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World People's Conference on Climate Change: Some critical comments on the People's Agreement

[For full coverage of the World People's Conference  on Climate Change, including the full text of the documents, click HERE.]

By Daniel Tanuro and Sandra Invernizzi

June 2010 -- International Viewpoint -- The World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which met in Cochabamba (Bolivia) from April 20-22, 2010, at the invitation of Bolivia's President Evo Morales, was an enormous success. Thirty-thousand participants discussed for several days the various facets of the climate crisis and adopted a series of very interesting documents, from a resolutely anti-capitalist standpoint.

The "People's Agreement", the final declaration of the summit [1], which synthesises this work, constitutes an important advance on the road of a convergence of social and environmental struggles from an anti-productivist and internationalist point of view. As ecosocialist militants, we can only express our satisfaction. At the same time, we think it is necessary to begin a fraternal debate on some lacunae in the document, which ought to be surmounted in the future, on the occasion of a future meeting of this type.

Following the declarations of Evo Morales and Venezuella's President Hugo Chavez at the United Nations Summit, in December in Copenhagen, the Final Declaration of the conference clearly points to the capitalist origin of the deregulation of the climate that is taking place. The document denounces governments which discuss climate change as a simple question of temperature, as if the problem could be settled without calling into question the socioeconomic system responsible for it. It underlines the complete incompatibility between a model based on the logic of competition, therefore of unlimited growth, on the one hand, and on the other the pressing need to respect the limits of the ecosystems and their rhythms:

the capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, … and of unlimited growth. This mode of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, by separating human beings from nature, by establishing a logic of domination over nature, by converting everything into commodities: water, land, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of the people, death and life themselves.

After having stigmatised the transformation of natural resources and human beings into commodities, the declaration denounces imperialist colonisation, then concludes logically that it would be “irresponsible to leave in the hands of the market the care (cuidado) and protection of humankind and of our Mother Earth”.

This strategic positioning is then translated into a series of concrete demands which link the ecological and the social: against the market in carbon, the REDD mechanism [2] (+ and ++), biofuels, GMOs, intellectual property laws on living organisms, free-trade treaties; for a world fund for adaptation and funds for clean technologies; for water to be recognised as a fundamental human right; for the respect of the rights of Indigenous peoples, for support for peasant agriculture …

Uncovering the cynicism of governments which do not envisage doing anything, while 100 million people could become “climatic refugees” in the next decades, the document demands the end of the restrictive and repressive immigration policies of Western countries, and demands that the funds assigned to military budgets be invested in the protection of the climate. It also denounces the flexible mechanisms which, under cover of technology transfers, actually aim at allowing the big companies of the North to continue to pollute, while making superprofits on the market in carbon. Faced with this new form of colonial exploitation, the declaration affirms that “knowledge is universal and can in no case be an object of private property and private use”. Consequently it argues for the sharing of technologies and their development in the service of "living well".

Finally, the document proposes concretely the installation of a sovereign international legal framework, equitably run by the populations of the world, whose goal would be to put an end to aberrations concerning the overexploitation of resources, environmental irresponsibility and inhuman treatment of migrant populations.

Oil, gas and coal oligarchies?

Although this anti-capitalist position is remarkable, we must however criticise certain lacunae. The most striking point is that the oil, gas and coal oligarchies, as well as the big multinationals of the energy sector, are not accused of anything, nor even mentioned, whereas their responsibility for climate change is overwhelming.

The document goes into detail on the harmful role of agribusiness in the degradation of the climate, but the word “oil” appears only once in the declaration, and even then only within the framework of the demand for non-exploitation of the deposits located in forest zones, in the name of the protection of the forests and the rights of Indigenous people (which is a correct and legitimate but completely insufficient demand). The words “coal” and “natural gas” are simply not mentioned. The expression “renewable energies” is also absent.

Moreover, the document contains neither rejection of nuclear power nor advice to be prudent about the possible risks of geological storage of CO2… Putting all that together, we cannot avoid having the impression that the People's Agreement overlooks the struggle against the capitalist energy lobbies and the sectors linked to it (cars, petrochemicals, shipbuilding, the aeronautics industry, transport …), whereas this is obviously the key question in the framework of an anti-capitalist strategy of stabilisation of the climate.

