The sorry results of the Cancun global warming summit, the failure of climate capitalism, and the prospects of major change

(CV #46, November 2011)

Introduction -- November 2011

A few days ago, in early November 2011, it was announced that 2010 had seen a 6% jump in carbon emissions over the previous year, with about 564 million more metric tons of carbon than 2009. This was, in absolute terms, the largest annual increase in carbon emissions ever, and it was worse than the most pessimistic scenario put forward at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. It was a sign of the utter failure of the climate summits organized by capitalist governments to deal with global warming.

The market methods of dealing with carbon emissions, and the complete subservience of the capitalist governments to the energy corporations and other capitalist interests that make money off destroying the environment, have made a mockery of efforts at averting the looming climactic disaster. Climate capitalism, or neo-liberalism applied to environmental reform, has proved utterly bankrupt.

There is no reason to think that 2011 will turn out to be any better. The article below shows that the measures adopted by the Cancun climate summit of December 2010 followed the same path to disaster as the previous climate summits.

The 2011 UN climate summit will be held Nov. 28 - Dec. 9 in Durban, South Africa. All signs are that it will follow the same neo-liberal path as its predecessors, and the environmental crisis will deepen. There will be debate on what is to replace the Kyoto Protocol, whose first "commitment period" is set to expire at the end of 2012, but no challenge to reliance on market methods. But serious progress on global warming will require abandoning market fundamentalism and implementing serious environmental and economic planning and regulation. Moreover, it will require the influence of the working class on this planning and regulation to ensure that it accomplishes environmental goals, that capitalists aren't able to evade it, and that it is integrated with social programs to protect the well-being of the working masses, rather than serving mainly as another way to funnel subsidies to the capitalists.

All this goes against the logic of capitalism, so that it can only be accomplished in part while capitalism exists. Moreover, world capitalism is still insisting on market fundamentalism as the world sinks deeper and deeper into a world depression. So the struggle for relief from austerity and its deepening misery, and the struggle for measures to deal with the environmental crisis, both face the need to fight the neo-liberalism of the bourgeoisie. The same bourgeoisie that is cruelly sending a whole generation of working people into destitution and desperation in order to save the banks, is also ruining the environment. If there is to be a chance for serious progress in protecting the environment, the class and environmental struggles must be linked.

The following article is based on a presentation at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group meeting of Jan. 2, 2011.


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This morning the Reuters new agency reported that record floods are swamping northeast Australia, Queensland state, forcing thousands of people from their homes. As rivers overflowed their banks, Gordon Banks, a senior forecaster in Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, was quoted as saying that "We have not seen water that high in recorded history here." Indeed, water may cover the town of Rockhampton 30 feet deep. Now, no one can say whether any individual catastrophe of this type is due to global warming. But what we do know is that we can expect many more events of this type in the coming years, because while this flood isn't necessarily due to global warming, many others will be.

We are already in the era where climate change is not just a danger, but a reality. The question is whether anything effective will be done to keep down the extent of this change, because it hasn't yet reached the level of total disaster. In this regard, people are looking toward the various climate summits organized each year by the UN. A year ago there was the 2009 climate summit at Copenhagen, which had the task of deciding what to do as the Kyoto Protocol ran out. And the failure of this summit was a major shock to concerned people around the world: it failed to agree on any binding goals. We discussed this failure last year in Communist Voice (see "Lessons from the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit", www.communistvoice.org/44cCopenhagen.html). And today we are discussing the Cancun climate summit of last month, which again failed to achieve anything definitive.

In a moment, we'll go into the major features of this summit. But it should be borne in mind that there is more to the story than just the details of the agreements, which are often complex. The summit reflects the views of the governing bourgeoisie about what is to be done. And what happened at Copenhagen a year ago, and Cancun last month, didn't particularly alarm the bourgeoisie. It happened because the bourgeoisie is presently in a complacent mood about the environment.

For now, the basic attitude of the bourgeoisie is that disasters come and go, and there's nothing special about global warming. "Adaptation" is its present slogan: it shrugs and says "we have to learn to live with global warming, as we have lived with other problems in the past. And especially we have to learn what business opportunities are presented by it."

Thus the real story of Cancun was written even before the first session opened on November 29. The influential British magazine The Economist reflects the views of the market-fundamentalist bourgeoisie. Its issue of Nov. 25, 2010 carried an article entitled "Adapting to climate change/Facing the consequences/Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it."

In this way, The Economist shrugged its shoulders at the failure of the Kyoto Protocol to bring down carbon emissions enough to halt global warming. It doesn't ask why this has happened and how to change it. Instead it says: "adapt!"

