Climate change: Durban’s emptiness echoes Copenhagen’s disaster

As yet another UN conference on climate change dissolves into meaninglessness (no surprise there), a barrage of news underscores the urgency of the problems that are being given little more than lip service.  Examples:

New perils seen to even modest warming

Hotter, drier, meaner: Trends point to a planet increasingly hostile to agriculture

Carbon dioxide emissions show record jump (this is more on the last 20 years, a 50% increase of greenhouse gas emissions)

December 5 News: Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded (while this one is more on how the global recession’s temporary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is over, and this past year they are way up again)

This is a good time to revisit my analysis of the Copenhagen summit two years ago, which so clearly exposed the bankruptcy of the international efforts of capitalist governments to limit or even prepare for the disastrous effects of climate change.

A highlight: “Limiting global warming is a matter of life and death. What scientists call ‘adaptation’ is illuminated by Hurricane Katrina. Not only did it bring home that climate change is a disastrous reality now. Everything about it shows how capitalism is dealing with and will continue to deal with the fallout from climate change….Rulers are quick to prescribe austerity for the masses, when the real problem is that consumption in capitalist society is geared to the needs of capital, not of workers. Tremendous resources are wasted by the military, finance, packaging, advertising and planned obsolescence, while human beings are exploited as labor as well as consumer, immersed in a culture and infrastructure designed around automobiles and commodification of all aspects of life. Without that truth as the basis of action, barriers are raised to the coalescence of workers of all countries with each other and the climate justice movement. The urgency of opposing the slide to climate chaos is clear; the movement will not settle for a partial success of slowed warming, leaving hundreds of millions of impoverished climate refugees. Success means the establishment of a new classless society capable of halting climate change and adapting in a human way, which depends on working out social revolution as its ground.”

Lead article from the January-February 2010 issue of News & Letters:

 Copenhagen climate summit sabotages humanity’s future

by Franklin Dmitryev, National Co-Organizer, News and Letters Committees

The collapse of climate change negotiations in Copenhagen proclaimed the bankruptcy, not only of the rulers of the 192 nations meeting there, but of the system they represent. Aside from deviously worded financial pledges, the Copenhagen Accord–described by President Obama as an “unprecedented breakthrough”–contains no specific commitments and no binding mechanisms, no quantitative goals or deadlines. Nations’ specific pledges of action were the same the day after the summit ended as the day before it started, leaving the world, according to scientists, on track to a far greater warming than the 2 degrees Celsius that the Accord has in “view.”

Even 2 degrees of warming would leave whole countries vanishing below the oceans and vast dislocation and suffering in many African and Asian countries. That is why over 100 nations called instead for a goal of no more than 350 parts per million of CO2 equivalent, to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. This empty Accord echoes the 1992 Climate Convention, which the U.S. gutted. As against the 1992 commitment to reduce world carbon dioxide emissions back to 1990 levels by 2000, emissions in 2000 were up by 12% over 1990; 2007 emissions were up 38%.

That is why “System change, not climate change” was a pervasive slogan at the protests that occurred in Copenhagen each day of the Dec. 7-19 negotiations. They brought out youth calling for the end of a system hurtling toward climate chaos; workers demanding “green jobs”; farmers opposing corporate land grabs, industrialization of farming, and “agro-fuels”; environmentalists pointing to the rising toll of extinctions and the impact of climate change on human health; Indigenous peoples demanding recognition of their land stewardship, as opposed to “protection” that earns “carbon credits” by turning forests into plantations and expelling the inhabitants; people from small island nations denouncing meager goals as a “suicide pact.”

PROTESTS PROLIFERATE

All these forces came together for the Dec. 12 march of 100,000. That day 130 cities worldwide saw coordinated events. Many more protests preceded the negotiations. Previously, a day of action was held on the tenth anniversary of the Nov. 30, 1999, Battle of Seattle outside the World Trade Organization negotiations, connecting “climate justice” today to the emergence of anti-globalization as a mass movement then. Actions ranged from a rally and blockade at the Chicago Climate Exchange, a center of carbon emissions trading, to a sit-in at the office of Canada’s Finance Minister, a proponent of extracting oil from Alberta’s tar sands.

In Copenhagen, there were protests both outside and inside the conference. On Dec. 16, 200 demonstrated inside. Police wielding pepper spray, tear gas and clubs blocked them from joining 2,000 marching outside. The 2,000 held a “people’s assembly” in the streets, deliberating on ways to “build an alternative” to the present system.

