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To change the climate — change the system

Published Dec 23, 2009 2:25 PM

The International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which was two years in the planning, ended in a train wreck. Nothing was arrived at: no treaty, no deadlines, no binding agreement of any sort.

For years the real dividing lines in this struggle were obscured by technical language and the most detailed schemes for reducing carbon emissions. But underneath all the debate was the class struggle in its most virulent form.

Based on intense U.S. pressure, backed by European maneuvers, the financial pledges to poor and developing countries ended as vague statements of zero substance. By the final day the commitments to strict carbon emissions framework dissolved into a “let’s all do our own thing” handshake.

President Barack Obama and the U.S. delegation called the conference finale an “unprecedented breakthrough.” Most other countries and environmental groups considered it a disaster. In this intense struggle two revolutionary leaders, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia, sharpened the debate by defining the real problem: capitalism.

The economic crisis that has wracked the global economy for the past 18 months has confirmed for millions of increasingly desperate people the inherent instability of capitalism. But Copenhagen confirmed in the starkest light that capitalism is a totally irrational system. Corporate survival based on the drive to maximize profits trumped planetary survival.

Now clearly the battle to save the environment means taking on these dinosaur corporations and the social system that gives them life.

The conference was a world gathering on a scale not seen before, meeting on an issue that all agreed was of the most urgent concern to all humans. Representatives of 193 countries gathered, including 128 heads of state. Over 45,000 delegates, members of the international media, lawyers, lobbyists and countless representatives of “special interests” of giant corporations gathered, registering along with thousands of activist nongovernmental organizations that focus on environmental justice.

Everyone agrees that cooperation is desperately needed on an international scale. But cooperation was impossible! The reality was that irrational competitive forces tore every possible agreement apart. The leaders of countries whose rulers serve a handful of powerful transnational corporations held the conference as they hold all of society — in an economic, political and military vise-grip.

Repression and exclusion

In the streets outside the conference 100,000 people joined mass protests and counter meetings. In the largest police action in Denmark’s history, police used tear gas, pepper spray, mass cages, baton charges and mass preemptive arrests to suppress the voices of dissent. There were more than 1,800 arrests.

Inside the Bella Center, the United Nations suspended even mainstream environmental groups and barred registered delegates from re-entering the conference. Organizations staged a sit-in to protest their exclusion from the talks. African nations, joined by China and some other members of the G77 group, walked out of the controlled sessions as the issue of reparations was pushed off the agenda.

Every strong-arm effort was made to exclude the positions and views of those countries most impacted by climate change and to place demands and restrictions on their future development. Big business in the rich nations used the conference as a cynical maneuver to maintain their economic dominance.

The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population and is responsible for at least 25 percent of greenhouse gases. From the beginning of this global effort, Washington has fought to prevent any restrictions or controls on its emissions. It has used its enormous political and economic weight in past international climate conferences to win concessions and exclusions.

Since the Kyoto Accords the U.S. had secured the blanket exclusion of its entire military machine, with its thousands of bases and installations across the U.S. and all around the world, its hundreds of warships, aircraft carriers and destroyers on the seas and its jets, helicopters, rockets and drones in the air. The U.S. also wrangled other set-asides in past negotiations. That all international maritime shipping and aviation — a major and growing source of carbon emissions — was also excluded also benefits U.S. corporations.

With its own military facilities safely excluded, the U.S. negotiators in Copenhagen upped the ante by demanding the right to set up inspections of all industrial facilities in China and all developing countries. This was of course seen as an attack on the national sovereignty of all formerly colonized and oppressed countries.

Many of the G77 countries, environmentalists and thousands of street activists were demanding reparations for the environmental destruction caused by major corporations in over 200 years of industrial development.

According to many environmentalists, developed countries should pay a climate debt of $1 trillion a year to help reverse carbon emissions in poorer countries, which suffered centuries of deliberate underdevelopment, colonialism, racism and toxic dumping. This concept of “climate justice” was an accepted goal of all past climate negotiations. It was pushed off the agenda at Copenhagen.

By the second week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presentations in Copenhagen made it clear how much the U.S. was demanding and how little it was willing to give.

She grandly offered that “the United States is prepared to work with other countries toward a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries. We expect this funding will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.”

In essence this amounted to nothing except a possible $100 billion — 10 years from now, with no specific U.S. commitment, except an offer to help raise funds. This vague financing package would be available only if all countries agreed to the U.S. terms. These terms included killing the already insufficient Kyoto Accords and all legally binding measures and universal emissions targets and replacing them with the fuzzy concept of “transparency.” This was the same package that President Obama offered two days later.

Cap and trade — capitalist nonsolutions

The real sources of environmental destruction were not being addressed because the Copenhagen Conference had a profit-driven agenda. The big capitalist powers used the global warming consensus to justify a global multibillion-dollar scheme for trading permits to produce carbon emissions.

