Climate change, poverty and capitalist development

Measures that could genuinely tackle rising carbon emissions are being held back by the desire of individual countries not to harm their economy’s global competitiveness, writes Ernest Price.

FROM EGYPT to Bangladesh to Somalia, hundreds of thousands of people continue to protest over the rising price of basic foods. In early May, cyclone Nargis killed over 130,000 people and left hundreds of thousands more homeless across the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma.

Global warming was not the sole cause of these crises-but they have given us a clear indication of what global warming will mean to people in the poorest parts of the world.

In Australia, the rising cost of basic foods, eating into the household budgets, gives us a similar indication of what is to come.

Professor Ross Garnaut has been commissioned by the state, territory and federal governments to write a report examining “the impacts, challenges and opportunities of climate change for Australia”. Garnaut is set to hand down his draft review on June 30 and his final review on September 30.

There is a significant debate brewing about how the Rudd government is going to respond to the mounting scientific evidence of what type of change is needed. Garnaut’s interim report, delivered in April illustrates the significant economic pressures on the Rudd government to remain inactive in the face of global warming. It is up to us to challenge the government to take real action.

The system needs carbon emissions

Capitalist production has developed along carbon intensive lines. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (2007) says that there is a greater than 90 per cent chance-that “the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming”.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that human activity and production since the industrial revolution has put us in the position that we are in today. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 36 per cent since 1750 (from 280 to 385 parts per million). It increased by 70 per cent from 1970 to 2004.

Out of the ten biggest corporations in the world, six are oil companies and three are car companies. If they were to acknowledge the extent of climate change, and take the kind of action science demands, they would face a massive threat to their capital.

But it is not just individual companies making profits that are at stake. Entire economies are built around carbon intensive energy, transport and production systems. Competition is inherent to the capitalist system and making the switch to less carbon-intensive production would mean a loss of competitive edge on the global market. It is this competition that characterises the Marxist understanding of imperialism.

Powerful nation-states are both responsible for the infrastructure of domestic economies, and struggling for the interests of nationally based companies on the world stage. We see this happening through the obvious means, such as struggles for control of oil reserves in the Middle East, as well as through bodies like the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund instituting “free trade” policies that benefit the economies of world powers.

Faced with the realities of climate change these major states, willing to wage war for economic power, are doing everything possible to avoid meaningful action.

Imperialist competition also means that powers callously use the developing world as a pawn in competition.

Over one million people have been killed in Iraq to ensure US control. Likewise Australia has historically dominated the region, using the South Pacific as a tool to demonstrate its power to the rest of the world, exploiting its resources and locking its people in poverty to gain advantage.

The process of “addressing” climate change is no different. The western economic powers, led by the United States and Britain are now routinely blaming the developing world (especially China and to a growing extent India) for the acceleration of climate-related problems and demanding they pay for the crisis.

Developing countries are no more able to escape this cycle of competition than the developed world-but the onus can not be on these countries, held down by years of exploitation and exclusion, to initiate the reforms needed.

Garnaut’s Emissions Trading Scheme-stabilising Australian imperialism

The interim Garnaut report, released in April, foreshadows Garnaut’s central proposal for dealing with global warming-an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Garnaut’s ETS does not challenge the way production is organised in Australia.

There will be no major shifts in public investment towards public transport or clean energy infrastructure. The scheme is geared towards stabilising the Australian economy, minimising the impact on profit margins and ensuring Australia’s continued dominance in the region.

Garnaut’s interim report rightly states that, “Climate change can only be addressed by effective global action.” He also recognises that, “In general, developing, poorer countries will suffer proportionately more, and be less well equipped to adapt.” But the core proposition of Garnaut’s proposals, the idea that an ETS will solve climate problems, contradicts these basic premises.

Garnaut proposes a “targets and trading” approach, which would establish national benchmarks and enable international trading of what are effectively carbon credits, the gap between what emissions a nation produces and what emissions they are allowed to produce.

This model is essentially geared towards the developed world using the developing world as some kind of carbon sink, with incentive to keep down per capita emissions, while continuing business as usual in the developed world, where per capita emissions are soaring.

As Garnaut discusses per capita use in the region, the effect of the scheme becomes clearer. Papua New Guinea is a larger per capita emitter than Australia because of “land use change”-deforestation fueled by the needs of an economy that has been suffocated by years of Australian imperial dominance. Virtually none of their emissions are due to fossil fuel use.

Garnaut essentially advocates an immediate end to deforestation in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia-not inherently a bad thing-with the undertone that it could look to Australia as a potential future buyer for carbon credits. The fact that it is deforestation, not fossil fuel emission, that constitutes the emissions of these countries, is telling enough.

It is years of global imperial play that has forced these economies into reliance on deforestation as a source of income. Garnaut’s system replaces one source of oppression with another. Garnaut’s proposal would mean that Australia could retain much of its carbon-intensive economy whilst buying carbon credits from its neighbours.

Despite the complexities that Garnaut himself acknowledges (including the unevenness of historical carbon emission and the disproportionate rate of suffering from the effects of climate change), he still proposes that the fairest way to allocate budgets for carbon emissions on a global scale will be on a per capita basis.

Garnaut’s “per capita” model is premised on the basic notion that there is an equal responsibility spread across the globe to deal with the problem of global warming.

It is true that per capita emissions targets will give us a greater sense of who is actually doing the emitting-and as we will see, this is the developed world-but such a model does not allow for centuries of global economic and military dominance of the West. The industrial system that has created the problem must also bear the cost of fixing it.

