There were scenes of jubilation in Paris last Saturday evening, as delegates from almost 200 countries celebrated the results of over two weeks of negotiations at the 2015 United Nations climate change conference, COP21. World leaders have declared the Paris agreement to be a “historic” landmark in the fight against climate change; an unprecedented display of cooperation in terms of international efforts to curb global warming.
According to the Financial Times (12th December 2015), “John Kerry, US secretary of state, said: ‘This is a tremendous victory for all of our citizens . . . It is a victory for all of the planet and for future generations . . . I know that all of us will be better off for the agreement we have finalised here today.’”, whilst “Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief climate negotiator, hailed the agreement as a ‘milestone in the global efforts to respond to climate change.’”
Elsewhere, again according to the FT (13th December 2015), “Angela Merkel, German chancellor, said the deal was ‘the first time that the entire world community has obligated itself to act — to act in the battle against global climate change’, while Pope Francis also praised the “concerted effort and generous dedication” of those involved.”
But before the ink had even dried on the paper, doubts were already being raised about the viability of the agreement – doubts that, in the final analysis, reflect the limitations and contradictions of the capitalist system.
Rising temperatures; increasing pressure
So why all the backslapping and self-congratulating amongst representatives at COP21? In many respects, the joy on display in Paris was the result of the extremely low expectations that have been sown in relation to such negotiations, due to years of anti-climactic posturing and paralysis.
For more than two decades, until now, the world has been treated to an annual display of complete impotence by political leaders, who have routinely failed to agree on any way forward in terms of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Delegates have simply been unable to decide how responsibility should be shared out, with each nation’s representatives simply trying to export the problem elsewhere. The last major attempt in Copenhagen in 2009 accomplished almost nothing, with the sole outcome being a pathetic “accord”, worth less than the paper it was written on. The fact that anything has been agreed this time round is therefore considered to be a major achievement.
Many commentators, however, have gone much further and praised the Paris agreement for committing almost all countries to a programme of carbon emission reduction targets that aim to keep global temperature increases (compared to pre-industrial levels) to below 2°C, with efforts to limit increases to an even more ambitious 1.5°C figure. Furthermore, the agreement requires countries to revisit and assess their progress and targets every five years, with aims to have net-zero average worldwide carbon emissions by the year 2050. And for the first time, the biggest emitters – the US, China, and India – are signed up to an international climate change agreement.
The fact that such commitments have been made is a reflection of the grassroots campaigning and pressure from below that has taken place over the months and years leading up to COP21. As the natural and social impacts of climate change become apparent to all, and with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets worldwide in recent weeks to demand the protection of our planet, delegates in Paris will have felt the eyes of the world burning into the back of their heads as they attempted to negotiate a deal.
The elephant in the room
Nevertheless, the limits of the Paris agreement were also quickly plain to see. Many have rightly noted that the Paris agreement provides no legally binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions – a point of contention that was at the centre of the breakdowns in all previous negotiations. To avoid embarrassment this time around, UN organiser simply ignored this elephant in the room, instead asking countries to supply “intended” targets for emission reduction. But, as the Economist (12th December 2015) notes:
“The efforts outlined in the pledges on climate action—‘intended nationally determined contributions’ that 186 of the countries at the Paris negotiations have provided—are more in line with a total warming of 3°C than one of less than 2°C, the limit that was written into previous UN documents, let alone 1.5°C.”
Michael McCarthy, environmental columnist for the Independent, asserted that, “the treaty which has been four laborious years in the making is simply not enough.”
“It will not, as it stands, keep global warming below the recognised danger threshold for the world of 2C above the pre-industrial level – still less below the new ‘aspirational’ limit of 1.5C, which the conference decided upon in one of its most eye-catching moves.”
The environmentalist and journalist, continues:
“We need to be clear: there is no guarantee whatsoever that the present settlement will bring about the necessary cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which are causing the atmosphere to warm, with potentially disastrous effect. The voluntary CO2 reductions which virtually all countries promised in the run-up to the conference, even if implemented in full – and that’s a big if – will only hold the projected warming down to 2.7°C at best, which is well into the danger zone for the world; and this recognition of the agreement’s limitations is at the heart of the criticism levelled at it over the weekend from some of the more radical climate campaigning groups.”
We should add, however, that even the limited targets and plans that have been agreed at COP21 represent no more than good intentions at the present time. As the developmental economist, Jeffrey Sachs, emphasised in response to the results of the climate change negotiations, writing in the Financial Times (12th December 2015):
“The diplomats have done their job: the Paris agreement points the world in the right direction…It does not, however, ensure implementation, which remains the domain of politicians, businessmen, scientists, engineers and civil society.”
Sachs – a renowned bourgeois economist – is being a bit generous to his friends in Washington and Wall Street, however; for the failure to act against climate change does not lie in the slightest at the feet of “scientists, engineers and civil society”. The problem is not one of science and technology, but one of class interests, with the bosses and bankers – and their political representatives in all countries – first and foremost seeking to protect the profits of big business.
