Has The Left Missed The Boat On Climate Change?

[Part 1 of a three part series exploring the Left and climate change to be run on ZNet Dec. 24-26, 2009]

Part 1: Two Train Wrecks In Copenhagen

Make no mistake about it, formal negotiations in Copenhagen ended in a train wreck that no spin doctor can put a good face on and was a huge setback for the prospects of averting climate change in an equitable way. Bill McKibben summarized it nicely in Mother Jones on the day the conference ended. "The President of the United States did several things today:

(1) He blew up the United Nations. The idea that there is a world community that means something has disappeared tonight.

(2) He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super polluters. China, the US, and India don’t want anyone controlling their use of coal in any meaningful way. It is a coalition of foxes who will together govern the henhouse."

Whereas Bush spurned international cooperation, Obama showed up and mouthed some pretty words. But one leads by example, and Obama led by very bad example.

Instead of embracing a multilateral solution Obama undermined multilateralism by once again making clear the US will not commit to binding reductions under UN auspices as every other Annex-1 country has agreed to do, and then proceeded to lure major players into private discussions about voluntary arrangements in lieu of a comprehensive international treaty. Instead of acknowledging the principle of "differentiated responsibilities and capabilities" agreed to in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and implemented in Kyoto in 1997, Obama insisted that the US and China — whose per capita emissions are one fifth as large as the US and per capita GDP is still less than one tenth as large as the US – be treated on similar terms. With no reason for anyone to believe he can get the Senate to ratify a treaty with binding reductions for the US, with no reason to believe he can secure a meaningful climate bill from the US Congress, with no reason to believe he would use his power to order significant reductions through the EPA if Congress balks, and with only his verbal offer to reduce US emissions by a measly 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, no wonder other country delegations followed Obama’s bad lead and retrenched instead of offering to make further sacrifices in Copenhagen. And yes, the Chinese took the bait and helped the US paint them as "co-bad guy" by rejecting on-site inspections — which were neither under discussion at Copenhagen, nor necessary to verify national emissions. Whether or not the blow Obama dealt to multilateral efforts to combat climate change through binding reductions consistent with "differentiated responsibilities and capabilities" in Copenhagen will prove fatal, remains to be seen.

By January 31, 2010 MDCs, classified as "Annex-1 countries," are supposed to report how much they are willing to reduce their emissions, and a year from now there will be another meeting in Mexico City where at this moment it is anybody’s guess what will or will not be agreed to. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992 countries agreed climate change was a serious international problem, but left every country to decide on a voluntary basis what it was willing to do. In Kyoto in 1997 countries admitted that voluntary reductions had proven almost completely ineffective. Economic theory proved correct in this regard: Because of the "free rider incentive problem" theory predicts it is only in the self-interest of a country to reduce its own emissions by the amount needed if the country can be assured that other countries will do likewise. Kyoto acknowledged this truth, provided the necessary guarantee to all Annex-1 countries, and in exchange every Annex-1 country except the US eventually ratified the treaty and committed to binding reductions. Kyoto also implemented the principle of "differentiated responsibilities and capabilities" agreed to in Rio by requiring binding emission reductions from Annex-1 countries while permitting LDCs, classified as "non-Annex-1" countries, to continue to address their own emissions on a voluntary basis for the time being. In other words, the Kyoto Protocol took us two huge steps forward:

(1) It recognized the necessity of mutual commitment to binding targets in order to achieve necessary levels of global reduction.

(2) It distributed the costs of averting climate change differently based on different responsibilities (cumulative emissions per capita) and different capabilities (GDP per capita.)

Twelve years later in Copenhagen both of these steps forward have been placed in serious jeopardy.

However, the train wreck in formal negotiations between country delegations overshadowed another train wreck that has been coming for some time. The divide between some on the Left who support putting a price on carbon emissions through a cap and trade treaty, and others on the Left who deny that putting a price on carbon is a necessary and important step forward, and denounce carbon markets as a "pretend solution" that diverts attention from "real solutions" was more visible than ever in Copenhagen. While the Left needn’t agree on everything, when we contradict one another to the extent that Amy Goodman can’t figure out what message to bring home from Copenhagen for her Democracy Now audience, the Left also has a problem.

Has the Left missed the boat on climate change? What an outrageous insinuation! Has not the Left been a lonely voice of wisdom insisting that climate change, as well as other forms of environmental deterioration, cannot be avoided if we fail to replace the economics of competition and greed — a.k.a. capitalism – with the economics of equitable cooperation – a.k.a. true eco-socialism? Are not we the ones who point out that capitalism is an economic way of life that has no future because it will soon destroy the biosphere? Are not we the ones who have explained why even a better regulated and more egalitarian capitalism would still mistreat the environment because:

(1) Capitalist economies pollute too much because markets over produce goods whose production and/or consumption generate negative "externalities" like pollution. 

(2) Capitalist economies fail to protect the environment sufficiently because markets under supply "public goods" like environmental restoration.

