In Copenhagen, the world’s richest leaders continued their fiery fossil fuel party last Friday night, ignoring requests of global village neighbors to please chill out.
Instead of halting the hedonism, Barack Obama and the Euro elites cracked open the mansion door to add a few nouveau riche guests: South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, China’s Wen Jiabao (reportedly the most obnoxious of the lot), Brazil’s Lula Inacio da Silva, and India’s Manmohan Singh. By Saturday morning, still punch-drunk with power over the planet, these wild and crazy party animals had stumbled back onto their jets and headed home.
The rest of us now have a killer hangover, because on behalf mainly of white capitalists (who are having the most fun of all), the world’s rulers stuck the poor and future generations with vast clean-up charges — and worse: certain death for millions.
The 770 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere envisaged in the Copenhagen Accord signatories’ promised 15% emissions cuts from 1990 levels by 2020 — which in reality could be a 10% increase once carbon trading and offset loopholes are factored in — will cook the planet, say scientists, with nine out of ten African peasants losing their livelihood.
The most reckless man at the party, of course, was the normally urbane, Ivy League-educated lawyer who, a year ago, we hoped might behave with the dignity and compassion behooving the son of a leading Kenyan intellectual. But in Obama’s refusal to lead the North to make 45% emissions cuts and offer payment of the $400 billion annual climate debt owed to Third World victims by 2020, Obama trashed not only Africa but also the host institution, according to 350.org leader Bill McKibben: “He blew up the United Nations.”
Economist Jeffrey Sachs charged Obama with abandoning “the UN framework, because it was proving nettlesome to US power and domestic politics. Obama’s decision to declare a phony negotiating victory undermines the UN process by signaling that rich countries will do what they want and must no longer listen to the ‘pesky’ concerns of many smaller and poorer countries.”
The Accord is “insincere, inconsistent, and unconvincing,” Sachs continued, “unlikely to accomplish anything real. It is non-binding and will probably strengthen the forces of opposition to emissions reductions.” Moreover, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s “announcements about money a decade from now are mostly empty words. They do not bind the rich countries at all.”
As Naomi Klein summed up, the Accord is “nothing more than a grubby pact between the world’s biggest emitters: I’ll pretend that you are doing something about climate change if you pretend that I am too. Deal? Deal.”
A handful of technocrats must also shoulder blame, including two key South African officials. A week earlier, before the politicians arrived, Pretoria bureaucrats Joanne Yawitch and Alf Wills were already criticized by leading Third World negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping for dividing the South’s main negotiating group, the G77. Yawitch then forced a humiliating apology from Di-Aping for his frank talk (to an African civil society caucus) about her treachery. On Friday night, Zuma did exactly what she had denied was underway: he destroyed the unity of Africa and the G77.
The Pretoria team went to Copenhagen empowered by endorsements from the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace — alongside gullible climate journalists — who took at face value a vaguely promised 34% emissions cut below anticipated 2020 levels, even though absolute decline would only begin after 2030. Tristen Taylor of Earthlife Africa begged Pretoria for details and, after two weeks of delays, learned Yawitch’s estimates were from a “Growth Without Constraint” (GWC) scenario.
According to Taylor, “GWC is fantasy, essentially an academic exercise to see how much carbon South Africa would produce given unlimited resources and cheap energy prices.” Officials had already conceded GWC was “neither robust nor plausible” eighteen months ago, leading Taylor to conclude, “The SA government has pulled a public relations stunt.” WWF and Greenpeace owe an explanation for their incompetence.
Then came Friday, which George Monbiot compared to the 1884-85 Berlin negotiations known as the “Scramble for Africa,” which divided and conquered the continent. The African Union was twisted and U-turned to support Zuma’s capitulation by the man appointed its climate leader, Meles Zenawi. In September, the Ethiopian dictator claimed, “If needs be we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threatens to be another rape of our continent.”
But he didn’t walk out — he walked off his plane in Paris on the way to Copenhagen, into the arms of Nicolas Sarkozy. The fateful side deal, according to Mithika Mwenda of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), is “undermining the bold positions of our negotiators and ministers represented here, and threatening the very future of Africa.”
Not only did Zuma and Zenawi surrender on emissions cuts, but also on demanding full payment of the North’s climate debt to the South. “Meles wants to sell out the lives and hopes of Africans for a pittance,’ said Mwenda. “Every other African country has committed to policy based on the science.”
Clinton and the US team refused to acknowledge the North’s vast climate debt, owed not only for climate damage but for excessive use of environmental space. Huffed Washington’s chief climate negotiator, Todd Stern, “the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations — I just categorically reject that.”
Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations Pablo Solon replied, “Admitting responsibility for the climate crisis without taking necessary actions to address it is like someone burning your house and then refusing to pay for it. . . . We are not assigning guilt, merely responsibility. As they say in the US, if you break it, you buy it.”
Stern’s aversion to “culpability” translates into rejection of his own government’s straightforward “polluter pays” principle as well as the foundational concepts of the Superfund, responsible for cleaning toxic waste dumps across the US.
Worse, if the Copenhagen Accord is widely endorsed by February 1, much of the promised funding would flow via notoriously corrupt Clean Development Mechanism projects which often do great damage in local settings. According to the Accord, “We decide to pursue opportunities to use markets to enhance the cost-effectiveness of and to promote mitigations actions.”
