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Proletarian issue 64 (February 2015)
Imperialism fiddles while the planet burns
With the whole future of humanity at risk, imperialist interests still stand in the way of action on climate change.
At the Lima climate talks, yet another opportunity to actually do something about the catastrophic threat that global warming poses to humanity was squandered by our rulers.

Lima conference – all talk and no action

It is a rare occurrence that any one thing can be agreed by all nations in the world. The contradictions between the imperialist countries on the one hand and the socialist and oppressed nations on the other; the antagonisms between imperialist powers on how to slice up the globe; and the vast diversity of national economies makes finding common cause in international agreements an unusual thing indeed.

It is remarkable, then, that the recent climate talks held in the Peruvian capital Lima – one of many preliminary international conferences in the run-up to a treaty conference on climate change scheduled for December in Paris – were attended by representatives of 196 countries, all of whom were in accord that the global rate of carbon emissions needs to fall by the middle of the century.

We can account for this remarkable phenomenon only by recognising that it follows from conditions of universal necessity – from the existence of phenomena that affect all nations and which it is in all of their interests to tackle. In this instance, the initial accord is predicated on an overwhelming mass of scientific research, which concludes that the planet may become virtually uninhabitable over the next 150 years if global emissions do not decrease to half of their current output by 2050.

Planet seriously threatened

Scientists have calculated that the atmosphere’s ability to absorb excess carbon without changing the atmosphere of the globe drastically is nigh on exhausted. Research suggests that, even if all emissions were to stop immediately (which, of course, is not going to happen), the world’s temperature may still rise by 3.6 percent over the next hundred years due to the high proportion of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide still unabsorbed in the earth’s atmosphere.

This 3.6 percent rise and its effects are already enough to cause scarcities of arable land, clean drinking water and inhabitable living space; a scarcity which, under current economic conditions, cannot but affect the working classes and oppressed peoples disproportionately.

The draft agreement

Despite, however, the sobering facts of the matter, and the seemingly universal accord pervading the talks, the draft document that came out of Lima (finally cobbled together 24 hours after the conference was due to have ended) promised no substantial international action. It not only failed to mandate nations to do anything about their own emissions, it similarly failed to define how these emissions be measured, what should count as a proportionate reduction between rich and developing countries, and what help smaller and developing countries should expect to receive during the expensive and complex process of adapting their industries and agriculture to minimise environmental damage.

The talks that led to such an inadequate draft agreement tell a story of global powers sleepwalking towards disaster; of the real attempts to compromise and make concessions by some countries being met with opportunism and obstinacy by others; of the imperialist powers’ disregard for the willingness of developing countries to join as equal partners in emission reduction; and of the dominance of posturing over sensible policy making.

The road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but the road to Paris (and, quite possibly, to worldwide catastrophe) is currently characterised by a betrayal of the world’s current and future population by representatives of the ruling classes in the advanced nations.

Why Lima failed

To understand the failures of Lima fully, we must not look merely at the stated positions of the various states involved, but also at the major characteristics of the relations between them, and at the forces compelling them to steer global policy-making in a given direction.

Since the Kyoto agreement of 1997, such international action as there has been on climate change has operated on the principle that there are two types of nations in the world: developed and developing. The onus of responsibility for reducing carbon and other emissions was accepted at Kyoto (at least in theory) as resting on developed (ie, imperialist) nations, since it is they who bear the main historical responsibility for the present crisis.

Emerging economies (ie, oppressed countries), meanwhile, were asked to reduce their emissions in an inverted ratio to the developed nations and to aid the implementation of climate policies in transnational intercourse. This distinction was written out of the Lima draft, and its omission dictates both the immediate success and ultimate failure of the conference.

The initial optimism surrounding the conference appeared, to many, as simply a result of the world’s current two largest carbon emitters (the USA and China) having come to a bilateral agreement to substantively reduce their rate of emissions within the foreseeable future.

What few commentators noted before the conclusion of the conference was that the USA’s entrance into climate talks (an arena where they have hitherto spectated and shouted, but seldom ever played) was not simply a result of a somewhat more sympathetic president, but, much more importantly, was a response to China’s proposed concessions on two fronts: the voluntary removal of itself from the ‘developing countries’ category, and a pledge that emissions connected with manufacture and energy production in China will peak in the near future.

Both concessions prove how seriously China is taking climate change as an issue, backed up by the huge amount of effort and resource that the country is putting into green energy production and energy conservation.

