Monday, January 4, 2010

12. "Don't Change the Climate, Change the System"

The slogan is from the Copenhagen protesters who faced inaction by world powers in face of disastrous climate change. They have every right to be angry; the faith of the world hangs in balance.

The magnitude of the crisis

There is no lack of clarity about the calamity we face. On August 26, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had warned member countries that global greenhouse gas emissions are on an accelerating trend and if left unchecked, could lead to a 6.4 degree Celsius (11.5 degree Fahrenheit) temperature increase by the end of the century, exceeding earlier conservative estimates.[i] There is evidence that warming of the climate may have already triggered positive feedback mechanisms. For example, Professor Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has found that increased release of methane gas from thawing permafrost of the Arctic lakes appear to have contributed to the accelerating trend in global warming. She too concludes that the only realistic way to slow the permafrost thaw is to limit climate warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.[ii] Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and chair of the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change, has warned,] that “[t]he risk of global warming is comparable to the risk of nuclear warfare catastrophe.”[iii] To prevent such catastrophe, Dr. Pachauri had reminded the world governments that it is crucial to ensure that global emissions peak no later than 2015; that is only five years from now.

Failure of leaderships

The UN-organized Copenhagen conference met for two weeks after two years of preparatory work. However, the meeting proceeded as if it was not prepared at all or that the climate change catastrophe is not the most burning issue before the governmental delegations.

Instead, what transpired was much posturing and haggling by the delegations representing different economic and political interests. No government or political leader rose to the occasion by offering a positive program of action that could win at least a large majority to stop and reverse emission of carbon dioxide, and to educate and mobilize hundreds of millions worldwide as the only guarantee that the action plan is adopted universally and enforced.

The United State announced a last minute agreement it reached with Brazil, China, India, and South Africa. The delegations from the rich countries and those involved in drafting it attempted to impose it as the consensus outcome of the conference. But as a result of vigorous objections by Cuba, Venezuela and other developing countries, the conference was only able to “take note of the Copenhagen Accord."

The not-legally binding Accord leaves it to each government to reach interim targets with the “general aim” of limiting temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. The first review will not be until 2015, the year that UN scientists insist is the last opportunity to halt the accelerating warming trend. Dr. Schellnhuber had warned that “[e]ven if global emissions were to peak in 2015, the reductions required thereafter to stay below a critical 2 degrees Celsius threshold increase would be equivalent to a Kyoto Protocol for all countries every year.”

The Western politicians and media often blame China, Venezuela or demand by the African countries to limit temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial level for the failure of Copenhagen. By that they mean the failure of the so-called Danish Text, which was put together secretly by the US, UK and Denmark. It called for a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 and an 80% reduction by the developed countries. The proposal would have sidelined the UN by handing power and control to the rich countries themselves; it would have entrenched global inequality by allowing the rich countries to emit 2.67 tons of CO2 per capita while granting developing countries only 1.44 tons; it would have handed control of climate change finance to the World Bank; it would have locked the world into a disastrous system of carbon trading; it would have attached tight strings to any financial aid; and it would have abandoned any interim 2020 targets. It also would have aim at “stopping and reversing” deforestation by rewarding countries like Brazil and Indonesia but also provide polluting industries in the U.S. and elsewhere the right to “buy” carbon credits under the (failing) cap and trade scheme. All in all, the Danish Text would perpetuate existing international order without seriously taking on the challenge of the climate change.[iv]

The big majority of delegations belonging to Group of 77, which now includes 130 “developing” countries, denounced the Danish Text. But the Group of 77 did not have its own counter proposal. Founded in the crest of successful national liberation struggles in June 1964 it has never been an ideologically or politically coherent bloc. In fact, Brazil, China, India and South Africa all belong to this bloc, with China being the number one emitter of carbon dioxide and India, Brazil, and South Africa, all having fast growing economies, share little interest in limiting their emissions. It is no wonder they came to an understanding with United States behind the back of the rest of the Group of 77 countries.

The delegations from Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela (prominent countries in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, ALBA) presented the most radical positions at the conference. President Hugo Chavez expressed solidarity with the demonstrators and correctly criticized the undemocratic workings of the conference, and in particular, the U.S. delegation and the Danish host. President Evo Morales of Bolivia followed Chavez’s remarks by addressing the U.S. delegation: “Well, then you should act by using the money you are spending for wars against the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, for militarizing Colombia with seven military bases to save lives, to save the planet our Mother Earth.”[v] These leaders denounced capitalism for the climate change. However, they used a propaganda approach in a forum where the world expected action. Moreover, their notion of “capitalism” seemed to be limited to the “developed countries” or “rich countries.” In reality, all ALBA member countries economies except for Cuba are capitalist. Moreover, “socialist” industrialization, from the 1930s in the Soviet Union to today’s China, has also contributed to environmental/ecological degradation and climate change.

Neither Chavez nor Morales offered the conference or the public an action program for fighting climate change. Neither pointed to any programs in their own countries for fighting global change. Morales, for example, claimed that any treaty that limited temperature rise to more than 1 degree Celsius would be unacceptable because, he claimed, some Island nations will be overrun by rising sea. This is a much more stringent demand compare to those of the UN scientific committee’s finding cited earlier and those of the African nations. However, Cuba's vice-president Esteben Lazo was able to point to his country’s achievement in reforestation: “Before our revolution, capitalism had nearly depleted all our forests. We have focused on replanting and now 20% of the land is covered by forests. We also educate our school children about ecology, and about the ALBA network. We are founded on principles of solidarity, of human rights and nature’s rights.”

The Road Forward

Scientific policy makers often look to technology to address climate change crisis. Of course, there are always better technologies for power generations. However, the root-cause of the problem is the destructive marriage of hydrocarbon energy sources and capitalist industrialization. Arguably, the "benefits" of industrialization, indeed industrialization itself, could not have unfolded without both hydrocarbon technologies and the capitalist derive for accumulation.

Thus, there is much validity in the Marxian argument that in order to effectively address climate change it is necessary to do away with capitalist social relations of production.

In these pages, I have argued that the Marxian theory of overcoming alienated social relations(or socialism) is only coherent if it is based on an ecocentric as opposed to anthropocentric view of life in general and social life in particular. Any action program to effectively deal with climate change must begin with principles such as the Eight Points of Deep Ecology (see post 3) to radically change social relations and associated technologies.

Given the urgency of the climate change crisis, it is imperative to begin with a minimum action program to halt climate change; that is why leftist posturing by leaders like Chavez and Morales are counterproductive. It is also necessary to educate worldwide about Our Place in the World: how human well being depends in an organic and fundamental way on the well being of the Earth and its biodiversity. It is no wonder that global warming coincides with what is called as the Sixth Great Extinction of species and their reversal demands radical change in how humans relate to the rest of the Nature.

Of course, there is unevenness in public consciousness and grassroots participation in this worldwide effort. Some countries have a head start social, environmental/ecological, or political consciousness. For instance, the Cuban revolutionary process that began in 1959 has provides some of the best context for such radical change. The radicalization in some Latin American countries, notably Venezuela, has provided space for mass participation along all these fronts. But the problems persist: Even in revolutionary Cuba, Mariela Castro, daughter of president Raul Castor, who heads Cuba's commission on homosexual rights, notes: "The Soviet legacy is a problem." Inside the Communist leadership "some segments think in very rigid and dogmatic ways.” “Yes they have blocked reforms, [but] they coexist with sectors searching for new ideas and methods."[vi]

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