It admits that it doesn't look like the Copenhagen summit achieved its goal of restricting future warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Indeed, it says that it looks like what is happening is just the "business as usual" scenario -- that nothing much has been done. Indeed, it cites the International Energy Agency saying that world temperature will increase by 3.5C (6.3F) by the end of the century. But it shrugs this off. If business as usual is 2C, or 3C, or 4C, or whatever, well, just adapt to it. It doesn't use exactly these words, but the spirit is "don't be a nervous nelly we've heard predictions of disaster before -- it's never as bad as it is said to be."

Adaptation is the present codeword of the bourgeoisie for living with global warming. And it's true that we do have to prepare for the catastrophes, such as flooding in Australia, unusually cold winters in Europe (ironically, also expected as a result of global warming), and the flooding of entire small island nations that is expected. But The Economist isn't really worried about anything it considers major. Well, it says that perhaps "as much as two-thirds of the total [cost of the results of climate change] cannot be offset through investment in adaptation", and it does mention that there will be some "misery". But still, it thinks it is mainly just a question of "higher prices" and "lower growth". It is thinking that minor measures will suffice to save the world, or at least the richer countries, from any major misery. After all, making money is supposedly the key to everything, and The Economist opines that "The best starting point for adaptation is to be rich."

So it talks about whether the dikes and barriers against flood water are high enough in various parts of the world, and says that "the Dutch can view the prospect of a rising sea level with a certain equanimity, at least for their own land", and it thinks that probably "the Thames Barrier", with some supplementary measures, will protect London. And New York could "in principle" protect itself, The Economist thinks, except that it's not likely to spend the necessary money. The poor countries are in more trouble, but there's always minor tinkering with finance to save them. Are poor countries going to face crop failures? Why, says The Economist, let's have crop insurance! It writes: "Here, as elsewhere, there is a role for insurance to transfer and spread the risks. Marshall Burke of the University of California, Berkeley, a specialist in climate impacts, argues that the best agricultural-insurance options for developing countries will pay out not when crops fail (which reduces incentives for the farmer) but when specific climatic events occur, such as rainfall of less than a set level." So the ever-so-clever financial wizards, who brought us one financial bubble after another, believe that tinkering with how insurance is paid out will be a great adaptation to global warming.

So it's just business as usual for The Economist. And that's how it was at Cancun. The major debates were haggling between the US, Japan, China and other countries over how to avoid agreeing to anything definite, and trying to calm down those countries who were more worried about the threat of future disaster.

It's not the bourgeoisie isn't doing anything, mind you. While part of the bourgeoisie still ridicules the idea of global warming, even pointing to this year's cold European and North American winter as an alleged refutation (and forgetting that weather extremes, and not just overall warming, were always predicted as part of global warming), and another part campaigns on global warming (a la Al Gore), they have in large part come to a sort of agreement, an agreement on climate capitalism. Certain measures will be taken, but they will all be market measures.

At the time when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, in 1997, the bourgeoisie was a bit more worried. And it was also coming off of an apparent success in preventing the thinning of the global ozone layer due to emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). It had turned this danger back, at least temporarily, through the adoption of an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol, which regulated total emissions of CFCs. This encouraged people to think that carbon emissions would be dealt with too.

But a fateful decision was made in the negotiations leading to the Kyoto Protocol, and Al Gore and Bill Clinton were central to it. This was that carbon emissions should be dealt with, not through overall regulation and planning, but through market measures. Artificial markets should be set up in carbon emissions, and companies could buy and sell the right to burn carbon-based fuels. Instead of banning harmful production processes and mandating cleanup, companies should be allowed to decide for themselves what to do. If they wanted to clean up, fine. Otherwise, they could buy a permit to pollute, and that would be fine, too. Or they could, instead of cleaning up their production, pay for someone else to clean up production elsewhere. That was supposed to be just as good as cleaning up their own carbon emission. This was the so-called "Clean Development Mechanism" by which companies bought "carbon offsets". You could continue to pollute by "offsetting" your pollution by funding someone else to clean up. And to prove that you had funded such a project all you had to do was hire your own specialist to testify to it.

These market measures were trumpeted as far superior to regulation and planning. You may hear that the various UN climate summits argued over the reductions countries are supposed to make in carbon dioxide emissions, and that certainly sounds like regulation and planning. But the reality is different: these overall goals were to be achieved through market measures. And what happened is that these measures don't work; they don't give a sufficient reduction in carbon emissions; and sometimes they even give incentives to pollute. I won't go into the details of how this works here, as we have discussed it elsewhere and I want to get to the particular features of Cancun. But the point is that the market measures haven't worked; thus the Kyoto Protocol has not worked. And yet the whole point of the agreements at Copenhagen and Cancun is to continue them. Among the bourgeoisie, there is no serious dissent from them, only haggling over which market measures. Even the dissenters at Cancun contrasted Copenhagen and Cancun to Kyoto, thus agreeing implicitly to the continuation of the reign of market measures.

