Environmentalists around the world were less than impressed by president George Bush's speech at the major economies' meeting on energy, security and climate change last week. Simon Wells comments
Bush has so far failed to ratify the Kyoto protocol and set mandatory targets on carbon emissions. His speech on Friday gave no pointers or hints whatsoever that that position is going to change. Bush and the US continue to obstruct negotiations and their power of veto will continue to prevent global consensus even on the tinkering, technical ‘solutions’ that other capitalist leaders are proposing. This is going to remain the attitude of the current US administration and they are not going away. To recap, Bush favours voluntary targets for cuts in carbon emissions, while most of the other advanced capitalist countries favour mandatory targets in the form of a cap and trade system.
According to Bush, ‘we’ve got a strategy; we’ve got a comprehensive approach’ - and he even went out of his way to refer favourably to the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change. According to his spin doctors, Bush has been badly misunderstood. Rather than a wrecker of global agreements, the US has been forging ahead with its technological means of reducing carbon emissions. Furthermore they want to set Bush up as a fixer for a post-Kyoto agreement.
This was certainly the attitude portrayed by Kurt Volker, principal deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs. Volker said: ‘First let’s deal with the myth. You’ve all heard it before. It holds that the United States does not care about climate change, that we’re just one big, gas-belching nation of polluters without scruples. Like all myths, this one needs a central character, and so the new mythical figure is the ‘ungreen American’ - a character that combines the naivety of the quiet American with the crassness of the ugly American.’
So, while the US administration is claiming Bush has turned over a new leaf, in reality nothing much has changed. In 2001 he delivered a speech which questioned the science of climate change. Bush then said: ‘The policy challenge is to act in a serious and sensible way, given the limits of our knowledge. While scientific uncertainties remain, we can begin now to address the factors that contribute to climate change.’ Bush also noted that China was the largest emitter of carbon emissions (and now is), but is exempted from the requirements of the Kyoto protocol, and the same applies to India. More-over, complying with targets, he said, would have a negative economic impact, with layoffs of workers and price increases for consumers.
His speech on September 28 followed similar lines. Bush’s objections even to Kyoto have not been overcome. He said: ‘This new approach must involve all the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions ... While our strategies may be differentiated, we share a common responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while keeping our economies growing.’
It should come as no surprise that Bush is only concerned about protecting US capitalist interests. The United States economy like Britain has turned very sharply from one that produces things to one dominated by services. Approximately 75% of US GDP comes from the service sector. An increasing proportion of that is taken up by financial services, which tend to have a disproportionate effect on the types of decisions that are made regarding investment.
The words of Ben Bernanke, chairman of the board of governors of the United States Federal Reserve, are pored over with religious zeal by city traders. Earlier this year he said: ‘Restricting trade by imposing tariffs, quotas or other barriers is exactly the wrong thing to do’ (my emphasis). Bernanke’s pronouncements are at odds with any planned long-term reduction in carbon emissions, which would certainly be a barrier to economic growth and therefore trade. It is ‘exactly the wrong thing to do’.
However, if there is a drop in carbon emissions in the US or for that matter Britain, that would have little to do with protecting the environment and everything to do with protecting the interests of US and British capital. Economists and policymakers may try to fool the electorate that they are moving on the issue, but Britain can only boast of carbon reductions because of the closure of coal mines following the defeat of the miners in 1984. The intention from the start had been to impose a strategic defeat on the working class, and the closure programme was the convenient means.
The problem that neither Bush nor any other bourgeois leader can escape is that the system they defend requires the constant expansion of capital production. New commodities must be produced not for human need, but for the needs of capital. For instance, Bush does have a programme of petrol mileage standards for vehicles, efficiency standards for home appliances and state laws requiring utilities to increase their use of renewable energy sources. However, growth for its own sake will continue to undermine the environment.
Capitalism threatens the ecology of the planet. It is continuously seeking materials, markets, labour and profits. However much Bush attempts to portray himself in a new light, the logic of the system dictates the decisions he makes, as it would with Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama.