The BRICS Remix Climate Damage and Corporate Collusion


The movement from below to tackle climate change is gathering pace in South Africa, and elsewhere in the world, in advance of the September 21 mass march against the United Nations. Environmentalists lead, but this struggle invokes the world’s greatest class-race-gender-NorthSouth conflict, too. Ban Ki-Moon’s heads-of-state summit on September 23 may generate greater publicity for the cause, but if, as anticipated, world rulers simply slap each other on the back, activists will have to even more urgently intensify the pressure.

This was the message from the recent Venezuelan-initiated People’s Climate Process in Caracas, which built upon a mass meeting four years ago in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Such demands for ‘climate justice’ remain most relevant to our times, in contrast to the watered-down slogans and vacant demands that, sadly, characterize the coming big march. The day before, however, the ‘Converge for Climate’ gathering will offer much more robust analysis, strategies and tactics, seeking much wider alliances than ever before.

Our window to halt runaway climate change is closing fast this decade, with world-wide emissions cuts of 50 percent needed by 2020, and 90 percent by 2050, to keep the planet at even a 2 degree rise. Extreme weather now feels commonplace. If runaway methane from thawing Siberian tundra and melting Artic ice worsens, the cuts will have to come even sooner and deeper. Can civilization face up to this, or will corporations keep us looking the other direction?

Elite paralysis

The September gathering in New York will be followed by the formal UN Framework Convention on Climate Change summits in Lima, Peru in November and then the literally last-gasp effort in Paris in late 2015. Last weekend, a militant prep-com of climate justice activists began preparations, while the Indigenous People of the Andes are expected to mobilize militantly in Lima.

Still, these ‘Conferences of the Parties’ (COPs) are so far merely fortnight-long talk-shops. The 17th was hosted here in Durban in 2011, and was a failure on all accounts, including activism. The COPs are invariably sabotaged by US State Department negotiators, joined by brethren climate-denialist regimes in Canada, Australia and Japan. Best that these events be remembered as Conferences of Polluters.

At the COP15 in 2009, four other major polluters – Brazil, China, India and South Africa – signed on to US President Barack Obama’s Copenhagen Accord. It not only “wrecked the UN,” as Bill McKibbon of put it, in terms of process. The Accord promised only inadequate and voluntary emissions cuts. Indeed at the mid-July BRICS summit last month, the most substantial comment about climate change was not reassuring – “bearing in mind that fossil fuel remains one of the major sources of energy” – and so it appears that the BRICS will follow a COP negotiating strategy that they initiated five years ago. Added to that is the BRICS strategy of introducing carbon markets (‘privatising the air’) in spite of the massive European and US pilot project failures.

Copenhagen represented, simply, as climate justice writer-activist Naomi Klein accurately described the experience, “nothing more than a grubby pact between the world’s biggest emitters: I’ll pretend that you are doing something about climate change if you pretend that I am too. Deal? Deal.” In her new book, This Changes Everything, Klein blames the profit-logic of mega-corporations, not just their pocket governments, and she insists on post-capitalist climate policies.

If she is correct, in this opportune context there is already some evidence that activist pressure is beginning to affect even Washington, DC, surely the most corporate-dominated political capital in world history thanks to recent campaign finance deregulation. Teased by activists for five years, Obama finally gathered enough will to regulate the powerful coal energy industry in June. He announced what is in effect a ban on constructing 150 coal-fired power plants proposed in 2001 by then Vice President Dick Cheney. Only two have been built since then, mainly thanks to vigorous community opposition but also because Sierra Club lawyers bogged down the coal industry, and so Obama has only recently codified what was already a major shift away from the dirtiest energy source, coal.

To be sure, the US climate movement’s next challenges are extreme: fracking, new oil drilling in deep-sea waters and national parks, coal exports, and the import of Canada’s tar sands shale oil, not to mention the full economic reboot Klein calls for. As for claims by Obama and Europeans that their economies’ greenhouse gases are being cut, these brags are not genuine, for the North is simply outsourcing dirty industries to East Asia, while enjoying cut-rate products sent back, paid for by degraded currencies.

Financial fight-back

If capitalism is the problem, undercutting financial flows to the status quo is a vital strategy. Divestment from fossil-funded profits parallels what worked so well thirty years ago when we were fighting South African apartheid. Financial jujitsu is one way to turn capitalism against itself, as we learned then. And today, traditional bankers are increasingly wary of socio-ecological controversy, with the London NGO Carbontracker pointing out Big Oil’s ‘unburnable carbon.’ Under growing pressure, even the fossil-saturated World Bank last year agreed not to lend more for coal-fired power plants, though Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s recent broken promises on environmental and social safeguards confirms his Obama-style unreliability.

