From the January-February 2016 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
The Paris Agreement on climate change, reached by almost all the world’s nation-states on Dec. 12 after a two-week conference, reveals the limits of what the global capitalist order is prepared to do even in the face of incipient catastrophe. It was universally agreed at the Paris summit that the plans associated with the agreement were nowhere near sufficient to avoid devastating effects, and that the terrible results of climate change have already begun, such as in the movement of millions of people displaced from their homes. And yet the nation-state leaders congratulated themselves for reaching an agreement in which even these insufficient national plans are not legally binding!
The French government attempted to ban climate justice demonstrations in Paris, and even put environmental activists under house arrest on the eve of the summit. This symbolizes the rulers’ drive to keep the power to decide humanity’s future out of the hands of the masses, the only ones who can halt the suicidal rush to climate chaos. The oft-heard excuse of “political realities” to explain the rulers’ exclusion from the summit of anything that would amount to serious change shows bluntly how the ideological pollution of “there is no alternative to capitalism” has morphed into “there is no alternative to climate catastrophe.”
MASSES CANNOT BE STILLED
Protests still erupted both inside and outside the official conference space. They included Indigenous people from all over the world, people from poor African countries, women, farmers, and even a Black Lives Matter protest organized by people from the U.S. Many protesters reiterated the slogan from the 2009 Copenhagen summit protests: System change, not climate change!
The emptiness of the summit’s achievements stands in stark contrast to the upsurge of voices questioning the UN process, the capitalist system and its whole notion of development. Consider the most touted purported achievements of the Paris Agreement.
First, it lays out the aim of keeping temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees” Celsius compared to before the industrial revolution, and even “efforts” to keep it below 1.5 degrees. That aim is not legally binding, at the insistence of the Obama administration, because that would give the Senate a chance to veto the agreement, and it would certainly do so. So the basic structure of the agreement is limited by the partial veto power that the fossil fuel industry has over the U.S. government, as it does in several other countries from Russia to Saudi Arabia.
That weightless aim is contradicted by the agreement’s lack of emissions reduction targets, of any reference to a carbon budget, or of any commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In many cases, the pledges submitted by nations before the summit actually project large increases in emissions, marketed as reductions by deceptive comparisons; while in other cases, such as the U.S., the projected reductions amount to about 1% a year. If all the pledges were actually carried out, which would be unprecedented, it would not be enough to keep warming below 3 degrees, and would risk far worse. And of course if a Republican is elected President in 2016, he would probably repudiate the agreement altogether.
PRODUCTION FOR PRODUCTION’S SAKE
The earthy reality is that, at the very same time as the Paris meeting, key players are promoting fossil fuel extraction. The U.S. is pushing coal and oil exports, lifting the crude oil export ban, and trying to revive fracking and expand Arctic and other offshore drilling. China is building coal plants across the world. While scientists have warned that, starting immediately, most coal and much of the oil and gas must stay in the ground just to keep to the 2-degree target, coal plants designed to last decades are still being built in many countries. Meanwhile, climate change accords are trumped by trade agreements with provisions allowing companies to sue governments that regulate or restrict fossil fuel production, imports and consumption. The highest law in the capitalist system is production for production’s sake, enforced by the imperatives of competitiveness and growth, always under the shadow of the next recession.
Instead of actually limiting emissions, the accord includes references to removal of carbon from the atmosphere, also known as “negative emissions,” which some scientists have pointed out are fantasies based on technologies that don’t exist. It opens the door to geoengineering, that is, vast, dangerous experiments with earth systems, such as spraying huge amounts of sulfur dioxide in the high atmosphere to reflect sunlight, with unknowable consequences for regional climates that could include exacerbating droughts due to global warming, and even the failure of the monsoons of India and West Africa.
Many provisions would never have been recognized even as aims and principles without the agitation of small island states facing inundation by rising sea levels, together with the intensifying immediate impact of climate change on people’s lives, and together with movements like that of students calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies, the anti-fracking movement, and local struggles by Indigenous and other people against specific tar sands, oil, coal, and gas extraction and transportation projects. These struggles are also responsible for the Obama administration’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which, under the leadership of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it had previously maneuvered to approve. These movements are the reason Obama decided to make action on climate change one of the top goals of his second administration. And it is because of these movements that the Agreement recognizes “obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”—but only in the non-binding preamble.