The extraordinary arrest of 1,800 protesters, the exclusion of 20,000 credentialed activists from official proceedings, the walkouts by delegates from Africa, island nations, and other vulnerable countries–all reveal the force the U.S. and other top powers exerted to control the outcome and prop up their global domination. Well before the summit began, President Obama declared that there would be no binding climate deal at Copenhagen. The U.S. has gutted any potential agreement beyond the most paltry measures to reduce emissions, ever since the first try at the 1992 Earth Summit. The U.S. never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol because it would impose limits on the U.S. but not on China and all “developing countries.” The U.S. and China have maneuvered for several years to use climate negotiations to jockey for advantage.

In the spirit of capitalist competition, they are heading together down a suicidal path rather than risk the other gaining an economic advantage–as if to illustrate Karl Marx’s analysis:

Capital “allows its actual movement to be determined as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun….’After me the deluge!’ is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation….This does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”

CHINA’S POWER, LAW OF VALUE’S HOLD

One new element at Copenhagen was China’s display of power. Now the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter–though a quarter to a third of its emissions are linked to exports–it is as determined as the U.S. to neutralize any greenhouse gas emission limits that would interfere with capital accumulation. China, though not listed among industrialized countries, even demanded deletion of that list’s 2050 target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80%. When China demanded removal of the already half-hearted mention of a later 1.5-degree goal, Maldives President Nasheed retorted, “How can you ask my country to go extinct?”

Though China, with an eye to global power, is still trying to represent–that is, assert leadership of–the “developing countries,” a division broke out. Many African and island countries fought for a treaty with binding emissions reductions and a goal of 1.5 degrees. Other rising Third World powers joined Middle Eastern oil potentates to support China’s resistance. The U.S. and China colluded, with help from India, Brazil, and South Africa, not only to push aside the bulk of African, Asian, Latin American, and island countries, but to stifle the voices of the masses within each country.

There are two worlds within each country, and the drive for capitalist accumulation is more pressing to the world of the rulers than is the risk to that second world within China, within the U.S., and so on, of 100 new Hurricane Katrinas, or of catastrophic droughts. China’s influence in the summit did not change the fact that, however cloaked in diplomacy and abstruse texts the negotiations are, the decisions are driven by capitalism’s law of value. To overcome that, a totally opposite ground is needed: social revolution.

It is no coincidence that the so-called “climategate” emails of climate scientists were made public shortly before the summit. The campaign of demagoguery by Glenn Beck and others, repeating endlessly the same two lines taken out of context, unfolded so swiftly that it appeared to have been pre-planned to discredit the well-established science of climate change. The fakery of oil-funded “skeptics” reveals the bankruptcy of thought of a society that uses science to drive technology for weaponry but uses propaganda and ideology to keep science separated from the masses.

PERVERSION OF SCIENCE

The false consciousness cultivated around global warming has become a key element of far-right delusions about scientists conspiring with environmentalists and people of color to “destroy America.” (See “Real state of the union,” p. 1.) Capitalism’s crisis is so great that powerful elements of the ruling class have turned to fascism to ward off science on one side while they use science in the most thingified, militaristic, exploitative ways on the other. What a new twist this gives to Marx’s aphorism, “To have one basis for science and another for life is a priori a lie”!

We can see today just how deadly this lie can be. The Copenhagen Accord is not enough to avert runaway global warming, with an unthinkable death toll. The Sustainability Institute’s climate model projects that the sum of countries’ promises as of Jan. 16 would yield global warming of 3.9 degrees Celsius by 2100.

That level risks devastation of tropical forests and ice sheets. Already today 10 million people are climate refugees, driven from their homes by effects like rising seas, drought, expanding deserts and more intense storms. According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, 300,000 people are dying each year due to climate change.

The brunt falls on poor “developing” countries: 98% of the people seriously affected, 99% of deaths from weather disasters, 90% of economic losses. As the majority of the poor, women in poor countries are among the hardest hit. Unpredictable weather and prolonged droughts have undermined agriculture in Africa. Grain production in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is expected to plunge if the world stays on this path.

HURRICANE KATRINA WRIT LARGE

Limiting global warming is a matter of life and death. What scientists call “adaptation” is illuminated by Hurricane Katrina. Not only did it bring home that climate change is a disastrous reality now. Everything about it shows how capitalism is dealing with and will continue to deal with the fallout from climate change.