Financial sanctions helped bring down apartheid by splitting South Africa’s banking elite away from the Afrikaner ruling racists. They are now being used by Palestine solidarity activists to great effect (causing elite panic in Tel Aviv), after leading Dutch and Norwegian pension funds and a major Danish bank disinvested from Israeli banks possessing illegal West Bank Occupation branches in January. Divestment of fossil fuel stocks from major funds – even Stanford University’s endowment a few weeks ago – was stimulated by calls from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to follow our example: hitting the oppressive system in the wallet, hard.

“People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” Tutu argued in a Guardian op-ed in April. “The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Young people across the world have already begun to do something about it. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is the fastest growing corporate campaign of its kind in history.”’s Africa-Arab Team Leader Ferrial Adam aims to start SA’s herd dash from fossil stocks, shares and securities, with a “campaign for divestment from fossil fuel infrastructure projects.”

Putting on the financing lid is difficult since so much money sloshes around the world thanks to capitalist crisis conditions that Marxists term ‘overaccumulation.’ Nevertheless, in these volatile circumstances, South Africa’s $140 billion foreign debt – a ratio similar to the mid-1980s, having risen from the $25 billion Nelson Mandela inherited in 1994 – works in the climate activists’ favour, just as it did 29 years ago during the darkest days of apartheid when PW Botha gave his infamous ‘Rubicon Speech’ here in Durban. He made no concessions and all hell broke loose; the country would never again be the same, once the financiers began their run the next day.

A similar David & Goliath match was won by South African activists from the Treatment Action Campaign ten years ago, in their fight against governments in Washington and Pretoria, Big Pharma, the World Trade Organisation and the very notion of Intellectual Property. Winning that battle raised life expectancy from 52 in 2004 to 62 today. With the threat to life posed by climate change, an even greater scale of activist intervention will be needed again, especially on the African continent which is home to most of the 400 000 people now estimated to be dying annually from climate change, already.

SA’s uncooperative crony capitalists

Changing national public policy is vital and again, South Africa is one of the world’s great battlegrounds. The mining-smelting-shipping corporates (whether local, Western or BRICS in origin) and their Pretoria servants are frightened when climate is raised.

The critical baby step towards a sane climate policy is relatively simple: measure how much SA’s major greenhouse gas polluters emit so they can be capped and cut. Most countries now have quite accurate ways to assess both atmospheric greenhouse gases and extreme point sources. For example, the privatized SA oil company Sasol – now listed on the New York Stock Exchange – has a huge facility not far from Johannesburg, Secunda, squeezing coal and gas to make liquid petroleum, in the process creating the single greatest site of CO2 emissions on earth.

In contrast, SA Environment Minister Edna Molewa’s new $500 million budget is revealing. Her recent $2 million spending cut from the SA Weather Service means, according to Parliament, “South Africa would be unable to meet its international obligations regarding the monitoring of greenhouse gases through the Global Atmospheric Watch station. As a result, there would be a limitation on monitoring the impacts of Climate Change Mitigation and Scenario Strategies for the country. The country would also be unable to formulate baselines and monitor emissions versus set targets.”

Molewa might, logically, aim to keep her subjects ignorant about the economy’s reliance upon fossil fuels, because she is bowing to the durable power of the so-called ‘Minerals Energy Complex’? That power was unveiled when her cabinet colleagues Nathi Mthethwa and Cyril Ramaphosa assisted London-based platinum firm Lonmin by deploying the police against striking workers, for the sake of maintaining corporate mining profits on August 16, 2012. Ramaphosa, later to become deputy president of South Africa, was a 9 percent owner of Lonmin, and it was his emails that brought massacre-minded troops to end the wildcat strike (he called it ‘dastardly criminal’), leaving 34 corpses of surrendering workers. Testimony he gave to the Marikana Massacre commission in mid-August confirmed his loyalties: he admitted that instead of building 5500 houses for Lonmin workers, as promised, the corporation’s Transformation Committee he oversaw built just three.

Ramaphosa’s massive coal mines and similar dirty coal corporations were long pampered by Molewa’s water ministry. At least forty major new mines are now being dug or planned to feed the state electricity company Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile power plants (the two largest under construction in the world today), not to mention massive new coal digs to export to China and India. The coal-producing province of Mpumalanga is, quite literally, wheezing, yet Eskom has applied to Molewa for ‘rolling postponements’ on pollution reductions required by law at 14 power plants there. According to the NGO groundWork, this would ‘amount to exemption.’

