Climate change, and its attendant injustices, cannot be tackled without fundamentally challenging the economic system. A system that serves the interests of — and has been shaped and perpetuated by — the richest and most powerful. This includes a trading system that is exploitative of people and of the planet, and which was formed on the basis of a far-from-level playing field.
For decades now, the neoliberal status quo of unfettered markets, and the unholy trinity of privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation, has been accepted as an almost incontrovertible norm for the big political parties. A norm in which the interests of multinational corporations comes firmly before the interests of the people. And which has arguably placed a stranglehold on transformative political change.
Now, at a point in time when much change is on the cards, from the UK’s impending-Brexit to the chilling election of Donald Trump in the US, we face huge challenges. But in the interests of justice, equality, ecological sustainability and peace, we must meet them.
Trading Our Climate in for Corporate Profits
This year’s UN climate talks took place in Marrakech in early November. Not as newsworthy as last year’s Paris talks, and overshadowed by Trump’s election in the US, their outcome was once again underwhelming and characterised by unfulfilled promises, from a lack of vital pre-2020 ambition to inadequate climate finance from rich to poor.
This is not a surprise, since UNFCCC climate conferences have long been captured by the very industries they should be putting out of business, from fossil fuel sponsors to corporate polluters being given a seat at the table. But a growing movement recognises that we need to kick big polluters out of climate policy. Frankly, it is absurd that companies with a vested interest in continuing the profiting-from-polluting status quo are given an official platform in climate policy-making to lobby, influence and greenwash.
Decades of Big Tobacco misinformation and manipulation — tactics mimicked by Big Oil on climate change — finally led to a ban on the tobacco industry having any role or voice in setting public health policy. To protect climate policy from being subverted and undermined by vested interests, the same must happen: corporate polluters should not be allowed in, or be allowed to influence, climate policy-making spaces.
Alas, the corporate lobbies influencing climate policy are just as omnipresent in the machinery around trade policy. Last year, in the run up to the Paris climate talks, I looked at how COP21 and EU-US trade agreement TTIP were being shaped by the same big business interests. Take, for example, the chemicals industry’s EU lobby group CEFIC, whose members include firms like BASF, Dow, Bayer and ExxonMobil Chemical Company. This fossil-energy-heavy industry had been pushing for TTIP to open the door to shale gas imports and fracking. At the same time, it was lobbying for international climate policy to avoid “distorting competition in global markets”. To translate, this means ignoring the responsibility of rich, industrialised countries (and their corporations) for making deeper emissions cuts — one of the underpinnings of climate justice. This year, CEFIC was nominated for the Democracy for Sale award for the business lobby that most had a hand in co-writing TTIP. The fact is, both the UN climate talks and trade deals like TTIP and its Canadian counterpart CETA are targeted and utilised by big business lobbies keen to ensure that the rules are made in their favour. Regardless of the threat to the welfare of people and the planet.
Trade deals like TTIP, CETA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) come with a heavy dose of “investor protection”, enabling companies to sue governments (but not the other way round) for introducing laws that protect the environment or public health, which they say cut their anticipated profits.
Many also include plans for ‘regulatory cooperation’ between trading partners, designed to give big business ‘stakeholders’ the chance to co-write regulations before national parliaments are involved, stopping any new rules that could be ‘barriers to trade’. ‘Regulatory cooperation’, which has been a core part of the TTIP negotiations, may sound innocuous, but it could strangle our ability to foster the urgently needed energy transition by helping polluting corporations entangle or quash regulations they don’t like. For example, laws to make investment in coal more costly, rules that favour community-owned renewable energy, moratoriums on shale gas exploration, and so on.
Keep Calm, UK and Learn About Trade Policy
In the post-Brexit vote context, when it comes to trade policy and trade deals, the UK may have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. The EU’s trade agenda has without any doubt been deeply problematic, including the way the European Commission negotiates trade deals like TTIP and CETA behind-closed-doors, with an inside seat for corporate lobbies but not for civil society.
But in such negotiations, the UK has consistently played a role of gleefully pushing the interests of big business, including investor protection and regulatory cooperation. Now that the UK is on a rocky road out of the EU, with a government wedded to big business at the helm, we face a huge challenge to prevent TTIP-gone-supernova style trade deals becoming the new norm. Handing more decision-making power over to corporate ‘stakeholders’. The challenge is to ensure workers rights, environmental and consumer protections, social justice and democratic decision-making are not sacrificed further on the altar of trade.
A sign of the challenges to come, suggests Aditya Chakrabortty, is in how the government dealt with Nissan’s demand for a deal to keep its business in the UK: corporate threat, bargain struck, “an expensive handshake behind closed doors”. Citizens in the dark about what public-money backed promises its government has made, whilst it simultaneously slashes welfare. And, after three decades of deregulation, how far can the government go with promises of “a cheap, biddable workforce and a bunch of corporate sweeteners”? Cheap, biddable and sweet enough to make up for the lack of access to the single market? What will that mean for people already subject to underpaid and precarious jobs?
When it comes to the formation of the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy, we must ask who will shape it, how will it be shaped, and what effects new UK trade deals might have on our capacity to tackle climate change, inequality and other crucial issues?
