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Who Will Pay for Climate Change Disaster?

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A discussion with Patrick Bond on the lack of political will to deal with climate change and the forces mobilizing for action.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. The IPCC report from the United Nations on climate change—Working Group II said the following. Describing the effects of what they say now will be the consequences of climate change are the following:

“i. Risk of death, injury, ill-health, or disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones and small island developing states and other small islands, due to storm surges, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.

“ii. Risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding in some regions.

“iii. Systemic risks due to extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services.

“iv. Risk of mortality and morbidity during periods of extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable urban populations and those working outdoors in urban or rural areas.

“v. Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings.

“vi. Risk of loss of rural livelihoods and income due to insufficient access to drinking and irrigation water and reduced agricultural productivity, particularly for farmers and pastoralists with minimal capital in semi-arid regions.

“vii. Risk of loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for coastal livelihoods, especially for fishing communities in the tropics and the Arctic.

“viii. Risk of loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for livelihoods.”

Now joining us in the studio to discuss the politics of climate change is Patrick Bond. Patrick Bond teaches political economy and eco-social policy and directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, and is involved in research on economic justice, geopolitics, climate, energy, and water. And his most recent book is—he coauthored with John Saul, is South Africa: The Present as History.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So it’s nothing new, in a sense, that for quite a few years there’s been rather apocalyptic predictions. The science gets more and more firm and more, I think—like, the percentage of certainty goes higher and higher. That always is going to happen. What is it now? Over 95 or 97 percent or something certainty that these are going to be to consequences.

In 2007, 2008, even into ’09, it seemed like the elites of the world believed all of this. They had the Stern Report that was commissioned by Tony Blair that said similar things as this, and there was discussion everywhere about the need to, you know, reduce carbon emissions, the need to finance adaptation in parts of the world that were going to get hit most severely. President Obama, when he was running, was talking about all of this and a new green economy, but the same thing in Europe. And, yes, they were looking for ways to make money out of it, yes, they were trying to financialize the whole thing with this carbon trading, but still there seemed to be some underlying belief in the elites that this was in their interest, not just some do-gooder thing. It was in the interest of the elites themselves to try to cope with this. Something happened over the next, you know, five, six, seven years and it’s barely in the discourse anymore.

BOND: Well, you’re right, Paul. And the modalities of how the failure to move an awareness and a degree of political will into an actual agreement, an agreement, let’s say, like 1987, where the chlorofluorocarbons that cause the ozone hole to grow were banned. It took about six years, seven years to actually do it, but they agreed in Montréal at the Montréal protocol we need a ban and we need to save the ozone hole in that very explicit state-regulated way.

Unfortunately, I think many of the reasons for a slowing and a diversion of that energy in 2007, ’08, ’09 came from not banning but a cap and then trading strategy, and it was most explicit with Barack Obama. You’ll remember, your viewers will probably recall that he won the Nobel Prize and he went to Oslo in December 2009, and the next day he went down to Copenhagen, and that’s where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was holding the negotiations. And it was a deadlock. And Europe was sort of always in the middle. The South was, especially African delegates and some of the Latin Americans and Bolivians were always most powerful demanding major cuts. The Maldives Islands, for example, had just held a cabinet meeting with scuba gear on just to dramatize our island is sinking. And Obama came and he made a deal, and the deal is called the Copenhagen Accord, with four other big countries, the BASICs—Brazil, South Africa, India, and China.

So the BASIC countries, later BRICS, ’cause you add Russia, have been part now of delaying action. And so there seemed to be a moment where, had UN process really come to fruition with a more democratic process without the distraction of carbon trading, of making this a financialized project, maybe then these IPCC reports, which keep coming through warning us, maybe they would have been taken seriously.

However, now we’ve got a bloc which is really—Canada’s probably the worst, and Australia, with the U.S. And now Russia and Japan have pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. So those five countries keep going to these UNFCCC COPs conference of the parties, and they sabotage. And the next time they’ll do that is in Lima, Peru, in November. And the next big opportunity, where many of the side negotiations are converging, would be 2015 in Paris. So Copenhagen, where 100,000 people protested, may have the source of energy to revitalize a global-scale struggle then. But in the meantime, for the next 20 months, it’s going to have to be using the information information of the IPCC report in all of our debates and all of the activist initiatives to try to very microscale stop major fossil fuel, and whether it’s on divestment of big fuel, fossil fuel companies from the university portfolios or people blocking mountaintop removal or blocking the pipelines from Alberta or stopping coal-fired power plants, this is now where the energy of these activists has to increase. And it is there, and extraordinary things are being done.

JAY: Is part of the problem here—or maybe it’s the problem here that, as it became clearer and clearer to corporate and political elites around the world, that the poor were going to suffer? But the poor already suffer, in the sense if the way the elite thinks is that, you know, most of the world that’s [incompr.] now—or I think it’s still the majority of the world has never used a telephone, still. I mean, and that may be changing with mobile phones. But this idea that it would be in the South, it will be the poor, and we in the North and we who are relatively wealthy, and certainly, in the elites, we who are rich, we’re not going to be hurt that bad. And, you know, over years we’ll probably figure out some technology to make it livable for us and our kids, and that what was required to face up to the changes that the scientists said, you know, to keep under this 2 degree bar by the end of the century were just too serious. You literally had to transform the way capitalism exists, and they weren’t going to go there. And they all think so short-term anyway. You know, it’s the next election cycle, it’s the next quarter of profit reporting, that, you know, kind of the hell with it.