Eskom has the gall to try this because Molewa has turned a blind eye to many pollution violations. One poignant example is an illegal coal operation close to the border of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park – Africa’s oldest game reserve and the centre of rhino survival efforts – where local peasant livelihoods are being wrecked by the opencast Somkhele mine. Nearby, even more damage is likely, if the Ibutho Coal company opens a similar mine on the historic park’s direct border. It is a hare-brained plan but government has already approved it in principal. Ibutho is a shady operation and refuses to disclose its corporate sponsors, but of the six principals named in its application, half are tied to Glencore and BHP Billiton, which are by far the world’s largest commodity trader and mining house, respectively.

Can Molewa resist their charms? After all, BHP Billiton still enjoys an extraordinary revolving-door relationship with very powerful South African officials. The crony capitalism dates to apartheid, when it boosted the salaries of finance minister Derek Keys and Eskom treasurer Mick Davis. The door continued spinning after 1994, and through it went the first democratic energy regulator, Xolani Mkhwanazi, the first director general of trade and industry Zav Rustomjee, and current national planning commissioner Vincent Maphai.

This revolving door helps explain why the Australian/UK firm gets electricity at a fraction of the price of ordinary people, consuming between 6 and 10 percent of our national power load, and exporting the profits while employing fewer than 1500 at the main Richard Bay smelters. Molewa is implicated in the power structure, and that may help explain another absurd budgeting choice revealed in July: explicit climate change programming will be slashed 8.3 percent after adjusting for inflation, leaving just $22 million in this year’s budget to address the greatest threat to our survival. Also cut was environmental monitoring, in spite of growing attention to pollution hazards.

Climate talks, but emissions roar

The SA Parliament’s Environment Committee warned on July 8, “As a country, we must be seen making our fair contribution to the global effort to mitigate climate change by ensuring that we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions below the business-as-usual by 34 per cent by 2020 and 42 per cent by 2025, consistent with the pledges that President Jacob Zuma made” at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen. The obvious question is how these emissions cuts can be accomplished with the country’s controversial 2012 National Development Plan (NDP), drawn up by former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel (the country’s most neoliberal politician) and now overseen by Ramaphosa:

* The NDP gives multinational and local fossil fuel corporations all the subsidized infrastructure they need to rip out South Africa’s coal, burn it in Medupi and Kusile, each capable of polluting 35 million tonnes of CO2 per year, with most benefits going to mining houses and smelters.

* The NDP helps ship massive amounts of coal from South Africa to China and India through Richards Bay – the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission’s main priority project, at “the single largest coal export terminal in the world” – at a cost of several tens of billions of dollars.

* The NDP’s second priority investment is $25 billion to expand Durban’s port from throughput of 2.5 million to 20 million containers a year from now to 2040, with huge implications for the climate.

* The NDP supports CO2-intensive fracking in the dry western Karoo and deepwater oil exploration offshore Durban in the dangerous Agulhas Current: ExxonMobil is asking for prospecting permission in depths of more than 3.5 km, in spite of sharpening community opposition, while Sasol and a Burmese company are also trying their luck nearby, with Big Oil acquiring Zuma’s endorsement in Durban last month.

The NDP is most strenuously opposed by the National Union of Metalworkers, the continent’s largest union and also the most advanced regarding the need for a Just Transition to a post-carbon, post-capitalist economy. There is also a new left party that derides the NDP in parliament: the Economic Freedom Fighters. In contrast, the ruling African National Congress doesn’t seem to have a single vocal MP who cares about climate change. Indeed any eco-socialists who might be lurking in parliament, in the Congress of SA Trade Unions and in the Communist Party, still aiming to reform the NDP from the inside, should be forewarned: on the one hand, climate change and crony capitalism provide excellent reasons to redirect the NDP’s pro-corporate $80 billion infrastructure spending away from perpetual fossil dependency, towards meeting basic infrastructure needs.

On the other hand, though, Molewa’s defunding of her climate responsibilities provides an indicator of why reform is highly unlikely, at least not without a rapid deepening of eco-social-justice activism. For as Klein insists, This Changes Everything.

Patrick Bond’s Politics of Climate Justice was recently named amongst the Guardian’s ten leading books on the topic.

Originally posted at Telesur.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: