Monday, October 26, 2009

When the Climate Change Center Cannot Hold

When the Climate Change Center Cannot Hold


Patrick Bond


The Bullet- Socialist Project [Canada]

October 25, 2009


On a day that and thousands of allies are

valiantly trying to raise global consciousness about

impending catastrophe, we can ask some tough questions

about what to do after people depart and the props are

packed up. No matter today's activism, global climate

governance is grid-locked and it seems clear that no

meaningful deal can be sealed in Copenhagen on December 18.


The recent Bangkok negotiations of Kyoto Protocol

Conference of Parties functionaries confirmed that

Northern states and their corporations won't make an

honest effort to get to 350 CO2 parts per million. On

the right, Barack Obama's negotiators seem to feel that

the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is excessively binding to the

North, and leaves out several major polluters of the

South, including China, India, Brazil and South Africa.


Kyoto's promised 5% emissions cuts (by 2012, from 1990

levels) are impossible now. Obama's people hope the

world will accept 2005 as a new starting date; a 20%

reduction by 2020 then only brings the target back to

around 5% below 1990 levels. Such pathetically low

ambitions, surely Obama knows, guarantee a runaway

climate catastrophe - he should shoot for 45%, say the

small island nations.


The other reason Kyoto is ridiculed by serious

environmentalists is its provision for carbon trading

rackets which allow fake claims of net emissions cuts.

Since the advent of the European Union Emissions

Trading Scheme, the Chicago exchange, Clean Development

Mechanism projects and offsets, vast evidence has

accumulated of systemic market failure, scamming and

inability to regulate carbon trading (see a website

launched today


A final reason we need to rapidly transcend Kyoto's

weak, market-oriented approach is that devastation

caused by climate change will hit the world's poorest,

most vulnerable people far harder than those in the

North. Reparations for the North's climate debt to the

South are in order. The European Union offered a

pittance in September, while African leaders are

stiffening their spines for a fight in Copenhagen

reminiscent of Seattle a decade ago.


Since discussing this threat six weeks ago in a ZNet

column, subsequent Bangkok negotiations and web traffic

offered me a sobering reminder of Northern

stubbornness, on two fronts - those whose interests are

mainly in short-term capital accumulation, but also the

mainstream environmentalists who are only beginning to

grasp the huge strategic error they made in Kyoto.

Negotiating the Environment


In the first camp, Obama's people are hoping

non-binding national-level plans will be acceptable at

Copenhagen. But their case is weaker because at home,

the two main proposed bills - Waxman-Markey which

passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and

Kerry-Boxer which is under Senate consideration - will

do far more harm than good.


Don't take it from me; the best source is Congressman

Rich Boucher, from a coal-dominated Southwestern

Virginia district. Boucher supported Waxman-Markey, he

told a reporter last month, precisely because it would

not adversely affect his corporate constituencies. The

two billion tons of offset allowances in the

legislation mean that "an electric utility burning coal

will not have to reduce the emissions at the plant

site," chortled Boucher. "It can just keep burning coal."


Boucher was one of the congressional rednecks who

wrecked Obama's promise to sell - not give away - the

carbon credits, and then bragged to his district's main

newspaper, the Times News, that "this helps to keep

electricity prices affordable and strengthens the case

for utilities to continue to use coal."


Boucher and company are also working hard to disempower

the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from

regulating CO2. This was accomplished in Waxman-Markey,

and upon introducing his legislation, Senator John

Kerry gave the game away by noting EPA regulatory

authority is not gutted in his bill now, only so that

it can be gutted later, so as to provide "some

negotiating room as we proceed forward."


The Senate bill has all manner of other objectionable

components, which hard-working activists from Climate

SOS, Rising Tide North America, Friends of the Earth,

the Center for Biological Diversity, Biofuelwatch and

Greenwash Guerrillas have been hammering at.


Hence in the U.S., the balance of forces is fluid. On

the far-right, the fossil fuels industries are intent

on making Obama's climate legislation farcical - and

have so far succeeded. In the centre, the main

establishment 'green' agencies - such as the

Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources

Defence Council - are plowing ahead with carbon trading

strategies, hoping to salvage some legitimacy for

Obama, because these bills are a 'first step' to more

serious emissions reducation, they claim.


Yet U.S. negotiators will go to Copenhagen (as they did

in Bangkok and will next month in Barcelona) with the

aim of smashing any residual benefit of the Kyoto

Protocol - such as potential binding cuts with

accountability mechanisms - and then allow these U.S.

dynamics to play out in a manner that locks in climate disaster.


So just as in 1997, when Al Gore introduced carbon

trading into the initial deal - and subsequently broke

an implicit promise by failing to get the U.S. (under

both Clinton and Bush) to ratify the Protocol - there

is every likelihood that if an agreement in Copenhagen

were reached, it would be as worthless as Kyoto.


Which brings us to quandaries faced by two other

forces: the ordinary environmentalist in the U.S. -

perhaps a typical fan of useful blogs -

and activists based in the so-called Third World who

have to deal with the most adverse impacts of climate

chaos in coming decades.


Grist's Jonathan Hiskes recently reacted to the first

dilemma by characterizing Goddard Institute for Space

Studies director James Hansen - the most celebrated

U.S. climate scientist - as "especially troublesome."

Hansen not only put his body on the line this year in a

high-profile arrest at a West Virginia coal generator,

and testified repeatedly against carbon trading, but

also endorsed Climate SOS, to Hiskes' dismay.


