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Understanding Warsaw: Capitalism, Climate Change and Neocolonialism

The very structure of capitalism assures the absence of substantive results from the Warsaw – or any other – climate change conference.

COP 19, Warsaw. (Photo: Marius Patalan / Climate Centre)

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“The old Imperialism levied tribute; the new Imperialism lends money at interest.”

The War of Steel and Gold: A Study of the Armed Peace, Henry Noel Brailsford, 1914

The contradictions of world affairs are shifting into sharp relief in Warsaw. As the denouement of the climate conference approaches, political fissures are appearing that even the most diplomatic and experienced of civil service soothers are unable to paper over. The fractured lives and incendiary event of Typhoon Haiyan have been tossed into the most business-friendly COP yet.

The pain and suffering of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, and the anger of the Filipino delegation, screams for a rebalancing of global priorities for which the rich countries, intent on securing more get-out clauses than there are exits to the Norodowy Stadium, had not bargained. Commenting on Barack Obama’s supposedly positive climate action plan, Lucille Sering, secretary of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines, disputed its impact: “Somehow, when they negotiate, they always find some way to excuse themselves from doing anything. … It’s always either they can’t do this or they can’t do that.”

On one side, images from the aftermath of record-breaking Super Typhoon Haiyan, which UN head Ban Ki-moon and others have said is connected to climate change, are giving a new sense of moral urgency, in particular to national delegations from developing countries.

On the other side, despite the horrifying extent of the humanitarian disaster, and the fact that Haiyan is just one of many hurricanes since 2000 that has broken strength and intensity records, rich nations seem to be going out of their way to water down expectations over finances and a climate deal, even as we know we are falling farther and farther behind in our ability to address global warming.

A new scientific study by Climate Analytics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Ecofys shows that, even if countries stick to their current emissions reduction targets – a big if – planet Earth is headed for 3.7 degrees Celsius of warming; almost double the 2.0 degrees that is required to keep the global climate within safe limits.

With greenhouse gases already higher than at any point in the last 800,000 years, an increase in average temperatures of this magnitude would mean that our only home would be unrecognizable to any person living in the past 10,000 years, be catastrophic for many existing ecosystems and irreparably damage human agriculture and civilization.

In light of Canada, Australia and Japan all downgrading their previous commitments to emissions reductions, Bill Hare, director of Climate Analytics, remarked, “We are seeing a major risk of a further downward spiral in ambition, a retreat from action and a recarbonization of the energy system led by the use of coal.”

Despite the absolutely obvious and clear urgency of discussing how countries least responsible for creating climate change and simultaneously least able to respond, even as they are hit the hardest, might gain new financial help from richer nations, the United States, the European Union and Australia all came out with statements in Warsaw saying that finance for extreme weather events would not be discussed until 2015 at the earliest. Similarly swept off the table was an immediately rejected Brazilian proposal for a scientific study to determine the amount of historical emissions for which each country is responsible.

Two people are clearly observing a conference different to the one taking place in Warsaw – which is alarming because one of them is supposed to be running it.

Lord Stern, now a professor at London School of Economics and former chief economist of the World Bank, who published the influential mainstream British government report known as the Stern Report on Climate Change, and Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), published a joint article on Tuesday, a week into the talks. In comments that would put Dr. Pangloss himself to shame, they claim that a universal deal on climate change is “within our reach” because of a “renewed sense of urgency” alongside “a renewed sense of optimism” because “the political will among our leaders to act is growing.”

In contrast, inside the talks, and notwithstanding the fact that they claimed to be taking the issue seriously, Australian negotiators came to talks “in T-shirts and munched on snacks throughout the negotiation” according to a spokesperson for Climate Action Network. As tension and frustration mounted,132 nations, organized through the 77-plus China Group of developing countries, walked out on talks Wednesday in protest at the lack of serious discussion and the intransigence of powerful countries to address financial issues, which were supposed to be at the heart of this year’s COP.

Speaking to this issue, spokesperson on disaster risk for ActionAid International Harjeet Singh commented, “The US, EU, Australia and Norway remain blind to the climate reality that’s hitting us all, and poor people and countries much harder. They continue to derail negotiations in Warsaw that can create a new system to deal with new types of loss and damage such as sea-level rise, loss of territory, biodiversity and other non-economic losses more systematically.”

Poorer countries in the developing world rest their case on “seeking redress for climate damages from sea-level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts”, as noted by a leaked US document opposing such a discussion, on the very reasonable basis that rich nations have put off serious action on emissions and finance for 20 years. By that inaction, they have imposed costs on developing countries for which they are neither responsible nor able to pay.

To compound the legal, political and moral case, as of 2000, over the previous 30 years, the poorest countries have paid $550 billion in principal and interest to Western financial institutions, on a total debt of $540 billion – yet they still manage to owe $523 billion. For every dollar received in grants, the developing world commits $13 to debt repayment.

Developing nations are therefore fattening the coffers of institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and other Western financial houses by draining funds from desperately needed projects to address poverty, the lack of infrastructure development, agricultural facilities and their ability to adapt to climate change.

