to place the blame for the lack of progress on rising powers China and India.

This is one of the fault lines that helped to drag down the World Trade Organization talks 10 years ago in Seattle. The parallels with Copenhagen, down to the mood to break up and disrupt the conference with mass civil disobedience by protesters kept out by barbed wire and water cannon, grows greater with every day.

However, as the world-renowned environmental activist and author Vandana Shiva makes clear in her book Soil Not Oil, the primary schism isn't between rich countries and poor countries:

It is between corporate industry in the North, and farmers, indigenous people and vulnerable communities. Corporations in the North and South have now formed partnerships, and the corporations in the South must first pollute and then reduce pollution to get credits.

But what makes an agreement on climate change different--and more difficult to achieve--than a treaty on trade is that it would limit corporations' freedom to ransack and plunder the planet with impunity. All countries would have to enact an international treaty equally. Otherwise, the countries that unilaterally put in place environmental legislation will be "unfairly disadvantaged"--and will lose out in the competitive race to make the most money in the shortest possible time.

Hence there's an extra complication with conferences that seek to address global warming. Political leaders know they need to show up and make polite noises to divert attention and public pressure from more unpalatable options. Some of them even realize they need to do something real to avoid climate disaster.

But none of these leaders are really committed to the process, whatever fine words of planetary platitudes flow from their mouths. This is because real solutions through government regulation are all anathema to capitalism. They place restrictions on markets and profits that are deemed unacceptable.

THERE'S AN important contradiction here. Part of the function of the state is to counter-balance the competing short-term interests of individual corporations, and look to the longer-term needs of the whole national commercial enterprise. The state is responsible for enabling capital to operate in the most profit-friendly environment possible, and hence will seek to ensure that adequate infrastructure exists for transportation purposes to get workers to their jobs and transport goods to markets.

This relationship between the state and capital is in itself an impediment to any agreement on climate change. But the obstacles are still greater after the ideological assault on social spending and "big government" for the last 30 years. Since addressing the roots of climate change means a frontal assault on the citadels of capitalist power, the state is paralyzed by the environmental crisis.

Furthermore, it's in the economic interests of the major corporations to ensure that the South develops a car culture and fossil-fuel-intensive economy. Northern markets for autos, for example, are at saturation point. By contrast, Southern markets offer a bonanza of expanding markets--especially now that an Indian company has designed small cars such as the Nano that sell for $2,500-$3,000.

Along with an expanding auto market comes the need for road expansion and increased manufacture of steel, aluminum, concrete and rubber. All this is to the detriment of local cultures, ecologies and quality of life as public transportation is neglected--and, of course, the global environment.

Thus, the best that can be hoped for in Copenhagen is a partial, piecemeal plan that's implemented only when it's far too late to avoid climate catastrophe. Which is why James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University and one of the world's leading climate scientists, has said that the collapse of the talks as the best possible outcome.

It's impossible for even supposedly environmentally conscious governments to develop and implement a real plan. To do so would require acknowledgement of the deep systemic problems that go to the very root of the entire social system--and a reorientation of social priorities toward workers, peasants and farmers and the earth we depend on.

That's why it's not viable to win ecological or climate justice without social justice. The inequality and exploitation that lies at the heart of capitalism ravages humans and the planet in the interests of a tiny minority hell-bent on reshaping the planet in the service of profit. To be a climate justice activist therefore necessarily makes you a social justice activist in equal measure.

In any case, the negotiations in Copenhagen are already in danger of collapsing under the weight of their own contradictions. The hope is that protesters outside the meeting rooms can help drag the whole mess down--so we can start focusing on real solutions instead.

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