Robin, your carbon market ship is sinking fast
[This is a reply to Robin Hahnel’s ZNet article “Has The Left Missed The Boat On Climate Change?” It is part of a ZNet debate between Robin Hahnel and Patrick Bond about the Left and Climate Change. Please view the ZNet debate page to follow the exchanges.]
Robin Hahnel, ordinarily so persuasive when criticizing markets and constructing notional post-capitalist economic relations, makes serious strategic errors in his article ‘Has the Left Missed the Boat on Climate Change?’ (www.zcommunications.org/zspace/robinhahnel). In half the space he used, I’d like to offer two concerns:
- Robin’s argumentative technique assumes there’s no space in between full-fledged eco-socialism (our shared long-term ideal) and cooption into (allegedly reformable) carbon markets, and thus he takes serious political missteps justified through strange allegations about the Climate Justice (CJ) movement.
- Robin’s political vision is constrained by the backward state of US congressional power relations, which indeed makes his proposed reforms far less likely than the combination of grassroots direct actions (not a legislative utopia) against polluters, national/local air quality and planning regulation, and substantial public investments that together the CJ movement is advocating.
In short, Robin’s ‘pragmatic’ market-reformist approach to an urgent challenge is in reality more idealistic – impossible, really - than CJ anti/post-market politics. Having had exchanges of this sort in person and on email with Robin for fifteen months already, I have no illusion that his mind will be changed in the following pages. Still, at the risk of sounding ill-tempered, here’s a reply (at Z’s request) to Robin’s attacks on those of us who have, as he puts it, ‘missed’ his sinking cap-and-trade ship.
At the least it allows a review of CJ perspectives on how to contest markets, grounded in activist initiatives – some of which were pioneered here in South Africa – that cut against the grain of, instead of surrendering to, capitalist logic. For it is only by transcending ‘price’ (as ‘value’) that we can escape the fate of commodification of the atmosphere and all that it implies.
Escaping that fate is crucial, and follows the bottom-up, anti-market politics I’ve learned from activists here, which I think withstands Robin’s curious, self-proclaimed ‘left’ critique and top-down technicism. You the reader may decide on the merits of ideological labeling and self-labeling, as to what’s ‘left’. (For the sake of comparison, last week I rebutted a different but equally misguided crit of CJ climate finance politics by two San Francisco anarchists: www.counterpunch.org/bond01122010.html. And for a reply to pro-market ‘green’ critics of our short CJ movie http://www.storyofcapandtrade.org last month, see http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/4078.)
Although we all seek discussions between comrades with the utmost respect, and while respect will endure in other areas, it is distressing to the point of annoyance that Robin strays so very far from CJ carbon market wisdom gathered up over the past decade. Instead of drawing on that wisdom, especially environmentalist and indigenous people’s open hostility to Clean Development Mechanism (and now forest financing) versions of carbon trading, Robin prefers the mind-altering policy-wonk milieu that characterizes so much allegedly realist environmental debate in the United States (see, e.g., http://www.grist.org).
That means his analysis is grounded in the bankrupt logic of the economics profession, not the radical market-critical ideology we all know Robin is capable of through Parecon and his other contributions, not least of which are the many protestations that he’s still a true ‘socialist’. So dear reader, pardon the long trek through this muck, but rehearsing arguments about why markets – and pro-market reforms - are no solution to climate crisis is never entirely a waste of time.
The Copenhagen victory against elites and carbon trading
Robin’s initial error is lamenting the outcome of the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, in which he disregards both realpolitik and CJ strategy:
- from the standpoint of realpolitik, given the adverse balance of forces, as even establishment scientist James Hansen argued in the New York Times in early December, any deal struck at Copenhagen (or the US Senate) would be bound up in carbon trading, hence no deal was better than a bad deal – and for all effective purposes we got no deal;
- from the standpoint of political strategy, the Copenhagen circus dramatically lowered the credibility of the global climate governance elite, and added coherence, mutual trust and visibility to the emerging grassroots CJ movement.
The summit meltdown, witnessed in the universally-condemned Accord that Barack Obama stitched together at the last moment on December 18, should, in fact, be celebrated. Copenhagen was semi-seattled, unveiled as an undemocratic, crony-capitalist, band-aiding response to a genuine crisis, sullied by openly imperialist processes within the UN’s Bella Centre bubble, which in turn was protected by brazen police brutality.