Sadly, however, the response by the imperialists to China’s serious attempts to propel climate action forward has been to take full advantage of the erosion of the principle that quantatively dictates what developed nations have to do in relation to their poorer counterparts. In its place, Lima adopted the principle that each nation’s contribution to emission reduction and supporting poorer nations in making the necessary adaptations to their economies should be proportionate only to the nation’s own ‘capacity’ to contribute – a principle which it is practically impossible to define, let alone quantify.

In short, instead of meeting the new commitment from China with new commitments of their own, the imperialists simply jumped at the chance to undermine the tiny commitments that had been made (but not acted upon) in the past.

The results of this new policy were already apparent at the conference: the proposed whip-round to fund the emigration of small island dwellers forced out of their homes by rising sea levels only met its $10bn dollar target after a last-minute donation by Australia. Similarly, the $100bn that the UN estimates would have to be collected annually to allow for the implementation of a new carbon deal looks unlikely to be raised any time in the near future, leaving developing and poorer nations in increasingly vulnerable positions if they do take steps to modify production in line with new carbon-emission targets.

The profit motive

While the richer capitalist nations are influenced in their stance by the ongoing overproduction crisis, there is no real reason, apart from the inescapable lust of their ruling classes for maximum profit, why this crisis should prevent them from meeting the funding needs of the UN proposals. The money, in the form of reserves and unrealised assets (unpaid taxes, profit-making companies that could be nationalised, etc), could be raised by the larger imperialist countries without threatening their position as capitalist powers.

Far from finding ways to do this, however, the imperialists are simply pretending that the problem does not exist – and using their media to try to convince workers to forget about it, too.

According to climate expert Jørgen Randers, the economic system is what stands between us and effective action to save humanity. “It is cost-effective to postpone global climate action. It is profitable to let the world go to hell.

Justin Lewis, Professor of Communication at Cardiff University, says that studies show how “media coverage of climate change – and environmental issues more generally – has declined precipitously since 2009/10”. MediaLens recently cited the Professor as pointing out that British press coverage of climate change in 2012 was just 20 percent what it was in 2007, even as the warning signs of climate chaos have become clearer.

Meanwhile, the picture on television is no better. “While the attention given to the economy has increased significantly, environmental issues have almost disappeared. In 2007, the percentage of news time devoted to environmental issues was 2.5 percent on ITV and 1.6 percent on the BBC. By 2014, this had dropped to just 0.3 percent on the BBC and 0.2 percent on ITV.”

As MediaLens put it, “This is truly a scandal, even if entirely predictable.” (‘Death by a thousand cuts: earth enters the “danger zone”’, MediaLens.org, 22 January 2015)

And the predictable result of this drop-off in media coverage is a corresponding drop in apparent public interest – to the extent that CEOs of the world’s top corporations no longer feel the need to list climate change among their prime concerns.

Price Waterhouse Cooper’s 18th annual global CEO survey, released Tuesday to coincide with the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos, failed to even ask 1,322 business leaders about their global warming concerns after only 10 percent registered concern the previous year.” (‘How concerned are CEOs about climate change? Not at all’ by Jo Confino, Guardian, 20 January 2015)

And all this comes at a time when the latest data is revealing that climate change is very real indeed. And is still accelerating. According to the New York Times, “In the annals of climatology, 2014 surpassed 2010 as the warmest year. The 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997, a reflection of the relentless planetary warming that scientists say is a consequence of human activity and poses profound long-term risks to civilisation and nature.” (‘2014 breaks heat record, challenging global warming sceptics’ by Justin Gillis, 16 January 2015)

And yet, as Professor Lewis has pointed out, rather than getting organised globally to meet this challenge, we have: “drifted into a cycle of silence, where lack of media coverage creates a sense of complacency in both public opinion and political debate”. Compare the feeble coverage of the greatest threat to human life in corporate mainstream media with the column inches devoted to the latest royal baby – or to the lady who put a cat in a wheelie bin – and you get a stark illustration of the way the media shapes our consciousness and dictates our priorities.

Another climate expert, Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, has put the case against capitalism very plainly. “It's clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter's generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn't change. That's where we are today.” (Cited in MediaLens, op cit)

Whether or not they have the theoretical ability to act otherwise, the fact is that the imperialist rulers of the world are playing a dangerous game of poker with the future of humanity. If we want our children to have any kind of a life, we have no option but to get rid of them – and soon.

> Death by a thousands cuts, Media Lens

> How concerned are CEOs about climate change, The Guardian

> 2014 breaks heat record, The New York times
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