New Internationalist

Power politics

Issue 419

We have reached the first tipping point towards climate catastrophe – but are being offered a fistful of false solutions by the powers that be. Jess Worth looks to the growing climate justice movement for hope.

In the course of researching this magazine I’ve been charged at by riot police, had a meeting with a Minister and been interviewed on Newsnight, Britain’s most prestigious TV current affairs programme. Why? Because ‘climate justice’ isn’t just another magazine topic to me. It’s the greatest and most urgent challenge of our time – so I’ve thrown myself into the thick of trying to make it happen.

But one thing I wasn’t expecting was to be lobbied by a banker.

It was the launch in Parliament of the ‘Yasuní Green Gold’ campaign, last October. The NI had just published a photo book about this incredibly biodiverse region of pristine Amazon rainforest, and its imminent destruction by oil companies.

The Ecuadorian Government had audaciously asked rich countries to pay them not to exploit the billion barrels of oil under the Yasuní national park. It was a novel suggestion for preventing climate change, and could set an inspiring precedent.

However, in Yasuní itself, the people are worried. By putting a price on the forest, will the deal further erode the land rights of the indigenous people who live there? The neighbouring community, currently dependent on the oil economy for jobs, have not been consulted – will they receive the support they need to develop the alternative, sustainable economic activities they crave? What guarantee is there that the oil will never be exploited by this or a future government? And what happens if industrial nations won’t cough up the cash?

So we brought Anita Rivas, the mayor of the Yasuní region, to Britain to persuade the Government to support an improved version of the proposal: with the rights and needs of local and indigenous people placed at its heart.

Governments are on a kamikaze mission and we’re all strapped into the passenger seats

A smattering of supportive politicians turned up at an ornate House of Commons committee room – and so did three slick lobbyists from carbon trading firms, keen for a slice of the Yasuní action. They came with a proposal of their own: apportion the rainforest up into ‘avoided deforestation credits’. These could then be sold on (at a tidy profit) by traders, brokers and speculators, to Northern polluters who want to offset their own emissions rather than actually having to reduce them. Bingo, problem solved!

During the meeting I was careful to dismiss this as an option. I knew that the experience of ‘carbon offsetting’ projects meant that grassroots organizations in Ecuador opposed this approach. Indigenous people across the world see it as a massive land-grab by foreign investors. They fear it would ‘cause forced evictions, prevent access and threaten indigenous agricultural practices, destroy biodiversity and cultural diversity and cause social conflicts.’1 Indigenous and local communities, not international financiers, are the best stewards of the world’s forests.

One of the lobbyists, from a major bank (though not one of the collapsing ones, he was quick to point out), cornered me afterwards. He insisted we were on the same side and ‘beseeched’ me to sit down with him and discuss how we could work together.

I declined. You see, we’re not all on the same side. Selling carbon credits may well raise some money for Yasuní – but at what cost? If a supposed solution to climate change results in a new set of injustices for the people affected, then we need to think again.

Depressingly, in December we discovered that the Ecuadorian Government had been seduced. Having had no luck asking rich countries for money, they have decided to go down the carbon trading route. The future for the people of Yasuní remains uncertain, though I’m sure the bankers are chuffed to bits.

Tipping into trouble

The time for words of warning is long gone. One need only tune in briefly to the panicked tones of the world’s leading climate scientists to grasp that we are already in a crisis. The Arctic ice-sheets are melting far faster than the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected only last year. Their conclusion that the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 – no mean feat in itself – was based on the assumption that Arctic summer ice may be gone by the end of the century.

It is now predicted to be gone in the next five years.

Arctic sea-ice acts as a refrigerator for the globe. Without it, global warming will happen even faster. It also contributes to the ‘albedo effect’ whereby white surfaces reflect more solar radiation than dark ones. As ice and snow disappear, darker ocean and land absorb more heat from the sun and add to warming. This in turn affects the Arctic permafrost, which currently locks away twice as much carbon as is currently in the entire global atmosphere. That permafrost is starting to thaw, about 80 years ahead of schedule…

We have no choice but to try; and change, when it comes, can be sudden, dramatic and astonishing

We have reached the first climate ‘tipping point’. As temperatures rise, changes are triggered in the earth’s systems which create ‘positive feedbacks’, further contributing to global warming, and potentially unleashing rapid, uncontrollable and irreversible change.

It’s still not too late to prevent a catastrophe. But only just. Global warming has already resulted in a temperature increase of nearly 1°C, and we are committed to further warming caused by greenhouse gases already emitted – around 0.2°C per decade. But scientists say that if warming is kept below 2°C, we have a good chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. So the world needs to embark on a crash course of decarbonization now, reducing emissions in industrialized nations by around eight per cent per year whilst helping Majority World countries on to a zero-carbon development path. If we continue as we are, we are looking at a projected rise of up to 6°C by the end of the century, and the end of life on earth as we know it.

Triple injustice

The prospect of future generations inheriting a totally trashed planet is just one of the many layers of injustice wrapped tightly around the problem of climate change. Like an onion, the closer you get to its heart, the harder it is not to weep.

Injustice number one: climate change is hitting the poorest first and worst. Many hundreds of thousands have already died from the worsening floods, droughts, heat-waves, cyclones and disease that global warming is unleashing. The death-toll is predicted to rise to millions in just a few decades. Nearly all these climate change casualties – and those most at risk – are poor people living in the Majority World. (See ‘Climate Justice: the facts’, page 12).

Injustice number two: those most affected did not cause it and are powerless to stop it. Climate change has been largely created by the burning of fossil fuels by industrialized nations, with the richest being the most culpable planet-cookers. As Panapase Nelisoni, from the Government of Tuvalu – one of the Pacific island-nations currently disappearing beneath the waves due to rising sea-levels – quite rightly points out: ‘The industrialized countries caused the problem, but we are suffering the consequences… it is only fair that people in industrialized nations and industries take responsibility for the actions they are causing. It’s the polluter-pays principle: you pollute, you pay.’2

Injustice number three: the polluters aren’t paying. In fact, greenhouse gas emissions – of which carbon dioxide accounts for 80 per cent of warming, the others being methane, nitrous oxide and certain industrial gases – continue to rise in developed countries, despite their signing the Kyoto Protocol which was supposed to reduce them. Kyoto was also supposed to lead to financial support for poor countries like Tuvalu struggling at the sharp end of the climate crisis, but the international community has shown little interest. The G8 have so far pledged a shockingly inadequate $6 billion – to be disbursed through World Bank loans, forcing affected countries to pay twice for their own suffering, with the added slap in the face of stringent World Bank conditions. Compare this with the hundreds of billions chucked at bailing out the banks, with minimal conditions, and the injustice gets gut-wrenching.

Instead, the solutions proposed by the polluters look suspiciously like business-as-usual. The dogged pursuit of economic growth at all costs is still taken as a given, despite the fact that it was the reckless over-consumption of natural resources on a finite planet that got us into this mess in the first place.

Fossil foolery

To deliver big enough emissions reductions we need a carefully planned transition to a zero-carbon economy. Among other things, this will require:

  • massive investment in renewables
  • the systematic closing down of coal-fired power plants
  • the revitalization of cheap public transport
  • a rapid curbing of aviation
  • a shift away from the pursuit of mass production and consumption

But instead of knuckling down, rich countries are putting their faith in ‘the market’ to deliver emissions cuts and stimulate investment in green technology. They are largely doing this through carbon trading – the offsetting of continued pollution by making reductions elsewhere in the economy.

And guess what: it isn’t working – in fact, it’s making matters worse (see ‘A timely death?’, page 14).

Just as the market has proved incapable of controlling the dangerous excesses of international finance, it is failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or to kick-start the dramatic shift towards zero-carbon economies we so desperately need. Instead, perversely, carbon trading has enriched the most polluting European energy companies to the tune of billions of dollars, and exported dirty development schemes to the global South. Yet that doesn’t seem to shake the G8 governments’ belief that market mechanisms will somehow magically solve this crisis. They’re on a climate kamikaze mission and we’re all strapped into the passenger seats.

The false ‘solutions’ we are being offered – carbon markets, green consumerism and techno-fixes such as the fantasy of ‘clean coal’ – continue to reinforce the inequalities of wealth and power that underpin the climate crisis. And – just to add one more injustice to the mix – this failure to deliver the emissions cuts we need, while encouraging further fossil foolery, is cancelling out all the good that individuals and communities are doing to reduce their own eco-footprints.

Last shot

This year will be a defining one for the climate. In December, governments meet in Copenhagen to agree a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. It’s being billed by commentators and NGOs as the most important meeting ever – our last shot to save the planet. If that’s true then we should be seriously worried, because in the aftermath of last December’s climate talks in Poznan, it’s clear that what’s currently on the table is more of the same: more inadequate targets for industrialized countries to fail to meet, more sidelining of the Majority World’s interests, and a LOT more get-out-of-jail-free carbon trading (see ‘Just or bust’, page 19). A deal that delivered climate justice would look very different indeed.

Climate justice matters. Quite beyond the obvious moral imperative – millions of deaths could be prevented if we act now – the political reality is that we can’t solve a crisis that will ultimately affect us all without reversing these existing injustices.

First, ‘developing’ countries are now responsible for 60 per cent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst their historical contribution is tiny, rapidly growing economies like China, India and Brazil are shaping up to be the big polluters of the future. If we’re to decarbonize the global economy, we’re going to need them on board. Why should they commit to an alternative development pathway when the countries that grew rich riding the fossil fuel beast refuse to dismount? The answer is, they won’t.

According to one British Government insider, Chinese officials engaged in the UN climate talks don’t speak English, but they do know the word ‘Kingsnorth’ – the new coal-fired power station Britain is threatening to build.