Just as happened in Seattle a decade earlier with the activist lock-down outside and African elites denying consensus inside, the CJ movement in the Copenhagen streets and Bolivarian governments in the negotiations together questioned the process and the content, denying Obama’s deal the status of an official UN outcome.
A month later, no one claims the Copenhagen Accord was more than a face-saving gesture aimed at coopting Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and South African politicians into taking responsibility for their economies’ emissions (to the extent of surrendering potential pollution allotment ‘rights’), albeit without any meaningful way to do so, and without questioning their fossil-fuel addicted, export-oriented accumulation strategies, which will continue unabated because the Accord has no binding targets. So thankfully, there’s no legitimacy there, and no joy in the carbon markets, which from December 17-21 reacted by crashing from already flaccid levels.
And thankfully, too, Copenhagen’s failure leaves serious activists with much clearer strategic insights about ultimately solving this crisis. Because of global climate governance failure, we’re all going to be working much harder on:
- deepening educational and motivational work in local settings;
- targeting local fossil fuel production and consumption with direct action and boycotts;
- critiquing carbon markets and traders; and
- demanding that national air quality control regulation be enforced for greenhouse gases, and that local/regional planning boards and utility regulators start moving rapidly into the post-carbon future by prohibiting fossil-fuel-dependent project now in the application pipeline.
With the distraction of Copenhagen now past, and with no hope for a genuine climate-saving treaty in Mexico 2010 or South Africa 2011 (except in the opportunistic minds of professional conference-hoppers), the CJ movement is much stronger and can now plot more decisive interventions, for example in Bolivia at the April 20-22 meeting of indigenous, radical environmental and social/labour movements called by Evo Morales.
Moreover, as Jess Worth predicts in New Internationalist, ‘If governments won’t phase out fossil fuels, then we’ll have to do it for them, by shutting down their coal mines and oilfields. If they won’t protect the world’s forests - or worse, if they try to sell them off for private profit - then we’ll unite with the people of those lands and defend them ourselves.’
For instance, here in Durban this morning, hundreds of protesters came to the International Convention Centre fighting the national electricity company’s new coal-fired plants. To pay for these, Eskom has asked regulatory permission to jack up retail prices for poor people by 35% per annum the next three years, and is also near completion with negotiating a World Bank loan of $3.7 billion (but that may attract a serious backlash and revival of the World Bank Boycott which the late South African activist Dennis Brutus helped initiate eight years ago). Red and green politics come together very well under these circumstances.
Grassroots movement organizing is the first step forward for the CJ agenda, which in turn requires us to avoid carbon trading distractions and the elite deals that Robin seeks for a mythical global emissions market. Luckily, gridlock at both global and US national levels is not a setback, but instead an excellent outcome of the 2009 debates, given the prevailing balance of forces, especially the danger – in both the Kyoto Protocol’s extension and US congressional bills - of giving further momentum to the deepening of carbon markets.
These markets are currently worth around $130 billion/year, but had Copenhagen and congressional initiatives succeeded, they were expected to soar to $3 trillion in annual turnover by 2020 not counting derivatives. Gridlock means there’s a good chance that carbon trading will simply die, as two Foreign Policy (13 January 2010) writers, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, anticipate:
“Midterm elections [in November 2010] are likely to bring large Democratic losses in the House, and, fairly or not, a hard vote for failed cap-and-trade legislation will take a fair share of the blame. For House Democrats it will be déjà vu all over again. In 1994 they went out on a limb and voted for an energy tax (known as the Btu tax) pushed by then-Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton’s White House only to see the Senate reject such a measure. Having been ‘BTUed’ by two Democratic administrations, twice-fooled Democrats are unlikely to sign up for more of the same in the next Congress. And cap and trade’s death in the Senate would likely signal its death everywhere - Australia, Japan, Canada, and eventually even Europe.”
All in all, Robin is wrong to call Copenhagen ‘a train wreck that no spin doctor can put a good face on.’ The carbon market’s immediate crash was just one indication of a worthwhile outcome, but the round of popular critique of the global climate governance ‘leaders’ was even better.