BOND: Those are all absolutely valid factors, in the sense that elites are soiling their own nest (a) for the short-term profit involved. And let’s specify that it’s fossil fuel corporations that have a large chunk of political power, through the Koch brothers in this country, for example. And I’ve always felt that until that power can be challenged, we will see probably any attempts in the U.S. Congress to make any headway futile.

This is similar dynamics when you look at the negotiations. Many of the delegates are really instructed—I can say certainly South Africa—to not push hard, because many of our economies in South Africa, as well, are fossil fuel-addicted. And it does mean, as you say, a huge reboot of everything, of agriculture and energy and transport and production and disposal and consumption norms. All of these things to have to be changed, so we are now in this awareness that this is about an eco-socialist project if we’re going to save the climate. And you can’t really work within the kind of techniques that even the IPCC has suggested—green technologies or various biotech fixes that they believe could be sequester carbon.

JAY: So if this geo-engineering, in one form or another, if they can suck the carbon out of the air, or other stuff is to put particles up there to reflect sunlight back and all that, I mean, if it works, what’s wrong with that?

BOND: Well, the dangers, the risks associated with any of these schemes is just out of control. And there is a convention dealing with biodiversity that is, luckily, so far, preventing some of the most wacky schemes, for example, putting iron filings into the ocean to create algae blooms that will sequester, suck out the carbon. I was disappointed that the IPCC has seemingly endorsed carbon capture and storage. The idea there is that you can take your coal-fired power plants or other big fossil fuel combustion systems and take the carbon out and store it somewhere. It’s very, very dangerous. Many of the sites that we’ve been looking at—for example, in South Africa—are quite unstable. So when carbon emerges, if there’s an accident in a big way, it would be potentially quite fatal, a big CO2 cloud just emerging.

These are the kinds of things that make the technical fixes highly dubious, too much risk. Nothing’s been proven. The best CCS pilot project was in Norway, and they shut it down. So I doubt we’re going to see anything more than rhetoric there.

So, instead we really have to go back to the agenda of the carbon cuts, and also methane, because that’s also becoming a big factor, what with the melting of the Arctic. But with fracking, there’s a great deal of methane that’s released.

And these are where activists, I think, are the only hope for a future, that climate justice activists who are aware that the main dangers are for people in low-lying areas, people in Africa, where we might see a 7 degree centigrade increase in temperature this century. And when you say—that awareness that it’ll just be poor people that get hit perhaps changed, Paul, when Hurricane Sandy hit in October 29, 2012. Some say even that was a sufficient shock to the consciousness, that Barack Obama had his reelection confirmed, because his opponent, Mitt Romney, was such a climate denialist.

But regardless whether the Michael Bloomberg strategy of putting up $20 billion of climate proofing around Manhattan Island, somewhere along the line what has become clear for the elites is this is going to cost big money—$60 billion of damage in a day and a half of Sandy. And the question is: who’s going to pay that and how? And the answer was given in Copenhagen by Hillary Clinton: $100 billion a year in a green climate fund. And that’s now coming into the Peru meeting later this year to be codified and maybe a fund that could actually take some money. But so far it’s basically empty and it’s very unsatisfactory to waiters fund is developing.

And that’s why I think a climate debt debate—who caused the problem, who owes—is vital.

The one other big factor is the U.S. has had a slightly lower emissions level, because they’ve outsourced the emissions to production systems, especially in China, and trying to balance that in and say, well, if you’re the end user of these goods that are created with massive greenhouse gas emissions, that should be on your account, not on the producer’s account. So those are some of the other debates about how we then assess who owes and who should pay, a climate debt debate that I hope in the next year and a half before Paris can really get going, because we really need systems that transfer funds to people who are really being socked. I mean, this is the big thing in recent months—major, major damage, the Thames Valley flooding. We had so much damage associated with heavy rainfall in South Africa recently that the whole electricity sent system broke down because the coal was too wet. So big costs associated with climate. Who pays? Who—.

JAY: Again, this is all about taking on the fossil fuel industry, cause that seems to, in terms of public opinion in United States, there’s so much money at the political level and at the media level that they kind of closed down the whole conversation. And so this taking on the fossil fuel both—but politically, too, I mean, this issue of—does it not have to be not just about protest? And there has to be something done at the level of politics, whether it’s a fight within the two parties or the Democratic Party, I suppose, more, or something else?

BOND: And we’re at that stage in the debate where it’s the activists who are mobilizing at the grassroots level, who haven’t quite got the critical mass and haven’t, probably, cleared a sufficiently coherent ideological stance. Many would just accept the Band-Aid strategies or accept the carbon trading. And I think to move us to the point where we all realize that we need (a) a bigger critical mass, maybe it’s going to involve the kind of critical mass that ended apartheid, because that involved so many people in cities like Baltimore saying, our city government must do something, our university must divest the funds. And that’s where I think we’re just on the verge of having some breakthroughs.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

JAY: Thank you very much, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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