Negotiators fail climate test

Simon Wells comments on the international climate talks held at Bali

The United States delegation, was, as expected, particularly obdurate in opposing the inclusion of emissions reduction targets - however inadequate - in the international climate talks at Bali. But the talks ended with a US climbdown of sorts (it was later called into question by George W Bush) and an agreement to adopt a 'road map' for combating global warming by 2009.

In the most optimistic language, the final statement from the conference, which brought together representatives from 190 states, agreed that industrialised countries should aim to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, while providing aid to developing countries to find ways of keeping down their own emissions, adapt to rising temperatures and protect their forests.

The US, joined by Japan and Canada, argued that targets should only be agreed at the end of the two-year period of negotiations, not the start. Jim Connaughton, White House environmental chief, said: "We can be very ambitious, but cuts that deep, that fast are simply beyond reach." White House press secretary Dana Perino added: "The problem of climate change cannot be adequately addressed through commitments for emissions cuts by developed countries alone." She pointed a finger at China, the biggest emitter not included in the Kyoto protocol, which is expected soon to become the world's third largest economy after the United States and Japan. This has been a main complaint of the US and one of the excuses it gave for failing to sign up to Kyoto.

Many at Bali looked beyond the Bush administration, with Al Gore saying: "I believe that the treaty should be completed in Copenhagen" - he was referring to the UN climate summit to be held in December 2009. In reference to Bush's stalling, he said: "I'm not an official of the US and not bound by official niceties "¦ I'm going to speak an inconvenient truth: my own country, the US, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali."

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon attempted to lift the spirits of those attending: "This is the beginning, not the end "¦ We will have to engage in more complex, long and difficult negotiations." However, his comments will be of little comfort to relatives of the 3,000 who died, and to the millions left homeless, after hurricane Sidr hit the Bangladesh coastline. A UN human development report notes: "Climate disasters are heavily concentrated in poor countries. Some 262 million people were affected by climate disasters annually from 2000 to 2004, over 98% of them in the developing world" (http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/hdr_20072008_en_complete.pdf). While the advanced capitalist countries can build desalination plants and flood defences, poor countries make do with handouts, on conditions determined by the imperialist powers.

The outcome at Bali came nowhere near even what the European Union had been proposing and was described by Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, as "very disappointing". As for the so-called 'road map', "this conference has failed to give us a clear destination". The agreement was likened to a "suicide pact" - this would certainly be the feeling among many of the protestors camped outside, while negotiators tiptoed around each other in the hall. It is clear that what has been agreed at Bali falls way short of the conclusions that should be drawn from the scientific evidence, such as the synthesis report published in November this year.

The truth is, neither the US, nor the EU, nor greens such as Juniper can come up with a solution to the climate crisis, simply because they are all committed, first and foremost, to the needs of capital. Capital must constantly expand. Its drive to accumulate and derive a profit over shorter and shorter timescales cannot be held in check without endangering the system itself. In the post-war years, large-scale investment in industry and infrastructure was the order of the day, with consequent lengthy time spans before the realisation of surplus value. Now, it can occur literally overnight, as city traders gamble on interest rates or the derivatives markets to gain their obscene profits. This drive to instant realisation will not voluntarily be abated because of climate change. So the defenders of capital can only tinker. Yet climate change endangers their system too, just as it endangers millions of lives.

As for the greens, they are also committed to some form of capitalism. Many may hark back to an imagined petty bourgeois utopia, but the clock cannot be turned back and their schemas for small-scale, decentralised production actually run counter to the system they are wedded to. There cannot be a capitalism stripped of its drive to expand.

History shows that that climate change is not only quantitative, but also qualitative. For example, Viking colonies survived in Greenland for 500 years between 1000 to 1500 AD. As temperatures dropped and the ice-sheets moved south, the Norse culture failed to survive because it did not adapt to the conditions, unlike the Inuits. Today, the same fate awaits millions, not least those who inhabit low-lying regions like the islands of Oceania. If climate negotiators continue to prevaricate, and carbon emissions continue to be pumped out at the same rate as today, it is certain that a climate shift will occur whose impact will be devastating.

During the two world wars the imperialist powers imposed direct control on the capitalists to replace that of the market. There was a temporary period of state capitalism. In theory they could once more go over to a war economy to combat climate change. This would mean the suspension of the profit motive and the management of needs through state bureaucracy, with the intent of lowering the carbon impact of the production and distribution of goods and services.

There is a better alternative. The resolution of the climate crisis poses the question of socialism, not bureaucracy with all its inequalities. It poses the democratic reorganisation of the global economy. While scientists and climate negotiators propose integrated recycling, a genuine solution demands international revolution.