Another climate summit failure in the making

November 28, 2011

Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, analyzes what's at stake in this week's climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

CONSIDER THE following: In October, the Berkeley Earth Project released the comprehensive results of a scientific study illustrating how temperature has changed since the 1800s. The study, backed in part by arch climate-deniers Koch Industries, was a systematic attempt to allay any doubts that climate change is happening and is a direct result of human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels.

In line with a large variety of other scientific studies, the report found that average global temperatures have been increasing since the industrial revolution took off, notching up a 1 degree Celsius rise since the 1950s alone. Scientists at Berkeley found no evidence that other factors were at play in distorting the data, as claimed by climate skeptics. One of the authors of the study, physicist Richard Muller commented, "My hope is that this will win over those people who are properly skeptical."

Rather a forlorn hope, as Jon Stewart on Comedy Central reported that news of the study received a mere 24 seconds of coverage across cable television news outlets.

Pollution billows from the smokestack of a factory in Sweden

Next, consider that, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, greenhouse gas emissions jumped by a record amount in 2010, exceeding the worst-case scenario of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) most extreme estimate made just four years ago.

Globally, a gargantuan 564 million tons of carbon dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere in 2010, 6 percent more than 2009, prompting John Reilly, codirector of MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, to remark: "The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing."

Finally, consider that in November, the IPCC released a report, compiled over a two-year period by a group of 220 scientists, on the increased likelihood and impact of extreme weather events and the connection to climate change. The report is the first of its kind to document the increased severity of torrential rains and the resultant flooding, more intense and frequent storms and extended periods of drought across the world.

According to the report, the likely economic and social impact of record-breaking hot days, previously occurring once every 20 years, but soon occurring every other year, will be disastrous to at-risk communities such as older people, the poor and the young. Massive cloudbursts that saturate and flood the land, instead of coming every 20 years, will soon hit once every five years. Conversely, extended droughts are more likely for southern Europe and central Europe, central North America, Central America and Mexico, northeast Brazil, and southern Africa.

In a chilling warning of what this would mean, Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, commented, "The report shows that if we do not stop the current steep rise in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, we will see much more warming and dramatic changes in extreme weather that are likely to overwhelm any attempts human populations might make to adapt to their impacts."

THE IPCC report was released in time to inform the upcoming United Nations climate talks in Durban--known as COP-17 or Conference of the Parties, Year 17--and as a way to influence politicians over the need to stop talking like they cared about climate change--and actually take steps to prevent it by initiating an international treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire next year.

Given these facts, one might reasonably assume that the people we elected to protect and serve their populations would be rushing to Durban as fast as they possibly could, clutching these reports to their hearts, eager to address this clearly urgent and planetary-scale threat with the utmost speed and determination.

You might reasonably expect our leaders to be asking themselves questions such as, "How quickly can we move to a carbon-free energy system? What measures should we put in place by the end of the year to start moving in this direction? What international coordination needs to happen to make sure that we transfer all of our best and most effective non-carbon, low-impact technologies to developing countries to help them make the energy transition?"

Needless to say, such a sane and rational response is not at all part of the thinking that goes on in between the ears of heads of state. In fact, in order to avoid being too embarrassingly close to a pointless conference where nothing is achieved, many of them aren't even turning up.

In Washington, international climate negotiations are so low down the list of priorities that almost nobody is going from Capitol Hill and certainly no members of Congress. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who sponsored failed and flawed climate change legislation in 2009, responded to a question about the conference with: "I haven't thought about it." Similarly, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairperson Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said, "It hasn't been brought to my attention...I'm too busy here."

Except that the only thing Congress seems to have been busy with lately is passing agricultural legislation that keeps tomato paste on frozen pizzas classified as a vegetable so it counts as part of school lunches. Bowing to intense lobbying from the frozen food industry, and salt and potato makers, and ignoring the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommendations on how to make healthier school meals for our children, Congress sided with the $5.6 million spent by Coca-Cola and other corporate interests in lobbying on this bill and voted down the new rules.

Of course, tomatoes are in fact a fruit--and with so much added sugar, tomato paste could more accurately be defined as dessert.