(3) Capitalist economies extract natural resources too fast because rates of profit for private owners are higher than the rate at which society should "discount" future compared to present benefits from using natural resources.
(4) Markets for labor and consumer goods create "perverse incentives" which lure people to take too much of their productivity gains as individual consumption and too little as more environmentally friendly collective consumption and leisure time. And finally,

(5) markets fail to generate information necessary to know how high corrective environmental taxes and subsidies should be, while spawning powerful political lobbies with interests in underestimating the size of necessary correctives. (See Robin Hahnel, "The Case Against Markets," Journal of Economic Issues (41, 4), December 2007: 1139-1159.)

However, for all our wisdom about how the defining features of capitalism bear primary responsibility for turning humans into lemmings, I believe too many on the Left have made themselves irrelevant to responses to climate change in the here and now by failing to understand the importance of putting a significant price on carbon emissions, and by dismissing cap and trade policies out of hand because, in the words of the Durban Declaration of October 2004, they "commodify… the earth’s carbon-cycling capacity into property to be bought and sold in a global market."

Unfortunately, as long as the albatross of global capitalism remains around our necks our best chance to avert climate change is through an international cap and trade treaty that puts a significant price on carbon emissions, and our best chance to do this equitably is to preserve the Kyoto framework and fix the carbon market that is one of its central features.

It is one thing to point out the ultimate absurdity of putting prices on different parts of a natural environment which is, in fact, a single interconnected ecosystem that all life, including human life, depends on. It is another thing when we live in a world driven by market forces to denounce those who work to increase the price of carbon emissions from its present price of zero to as close to its true social cost as is politically possible. Similarly, it is one thing to insist that nature should belong to no one and everyone but it is another thing to sit on the sidelines while giant corporations seize valuable property rights to store carbon in the upper atmosphere in the greatest wealth give-away in history, while ordinary citizens receive none because one does not believe the atmosphere should be commoditized. Further it is one thing to point out that it would be better to plan how to use and preserve the natural environment in a democratic, equitable, and effective way rather than leave those decisions to be made very poorly by market forces but it is another thing to ignore the fact that we socialists failed to replace capitalism with socialism in the twentieth century, which means that decisions about how to use the environment are actually made, and will continue to be made for some time, by market forces where a key price, the price of carbon emission, is completely out of whack. Finally, it is one thing to say: "I don’t want things decided by market forces and private property rights," but it is quite another to say: "Even though things are being decided by market forces and property rights I don’t care what those prices are or who gets new property rights."

Prospects for human and other species do ultimately hinge on whether global capitalism is replaced by a completely different economic system — a system with no elites to prey on their fellow humans and the natural environment, where the associated producers and consumers democratically plan and coordinate their own economic activities based on reasonably accurate information about the consequences of different alternatives. And the sooner this happens the safer and better off both humans and the environment will be. But when dealing with climate change it is irresponsible not to be realistic about time frames. Being realistic about time frames does not mean we must abandon our conviction that humans are capable of correcting our errors and forging new economic institutions to help us develop more democratic, equitable, and environmentally sustainable habits. Similarly being realistic about time frames does not mean we must cease or postpone our efforts to replace a dysfunctional system that commodifies everything but knows the value of nothing with an economic system that facilitates equitable cooperation and environmental stewardship. But being realistic about time frames does mean recognizing that the global economy will continue for some time to be dominated by giant corporations guided by the profit criterion and market forces — while nature proceeds on its own schedule.

As a self-proclaimed "market abolitionist" I understand why carbon trading is a bitter pill to swallow for all who abhor the commodification of everything, including the natural environment. But we socialists need to look to ourselves. Had we done our work well the human species would have abandoned capitalism and the false illusion that commodification is the solution to all economic problems long before we had damaged the environment to the point where we are perilously close to triggering cataclysmic climate change. Had participatory, democratic socialism replaced capitalism during the twentieth century — as it should have – we would be in a position to respond to the threat of climate change very differently: Once scientists made us aware of the consequences of inaction we would have had well-tested institutions and procedures at our disposal for making efficient and equitable choices about where and how to reduce carbon emissions, and how to distribute the costs of reductions fairly between and within countries without resort to commodification. But the last time I checked, participatory eco-socialism had yet to replace global capitalism, and pretending it has does not yield effective policy responses in the world we live in.

After denouncing cap and trade as a "pretend" solution, Climate Justice Action issued the following "non-negotiable demands" in advance of the Copenhagen meetings this month: (1) Leave fossil fuels in the ground. (2) Reassert peoples’ and community control over production. (3) Relocalize food production. (4) Massively reduce overconsumption, particularly in the North. (5) Respect indigenous and forest peoples’ rights. (6) Recognize the ecological and climate debt owed to the peoples of the South and make reparation. And Climate Justice Action went on to urge people to hope for a "Seattling" of Copenhagen.

In Part 2 of this series I argue that while the International Monetary Fund should be "nixed" not "fixed," and the World Trade Organization should be "ended not amended," the United Nations and Kyoto Protocol are fundamentally different and should be fixed, amended, and strengthened rather than trashed. I also argue that while the Climate Justice Action demands are laudable goals in and of themselves, they do not comprise an effective program for averting climate change.

In Part 3 of the series I propose that the Left reaffirm support for key pillars of the Kyoto Protocol and call for specific changes I outline that would make an international cap and trade treaty effective, equitable, and worthy of our support as we continue to agitate for system change in the long run.

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