The majority of the world’s people still live in grinding poverty, from which they have a right to be released. The burden of change, financial assistance and leadership by example falls squarely on the shirking shoulders of industrialized countries.

Second, the real solutions that will bring about the 6-8 per cent annual cuts in emissions we now need cannot flourish whilst the vested interests of dirty capitalism are getting in the way. Powerful corporate lobbies ensure that it is their counter-productive yet lucrative solutions that dominate the official agenda, rather than the re-engineering of economies and societies along sustainable lines.

Climate justice is no luxury, to be toyed with when things are going well but junked in a crisis. It will be our ability to reconfigure the global power relations currently frog-marching us over the edge that will determine whether or not this planet is toast.

The mother of all movements

So now the difficult part: how on earth do we make this happen? Action must take place in many ways and at many levels, from the grassroots to the broadest international arenas. That’s what the articles that follow in this magazine are all about.

But, fundamentally, we need to recognize that climate change is a political problem. We know exactly what’s going wrong and why, and we have the knowledge, strategies and technology to solve it. Yet we’re being paralysed by politics.

So we need the mother of all global movements: to force action from governments; to counteract the influence of corporations touting false solutions and blocking radical change; to advocate and create the alternatives. To have the necessary impact in the time we have left we are going to need massive popular civil disobedience on a scale unseen since the suffragettes and the civil rights movement.

The seeds are there. All over the world people have been mobilizing to demand genuine action, and different struggles are beginning to unite globally around the cause of climate justice. At the Bali climate talks, in December 2007, a group of organizations and networks came together in shared exasperation at the way politicians (aided and abetted by many mainstream environmental NGOs) were sending us all to hell in a handcart, and formed the ‘Climate Justice Now!’ network. It includes peasants’ groups demanding food sovereignty in Asia, communities fighting resource extraction in Africa, indigenous people determined to protect their forests in Latin America, the Durban group of organizations resisting carbon trading projects across the world, anti-biofuel activists, debt campaigners, the Arab Climate Alliance and a few of the more progressive big NGOs.

In Northern countries there has been an explosion of direct action against fossil fuels and false solutions, putting the need for much more radical changes firmly on the agenda: mass blockades at the world’s biggest coal port in Newcastle, Australia; invasions of power stations across Europe; the disruption of coal construction sites in the US; occupations of the offices of companies promoting greenwash; and, most recently in Britain, the dramatic shut-down of Stansted Airport runway.

My own run-in with the riot cops (and primetime TV) this summer took place at the Camp for Climate Action, which pitched up next to Kingsnorth power station and became the destination for thousands of people who felt the need to do more about climate change than write angry letters and vote once every four years. But the camp itself wasn’t just about encouraging people to take direct action. It was an extraordinary demonstration of sustainable, co-operative living in action, complete with renewable power generation, compost toilets, vegan food, communal decision-making, a pirate ship to play in and a programme of workshops and seminars all about climate change and how to stop it.

The police came down on our peaceful, legal, inspirational slice of eco-topia like a ton of bricks, unleashing shocking levels of violence and intimidation on those who attended. I can only conclude that the authorities are feeling threatened. Our campaign in Britain has substantial public support and might actually force them not to build a new generation of coal-fired power stations: in the US, tens of new power plants have been prevented in the last two years by organized resistance.

What’s more, the attempt by the state to suppress climate protest isn’t working. In September 2008 a jury acquitted six Greenpeace activists who had invaded Kingsnorth power station, climbed its smokestack and caused $50,000 worth of damage by painting a slogan down the chimney. After hearing evidence from a range of climate change experts, the jury concluded that this action was justified to prevent the much greater damage global warming will cause – a stunning act of sanity that sent shock-waves through the Government.

History is like weather

Can a global movement for climate justice succeed? It’s the tallest of orders, of course. Humanity has never faced such an all-encompassing crisis, so we have no frame of reference from which to draw for ideas, strategies and just plain hope. And time is not on our side.

But, whilst daunting, this is also an enormous opportunity. The fact that the ‘buy now, pay later’ system is so evidently broken, with the triple crunches of financial meltdown, peak oil and climate change all biting simultaneously, provides a genuine opening for building the fairer, saner, greener world that the NI and many others have been advocating for so long. (See ‘A new, green democratic deal’ page 27.)

We have no choice but to try. And we mustn’t forget that change, when it comes, can be sudden, dramatic and astonishing. In the words of US activist Rebecca Solnit: ‘A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction, and regard the lack of one as failure… But history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent… And though huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences… History is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does.’3

It’s up to people-power now to change the weather – and history.

  1. Statement by International Forum of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change to Bali climate talks, December 2007, http://tinyurl.com/5wnnkg
  2. Mark Lynas, High Tide: news from a warming world, Flamingo, 2004, p97
  3. Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the dark, Nation Books, 2004.

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