Copenhagen and Capitalism


Paul Jay, Senior Editor, The Real News Network: So let’s talk about Copenhagen.  If in fact most of the scientific community is quite persuaded in the climate change science, and certainly they are, and all the world governments say they are, what’s preventing us from getting a serious agreement, and particularly with China and the United States coming to something real?

Minqi Li: Well, I think the situation, in fact, right now, is not good, and we all know that now it’s almost for sure there will not be a legally binding agreement in Copenhagen.  And I think the underlying problem is that despite all the talk, rhetoric, about efforts to contribute to climate stabilization, all of these governments are primarily concerned with economic growth — or, in other words, capitalist accumulation — so they are afraid of these climate stabilization efforts will increase costs for capitalist accumulation, reducing capitalists’ profit, and therefore they are not really making serious efforts.

PJ: Don’t China and India have a legitimate argument that the West has had more than 100 years of economic development and carbon emissions, and China and India are just trying to catch up, and there doesn’t — there can’t be — anything but a disproportionate share of the effects of this, or it’s unfair?

ML: Well, I think that’s a very legitimate argument, and China-India can only bear the fair share of their global obligation, but nonetheless they have to undertake the global obligation.  The basic fact is that China has already overtaken the US to become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.  And, even in terms of per capita average, I suppose right now China’s per capita average is already above the world per capita average, even though it’s still far below the American one.  And so China needs to undertake at least as much as the rest of the world to reduce emissions.

PJ: I mean, isn’t that a point, that whatever the historical point of all this is, the current carbon emission is such that China has, I guess, now just surpassed the US, but it won’t be long before China starts to pull away, even, from the US.  Is that true?

ML: I think, yeah, that’s true.  And, of course, the situation right now is, because we have accumulated emissions so rapidly — and people have been talking about why it’s necessary to prevent global warming by 2 degrees to avoid climate catastrophes — but we have been accumulating emissions so rapidly, so now 2 degrees is increasingly unlikely.

PJ: There was even one report from, I think, a subcommittee of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] that said even 6 degrees is not out of the question by the end of the century.

ML: Right, right, yeah.  And there is a new recent report by a European organization — it’s called Ecofys.  In their Climate Action Tracker, they believe that given all the promises from all the governments, if they fulfill all of these promises, we would still be look forward to something like 3.5 degree warming.

PJ: So is the real truth here the truth that no one wants to speak, that the more developed countries have decided they can live with the consequences of climate change, and that the poorer countries that are going to get hit more quickly and worse, too bad?  I mean, there seems to be no real sense of urgency on the part of the more developed countries, including China and India.

ML: Unfortunately, that might be the case.

PJ: Well, if you accept the science and you accept the idea that we’re facing — at least many of us humans — are facing a catastrophe, you’d think there’d be much more sense of urgency.  If there was some meteor about to hit the earth and we knew it was going to hit within a year or five years or ten years and blow us to smithereens, people would be trying to do something about it.  But the climate change crisis, even though there’s some rhetoric about it, it’s not really being dealt with.  In fact, if anything, it’s being looked at as a way to make money — you know, cap and trade schemes and other kinds of ways.  It seems more “How can we cash in on other people’s sense of urgency?” rather than us really having a sense of urgency ourselves.

ML: Well, that’s very unfortunate.  I mean, the thing is that if the things continue to develop in this way, eventually it will not only be the poor countries that suffer from this — it will be the entire world.  But the problem is that the existing world system, of course, is dominated by capitalist corporations who only think about near-term profit.

PJ: Now, there seems to be a section of these corporations that say they are serious about it, partly ’cause there’s money to be made in it.  I mean, this is part of what strengthens the skeptic argument, that so many of these schemes to do something about climate change seem to be new kinds of Ponzi schemes like cap and trade.  How do people separate, you know, what they call “corporate greenwashing” versus real climate change efforts?

ML: Well, the real climate change — we all know that it’s supported by the scientific argument, and global warming is happening, and if it’s not stopped it will lead to climate catastrophes — this fact will not change.  It does not matter if we live under a capitalist system or any other system; this fact will not change.  On the other hand, since we right now still live in a capitalist system, unfortunately, the climate stabilization effort has taken place within this general framework of capitalism, which is therefore interacting with all of these profit motives.  But since we have this system of profit motive, this effort to achieve climate stabilization probably will not succeed.

PJ: Well, I mean, that is the system we’re in, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon — certainly not soon enough if the time frame of climate change that scientists are telling us is the correct time frame.  So in terms of Copenhagen, in terms of international agreements, in terms of what people should be demanding from their politicians, how do they sort out what looks like real measures. . . .  Like, for example, you have cap and trade; you have carbon tax; you have the issue of regulation.  It’s a very confusing debate for most ordinary people.  What is real meaningful change or policy to you?