To answer the question of who is likely to be shaping this country’s trade agenda, one might start by looking at advisory and ‘expert’ structures set up to assist the government; uncovering details about lobbying relating to trade policy, including meetings and correspondence (using a frustrating combination of freedom of information requests and the scraps and snippets of publicly available data on lobbying) and digging up problematic revolving door cases, such as former private sector lobbyists turning trade officials. These are the bread and butter of unravelling the who’s who of corporate-influence. It’s not encouraging that rumours abound about business and the City being “scoured” for trade negotiators. Nor that Minister for Trade Liam Fox is a TTIP-CETA superfan.
But this kind of work is important, because it reveals the asymmetry of power exhibited in the world of lobbying: corporate interests overwhelming dominate public interest actors. This underpins the privileged access and undue influence of big business in policy-making. Which, in turn, systematically frustrates urgently needed progress towards public-good policies. Many of the worst excesses of the prevailing economic system — a system that is responsible for ecological and social crises — are a result of narrow interests being able to shape the rules, and therefore create a system within which they can profit further and become more powerful. It is therefore vital that people are informed and mobilised on what is at stake with how the UK approaches its trade policy. So that this trend of increasing power to narrow economic interests is not given a clear path post-Brexit.
Exposing the reality of TTIP and its ilk (CETA, TPP, Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), etc) as deals that transfer power over decision-making to corporate interests, we take a step towards preventing a myriad of copycat UK trade deals. But doing so without considering a positive and possible alternative vision of trade policy, based on democratically-agreed principles of economic, social and environmental justice, isn’t enough. What we want — and need — trade to achieve, must be at the heart of this. Not least because trade deals that spark a race to the bottom on environmental and social protection regulations, or hinder the fight against climate change and a swift, just transition to renewable energy, are incompatible with stopping catastrophic climate change.
Does Trump Trump Our Trade Troubles?
So how does all this sit with the election of Donald Trump, a big business tycoon with a record of racism and misogyny, whose campaign was built on the scrapping of free trade deals that are damaging to US workers like the TPP and TTIP, and on pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, getting rid of environmental regulation and triggering a domestic fossil fuel extractive frenzy? Trump, who tells the world that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to damage US economic interests. Trump, who wants to put an Exxon-sponsored climate denialist in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, so that he can watch it wither and die.
Well, to start with, it does no one any good to let Trump get away with taking the credit for sinking TTIP or the TPP. As groups like the Sierra Club and Global Justice Now have pointed out, these ships were already sunk, thanks to a diverse and international civil society movement of millions who fought against the trade deals because of the threat they posed to workers, communities and the environment. Activists who are fighting for societies that are diverse, open and equal, democratic and respectful of everyone’s rights. The fact that Trump also targeted these deals, however cynically, as the source of the pain inflicted on disenfranchised American workers, does not change the fact that they havebeen bad for the majority of people and the planet.
What should be highlighted however, is this:
“It is precisely billionaire businessmen like Donald Trump who have exploited deals like TTIP for decades. Donald Trump has made a fortune from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has devastated communities, lowered wages and privatised public services.
Despite his rhetoric, Trump fully believes in deregulation, privatisation, and putting profit before people… Trump’s policies are based not on fairer trade, but on exploiting foreign countries, risking international tensions and dumping economic problems onto others.”
So says a recent letter signed by Global Justice Now, War on Want, Trade Justice Movement, National Union of Teachers and numerous other organisations. Trump may have pointed to these corporate trade deals as illustrations of how politics has been corrupted by big business, but he — as demonstrated by his appointment of corporate lobbyists and big business representatives to office — will make this even worse.
Doing an about-turn and supporting trade deals like CETA (now signed, but waiting for the European Parliament to vote on it), would be a terrible response to Trump’s criticism of such deals. TTIP, TPP, CETA et al. are bad for the climate, equality, democracy and social justice. So is Trump.
As the above letter concludes, defeating Trump (and ‘Trumpism’) requires not only stopping these trade deals, but building a democratic economy that works for everyone:
“To defeat the politics of racism and hatred represented by Trump and the far right in Europe, we call on politicians to support economic policies which will benefit the majority of people, which eradicate poverty, which create decent jobs, good quality public services and which halt climate change.”
Not that this is just (or even mainly) about politicians. It isn’t. Its about how we go forward collectively, as communities and societies, to determine how we want trade and our economies to work. In a way that doesn’t exacerbate inequality, marginalise or oppress, and that doesn’t fuel climate change and environmental injustice.
For the UK, faced with an impending but uncertain Brexit, discussions on the kind of principles trade policy should be based on, and the objectives it should fulfil, are overdue. As is a broader, civil society-led discussion about the shape of our society, particularly now that so much is on the table to be re-written.
Much more open and informed discussion is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We keep being shown by political leaders that if we leave it up to them, climate catastrophe is coming our way. Even if all the (non-binding) national emissions reductions pledges made under the Paris Agreement are met, it would take us to an expected warming of a devastating 3.5 degrees.
Which is why going forwards must, at heart, be about communities getting active and taking control, struggling against polluting, extractive projects, and fighting new fossil fuel infrastructure, climate-damaging projects or unjust false solutions. And, about solidarity with communities on the front line of climate injustice — and all kinds of injustice — all around the world. As a statement released by Friends of the Earth US on the day of Trump’s election said, “The People’s Revolution, the Standing Rock Sioux, the Movement for Black Lives and Keep it in the Ground activists will not go gentle into the night. We will fight to protect our land, air, water and the people who depend on them for survival.
Let us not go gentle into the night.