Saturday 1 January 2000

Copenhagen summit: ‘Seattle’-style protests needed

Ten years ago the ‘Battle of Seattle’ protests against the World Trade Organisation sparked a global anti-capitalist movement. In the US the protests raised hopes of a ‘Teamster-turtle alliance’ against neo-liberal economics. The Teamsters being traditional trade unionists such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the ‘turtles’ being environmental and social justice activists, such as costumed protesters above.
Patrick Bond Durban Here’s a fairly simple choice: the global North would pay the hard-hit global South to deal with the climate crisis, either through the complicated and corrupt “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM), whose projects have plenty of damaging side-effects to communities, or instead pay through other mechanisms that provide financing quickly, transparently and decisively to achieve genuine income compensation plus renewable energy to the masses. The Copenhagen climate summit in December is all about the first choice. Europe and the US have put carbon trading at the core of their emissions reduction strategy, while the two largest emitters of carbon in the Third World, China and India, are the main beneficiaries of CDM financing. Problems caused when then-vice president Al Gore’s US delegation brought pro-corporate compromises to Kyoto in 1997 — promising a US sign-on to Kyoto in exchange for carbon trading — are going to now amplify, and haunt us for a very long time, unless serious reforms are achieved in Copenhagen. They won’t be. Nor will any substantive agreement emerge, hinted the new UN Development Programme director and New Zealand’s neoliberal former prime minister Helen Clark this week: “The success of the Copenhagen summit on climate change in December will not depend on a final international deal being sealed there.” In other words, prepare for a stalemate by a coalition of selfish, fossil-fuel addicted powers. Terribly weak targets may get a mention (or even no mention, as last time at Bali), but market mechanisms will be invoked as the “solution” so as to appease polluting capitalists and the governments under their thumb, especially US President Barack Obama’s. There are attractive, simple mechanisms for financing Africa’s survival, including the “ecological debt” (or “climate reparations”) demands being made by environmental leaders of the African Union (AU). There is also Jubilee Africa’s request to just remove the damn boot from Africa’s financial neck by cancelling ongoing debt repayments. The International Monetary Fund said in 2009,the lowest-income African countries are suffering a 50% increase in debt repayments as a percentage of export earnings. This means the 2005 Make Poverty History NGO-rockstar campaign was a farce. The only debt written-off was impossible to repay anyway, so for low-income Africa, “debt relief” was just an accounting gimmick, as IMF data now shows. The most shocking probable outcome of climate change is that UN experts predict 90% of the African peasantry will be out of business by 2100 due to drought, floods, extreme weather events, disease and political instability. The Climate Change Vulnerability Index, calculated in 2009 “from dozens of variables measuring the capacity of a country to cope with the consequences of global warming”, listed 22 African countries out of 28 across the world at “extreme risk”, whereas the United States is near the bottom of the world rankings of countries at risk, even though it is the leading per capita contributor to climate change. There is no question that those most responsible should pay reparations. The world is awakening. After several years of hard work by World Council of Churches (WCC) members and staff, on September 2 the WCC’s central committee adopted a formal statement on the North’s “deep moral obligation to promote ecological justice by addressing our debts to peoples most affected by ecological destruction and to the earth itself”. The WCC slams “the agro-industrial-economic complex and the culture of the North, characterised by the consumerist lifestyle and the view of development as commensurate with exploitation of the earth's so-called natural resources”. It cites the eco-debt definition pioneered by Accion Ecologica of Ecuador: “Historical and current resource-plundering, environmental degradation and the dumping of greenhouse gases and toxic wastes.” Like any other damages paid by corporations for messes made — such as Thor Chemicals’ notorious mercury spillage a few dozen kilometres from my Durban home now leaking into Durban’s bulk water supply at the Inanda Dam — the point is to get a general estimate of clean-up costs and a rough estimate of damages done. As compensation, flows of grant funding are required — hopefully via an accountable, fair, transparent system such as a basic income grant for all residents of Africa (a Namibian pilot is showing excellent results) — instead of the kinds of corrupting carbon trade financing that dictators or big corporations now grab hold of and redirect to adverse ends. Carbon trading allows corporations and governments generating greenhouse gases to seemingly reduce net emissions. They can do this, thanks to the Kyoto Protocol, by trading for others’ reductions (e.g. CDM projects in the Third World) or emissions rights (e.g. Eastern Europe’s “hot air” that followed the 1990s economic collapse). The pro-trading rationale is that once property rights are granted to polluters for their emissions, a “cap” can be put on a country’s or the world’s total emissions (and then progressively lowered if there is political will). So as to minimise adverse economic impact, corporations can stay within the cap even by emitting way above it, by buying others’ rights to pollute. But the carbon market isn’t working, for several reasons: • the idea of inventing a property right to pollute is in effect the privatisation 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 can be expected to 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, multitrillion-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. Recall that scientists insist an 80% cut in emissions will be necessary within four decades at most, and the big cuts before 2020. To achieve this, carbon markets won’t work, as the leading US climate scientist, James Hansen, said in opposition to Obama’s cap and trade scheme. Obama’s legislation, which passed the US House of Representatives in June, is so profoundly flawed it should be scrapped. Some excellent movements have sprung up to try to prevent US carbon trading and the destruction of Environmental Protection Agency powers to regulate carbon pollution. The emissions trade is a bogus “false solution”. Very different forms of climate finance are required at the Copenhagen summit in December, including the North’s payment of ecological debt. While carbon trading is at the heart of Copenhagen negotiations, any deal done will be a step backwards. University of KwaZulu-Natal honorary professor Dennis Brutus, puts the challenge ahead frankly: “My own view is that a corrupt deal is being concocted in Copenhagen with the active collaboration of NGOs who have been bought off by the corporations, especially oil and transport. “They may even be well-intentioned but they are barking up the wrong tree.” Instead of a bad deal, Brutus recommends that we all “Seattle” Copenhagen. In other words, the AU insiders work with massed protesters outside to prevent the North from doing a deal in its interests, against Africa’s and the planet’s. A decade ago, that formula stopped the 1999 World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Millennial Round from succeeding in Seattle through an alliance on the streets by environmentalists, unionists and many other campaigners combining with poor nation representatives inside the meeting opposing further adverse trade policies being forced on them. In 2003, the feat was repeated at the WTO Cancun meeting. To “Seattle” Copenhagen would entail civil society protesting outside and African governments working for Africans’ interests inside, to halt a dirty deal that makes matters worse. Even with less than 100 days to go, Brutus insists it’s feasible. This would then allow us to move on to the real emissions reduction and alternative energy and production systems the world desperately needs. From Green Left Weekly Patrick Bond is the director of the Centre for Civil Society in Durban. He is co-editor of the UKZN Press book Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society: Negative Returns on South African Investments.

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