Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen's failure puts the ball in our court

Turning points in human history are few and far between. But it is no exaggeration to say that the abject failure of the Copenhagen climate change conference is one such event, a moment when humanity was hit by an unprecedented collective betrayal.

After two weeks of wrangling in the Danish capital following 18 months of preparatory talks, the conference that was supposed to end with a binding treaty to cut carbon emissions came up with a big fat zero. Nothing. A couple of sheets of hastily put together text that were so meaningless that the UN conference could only “note” their contents before the conference closed.

The message from political elites representing the major economies was clear: Humanity, you are own your own. We have more “important” issues to deal with – saving the banks and getting “back to growth”. These “leaders” in effect decided to allow climate change to rush ahead unchecked with dire results if they are left in charge of our lives.

The failure at Copenhagen means that the big corporations will do nothing to reduce emissions, and the energy corporations have a free rein to go on burning carbon while others will profit from the obscene carbon-trading market. It is the opposite of what is needed.

It will actively encourage the extraction of oil from tar sands; it will make it easy to avoid working towards clean coal; it will enable nuclear power and it will encourage and reward clearing of rain forest for palm oil plantations. As for helping poorer countries, the following example of “adaptation” is what is in store.

Thousands of acres of coastal land in Bangladesh which used to support families growing rice has now become too saline for the crop. To “adapt” to this impact of climate change, the land is being transformed into shrimp farms, for export to the wealthy west. Landlords are evicting their tenant farmers, taking grants from the government and moving into this cash crop. Thousands of families are being driven off the land and into the slums of Dhaka, or across the border into India as illegal migrants.

No wonder the poorer countries stood up at Copenhagen and refused to be railroaded into some deal that would allow the major capitalist countries to carve up the biosphere in a kind of neo-colonialism more in common with the 19th century.

Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia had it right, when he told the conference that the capitalist system of production was the problem. But it’s not solely an economic dilemma that humanity faces. Primarily it’s a political challenge.

If Copenhagen demonstrated anything it was that the political systems in Europe, the United States, China, India, Australia and other key countries are tied inextricably to the maintenance of the capitalist status quo – at any price, including global warming.

More and more millions across the world do not agree that just a handful of government leaders should be in control of undemocratic, unresponsive political state systems and have the power to decide our destiny.

As the noted environmental campaigner George Monbiot put it after Copenhagen collapsed: “In all cases immediate self-interest has trumped the long-term welfare of humankind … The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.”

Unfortunately, Monbiot is deeply pessimistic, unable to conceive of an alternative way forward. Well, we can. Those who sabotaged Copenhagen have lost their authority, their legitimacy and their right to rule over us on behalf of equally-discredited corporate and financial interests.

We have no choice but to make 2010 a year of revolutionary, democratic change that transforms economic and political power structures. Help us with the project to draft a Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions as a positive response to the debacle at Copenhagen.

Paul Feldman, communications editor
Penny Cole, environment editor

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