So if Congress can define tomato paste as a vegetable and--in exchange for corporate campaign dollars--not worry about the physical and mental health consequences for American children, how easy will it be to ignore a conference that, as House Natural Resources Committee's Democratic spokesperson Eben Burnham-Snyder points out is "in South Africa, which is obviously a pretty long flight"?

But if that comment weren't farcical enough, the attitude is little better in other countries. Brazil was forced to move next year's Rio+20 Earth Summit so it didn't conflict with the archaic British monarchy's celebrations of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Despite that concession to an institution that should have gone out with the Dark Ages, Britain's Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron, self-acclaimed leader of the "greenest government ever," still isn't going to show up to the biggest environmental gathering in 20 years.

THE REAL question we have to ask is: Why are government leaders so committed to doing nothing about climate change? Or put another way, to quote John Vidal, the Guardian's environmental correspondent:

If treasuries can find trillions to bail out dodgy banks, if financiers can be paid hundreds of millions in bonuses and the politics of Europe can be redrawn in just a few weeks, then why can't the rich and big-emitting countries make a deal to try to avert what could be the greatest problem the planet has faced? In short, why are world leaders gambling with the fate of the planet?

Why indeed. Secondly, what political strategies should we pursue so that we can change this pathetic and appalling state of affairs? In other words, how can we raise the temperature of the movement, not the planet?

Because over the 17 years of international negotiations, even as the scientific evidence has dramatically increased and by any measure the rate of environmental devastation accelerated, politicians are moving backwards even from the weak promises they once used to make.

According to a report in the Guardian, rich nations are "giving up" on climate negotiations until 2016 and will then stipulate that there is no enforcement of any treaty until 2020 at the earliest. In response, Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said, "If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door to [holding global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius] will be closed forever."

As noted by a furious UN environment executive director Achim Steiner, putting off doing anything makes the task of doing something all the more difficult and less likely to be successful as greenhouse gases continue to grow instead of shrink:

Those countries that are currently talking about deferring an agreement [until] 2020 are essentially saying we are taking you from high risk to very high risk in terms of the effects of global warming. This is a choice--a political choice...Every year, we build more power plants. Every year, we build more buildings that are not efficient. Every year, our options [to avoid climate change] get less and less.

Clearly, corporate pressure can explain a lot--just ask your nearest member of Congress. In 1998, U.S. corporations spent an incredible $1.4 billion on lobbying members of Congress. That was eclipsed in 2010, when they spent a staggering $3.5 billion; there are more than 13,000 officially registered lobbyists working the corridors of Capitol Hill.

But risking the stability of the whole biosphere by unleashing vast planetary forces must be more systemic than the backhanders and under-the-table deals made by corrupt politicians in the service of corporate interests. Otherwise, replacing Republicans with Democrats might have made a difference. But we know from bitter experience it didn't.

We also know it took massive social ferment and the overthrow of multiple presidents to elect a government in Bolivia that paid more than lip service to climate change, and even there, the supposedly deep-green government of Evo Morales has been physically attacking indigenous protesters as they successfully fought to stop a roadway from carving open their land in order to develop fossil fuel options for the country.

AT ONE end of the spectrum, Elisabeth Rosenthal, writing a slightly nutty "analysis" piece in the New York Times entitled "What Happened to Global Warming?" believes ordinary American's are to blame for their apparently genetically-inspired, perverse desire to drive juggernauts as expressions of personal freedom, live in massive houses and waste tons of money they don't have on energy bills and transportation costs:

Americans--who produce twice the emissions per capita that Europeans do--are in many ways wired to be holdouts. We prefer bigger cars and bigger homes. We value personal freedom, are suspicious of scientists, and tend to distrust the kind of sweeping government intervention required to confront rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Sir Nicholas Stern, in his influential Stern Report on climate change, refused to recommend radical action on to stop global warming, but he was nevertheless more perceptive than many environmental organizations in arguing that the root of the problem is, in fact, "free" market capitalism:

Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen. The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. The problem is global, and the response must be a collaboration on a global scale.

