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Leaving this Stage of History: Towards a Globalised New Orleans, or the End of Capitalism.
Climate change is everywhere. Ramor Ryan gatecrashes the ineffectual UN Conference on Climate Change in Nairobi and comes back blaming Capitalism.
A momentous report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that climate change is 'man-made and unstoppable'. The 21-page report, described as conservative by the IPCC itself, says human-made emissions of greenhouse gases are to blame for heat waves, floods and heavy rains, droughts and stronger storms, melting ice-caps and rising sea-levels.
The IPCC is comprised of over 2000 climate experts and scientists. It was set up in 1988 by the UN and the World Meteorological organisation to guide policy makers on the impact of climate change. Despite strenuous attempts by oil companies and big business to undermine the final report, it remains quietly apocalyptic in its assessment.
Its mind-boggling conclusion predicts serious water shortage for between 1.1 and 3.2 billion people, food shortages for 200 to 600 million people. Coastal flooding will hit seven million people within 70 years. The list of potential catastrophe goes on and on.
Yet critics say the report underplays the size of the calamity. James McCarthy, a climate expert at Harvard and former IPCC panel member says the report underestimated the true level of rising sea levels, possibly making the findings of the panel 'foolishly cautious and maybe even irrelevant' on the issue.
Climate change is everywhere.
Even penetrating the fears of the righteously paranoid psyche of the scientists and nuclear physicists of the pre-eminent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Their 'Doomsday Clock' has been ticking away to midnight - the figurative end of civilisation - for 61 years of nuclear holocaust watching. In an unprecedented move they have moved the clock two minutes closer to midnight - now standing at a perilous five minutes to midnight - not only because of the increase in likelihood of nuclear war with the recent events around North Korea and Iran. They also cite 'the potential for catastrophic damage from human-made technologies'. In what represents a decisive paradigm shift for the Atomic Scientists, Kennette Benedict, director of the bulletin said, 'The dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons.'
Climate change was a top priority at the conference of world business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, as well as the conference of NGO operatives at the World Social Forum in Nairobi. Meanwhile, the European Commission urged its members to adopt an unprecedented common energy policy, aimed at cutting greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020. It calls for a 'post-industrial revolution' based on a dramatic shift to an internally produced low-carbon energy economy.
Climate Change has finally arrived at the White House. President George W. Bush's State of the Union address, January 27, marked a milestone for his administration by actually recognising that we may indeed have a human-made problem after all. He acknowledged climate change as 'a serious challenge' and the need for reduction in fossil fuel consumption. Rather than announcing a mandatory cap on emissions along the lines of the globally accepted Kyoto Protocol, Bush instead meekly recommended an added emphasis on renewable or non-carbon energy sources - ethanol, wind, solar and nuclear power. As the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases, these are hardly the momentous steps needed by the USA to put a break on runaway global warming.
What is to be done in the face of the looming catastrophe? The predominant global platform to deal with fundamental issues that affect all of humanity is the United Nations. The new UN boss Ban Ki-moon has been asked to convene an emergency international summit. 'Climate change,' responded Ban, 'is one of the most important and urgent agendas that the international community has to address before 2012.' An emergency global conference organised by the UN seems imminently urgent and Nairobi has been suggested as a host.
But wasn't there an emergency climate change in Nairobi just last year? Wasn't the much heralded 12th UN Conference on Climate Change and 2nd Meeting of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol held there November 6-17, 2006? Of course it was, and its abysmal failure to produce agreements between nations and to begin to build capacity for dealing with climate-induced problems has been brushed under the carpet.
To understand how limited the UN structure is in dealing with the urgency of the matter and how these grand global meetings are manipulated and side-tracked by powerful business and economic interests, it's worth returning to Nairobi in November to have a closer look at the workings of the UN.
Journey into the Heart of UN Darkness Nairobi, Kenya, November 2006.
Climate Change is everywhere, especially in Third World metropolises like Nairobi. Stuck in a massive traffic jam from the airport to the city centre, I ask the taxi driver if people here know much about climate change and global warming. He nearly ploughs into a passing family of four on a bicycle he was laughing so mirthfully.
