facing hopeless climate macropolitics, it’s time for direct action

a guest article for The Commune by Patrick Bond

In the run-up to the Copenhagen Summit from 7-18 December, the October-November Bangkok and Barcelona negotiations of Kyoto Protocol Conference of Parties functionaries confirmed that Northern states and their corporations won’t get their act together. Nor will Southern elites in high-emitting countries.

The top-down effort to get to 350 CO2 parts per million has conclusively failed. On the right, Barack Obama’s negotiators argue 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. Hence Obama’s early November promise that he would come to Copenhagen to ‘clinch a deal’ is as hollow as the White House’s support for democracy in Honduras.

Even the low levels of emissions cuts agreed in Kyoto 12 years ago – 5% below 1990 levels by 2012 – 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% cuts, 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.

The following are the main reasons critics slam emissions trade:

  • the idea of inventing a property right to pollute is effectively the privatization of the air;
  • the corporations most responsible for pollution and the World Bank – which is most responsible for fossil fuel financing – are behind the market, and engage in systemic corruption to attract money into the market even if this prevents genuine emissions reductions;
  • many of the offsetting projects – such as monocultural timber plantations, forest ‘protection’ and landfill methane-electricity projects – have devastating impacts on local communities and ecologies;
  • the price is haywire, having crashed by half in a short period in April 2006 and by two-thirds in 2008;
  • there is a serious potential for carbon markets to become an out-of-control, multi-trillion dollar speculative bubble, similar to exotic financial instruments associated with Enron’s 2002 collapse (indeed, many Enron employees populate the carbon markets);
  • as a ‘false solution’ to climate change, carbon trading encourages merely small, incremental shifts, and thus distracts us from a wide range of radical changes we need to make in materials extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal; and
  • the idea of market solutions to market failure is an ideology that rarely makes sense, and especially not following the world’s worst-ever financial market failure.

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.

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 US House of Representatives and Kerry-Boxer which is under Senate consideration – will do far more harm than good.

Confirmation of US political corruption came from Congressman Rick Boucher, from a coal-dominated Southwestern Virginia district. Boucher supported Waxman-Markey, he told a reporter in August, 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.’ Indeed the price of coal shares on the NY Stock Exchange rose after the bill passed the House.

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 co are also working hard to disempower the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating CO2. This was accomplished in Waxman-Markey, and upon introducing his legislation in late September, 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 US, 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.

Moreover some of the main ‘green’ NGOs promoting carbon trading are themselves making money on the side, including prominent leaders of Climate Action Network, which has 450 NGO members and prized lobbying access in the Copenhagen process.

Yet US 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 US 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 US (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.

There are, of course, other ways forward even within the US context. Goddard Institute for Space Studies director James Hansen – the most celebrated US climate scientist – 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. Hansen and other US activists insist the Environmental Protection Agency do its job by regulating the 7500 or so major point sources of CO2, as it can now do following a US Supreme Court ruling.

What about the so-called Third World, and the rise of high-emissions countries which have large populations, hence low CO2/person rates, but potential future damage if they aspire to Western consumption norms?

Most elites from the South are utterly insensitive to the destructive potential because they bought the line from neoliberal advisors that export-oriented growth based on exploitation of nonrenewable resources or cash crops, powered by fossil fuels, creates the GDP increases that judge a country ‘successful’ in the capitalist derby.

Ironically, as this process threatens the future of our species, some Northern elites intend to reverse the calculus by shifting from GDP to a ‘happiness’ indicator that is a better judge of socio-economic and environmental well-being.
In addition to bringing in Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen for this prosperity-recalculation purpose, French president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a small import tariff (the equivalent of 4 cents per litre of petrol) in September: ‘Most importantly, a carbon tax at the borders is vital for our industries and our jobs’. In the US, the energy secretary and organized labor 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 half-hearted approach of French elites and their protectionist orientation must be criticized. But if world rulers did finally come up with a deal not self-sabotaged by carbon trading, might it be possible to turn such a carbon tax – with its adverse impact upon Third World exporters – into a positive funding flow for the South? Daphne Wysham of the Institute for Policy Studies suggests that carbon tax proceeds should go directly to the countries whose products are being taxed, for the purposes of explicit greenhouse gas reduction.

Indeed the ecological debt is the other major sticking point, with African Union lead negotiator Meles Zenawi authorizing a walk-out from Copenhagen on grounds that $67 billion in annual reparations to Africa for climate damage won’t be paid. The EU has suggested a pool for the entire Third World as little as 3 billion euros/year.

