Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Simply not sustainable

On the face of it, the politicians and business leaders gathered at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos appear to be powerful enough to do something effective about climate change. The corporations represented at the Swiss ski resort by more than 800 chief executive officers have a combined turnover equivalent to around a quarter of world production. When they talk about climate change, they should have the power to change things. But while the agenda reflects concerns about climate chaos, a closer look at the agenda reveals what keeps the CEOs awake at night. The corporations are worried about the "increasingly complex web of rules" as "policy-makers struggle to slow environmental degradation", and will be doing all they can to offset the threat of any "constraint on profitability". One debate will ask "what will motivate the global marketplace and if we can make green pay - for the investor, for business and for the planet?" Note the order of priority. The debate will discuss three motions: 1) Nuclear energy and clean coal are the only viable alternatives to oil 2) markets are superior to regulation in leading corporations towards ‘greener’ operations 3) A global carbon tax will do more harm than good.

That’s not to say that the world’s leaders are indifferent to the promise of rooftop wind turbines and solar-powered bus shelters to fleets of vehicles fuelled by biomass. Nor do they ignore the certain rise in temperatures (anywhere from three to six degrees Celsius) which will severely affect weather patterns, sea levels and water availability, thereby destabilising economies and societies. But the answers are a foregone conclusion – the market will sort it all out. It’s not up for discussion. From mercury pollution taxes to deposit refund systems for car batteries and emissions trading, market-based instruments are the only boxes to be ticked. However, following Stern’s conclusion that climate change is the result of a catastrophic market failure, those at Davos are forced to acknowledge that new approaches are needed – but still within the profitability model that is the driving force of the global capitalist economy. So a session headlined "Hurricanes, Heatwaves and High Seas" will ask: "What are the barriers to mitigating investment risk? What business opportunities can adaptation create? Are financial services firms profiting or losing money from the fear of climate change?" In partnership with Davos, the BBC has launched a world debate on its website to "explore the sea change in public pressure for environmental sustainability, and why some leaders (and not others) are willing to take risks". The BBC is asking: "1) Who is forcing the urgency of the climate change debate: the politicians or the public, especially the younger generation? 2) Are governments and political leaders prepared to take the decisive measures to ensure trends capped and reversed? 3) Do governments have the skills and capacity to start doing what is needed?" The WEF agenda, with its emphasis on profits and markets, has answered the questions. To wait for Davos (or any subsequent international gathering) for solutions is about as effective as waiting for Godot. The WEF shows once more that corporate power is simply not sustainable and is the barrier to action against global warming. As a result, it falls to ordinary people in each country to create a new, alternative economic and political framework as the only viable way to tackle climate chaos.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

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