Robin is also wrong about an even bigger problem: how to generate a serious, pragmatic radical climate politics while staring fossil-fuel capitalism in the face. Unfortunately he opts instead for an unserious, idealistic, reformist capitulation, namely fixing cap and trade.
Leftists need not be capital’s battered spouse
Though he may argue there’s a substantial left faction in his corner, Robin appears virtually alone in places like ZCommunications fretting about the CJ critique of carbon markets. A few other progressive economists have also publicly identified themselves in favor of carbon trading, including Frank Ackerman of Tufts. Having known them for years, I celebrate their work when it provides ecological-economic critique.
But when Robin and Frank turn their minds to constructive policy-making in this rancid political environment, weighing in with insights drawn from within their battered profession, their theoretical approach misses the benefits of CJ movement-building commitment and experience. That experience comes from fighting back against the real damages done in carbon markets, especially Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects which are supported by Robin but opposed by environmentalists and indigenous and poor/working peoples (especially women – e.g. our first South African CDM educator, the late Sajida Khan, who died on the job: http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3171).
That leaves Robin like a battered spouse – married to US corporate capitalist power relations - who has not learned the merits of divorce. His article shows no awareness of precedent for rejecting market-based reforms, and thus achieving much greater victories.
Such victories – for example, access to AIDS medicines and the pushback against water privatization (our two main South African social movement wins in the past decade, repeated in many other Third World sites) - came through fighting against the logic of capital, instead of going with the flow. In going with the capitalist flow, Robin’s natural allies in this battle are mainstream environmentalists from the large corporate-oriented agencies (especially EDF, NRDC, WRI and WWF) and carbon traders themselves.
So Robin’s views do not genuinely represent one half of, as he claims, a ‘divide between some on the Left who support putting a price on carbon emissions through a cap and trade treaty, and others on the Left who deny that putting a price on carbon is a necessary and important step forward, and denounce carbon markets as a “pretend solution” that diverts attention from “real solutions”.’ This is a false dichotomy, as I show in more detail below, as many critics of carbon trading favor a carbon tax, for example.
To gain added stature, Robin’s team of ‘some on the left’ includes Frank, in a televised debate on December 15 with the leading intellectual critic of carbon trading, Larry Lohmann. According to Robin, ‘When the Left needn’t agree on everything, when we contradict one another to the extent that Amy Goodman can’t figure out what message to bring home from Copenhagen for her Democracy Now audience, the Left also has a problem.’
Sorry, but Robin simply wasn’t paying attention, because in that debate, an opening excerpt of Annie Leonard’s nine-minute film The Story of Cap and Trade provided various examples of emissions market failure, leading Frank to immediately concede, ‘I’m not exactly for [carbon trading]… a price on carbon can be done either through a tax or through cap and trade… Any time a price incentive like this has worked, it has needed many, many other things to be working with it. The image of a level playing field that economists sometimes suggest is exactly wrong.’
And yet notwithstanding the critiques Frank had to acknowledge (see the transcript – http://www.democracynow.org/2009/12/15/cap_trade_a_critical_look_at), he was ultimately compelled to defend carbon trading, but in the way a battered spouse might fantasize about repairing a broken marriage because he/she sees no alternative:
“The problem is not describing how to reduce American carbon emissions; the problem is creating incentives that will make people feel like they have been allowed to do it in a free market way (sic)… I think some of the big companies that are advocating a carbon tax are probably conscious of that and doing it with dishonest intent in the attempt to destroy the entire idea of climate legislation. From that, I deduce that, sadly enough, we’ll have to figure out how to patch up the holes in cap and trade, of which there are many.”
The South African political equivalent of this sort of defeatism that we remember well was the option chosen in 1983 by a very few superficially anti-apartheid activists: cooption into the PW Botha regime’s reform program, which opened up second-class citizenship for Indian and ‘coloured’ (as against third-class African) people. It was central to apartheid’s divide-and-conquer strategy against black people in general, but it failed. Internationally the equivalent move was a few wealthy liberals’ endorsement of Rev Leon Sullivan’s Principles as an alternative to divestment. These gambits were termed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu ‘polishing the chains of apartheid’ instead of breaking them, and no one took them seriously as we struggled for the minimal demand, one person-one vote in a unitary state.