So Cancun, just like Copenhagen, didn't reconsider the path of market measures. It instead debated how far to intensify or expand them. When you hear of so many billions of dollars pledged, so many ideas about how to allegedly save forests, it's all about using the same market measures that have failed in the past.

The basic issues that arose at Cancun were as follows:

Let's go into this one by one.

If you follow the UN climate summits, you'll hear a lot about REDD, which stands for "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation". That certainly sounds good. And geez, they went even further. By the time of Copenhagen, it had been rechristianed as "REDD plus", to make it even better. The "plus" emphasizes that it is supposed to stand for "sustainable forest management", "conservation", and "increasing forest carbon stocks". In typical UN-speak, it sounds really good in generalities.

But in practice, it means allowing corporations or countries the right to offset their carbon emissions by funding REDD+ activities around the world. So on one hand, this means that whatever success is achieved in preserving forests, is offset by the continuation of carbon emissions elsewhere. Moreover, it doesn't look like much success will be achieved in preserving forests. For one thing, there is actually an incentive to clear-cut forests, so they can be replanted to get carbon offset credits through REDD+. As well, a living forest can be chopped down and replaced by a mono-culture tree plantation, where only one type of tree is planted. Such monoculture plantations are bad conservation practice; their proliferation helps destroy real forests; and they are designed for the convenience of logging companies. But that's OK, as far as REDD+: mono-culture plantations count as forests. Moreover, a complicated system of other incentives is set up, which is imposed on the local indigenous population and other working people in the forest, which puts everything in the hands of financiers and corporate CEOs.

Now, maybe some REDD+ projects may be successful to this or that extent, but on the whole the result is corporatization of the forests, the spread of fraud via carbon offsets, and the replacement of planning with haggling over who gets money. The theory of the carbon offset is doubtful to begin with: one can offset burning carbon fuels in one year, by planting trees which will supposedly take up the same amount of carbon, but over a lifetime. Moreover, if these trees wither and die, or are logged, legally and illegally, then maybe another offset can be obtained to plant the trees again. It becomes hard to distinguish some of these offsets from a Bernie Madoff-type fraud. It might be argued that most of this fraud is an abuse of the carbon offset idea. And better regulation of offsets might help a bit. But first of all, such regulation would go against the whole idea of market measures to begin with, which is avoid having government regulation. And secondly, such regulation wouldn't solve the uncoordinated and anarchic feature of REDD+ projects, nor the fact that they put control of the forests into the hands of those whose only responsibility is to make a profit.

There has been a good deal of protest about REDD+ from some environmental activists, and especially from indigenous groups. But this is the forest project that Cancun determined to continue and intensify, and that its boosters boast about. It is solidly based on neo-liberal dogma in theory, and on protecting the profits of the corporations in practice.

This brings us to another feature of Cancun. It continues the promises of Copenhagen to provide funds to the developing countries to help with reducing carbon emissions or adapting to climate change. It promises up to $100 billion a year by 2020. Again, this may sound good: money is to be provided to help various countries, and the amount is supposed to get larger and larger. And maybe the money will actually be provided, eventually. But like imperialist foreign aid in general, it's not so good in operation. In foreign aid, the more powerful countries devastate the poor ones, impose one-sided treaties and trade agreements, and then give back some funds, with many strings attached. And that's the way Cancun will disperse environmental money; it's pretty much the same. The main reason why the bourgeoisie of the richer countries, so loath to agree to major reductions in carbon emissions, agrees to give money, is that it allows it to bribe the other countries into submission.

It's notable that there was a lot of protest at the Copenhagen summit, and leading up to it. Groups of countries disagreed with each other; poorer countries denounced the summit for wanting to go outside the UN framework into a more unilateral style of agreements; island nations denounced the summit for such a lax goal with respect to carbon emissions that some countries could expect to be flooded out of existence in several decades; many indigenous groups denounced REDD; NGOs, indigenous groups, and environmental activists took part in non-governmental actions; and up to 100,000 people were in the streets of Copenhagen on Dec. 12, 2008. The mass protest was one of the few good things to happen at Copenhagen. But what happened in Cancun? There were protests, but only of a few thousand activists.