But carbon markets continue failing, as long predicted by the Durban Group for Climate Justice and more recently by The Story of Cap & Trade. Last Thursday, the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme anticipated the feeble Copenhagen outcome — including a defunct forest offsets deal — by dropping 5%. The benchmark price is just 13.66 euros, less than half the peak of mid-2008, far lower than required to attract renewable energy investments.
According to European Climate Exchange director Patrick Birley, “We were hoping that a deal in Copenhagen would open up new opportunities for emissions trading. That expectation has now faded.”
This leaves South Africa and the others as accomplices to an historic climate crime that cannot be covered up. The claim that post-apartheid Pretoria only looks after itself has often been made elsewhere on the continent. For example, former president Thabo Mbeki’s nickname at the World Economic Forum’s mid-2003 meeting in Mozambique was “the George Bush of Africa,” as the Sunday Times reported.
Climate damage to Africa will include much more rapid desertification, more floods and droughts, worse water shortages, increased starvation, floods of climate refugees jamming shanty-packed megalopolises, and the spread of malarial and other diseases. Ironically, Obama’s and Zuma’s own rural relatives in Kenya and KwaZulu-Natal will be amongst the first victims of the Accord.
Did Zuma know what he was doing, acting in Copenhagen on behalf of major mining/metals corporations, which keep SA’s ruling party lubricated with cash, “black economic empowerment” deals and jobs for cronies, and which need higher SA carbon emissions so as to continue receiving the world’s cheapest electricity, and which then export their profits to London and Melbourne?
Perhaps, but on the other hand, two other explanations — ignorance and cowardice — were, eight years ago, Zuma’s plausible defenses for promoting AIDS denialism in 2000. He helped Mbeki during the period in which 330,000 South Africans died due to Pretoria’s refusal to supply anti-retroviral medicines (as a Harvard Public Health School study showed). To his credit, Zuma reversed course by 2003, as public pressure arose from the Treatment Action Campaign and its international allies. That’s exactly what the main local activist network, Climate Justice Now! South Africa, must repeat, or otherwise permit Zuma to remain a signatory to a far worse genocide.
In the US, given that Obama’s counterproductive cap-and-trade legislation is gridlocked in the Senate, the logical response — if he cares a whit about the climate — is to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to start shrinking greenhouse gas emissions by the worst polluters through its recent “endangerment” finding, to locate serious resources (e.g. through Third World debt cancellation) to pay carbon debt damages that can finance adaptation for climate victims, and to formally decommission the nascent US carbon markets, which delay the needed structural change towards a post-carbon economy. None of these strategies need congressional authorization.
In South Africa, Zuma should do exactly the same. Neither will, of course.
So uncivil society will have to take up the slack and apply direct pressure, starting with the slogan “leave the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, and the tarsand in the land!” Indeed the most effective antidote to the post-Copenhagen hangover came from environmentalists — most visibly, Greenpeace — stretching from Australia to Africa to Appalachia to Alberta.
On December 20, on a bridge leading to the world’s largest coal port, in Newcastle, Australia’s Rising Tide activists blocked a train for 7.5 hours, with 23 arrests.
In South Africa, groundWork, Earthlife, and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance are amongst the country’s serious environmentalists trying to keep coal in the hole, by protesting the recently-announced $3.75 billion World Bank loan to Eskom (which helps fund the vast Medupi coal-fired plant), increased coal exports from Richards Bay, ultra-cheap electricity for aluminum smelters and mines, filthy operations of Sasol oil-to-coal, a new dirty oil refinery near Port Elizabeth, and a proposed Durban-Johannesburg pipeline which will double fuel flow to Africa’s least sustainable city.
Up the Atlantic Coast, the climate’s and the people’s main ally is the militancy which keeps Niger Delta oil in the soil. The Port Harcourt-based NGO Environmental Rights Action, led by visionary Nnimmo Bassey, links local destruction to global climate chaos. Sabotage of oil extraction is the consistent tactic of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which ended a two-month ceasefire by attacking a Shell and Chevron pipeline six hours after the Copenhagen Accord was signed.
In Appalachia, West Virginia’s Climate Ground Zero activists have, according to a December 19 report by Vicki Smith, “chained themselves to giant dump trucks, scaled 80-foot trees to stop blasting and paddled boots online into a 9 million-gallon sludge pond. They’ve blocked roads, hung banners and staged sit-ins. Virginia-based Massey Energy claims a single 3 1/2-hour occupation cost the company $300,000.”
And in Canada on December 20, anti-tarsands environmentalist Ingmar Lee climbed a flagpole at the British Columbia parliament to protest carbon crimes by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Provincial Premier Gordon Campbell, and their ally Tzeporah Berman from the corrupted NGO ForestEthics. At the Canadian High Commission on London’s Pall Mall last week, Camp for Climate Action activists offered solidarity to Alberta’s indigenous Canadian tarsands victims by cutting down the maple-leaf flag, drowning it in crude oil, and then locking down on an upstairs balcony.
So if only two things were accomplished in Copenhagen, they were the unveiling of Pretoria, Delhi, Beijing, and Brasilia as willing criminal accomplices to the Washington/Brussel/Tokyo/
Melbourne/Ottawa axis, and the rise of Climate Justice Action, Climate Justice Now!, 350.org, and parallel movements whose hundreds of thousands of protesters swarmed streets of the world’s cities.
The next question is whether in 2010, before the next fiasco in Mexico City, the latter can cancel the former. We all depend upon an affirmative answer.
Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.