ML: Well, of course, given the current situation, the world’s majority of the environmental movements continue to follow the strategy to persuade the government to reform, to adopt certain measures within the capitalist system, like cap and trade, or some would propose carbon tax as an alternative.  But the situation, the reality we are observing right now, is that, no matter how hard we are pressing the capitalist government, no matter how hard we are pressing the corporations, the emissions keep growing each year — except for this year because of the very deep recession, but we cannot have a deep recession every year.  The basic situation is that these capitalist countries continue to expand their emissions, and there’s no way to get out, so I would say maybe it’s time for the environmental movements to look beyond themselves and to find ways to combine their effort with the effort of the general social movement, to combine their effort with the effort of the world’s great majority, the oppressed and exploited.  Only with the general participation of the greater majority of the world population do we have some hope to stop this.  I know this is hard, but I don’t see any other option.

PJ: Now, in terms of the thinking of the Chinese, I mean, the Chinese do think, we’re told, longer-term than the American corporate elite.  If the Chinese are taking this seriously, then don’t they see in their own long-term interest that this has to be faced up to?

ML: Well, if the Chinese people right now are actually in charge of their political and economic system, then I suppose we could have a reasoned argument about this.  But, of course, right now the Chinese political power is in hands of bureaucratic capitalist elites, who basically only care about their own power and the profits.  And, of course, under the pressure of public opinion, they need to make some gesture and they need to have some nice rhetoric, but that has not translated into really serious action.

PJ: Now, we’re told that China is ahead of the United States in terms of the development of alternative energy.  They’re actually growing in terms of some of the regulation of carbon emission as a whole, although coal apparently is still expanding very quickly.

ML: Very quickly.

PJ: I mean, do they have a plan for this or not?

ML: The Chinese government just made the commitment to reduce the so-called carbon intensity of GDP by 40 to 45 percent, by 2020, from 2005 levels.  Now, that sounds like a very large number, but this carbon intensity is not the same thing as carbon emissions.  Carbon intensity is about the ratio of emissions to GDP.  So it’s quite possible for China to reduce carbon intensity, but in the meantime increasing China’s absolute emission levels.  And, in fact, given the Chinese government’s current promise, if we assume the Chinese economy continues to grow, let’s say, 10 percent a year, then the Chinese government promise is quite compatible with a doubling of the absolute level of emissions from 2005 to 2020.

PJ: Here in North America we have the impression, at least, that Europe is more serious about all of this.  Apparently, they are going to meet the Kyoto agreement, and there’s even talk that Europe might put some trade barriers against importers who don’t meet certain climate change targets, carbon emission targets.  Now, you have a capitalist system in Europe, as you do in the other places.  Is it true that Europe is ahead on this?  And if so, why?

ML: Well, Europe is definitely one step ahead of the US, but only one step ahead, and we need many steps ahead for the world.

PJ: But Europe does seem to be taking it more seriously.  There is a point, even within a capitalist structure, where at least enough, or a significant section, of the corporate sector is going to realize this is not in their interest.  You can already see it amongst insurance companies who are very concerned about how this is going to affect house and building insurance.  So it’s not monolithic where the interests lie within the system.  Is it not possible at some point, and maybe soon, sections of this corporate elite are going to find out that their own interest, even short-term interests, are affected by all of this?

ML: Well, one of the underlying dilemmas is that much of the catastrophe that would result from global warming will not happen maybe at least 20 years from now.  On the other hand, most of the capitalists would only care about competition in today’s world.  Of course, there are some sections of the capitalist class that are somewhat more enthusiastic about climate stabilization than other sections, but overall the sections of the capitalist class that are supporting all of these climate skeptics remain relatively strong.  And you have this competition between different capitalist classes, complete with competition between different capitalist states.  So none of them want to increase the cost for themselves.  So we live in this huge dilemma.

PJ: Well, which is why they want an international agreement.  In theory. . . .  You used to hear this from the automobile companies.  They used to say, “We don’t mind having controls.  It just has to be an equal playing field.”  Like, every auto company has to come out of the same set of rules, and then we can play within those rules.  Is that not true in terms of global competition?  If you really could have a global agreement, then everyone competitively is more or less in the same position.

ML: Ideally, that is the case.  But the problem with an international agreement is, of course, first of all, what kind of agreement?  And what is in it for everyone?  And how do you enforce the agreement?

PJ: Well, I suppose the same way they try to enforce world trade agreements.  There have to be sanctions and various things.  I mean, it all comes down to, again, whether these elites actually — if they really believe the science or not.

ML: Right.  Maybe that’s why China, India, South Africa, and Brazil are now resisting any kind of legally binding commitment.  On the other hand, the Western powers can no longer run the world as they used to run the world.

Minqi Li is Assistant Professor of Political Economy at the University of Utah.  He was a political prisoner in China from 1990 to 1992.  He is the author of The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.

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