'Droughts, floods, famines, the rains comes heavy or don't come at all,' he says. 'Yes, of course we know all about global warning!'
He goes on to explain how the British colonisers had chosen the site of Nairobi as the Capital because it was cool and mosquito free.
'This is no longer the fact,' explains the taxi man. 'Now Nairobi is warm and we are plagued by mosquitoes.'
This bustling city is like a blueprint for all major population centres in the not too distant future - a place overburdened by massive migration from the countryside, chronic insecurity and an infrastructure woefully inadequate to deal with basic matters of water, drainage, transport, and communication. Nairobi hosts one of the worlds largest slums - Kuresoi; population over one million living in dire poverty. This very week in the nearby Mathare slum rival gangs battled each other, causing ten deaths, dozens of burnt shacks and thousands of slum-dwellers fleeing the violence. The near post apocalyptic landscape of the enormous Mathare slum and its almost unbearable living conditions contrasts obscenely with the lush, enclosed UN enclosure occupying most of the posh district of Gigiri. The wealthy enclave host numerous embassies, government minister residencies, NGO headquarters and a massive shopping mall, all heavily patrolled by armed guards and state of the art security features. The walled oasis of the privileged elites exists uneasily amidst a desert of the multitudes depravity, like a global Baghdad Green zone.
It's here at the extensive UN compound that over 70 ministers of state, and 6000 of their bureaucratic UN and NGO lackeys gather under the auspices of the UN's Climate Change Conference to hammer out a strategy to tackle the calamitous situation.
'The world is keenly awaiting the outcome of the deliberations going on there,' says Mr. Gilbert M. Kari somewhat anxiously, a local pest controller who has witnessed first hand the chaos climate change is wreaking on national coffee production. His is an almost universally heard concern. He and the rest of the world are in for a big disappointment.
This 12th session of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference of parties also serves as the second meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol. The 1997 Protocol is a legally binding set of targets for cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for developed nations to an average of 95% of individual countries' 1990 levels. Baby steps perhaps, but still too great a leap for the USA. 186 countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol but still the US balks. The US produces a quarter of global greenhouse gases but has only 4% of the world's population. The whole of Africa, in contrast, emits just 3.5%.
The keystone document for this particular Conference is the Stern Report. Where once global warming was seen as an ecological and environmental issue, the report focuses on the economics of climate change. The study led by World Bank Economist Sir Nicholas Stern, with its dizzying array of figures and calculations, leads inexorably to the conclusion that the battle against climate change makes good economic sense. The financial cost of action, it warns sternly, will be much less than the cost of inaction.
Mingling somewhat uncomfortably amongst the throng of expensively coiffured UN delegates sporting the ubiquitous top range lap-tops and talking incessantly on cell-phones, I stumble down corridors flanked by a trade-fair collection of stands hawking a variety of alternative energy plans or carbon-free initiatives. Technical companies advertising their genetically modified bio-fuel producing crops compete for the carbon free market alongside representatives of the nuclear industry: climate change for some is becoming big business.
With all the verve of Michael Moore, I door-step one of the official US delegates rushing along the corridor. He is an immaculately presented young man with the appearance of a Navy Seal and the arrogant attitude of a cantankerous frat boy.
As the largest single contributor to the greenhouse effect and global warming, I ask him, is there any sign of change in the US position on restricting carbon emissions or signing up to the Kyoto Protocol, with the other 186 nations?
'There are no signs of change in that policy soon,' the delegate answers somewhat mechanically; definitely disinterested. 'The US won't sign the Kyoto Protocol.'
'Even in light of the Stern Report, which suggests the world economy will shrink by 20%, isn't there a clear economic imperative to tackle the problem,' I insist somewhat earnestly, 'and ...'
He stops me in my tracks, looking me up and down for my credentials to ascertain who I was or what organisation I belonged. Unaccredited, a gatecrasher of sorts, I lack my badge.
'Who the heck are you?' he quips somewhat amusingly, 'some kind of Irish Borat?'
