Saturday, 19 December 2009

Why a cop-out at COP15 was inevitable

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has declared the deal at COP15 an "essential beginning." Although "it may not be everything we hoped for," the goal now has to be to "transform this into a legally binding treaty next year" as its "importance will only be recognised when it's codified into international law." However, I think its importance can be recognised now. Everybody who harboured doubts before the summit in Copenhagen should now be able to say, definitively, that governments are unwilling and unable to take effective action on climate change.

According to the Guardian, "the blame game over the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks started last night with countries accusing each other of a complete lack of willingness to compromise." The G77 developing nations block held Barack Obama to account for "locking the poor into permanent poverty by refusing to reduce US emissions further," whilst "rich countries said that developing countries had wasted too much time on "process" rather than the substance of the talks." They cite the fact that "an epic stand-off over whether to ditch the Kyoto protocol's legal distinctions between developed and developing countries and their obligations to cut their emissions caused a huge delay to the negotiations."

The reality of the situation, however, is somewhat more complex and less friendly to soundbites or headlines. It is true that developed nations have a heavy degree of accountability, given their unwillingness to commit to emissions reductions beyond piecemeal levels, out of concern to preserve their financial and economic dominance. But, at the same time, a more agreeable distinction between "developed" and "developing" nations would have done little for a deal that was already highly compromised.

The Copenhagen Accord (PDF) "underline[s] that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time" and supposedly "emphasise[s] our strong political will to urgently combat climate change in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities." But beyond this statement, evidence of such a will is in short supply.

The Accord recognises "the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius, on the basis of equity," and pledges to "enhance" cooperative action "in the context of sustainable development." However, as the BBC's environment correspondent Richard Black points out, although the Accord "recognises" the 2C view, it "does not endorse it" and there is "no collective target for cutting emissions." Hence why most nations are "likely to stick with their minimum levels of ambition," which "puts the globe more on track to a 3C rather than a 2C rise."

Black also outlines the part played in the deal-making by international politics and economic power;
The essential partners in this deal were the US and China. India, Brazil and South Africa played supporting roles - creating the kind of deal that suits the emerging major economies.

The EU did a lot of the spadework on the day before leaders arrived. But reportedly, it was not informed that Mr Obama and Mr Wen had done a deal and were preparing to announce it.

The EU could have prevented this from becoming adopted as a global deal by refusing to endorse it.

As it does not meet the minimum standards for an acceptable package that several European countries had put forward, they had a politically defensible reason for turning it down. If they had, many if not all of the smaller developing countries would probably have followed them.

In the end, the EU decided not to stand up against the US and China, which emerge as the winners of this political game.
The summit came in for a lot of flak from the reactionary right for the amount of money being given to the third world in the entire endeavour. At the start of the month, the far-right British National Party declared "it was no surprise at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) when 48 Third World nations enthusiastically agreed to the First World paying them out billions for so-called “climate change” damage," alleging that climate change "is little more than yet another First World guilt trip." The subsequent news that "leaders of poorer nations and some aid agencies described the sum offered by the EU as inadequate" will only fuel such speculations.

Of course, the likes of the BNP offer such criticisms from a purely racist perspective, as their use of sensationalist headlines and stories such as Here They Come, Right on Time: Third World “Climate Change” Refugees demonstrates. However, there is an important point to be made on this subject. The Accord takes the following position;
In the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, developed countries commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.
The problem with this commitment, is that it works on the presumption that you can solve a problem by throwing cash at it. In the first instance, in the context of the third world, such a notion is erroneous. As John Perkins noted in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, "third world debt has grown to more than $2.5 trillion, and the cost of servicing it—over $375 billion per year as of 2004—is more than all third world spending on health and education, and twenty times what developing countries receive annually in foreign aid." All of this thanks to the "free" trade doctrine of globalisation, as enforced worldwide by the International monetary Fund (IMF).

Another $100 billion will do little to alleviate this situation because it is inherent in the global economic system. As Noam Chomsky explains;
When the Bretton Woods system -- the international financial system -- was established in the mid-1940s, a fundamental part of it was regulation of financial flows, to keep major currencies within a fixed band close to each other so that there would be no speculation in currencies. There were also restrictions on capital flight -- and there were good reasons for that.

It was understood that the liberalization of capital flows harms the economy. Since liberalization of capital started about 25 years ago, the whole international economy has declined seriously. But there's a more serious argument, which was clearly articulated at Bretton Woods, that if you allow the free flow of capital, you undermine democracy and the welfare state. If a government is "irrational" -- if it decides to do things for the general population instead of for foreign investors, say, as Itamar Franco was trying to do when he refused to pay his state's debt to Brazil's central government then it can immediately be punished by pulling out capital. So the point of the liberalization of capital and its effect is to diminish democratic control everywhere and to undermine social programs. It ensures that policy will be geared toward enriching investors, the holders of financial capital, which becomes more and more speculative, therefore harming the general economy.
The only feasible way to alter this situation is not through increased aid, but by writing off third world debt. As this goes against the grain of global capitalism, we can guarantee that it will not happen. Thus, whether you are talking about poverty in the third world, the reduction of emissions in industrialised nations, or creating the neccesary infrastructure for nations to deal with the effects of climate change, there is one single solution. The reordering of the economy so that it serves the people, not capital and private interests. And such a change can only be enacted from the bottom up.