The Left & Climate Change 2/3: Turn Back From The Road To Nowhere

[This is part 2 of a three part ZNet commentary series by political economist Robin Hahnel, to be posted Dec. 24-26, 2009. Part 1 was posted yesterday.]

Part 2: Turn Back From The Road To Nowhere

The October 2004 Durban Declaration states:

"As representatives of people’s movements and independent organizations, we reject the claim that carbon trading will halt the climate crisis. History has seen attempts to commodify land, food, labor, forests, water, genes and ideas. Carbon trading follows in the footsteps of this history and turns the earth’s carbon-cycling capacity into property to be bought or sold in a global market. Through this process of creating a new commodity — carbon — the Earth’s ability and capacity to support a climate conducive to life and human societies is now passing into the same corporate hands that are destroying the climate…. We denounce the further delays in ending fossil fuel extraction that are being caused by corporate, government and United Nations’ attempts to construct a `carbon market’."

In their communiqués for Copenhagen last week Climate Justice Action not only denounced cap and trade and carbon markets as "pretend" solutions that divert attention from their "real" solutions I analyze below, they urged people to hope for a "Seattling" of Copenhagen on December 16.

I was in Seattle and fully supported shutting down the World Trade Organization Ministerial Meetings that took place there in 1999 because the policies the WTO was created to compel countries to accept – some of which, like TRIPS and MAI, have nothing to do with trade at all – are antithetical to economic development, economic justice, and environmental protection. I helped organize protests to shut down the IMF meetings in Washington DC in April 2000 because the IMF has been even more responsible for spreading neoliberal economic misery — twisting LDC arms to permit capital liberalization and then lowering the boom when financial crises ensue by requiring draconian conditionalities in exchange for bailout loans that serve the interests of wealthy international investors at the expense of the basic economic needs of LDC populations. At least for the foreseeable future the programs, policies, and governing structures of both organizations are beyond repair, and a majority of the world’s inhabitants and the environment are better off the more we disrupt the IMF and WTO and reduce their power to do evil. However, the United Nations and the Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP) are not the IMF or the WTO.

Of course Leftists have justifiable criticisms of some UN governing structures, the Security Council chief among them, but as far as I know it is nationalistic, right wing American Firsters, not Leftists, who call for trashing the UN. Leftists have traditionally supported the UN, particularly against US exceptionalism, and called for reforms that would make the UN more democratic, strong, and effective. Moreover, unlike capital liberalization, trade liberalization, privatization, structural adjustment programs, TRIPS,  MAI, and bailouts for international investors but austerity programs for stricken country populations, the UN sponsored Kyoto Protocol establishes a constructive framework for addressing climate change in an equitable way. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sets the worthy target of reducing global emissions by whatever proves necessary to prevent average global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees centigrade, and embraces the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities" as our guide for how to reach it.

This is not to say that people should not protest at COP meetings. Nor am I questioning the tactics protesters use. Not nearly enough is being done and the clock is ticking. The more people who demonstrate, and the more committed, serious, and militant protesters are, the more likely we are to push our agendas forward. We should protest obstructionist behavior on the part of some government delegations attending these meetings. We should protest the lack of progress in securing a binding commitment from the US delegation and President. We should protest failure to secure deeper reductions from other LDC governments. We should protest attempts by any delegations to renege on the promise to address climate change fairly. If this is what Climate Justice Action means by "Seattling" Copenhagen, I have no objection. But anyone who thinks shutting down COP meetings in Copenhagen, or preventing the meetings from taking place in Mexico City next year, or derailing the Kyoto process in general will improve the chances of averting climate change in an effective and equitable way is dead wrong.

We should continue to explain at every opportunity how and why capitalism is the major cause of climate change. Not technology per se, not population growth per se, not human greed per se, but the central pillars of capitalism are the underlying cause of climate change. Private ownership of the means of production and market forces make those who fight to protect the natural environment swim upstream against the current because they reward those who adopt environmentally destructive technologies and life styles and penalize those who attempt to develop new, sustainable habits. But we must distinguish between the true message that capitalism is the root source of the problem from the false message that pursuit of effective and fair policies to combat climate change is pointless as long as capitalism persists. Evaluating the predictable effects of alternative policy interventions in a market system to identify the most fair and efficient among them is not the same as endorsing the market system or claiming that the market system is capable of yielding fair and efficient outcomes.

I have argued for more than twenty years that there is no role for markets in a desirable economy, that a truly democratic, fair, and sustainable non-market "participatory economy" is perfectly possible, and that we need to prioritize organizing systems of equitable and sustainable cooperation within capitalism right now rather than postpone these projects until after the capitalist system has been overthrown. And I continue to press these points at every opportunity. But most people do not yet live in a post-market economy, and those who ignore this unfortunate fact of life do so at the peril of curtailing climate change before it is too late. To be taken seriously Leftists must stop mindless trashing of carbon trading and belittling the importance of reducing the social costs of averting climate change. As I explain in Part 3, trading lowers the cost of reducing emissions which makes it easier to win political support for even lower caps; and trading can generate sizable flows of income from North to South. Yes, important changes in a post-Kyoto treaty are necessary to make a cap and trade treaty effective and equitable, and we must demand the kinds of changes I discuss in Part 3.