We can also see the astonishing contrast between this absence and the radical nature of the objective of reduction in greenhouse gases that is advocated by the agreement. It proposes, without touching on the question of the choice of energy resources, to commit itself to a reduction on a much greater scale than the most radical of the scenarios of the IPCC: 300 CO2 equivalents ppm, not to exceed 1°C of rise in temperature compared to the preindustrial era.

However, to reach this level of stabilisation, it is necessary to follow a series of stages that are impossible to circumvent, which relate mainly to the energy sector and the question of resources:

  • the obligation to abandon fossil energy in the short term;
  • the need to plan the replacement of fossil energy by renewable energy;
  • the need to reduce the overall production and transport of raw materials so that this replacement is possible in practice;
  • to do all of the above while bearing in mind the risk of obstructing the satisfaction of the legitimate needs of the 3 billion human beings who lack the essentials of life;
  • to solve this problem in a human way, it is necessary and urgent to make energy common property, so that investments can be carried out according to needs and independently of costs, without social conflict;
  • finally, putting energy under social ownership must be coupled with a redistribution of wealth, in order to mobilise the resources that are essential for the energy transition.

Of all that, the People's Agreement says nothing. However, without these radical measures, it will be quite simply impossible to stabilise the climate on the best possible level, not to mention satisfy the legitimate rights of the global South with a development centred on the needs of the populations.

Limit of a 1°C rise?

We can understand that the ultra-radical objective of 300 ppm CO2 equivalent is put forward with the aim of limiting to the maximum the injustice of climate change for the populations which do not have any responsibility for the damage done. But unfortunately truth requires us to say that the limit of a 1°C rise can no longer be attained: the temperature has increased by 0.8°C since 1850, an additional rise of 0.6°C is “in the pipeline” (delayed only by thermal inertia from the oceans) and every year we add 2 to 3 ppm CO2 to the atmosphere… In fact, even a rise of 2°C can probably no longer be avoided. The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (all such gases) is currently higher than 460 ppm CO2 equivalent. The most radical of the stabilisation scenarios mentioned in the fourth report of the IPCC estimates that there will be a concentration of between 445 and 490 ppm in 2050, corresponding to a rise in temperature of between 2 and 2.4°C and to a rise of the level of the oceans of between 0.4 and 1.4 m (on balance). We could possibly return one day to 300 ppm, and a difference in temperature of 1°C compared to the preindustrial era, as the declaration demands, but certainly not in the course of this century: that will demand a very long-term effort.

This problem is related to that of the distribution of effort between the developed countries and the rest of the world. As is known, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) urges taking account of the fact that the responsibility for global warming is common but differentiated. The respect of this principle is obviously crucial for the countries of the global South, but the contradiction is that the more drastic the objective of stabilisation is, the more it is necessary that the developing countries take part in the effort.

Thus the most radical scenario of the IPCC implies that the developed countries reduce their emissions by between 80 and 95 per cent between now and 2050 (including a reduction of between 25 and 40 per cent by 2020), which means, roughly speaking, that they have 40 years to dispense with fossil fuels and to reduce by half their final consumption of energy. In the name of the precaution principle, it is only logical and right to demand that the global North make at least 40 per cent of reduction by 2020 and 95 per cent by 2050, not counting the purchases of carbon credits.

But two remarks need to be made: 1) in this scenario, the effort of the countries of the global South is not negligible, since their emissions should differ by between 15 and 30 per cent compared to the scenario of reference; 2) to go further, the countries of the global North would need to have recourse to dangerous and socially doubtful technologies such as clean coal, biofuels and nuclear power… without even being certain that that would be enough.

So there is something unrealistic about the People's Agreement when it demands that the countries of the North not only go further than the most radical scenario of the IPCC, but are furthermore the only ones who have to make an effort. A precise figure is proposed: 50 per cent reduction in the developed capitalist countries between now and 2017. Even though we understand and share the indignation of the People's Agreement concerning the governments of these countries, we cannot remain silent on the exaggerated nature of this scenario. For it to be practicable, it would in fact be necessary for an anti-productivist socialist revolution to triumph tomorrow, simultaneously in all the developed capitalist countries (and even then!). This possibility is unfortunately not very probable, so that the question is: how do we address the working class of global North so that it becomes aware of its crucial responsibility for the rescue of the climate?

