By Paul Lewis
The run-up to the critical 2015 Paris climate talks begins in earnest this week with the United Nations’ Secretary General’s ‘Climate Summit’ in New York. The likelihood of an inter-governmental deal has improved with the Obama administration bringing the USA properly into the talks. But the price of US participation has been an attempt to remove historic responsibility for causing runaway climate change as the basis of negotiations.
President Obama can legitimately claim to be hamstrung by a Congress that recently banned the US army from even considering the impacts of climate change on long-term military strategy. Nevertheless, the primary aim of his administration’s climate policy has not been to secure an international deal in line with scientifically derived reduction targets, but to further US attempts to constrain China.
China, indeed, stands to be the biggest loser in a climate treaty that ignores countries’ contribution to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, by which measure it lags far behind the major capitalist nations. Following thirty years of extraordinary economic growth, during which it has become the factory of the world, China’s continental-sized population is now the world’s biggest polluting country. If history is being discounted, then the pressure is on China to make the biggest emission cuts.
But it is not only China that is affected by US attempts to focus the climate talks around a new language of ‘nationally determined commitments’. Essentially this means each country making its own assessment of what emissions reductions it is willing to make, and then using its economic and military strength to negotiate with other nations on this basis.
The breakdown of the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks was essentially over this point, with China and many developing countries rightly baulking at imperialism’s attempt to make them pay for the consequences of what British economist, Nick Stern, called the world’s ‘greatest ever market failure’.
Thus the direction of travel of international climate talks is clear. The US and EU are now genuinely trying to achieve a treaty that would cut carbon emissions, but are determined that capital bears as little as possible of the cost for cleaning up the environmental disaster it has created. In reality that means that any agreement will fall far short of what is needed to avert climate catastrophe.
China is making dramatic strides towards greater environmental sustainability and renewable energy, but its international climate negotiating position remains weak.
Real political leadership has come from the left countries of Latin America, some island states and, increasingly importantly, city leaders.
Bolivia, above all, has led the progressive forces in the inter-governmental talks. Although the initial role of Cuba, and Fidel Castro in particular, in setting out why tackling climate change is a priority for socialism was key. Venezuela and Ecuador have provided support.
Collectively, the socialist left lead a 36-nation ‘Like Minded Group’, formed with the active support of China and participation of Brazil and India (which has a generally poor position on climate change – effectively arguing that it is not its problem).
Collectively, the Like Minded Group argues for a target of constraining average temperature rises to just 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average (while the UN has adopted a more conservative 2 degree target), and for the restoration of the principle of historic responsibility as the basis for an inter-governmental climate treaty.
This position has resonated with many global south countries, who bear little responsibility for causing climate change but who are being affected first and hardest by its impacts. There have been recent indications that this pressure has had some impact within the climate treaty negotiations and that consideration of historic responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions is back on the table.
Indeed, the ‘Like Minded Group’ has been effective enough to provoke a response, and the UK government has funded the ‘Cartegna Dialogue’ of right-wing Latin American countries in attempt to provoke disunity among natural allies and to provide an alternative pole of attraction.
Further to the right, Canada, some of the Gulf states, and particularly Tony Abbott’s Australian government, appear determined to try and block any outcome that would seriously constrain the further exploitation of fossil fuels – the main drivers of their economies.
To this end, Abbott is attempting to establish his own ‘like minded group’, on the basis of putting economic growth before environmental sustainability. He has publicly encouraged David Cameron to join, although he is understood to have declined.
The next eighteen months will be critical in determining whether or not there is any chance of a global deal that could avert temperature rises above a tipping point beyond which runaway climate change would become uncontainable. On a business-as-usual trajectory of fossil fuel consumption that point will be reached within 15 years.
For many countries and significant parts of the global eco-system there are signs that their specific tipping points have already been passed.
Currently, the best hope from the inter-governmental talks is a universal deal in 2015 that would commit governments to begin cutting emissions in 2020, and at levels that are highly unlikely to be sufficient. It would, however, at least be a start.
Given the inter-governmental impasse, it is notable that city leaders are playing an increasingly prominent role in the talks and, more generally, in tackling the greenhouse gas emission threat.
At a municipal level the lines of political division are much less obvious. Historically the social-democratic mayors of Scandinavia have established themselves as green leaders and, a decade ago, the left-social democratic mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, may have made the most significant contribution by establishing an alliance of big city mayors (the C40) to tackle climate change.
But in the last few years, it has been the Republican/independent mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, one of the world’s richest individuals, who called out Hurricane Sandy as a climate disaster and injected global warming into the US Presidential election. He led the C40 for three years before handing over to the centre-right Mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, who appears to be pushing fellow mayors to make ever more vigorous interventions into the international climate change arena.
There remains, therefore, some possibility that runaway climate change can be averted within the framework of a capitalist world. Certainly there is not time to create the alternative social conditions that would be more suited to the task.
But to create reasonable odds of success will require the deft leadership of the socialist countries in Latin America, making a united front with progressive elements of capital. And while US attempts to trap China through climate policy is transparent, it is nevertheless essential that China adopts an international negotiating position consistent with its genuine leadership in domestic renewable energy and newly adopted policies of domestic environmental protection.
For socialists everywhere, tackling climate change needs to be a priority as never before.
A global day of action on climate change has been called for this Sunday, with events in London and Manchester, to send a message to global leaders at the summit that people demand action.
Assembly 12.30 Temple Place London, or 11.00 Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.