Garnaut himself makes some concession to this fact, but through concern about the practicalities of implementation rather than any notion of justice. He argues, “to be considered fair, (the ETS) will need to give much weight to equal per capita emissions rights. To be considered practical, they will need to allow long periods for adjustment towards such positions.”

In Garnaut’s plan there will be some room to adjust the per capita model to allow for developing countries to emit above the target levels, linked to GDP growth levels, for a period until they reach agreed benchmark levels. He argues that high per capita emitters, like the United States and Australia, will have to curb emissions at a steeper trajectory than countries say in Europe, where per capita emissions are lower.

But despite this rhetoric, the core strategy in Garnaut’s ETS remains ensuring that developing countries that are low per capita emitters can sell their surplus emissions to the big polluting countries.

The problem with this, is that it is geared towards protecting the economic interests of countries like Australia and changing precisely nothing in methods of production.

The actual state of emissions

Garnaut’s approach, shirking Australia’s responsibility and pushing it on to developing neighbours, is not unique. Last year it was announced that China had streaked into first place as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Tony Blair, who used the last of his term as Britain’s prime minister to attempt carve a name for himself in the fight against climate change, said outright that, “If we shut down all of Britain’s emissions tomorrow, the growth in China will make up the difference within two years. So we’ve got to be realistic about how much obligation we put on ourselves.”

Even if we were to discuss emissions from the false premise that the only model for development is the emissions-intensive model of the west, handing China the “world’s largest emitter” trophy is based on a very selective reading of the available science.

Per capita emissions paint a very different picture to the country-by-country statistics. India emits 1.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, China 3.5 tonnes, Britain 9.6 tonnes and the US 20.2 tonnes per person. The global average is 4.2 tonnes-much higher than both India and China. As Garnaut notes in his interim report, Australia is one of the highest per capita emitters.

On top of this, economic expansion in China and India is driven by western multinationals that are looking to the developing world to provide not only new markets, but also cheap labour and resources. This means that much of the emissions in countries like China come directly from the production of firms based in the US, UK and other western countries.

The rapidly expanding automotive industry in India is a key example of western-based multinationals shifting production (and emissions) overseas. Companies shifting the weight of their production to India include Ford Motors, Fiat, Nissan, Renault, Volvo, Volkswagen, Suzuki and Hyundai.

This is not to detract from the basic fact that the majority of emissions-intensive production and consumption occurs in the developed world. Nor does it make a case that it is a good thing that standards of living across the developed world are so low.

But it illustrates clearly the hypocrisy of Blair’s argument, a popular one amongst many Western leaders, that development in the bulk of the world-where the standard of living is far lower than in the developed world-is what is accelerating climate change. The clear implication is that rising living standards across the global south can be the sacrificed in order to allow business as usual in the imperial centres.

There is of course an element of truth to this argument. In its rush to compete with Western economic powerhouses, China is developing along a carbon-intensive path. The likes of Blair point to the rapid burst of coal-fired power plants built in China over the recent period-more than two-thirds of the 560 new coal-fired power plants built between 2001 and 2006.

But the crucial thing is that China is doing this precisely in order to compete with a carbon-based economy in the developed West. The United States is looking to add 37.7 gigawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity over the next five years. It is still the developed West that is increasing its generating capacity and it is the developed West that has still far and away the largest per capita emitters.

Improvements in standards of living are not inherently counter posed to fighting climate change. The vast bulk of the world’s population cannot be held to account for the completely unsustainable and irrational production of corporations rooted in the developed world. Some argue that subsistence lifestyles in sections of the developing world are a model for low-emissions lifestyles. But holding down increasing production-production that sees reliable sources of food, shelter and jobs-is not the answer.

The technology to pursue sustainable development already exists. Renewable energy could power growing cities, built along rational lines to cut down long commutes. Public transport infrastructure could be developed globally-within national borders and to replace unnecessary aviation. The capacity for such solutions to the problem are virtually endless.

But to implement solutions, both in the heart of the West and in developing countries, means a serious challenge to the logic of capitalist competition, the logic that Garnaut and all major world leaders accept wholesale. It is up to us in the West to push our governments to take serious action to curb emissions and begin to implement real solutions. Mass action demanding change in the heart of the industrialised world is needed to shift the logic of global production and challenge the racist conception that the developing world must pay for global warming.

Turning Rudd’s conclusions on their head

With all of this discussion about who is to blame for climate change there is a conspicuous silence about who is already feeling its effects. Cyclone Nargis in Burma demonstrates the way in which extreme weather patterns affect countries with poor infrastructure.

We saw a similar phenomenon for the poorest parts of the globe’s richest country with Hurricane Katrina in the United States. The destruction of crops due to drought and flood across Asia and Africa is becoming an all too familiar story.

Penny Wong and Kevin Rudd want us to believe that they are making some big-and tough-decisions in the fight against climate change. But the report Garnaut is set to deliver is not going to start a debate about serious action from the Australian government.

Imperialist competition between world powers is responsible for major the tragedies that have confronted human society in the modern era-from world war to mass famine. Understanding how this dynamic is both fuelling global climate change and shaping our rulers response to the crisis will be crucial for effective action.

As previous anti-war movements have led global revolts against governments to force peace, we need to build a climate movement capable of forcing governments to fundamentally shift methods of production and support sustainable development worldwide.

In Australia this means rejecting schemes which put the onus on countries in the region that have historically been dominated by imperial powers-and placing our demands for change squarely on the Rudd government and their corporate backers.


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