Climate change: Copenhagen cop-out

“a historic failure that will live in infamy”

The UN conference on climate change (Cop15), held in Copenhagen 7-18 December, was a fiasco. The Independent called it “a historic failure that will live in infamy”. After years of preparation, the representatives of 193 countries discussed and wrangled for two weeks. In the closing hours, leaders such as Barak Obama and Wen Jinbao (and Gordon Brown) flew in, supposedly to break the deadlock. All of them accepted the urgency of reaching agreement. Unless global warming is limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the planet faces catastrophe. But no agreement was reached, let alone the framework for a binding international treaty, Cop15’s original aim. Backroom discussions between the US, China and a handful of neo-colonial states (Brazil, India, South Africa, etc) produced an ‘accord’ – a brief memo of vague aims and even vaguer pledges. Completely sidelined, the Cop15 assembly merely ‘noted’ the accord. Almost immediately, China’s representative, Su Wei, announced that, as it was not a formal UN agreement, China reserved the right to repudiate even the accord.

This fiasco again demonstrates the impotence of the UN on important issues. Unless the major powers agree on a course of action – ruled out in the case of reducing carbon emissions – the UN cannot take effective action. The failure of the Cop15 assembly to produce an agreement was not merely the result of manoeuvres by this or that recalcitrant government. It reflects the inevitable clash of interests between rival national states, each pursuing its own power, prestige and economic advantage. They may seek to guard themselves against the worst effects of global warming, but they want to dump the costs onto other states.

Protests meet ‘Cop15’ summit fiasco

The fate of Cop15 lay in the hands of the two dominant powers, the US and China, who are jointly responsible for half of all world carbon emissions. Neither could broker a deal. Neither would sign up to any regulatory regime not designed to meet their own requirements. Their tactics made any consensus agreement in the Cop15 assembly impossible, and resulted in the vacuous accord.

The role of the US

Obama poses as a champion of action to curb global warming. But the US, still the only global superpower, no longer has the authority to broker even a half-effective deal between the major powers, let alone forge a consensus in the Cop15 assembly. This underlines the decline of US imperialism. Contrast Obama’s failure on climate change with the position of the US at the end of the second world war. At that time, US imperialism sponsored the framework institutions of the post-war capitalist order: the United Nations itself, the Bretton Woods money system based on the dollar, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the IMF, World Bank, etc. Its role at that time rested on the power and prestige it had accumulated during the second world war and in the broad upswing of the world capitalist economy.

Today, the US’s position is very different. Its intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has undermined its authority. Economically, it is massively in debt to China. On climate change, moreover, the US has a truly abysmal record. Under Bush and before, the US refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol or endorse other international agreements. The US has the highest per capita emissions, twice the level of Europe and Japan, and four to ten times the levels of China and India. Yet, the US has the technology and the infrastructure to turn to more energy-efficient methods and renewable sources of energy. But the majority of big business refuses to curtail its profit-making activities in order to move in this direction.

Obama arrived in Copenhagen with pathetically limited proposals for carbon reduction: a 17% cut over 2005 levels, the equivalent of a mere 4% reduction over 1990 levels, the benchmark being used by most other countries. At the same time, the US tried to bully poor countries and semi-developed industrial economies, like India and Brazil, into accepting more stringent targets than the US is prepared to accept itself. This tactic pushed a group of the poorer countries (the so-called G77) into aligning itself with China. This allowed China, in the backroom talks, to formulate an accord that placed no binding targets on China or anyone else.

Obama and Chinese Premier, Wen Jinbao

China’s role

China’s delegation made sure that the Cop15 conference did not produce any effective agreement. In the closed-door, backroom discussions they even objected to other countries pledging themselves to any specific objectives. They were determined to prevent even the preliminary formation of an international regulatory regime that might, in the future, tie them to strict targets and international inspection. ‘A smoking dragon in sheep’s clothing’, the Chinese representatives sheltered behind a number of poor countries, notably Sudan, which are hostile to any kind of UN-sponsored arrangement.

China is developing a big wind and solar industry. The regime is undoubtedly concerned about the adverse effects of global warming and other environmental degradation, particularly its potential for fomenting social unrest. For now, however, it is not prepared to accept any slowing of its industrial growth which is overwhelmingly based on coal-fired energy production.

Europe was more or less sidelined at Cop15. The EU could afford to make grand, symbolic gestures, for instance, for a 20% reduction of carbon emissions by 2020 and $15 billion a year to poor countries – if matched by the US. But Europe’s promises were conditional on a UN agreement. Without a deal, Europe’s promises may remain essentially symbolic.

Catastrophic failure

Nicholas Stern, who was commissioned by Britain’s New Labour government to report on climate change, said that “climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen”. Failure to effectively tackle the environmental problems, he warned, would have catastrophic economic and social consequences. Effective measures, he noted, will be very expensive: but the longer they are postponed the more of a burden they will be. The serious strategists of capitalism accept these conclusions, which are based on an overwhelming body of scientific evidence. Some sections of big business also recognise the dangers and, moreover, see the development of green technology as a new and highly profitable field of investment. Yet overwhelmingly, big business, driven by short-term profitability, refuses to accept even minimal overhead costs of countering global warming.

”System change, not climate change!”

The Copenhagen fiasco shows that capitalist governments are incapable of overcoming the short-sighted resistance of big business to effective action. The failure of capitalist leaders everywhere to effectively tackle global warming and other environmental problems is an expression of the underlying contradictions of capitalism. The technological potential exists to switch to renewable forms of energy and reduce energy use while increasing production. Under economic planning, technological solutions could be rapidly developed for most existing problems, despite the legacy of capitalist destruction. However, capitalist relations of production stand in the way, above all, the private ownership of the means of production and the fetters of the nation state.

National economies are dominated by a handful of big banks and industrial monopolies. World trade is dominated by giant multinational corporations. They produce and trade for profit and regard the social costs – environmental destruction and social degradation – as ‘off-balance-sheet’ items. As far as they are concerned, someone else can pick up the bills.

Global warming that affects the planet’s atmosphere, the seas, and the climates of whole continents, cannot be dealt with within the framework of nation states. This is particularly true given the enormous disparities of power and wealth between different states.

Many of the 100,000 demonstrators on the streets of Copenhagen (including a large contingent from the CWI) recognised that global warming cannot be overcome within the framework of capitalism. ‘Our planet, not your profits’, ‘System change, not climate change’, were prominent slogans.

Combating global warming requires worldwide economic planning, which is impossible on the basis of the market, which operates through anarchic competition. Planning requires the public ownership of the big banks and industrial monopolies. To ensure they are run in the interests of society as a whole, there should be democratic planning bodies of elected representatives of workers, consumers and the wider public. International trade and investment would also have to be planned to overcome the grotesque inequalities that exist. The planned use of resources would ensure that economic growth would not be at the expense of further environmental damage. Human society would begin to develop in harmony with nature.

Is this just a dream? In reality, the forces for change are already on the move. Internationally, workers, poor farmers, the dispossessed, and sections of the middle class are being forced into struggle against the intolerable conditions imposed by a pathologically decaying capitalist system. Increasingly, system change – the idea of an alternative socialist form of society – is gaining support as the guiding aim of struggle. The alternative is the nightmare of climate disaster and social catastrophe.

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January 2010