‘Patching the holes’ in emissions markets is just as objectionable a way of polishing the chains of climate apartheid, given how awful cap and trade is as policy and practice, how little success market watchdogs have had to date, and what a miniscule group of reformers Robin and Frank can turn to.
Worse, this logic isn’t even limited to dumbing climate policy down to humor the alleged backwardness of the ‘American people’, which for whatever bizarre reason is Frank’s main political criterion, as expressed on Democracy Now. In any case, holding the rest of the world hostage to the whims of the ‘American people’ – who, recall, suddenly swung in majority support for the Republican presidential candidate in August 2008 immediatley after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as running mate – is as unethical as the Obama Administration’s attempts in Copenhagen to deny that the US owes a climate debt.
Frank’s dumb-it-down, make-it-palatable argument is also refuted by the most recent US poll of popular support for carbon trading versus a carbon tax (by Hart Research Associates in August 2009). As summarized by Energy and Environment Daily, only 27 percent of the 1000 people surveyed support cap-and-trade, half as much as a direct tax:
“When both concepts are explained, voters of all political affiliations and backgrounds favor the tax proposal by a significant margin. Sixty-six percent of Democrats prefer the carbon tax, as do 58 percent of independents and 46 percent of Republicans. Overall, 57 percent of those surveyed say they would favor a carbon tax, while 37 percent are opposed… The poll’s designers say support for the carbon tax proposal stems from a belief that it is far simpler than cap and trade, provides a revenue steam for tax refunds to offset consumer costs of the tax, offers a more direct incentive for businesses and consumers, and is less likely to be corrupted by loopholes for certain interests” (http://www.eenews.net/public/eenewspm/2009/12/01/2).
By the end of last month, cap and trade was losing the support of a great many Senators, as well; even Kerry admitted in Copenhagen that he might have to switch to a carbon tax (http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=CD9CFF07-18FE-70B2-A8A448F9F6703C97). As the website Politico remarked on Saturday:
“Prospects for Senate passage of the legislation — already approved by the House last summer — have dimmed in recent months, with the bruising health care debate and looming midterm elections. Last month was particularly brutal, as environmental advocates fended off criticism of climate negotiations in Copenhagen that failed to produce a strong international agreement. Even some supporters now publicly doubt that the bill will get done this year. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) told The Associated Press last week that passage of the legislation was unlikely” (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0110/31416.html#ixzz0coOZlEiy).
And as last Thursday’s Financial Times blog on climate finance by Kate Mackenzie explained,
“Most people just don’t like the idea of carbon cap-and-trade schemes. Whether they object because it’s like a tax, or because it’s not like a tax, or because it only benefits those crooked financial types, or because it’s too bureaucratic and expensive, or because they hate offsets, or free allowance giveaways to polluters… there’s an objection for almost everyone. A pretty powerful constituency however does like cap-and-trade: (some) economists, financial industry types, policy wonks, and some big businesses” (http://blogs.ft.com/energy-source/2010/01/14/carbon-emissions-reduction-without-cap-and-trade/).
In short, Frank and Robin are wrong to assume that cap and trade simply needs a bit of hole-patch fixing (not nixing) because it’s the only politically viable strategy: it just ain’t, all the evidence shows. That useless, abusive spouse should be tossed out of the house, pronto, because cap and trade may please some big corporations and their paid-for Washington ‘greens’, but is not even good for catching Senators and Senate constituent votes nowadays, if it ever was.
Divorcing the capitalist albatross of climate commodification
Yet more extreme, Robin argues that ‘as long as the albatross of global capitalism remains around our necks’ we should support global carbon trading and ‘fix’ its problems. Adopting this premise would be disastrous for the left in any field, so thank goodness South African activists divorced the climate albatross when it was time to consider life-and-death strategies in the health and water sectors.
First, a decade ago when we observed that AIDS medicines were too expensive at $15,000/person/year, the reformist logic of Robin’s position would have prevented the victory achieved by the Treatment Action Campaign and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power: decommodification of medicines (they are now free for millions) and deglobalisation of their production (they are now made in SA, Zimbabwe, Uganda, etc), which were only possible by removing them from solely market determinations (http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/1875 and http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/1792).
