What’s in a number? In the case of 330 ppm, a whole lot. “Imperialism, not human nature, has caused this global crisis; anti-imperialism and solidarity are the only paths out.”
by Macdonald Stainsby
Though the arguments made in this article appear to be about the numbers set as targets in parts per million [ppm] of carbon in the atmosphere, it is not the numbers alone that has made this debate necessary. It is, at the essence, how we come to the positions we do that says the most about what kind of organizing we are truly undertaking. It goes far beyond parts per million, even though the highlighted versions of the debate will often come in exactly the ppm debate, posted in a twitter-like condensed version that obscures instead of simplifies.
Yes, 300ppm is the goal sought by the Bolivian government as well as many other south Pacific island states and social movements from all over the so-called developing world. Indeed, the call for a target of 300 ppm along with the need to calculate a form of climate debt mechanism that will not punish the Global South that has not constructed this crisis– the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced, and is already facing– and instead offers both development and possible survival. Imperialism, not human nature, has caused this global crisis; anti-imperialism and solidarity are the only paths out.
The number 300ppm is not arrived at in order to pose as “radical”. This number comes from a position of solidarity.
With 300ppm (and an accompanying one degree Celsius rise in global temperature averages) the survival of the water supplying glaciers in Bolivia are possible; the food producing agricultural regions of central Africa may yet produce again; the home supplying land of islands such as the Maldives may continue to exist. Solidarity by definition cannot make a target based on the destruction of some peoples, sacrificed for the expediency of ‘realpolitik’ for rich regions of the world. Yet the movement does not end there, and demands mechanisms that seriously curtail the emissions first of nation-states who created the crisis for their own narrow development while not punishing the (artificially) impoverished regions being decimated atmospherically.
Despite this, larger first world ENGO’s are setting targets that have nothing to do with the survival of people who are already watching their very homes disappear underwater. The concerns in North America are weaker and have nothing to do with power relations between Global North and South. If the need to immediately collapse any further c02 emissions into the atmosphere will mean a drastic reduction in energy use as a starting point– ending fossil fuel production– the “what is possible” arguments about “politically feasible” immediately must end. The arguments are not figuring out:
A) what has a scientific chance of success, but even more so
B) Ignoring the plight of the struggling Global South– already seeing droughts, floods and fires– is seen as ‘natural’ because the only constituency that apparently matters is an amalgam of all North American residents (themselves also seen as all “equal”).
In appeasing the American ‘birthright’ of over-development, concepts of a false “green shift” and “transition to a green economy” are regularly touted as the way forward for North American environmentalists. In fact, not one of the large and powerful environmental groups has ever challenged the notion of a capitalist led growth economy in a time when any growth is inherently suicidal for dealing with climate change– and genocidal in the implications of billions of human beings living with an already unbalanced atmosphere.
We have two major stumbling blocs on the path towards the goal of a green shift.
A): it is an economic non-starter. This green development would be based on the laws of capital accumulation and carried out under a market based economy. You cannot deliberately shrink such an economy without starting an economic freefall.
B): under basic capitalist laws of accumulation when any energy is added to the grid one actually expands the economy– which by the very rules of capitalist production also expands the demand for energy.
In the US and Canada we have the “just transition” version of the same “simultaneous growth and survival” model. This goal itself presupposes a static energy grid in the most unstable economic system, and in the most unstable economic decade in a century. Energy demand goes up when the economy recovers, and the least c02 producing versions of energy still increase the emissions into the air while they also facilitate the increase in more production of fossil fuels.
This campaign is one giant exercise in realpolitik that sacrifices reality in order to facilitate the chance of popular support for a plan of action that will fail. Sadly, the Global North ENGO definition of success is measured in public support not tangible environmental survival.
The approach taken in North America (far less than Europe) is based on consumption guilt, consumption legislation and the imaginary world where we simply stop buying gasoline and ride bikes everywhere with only good argumentation and eco-friendly bank sponsored picnics against climate change. The entire structure of North American society is constructed towards fossil fuels more than anywhere on the planet, while there is already a major shift in energy underway.
With pilot plants for coal to liquids under conceptualization in the US and continued investment into ways to produce oil shale into petroleum in several places (most notably Colorado) and the continued expansion of the largest industrial development in human history in the Albertan tar sands, the energy shift is taking place not at a point of consumption deliberately but in fact at the point of production.
Carbon taxes– even at the level that may actually have a tangible effect on emissions– undermine the need to reduce carbon emissions in a just fashion and rely instead on trying to use economics to deal with what is essentially a political problem. The notion of making the consumer of fossil fuels pay for consumption is a climate version of having you and I pay to ‘rescue’ the banks– when we did not make this mess in the first place. The strengths of the campaigns against developments like the tar sands are when the campaign focuses on the impacts on Fort Chipewyan immediately and across the planet ultimately. When people use arguments about “slowing down” production or how one can consume cosmetics to fight against climate chaos, the message is lost in feel good pointless solutions, or worse– diversion into consumer choices that have no effect but to make one falsely believe they did their part.