From the other end of the political spectrum, Naomi Klein has an excellent piece in The Nation, "Capitalism vs. The Climate," which argues that taking meaningful action on climate change is essentially an existential threat to the system because it attacks one of the prime features of capitalism--namely, that a system predicated on relentless and never-ending growth is incompatible with the requirements of a stable biosphere on a finite planet:

The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal--and acutely sensitive to natural limits.

What I take from this is that what we need is a social, economic and political revolution--the replacement of capitalism with an economic and political model based on cooperation not competition, production for need, not profit, and predicated on real democracy and active participation by an informed citizenry of equals; a society where there are no corporations and no countries, just collections of people democratically planning sustainable production methods and ways of living in harmony with nature rather than aggressively seeking to dominate it.

This would be a society that, in the words of Karl Marx, has a long-term outlook predicated on the simple maxim that production "has to minister to the entire range of permanent necessities of life required by the chain of successive generations," and do so "with the least expenditure of energy." I'd call such a system socialism.

While Klein shies away from this conclusion, leaving space for a reformed capitalism with a much reduced corporate sector somehow not tied to endless growth, and a "managed transition to another economic paradigm," it is clear we need to win real reforms to build our organizational power and confidence, as well as slow down the rate of environmental degradation and buy ourselves some time.

Fortunately, after decades of defeats, we now have some victories: the recent success in stopping the approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the cancellation of the vote to lift the moratorium on hydrofracking in the Delaware River basin. Both are awesome examples of the power of protest in the new climate of the Arab Spring and Occupy movement.

Klein highlights six things we need to fight for, including taxing the rich, re-regulating the corporations and banks, reviving public space for democratic debate, and fighting for the necessity of government planning to make positive societal change.

We certainly need to do all those things, and the ongoing Egyptian revolution and Occupy protests across the world make them all much more likely. What seemed pie-in-the-sky idealistic dreaming a few short months ago seems, in this new spirit of global revolt against the 1 percent, so much more realizable. Our horizon for the amount of change that is possible has suddenly shifted dramatically.

But the evidence that the political and economic elite will bow to public pressure and scientific reason and allow for or help facilitate a managed transition to another economic paradigm is incontrovertible--they won't. Read the following quote and guess who is speaking about what area of the world:

The United States has spoken out for a set of core principles that have guided our response to events, including opposition to the use of violence and repression, defense of universal rights including the freedom of peaceful assembly, and support for political and economic reform that meets the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.

That is part of a statement released on November 25, 2011, by the White House's press secretary, talking about Egypt. Clearly he hasn't been watching domestic television reports, or taken a trip to Oakland, New York City or 16 other U.S. cities where state-backed use of violence and repression against the freedom of peaceful assembly was on vivid and brutal display.

Being able to question the massive economic inequality rampant in America, and suggesting that the government take some action to re-regulate the banks and corporations and tax the rich might seem like a right a democratic government and self-ascribed leader of the free world would support. The blood on the streets and the pepper spray in the air across a swath of U.S. cities suggests otherwise--not to mention the federal intervention and coordination of the crackdown on Occupy.

THOSE WHO run and profit from the operation of the system will stop at nothing to defend their privilege. That extends into the international realm and brings us to another ecological contradiction intrinsic to capitalism not mentioned by Naomi Klein and left out of almost all debates and discussions of why nation states can't agree on a climate deal.

The missing factor is the competition that goes on between countries in the service of their own set of corporations--in a word, imperialism. Geopolitical intrigue and the jockeying for competitive advantage isn't some occasional thing that a few larger or more belligerent countries engage in, it's built into the operation of capitalism in just the same way as the requirement for constant growth.

One of the fundamental sticking points in Durban will be between developed nations that have made much of the fact that recent increases in emissions have come predominantly from developing countries, which were exempt from binding emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Led by the U.S., Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have used this argument to cudgel developing nations into agreeing to drop their insistence on any new climate agreement treating poor and rich countries differently.

Using this argument, OECD countries proclaim that they won't do anything that would undermine their competitiveness against developing countries unconstrained by having to limit carbon emissions. The rich countries reinforce their position by trotting out the argument that even if they took action, it wouldn't have any effect because the increases in emissions are coming from the developing world.

