Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 13, 2010

Disappointment Avoided In Cancun
By the early 1990s the alarming process we’ve come to call Global Warming was palpable. Scientists were forming a consensus that the primary culprit creating greenhouse heat in our biosphere is burning fossil fuels–coal, oil, natural gas.

Since this was a global problem the United Nations, whose membership embraces all but a handful of the world’s countries, was seen as the logical venue for research and action to reverse this dangerous trend before it got out of hand. A 1992 gathering known as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The goal of the Framework was “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The first of a series of annual COPs–Conference of the Parties–was held in Berlin in 1995.

It wasn’t until the 1997 COP3 in Kyoto that a binding Protocol for the Framework was adopted. Most scientists and environmentalists were disappointed that best science and technology methods were not its focus. Instead the quite modest targets for greenhouse emission reductions were to be accomplished through market measures such as cap-and-trade, offsets and the like. Then Vice-President Al Gore was insistent on this perspective as the price for U.S. participation.

Most industrialized countries quickly adopted the Kyoto targets and started applying creative math toward meeting them. Developing countries were exempt from quota adoption–including China and India.

When Gore returned home from Japan he found that his boss, Bill Clinton, was not prepared to expend political capital to even submit the Accord to the Senate for a vote. Today the USA stands only with Afghanistan in refusing to consider signing on to Kyoto.

The gains of Europe and Japan meeting their targets are largely fictional with illusory “offsets” playing a major role. Greenhouse pollution exploded in exempt countries such as China and India–largely as a result of offshored production orders from the industrialized countries to be imported back to their home markets. And carbon emissions have advanced all along, with only a slight hiccup during the Great Recession, in the USA.

Reports by UN scientific bodies in 2008-2009 documented climate change is occurring much faster than anyone expected.

When COP15 took place in Copenhagen a year ago there were great hopes that finally the world’s leaders were prepared to take effective measures. Nearly all heads of state came to represent their countries. An impressive international group of artists put out the widely viewed Beds Are Burning video, seen by millions on YouTube. The substantial climate justice groups in Europe were present and watching.

But this enthusiasm was short-circuited by a hasty sideline deal cut between the USA and China during President Obama’s cameo appearance. This last minute toothless “Copenhagen Agreement” came nowhere near gaining the required consensus but was declared to be the basis for further “consultation.” Later, a combination of small bribes and big threats got a majority to sign on. But the President didn’t even push to get it approved by his own Democrat controlled Congress.

This year’s COP16 is now history. Not much was expected of it--and it didn’t disappoint.

The site of the conclave–Cancun, Mexico–should have served as a powerful object lesson of its own. Mark Stevenson writing for AP reported,

“Rising sea levels and a series of unusually powerful hurricanes have aggravated the folly of building a tourist destination atop shifting sand dunes on a narrow peninsula. After the big storms hit, the bad ideas were laid bare: Much of Cancun's glittering hotel strip is now without a beach...‘It was the chronicle of a disaster foretold,’ said Exequiel Ezcurra, the former head of Mexico's environmental agency. ‘Everybody knew this was going to happen. This had been predicted for 40 years.’”

Reports by the world’s top scientists concerning much bigger foretold disasters now unfolding greeted the assembled Conference participants. On the opening day of COP16 Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent for Reuters called attention to,

“World temperatures could soar by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the 2060s in the worst case of global climate change and require an annual investment of $270 billion just to contain rising sea levels, studies suggested on Sunday. Such a rapid rise, within the lifetimes of many young people today, is double the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) ceiling set by 140 governments at a U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen last year and would disrupt food and water supplies in many parts of the globe.”

John M Broder wrote in the New York Times on the final scheduled day,

“The climate itself was not waiting for the outcome of the talks. An analysis of average global temperatures released Friday by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies shows that 2010 has so far been the warmest year in its 130-year climate record....The year was marked by extreme weather events, from a record-breaking heat wave in Russia in July to the dramatic floods in Pakistan. High sea temperatures were also blamed for a global bleaching of coral reefs.”

There were other fresh reports about acidification of oceans because of the amount of CO2 they are absorbing and ongoing destructive deforestation. Another forecast skyrocketing prices for basic food throughout the world because of crop yields diminished by fires, floods and drought--and the burning of food as “biofuel.”

Instead of hammering out global mandates for urgent action in response to these challenges, Cancun prepared an atmosphere of hospice to gradually administer euthanasia to UN intervention. Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, diplomatically explained in the Washington Post,

“Most of the important work of cutting emissions will be driven outside the U.N. process...[Cancun] should be applauded not because it solves everything, but because it chooses not to: it focuses on those areas where the U.N. process has the most potential to be useful, and avoids others where the U.N. process is a dead end.”

Even the current Kyoto Accord, set to expire in 2012, appears good as dead. In Cancun, Japan and Russia boldly declared that since neither China nor the USA–the two top greenhouse emitters--were bound by Kyoto neither would they when their present commitment is fulfilled.

So what did come out of Cancun? It was decided it would be nice to establish a “Green Fund” of 100 billion dollars to be doled out to poor countries by the World Bank over the next decade. This was really a stale leftover from Obama’s Copenhagen Agreement. Details of where this money would come from, and the guidelines for its dispersal, are not readily available.

Most of the delegations had learned from the experience of last year’s Conference in Copenhagen that it doesn’t pay to get sideways with the USA in such matters. They politely applauded the “modest” accomplishments of COP16.

But there was a small group, led by Bolivia, who dared draw a line in Cancun’s shifting sands. Early on, Bolivian President Evo Morales made his country’s position clear to the delegates,

“We came to Cancún to save nature, forests, planet Earth. We are not here to convert nature into a commodity. We have not come here to revitalize capitalism with carbon markets.”

After the conclusion of COP16 the Bolivian government issued the most honest and sensible statement which you can read here.

We now have eighteen years of experience with governments trying to avoid climate calamity with market measures that can make the rich richer. The net result is climate change is under way, is growing in intensity, and will soon be out of control. It is little comfort that the disaster they are creating--if not stopped soon--will ultimately consume their progeny as well as ours.

The principled positions put forward by Bolivia and their ALBA countries partners in Cancun are to be applauded. But more than cheer leaders they need allies with muscle. The only candidates with both material interest and sufficient clout I know of are the working class of the industrialized “rich” countries–above all in North America. To be continued...

In Brief...
¶ Citing the facts that their members’ wages average 38,000 a year, and their pensions 13,000 a year, AFSCME Council 5, representing Minnesota state employees, gave an
effective answer to a Chamber of Commerce attack on “excessive” public sector labor costs.
¶ For a good look at the profit motive at work in standardized testing in our schools check out Dan DiMaggio’s
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Test Scorer in Monthly Review.
¶ While health care spending continues to set new records in the USA–nearly twice the percentage of GDP spent on Britain’s socialized medicine–comes word that life expectancy for American new-borns has actually declined by one month.
¶ Faced with the threat of a mass picket and plant occupation, Esterline Technologies cancelled a scheduled auction of equipment at the plant they closed in Taunton, Massachusetts and have agreed to return to negotiations with UE Local 204 over severance and jobs.
¶ It’s estimated that as many as 1,000 of the 1800 new jobs Ford plans to create as a result of a big plant expansion in Louisville can be filled with tier-2 new hires making 14 dollars per hour.
¶ As Congressional Republicans blocked a proposal to give Social Security recipients 250 bucks to take the edge off another benefit freeze next year a Washington University (St Louis) study shows fully half of seniors are at risk to fall below the poverty line.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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