Who can be trusted with our planet? Reflections on a week in climate politics

This past week I was taking an interest in events unfolding in Warsaw, Edinburgh and Yale.  Each in its way revealed something about the divisions in global politics of the environment.

In Warsaw at the COP19 Climate Talks – before they eventually reached an agreement of sorts – we witnessed a mass walk out by Southern participants, environmental and development groups, young people, trade unions, social movements, indigenous peoples, farmers organisations and women’s groups.  In the face of the seriousness and urgency of climate change, some of the governments represented seemed determined to be a national embarrassment; but a wider collectivity of nations could be regarded as a global shame.  Not only was there lack of progress on environmental justice in the distribution of burdens of climate change between rich and poor, but several developed countries reneged on their commitments to cut emissions, and frictions were exacerbated by the perceived closeness of governments to industrial lobbies.  Even the fitness of Poland to host the conference was questioned, with accusations of its turning the talks into a showcase for the coal industry.  The Polish Government’s lack of environmental empathy was underscored by a cabinet reshuffle – mid-talks – that saw the environment minister sacked in an apparent move to accelerate shale gas operations in Poland.  Winnie Byanyima, director of Oxfam International, summed up a widespread mood: “We are walking out … because governments need to know that enough is enough. … The stakes are too high to allow governments to make a mockery of these talks”.  Some NGOs, however, did not leave the conference but opted instead to ‘push from the inside’.

At Edinburgh, the inside/outside theme, and the question of where different NGOs stand in relation to it, was brought starkly into relief.  The city was the location for the first World Forum on Natural Capital – an opportunity ‘for senior decision makers to exercise leadership for the benefit of the planet’.  At a price of £800 for attendance, reduced to £500 for non-corporates, it was clearly intended to be an exclusive affair, its aim being to remedy the ‘lack of understanding of natural capital among senior business leaders’ and to alert them to the risks and opportunities affecting business in a world with intensifying competition for natural resources and ecological services.  The provision of enlightenment for the business leaders was coordinated by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, in association with other organisations including the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  For the conservationists, the idea of Natural Capital stands for the repository of diverse values that the natural world represents to human beings.  The idea of having nature’s value taken into account in policy-making and economic activities is what drives their enthusiasm for the conference theme.  The modelling methods that ecological scientists have developed to account for ‘ecosystems services’ as an analogue of revenue are supposed to be integrated with an idea of ‘natural capital’ as the underlying source of that revenue.

There are, however, well-known problems with trying to treat environmental protection as analogous to accountancy.  The issues of non-commensurability of different environmental values and the contestation over which ecological assets can be regarded as substitutable, and by what, are daunting enough.  But there is a still more serious problem that stems from the fact that the dynamic of a capitalist economy depends on finding ever new opportunities for the investment of capital (in the conventional sense of accumulated wealth).  This restless quest has involved from the outset an ever increasing ‘valorization’ of natural resources.

So highlighting the vital role of nature in production is entirely superfluous for business people, whereas finding ways for the system of private ownership to reach more deeply into the natural world is exactly what is craved as a systemic imperative.  Thus carbon markets, offsetting schemes and the like, do little to actually internalise the negative environmental externalities of businesses, can often do more harm than good to disadvantaged people, but turn a tidy profit for the financial players.  Hence we should be clear that the business interests may hardly square at all with those of conservationists. Business leaders do not need to be told that their businesses depend on the availability of natural resources.  What is of interest to them, though, is the prospect of new markets opening up.  Particularly for the financial sector, the very existence of a market is always good news; whether stocks rise or fall, there will always be changes, and it is from changes that financial margins are generated (which is why people in the financial sector are so very rich – whether the rest of the economy is flourishing or not).  So while the conservationists may have aspired to educate the capitalists, the latter were engaging in a process aimed at legitimating the marketization of aspects of the natural world that have not yet become fully commoditized.

The critical perspective was presented with clarity and intellectual rigour at a counter-event held to coincide with the first evening of the conference.  I attended this myself, partly in order to catch up with an old friend who’d been invited to speak.  John O’Neill, Professor of Political Economy at Manchester University, is an authoritative critic of market-based approaches to environmental protection, so in his allotted speaking time he was able succinctly to state the case, with further nuances added by Mike Hannis, several pithy interventions from Nick Dearden of the World Development Movement, and an inspiring video-link with Camila Moreno of Friends of the Earth Brazil, from Warsaw.

At one point in the evening, a delegate from the Natural Capital conference asked the panel why everyone seemed to be so against the people at the other conference.  This gave the panellists the opportunity to emphasise the very basic point that nobody was saying that the CEO’s of businesses or anyone else promoting market-based solutions to environmental problems are evil human beings – in fact, ‘they are probably much nicer people than me’, reflected Mike – but the point is that they have to fulfil the roles they occupy within the dynamic system that is a market economy.  The reality of business objectives, and the hold they have over governments, has been amply demonstrated in Warsaw this week.

From Yale, meanwhile, we heard the result of the referendum that I wrote about last week.  The students’ vote on whether the university’s endowment should divest from fossil fuels was decisively in favour, with 83% of the votes cast (and a turnout, that is apparently high for a Yale referendum, of 53%).  What follows from this may not be immediately dramatic.  Under Fossil Free Yale’s plan, companies would first disclose their greenhouse gas emissions data. Yale would divest from non-reporting companies.  The proposal then advocates engagement with the dirtiest fossil fuel companies to decrease their contribution to climate change before divesting from the companies with the highest emissions intensities’.  But the message is clear and strong, and being endorsed by a growing number of people, that the global public interest in saving the planet cannot be deemed of moral equivalence to the vested interest in profiting from burning the remaining fossil fuels

It is becoming ever clearer that to be in favour of decent stewardship of our environment means taking a stand against the egregious domination of private property interests in defining the value that the natural world has for us. Governments have yet to take a clear lead, as COP19 has reminded us.  Meanwhile, a disappointing number of NGOs are failing to grasp the real nature, extent and interconnectedness of the global problem of protecting the environment while also securing justice for human beings.  Markets should never be expected to save us from problems that require our conscious and enlightened political decisions to address.  This much has been understood by those who exited in protest from the Warsaw talks, by those who attended the alternative meeting at Edinburgh, and by the clear majority of students who voted at Yale – by those, in other words, who are presently on the outside of major decision-making processes.

The thought I bring away from the week in consolation is that the planet may come in the future to be in better hands than it is at present.

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