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Beyond Business-as-Usual: Climate Protection Strategy in the 2010s

[Author’s note: With the defeat of US climate legislation, the stalling of international climate negotiations, and the rise of tea party climate denialism, is climate protection doomed? This piece presents a strategy designed to win popular support and make countries compete to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It was prepared for the Labor Network for Sustainability by Jeremy Brecher to help frame the debate on where the climate protection movement goes from here.

[Author’s note: With the defeat of US climate legislation, the stalling of international climate negotiations, and the rise of tea party climate denialism, is climate protection doomed? This piece presents a strategy designed to win popular support and make countries compete to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It was prepared for the Labor Network for Sustainability by Jeremy Brecher to help frame the debate on where the climate protection movement goes from here. For a fuller version, see Climate Protection Strategy: Beyond Business-as-Usual.]

2010 was a rough year for those struggling to address the climate crisis. The long-anticipated Copenhagen climate change summit broke down in wrangling and discord. The US Congress abandoned efforts to pass climate legislation. A well-financed effort to deny global warming and block any restriction on fossil fuels seemed to be developing a powerful popular base.

Meanwhile, scientists reported that global temperatures in 2010 were among the hottest since records began a century ago. An ice sheet four times the size of Manhattan broke off the Arctic ice pack. Los Angeles saw its hottest day in history.

What is needed over the coming few years to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions to the level scientists say are necessary to preserve life as we know it on earth?

A Global Movement

The failure of climate protection reflects the primacy of short-term competitive self-interest by nations and corporations. These institutions are not designed or structured to pursue any wider human or global interest. And their time horizon is determined not by the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren but by the next election cycle or quarterly report. To their leaders, sustainability means getting through the next couple of years without loss of elections or profits. Climate protection advocates have looked to those leaders to follow their personal and institutional self-interest in protecting the climate — and been sorely disappointed.

The ingredient that has been missing until recently is an independent global movement of people working together across all boundaries to secure the long-term global interest in saving the earth’s climate.

Creating such a movement may seem a hopeless task. But in the past, the failure of established institutions to solve problems has often led to the emergence of movements demanding radical change. Betrayed government promises for racial equality and nuclear disarmament, for example, helped spawn national and global civil rights, ban-the-bomb, and student movements in the 1960s.

Such a movement is in fact emerging today. It is seen in the 10/10/10 Global Work Party and Day of Climate Action, the massive actions of young people manifested by the global activities, the civil society actions at Copenhagen and Cancun, and the global network of climate protection advocacy organizations. While recognizing the many specific interests that will be affected by climate change and climate protection, that movement is based first and foremost on solidarity with all of humanity and solidarity with future generations.

A Global Race to Cut Greenhouse Gasses

A core strategic objective for climate protection should be to foment a competition among countries and corporations to radically reduce their ghg emissions. The movement against nuclear weapons and testing provides a significant parallel. Its effectiveness is recounted at length in the magisterial three-volume history The Struggle Against the Bomb by Lawrence Wittner. According to Wittner,

Most government officials — and particularly those of the major powers — had no intention of adopting nuclear arms control and disarmament policies. Instead, they grudgingly accepted such policies thanks to the emergence of popular pressure. . . Confronted by a vast wave of popular resistance, they concluded, reluctantly, that compromise had become the price of political survival. Consequently they began to adapt their rhetoric and policies to the movement’s program.

The “ban the bomb” movement demanded more of cold war rivals than lip service or courtship. It demanded — from all sides — unilateral initiatives for peace, an end to nuclear testing, a halt to the arms buildup, and binding disarmament agreements. As Wittner massively documents, the international movement and world public opinion forced rival nations and blocs to accept the nuclear test ban treaty, detente, arms control, and the unacceptability of using nuclear weapons.

While some peace movements were primarily aligned with East or West, it was the existence of a nonaligned peace movement that provided the crucial ingredient for the “peace race.” The nonaligned movement could call the shots as it saw them, criticizing or praising each country on the basis of its actual performance. That created, in effect, a bidding war over who would do the most for peace. The global movement for climate protection can foment the same dynamic — making countries and corporations compete to prove who is actually walking the walk of reducing carbon and other greenhouse gasses.

The Economics of Climate Protection

The major proposed means for greenhouse gas reduction has been to “put a price on carbon,” either through a cap-and-trade system or such variants as a cap-and- dividend system or a carbon tax. Such market-based strategies are necessary but not sufficient. According to the British government’s Stern report, the greatest market failure of all history is the destruction of the planet by greenhouse gases. While current “cap and trade” programs attempt to create a market solution to this problem by creating a market to buy and sell pollution permits, we cannot wait for the market to fix the market.

We must reconstruct society on a low ghg basis regardless of whether or not it is profitable to do so. We need to create a rapidly growing “green” sector in which production is based on social necessity – specifically, for climate protection – not just for profit.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a classic “command economy.” Markets and systems of decentralized cooperatives can be part of the mix. It’s not an ideological question: We can use price mechanisms as a technical device for efficient allocation once basic social priorities have been set. But the price mechanisms must not override the basic social decision to reconstruct society on a low-carbon emission basis. Where the market won’t implement that transformation, public planning, regulation, and investment must do so.

