Republican Representative Sam Graves shot wide of the mark in his recent article, published in Politico last Friday, touting the upcoming free trade agreements (FTAs) with Korea, Colombia and Panama on the basis of defending small businesses. Although FTAs being voted on as early as this week may create some jobs, many more are shipped overseas, feeding the formula of what has become one of the greatest financial crises of US history. A quick glance at the meteoric decline of the US automotive industry brings you face to face with the ugly truth that no business, no matter how big or how small (or heavily subsidized) will benefit from free trade in the long run. Graves’s statistics are contravened by a hefty weight of evidence easily found on the website of Trade Justice organization, Public Citizen, but even those figures don’t add up to much in light of the most important issue of our era. Time may be running out, as Graves puts it, but what’s at stake here is far greater than what multi-national corporations consider to be nickles and dimes. With the decline in industry profits comes a commensurate decline in global environmental standards, and this “race to the bottom” will produce something significantly worse than lost profits.
Even the major US-based car company, Ford Motors, has spoken out against the free trade agreement with Korea, declaring that it will undermine some of the US-American auto-industry’s more progressive gestures towards greater emissions standards by encouraging Korean car companies to cut emissions standards by 10%. In a corroborating article called, “Only GM Would Benefit From Proposed FTA Revisions” published in Automotives Insight, it is reported that the deal would benefit a long term strategy to reduce emissions requirements to 25% from the current course of 40% by 2016. In so doing, it would contravene and subvert the global climate goals set during last year’s 16th annual Conference of Parties in Cancun, which accorded to reduce greenhouse emissions and maintain a rise in global temperature not in excess of 2?C above pre-industrial levels (in spite of warnings from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the European Union that a 2?C increase remains dangerously warm, with potentially disastrous climatic effects). Even such an underachievement is impossible should the US continue to fall short of its own declared benchmarks, while encouraging other countries to do the same.
This maneuvering would most hurt domestic car companies, who would be able to export only one car to Korea per every 52 Korean cars imported to the US. Significantly, one of the biggest boosters of the FTA is General Motors (GM), which owns the fourth largest Korean car company, Daewoo, and has not made serious attempts to cut their cars’ emissions. If the deal is passed, GM could potentially sue South Korea as a direct foreign investor should that country pass legislation regulating carbon emissions of automobiles manufactured domestically. This position is clearly favorable to the US government, which purchased 61% of GM as part of an “industry-wide bailout” during the financial crisis of 2008; however, it exposes unfair business practices, which subject some US car companies to emissions standards but not others. Opening the door for a “carbon gap” that favors more polluting vehicles, the FTA may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the push to control climate change through emissions standards, creating an endgame scenario for domestic car manufacturers.
A similar issue arises from the implications of the Panama Free Trade Agreement, also being voted on next week. The US seeks a greater stake in the ownership of the Panama Canal, currently owned largely by China, and US corporations such as Caterpiller have come out in favor of the FTA due to their eagerness to become involved in a vast project to expand the canal. This undertaking would create a large amount of environmental damage, due to siltation, industrial pollutants, and deforestation, and as a result of expanding the Panama Canal, an increase in the shipments of nuclear material and oil would come through the chokepoint, increasing the danger of spillage and environmental catastrophe. If the FTA were to pass, Caterpiller’s status as a foreign investor would give them the right to sue Panama should the government successfully move to pass legislation to curb the expansion.
People in Panama have already spoken out against the FTA for another issue ? dolphin safety. The Panamanian shrimping industry is one of the largest sources of revenue in that country, and the FTA would expand it significantly by lowering health and sanitary standards while increasing foreign investment and reducing tariffs, putting a tremendous strain on coastal water-systems, and, in particular, Panama’s mangrove forests. A haven for endangered and migratory species, these mangrove forests also provide a veritable fortress against hurricanes and storm surges. Their destruction, along with the expansion of the canal chokepoint and increased barge traffic, would wreak ecological havoc along the isthmus.
Panama’s neighbor, Colombia, has an equally negative environmental cost-benefit analysis with regards to the FTA package. Most people know that Colombia is currently embroiled in a hotly contested civil unrest, but what most people don’t know is that the Colombian government is responsible for one of the greatest crises of internal displacement in the world, and what even fewer people know is that the peaceful Afro-colombian population has been extirpated from the western-most part of Colombia, El Choc?-Darien, by Colombian paramilitaries and the army, itself, as part of a strategy to eradicate the lush tropical rainforest for the production of African Palm plantations. Although scientists have deemed El Choc? one of the top ten ecological hot-spots, revealing its position among the world’s most vital natural processing centers of greenhouse gases, the Colombian government seeks to replace it with a monocrop that has utterly decimated other parts of the world such as Indonesia. The ultimate ironic outcome of this disastrous project, which would advance the displacement of Afro-colombians to convert almost 10% of the country into a plantation that harvests a plant called African Palm, would be its final product: Palm Oil, which is increasingly used to power biofuel engines.
The geopolitical underpinnings of this ecological-economic game manifest are sewing greater seeds of indignity. Instead of using its partial ownership of GM to encourage efficiency and carbon emissions standards, the Obama Administration has used the once formidable car manufacturer as a pawn directed towards, in the words of the Congressional Research Alliance, “ensuring that the United States remains a strategic and economic counterbalance to China and Japan.” South Korea is considered by many analysts to be a financial powerhouse on equal footing with Brazil, Russia, India and China, which together have created a political bloc that contends with US hegemony in critical global power games, such as the WTO and the COP. The BRIC countries have growing solar and wind power marketplaces, but they also have, for the most part, growing populations and run-away-train energy needs; eo ipso, the BRICs are playing the heavy, blocking stringent, binding global emissions standards, so the US does not feel pressured into lowering its own carbon emissions.
In using their big chip, GM, to bargain away its own meaningful climate legislation in hopes of obtaining negligible financial returns on their initial investment to the detriment of the rest of the US auto industry, the US wants to public to believe that it is cutting China off at the pass and staying competitive in a market race to boost industrial gains and gain economic allies. In reality, instead of bringing one of the BRIC bloc countries over to its side, what it is in actuality doing is acquiescing to an international hegemonic situation that promotes its own economic stagnation through an increased trade deficit that will lead to diminishing domestic job production. Similarly, the power play in Panama, where the US seems poised to loosen China’s chokehold over the busiest trade corridor in the world, reveals another cavalier gesture to gain a shaky hegemonic foothold on the eroding grounds of global resource transportation rather than concentrate on cultivating local production and environmental sustainability. The only supposedly green upshot of this trade package is that consumers will remain positive about progressive “green” market choices, as the Colombia FTA ensures that biofuel market access will expand, enabling upscale buyers to choose the apparently environmentally friendly option while remaining ignorant of the fact that its production comes at the cost of the earth’s most valuable ecosystems.
In the end, the rhetoric bolstering Obama’s “geopolitical balancing act” of exploiting Bush-era FTAs appears more like the wild gesticulations of a person waving their hands in free fall. The administration’s continuing propensity to hide behind the false promise of climate change legislation while enriching the coffers of State-held private interests at the expense of the working class has perpetuated the inequities of the Bush era up to this point. Soon, the US may be forced onto a coherent economic and environmental platform by moving away from the vain corporate posturing that is keeping the US’s fossil-fuel based economy in the tar pits of history. The only question remaining is, who will be left standing?
Alexander Reid Ross is a former editor of the Earth First! Journal and current coordinator of Global Justice for Animals and the Environment in Portland, Oregon.