The major European Union politicians, former Vice President Al Gore and other imperialist forces have long proposed creating a global carbon market with caps of total emissions, but which allows trading of emission rights among nations and industries. This is called “cap and trade.” With this approach, industries that produce high carbon emissions in the wealthiest imperialist countries could offset their extra emissions by purchasing permits from industries in the poorer countries. These proposals make permits for carbon emissions an important commodity that can be bought and sold.

In essence this scheme means that uncontrolled development can continue in the wealthiest, most developed countries by a system of credits or promised payments to curtail carbon emissions, while allowing the pollution that harms the poorest countries.

Many critics of these market schemes consider the proposals to be a recolonization of the global South. The basic proposal of a global cap-and-trade plan is a market-based approach that will do little to slow dependence on fossil fuels. It merely allows polluters to continue polluting and Wall Street traders to make billions of dollars in global offset markets and complex trading schemes.

“A Nov. 29 British Guardian article was entitled, “Carbon trading could be worth twice that of oil in next decade — Carbon market at the heart of Copenhagen Conference could be worth $3 trillion a year.”

Wall Street is poised to make billions of dollars in the “trade” part of cap and trade. The market for trading permits to emit carbon dioxide appears likely to be loosely regulated, to be open to speculators and to include derivatives.

A Dec. 4 Bloomberg News article titled “Carbon Capitalists Warming to Climate Market Using Derivatives” shows the real deal: “JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

and Morgan Stanley will be watching closely as 192 nations gather in Copenhagen.

“Estimates of the potential size of the U.S. cap-and-trade market range from $300 billion to $2 trillion. ... Banks intend to become the intermediaries in this fledgling market. Although U.S. carbon legislation may not pass for a year or more, Wall Street has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars hiring lobbyists and making deals with companies that can supply them with ‘carbon offsets’ to sell to clients.

“The banks are preparing to do with carbon what they’ve done before: design and market derivatives contracts.”

Here is how Green Chip Stocks editor Jeff Siegel, featured on CNBC’s Green Week, posed the issue: “There’s no telling just how lucrative this market will become. Why else would huge companies like GE, DuPont, and Johnson & Johnson be racing to reduce their emissions? It’s because of the huge profits that stand to be made.”

This pro-capitalist Web site brags: “Here are some recent Green Chip Review issues our readers picked as their favorites: Investing in Water: An Ounce of Water, a Pound of Profits. ... The Hottest Stock Market on the Planet: It’s all about Energy and Minerals, and the Party’s Just Getting Started.”

The failure to reach any clear agreement is expected to deflate this latest speculative bubble for a time. An article in the Sidney Morning Herald as the conference closed was titled: “Copenhagen fallout: carbon trade to tumble.” The article complained: “The two-week climate meeting, concluded a day behind schedule, failed to deliver most of the improvements needed in the U.N. market, said Kim Carnahan, a U.N. emissions-trading researcher at the International Emissions Trading Association, a lobby group in Geneva. Its members include Goldman Sachs and Royal Dutch Shell.”

Revolutionary challenge

Bolivian President Evo Morales explained the essence of the problem: “We cannot end global warming without ending capitalism.

“Capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity. Capitalism — and I’m speaking about irrational development — policies of unlimited industrialization are what destroys the environment. ... And that irrational industrialization is capitalism.

“The budget of the United States is $687 billion for defense. And for climate change, to save life, to save humanity, they only put up $10 billion. This is shameful.

“The best thing would be that all war spending be directed towards climate change, instead of spending it on troops in Iraq, in Afghanistan or the military bases in Latin America. This money would be better directed to attending to the damages that were created by the United States. And, of course, this isn’t just $100 billion; this is probably trillions and trillions of dollars.”

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela asked: “Can a finite Earth support an infinite project? The thesis of capitalism, infinite development, is a destructive pattern, let’s face it. How long are we going to tolerate the current international economic order and prevailing market mechanisms? How long are we going to allow huge epidemics like HIV/AIDS to ravage entire populations? How long are we going to allow the hungry to not eat or to be able to feed their own children? How long are we going to allow millions of children to die from curable diseases? How long will we allow armed conflicts to massacre millions of innocent human beings in order for the powerful to seize the resources of other peoples?

“One could say, Mr. President, that a ghost is haunting Copenhagen, to paraphrase Karl Marx, the great Karl Marx. A ghost is haunting the streets of Copenhagen, and I think that ghost walks silently through this room, walking around among us, through the halls, out below, it rises. This ghost is a terrible ghost. Almost nobody wants to mention it: Capitalism is the ghost, almost nobody wants to mention it. It’s capitalism, the people roar, out there. Hear them.

“Socialism, the other ghost Karl Marx spoke about, which walks here too, rather it is like a counter-ghost. Socialism, this is the direction, this is the path to save the planet. I don’t have the least doubt ... that’s the way to save the planet. Capitalism is the road to hell. ... Let’s fight against capitalism and make it obey us.”

A complete English version of Chávez’s speech can be found at iacenter.org.