Second, likewise for water activists, Robin’s premise would have led to fruitless efforts to reform Suez’s Johannesburg operations so as to optimize the price mechanism, instead of the intense social resistance in Soweto which not only rejected orthodox water pricing but sought (and won) free water, in part because ‘Destroy the Meter, Enjoy the Water!’ was the slogan and practice. This militancy was in large part responsible for Suez departing after a disastrous 2001-06 spell, and for the increased Free Basic Water allotment Johannesburg coughed up in 2008 (http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/1683, http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/2505 and http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3473).
Perhaps because Robin’s view of the transition to socialism relies more upon blueprinting the future than actually struggling for it by fighting unfair market determinations wherever they arise, he fails to recognize that waging decommodification battles in order to ‘common’ goods and services is the only sure route to dislodging the capitalist albatross, short of revolution. In contrast to Robin’s strategy, radical policy strategists such as the late Andre Gorz, Vicente Navarro, Gosta Esping-Andersen, Boris Kagarlitsky and John Saul have shown how ‘nonreformist reforms’ even within the capitalist mode of production can indeed undermine markets and strengthen the masses (and environment). Instead, Robin’s ‘reformist reforms’ explicitly amplify the power of the status quo and legitimize markets.
Opposition to commodified medicine and water may be the most advanced of South African nonreformist-reform strategies, yet quite early on, around 2002, a similar demand emerged from Durban for the decommodification of the air itself. This led to the rejection of carbon trading by leading environmental groups such as groundWork, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and TimberWatch, and hence the Durban Group for Climate Justice was formed in 2004 by an international team in a quite hospitable location, followed by the launch of a Climate Justice Now! South Africa chapter in Durban five years later. These South African CJ activists don’t accept Robin’s premise that until we get rid of the capitalist albatross we must just lobby for somewhat less corrupt but still thoroughly capitalist climate policies.
The CJ view of carbon trading is, simply, that in order to turn the clean air and cooler climate which we need to survive into a commons, we must avoid commodification of the air. Commodification entails
- carving up the air into property rights to pollute;
- commodifying the atmosphere via a carbon market in which emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide pollution today sells for just 13 euros;
- risking speculative hoarding (as energy traders are wont to do);
- promoting the growth of derivatives markets which allow gambling on the future value of the right to pollute; and
- selling it all to the highest bidder, with obvious implications for social equity.
Getting the prices really right
Rather than confront these obvious evils, Robin claims that critics of carbon trading ‘denounce those who work to increase the price of carbon emissions from its present price of zero to as close to its true social cost as is politically possible.’ Most CJ activists would, in fact, applaud a price associated with carbon emissions that incorporates ‘its true social costs’ (so long as it can include cross-subsidies that provide ‘lifeline’ support for ordinary people’s basic energy/transport needs). But we’re convinced by experience (and theory too) that carbon markets cannot determine these costs, much less achieve them in a sustained way so as to meet public policy purposes.
Such a price would have to be imposed as part of command-and-control regulation and carbon taxation (with punitive costs aimed at hedonistic carbon users so as to pay for basic consumption access for everyone). And it would have to be quite a dramatic price increase to achieve not only desired behavioral changes by those who need to radically change (such as me, vicariously flying around to climate protests last month), but also requires accompanying state investments in vast new alternative public infrastructure, something cap and trade simply isn’t designed for in practice, given its revenue-avoidance systems and offsets.
Working within markets to find appropriate prices is just damn hard, no matter what economists are hard-wired to believe. Amongst the many reasons that progressive environmentalists and political economists have consistently rejected carbon trading as a valid strategy, there are, in particular, two central problems that Robin doesn’t even try grappling with in his carbon trading analysis:
- markets generate and amplify adverse power relations in society (favouring the institutions which caused the problems), and
- financial markets generate speculative activity that amplify capitalism’s intrinsic crisis tendencies.
Instead, Hahnel’s critique of capitalism is based on five market imperfections, for which carbon trading can be repaired so as to provide internal market corrections: the inability to factor in externalities like pollution; failure to supply ‘public goods’ including environmental protection; excessively rapid extraction of natural resources; excess personal consumption; and inadequate information.
But to reiterate, the two that we highlighted most in our film The Story of Cap and Trade – corruption by self-interested, powerful corporations and speculation by financiers – can be fixed only by banning all carbon market activity (even the Cantwell-Collins Senate bill cannot fully insulate its trading proposal from Wall Street machinations). That’s why, when we drafted the October 2004 Durban Declaration, the authors were most concerned by the ways that markets ‘commodify... the earth’s carbon-cycling capacity into property to be bought and sold in a global market.’