Leaving aside the fact that the developed world has a historical debt to pay for bringing the planet to the brink of biospheric crisis, the U.S. still consumes 30 percent of world resources and produces 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions with only 4 percent of the world's population.

The U.S. could not only set an example to the rest of the world by investing seriously in renewable technologies but it would simultaneously generate millions of jobs for those millions of Americans currently out of work. But again, the rules of imperial competition between nation states override taking unilateral action to protect the only planet we have. The myopia of those who run the system and their fixation on profit-taking prevents them from recognizing the slogan "There is no Planet B."

One could argue that the U.S. government has a point: don't we need developing countries like China and India to reduce their emissions? Of course we do. However, the question is: How can this best be achieved? By refusing to seriously invest in renewable energy technologies, the U.S. encourages other countries with less money and technological expertise to do likewise.

As President Obama has authorized the resumption of deep sea offshore drilling, as well as offshore drilling in the Arctic, there's no incentive for others to do anything except continue to construct coal plants, build roads and clear-cut forests for biofuel production.

While 40 percent of emissions still come from OECD countries, it's true that only 25 percent of the latest increase in emissions came from that source. However, it is important to note that per capita emissions in the OECD are almost double those of China and more than six times those of India.

Furthermore, these figures are a serious distortion of which countries are really responsible for carbon emissions. While the European Union is likely going to achieve its Kyoto target of 5 percent emissions reductions from 1990 levels next year, this is only because they outsourced them. According to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Under the IPCC accounting rules of only reporting territorial emissions, many developed countries have reported stabilized emissions. However, our results show that the global emissions associated with consumption in many developed countries have increased with a large share of the emissions originating in developing countries.

If the carbon cost of imports from industries that relocated abroad to boost profit margins by taking advantage of lower labor costs and weaker health, labor, safety and environmental standards is added to the developed countries' column, emissions are shown to have increased by 7 percent.

And even without accounting for overseas manufacturing, the U.S. is headed in the opposite direction: between 1990 and 2008, U.S. emissions increased by 17 percent. If imports are taken into account from U.S. corporations now located overseas, primarily in China, the increase is 25 percent. If China's imports and exports are accounted for, Chinese emissions drop by 20 percent, putting the country well behind the U.S.

THE SECOND intractable problem for capitalism in dealing with a global problem like climate change is that any effective plan has to be internationally coordinated because no major country is able to put forward and carry out unilateral actions that would contravene the laws of capitalist competition and undermine its competitiveness on the world market.

The intractable problem faced by the U.S. in particular, with intense economic pressures from rising competitors and an economy built on the premise of endless cheap oil, is that it is the country least capable of making concessions at climate talks.

As a result, U.S. government representatives are constantly hunting for allies among other major polluting countries to bribe or browbeat into obstructing, watering down and delaying any and all action toward a binding climate treaty.

Whatever the change in language, this is as true of Obama's administration as it was of George W. Bush's. It appears that in Durban, the U.S. will this time collaborate with major coal producer and nuclear ally India, with the likely help of Russia and Japan, in order to block any attempt by vulnerable states to take firmer and quicker action to reduce emissions.

As some nations become desperate in the face of climate change and influenced by the Occupy movement for change, some may attempt to force the issue against the interests of the major emitting countries. In an exciting example of this, the former president of Costa Rica, José María Figueres, has called for vulnerable countries to "Occupy Durban" to force more serious negotiations.

Climate protesters outside the conference in Durban can use this potential split to make their own push for tighter emissions controls and a shift away from fossil fuels, just as global justice protesters did in Seattle in 1999, which led to the collapse of international trade talks.

However, it is clear that if we want real change with regard to climate negotiations, we need a more thoroughgoing strategy. While we should continue to protest outside of climate talks, we need to direct our energies to where we are more able to effect change, which is on the national level.

And if we really want to save our world, we need to see fighting for real reforms and the reining in of corporate power not as an endpoint, but as a stepping stone toward a completely different society. That new society must be one that, in contrast to a capitalist system based on endless growth, competition in pursuit of profit, exploitation, oppression and imperial warfare, will be based on real democracy and cooperation between all people and the planet we depend on. For that, we will need a revolution.

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