In defence of the People's Agreement -- Tanuro and Invernizzi get Cochabamba wrong

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[For more information about, documents from and discussion of the World People's Conference on Climate Change, click HERE.]

By Ben Courtice

June 28, 2010 -- In their article "World People's Conference on Climate Change: Some critical comments on the People's Agreement", the Fourth International's Daniel Tanuro and Sandra Invernizzi have missed the main usefulness of this document.

They note, “The words `coal' and `natural gas' are simply not mentioned. The expression `renewable energies' is also absent” and that the document “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.”

It is true the conference did not target the hydrocarbon industries. The Bolivian hydrocarbon ministry in fact had a stall at the conference.

The conference was very Bolivian: 26,000 out of 35,000 participants were from Bolivia. It is true that it reflected many of the weaknesses and strengths of the Bolivian government and movement, but Tanuro and Invernizzi overestimate the weaknesses relative to the strengths.

Hydrocarbons and extractive industries are missing. This is not only apparent in their lack in the document, but that the group which formed to discuss these industries at the conference – the unofficial 18th working group – was almost stopped from convening, and its conclusions were not taken into consideration for the final document. If there is one serious worry about the Bolivian government, it is thatit may be closing its ears against even this constructive criticism.

Is the IPCC as radical as reality?

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!”

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 1 metre 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 300 ppm, 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, “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?".

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 10 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.

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”.

Constructing alliances for ecological revolution

Tanuro and Invernizzi suggest that the Cochabamba demands are so wildly unrealistic that “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”.

We can hope! But of course that is unlikely. And the lack of attention paid to the hydrocarbon industries does leave a gap in terms of what activists could do to attack the system right now. But it does not leave a complete gap in terms of what to do.

Tanuro and Invernizzi write that “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”.

In my reading between the lines, the reason why the Bolivian (and other ALBA) governments are putting such hard demands on the rich world, while not making demands on the poor countries, is that they are trying to construct a bloc of the poor countries that can challenge the “Copenhagen club” of rich industrialised countries.

As an international alliance, this has to be based on clear demands that can realistically be agreed on. The omission of demands on poor/developing countries (which includes China, Brazil and India in the Kyoto definitions) does not mean that climate activists ought to ignore problems in those countries. It is, however, an opportunity to gain ground against the central cause of the problem – the nations at the centre of the imperialist power structure.

There is a key role for activists in the imperialist countries here. While the ALBA countries and the Alliance of Small Island States can rail against the world’s carbon criminal governments inside summits, their words are only given weight in the media of the rich countries if they are matched by mass protest outside of the summits.

`Third worldist'?

Tanuro and Invernizzi write, “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.”

Is it fair for Bolivia and Venezuela to take the moral high ground when they depend on fossil fuel exports? I live in Australia, the world’s worst per capita carbon polluter and world’s biggest coal exporter. Unlike Australia, these countries are very poor and would probably not survive if they ended their fossil fuel exports rapidly. If Australia did so, the main pain would be felt by the shareholders of various mining multinationals. Australia is a rich country with enough capital to diversify and replace these industries.

How can Bolivia move away from simple resource extraction industry? It is a real battle to get even the most basic industrialisation in a country so poor.

I don’t know much about Venezuela, but it is quite clear that Bolivia’s “productivist” use of its natural gas exports is simply a survival mechanism. Bolivia is an incredibly poor, cash-starved country. A friend of mine in Bolivia said he finds it hard to get supplies as basic as a 6 mm stainless steel bolt for building his watermotor. That’s a standard size, it shouldn’t be hard to find! That is how de-industrialised Bolivia is. The measures in the Cochabamba documents that call for 6% of rich countries’ GDP to go to climate aid are a real need, not some kind of “third-worldist” ideological stunt.

Of course these demands could be hard to sell to a First World working class mired in consumerism and suffering a class struggle that in many countries is very one sided (on the employers’ side!).

On the other hand, the revolt in the Third World could be a powerful inspiration for the First World: this is what happened in the 1950s-70s as the great wave of decolonisation struggles shook the world.

Now it is time for a great struggle for decarbonisation. There are indeed gaps in the Cochabamba People's Agreement. Some of these omissions seem to serve useful purposes. Others need to be filled in, but overall, the course set at Cochabamba is far closer to what is needed than Tanuro and Invernizzi realise.

[Ben Courtice is a Melbourne-based climate activist and a member of the Socialist Alliance. He runs a blog, Blind Carbon Copy, where this article first appeared.]