In sum, most of us in the CJ movement denounce carbon markets because to genuinely get the prices right – i.e., so as to transform economies from fossil fuel addictions – we need much more than markets. Aside from distracting attention from genuine solutions, carbon markets reward those who are already rich from financial speculation and those in the fossil fuel industries who have the political clout to gain free carbon allowances.
As Robin well knows, markets typically change behavior in only a gradual manner, because what economists call ‘price elasticity’ – the change in consumption associated with a change in price – isn’t high enough for fossil-fuel costs within a typical household budget to generate life-style changes such as public transport commuting, or within a corporate budget given that firms typically pass energy costs straight to consumers.
Of course we need price increases (while protecting ordinary people from energy/transport poverty) but we need much more: direct grassroots action against emitters/extractors plus a major shift towards command-and-control regulatory functions, as Europe had adopted (prior to the Kyoto Protocol) to end sulfur dioxide acid rain much more quickly than did US SO2 markets.
Hence it is insulting of Robin to claim that CJ critics simply ‘sit on the sidelines while giant corporations seize valuable property rights to store carbon in the upper atmosphere in the greatest wealth give-away in history.’ The sidelines? Just last week Climate SOS joined by Hansen protested outside the main carbon trading conference in New York, in the wake of similar demonstrations in Chicago, London, Amsterdam and Paris prior to Copenhagen. It seems Robin’s not paying attention, especially to the film http://www.storyofcapandtrade.org, which has probably done more to raise debate about the free emissions giveaways in US congressional carbon trading legislation and the EU ETS than anything else he might point to.
But in the spirit of a battered spouse continuing to reside with the perpetrator, Robin suffers from acute self-blame: ‘we socialists need to look to ourselves. Had we done our work well the human species would have abandoned capitalism.’ Even though his main partners, the fossil-fuel corporation and Wall Street trader, continue to abuse him, Robin meekly appeals: ‘we socialists failed to replace capitalism with socialism in the twentieth century, which means that decisions about how to use the environment are actually made, and will continue to be made for some time, by market forces where a key price, the price of carbon emission, is completely out of whack.’
No, that’s a bad attitude! As explained above, South African activists have been successful at replacing the corporate calculus with decommodified essential medicines, water and to some extent electricity – and billions more people have won similar struggles in past decades over basic needs goods/services ranging from healthcare and education to fire protection and municipal libraries. Markets are not gravity, and as Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation, when commodification and social movements resistance together represent a ‘double movement’, the reach of capitalism into all aspects of our lives can be repelled.
In any case, rather than getting the prices right, capitalism continues to get prices out of whack on nearly everything, even financial assets that should respond most efficiently to market signals (recall that from September 2008-March 2009, half the paper value in the world’s stock exchanges went up in flames). Reforming capitalism to get the carbon prices right is futile given the presence of speculative and corrupt elements which have made a farce out of the EU’s emissions markets.
There’s only time for false solutions?
In response, Robin claims we don’t have the luxury of time to decommodify: ‘when dealing with climate change it is irresponsible not to be realistic about time frames.’ (Likewise, a battered spouse might sometimes use the excuse of kids nearly out of high school to delay a needed divorce.)
But really, how long will it take to set up a functional carbon market? A dozen years after the Kyoto Protocol generated UN-sanctioned emissions trading, surely long enough for reformers to make the system work, the UN found its main CDM verification agency to be utterly incompetent last September. We’ve also had five years of EU emissions trading zaniness, with huge price crashes in April 2006, October 2008 and December 2009, and in December, Europol found that 90% of trades in some EU countries were corrupt. Finally, the gridlocked pathways through Copenhagen and the US Senate suggest that we’ll need dozens more years before the balance of forces is appropriate for a global cap and regulatory framework, even an inadequate one.
Robin replies that ‘being realistic about time frames does mean recognizing that the global economy will continue for some time to be dominated by giant corporations guided by the profit criterion and market forces.’ (I.e., ‘My spouse is too powerful and I’m just too weak to leave him/her.’) In reality, those corporations – especially the supposedly omnipotent Goldman Sachs - that most desperately want carbon trading haven’t dominated the US political system sufficiently to get it, and they probably won’t.
