Rant: Climate Guilt

After Typhoon Haiyan decimated the Phillipines, killing more than 10,000 people and affecting close to 10 million people, the Philippines lead negotiator for the UN climate negotiations in Warsaw, Poland, Nadarev “Yeb” Sano, proceeded with a hunger strike until meaningful action was taken to address climate change. At the start of the conference he gave an impassioned plea to the assembled nations, saying “…let Poland be forever known as the place we truly cared to stop this madness.”

In the shadow of Typhoon Haiyan the primary issue of contestation became the lack of funds to help developing countries adapt to climate change and repair losses caused by extreme weather events and sea level rise. An index released on the second day of the UN climate conference showed that all ten of the countries most at risk for extreme weather events from 1993 to 2012 were developing countries (Philippines was listed number 2 but will likely become number 1 after this year’s typhoon).

On the last day of the negotiations, Yeb Sano said,

“The US, accounting for at least one-fourth of cumulative emissions, has a huge responsibility, a moral responsibility, to tackle climate change, not just to address it domestically, but also to be able to provide support for developing countries.”

In response to the question of whether, as the historically largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. owes the the most vulnerable countries some form of reparations, the lead U.S. climate negotiator, Todd Stern, replied,

“We don’t regard climate action as a matter of compensation or reparations or anything of the kind.”

While corporate sponsorship from some of the world’s biggest polluters set a dismal tone for any hope of progress at this year’s negotiations, one truly meaningful and inspiring action to come out of the climate talks was the unprecedented walk out on the second to last day of the talks by more than 800 members of environmental and development groups, NGOs, youth, indigenous peoples, trade unions, women’s groups and social movements (including my former Global College classmate, Adam Greenberg).

Winnie Byanyima, director of Oxfam International, said: “We are walking out of these talks because governments need to know that enough is enough. People around the globe have a right to know about the desperate state of these negotiations. The stakes are too high to allow governments to make a mockery of these talks”.

This was not a sign of throwing in the towel, on the contrary, they left wearing t-shirts saying “Polluters talk, We walk” and “We will be back #volveremos” (referring to next year’s climate talks in Lima, Peru), with an even deeper commitment to raising public awareness of the urgency of the situation, organizing as many civil protests as possible, and building a global social movement.

Feya Palmer from the Youth Climate Coalition, and one of those to walk out wrote,”In order to solve climate change, we need to become everywhere; we need to grow, both at home and internationally; we need to build movements from the grassroots, up into the conference centres. It isn’t a question of megaphones or meetings; the movement needs both… The important thing is that we don’t see the UN as the only solution.

Collective action is one critical piece of the solution that is desperately needed to address climate change; another piece is, as a pair of climate scientists from the influential Tyndall Climate Change Research Institute in England have called for, “revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony”. Our window of opportunity to avoid the two degrees Celsius of warming that would lead to complete environmental disaster is so close to closing that climate scientists are saying our only option as this point is “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU, and other wealthy nations.”

It is worth quoting one of the scientists, Kevin Anderson, at length:

In the short term, the only way we can get our emissions down is to actually reduce the level of energy we consume. Now, we can also put low-carbon energy supply in place, you know, power stations that are renewable—wind, even nuclear, as well. These are all very low-carbon power stations and other energy sources. But they take a long time to put in place. And we now—we’ve squandered the opportunity we had to make those changes. So, we still need to do that, but it’s going to take us 20, 30 years to do that. So what we need to do in the interim is to reduce the amount of energy we consume, and therefore reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we emit.

And the levels of reduction we now need in carbon dioxide, and therefore energy consumption, are such that for many of us—for the wealthy of us, certainly—we can’t carry on as we’re going now. So we’ll have to consume less. And there’s absolutely no way out of that. The maths are absolutely clear. But it’s worth bearing in mind this is an equity issue, not just between the poorer south and richer north, but actually within our own countries, within the U.S. There will be many people in the U.S., probably the majority of people in the U.S., actually are relatively low carbon emitters, but there will be a small group of us, maybe 20 or 30 people in the U.S. or in the U.K. and in the EU, and our emissions are probably several fold, sometimes maybe even tenfold, the emissions of the average person that are there. So I think that this is not an issue where we all have to see less consumption. It’s those of us that consume well above the average that will have to see significant reductions in the short to medium term, once you put the low-carbon power stations in place.”

At the same time all of this is happening, the Chinese central leadership concluded their Third Plenary Session in November and announced “massive reforms” with economic growth a top priority in order to increase domestic consumption and transition away from an export-oriented economy.

Within the context of climate scientists’ calls for “radical and immediate de-growth strategies” in developed countries, the potentially devastating consequences of China’s transition in the exact direction we should be fleeing are evident.

However, despite China’s economic transition towards free market reforms, there still exists the rural collective land-use model. While collective land-use is often overlooked and underemphasized, if not outright attacked, I think the collective can offer other countries an alternative development model to the current political and economic hegemony. It is a model that not only empowers small (often the most vulnerable) land-owners and scales up production, but perhaps relevant to the climate movement, it creates a community of stakeholders to collectively resist injustice and implement practices that ensure long-term environmental sustainability.

The Chinese central government’s goal to increase domestic consumption through urbanization includes a plan to move 250 million rural farmers to towns and cities with the intention of integrating 70 percent of the country’s population to towns and cities by 2025. While this in and of itself could lead the collective model to become increasingly irrelevant, some western media, in collusion with vested elite interests, are actively promoting its disintegration.

When western media outlets say “strengthening land rights for farmers” is the solution to protecting rural farmers from land seizures, this is because they can avoid the term “privatization” while sounding as though they’re trying to protect rural farmers.

Privatization of land in China would have the following consequences:

1. it would increase farmer’s vulnerability to market volatility, manipulation, natural disasters, and land grabs— particularly by transnational corporations who would have deeper access to market penetration;

2. it would pit farmers against one another in a rush to extract once-communal resources before someone else does (as was evident in the early years of decollectivization); and

3. within the context of retracting state welfare benefits and infrastructure support for rural villages, it would pressure farmers to employ intensive land-use practices to increase short-term yields at the cost of long-term sustainability, or empower land development for private profit (particularly by elite interests), thereby amplifying food insecurity, land scarcity, and rural unrest.

On the other hand, maintaining or strengthening the collective:

1. provides a minimum security while buffering farmers from the volatility of the marketplace and perils of life as a migrant landless laborer;

2. is the foundation for farmers to work together to protect their land and resist injustice; and

3. promotes a shared responsibility among villages to implement practices that preserve the land’s long-term productivity and sustainability.

As reports of China’s economic reforms indicate (and promote) an increasing integration with the global economic hegemony that is destroying the planet, perhaps amplifying the power of alternative development models- like the rural collective, may offer some solidarity to the global climate justice movement.

Conventional thinking about modernity, growth, and development, so defined, is hopelessly, dangerously, and perversely blind to its structural deficiencies and devoid of real alternatives taken seriously in the centers of power. The future existence of the world’s people depends on breaking this utterly deficient style of developmental thought.” Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick, from Theories of Development.


About elenakayes

The key to understanding exists at the nexus where self-interest and practice meet power and policy; I explore this nexus through participatory field research.
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