This was clearly displayed within hours of the agreement in Paris, as the chief executives of major fossil fuel corporations – so confident of having the final say on the matter of environmental policy and regulation – stated that they did not see any change to their plans as a result of COP21 negotiations. Indeed, to stress this point unambiguously, politicians from the US Republicans spoke categorically of their opposition to the Paris agreement, as the FT reports:
“In the US, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, questioned the Paris deal, saying that the US portion relied on measures championed by President Barack Obama that were being challenged in the courts.
“‘Before his international partners pop the champagne, they should remember that this is an unattainable deal based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject,’ Mr McConnell said.
“A spokesman for Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, told the Financial Times: ‘This agreement does not bind Congress in any way, and we will continue to focus on an energy policy that promotes America’s abundant natural resources.’”
Regardless of the good intentions and political colours of those world leaders who are now tasked with implementing the decisions taken in Paris, however, within the shackles and straightjacket of the capitalist system, such international agreements remain, at best, unstable and uncertain; at worst, they are dangerous utopias and illusions.
At root is the barrier of the nation state, which under capitalism exists to protect the profits and interests of the capitalist class within its borders on the world stage. Like a thieving band of pirates, such nations may be able to cooperate in the short term as long as there is enough fruit from their plunder to go around; but as soon as the loot dries up, the bandits and gangsters will quickly be at each other’s throats.
The world has seen major international agreements in the past; most notably, the formation of the post-war consensus surrounding the Bretton Woods agreement, which was responsible for creating an international monetary system, with global bodies such as the United Nations and the World Bank at its helm. Such international co-operation in the post-war period, however, was a product of a unique convergence of historical factors, which led to a massive economic upswing, and an unprecedented epoch of geo-political stability, presided over by the hegemonic and unrivalled world power of US imperialism.
Today, the conditions for such stability are long gone. The material conditions for reforms have been shattered as a result of the deepest crisis in capitalism’s history; the decline of US imperialism, meanwhile, along with the impacts of the global economic crisis, have given rise to the most turbulent geo-political relations since World War Two. This is demonstrated point blank by the crises in the Middle East; the disintegration of the European project; a collapse in oil prices; the scourge of terrorism and fundamentalism; and the waves of refugees fleeing wars and poverty abroad.
At the end of the day, the question boils down to a simple one: who pays? As part of the Paris agreement, the advanced capitalist countries have promised to transfer at least $100bn per year to developing countries by 2020, to help the most vulnerable nations deal with the impacts and effects of climate change. On top of this, there is a clear need for hundreds-of-billions more in terms of the investment in renewable energy and green technologies required to reduce emissions to the targets agreed upon in COP21.
And yet, the money clearly exists. Already, according to official estimates by the International Energy Agency, subsidies to the fossil fuel industry amount to almost $600bn in total. On top of this, we might wish to mention the $1.6 trillion spent worldwide on arms and weapons to fight in imperialist wars. Rather than pave the deserts of the planet with solar panels, our capitalist governments spend eye-watering amounts to fight for access to the black gold that lies underneath.
As the global crisis of capitalism deepens and spreads, those international agreements thought up between diplomats and negotiators in the sanctuary of Parisian conference centres will quickly be fractured by the harsh realities of the capitalist system and its race-to-the-bottom logic of competition.
Already we see how the hard won reforms and rights of the past are being eroded away by the endless attacks and austerity of the ruling class, in order to protect the profits of the 1%. Similarly, the environmental regulations and reforms fought for today will be the first to be attacked – along with what remains of workers’ rights to organise against the bosses – in the future as the capitalists seek to claw back the profits they have lost as a result of such laws.
The more far-sighted bourgeois analysts have already drawn the conclusion that another world slump is on the horizon, threatening to plunge the global economy back into the darkness of recession and crisis. In such an event, all the fine words agreed upon at COP21 under the observation and scrutiny of the planet’s population will quickly be tossed aside as bourgeois politicians rush to save the system that benefits them and the class that they represent.
The parasite of capitalism
After seven years now of endless crisis, the capitalists and their political representatives have shown clearly that they are incapable of running the economy, let alone managing something as complex and important as the environment. And yet the wealth and technology to solve the problems of climate change are lying right in front of us, just waiting to be picked up, placed under the control of society, and used in the interests of the 99%, rather than for the profits of the few.
The fundamental problem is not one of political will, but of economic laws and logic. Only by replacing the laws of competition, profit, and private ownership with a democratic, rational, socialist plan of production can we seriously set about tackling the environmental questions with the vigour required.
Amidst all the celebrations in Paris, we as Marxists must tell an inconvenient truth: the only way to guarantee the health and protection of our planet is to put an end to the cancerous and parasitic capitalist system that is sucking the life out of it.