THE PATHETIC ‘HISTORIC’
Finally, what has been praised as “historic” is that all 195 signing countries agree to reduce emissions, not only the rich, industrialized countries that accepted obligations in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Agreement retains the principle of “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” This is bolstered by a yearly $100 billion fund to aid the poorer countries’ actions to reduce emissions and adapt to a warming world. But, that is nowhere near enough and is not binding, and the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress will likely try to defund or neutralize this and other aspects of the Agreement.
Funding developing countries to adopt an economy based on renewable energy and adapt to climate change would, according to some scientists, need to be ten times what is suggested in the Agreement. Even that amount is far less than the $5.3 trillion that governments annually spend worldwide subsidizing fossil fuel, and less than the murky amount spent on armaments and militaries. It is dwarfed by the estimated $14 trillion spent to bail out banks in the 2008 crisis.
CAPITAL TRUMPS CLIMATE ACTION
The principle of “combined but differentiated responsibility” was enshrined in the first climate change treaty reached at the 1992 Earth Summit. It recognized that all countries have a right to development, and that poverty should be eliminated for all the world’s people. But “sustainable development” was immediately confined within the framework of capitalist development, which is the essential contradiction that makes the UN climate change process self-defeating.
The fundamental question is: what kind of development can people in industrialized, semi-industrialized, and non-industrialized countries achieve? It has been clear for years that if China, India, and the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were to follow the same path of industrialization as did Europe and the U.S., the carbon emissions alone, not to mention other environmental burdens, would be enough to guarantee climate catastrophe. But an argument between ruling classes of various countries took shape that posed an either/or between just such a path of capitalist development or continued marginalization and poverty. Climate negotiations have been stuck within that either/or. Humanity cannot afford to allow its thinking and imagination to be trapped within those narrow limits.
A future allowing dignity for all without poverty must be based on sufficient abundance to meet the material needs of the whole population. At the same time, it must be based on relationships in labor, in consumption, in culture, in society at large that have transcended the alienation characteristic of relations in this society. Self-development and self-activity must become the primary needs and experiences of the individuals who make up society.
HUMAN, NOT CAPITALIST, DEVELOPMENT
Technology is very important for achieving the kind of abundance needed, without destroying the environmental basis of civilization. In fact, the technology we need for that purpose largely exists. Why has it not been deployed? Primarily because, in our state-capitalist age, technological development and deployment are both very much shaped by the drive of fossil-fuel-dependent industries for profits and their influence on the state, and also by competition—both economic and military—between the various nation-states.
However, it is even more important to reject the usual picture of sustainable development as revolving around technology alone.
Without knowing how the ecological problems of his time would develop into today’s crises, Karl Marx recognized the basic contradiction:
“Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker….But by destroying the circumstances surrounding [the metabolic interaction between humanity and the earth] it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race.”
Therefore, Marx envisioned the need for a new society where “the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control…in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.” But he underscored the need to go beyond that to “The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself….”
Our vision of the future must have at its center the need to transcend the alienated character of this society. Marx clarified that alienation in his writings: with capitalism, the object (dead labor in the form of capital) dominates the subject (the living human being, in particular the worker). This dialectical inversion, which is a form of alienation inherent in capitalism, sets the direction of our society. That direction has proved itself to be suicidal. To establish a new, opposite direction, we must overcome the alienation and achieve real self-determination that allows people to control the direction of the economy, rather than the economy’s autonomous motion determining the direction of our lives.
It is crucial for real human development to displace capitalist development. Growth for growth’s sake demands ever greater energy production; and while replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is necessary, vital, and urgent, no energy source is completely harmless. Even solar and wind require mining of rare metals, concrete and steel infrastructure, and space, so that endless growth is impossible. The design of urban and rural civilization needs to be freed from capitalism so as to focus on human needs instead of the needs of the car, oil, and construction industries. Food production and distribution need to be freed from the domination of industries that seek ever greater growth of food consumption, factory farming, and chemical inputs, instead of what is needed for human health and happiness. We need a society where alienation does not make people vulnerable to marketing of useless, wasteful, and harmful products.
In short, it is vital to make explicit what is implicit in today’s struggles for an alternative path of development: that they are reaching for a new society on unalienated, totally human foundations.
(See Paris climate accord vs. humanity’s future for a longer analysis.)