Climate change – The long suicide

Professor Patrick Bond has done a great service reminding us of the realities of climate change as well as the one’s about to hit us (‘Dangerous climate of denialism’, Cape Times 5th September).

Our government, however, is not a climate change denialist. On the contrary, it unequivocally affirms the reality of climate change. Thus, its National Development Plan (NDP) boldly declares:

Threats to the environment are real and growing, driving the world closer to a [climate change] tipping point.

The Government’s fear is indeed that climate change is not being taken sufficiently seriously:

The pace of change is dangerously slow and deeply worrying. Failure by world leaders to take urgent action to remedy current trends in carbon emissions will lead to dire consequences for future generations.

The NDP additionally affirms that

A low-carbon future is the only realistic option, as the world needs to cut emissions per unit of output by a factor of about eight.

Notwithstanding all the above, the government behaves as though it has never heard of climate change or of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming.

Confining ourselves to most recent examples:

  • On 3rd September 2013, the Minister of Trade & Industry, Rob Davies, promoted the expansion of the economic activity that, in its multiple forms and processes, is the very embodiment of a high-carbon economy – mining!
  • On 4th September, the Minister of Water, Edna Molewa, introduced a Review of the country’s principal water legislation. She explained that a main reason for the Review was to prioritise mining so that, unlike now, there would be water for new mines. And this, from the person who is also the Minister of the Environment and, therefore, responsible for climate change!
  • At the beginning of September, the Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, also spoke about the importance of mining in attracting foreign investment for export-led growth as well as reducing South Africa’s currency volatility.
  • During these same few days, the business press has been expressing its regret that development of Mozambique’s rich coal fields is being delayed by community protests. Coal just happens to be the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas in Southern Africa.
  • Indeed, SA coal mining is growing and growing: from 47,000 employees in 2003 to over 80,000 employees today.

This schizoid split between the knowledge of what must be done to prevent climate change catastrophe and what is actually happening is not confined to South Africa.
On 10th May this year, a major global milestone was passed on the road to the tipping point the NDP warned against, when the 400 parts per million threshold of atmospheric carbon dioxide was exceeded. Responding to this event, the Secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change observed:

The world must wake up and take note of what this means for human security, human welfare and economic development.

At the end of last year, the World Bank published, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 40C Warmer World must be Avoided. In his Forward to the Report, the President of the World Bank, Dr Jim Yong Kim, pleads:

It is my hope that this report shocks us into action. Even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency.

President Obama provides the final example of this disconnect between scientific knowledge and practice. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he declared

I am a firm believer that climate change is real; that it is impacted by human behaviour and, as a consequence, we have an obligation to something about it.
‘To do something about it’. But what if there’s a fundamental conflict between the imperatives of climate change and other requirements? The contradictory outcomes would point to a problem far more serious than mere policy incoherence.

There was no policy incoherence when former US President Bush excluded the US from the Kyoto Protocol. He did so because, in his forthright words, “reducing greenhouse gas will wreck our economy”.
Although setting standards well below what is actually required, Kyoto stands unique as the only even vaguely legally backed attempt to restrict carbon emissions. Bush was a right-wing Republican president; the liberal Barak Obama is now in his second term as the Democratic president. Presidential and party changes have made no difference; the US still refuses to be bound by the timid Kyoto Protocol.

Investigating why the globally recognised need for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would ‘wreck’ the economy reveals

  • A profoundly un-economic economy utterly dependent not just on endless growth but on compound growth.
  • Growth is driven entirely by any activity calculated to maximise profit; the actual content of this economic activity being of little consequence.
  • Profit maximisation means keeping wages as low as possible (‘the race to the bottom’), which substantially reduces the purchasing power of the population lucky enough to be employed.
  • Reduced purchasing power means that meeting basic physical, social or environmental needs cannot sustain compound growth; instead, growth becomes fundamentally dependent on the economy of the non-essential.
  • This unnecessary economic activity – waste – ends up being a necessary condition for wealth creation.

Waste is the primary source fuelling global warming. The waste required to sustain global capitalism requires almost unlimited energy for the design, mining, processing, manufacture, assembly, distribution, marketing, advertising and ultimate disposal of commodities – along with the energy costs of the transport that is part of each stage of the cycle. And all this for things most of which have life-spans designed to be as short as possible – think cell phones.
Our ANC-led government is as much a prisoner of these economic realities as any US President. At a deeply personal level, it is also a self-imprisonment. The new South African elite have many reasons for identifying with and protecting the economy endangered by the large and rapid reduction of greenhouse gas. Their internally driven protectiveness arises from

  • The partnership process of BEE is totally dependent on the profitability of the wider economy demanded by established corporate capital both locally and internationally.
  • Affirmative Action is similarly dependent on the health of the economy.
  • The Mining Charter – to take it as illustrative of black elite self-interest – requires black ownership of the entire sector to be 15% in 2009 and 25% in 2014. Using 2010 figures, when the percentage of black ownership stood at about 9%, this meant that the black elite owned mining assets of about R225 billion. Had it been the required 15%, the assets would have totalled some R375 billion with the projected amount for 2014 being up to R650 billion. What is clear is that, whatever the precise numbers might now be, they give the top echelons of the ANC (including its business wing) a far from insubstantial stake in the profitability and expansion – at a compound rate – of the capital sunk into the mining sector.
  • Corruption adds yet another dimension to why the Government has no intention of doing anything that might ‘wreck’ the mining industry in particular. The size of the dimension is indicated by the recent allegation that the ANC’s National Chairperson was given a bribe of R25 million in an empowerment deal worth R1.1 billion.

The political and business partnership between old and new elites, underscores why denialism has little place in understanding the government’s climate change behaviour. One can generally accept the sincerity of the government’s climate change commitments. These intensions, however, stand no chance against the might of the market’s imperative to maximise returns on investments without much, if any, thought of what this means for climate change. Suicide captures the nature of this contradiction much better than denial. As Marx observed:

The last capitalist would sell the rope used for his own hanging.

Jeff Rudin
Research Associate
Alternative Information & Development Centre
{An elaboration of the above analysis is to be found in the booklet ‘The Green Economy: The Long Suicide’ shortly to be published by the AIDC}

This article was first published in the Cape Times 

Posted in AIDC

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