In part, this was because governments were bought off. Only the Bolivian government refused to be part of the consensus agreement at the end. No doubt this is partly due to severe pressure on these countries. But it's hard not to believe that a role was played by various governments reaching for the money. This indeed had already begun at Copenhagen, with splits taking place among the dissenters as various governments gave in to the lure of money. For that matter, the dissenting governments were themselves divided on goals. The views of the stronger members of the developing world, such as China, India and Brazil, already major capitalist powers in their own right, differ from those of the small island states and the poorer countries.

Meanwhile, there's no promise to help relocate the people of the countries which may be flooded out completely, such as the Maldives and various other island nations. And there's no promise to provide enough aid to, say, keep Bangladesh viable, although it's likely to have millions upon millions of flooded-out peasants. Moreover, the bourgeoisie of the richer countries will call the shots on these funds, managing them and directing them towards various corporate interests. Indeed, the richer countries will insist on dribbling the funds out, so that they constantly have to be coaxed and wheedled to give the money. No, all that these promised funds mean is the lure of cash, which is hard to believe isn't to help corrupt the bourgeois governments of the poorer countries. That's why the various governments which pooh-pooh climate change will, however, promise to contribute to the present proposals for a fund.

Cancun was also notable for the haggling among the richer and more powerful countries, such as the US, Europe, Japan, and China, to avoid ambitious targets for carbon emissions, or even to avoid compulsory targets at all. I won't go into the details here. But the fact of this haggling exposes the bourgeois mantra that wealth and capitalist development is supposed to be the key to everything good. Supposedly the bourgeoisie isn't for wealth for its sake, not for greed, not to keep the privileged exploiters on top, oh no, but because money-making supposedly means progress in everything. If Teng Hsiao-ping famously told the Chinese that to get rich is glorious, then today the western bourgeoisie says that to get rich is to have all virtues, and The Economist implies that to be rich is to be able to adapt to climate change.

But when it's a matter of actually doing something for the environment, then the wealthier countries act truly impoverished. It's been several decades of market fundamentalism and supposed glorious growth. And yet, not a single one of these countries has enough money, it seems, to be able to do anything serious. They all allege that serious measures would harm their economies, and that the slightest bump to their economies would be devastating.

Indeed, the market mechanisms and supposed environmental funds give a major role to infamous neo-liberal financial institutions that are helping to devastate the world, such as the World Bank. The World Bank talks about environmentalism, while imposing austerity and environmental devastation around the world. One example is that last year it loaned the huge energy giant Eskom $3.75 billion to build the world's fourth-largest coal-fired power plant at Medupi in South Africa. This plant would be a huge addition to South Africa's carbon emissions, and yet Eskom might apply for carbon credits for putting it into operation, on the pretext that its version of "clean coal" might produce somewhat less carbon dioxide than other coal plants. This is the type "environmentalism" which the World Bank, the IMF, and various neo-liberal financial institutions are imposing on the world.

So that is what was going on at Cancun. It's pretty disturbing, because as the last few years tick off when there is a chance to avoid really catastrophic climate change, nothing serious is being done. But one has to look below the surface. It's often the case, just before an upheaval, that the forces of the old and outdated rally themselves for a last desperate effort to maintain themselves. They often appear most triumphant and in control in the days just before major changes are to take place.

Copenhagen and Cancun show that market fundamentalism can't solve the environmental problems, just as the ongoing world depression shows that it can only lead to misery and hunger for the masses. Problems are piling up. Soon a change will be forced, either by the need for serious measures to avoid environmental catastrophe, or by the need to deal with the human toll imposed by environmental catastrophes. This will force a switch to something more drastic. It won't be possible to deal with tens of millions of environmental refugees by setting up a market in refugee-trading. It won't be possible to deal with major devastation of the environment and local collapses of agriculture or major shortages of water by market measures -- not without the deaths of tens and tens of millions of people.

This will sooner or later give rise to something more drastic than the carbon markets and the fraud-ridden carbon offsets. Direct track will have to be taken of resources, and of the assignments of resources. Regulation and planning will be a necessity.

But such a switch won't, by itself alone, solve the problem. Regulation and planning can be used on behalf of the bourgeoisie just as privatization can be. Indeed, for a few decades after World War II, the bourgeoisie itself promoted a sort of "mixed economy", in which a certain amount of regulation, planning, and government enterprise served the needs of capitalist profits.

