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Trading Away Our Environmental Future: The Trans-Pacific Partnership

If we can stop the TPP agreement, future trade negotiations may be more positive for communities and the planet.

February 3, 2014: LA activists greet Michelle Obama's organizing drive with a protest against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). (Photo: Stop Fastrack, via Mike Chickey.)

A day after Obama’s State of the Union reaffirmed his support for a trade agreement that opponents call “NAFTA on steroids,” those opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) remain equally committed to stop it. January 21 is national call-in day to stop “fast track,” the trade authority that hands over Congress’ constitutional trade and legislative writing authority to the president. Earlier this month, we listened in on a national call and strategy session with author Naomi Klein, Ilana Solomon, responsible trade director of the Sierra Club, and Alisa Simmons, deputy director of Global Trade Watch, about why they oppose the TPP and the free trade model the United States has promoted for over a quarter century.

Deep in the throes of the financial crisis and record job loss, Canada’s largest province, Ontario, passed the Green Energy and Economy Act. It was 2009. Climate experts around the world celebrated it as the best plan North America had to get off fossil fuels. The centerpiece was a local content provision that encouraged green energy producers to sell back to the grid. In the case of solar energy, 40 to 60 percent of all content was required to be made with local components. By 2013, 31,000 jobs had been created. Only one coal plant remained operating.

“That’s where the good news ends,” explains Klein, whose recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, discusses the plan at length. The European Union and Japan took Ontario to the World Trade Organization for violating its trade obligations. “Sure enough,” Klein says, “the government of my province repealed parts of the green energy plan.” The message was clear for governments everywhere, she adds. Craft local green policies and you’ll be challenged by an unelected trade tribunal.

Klein was part of a recent nationwide call organized by MoveOn and co-partners, Citizens Trade Campaign, the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO and Communications Workers of America, among others, to collectively endorse the “FlushtheTPP” campaign. The TPP or Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that the United States and 11 other nations have been negotiating for over five years, appears to be close to a deal, say observers who are relegated to watching from the sidelines. Corporations and trade negotiators are the only ones at the negotiating table.

Opponents of the TPP, who call it “NAFTA on steroids,” say it has the potential to undercut federal, state and local laws on everything from labor and public health protections to access to generic drugs and a free internet. Less focus has been given to the TPP’s likely impact on clean energy policies. Trade agreements give multinational corporations broad rights to sue governments over laws the corporations argue will reduce their profits. There have been nearly 600 cases of corporations challenging almost 100 governments since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted, says Ilana Solomon, the Sierra Club’s responsible trade director, who also took part in the national campaign call. The challenges are increasingly about clean energy and climate policy.

One example Solomon cited is the EU’s landmark climate policy, a Fuel Quality Directive (FQD), which set a target to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 6 percent by 2020. The policy encouraged fuel suppliers to switch from high-carbon fuels, such as those derived from tar sands, to lower-carbon fuels. Canada, with its Alberta tar sands being the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world, threatened the EU with a WTO challenge. The US oil industry, which refines Canadian tar sands for export to Europe and hopes to ship more if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, also lobbied against the FQD. The threats, along with leverage that trade negotiators enjoy, were taken seriously, says Solomon. “The EU commission recently issued a revised Fuel Quality Directive that is vastly weakened and is exactly what the oil industry wanted.” At the same time, the EU was busy working to use trade rules to strike down US climate and energy policies. In 2014, a leaked trade document revealed the EU’s attempt to strike down policies that would eliminate US bans on exporting liquid natural gas and in turn, fuel the controversial extraction process, called fracking.

A year ago, WikiLeaks leaked the environmental chapter of the TPP with a cartoon image showing Mickey Mouse expounding to the wildlife that surround him. “Of course the environment is in the TPP,” says Mickey. But as campaigners across the globe feared, the draft version exposed most environmental protections as toothless and unenforceable. The Sierra Club’s Solomon says the environmental chapter remains one of the agreement’s outstanding chapters. While she believes it may have been strengthened, it’s unclear to what extent. “From our perspective, no matter how strong the chapter, there’re two considerations,” she said. One is that environmental chapters of past free trade agreements have never been enforced. And two, “even if the language is strong, all of the other parts of the TPP – such as the investor-state agreement – undercut any enforceable outcome in the environmental chapter.” The investor-state dispute system elevates multinationals to the level of nation-states and gives them unparalleled traction to sue individual nations if they believe a country’s laws will negatively impact future profits.

Klein says insufficient attention has been paid to the successful implementation of the neoliberal trade agenda, which began in 1988 in conjunction with a steady rise in greenhouse gas emissions. 1988 was the year the United States and Canada signed the first mega trade deal. It was also the year that climate scientist James Hansen first testified on Capitol Hill that he had a great deal of certainty there was a connection between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The free trade era, says Klein, has locked in a vision of the world, often referred to as “The Washington Consensus,” which saw a massive outsourcing of jobs abroad and shipping of manufactured goods all over the world. The globalized model encourages the most wasteful form of production and the results have been predictable, she says. “In the 1990s, global greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1 percent a year. In 2000, they started to increase by 3.4 percent a year on average – a significant jump.” The corporate free trade model the TPP represents, says Klein, “is at cross purposes with what we have to do to combat climate change.”

For its part, the Obama administration, along with congressional allies Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), is lobbying hard for “fast track” trade authority. “Fast track” hands over Congress’ constitutional trade and legislative writing authority to the president. Congress can approve or disapprove a specific trade agreement, but it can’t amend it or filibuster. The authority has been sought by the Obama administration since 2012. In January 2015, it still has a fight on its hands. An estimated 180 members of the House of Representatives, largely Democrats, but a handful of Republicans, have pledged to fight fast track and oppose the TPP. Earlier in January, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut) and other Democratic lawmakers, union members and consumer safety advocates held a news conference to announce their opposition to provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that would give the president “fast track authority.”

Alisa Simmons, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, also participated in the national call in to “FlushtheTPP.” She says there was a lot of panic after Democrats lost control over the Senate in the midterm elections. Pro-fast track and pro-TPP folks, she says, “are promoting the myth that we should just give up. It’s a done deal. But that’s not the case. The fight to stop fast track has always been a fight that’s focused on the House of Representatives. So that’s where we stop it.”

While 180 members of the House have pledged to stop the TPP and fast track, many representatives in the 435 member House, Democratic and Republican, remain undecided or unwilling to commit. “We can win this,” Simmons said, “but we can’t relent. Not for one minute. This is just not stopping another bad free trade agreement. If we can stop fast track, I see a turnaround.” Making sure trade deals are positive for communities may be a long way off, she adds, “but I think if we can stop this now, we stop it forever and we change the course of history.”

A January 2014 poll conducted by Democratic Hart Research and GOP Chesapeake Beach Consulting Firm, found that 62 percent of all Americans across the political spectrum opposed fast track. A September 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center found only 20 percent of Americans believed that trade agreements led to US job creation while half of Americans – half of Democrats and more than half of Republicans – said the result had been US job losses.

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