What should be happening is the immediate cancellation of all “Third World” debt, just as the US government forgave far larger sums and bailed out its own banks after the 2008 financial crash. Moreover, developed nations actually have to add money for climate change induced “loss and damage” to the balance sheets of developing countries, rather than subtract it.

According to the UN’s Environment Program report, by 2020 Africa will have to find an additional $7 billion to 15 billion to cope with climate change impacts such as increased droughts, flooding, crop and infrastructure damage.

As for the Philippines and its ability to adapt, Drector of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development Dr. Saleemul Huq noted that the Philippines is a country that is used to coping with typhoons, giving early warnings and successfully moving hundreds of thousands of Filipinos on short notice to evacuation centers, but cannot do so on this scale:

“The Philippines is adapted to typhoons, the people have shelters and they went to them. … In normal circumstances you would have heard nothing about it, but in this case they died in the shelters because it was a super typhoon of unprecedented magnitude. That’s loss and damage, you can’t adapt to that.”

According to the World Bank, costs for “natural” disasters have risen from $50 billion per year in the 1980s, to $200 billion per year today; representing a total of $3.7 trillion. By 2050, it’s estimated the annual requirement will rise to $1 trillion. Underlining that no country is immune, the United States had to allocate $100 billion in 2012 as a result of Hurricane Sandy and several other extreme weather, flooding and drought disasters for disaster relief.

What can help us understand the self-evidently suicidal continuation of policies that promote the increased production of fossil fuels, such as the $1.9 trillion of annual subsidies that the IMF calculated go to support the industry? Without these subsidies, alternative energies, such as wind power, which receive far less financial support, would be competitive with fossil fuels in just a few years, depending on the country.

The IMF concludes that just removing these subsidies, which unsurprisingly “encourage wasteful consumption” according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, would result in a 13 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, with many other positive impacts of reduced demand for carbon-based energy.

To give just one example of the insanity of capitalist development predicated on cheap oil and its reckless disregard for rational development policies, Saudi Arabia uses a full 20 percent of the energy from its oil drilling activities to power the 27 desalination plants it needs to make clean water and almost another 20 percent for other domestic uses.

One quick and obvious answer to the lack of political will and the diversion of resources to fossil fuel corporations is simply to highlight the power and influence of the corporations themselves, and the sheer profitability of oil, coal and gas production. Exxon-Mobil for instance, with sales of $428 billion in 2012, has a larger turnover than the GDP of all bar 27 countries.

Furthermore, an analysis to be published in the journal Climatic Change concludes that just 90 companies, a mix of investor-owned ones such as Exxon, state-owned such as Saudi Aramco and government agencies in countries like China, Russia and Poland, are responsible for two-thirds of human-induced global warming.

In other words, the future of our world, its 7 billion people and 8.7 million other species, is being held hostage by “the decision makers, the CEOs or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, [who] could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two” said Richard Heede, at the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado.

While we can narrow the majority of global warming down to less than 100 corporate and state entities, it’s necessary to examine the propulsive force behind the operation of capitalism that drives such a future and concentrates unimaginable wealth and power into so few hands. Profit-seeking through competition is the structural edifice upon which hangs the compulsion for growth, embedded within the internal mechanism for capital accumulation.

One can never have enough money, because the objective of capitalism is to produce money, as demonstrated by Marx in his famous formula, M-C-M. A capitalist starts with money, M, turns it into a commodity, C, then sells it on the market at profit, for more money, M. Under ideal conditions, i.e. when capitalism is functioning as it should, each round of production thereby begins with a larger pile of capital, M, to further enlarge production.

It is irrelevant to capitalism if the growth in economic activity results from positive or negative production – all increases in economic activity are equally valid, just as all non-monetary values – such as all labor in the home – are seen as worthless.

The fact that more money will have to be spent rebuilding flooded cities, mitigating pollution or coping with the spread of disease are all things that can add to a country’s GDP and are, therefore, an overall asset to the system in ways that limiting the production of fossil fuels or other economic activity are not. As Vandana Shiva has written:

“Growth” measures the conversion of nature into cash, and commons into commodities. Thus nature’s amazing cycles of renewal of water and nutrients are defined into non-production. The peasants of the world, who provide 72% of the food, do not produce; women who farm or do most of the housework do not fit this paradigm of growth either. A living forest does not contribute to growth, but when trees are cut down and sold as timber, we have growth. Healthy societies and communities do not contribute to growth, but disease creates growth through, for example, the sale of patented medicine.”

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank, has written recently about the “insanity” of US agricultural policy, itself a “result of political decisions made in Washington” that essentially are responsible for starving the 45 million Americans so poor they manage to qualify for food stamps.

In a surprisingly close parallel to Marxist analysis, Stiglitz, whose job was to promote the efficiency of markets as means to satisfy people’s needs and enforce the neoliberal order, notes with regard to the operation of the market:

“Having a bounteous supply [of food] within a country does not ensure that the citizens of that country are well fed. … [F]amines are not necessarily caused by a lack of supply, but by a failure to get the food that exists to the people who need it. This was true in the Bengal famine of 1943 and in the Irish potato famine a century earlier: Ireland, controlled by its British masters, was exporting food even as its citizens died of starvation.”

