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City of Banjul
Monday, October 18, 2021

Climate damage and corporate collusion

The movement from below to tackle climate change is gathering pace in the world, as demonstrated in yesterday’s mass march against the United Nations.   Environmentalists lead, but this struggle invokes the world’s greatest class-race-gender-NorthSouth conflict, too. Ban Ki-Moon’s heads-of-state summit on September 23 may generate greater publicity for the cause, but if, as anticipated, world rulers simply slap each other on the back, activists will have to even more urgently intensify the pressure.


The demands for ‘climate justice’ remain most relevant to our times. Our window to halt runaway climate change is closing fast this decade, with world-wide emissions cuts of 50 percent needed by 2020, and 90 percent by 2050, to keep the planet at even a 2 degree rise. Extreme weather now feels commonplace. If runaway methane from thawing Siberian tundra and melting Artic ice worsens, the cuts will have to come even sooner and deeper. Can civilisation face up to this, or will corporations keep us looking the other direction? 


The gathering in New York this week will be followed by the formal UN Framework Convention on Climate Change summits in Lima, Peru, in November and then the literally last-gasp effort in Paris in late 2015. The other week, a militant prep-com of climate justice activists began preparations, while the Indigenous People of the Andes are expected to mobilise militantly in Lima. 


Still, these ‘Conferences of the Parties’ (CoPs) are so far merely fortnight-long talk-shops. The 17th was hosted here in Durban in 2011, and was a failure on all accounts, including activism. The CoPs are invariably sabotaged by US State Department negotiators, joined by brethren climate-denialist regimes in Canada, Australia and Japan. Best that these events be remembered as Conferences of Polluters.


At the CoP15 in 2009, four other major polluters – Brazil, China, India and South Africa – signed on to US President Barack Obama’s Copenhagen Accord. It not only “wrecked the UN,” as Bill McKibbon of 350.org put it, in terms of process. The Accord promised only inadequate and voluntary emissions cuts. Indeed at the BRICS summit in Brazil last month, the most substantial comment about climate change was not reassuring – “bearing in mind that fossil fuel remains one of the major sources of energy” – and so it appears that the BRICS will follow a COP negotiating strategy that they initiated five years ago. Added to that is the BRICS strategy of introducing carbon markets (‘privatising the air’) in spite of the massive European and US pilot project failures.


Copenhagen represented, simply, as climate justice writer-activist Naomi Klein accurately described the experience, “nothing more than a grubby pact between the world’s biggest emitters: I’ll pretend that you are doing something about climate change if you pretend that I am too. Deal? Deal.” In her new book, This Changes Everything, Klein blames the profit-logic of mega-corporations, not just their pocket governments, and she insists on post-capitalist climate policies.


If she is correct, in this opportune context there is already some evidence that activist pressure is beginning to affect even Washington, DC, surely the most corporate-dominated political capital in world history thanks to recent campaign finance deregulation. Teased by activists for five years, Obama finally gathered enough will to regulate the powerful coal energy industry in June. He announced what is in effect a ban on constructing 150 coal-fired power plants proposed in 2001 by then Vice President Dick Cheney. Only two have been built since then, mainly thanks to vigorous community opposition but also because Sierra Club lawyers bogged down the coal industry, and so Obama has only recently codified what was already a major shift away from the dirtiest energy source, coal. 


To be sure, the US climate movement’s next challenges are extreme: fracking, new oil drilling in deep-sea waters and national parks, coal exports, and the import of Canada’s tar sands shale oil, not to mention the full economic reboot Klein calls for. As for claims by Obama and Europeans that their economies’ greenhouse gases are being cut, these brags are not genuine, for the North is simply outsourcing dirty industries to East Asia, while enjoying cut-rate products sent back, paid for by degraded currencies.


If capitalism is the problem, undercutting financial flows to the status quo is a vital strategy. Divestment from fossil-funded profits parallels what worked so well thirty years ago when we were fighting South African apartheid. Financial jujitsu is one way to turn capitalism against itself, as we learned then. And today, traditional bankers are increasingly wary of socio-ecological controversy, with the London NGO Carbontracker pointing out Big Oil’s ‘unburnable carbon.’ Under growing pressure, even the fossil-saturated World Bank last year agreed not to lend more for coal-fired power plants, though Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s recent broken promises on environmental and social safeguards confirms his Obama-style unreliability.


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