United struggle

To this question, the People's Agreement does not answer in a convincing way. The reason for this is that it establishes a dichotomy between the exploiting North and the exploited South, and thus fails to grasp the urgency of unifying the struggles of the exploited in the “developed” and “developing” countries. In the case of the global South, the way in which the agreement proposes to concretise the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities tends to ignore the necessary criticism of the productivist development strategies of certain ruling classes, such as those of Brazil, China or … Venezuela, for example, as a large oil producer. This “third-worldist” manner of tackling the question is likely to provoke a reaction of rejection among the exploited of the North, who fear for their jobs or have already lost them because of the economic crisis. However, the fight for the climate will not progress if the exploited of all countries do not fight in a unified way.

Rather than launching the not very realistic figure of 50 per cent of reduction by 2017, this unity could be encouraged by pointing out that the countries of the global South are already committed to doing almost the utmost of what is necessary to stabilise the climate, while the countries of the global North are making less than half of the effort which is assigned to them. According to the IPCC, indeed, the developing countries should take measures so that their emissions in 2020 are between 15 and 30 per cent below “business as usual” projections. However, we see from the 120 climate plans communicated to the secretariat of the UNFCC in the framework of the "Copenhagen Accord" that the commitments of the South are equivalent to an average difference of 25 per cent (almost the maximum, therefore). On the other hand, the climate plans communicated by the developed countries scarcely correspond to a reduction in emissions of 15 per cent compared to 1990, whereas the IPCC proposes for them a range of between 25 and 40 per cent.

So we are not in a situation where the global South needs to continue not to make any effort, as one might think from the People's Agreement. On the contrary, we are in a situation where the global South is making a more than correct share of the effort and where the global North is not doing anything, although it is the North that is responsible historically! This reality provides a solid justification of the need for a drastic reduction in the emissions of the developed capitalist countries. Moreover, it cuts the grass from under the feet of all the demagogues who want to stir up the victims of the crisis in the North by making scapegoats of the peoples of the South.

Mother Earth?

Some progressive people who supported in general the approach taken by the World People's Conference expressed reservations concerning an approach to climate justice based on the rights of Mother Earth. On reading the People's Agreement, however, we have to recognise that this conception of Mother Earth as the source of all life and of its right to exist in a balanced way introduces a completely new and interesting approach to “the right to live in a healthy environment”.

Without necessarily adhering to the spiritual or mystical conception that the Indigenous populations of Latin America have of their relationship with Pachamama, one can only note that, over and above the different cultural references, the very clear points that the People's Agreement develops concerning international policies of commoditisation and the plundering of nature make it possible for completely different cultures to come together around a common objective: to push back the logic of profit and exploitation which is endangering the right of people to live in a stable climatic situation. As regards the environmental crisis, it is undeniable that the cosmological vision of Indigenous people, based on the idea that matter and energy circulate unceasingly within nature considered as a whole, constitutes an invaluable contribution, which must be appreciated at its true value.

But, however valid it is, this dynamic vision of the interrelationships between humanity and the rest of nature cannot replace precise demands such as the pure and simple expropriation of the monopolies, initially in the energy sector. Without this expropriation, indeed, the respect of the rhythms and cycles of the biosphere will remain a chimera, for the simple reason that it will not be possible to implement radical and internationally equitable policies of energy and productive transition. From this point of view, the text is in fact at a crossroads between a radical, revolutionary refusal of the capitalist system, on the one hand, and on the other a positioning which is more ambiguous than it seems at first sight, favourable to a “change that has to be made to the present capitalist system”.

The World Peoples' Conference, let us repeat, constitutes a remarkable step forward towards a climatic strategy worthy of the name, i.e. an anti-capitalist strategy. All the exploited and oppressed of the world are indebted to the Bolivian people who took the initiative for this event, through their elected president. They are indebted in particular to Indigenous people, who play a leading role by showing that another relation between humanity and nature is possible and necessary. It is within the framework of this eminently positive assessment that we wish to contribute to a constructive debate.