The real threat posed by the Albertan tar sands is starting to bleed across the planet and is locking all of humanity into a mode of production that utterly defeats any possibility of realistically tackling climate change. No matter how many “green energy alternatives” get built, if production of bitumen continues to expand in Canada and starts becomes a norm worldwide we have no chance to address the atmospheric levels. No other energy source simultaneously being built will slow that, but in fact speed up the destructive process. We must never call on corporations like BP and TOTAL to “invest in alternative energy”. They just might actually do it.
From Colombia to Scotland and parts of Canada the development of the least climate damaging energy supplies have been used to build new coal mines, power possible shale gas extraction as well as to greenwash energy giants like Suncor and even give them carbon credits to make their legal operation continue. The green shift may take away the only window left to tackle climate change.
Internationally the movement that came out of Cochabamba& Tiquipaya, Bolivia last April called for 300ppm as a target, but with the caveats of no false solutions and that the main needs were to both power down the industrial world and to provide mechanisms for the over-exploited mass of humanity to be able to develop a decent standard of living while tackling the odious task of protecting their own environments. Basically, it’s a global “you broke it, you bought it” to the imperialist countries of North America and Western Europe. But the real kicker is that it is a call that allows all of the human residents of the planet to be valued on the same level, and applies the principles of environmental justice to the international stage. Let’s be clear– the fight will be internationally won or lost.
When 350.org went to Cochabamba, they not only argued for their position of 350ppm despite that the Global South led, initiated and hosted conference had differing positions. They made the same tired arguments around what was “politically feasible”, what was “achievable” and that there was so little support for real action in the US and Canada that this path was at least tenable. In environmental circles, “politically feasible” and bad deals that allow business as usual for industry. Going well beyond parts per million, the people from Africa pointed out that such a call condemns their continent to permanent protectorate status, unable to feed itself and as a mass of humanity treated as a continental invalid. Countries from Southern Pacific Islands point out that the temperature rise associated with 350ppm would leave them underwater and permanent refugees as a modern day series of nations with Atlantis like status.
Let us, however, leave aside the numerical points and talk about what way a movement in the interests of environmental justice will operate. When a pipeline is being proposed the community next to it gets full messaging control and overwhelming precedence. The voices that must be amplified are those of the community whose traditional territory is under siege. Sadly, the history of environmental NGO organizing has been to use their struggle as a great fundraiser, to put some colour on the colourful brochures, to make posters with sayings from elders– sold and used to claim a profit for already well-financed ENGO’s. Now we must apply these principles to what came out of Cochabamba.
The plenaries heeded the voices of the Global South and agreed to endorse no false solutions, power down not power up, no trading the air and the land for carbon credits, and to take the voices of the already suffering as a unified voice to Cancun in December 2010. But what of 350.org? From places of using ‘facilitation’ of plenary sessions to try and manipulate demands downward to falsely taking notes [after the fact], trying (on two separate occasions) to change the text of the agreed upon declarations– and ultimately refusing to sign onto and agree to uphold the principles of the Peoples Agreement that came out of the conference. Instead we have reality distorting pictures of Bolivian children posted during their 10/10/10 “Global work party” with “350.org” painted on their faces.
Note that 350.org is funded by unaccountable foundations that have historical ties to industry, and that 350.org itself steadfastly refuses to list any solutions, but instead delivers solar panels to the White House for stunt effect.
Meanwhile Bolivia (and the social movements that built the People’s Agreement) were hung out to dry in Mexico at COP16. That didn’t happen overnight. At meetings in advance of Cancun, 350.org “backed” small island states into a corner, “helping” them once they dropped “silly” demands and adopted the 350.org platform (or lack of one). Among other ENGO’s at Cancun were the usual competing voices, all demanding different things from almost all the governments in the world. The declarations from the Peoples Agreement had already been delivered to the UN, and were being demanded by hundreds of social movements from all over the Global South and dozens of nation states to be presented for real discussion and legally binding enforcement on the global level. ENGO’s didn’t promote the agreement (many actively undermined such, with Greenpeace promoting REDD and the Mexican government) and such demands collapsed.
Silence on this dynamic runs counter to organizing an international resistance movement based on solidarity. Big money and slick advertising campaigns are trying to silence the voices emerging from all those gathered last April 2010 in the shadows of the melting glaciers of the Andes. It is the path to justice to fight to make certain that this legitimate voice for transformation is not turned into another prop of coloured peoples on a “professional” campaign. It is often accurately pointed out that this kind of division over the numbers 300 vs 350 is silly when we are almost at 400 already. That is agreed in the abstract, but this debate is not about the numbers. It is a struggle for recognition on a global scale– one that goes way, way beyond parts per million debates. It is pointed at a revolutionary approach.
Macdonald Stainsby is a social justice activist, journalist and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world. He is the coordinator of http://OilSandsTruth.org and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org