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Wartime mobilization provides an analogy. We don’t expect an army to make a profit. It has other responsibilities and requires other means of support. During World War II, for example, public policy mandated the production that was necessary: tanks and airplanes. Money, factories, labor, and other resources were redirected to that purpose. Tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed workers were trained and put to work producing what the war effort required. (The campaign for such a program was first popularized by UAW president Walter Reuther’s pamphlet 500 planes a day: A program for the utilization of the automobile industry for mass production of defense planes.)

At the same time, public policy forbade much production that was unnecessary; as a popular song about wartime mobilization put it, “put those plans for pleasure cars away.” Today’s equivalent would be mandated annual reductions in carbon-emitting production and consumption, combined with employment of all available people and resources for economic transformation.

The recent success of the Chinese economy, and specifically its spectacular success in expanding green industries, is similarly based on establishing social priorities, expanding public investment and training, and shutting down industries that pollute or waste resources needed to combat pollution.

Global Warming and the Global Economy

The climate crisis is escalating in the context of the deepest global economic crisis in eighty years. This crisis reflects the failure of globalization and neoliberalism and will likely over time produce a search for alternatives. The climate movement should take advantage of this context to pursue solutions that go beyond prevailing economic assumptions.

The defeat of climate protection has resulted in large part from a view of the world as a geopolitical and economic competition among rival nations and corporations. Copenhagen foundered in good part on how the economic costs and benefits of climate protection would be borne by different countries and their economic institutions.

In the face of the breakdown of international climate cooperation, the more highly planned and regulated economy of China is allocating massive public resources to developing a “green energy economy” and, in the context of global competition, is literally wiping out the solar and wind power industries in the US. This is being met by appeals by US labor and others to punish the Chinese under WTO rules for encouraging climate protection. Why not instead compete with the Chinese to see who can provide the most effective subsidies for climate protection?

What is needed is neither escalating trade wars nor the free-trade utopia of neoliberalism. Instead, we need to implement a strategy of mutually managed trade that encourages all countries to develop their climate protection industries and technologies as rapidly as possible, while allowing the benefits to be shared in a way that protects both developing countries and workers in developed countries — not to mention the planet as a whole.

A framework for such an approach has often been characterized as a “Global Green New Deal.” The International Trade Union Confederation [ITUC], which represents 176 million workers in 151 countries, has worked with the UN to develop a strategy for utilizing the current crisis to reconstruct a greener and more just global economy.

This approach has been endorsed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has called for “an investment that fights climate change, creates millions of green jobs and spurs green growth.” He says that what the world needs, in short, is a “Green New Deal.”

In the depths of the Great Depression, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal — a set of government programs to provide employment and social security, reform tax policies and business practices, stimulate the economy, and restore a devastated national environment. It included not only the building of homes, hospitals, school, roads, dams, electrical grids, but massive programs in forest conservation, land preservation, and environmentally-protective agricultural policies. The New Deal put millions of people to work and created a new policy framework for America democracy.

The United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) and the ITUC developed the Green Economy Initiative, which advocates “mobilizing and re-focusing the global economy towards investments in clean technologies and ‘natural’ infrastructure such as forests and soils.” According to UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, the financial, fuel, and food crises result in part from “speculation and a failure of governments to intelligently manage and focus markets.” Enormous economic, social and environmental benefits are likely to arise from “combating climate change and re- investing in natural infrastructures — benefits ranging from new green jobs in clean tech and clean energy businesses up to ones in sustainable agriculture and conservation-based enterprises.”

According to UNEP, the objectives of a “Global Green New Deal” should be to create jobs and restore the financial system and global economy to health; to put the post-crisis economy on a sustainable path that deals with ecological scarcity and climate instability; and to put an end extreme poverty. It spells out investments and policy reforms to achieve these goals.

The world labor movement emphasizes that addressing both the problem of climate change and the problem of economic decline require government leadership and cooperation among governments. As the ITUC’s statement to the Copenhagen climate conference put it,

Economic transformation can not be left to the “invisible hand” of the market. Government-driven investments, innovation and skills development, social protection and consultation with social partners (unions and employers) are essential if we want to make change happen.

As the Stern Review reminds us, climate change represents the biggest market failure in history. We cannot trust the same failed market mechanisms to successfully steer out of this crisis. The problem has to be solved through regulation, democratically-decided and implemented public policies and most importantly political leadership.

Until both labor and climate protection movements start to take on the shibboleths of neoliberalism, we face more of the same only worse.

What is Needed

The failure of the Cancun talks to cut greenhouse gasses, and the abandonment of climate legislation in the US Congress, indicate that a new course for climate protection is necessary. It requires a global climate movement that is independent of nations and corporations and therefore able to make them compete in a global race to cut carbon and other greenhouse gasses. And it requires the transcendence of neoliberalism by a new global economic regime that makes human sustainability a higher priority than the short-term interests of any country or corporation.