It begins with the lack of preparation: shoddy maintenance of the levees and holes in emergency planning, when credible warnings had been issued for years. It continues with the militarization of New Orleans during and after the storm, the corralling of the poor in the Superdome under horrendous conditions, racist shootings by police and white vigilantes. It continues to this day with the restructuring driven by business interests, the tearing down of housing projects whether they were damaged or not, the privatization or “chartering” of public schools, the deliberate demographic shift accomplished by preventing the return of so many pre-Katrina residents, especially African Americans.

This is the reality behind the clinical sound of the term “adaptation.” It foreshadows the future for hundreds of millions in this capitalist world order. That is a huge part of what all the fighting is about, and why 350 parts per million has become such a prominent number.

To grasp the truth in the face of today’s lies, it is vital to understand that the attack on science has been stirred up because the system is in such crisis. Burning all the available fossil fuels is a road to catastrophe. Yet in capitalist society any fuels from the ground inevitably go up in smoke, adding to the greenhouse effect. Sobered by the emptiness of international negotiations, many in the movement to stop global warming are turning to direct efforts to “keep the coal in the hole, keep the oil in the soil,” by blocking the opening of new coal plants–122 have been blocked or abandoned in the U.S. since 2000–and organizing against destructive practices like mountaintop removal coal mining, “fracking” and exploitation of tar sands.

CLIMATE DEBT

Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries. Industrialized countries not only emit far more per person than the rest of the world, but are the source of 75% of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases that have built up.

Not only is the U.S. one of the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters along with China–each producing about one-fifth of anthropogenic emissions–the U.S., with less than 5% of world population, is responsible for 30% of emissions that have accumulated in the atmosphere.

Activists sum this up as “climate debt” and demand “reparations.” U.S. negotiator Todd Stern rejected this, claiming that, until recently, “people were blissfully ignorant…that emissions caused a greenhouse effect”–with not a mention of the 500-year imperialist relationship established through market competition, military force, plunder and slavery!

By substituting redistribution for revolutionary transformation, the call for “climate reparations” has led some radicals to latch onto corrupt rulers like Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, as if their rhetoric about climate debt would translate into action benefiting the masses.

In September Patrick Bond wrote that “Zenawi and others from Africa” should “ensure that governments corrupted by the fossil fuel industry and other transnational corporations, as well as local elites, do not become the vehicle for distributing the compensation.” That was before Zenawi met with French President Sarkozy, and suddenly started shilling for a proposed $5 billion aid package. As Mithika Mwenda of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance put it, “Prime Minister Meles wants to sell out the lives of Africans for a pittance.” There is no substitute for genuine control of production and society as a whole by the masses, freely associated. Nothing less can stop the inhuman momentum determined by capitalism’s law of value.

That is what some parts of the movement are reaching for, as seen in the declaration adopted by the alternative People’s Climate Summit of 25,000 in Copenhagen. Titled “System change–not climate change,” it declares the need for “people, communities, and countries to determine their own systems of production….especially women’s access to and control over productive resources.” As a work of compromise, however, the declaration mixes this with tepid reformism.

The most celebrated denunciations of capitalism at Copenhagen were by Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. Even Chavez’s buddy President Ahmadinejad of Iran denounced capitalism, while his henchmen were busy repressing the freedom movement at home. Since the People’s Climate Summit declaration never mentioned capitalism, socialism or revolution, it left the field open for Chavez.

Left cheerleaders didn’t seem bothered by Chavez’s defense of China’s role in the negotiations–or by the emphasis that he and Morales put on “overconsumption” as the enemy. Rulers are quick to prescribe austerity for the masses, when the real problem is that consumption in capitalist society is geared to the needs of capital, not of workers. Tremendous resources are wasted by the military, finance, packaging, advertising and planned obsolescence, while human beings are exploited as labor as well as consumer, immersed in a culture and infrastructure designed around automobiles and commodification of all aspects of life. Without that truth as the basis of action, barriers are raised to the coalescence of workers of all countries with each other and the climate justice movement.

The urgency of opposing the slide to climate chaos is clear; the movement will not settle for a partial success of slowed warming, leaving hundreds of millions of impoverished climate refugees. Success means the establishment of a new classless society capable of halting climate change and adapting in a human way, which depends on working out social revolution as its ground.

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