Over at Plenary Room 2, the conference is in full swing before a great assembly of dignitaries and functionaries fanned out in a great swathe of seated rows. The speaker's voice booms over the PA and their image is projected on two huge video screens on the flanking walls like a U2 concert. The delegates glance at their lap-tops, whisper on their cell-phones, sip bottled water and occasionally listen in on the simultaneous translation earphones. Sure enough, the gripping words of His Eminence Nurlan A. Iskakov, Minister of Environment Protection of Kazakhstan go unappreciated. When the senior US representative, Paula Dobriansky, Under-secretary of Democracy and Global Affairs takes the stage, a hush finally descends, cell-phones are downed and the whole auditorium pays rapt attention.
'The most effective strategies on climate change,' says Under-secretary Dobriansky, a hard-core Bush-ite and neo-con, 'are those that are integrated with economic growth, with energy security, and reducing air pollution.' In her oblique obfuscation, she is spelling out US refusal to agree on mandatory emissions limits, thereby wrecking any concerted global attempt to move forward at this conference. Dubriansky's supercilious presentation talks up US Aid to Africa and, by omission, reiterates the Bush administration's mantra that unfettered US-led capitalist globalization hand-in-hand with war in the Middle East to secure oil supplies are the priorities. Global warming, or 'air pollution' as the unctuous Under-secretary refers to it, is a side-show to the main event - capitalist expansion. Business as usual then on the United Nations world stage: US economic interests come first and the UN is held hostage to the world's sole superpower.
Taking lead from US intransigence, other heavyweight capitalist globalizers (and emerging major contributors to the greenhouse effect) China and India steadfastly refuse to cap their emissions citing their own economic interests. Joining the refusnik fest, Russia also begins to drag its feet.
'There is a scandalous lack of urgency!' says Mr. Tearfund Andy Atkins, summing up the conference mood and, it could be said, the NGO position in general.
The rest of the conference seemed to fade after the US Under-secretary's pronouncements, as if the participants knew little could be achieved without the nod or blessing from the US. The much lauded UN conference retreats into incoherent and incessantly procedural issues that revolve mostly about recording itself, and its own bureaucratic inanity. I attend one torturous two-hour meeting, seating myself in the vacant Irish delegate's place and availing of their bottled water and ear-phones. Casting a glance around at the disinterested attendees who seemed as bored as I, it is clear that they are more preoccupied with their personal email than the plodding, inchoate official proceedings. The minutes released the following day are delivered with the usual fastidious fanfare. Methodological issues: protocol: HCFC-23: SBSTA adopted short conclusions. (FCSTA/2006/L.23). Noting that the issue had not been resolved. I would imagine little gets resolved at conferences like this ever, with their inordinate bureaucracy and general obsequiousness - like a secular Tridentine mass for 21st Century globalization zealots. There is no place for dissent.
'The Nairobi Conference may not be remembered as one of the critical milestones when a major breakthrough occurred,' records the official UN summary benignly. Although perhaps, the report continues, it prepares the way for what some hope will be another 'momentous meeting' within the next four years.
'The conference has let Africa and the rest of the developing world down,' say Oxfam,
Maybe the conference has let down Oxfam and the other NGOs speaking on behalf of Africans, but some with a more critical understanding of what the conference can actually achieve are getting on with some practical direct action.
'We should not wait until Mombassa is under water,' says Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, at a conference side event. 'We know the problems. The problem that we have is what to do. What will make the difference is not the negotiations, but what we do when we go home.'
Known locally as 'the tree lady' due to her propensity to encourage Africans to plant trees, she is part of a movement whose aim is to plant our way out of the crisis. Trees perform as carbon sinks, inhaling CO2 and hence offsetting CO2 emissions: to re-forest Africa with a billion trees appropriate to regional diversity is the target of the Green Belt Movement.
Towards a Globalised New Orleans, or the End of Capitalism.
Many in the global north speculate upon the wisdom of having (more) children considering the nefarious world they may well inherit. People in the south - in places like drought-ridden northern Kenya - have the more pressing issue of wondering how they will feed their living children.