If we can’t expect the system to feed people, even when food is available, what chance is there that it will close down the most powerful industry the world has ever known to help save the biosphere?

But there is a further factor undermining governments’ ability to address climate change in Warsaw, or for the preceding 19 years; another feature of capitalism, without which an explanation for the intractable differences between nation states is incomplete.

After a certain point of capitalism’s development, competition extends beyond the boundaries of nation states or individual corporations to engulf the international arena: Capitalism must make the entire world its corporate playground. This point was reached and analyzed a little more than 100 years ago.

Drawing on J.A. Hobson’s classic study, Imperialism, left-wing journalist and author Henry Brailsford, in his work A War of Steel and Gold, first published in 1914 on the eve of a different kind of global catastrophe, sought to analyze how the “armed peace” and relations between nations had changed with the advent of giant corporate trusts and the spread of international capital.

What can we learn from such a book about what’s going on at a climate conference in Warsaw in 2013?

After all, in a few months, Brailsford’s book, which went through three editions in two years, will be 100 years old. Written at a time well before international conferences on global warming became annual events, but when human civilization was threatened for the first time by the onset of Total War, his analysis makes for a useful reference point to understand the continuity and methods of operation of what we call today globalized finance capital; in short, imperialism:

“Our modern conquistadores do not burn their ships when they alight on coveted soil, as though to anchor themselves for ever on its fertile acres. Our bankers will not do in China what Cortes and Pizarro did in the New World. They build a railway or sink a mine. Our Ahabs do not take Naboth’s vineyard; they invest money in it. The struggle for a balance of power means today a struggle for the liberty and opportunity to use “places in the sun” across the seas. For the modern world, a place in the sun is not a smiling valley, or a rich plain in which a victorious army will settle, build homes and found families. It is a territory to “exploit” and the active agents in the process are now the bankers and investors who float the loans, and secure concessions.”

The fact that a 100-year-old book can illuminate our ecological plight in the second decade of the 21st century reinforces the point that, despite all that has changed, the system adheres to the same basic laws: most fundamentally, the unceasing drive to expand and accumulate on an international scale, with finance capital to grease the wheels, which is at the heart of capitalist social relations.

It is this competition between nation states for power, prestige and the prizing open of markets – or “inter-imperial rivalry,” to use Lenin’s phrase from his 1916 work Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism – that underpins the impotence and bitter bickering that has been a feature of all climate conferences. As the ecological situation has become more dire and more clearly related to the centers of imperial power, so those powers have become ever more unwilling and unable to take serious action.

This revelation is not unconnected to the abiding usefulness of another left-wing journalist, a certain K. Marx. As Marx presciently observed, the constantly expanding nature of production under capitalism would at some point escape the system’s control:

“Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

Contrast the resources flung into war – human, natural, technological – with those launched to save humanity. The annual Pentagon budget is in excess of $700 billion, yet the developing world cannot obtain pledges for $100 billion for climate change mitigation by 2020. Could there be a more persuasive case made as to the need to get rid of capitalism and try something else?

Posing that question doesn’t mean that we can’t effect positive change within the system as it exists by forcing a change in the balance of social power and redirecting funds to more sensible priorities: such as building a movement strong enough to force the removal of subsidies to fossil fuels and applying them to renewables, canceling all developing world debt, fighting for more funds for climate change adaptation and disaster relief and removing them from the Pentagon – indeed, such activism is absolutely essential.

But it does mean that we have to recognize, as many of the thousands of protesters on the streets of Warsaw did Saturday, that climate change presents an insurmountable problem for capitalism and that “System Change” is the only rational solution.

As capitalism destabilizes the natural world, in likewise fashion it exploits the social world. This fact reinforces the need for activists to tie together social and ecological action into one movement.

Indeed, such is the inability of the system to improve the lives of the vast majority of people on the planet, even those who benefit from the exploitation are beginning to worry about the danger of social explosions.

The World Economic Forum, a consortium of the world’s business and political elite, noted somewhat worriedly in a new report that, “Widening wealth disparity … [is] impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale … [in] a world becoming ever more unequal.” The report continues, “Unrest cloaked in a desire to change from one political leader to another is a manifestation of people’s concerns about their basic needs.”

The report was written to inform a summit in Abu Dhabi that coincides with the Warsaw conference. The Network of Global Agenda Councils describes itself as a global community representing “thought leaders” from around the world. At the opening of the summit, founder and Chairman of the elite World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab highlighted the point made earlier about the incompatibility of capitalism with human happiness and planetary stability: The “biggest challenge we have today is the incapability of the system of global governance to take the necessary time and devote the necessary attention to construct our future.”

The reasons for the breakdown of talks in Warsaw, the incessant squabbling over the allocation of financial resources and the complete inability of government representatives to broker a meaningful deal all point to the systemic impediments buried deep in the substructure of capitalism.

If we are to save our world, it will not be enough to chip away at the walls; the people of the world must take a hammer to the entire foundation.

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