Meltdown in Durban

Consider the following: In October the Berkeley Earth project released the comprehensive results of a scientific study illustrating how temperature has changed since the 1800’s.  The study, backed in part by arch climate-deniers Koch Industries, was a systematic attempt to allay any doubts anyone might have 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 temperature has been increasing since the industrial revolution took off, notching up a 10C rise since the 1950’s 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.

Next consider that according to the US dept 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 CO2 were pumped into the atmosphere in 2010, 6% more than 2009, prompting John Reilly, the co-director 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. The likely economic and social impact of record-breaking hot days, previously occurring once every 20 years but soon 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 arrive once in every five.  Conversely, extended droughts are more likely for southern Europe and central Europe, central North America, Central America and Mexico, north-east 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.”  Christian Parenti documents the impact these changes are already having on vulnerable communities around the world in his new book Tropic of Chaos.

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 the above 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.  Indeed, in Washington, climate negotiations are so low down the list of priorities that almost nobody is going from Capitol Hill and certainly no members of Congress.  Henry Waxman (D-Calif), who sponsored the failed and flawed climate legislation in 2009, responding to a question about the conference said, “I don’t know…I haven’t thought about it.”  Similarly, Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) said that “It hasn’t been brought to my attention…I’m too busy here”.

Except that the only thing Congress seems to have successfully been busy with lately is passing agricultural legislation that keeps tomato paste on frozen pizzas classified as a vegetable so that it counts as part of school lunches.  Bowing to intense lobbying from the frozen food industry, salt and potato manufacturers, and ignoring the US government’s own agricultural department’s recommendations on how to make healthier school meals for our children, in a craven acquiescence to corporate power they took the $5.6 million spent lobbying on this bill by coca cola and other corporate interests and voted the new rules down.   Leaving aside the fact that tomatoes are in fact a fruit and with so much sugar, the paste could more accurately be defined as dessert, Congress has never let science dictate their votes and this is after all the USDA that tests meat for school lunch programs 5-10 times less frequently than the fast food chains, which, incredibly, often have stricter limits on bacterial infection of the meat.  According to a 2009 report in US Today:

“For chicken, the USDA has supplied schools with thousands of tons of meat from old birds that might otherwise go to compost or pet food. Called “spent hens” because they’re past their egg-laying prime, the chickens don’t pass muster with Colonel Sanders— KFC won’t buy them — and they don’t pass the soup test, either. The Campbell Soup Company says it stopped using them a decade ago based on “quality considerations.”

No wonder the approval rating for such a venal Congress is 9%; astoundingly, less than half what Richard Nixon polled at the height of Watergate (24%) or BP, at 16%, during the Gulf oil spill.  And, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, Americans prefer the US ‘going communist’ (11%) over their approval of Congress.

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 in the words of Natural Resources Committee’s Democratic spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder is “in South Africa, which is obviously a pretty long flight”.

As if that wasn’t farcical enough a comment, in other countries, it’s not any better.  Brazil was forced to move next year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit so that 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, Conservative 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 dangerously 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 temperatures below 20C] 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 US 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 uncontrollably 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 replacement of multiple governments 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 frankly 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, lock up scientists, 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, author of the influential Stern Report on climate change, a report limited in terms of solutions as he abjures taking radical action on climate change but nevertheless, was much more perceptive than many environmental organizations when he argued 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.”

And from the other end of the political spectrum, Naomi Klein has an excellent piece in The Nation, Capitalism vs. The Climate, that argues that taking meaningful action on climate change is essentially an existential threat to the very fabric of the system because it attacks one of the prime operative 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.  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 XL tar sands pipeline and the cancellation of the vote to lift the moratorium on hydrofracking in the Delaware River basin; both awesome examples of the power of protest in the new climate of the Arab Spring and Occupy.  Klein highlights six things we need to fight for such as 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, in this new spirit of global revolt against the 1%, so much more is now realizable and 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 by the White House’s US Press Secretary, November 25, 2011 talking about Egypt.  Clearly he hasn’t been watching US domestic TV.  Or taken a trip to Oakland, New York or 16 other US cities lately, where the state-backed use of violence and repression against the freedom of peaceful assembly has been on vivid and brutal display.  Surely, merely questioning the massive economic inequality rampant in America, and suggesting that the government we elected take some action to re-regulate the banks and corporations and tax the rich via peaceful assembly would 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 US cities suggests otherwise, not to mention federal intervention and coordination.

Those that 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 United States, 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 when faced with economic competition from developing countries unconstrained by having to limit carbon emissions.  They 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 by its 150 year production of carbon dioxide, on which that development rests, the United States alone consumes 30% of world resources and produces 25% of CO2 emissions with only 4% of world population.  The US could not only set an example to the rest of the world by investing seriously in renewable technologies but 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 US 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 US encourages other countries with less money and technological expertise to do like-wise.  As President Obama has authorized the resumption of deep sea off-shore 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% of emissions still come from OECD countries, it’s true that only 25% 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 EU is likely going to achieve its Kyoto target of 5% 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 industry that was relocated 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, instead of stabilizing, emissions are shown to have increased by 7%.  Even without accounting for overseas manufacturing, the US is headed in the opposite direction: between 1990 and 2008 US emissions increased by 17%.  If imports are taken into account from US corporations now located overseas, primarily in China, the increase is 25%.  If China’s imports and exports are accounted for, Chinese emissions drop by 20%, putting the country well behind the United States.

As another example, take Obama’s recent trip to Asia.  Here is President Obama, having just dispatched US troops and aircraft to a base in Australia, essentially letting China know in no uncertain terms what will and will not be tolerated in the Pacific:

“With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress. As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends…As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.  We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace…The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay.”

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 US in particular, with intense economic pressures from rising competitors and an economy built on the premise of endless cheap oil, is that it’s the country least capable of making concessions at climate talks.

As a result, US government representatives are constantly hunting for allies amongst 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 President Obama’s administration as it was of George W. Bush’s.  It appears that in Durban the US 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 infected with the power of 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 in Durban outside the conference 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 that led to the collapse of international trade talks.

However, it is clear that if we want real change with regard to climate negotiations, we will have to follow the Egyptian people and replace our governments with ones that are more responsive to the democratic demands of their people.  While we should obviously 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 rather as a stepping stone toward a completely different society.  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.

Chris Williams is a professor in the Dept of Chemistry & Physical Science, Pace University and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010)