[Daniel Tanuro, an agriculturalist and eco-socialist environmentalist, writes for “La gauche”, (the monthly of the LCR-SAP, Belgian section of the Fourth International). Sandra Invernizzi is a member of the LCR/SAP (Belgian section of the Fourth Interntional) and active in the climate justice campaign. This article first appeared in International Viewpoint, magazine of the Fourth International.]

Notes

[1] See “Bolivia: “People’s Agreement” adopted by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” at http://links.org.au/node/1644.

[2] The Program of the United Nations on the reduction of emissions resulting from deforestation and forest degradation in the developing countries (UN-REDD) aims at reducing this figure by allotting to the forests a financial value based on their carbon storage capacity.

Comments

IPCC is too conservative to guide climate action

I've written a response which is available at my blog here:
http://bccwords.blogspot.com/2010/06/tanuro-and-invernizzi-get-cochabamb...
Here is part of my response:

(..)But at the same time, Tanuro and Invernizzi criticise the conference documents for being too radical in their overall aims such as limiting temperature rise to 1°C. “In fact, even a rise of 2°C can probably no longer be avoided,” they write.

“The most radical of the stabilisation scenarios mentioned in the fourth report of the IPCC estimates that there will be a concentration of between 445 and 490 ppm in 2050, corresponding to a rise in temperature of between 2 and 2.4°C and to a rise of the level of the oceans of between 0.4 and 1.4 m (on balance). We could possibly return one day to 300 ppm, and a difference in temperature of 1°C compared to the preindustrial era, as the declaration demands, but certainly not in the course of this century: that will demand a very long-term effort.”

While Tanuro and Invernizzi are not unusual in taking this IPCC view as the authoritiative statement, they are the ones who are actually being unrealistic – unrealistic to assume that it is possible to prevent dangerous climate change without taking such drastic and radical action as the Cochabamba summit demanded. Australian campaigner David Spratt writes that “if emissions keep growing at the present rate, the carbon emissions budget for the 2 degrees target will run out in 2021!” (http://climatecodered.blogspot.com/2009/05/new-reality-check-on-global-c...)

Essentially, a 2°C rise runs a high risk that climate change will run away out of all hope of returning it to something like what we are accustomed to. It will mean melting icecaps, large sea level rises (upwards of 1m this century), drought and famine, and possibly worse if large-scale feedbacks like the Arctic tundra's buried methane are activated.

The IPCC does not look at managing risks like these in any real detail. It takes only the most established, peer reviewed science -which is great if you want to build a watertight case to prove something beyond a doubt. If you want to avoid potential risk in the future, however, you also have to look at the latest research including worst-case scenarios that may not have yet gone through the whole process of peer review.

Further, if we want to “possibly return one day to 300ppm, and a difference in temperature of 1°C compared to the preindustrial era” then we have to stop temperature rise at 1°C. Temperature is held in the oceans, which store a vast amount of heat. Once the temperature does rise, it will take hundreds, perhaps thousands of years to revert – even if the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is returned to a pre-industrial level. The sea takes a lot longer to cool down.

Fortunately the sea also takes time to heat up. There is approximately a 20 year lag between when carbon emissions occur and when the resultant heating is felt in the atmosphere. This means that there is a (fast closing) window of opportunity to cut emissions now and start drawing carbon back out of the atmosphere, to arrest the rise in temperature at a lower level. It can still have an effect.

Tanuro and Invernizzi then suggest that “In the name of the precaution principle, it is only logical and right to demand that the global North make at least 40 per cent of reduction by 2020 and 95 per cent by 2050, not counting the purchases of carbon credits.” But this is not fully following the precautionary principle. Spratt has answered this very well in an article entitled "What's up with emisions reductions of 25-40% by 2020?".
(http://climatecodered.blogspot.com/2009/03/whats-up-with-25-40-reduction...)

Australian research/campaign group Beyond Zero Emissions has just released a fully costed plan to replace all Australia’s energy, using only available technology, within ten years. While not every country could achieve this as easily as Australia (which has a large, sunny, windy land mass and small population) it gives real hope for the demand that the rich countries cut emissions by 50% before 2017. http://beyondzeroemissions.org/zero-carbon-australia-2020

It also counters the pessimistic notion that “the countries of the global North would need to have recourse to dangerous and socially doubtful technologies such as clean coal, biofuels and nuclear power.”

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