What are we to make of Climate Justice Action’s demands in Copenhagen?

(1) Leave fossil fuels in the ground.

Averting climate change means converting from fossil fuels to renewables by definition. So demanding to leave fossil fuels in the ground does no more than state the obvious. But it is hardly an answer to the question: What policy will best achieve the objective of keeping fossil fuels in the ground?

Since urgency and dedication are a major part of what is required for success, "Keep the Oil in the Soil and the Coal in the Hole" campaigns which mobilize citizens to engage in mass protests and civil disobedience at mines and oil wells – but preferably at company headquarters if demonstrators want to display class consciousness — are an important, positive catalyst. But heroic protest and civil disobedience are only one part of an effective program to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Unless governments are compelled to cap emissions by an international treaty, and unless governments implement domestic policies that reduce the demand for fossil fuels, demonstrators engaging in civil disobedience will be rounded up and arrested by armed police and military personnel to little avail. So just as it is counterproductive for mainstream environmental NGOs to criticize heroic demonstrators whose personal sacrifices do advance the cause, it is also counterproductive for those who "put their lives on the line" to criticize others who work tirelessly to secure an international treaty that is stronger and fairer, and domestic policies that reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

(2) Reassert peoples’ and community control over production.

If this is not a demand that participatory eco-socialism be adopted, I don’t know what it means. While the environment will remain at risk until the world is practicing participatory eco-socialism, and we should explain why at every opportunity, participatory socialism will only come about when we have built a majoritarian movement that wants it, led by a large minority who have already learned how to practice it effectively. Going to international meetings right now to "demand" this concession from leaders of capitalist governments assembled to address climate change only reveals how far we are from winning something that by its nature must be taken, not given.

(3) Relocalize food production.

Yes, of course this must be done, but how? What policies will best achieve this objective? Yes, of course relocalizing food production is called for, but if complete self-sufficiency in food is not the goal, how much relocalization is appropriate? Moreover, even if the optimal relocalization of food production were achieved, absent an international treaty to cap global emissions sufficiently and fairly, climate change would not be averted, nor would major global inequities be eliminated.

(4) Massively reduce overconsumption, particularly in the North.

Who could object to reducing overconsumption? And who would deny there is more overconsumption in the global north than the global south? But again, this only restates the obvious and provides no clue as to how best to accomplish this necessary goal.

(5) Respect indigenous and forest peoples’ rights.

This is necessary because it is an egregious violation of human rights to fail to do so. And it is important to point out that a side benefit of securing indigenous rights is that native lands will invariably be better protected when they are more firmly under indigenous control. Moreover, demanding respect for indigenous rights at UN gatherings charged with averting climate change in equitable ways, attended by representatives of governments who violate indigenous rights, is quite appropriate. But expropriation has gone on too long and been too extensive for restoration of native lands to suffice as a cure for climate change absent other policies.

(6) Recognize the ecological and climate debt owed to the peoples of the South and make reparation.

This demand is just and UN sponsored meetings to avert climate change are the appropriate place to make it. However, that does not mean that insisting on the word "reparation" is a good choice. There is no need to "demand" that the UNFCCC recognize the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities" because it already does. Moreover, the UNFCCC has defined "differentiated responsibilities" to mean that the global South bears much less "responsibility" for causing climate change because its cumulative emissions per capita are miniscule compared to cumulative emissions per capita in the North; and the UNFCCC has defined "differentiated capabilities" to mean that income and wealth per capita in the South are much less than in the North. As a matter of fact the UNFCCC has even stipulated that achieving economic development and overcoming poverty must take priority in the South, and whatever role the South plays in averting climate change should not interfere with its ability to achieve its primary objective of economic development. In other words, we can either "demand" that the UNFCCC live up to its word and not abandon its own principles of fairness, or we can "demand" that the UNFCCC commit to a concept it has never agreed to discuss, as far as I am aware. It is also far from obvious that the concept of "reparations" is superior on moral or ideological grounds. Is petitioning for debts owed better than insisting on one’s right to be treated fairly?

In a world where what is deemed "politically possible" invariably falls so far short of what is necessary, fair, and humanly feasible, there is an important role for the kind of demands Climate Justice Action makes. But it is important to distinguish between demands for what amounts to system change that are not going to happen in the near future, and demands that could be won even without systemic change. And it is important to determine if there are demands that are achievable now that would substantially improve outcomes.

In Part 3 I propose a list of more practical, concrete demands I believe groups like Climate Justice Action should support in addition to their more sweeping demands. By doing so divisions between different organizations who are fighting for equitable solutions to climate change would be greatly reduced, making us all far more effective. However this will require abandoning the practice of bashing carbon trading and acknowledging that carbon trading can be useful in a world driven by market forces provided we win a few changes that are within reach and well worth fighting for.

[Part 3 will run tomorrow, Dec. 26th. Go back to part 1.]

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