It seems a hopeless situation. Two thousand of the world's eminent scientists confirm that climate variability is a product of human activity, that we might have a short window of opportunity - say 15 years - to do something about it, but there isn't the political will to act amongst the powers that be. Not just the USA, China and Russia, but even European 'champions' of the cause refuse to set an example. While his government will say in the strongest terms it is 'an imperative' to take action to prevent further climate damage, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will still balk at personal sacrifices. 'I think these things are a bit impractical actually to expect people to do that,' said Blair in response to the suggestion that cutting back on flights might be a positive step. For him, science will save the planet. 'All the evidence is that if you use the science and the technology constructively, your economy can grow, people can have a good time but do so more responsibly.'
A conclusion shared by President Bush. 'Leaving behind the debate whether global warming is caused by natural or man-made causes,' said Bush chillingly to the New York Times (25/05/2006), 'we are going to focus solely in the technologies which can resolve the problem.' So Bush is saying that we don't so much as have a problem (that doesn't matter) but we don't have a solution. So what's on offer in terms of technological or scientific solutions to wean us off fossil fuels (and Muslim oil)?
The front runner is ethanol. But replacing fossil fuels - an intensely compact source of fuel - with crop derived bio-ethanol requires felling vast tracks of forest to make way for plantations, thereby creating even more ecological damage.
Meanwhile, entering into the twilight zone of capitalist solutions to capitalist problems, we find the resurrection of the old technological bogeyman: nuclear energy, or the new bio-technical Frankenstein: genetically modified bio-fuel crops. Both these solutions are low-carbon, but the potential ecological cost of the energy succeeds in merely pushing the climate change problem upriver a while.
Another solution involves juggling carbon around. With capitalism's love of the market we now have complicated emissions trading schemes for 'cost-effective' reductions in carbon emissions (selling them on) and more bizarrely, carbon drops - including the notions of storing emissions under the sea bed or down disused mine shafts.
Capitalism's last technological card and one that is proving a current growth business is geo-engineering - the intentional manipulation of the climate. Taking inspiration from the CIA's (unsuccessful) attempts to provoke intense rains over Vietnam to wash out the rebel crops, to the Chinese Olympic committee's promise to secure sunny days for the 2008 Olympics via technical measures, the geo-engineering industry is having a field day in the era of climate variability. From attempts to fertilise the ocean to lower the water temperature to filling the sky with sulphate nano-particles to intercept sun-rays, geo-engineering scientists are busy interfering with and intervening upon the climate, undeterred by potential disequilibrium disasters or mass contamination.
Beyond technological meddling, dealing with the problem of climate change - ecologically, politically, economically and socially - needs a lot more than the Kyoto Protocol, developing alternative energies or holding another emergency Climate Change Conference.
It is necessary to consider the root of the problem. A global economy based on the colossal demand for highly concentrated and rapidly depleting fossil fuel deposits is ecologically unsustainable. Do we need to change fuel or change the structure of consumption? But under the present model - global capitalism - is change possible, or even desirable?
'Capitalism has always relied on infinite expansionism in a finite planet,' explains Alex Troochi of the Green Apple Collective, 'something has to give and at the moment, it's the planet that's giving as Capitalism plunders ahead.'
Capitalism relies on ever-expanding markets and inputs to continue to make profits based on the extraction of natural resources and transforming them into dead capital. This ceaseless addiction to growth-for-growth sake leads inexorably to ecotastrophe. Capitalism is now being forced to consider other strategies. But the magic technological or scientific bullet to save the day remains illusive.
Hope lies beyond the pale; it requires a fundamental shift in thinking, a revolutionary paradigm shift away from the cloistered confines of the imagination of the United States government, the European Union or the United Nations assembly. In the long term, the human world will have to evolve some kind of post-capitalist society to survive.
The doomsday clock ticks away at a perilous five minutes to twelve. Meanwhile its still early morning on the revolutionary clock. Despite the alarm ringing, the revolutionary protagonist, although stirring, has yet to awake. The writing is on the wall once more - be realistic, demand the impossible.
(Ramor Ryan is the author of Clandestines : The Pirate Journals of an Irish Pirate, AK Press, 2006)