Friday, December 9, 2011

If the Corporate-Political Nexus Cannot Deal with Climate Change, the People Will

By Glenn Ashton
December 6, 2011

There is deep scepticism as to whether the COP 17 meeting in Durban will achieve much at all. Why is it that such an urgent matter has taken so long to achieve so little at such great cost? Despite constant refrains from the global public, backed by scientific experts, there appears neither inclination nor momentum to solve this problem.

The biggest reason that resolution of this essentially straightforward problem is stalled is because the economic forces of private capital have usurped and over-ridden democratic political structures and power. In short, politics has been trumped by the capital markets.

This has been exacerbated by the polarised dynamic at play between the developed and developing world, which are gradually becoming better defined. On the one side, the developed world is broadly represented by political and business interests within the US and other western, industrialised nations; on the other are Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) and the G77 developing nations. The North/ South, developed/developing polarisation has made it extremely difficult to reach consensus around climate change.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was the first time the issue of human damage to the environment was broadly acknowledged and that action was resolved by political leadership. The Earth Summit was so successful because concerns were openly articulated and reinforced by scientific opinion. Because the message was unambiguously communicated to political decision makers, without negative lobbying by vested interests, it was taken on board.

Several important environmental initiatives arose out of the Earth Summit, run under the auspices of the United Nations. Among these was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, of which the Durban meeting is the 17th, hence COP 17.

What is remarkable is that 19 years of negotiations since the Earth Summit have failed to deliver any meaningful commitment to address the urgent risks of climate change.

The primary reason for this is the constant doubt cast on the realities of climate change debate by industry, at popular media level, but more instrumentally at the political level. That the world’s major historical polluter, the USA, has failed to come to the party has fundamentally undermined the entire process.

The only compromise agreement in this whole, drawn-out process, the Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997, was itself fundamentally flawed and will expire in 2012. This agreement has utterly failed to slow greenhouse gas emissions. Its associated carbon trading mechanisms, dismissed by many as a scam, are approaching collapse.

The COP 17 meeting sits in parallel with the CMP 7, which is the 7th meeting to the parties to the Kyoto Protocol. In light of the protocol’s expiry, there is urgent need for an upgrade and replacement. This appears to have fallen victim to the fossil fuel industry and its political fellow travellers, again misled by the USA, which never adopted the Kyoto protocol in the first place. It is perhaps unsurprising that for each elected politician in Washington, there are four fossil fuel lobbyists.

The influence of industry over international policy and agendas has shifted significantly since the time of the Earth Summit. Increased wealth concentration among a smaller, richer elite, who benefit from environmentally exploitative practices, has increased the influence of these forces on national and international policies.

Just as corporations are profit obsessed, equally GDP is the touchstone of desirable policy outcomes in capitalist-driven economies. A financially compromised nation is judged as harshly as a failing company by rating agencies, those ruthless gods of the financial markets. The implication, that failure to achieve will increase capital costs, further restricts an already rigid market model.

The impacts of this fiscally and politically conservative financial/political concord were felt long before the COP17 meeting, with Japan and Russia indicating reluctance to renew or renegotiate the Kyoto Accord. Canada now echoes this sentiment, driven by the promise of riches from the dirtiest fuel on earth, the tar sands which underlie huge swaths of its territory. Canada’s conservative government effectively holds equity in this filthy fuel.

The failure to arrive at any negotiated global agreements is the direct result of the lack of political will to rock the boat. The real question is whether securing a firm agreement is really the sort of economic threat it is projected to be. There are certainly huge opportunities for growth in the sustainable energy field but the fossil fuel industry prefers the certainty of business as usual.

The projection is that economically viable oil will disappear by mid-century. Yet instead of co-operation with the rest of the world, the fossil fools prefer to stick to their dirty but extremely profitable tricks.

This is why we are stuck with sideshows like carbon trading markets and offsets. These displace the costs and impacts of pollution onto poor and developing people and regions.

False solutions like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) instead of reducing the destruction of forests, reward those planting massive monoculture plantations of oil palms and eucalyptus, destroying biodiversity. Each purported solution to increasing emissions instead benefit the elite at the collective cost of the majority.

Because energy companies are the most profitable sector of the global economy, they benefit directly from actively undermining meaningful action against climate change, while constantly attacking any perception that climate change is either real or a threat.

The fossil fuel industry works both directly and indirectly through various front groups, waging a virtual war. Besides organisations like the American Petroleum Institute, with obvious agendas, there are literally dozens of false front organisations with misleading names like the International Climate Science Coalition, the American Council on Science and Health and the Environmental Conservation Organisation. Funded heavily by big oil, the aim of these groups is to consistently muddy the waters around environmental conservation and climate change policy.

Big Oil has uncompromisingly pursued its business as usual agenda. Their success is obvious. Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen, year on year, to record levels. In 2010, CO2 emissions hit a new record of 30.6 billion metric tonnes. Other greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise equally rapidly. The results are evident in examples like the shrinking of Arctic sea ice to record levels in 2010.

Two decades have been wasted in attempting to deal with this pressing matter. We cannot afford the luxury of endlessly placating the richest, most powerful corporate interests. The time has come for negotiations to be wrested from the control of the dirty fuel, dirty tricks-led corporate-political nexus.

There are political tools to rectify this apparently hopeless situation. Just as the Arab Spring inspired Occupy Wall Street protests across the world, there are equal incentives to re-occupy the moral high ground in the international fight for environmental and climate justice. The need for direct action to protect the global commons has never been as great or as urgent.

This does not preclude simultaneously operating within the existing system to maintain pressure. Both inside and outside approaches are required to implement a participatory democracy. This can include involvement with NGO’s active in the field, as well as with voluntary and educational work to not only inform leadership but to involve all levels of society to demand social and environmental justice against the tyranny of the few.

The time has come to urgently reassert the democratic imperative. People must push demands for climate justice, including both historical and future impacts of this exploitation. Just as the overthrow of slavery was once considered impossible, it is equally possible and critical that the people of the world overthrow the tyrannical exploitation of our collective life support system by the few.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at

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