To solve the climate change problem, end the class divide

Published online 13 December 2009.

In honor of the diary queue which is going on now on Orange, I’ve decided to put this diary together, perhaps too quickly.  Its thesis is this: if we are to find an effective solution for the climate change situation, we will have to end the division of humanity into social classes.  This won’t take overnight; but its main impediment at present is a lack of unity across social classes, and that can be resolved.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

I suppose this diary is also motivated for the most part by the appearance of Minqi Li on the Real News Network.

Li’s thesis statement:

And then the basic situation is that if these capitalist countries continue to expand their emissions, and there’s no way to get out, and so I would say maybe it’s time for the environmental movements to look beyond themselves and to find ways to combine their effort with the effort of the general social movement, to combine their effort with the effort of the world’s great majority, the oppressed and exploited. And only with the general participation of the greater majority of the world population, then we have some hope to stop this. I know this is hard, but I don’t see any other option.

In short, to deal with the climate change problem, we must deal with the global class divide.

Now, there are two class divides.  One, which I’m sure you’ll read about in the news on Copenhagen, is the divide between “developed” and “developing” nations.  The political classes in the “developed” countries want to stop the “developing” countries from using too much more fossil fuel; the political classes in the “developing” countries think they have a right to “development” through the sort of fossil fuel exploitation which created global capitalism in the first instance.  One suggested solution to this is called “contract and converge” — it suggests that carbon emissions permits ought (ultimately) to reflect an equal carbon allotment per person, worldwide.  But this is just another “emissions permits” scheme; more on this later.

I think, though, that any attempt to deal with “carbon burning” under the existing system of political economy will be an exercise in futility.  It would be easy to show why this is so: let’s all propose a real climate change remediation, through an international agreement to “keep the grease in the ground” — to agree to keep some portion of Earth’s endowment of fossil fuel in the ground indefinitely.  This, arguably, would the cheapest method of carbon sequestration we have.  Advocates of “keep the grease in the ground” may well ask: what are the political classes afraid of, that they can’t even discuss such a thing?  If the cap-and-trade schemes favored by the political classes are really supposed to be effective in reducing “carbon emissions,” wouldn’t they be just as happy with an international treaty in which all participants agreed not to burn the stuff at all?  Or is “cap-and-trade” a charade intended to deceive the public while “carbon emissions” increase as usual?  Well, actually, the political classes have plenty to fear.

The catch is, of course, that “cap-and-trade” is another financial scam.  A couple of aspects of the cap-and-trade “deal” should tip off readers as to what is really going on:

  • Carbon offsets are like papal indulgences — they allow the corporations buying them the opportunity to buy off their carbon sins while keeping the fossil-fuel economy intact.  The corporate reckoning of carbon offsets is that if someone, somewhere in the world, is planting a tree, this becomes a commodified opportunity for a corporation to look good, regardless of whether the individual act of tree-planting did the Earth any good.  A snippet from the abovecited document reveals as much:

    A study published in December 2006 by the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Stanford, California concluded that most forests do not have any overall impact on global temperature. “The idea that you can go out and plant a tree and help reverse global warming is an appealing, feel-good thing,” said Ken Caldeira, a co-author of the study, “to plant forests to mitigate climate change outside of the tropics is a waste of time.”

    At some point, when the tree is burnt, or its wood decays, the carbon will be released back into the atmosphere. Dr. Kevin Andersen from the Tyndall
    Centre for Climate Change Research raises a critical question: “Even if the
    trees do survive, if we have climate change and a 2° C or 3° C temperature
    rise, then how do we know those trees are not going to die early and break
    down into methane and actually make the situation worse?”

  • Another poorly regulated trading scheme run by the financial elites.  Here you may wish to read Rachel Morris’ piece in Mother Jones from June of this year, in which it says:

    In 2008, the Government Accountability Office examined the use of offsets in Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme, which theoretically has a rigorous process to certify that offsets are “additional”—that is, that they cause emissions cuts that wouldn’t have occurred if the project hadn’t been implemented. But even though projects must be reviewed by both national officials and an external independent monitor to qualify, the GAO found that it was “nearly impossible” to ensure that offsets really were additional. It concluded that offsets present “a significant regulatory challenge” and should probably be viewed as a temporary measure at best. “In practice [offsets] have proved impossibly difficult to successfully implement without fraud,” writes Michael Wara, a carbon trading lawyer and coauthor of a Stanford University study that found that one- to two-thirds of offsets authorized by the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism didn’t represent true emissions cuts. “Even in the presence of a tough regulatory system…that is working hard to get things right…lots of counterfeit carbon currency is making it into the system.”

As for “carbon taxes” and all that, well, you might get better results in individual nations, but then you need a mechanism for making sure the global owning class, the “transnational capitalist class” as Leslie Sklair called them, do not send their corporations to the countries with the lowest carbon taxes.  Remember that countries are cheap; I’m sure that any one of the super-rich could buy the allegiance of an African nation or two with some spare change lying around the mansion.

Li is correct in assuming that the ruling classes, financial and political, have profit as their first and last priority, and so Copenhagen is a great PR initiative for them, to show they “care” while doing little of substance.  However, the vast majorities of the world do not deserve to live in a world like this, where the political classes decide to do nothing for everyone.

So what we want, then, is a world-society in which the majority of its people will care more about planetary survival than about their little privileged stake in a dying planet.  This means organizing the under-privileged, i.e. most of us, to assert our own ecological rights, in a world of 793 billionaires, about 10 million millionaires, and a bottom half of humanity who live off of less than $2.50/day.  Oh, sure, there are a whole bunch of people who live in between those extremes: you and I are two of them.  We’re also divided against each other by the unequal apportionment of our net worths and of white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, and so on.  The general pitch for the hierarchical society is one of “isn’t life so great that we’re able to consume so much and we have such privileges,” while the plight of those on the bottom is regarded as one of “overpopulation.”  But we are fooling ourselves if we think any of this privilege will amount to any degree of security for us and ours in a world of failing ecosystems.

In short, world society is built on a pyramid of wealth and power, and if we think we’re going to save it by maintaining the pyramid while doing “green” things in our spare time, we’ve got an extreme weather event coming.

We are at the ecosystems tipping point right now as regards abrupt climate change.  I’m sure James Hansen makes the argument better than I do; at any rate here is the argument I tend to make, based largely on the studies of the Antarctic ice cores.  Predictions of disaster, however, no matter how accurate, do not in themselves put anything “on the table,” and with impeachment, or single-payer health care financing, meaningful remedy for abrupt climate change is “off the table,” only in this case with far nastier consequences.  Pleading before the Emperor will not save us: we must organize the global public around the prospect of a livable world.

As for the alternative, do you really think it’s possible for the world to deal effectively with abrupt climate change, in the tight situation in which it’s gotten, while at the same the world’s people spend their energies working for privileges in the various status systems which they’ve erected?  We’re all going to forgo our search for “advantage” long enough to voluntarily stop consuming fossil fuels?  Or maybe the search for “advantage” is going to grant everyone the American Way of Life without stripping the planet of its resource base? There has to be an easier way of dealing with the class divide than by having everyone “raise themselves up by their bootstraps.”


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