Thus there will be a struggle over how regulation is carried out, who benefits from it, and who has a say in the plans. It should be borne in mind that neo-liberalism isn't simply a lack of attention to necessary social projects; instead, market fundamentalism can involve the extension of privatization and market methods, and the provision of government subsidies to private companies, under the pretext of dealing with these projects, whether education, medical care, the environment, etc. Privatization and neo-liberalism don't necessarily mean the end of a government role in this or that sphere, but the provision of huge subsidies to business; they means converting government agencies into direct tools of this or that capitalist, just as the FDA, the agency regulating pharmaceutical companies, is now financed in part by fees for approving drugs, so that it has a vested interest in approving dangerous drugs; they mean breaking down worker protections of all types so that no one but businesspeople have any say in anything; they means corporatizing everything. Thus the news that the government has allocated billions of dollars to various environmental programs won't necessarily mean that the disastrous days of neo-liberalism are over in general, nor that market methods have been abandoned in the field of environmental policy.

Indeed, even after events force an end to direct market fundamentalism, neo-liberalism will leave a legacy in particularly oppressive ways of the government dealing with the masses, and particularly ineffective ways of dealing with environmental protection and major climate change. We can therefore expect struggles over how regulation is carried out; over whether ensuring mass livelihood is a part of regulation; and over whether regulations are done behind the back of the people or not. Capitalism with regulation is still capitalism; and it will be some time before the masses come to socialist conclusions, to say nothing of achieving the organization and level of struggle needed to overthrow the capitalist ruling classes. So we can expect a turbulent period where, if environmental regulations are to be of any serious value, workers will have to constantly fight to ensure that they are soundly based, and are not utterly corrupted by the influence of a myriad of capitalist interests.

In this regard, let's look at the protests at Cancun. As I mentioned, there wasn't very much, compared to what happened at Copenhagen, but what did take was important. And we should pay attention to what it stood for.

The major protests revolved around the Bolivian government, and around various groups with a similar standpoint. The preparation for this was the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April last year at Cochabamba, Bolivia. This conference set forward a "people's agreement" which denounced the present do-nothing attitude of the Copenhagen Conference and the major powers, and blamed this on capitalism. This was echoed by the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, in his "Letter to the indigenous peoples of the world" on November 16 . The statement (and the letter) pointed to the disaster that global warming, even at the 2C level envisioned at Copenhagen, would give rise to. It denounced market mechanisms such as carbon trading; it denounced REDD; and the dictation by a group of leaders in the more powerful countries. And it demanded sharper carbon emission reductions; concern for biodiversity; the right of people to have their needs satisfied; that developed countries should be responsible to take care of the wave of environmental migrants to come; attention to the values of the indigenous peoples; more aid from the richer countries, etc.

But it's notable that it didn't put forward any way to achieve this. Yes, it denounced capitalism and market measures for the environmental problems, but it also demanded adherence to the Kyoto Protocol, which was a climate capitalist protocol which implemented market measures. It denounced capitalism, but it itself had no idea either of socialism or what would lead to it. And this is also seen in the actions of the Bolivian government itself, which denounces capitalism while implementing so-called "Andean capitalism".

Boiled down to its concrete measures, the program of the "people's agreement" amounted to demands on the developed and richer countries to provide more aid and in a more multilateral way. The denunciation of capitalism was an appeal to the masses who suffer from the capitalist interests, and it is indeed important to constantly expose the capitalist interests devastating the environment. But the appeal regarded capitalism simply as bad policies, and put forward no picture of the basic economic and class changes needed to go beyond capitalism. It correctly linked demands for the people's welfare with environmental demands. But it had no idea concerning the need for comprehensive economic planning, nor about the struggle that will take place over the nature of regulation, nor about how capitalism will seek to continue after the downfall of neo-liberalism, nor about the needed class organization of the masses.

At present, there is a climate justice movement, of which the Cochabamba conference was part, that denounces certain of the market measures, or even "market measures" in general. But it doesn't yet have a class perspective. It doesn't even realize that the carbon tax, and not just carbon trading, is also a market measure. The development of the climate justice movement is important, but it is still only a step in the right direction.

We need to develop a working-class wing of the environmental movement. It must expose the climate capitalism, denounce the failure of the market measures, and expose corporatization at every turn. It must push for effective measures, rather than bourgeois complacency. It must demand that guaranteeing the masses' livelihood must be an integral part of environmental planning. And it must bring out the class nature of the various governments, both of the rich and of the poor countries.

A working-class environment movement should seek to link up with those other serious environmentalists, in the climate justice movement, indigenous movement, and elsewhere, who are opposed to this or that extent to the market measures promoted by establishment environmentalism. But it should do so from a class perspective. This is important not only to fight for serious measures, but to continue, after serious environmental regulation begins, the fight over what type of measures are taken. The class struggle doesn't end at the door of the environmental movement; on the contrary, the class struggle must become a focus of the environmental movement, or else there will be no serious environmental reform.<>


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