Finally, Robin laments the lack of ‘well-tested institutions and procedures at our disposal for making efficient and equitable choices about where and how to reduce carbon emissions, and how to distribute the costs of reductions fairly between and within countries without resort to commodification. But the last time I checked, participatory eco-socialism had yet to replace global capitalism, and pretending it has does not yield effective policy responses in the world we live in.’
But if we were having this debate in 1996, when chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions threatened the ozone hole, adopting Robin’s logic would have deterred the green left from demanding an outright ban. Yet such a ban was achieved, in the Montreal Protocol.
But it’s not yet too late to swim back to a solid political shoreline
Finally, Robin worries that time’s a wastin’, CJers are on a ‘Road To Nowhere’, and the movement’s desire to seattle Copenhagen (and Mexico and South Africa summits next) is silly because ‘it is nationalistic, right wing American Firsters, not Leftists, who call for trashing the UN.’ Factually that’s not true. Here in Durban in 2001, 10,000 leading anti-racism activists demonstrated against the UN’s refusal to include Zionism and reparations for slavery/colonialism/apartheid on the agenda of the World Conference Against Racism. The following year in Johannesburg, 30,000 demonstrated against the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development because it amplified the commodification of nature and retained neoliberal development policies within ‘public private partnerships,’ including emissions trading markets.
Robin thinks that ‘Leftists have traditionally supported the UN,’ but when the UNDP mimics the World Bank, when UN Millennium Development Goals justify water privatization, and when the UN General Assembly votes in favor of US occupation of Iraq, as just three examples, then Tariq Ali’s suggestion to ‘let the UN go the way of the League of Nations’ is a more accurate reflection of our disgust at the executive committee of the world bourgeoisie.
Robin claims that ‘the UN sponsored Kyoto Protocol establishes a constructive framework for addressing climate change in an equitable way’, but in reality the Kyoto deal is a good example of the body’s bias towards Washington’s interests (it was Al Gore who introduced carbon trading based on the fib that in that case, the US would endorse it), towards big capital, and towards the privatization of environmental policy. Kyoto’s target for emissions reductions - roughly 5% cuts mandated from 1990 levels by 2012 – and lack of enforcement against chiselers provide all you need to know about how serious the negotiators were in 1997, and again in 2009 in Copenhagen.
Of course the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities’ in Kyoto and other UN processes is useful, rhetorically, but the overarching context remains that the US and other rich countries have next to no responsibilities or capacities for solving major global problems. So it is not surprising that the last useful thing the UN can be credited with at the world scale goes back to that 1996 ban on CFCs.
And in the meantime, the weakening of environmentalist politics became so acute that Robin reverts to insult: ‘To be taken seriously Leftists must stop mindless trashing of carbon trading and belittling the importance of reducing the social costs of averting climate change.’ For Robin, that means fixing carbon trading by advocating ‘changes in the Kyoto Protocol that would make it effective, fair, and well worth fighting for as we continue to work to convince more and more people to throw off the capitalist albatross that regrettably still hangs around our necks.’
In reality, there are no reforms of Kyoto carbon trading rules underway along the lines Robin hopes for (many Copenhagen proposals would have made it far worse, by including more scam offsets and false geo-engineering solutions, and commodifying forests). And if legislation does eventually emerge from the US Congress (very unlikely), the kinds of loopholes in Waxman-Markey and a likely Senate bill (such as removing Environmental Protection Agency greenhouse gas oversight) will make our ‘mindless trashing’ that much easier.
Given the Washington political temperature, such legislation would merely represent rearranged deckchairs on the climate Titanic. Luckily, it appears nearly certain that carbon trading will die before getting congressional approval, and failure in the US spells the death knell for global emissions markets. At that point, when his ship is under water, comrade Robin will be very welcome back on dry land, encountering the pragmatic CJ movement reality now being crafted by activists and also by a few visionary state leaders in Latin America.
In that time and place, the distractions of cap and trade or other false solutions posed within financial markets to the vast problems caused by markets will be ancient history, as we will have ratcheted up the struggle not only to cut emissions, pay ecological debt, and build a new energy/transport infrastructure for society, but in the process to throw off that capitalist albatross.