Why rail against Hansen? Hiskes claims that when

describing Obama's bills as "worse than nothing,"

Hanson and other 'no-compromise types' ignore "the

historical precedent of legislation that is deeply

flawed at first evolving into something effective and

durable. The original Clean Air Act did not address the

acid rain crisis, an omission not corrected until 1990.

The original Social Security Act did not include

domestic or agricultural workers, effectively excluding

many Hispanic, black, and immigrant workers."


The obvious difference is that those two laws empowered

environmentalists and workers against enemies. They had

universalizing potential and could be incrementally

expanded. In contrast, Obama's climate legislation is

so far off on the wrong track - by commodifying the air

as the core climate strategy and empowering the fossil

fuel industries - that the train cannot be steered away

from its over-the-cliff route. Just let it crash.


(Oh bummer, the same seems to be true of 2009

legislation and fiscal programs for the economy and

healthcare, which empower banksters, derivative

financiers, energy firms, insurers and others who

caused the problems in the first place.)


The second force caught in the quandary of climate

politics is Penang-based Third World Network (TWN) and

its many admirers, who insisted at Bangkok that the

Kyoto Protocol be retained because, first, at least it

offers the possibility of a binding framework, and

second, countries not presently liable under Kyoto

should still have the right to increase emissions so as to 'develop.'


I'll grant the first point, for if U.S. negotiators

block Kyoto's extension, then national-level agreements

could indeed be much weaker. On the other hand, if the

EPA actually used its powers to reduce the top 7500 or

so largest point-sources of U.S. carbon pollution, that

would be far stronger than carbon trading legislation

which lets polluters off the hook.


The main problem with TWN's 'development' argument is

that a great deal of CO2-emitting economic activity and

resource extraction in the Third World are better

considered 'maldevelopment' - and for environmental,

socio-economic and moral reasons should halt.


Here in South Africa, a long-term (apartheid-era) state

relationship to the so-called 'minerals-energy complex'

generated a political bloc so powerful that it is now

in the process of building $100-billion in new

coal-fired and nuclear plants. Their strategy is to

keep offering the cheapest electricity in the world to

UK/Australian (formerly SA) mining/metals firms,

including Anglo, BHP Billiton, Lonplats and Arcellor-Mittal.


By way of background, state supplier Eskom lost

$1.3-billion last year gambling on aluminum futures.

Forty percent of SA's CO2 emissions can be traced to a

handful of the largest firms, including the dangerous

oil-from-coal/gas operator Sasol. And cheap electricity

for the mining/metals firms contrasts with

wickedly-high price hikes (a 250% projection from

2008-11) for ordinary people, which in turn contributes

to the intense demonstrations now destabilizing dozens

of municipalities (the Centre for Civil Society

documents these daily in our Social Protest

Observatory, at


Moreover, as corporations export profits and dividends

to London/Melbourne headquarters, our vast balance of

payments deficit gives The Economist magazine cause to

rate South Africa the world's riskiest emerging market.

In sum, it is impossible to argue that SA's

world-leading per capita CO2 emissions represents 'development.'


One way to address this maldevelopment - especially

from exports of CO2-intensive minerals and cash crops,

as well as manufactured goods transported by air and

ship - is import/export taxation.


French president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a small

import tariff (the equivalent of 4 cents per litre of

petrol) last month: "Most importantly, a carbon tax at

the borders is vital for our industries and our jobs."

In the U.S., the energy secretary and organized labour

are also making noises along these lines.


Sarkozy's small incremental tax will not change

consumption patterns. Explains Soumya Dutta from the

People's Science Movement, "In India, a far less

affluent society, whenever gasoline or diesel prices

are raised by even 6-10%, there is an initial hue and

cry. Within a month, things settle down and the

consumption keeps growing - invariably."


The South Centre's Martin Khor condemns Sarkozy's move

as 'climate protectionism,' remarking, "It would be sad

if the progressive movement were to support and join in

the attempts by those who want to block off products

from developing countries in the name of climate

change." He is correct to label such taxes

"self-interested and selfish bullying acts."


More generally, says Khor, "We shouldn't give the

powerful countries an excuse and legitimacy to use

climate or labour or social issues to block our exports

and get away with it through a nice sounding excuse."


Of course, the details of the French strategy, and

indeed its protectionist orientation, must be

criticized. But the most crucial factor when imposing

any kind of sanctions - whether a carbon tax or trade

sanctions against Burmese regime or Zimbabwe's main

ruling party - is the consent of those affected who are

themselves struggling for change, a point Sarkozy

hasn't factored in. An Alternate Strategy for Copenhagen


How might one? Turning a carbon tax into a positive

funding flow for the Third World is a suggestion by

Daphne Wysham of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Proceeds should go directly to the countries whose

products are being taxed, for the purposes of explicit

greenhouse gas reduction.


These nuances in national-level strategic debates

should be tackled by Northern activists bearing in mind

the Global South's genuine development aspirations.


Regardless, core principles of the progressive movement

are non-negotiable. In advance of Copenhagen Bella

Center protests, here are demands articulated by

Climate Justice Action:


* leaving fossil fuels in the ground;

* reassertingpeoples' and community control over production;

* relocalising food production; * massively reducing

  overconsumption, particularly in the North;

* respecting indigenous and forest peoples' rights; and

* recognising the ecological and climate debt owed to the

  peoples of the South and making reparations.


If the center is not holding, that's fine: the wave of

courageous direct-action protests against climate

criminals in recent weeks - and the prospect of

'Seattling' Copenhagen on December 16 - is an inspiring

reflection of left pressure that will soon counteract

that from the right. It's our only hope, isn't it. *


Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal

Centre for Civil Society.


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