Given the cul de sac represented by self-interested global elites, there is no chance for a deal that makes any sense in Copenhagen. This puts added onus on genuine climate activists to resume their direct actions at sites ranging from the Niger Delta – where militants have kept 80% of the oil in the soil – to power plants in Washington DC, digs in Wales, and export sites like Newcastle, Australia where the demand ‘leave the coal in the hole’ is having a powerful impact, to the Albertan forests where ‘keep the tar sand in the land’ is the call of indigenous people.

Critics of the carbon trade have engaged in disruptions of business and conferences in London, Amsterdam and New York, with more to follow on November 30 in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.

The need to leapfrog climate negotiators and sold-out NGOs has never been more obvious, leaving open the question of how to best argue the case – as the Climate Justice Now! network puts it – for a full ‘system change’ instead of climate change.

5 thoughts on “facing hopeless climate macropolitics, it’s time for direct action

  1. Although I am sympathetic with the argument against carbon trading here I couldn’t disagree more as to the reasons or the overall framing.

    Patrick takes the position that combating climate change is a necessary good. I would argue (and have the stats to back it up) that it is nothing less than an elite driven attack on the working class and the lower middle income earners in the developed world. As a low earner myself I am already feeling the pinch of the relatively moderate measures taken by government to reduce CO2. They are called green taxes, and the aim is demand side repression. What this amounts to is regressive taxation, where the high earners see and hear no difference, but for those at the bottom our disposable income goes inexorably down and our mobility is reduced. Essentially, we start slipping back towards a Victorian era society, where the slim benefits of capitalist modernity (cheap energy, mobility etc.) become once again the preserve of the elite.

    Another effect of demand side repression measures (which, ultimately, all efforts to combat climate change amount to) is the movement from production to rent seeking economic forms. This is another aspect Bond does not touch on, that when carbon (in itself a non-productive byproduct of energy generation) becomes marketized, money can be made on trading it without anything actually being produced. It is much the same as financialization – phantom economics of the postmodern type that Marx described as the rentier, pre-capitalist economy.

    Internationally, a number of assumptions are usually made by CMMGW advocates, and these are then rolled out as reasons for combating climate change. The Maldives will be flooded, Bangladeshis will be wiped out. It might be worth pointing out, however, that any population vulnerable to a few inches rise in sea level are already living in desperately poor and unsustainable areas of the world — and their lives would be improved and made infinitely more secure by urbanization and development.

    The industrial, carbon based economy so decried by campaigners such as Al Gore and George Monbiot is, in fact, responsible in China for the lifting of something like 200 million people from poverty in the last 20 years. Yes, there are some terrible cases of environmental pollution in places like China, but overall the development process cannot be seen as anything but positive for the vast majority of the population.

    In light of this analysis, I see Copenhagen as nothing less than a totally non-democratic, elite driven attack on the working classes the world over. And – even moreso than any future, say, Tory attacks on the welfare state – will lead to the disempowerment and pauperization of the working classes.

    Resist Copenhagen!


  2. Patrick takes the position that combating climate change is a necessary good. I would argue (and have the stats to back it up) that it is nothing less than an elite driven attack on the working class and the lower middle income earners in the developed world.

    Hi Nathan, you’ve said you have stats before. But where are they?

    their lives would be improved and made infinitely more secure by urbanization and development.

    As I’ve asked before, why do you think that capital generated by coal powered industry in China would necessarily be used to build flood defences in Bangladesh or the Maldives?


  3. “Patrick takes the position that combating climate change is a necessary good. I would argue (and have the stats to back it up) that it is nothing less than an elite driven attack on the working class and the lower middle income earners in the developed world. As a low earner myself I am already feeling the pinch of the relatively moderate measures taken by government to reduce CO2”

    I am confused. I don’t read anything in patricks piece that suggest working class people should pay for the ecological crisis. He talks about a carbon tax but i thought this was a tax aimed at producers? Obviously they will then attempt to pass this on to us – but isn’t that then a class issue, over who pays the cost for the ecological crisis, rather than whether is is necessarily good to combat climate change.

    Out of all the capitalist crisis the ecological one has the potential to be the most devastating – as the CC say nature doesn’t do bailouts.

    I totally think there is a working class response to the ecological crisis, one that demands the right to cheap organic food, to cheap energy, to cheap insulation, for longer holidays so we can go on the train, or at least if flying to ibiza is a problem for working class holidaymakers then first class ain’t flying either.

    i am looking forward to reading your piece btw


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