It’s hard to overstate the importance of the upcoming December meetings at Copenhagen, Denmark, set up by the UN for the purpose of renegotiating the climate protocols set forth in Kyoto, in 1997 and due to expire in 2012. These latter were greeted with a certain modicum of hope and a small offsetting of skepticism. As Copenhagen looms, the skeptics have been proven right in spades, those who thought something good would come out of Kyoto stand revealed as fools or liars and charlatans. In the sober words of Nature from 2007, the Kyoto protocols, which demanded of wealthy countries that they reduce carbon emissions by 2012 to six-to-eight percent below 1990 levels, have “produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth.”
The reason we cannot afford to have the results of Copenhagen go the same way is known by many but taken seriously by few: The best science tells us there is a rapidly closing window for turning climate change around before irreversible positive feedback loops set in, e.g., methane freed from beneath melting tundra, or the loss of albedo reflectivity from seas once covered with ice. Once this sets in (it may already have begun), climate change, awful as it now is, will likely spiral rapidly downhill with consequences catastrophic beyond belief and comprehension.
And yet the numbers of those who do not take this brutal truth seriously include the main forces geared up for Copenhagen. You may, if you turn to the voluminous reports circulating on the internet and elsewhere, learn a great deal about what is planned for Copenhagen and the numberless players in its scenario. You will wear your eyes out and confuse yourself to distraction as you try to pick your way through the bulletins and pontifications of the experts who have been given their proverbial “seat at the table” that is being set in the lovely Danish capital. But you will not discover there any serious attention paid as to why Kyoto has so abysmally failed, nor indeed about the fundamental truth about climate change and the whole ecological crisis of which it is the most spectacular manifestation.
Class and Climate Change
Class forces palpably drive the crisis of climate change with the ruling class of capitalists, along with the capitalist state structures that regulate their world, responsible for the gathering nightmare. After all, the vast bulk of carbon spewed into the atmosphere is there because of decisions made by capitalists and not ordinary people. It follows that the climate crisis also introduces the profound question of the survivability of the dominant capitalist mode of production. We have been told of the “inconvenient truth,” as the largely forgotten Al Gore has put it, that rising atmospheric carbon threatens the survival of civilization. But who speaks of the much more inconvenient truth: that controlling carbon levels to the point where breakaway climate change can be arrested will almost certainly entail a structural contraction of the capitalist economy, which, as any student of capitalism knows, means the end of the capitalist system. Basically a simple choice looms: We can have either capitalism with no hope for the future, or get rid of capitalism and have a fighting chance for a future.
The global bourgeoisie understands this. They might not understand it consciously, but they know viscerally that the ecological crisis is their Armageddon, and this conditions their responses at meetings like Kyoto and Copenhagen. These do not fail because of stupidity but from existential reasons. Capitalism is the life-process of the bourgeoisie and profit is its blood; thus survival for the bourgeois means to pump profit through the arteries of society. The appeal of mechanisms like the cap-and-trade regimen that has ruled Kyoto and will most likely continue after Copenhagen is not that it solves the dilemmas of carbon accumulation. Indeed, it is essential to understand that capitalists do not want to solve the dilemma of carbon accumulation, because this would mean their suicide as a ruling class. Instead, they substitute what they know — the accumulation of capital, which is to say, its expansion — and, secure in their power, they delude themselves into thinking this can also solve the climate crisis. Cap and trade creates new commodities and markets for them, gardens where capital can grow. Trillions of dollars, we are told, await the financiers who will command these new markets: a blinding sun that completes the building of delusion. Thus the ruling class is quite willing to sacrifice nature, and therefore humanity itself, including, it might be added, their own children and grandchildren, so that their profits keep rolling in.
Where is our Turning Point?
And the rest of us? Are we going to accept this madness from the pundits, the officials and the police, panels and bureaucracies who represent capitalist reality? Are we going to petition our governments, as the liberal press urges us to do, bowing down to beg: “Please, my liege, be sensible, and slow down the rate of carbon accumulation … give us another generation before the hammer of nature descends.” Are we going to respect Barack Obama, who will be telling us with his pleasant demeanour and rhetorical skill, that compromising is the best we can do given the way the world is set up?
Or will Copenhagen be the great moment of refusal that the world has been waiting for? Will we take the opportunity afforded by the tenth anniversary of the Seattle uprisings to complete their work?
Plainly, these meetings will be a turning point. The question remains as to the direction taken, whether toward eco-catastrophe or hope for life. I do not think it will be possible to deal a fatal blow to the carbon system in this one place. Reality is not set up to accommodate fantasies of instant transformation. But we should do our best to non-violently impede the meetings so long as they serve capital. More important, it will be possible to use the moment to energize and begin to pull together the vast array of spontaneously emerging movements that have sprung up on every continent over the past decade, chiefly under the rubric of “climate justice.” We can build a “movement of movements” from below, harbingers of a transformed world: a movement to reveal the murderous betrayal of life by the capitalist class, and centered around the principle of keeping the sources of carbon in the ground as we build ecologically socialist ways of production.
The system massed at Copenhagen will have its day. But the day after can belong to us all.