Politics of Climate Justice

By Bryan Walker 28/12/2011


I warm to any writer who identifies the solution to climate change in the simple terms employed by Patrick Bond in his recent book Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below: leave fossil fuels in the soil, halt deforestation, transform our economies so that renewable energy, public transport and low-carbon systems replace those currently threatening the planet. Short and simple to articulate, he comments, but apparently impossible to implement.

Bond writes from Africa, where he is a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He carries a deep sense of the damage that climate change is causing and will cause to African societies, and calls for justice not only in the mitigation of further climate change but also in substantial transfers of wealth to enable poor countries to cope with the adaptation and mitigation measures demanded of them. He sees this as the payment of an ecological debt.

Carbon trading he regards as a charade that will do nothing to reduce global warming. It has been accepted as the primary capitalist management technique but offsetting emissions is not the same as cutting them, and to date there is little sign that the wealthy countries are achieving emissions cuts by emissions trading. Shifting, stalling and stealing are the words he uses to describe such trading, as capitalism frantically seeks new ways to address its crises and avoid threats to its over-accumulated capital.

He points to the vast devaluation of energy capital which lies ahead. Around 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves must stay below ground if global climate managers succeed in keeping warming to 2 degrees. That represents some substantial currently accounted assets which will be worthless, a dire prospect for some very large firms and for some countries.

Carbon trading not severely focused on emissions reduction is certainly open to  the failures of which Bond is so aware, and one can understand his suspicions and appreciate the weaknesses to which he points. It can amount to little more than shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic if it deals only in the illusion of reduction. He takes the reader through a complex set of arguments as to why carbon trading is not working and is unlikely to do so, especially when it is co-opted by the financial markets or used as a thinly-disguised exploitation of the South by the wealthy North. And he is right to point out that even if carbon markets work it can only be at the margins, and that full solutions require radical transformative regulations and public investments if we’re to break through to the new energy and related systems the planet requires.

Nevertheless I balked when he described people like Mary Robinson, Nicholas Stern and Al Gore as part of a paralysed elite trapped in market solutions. Stern strikes me as discriminating and often critical in his estimation of market solutions, and he is adamant, in his book  Blueprint for a Global Deal that combating climate change is inextricably linked with poverty reduction as the two greatest challenges of the century and that we shall succeed or fail on them together.  Al Gore in his 2009 book Our Choice expressed preference for a carbon tax over carbon trading, but recognised that the ascendance of market fundamentalism in the US meant that only a cap and trade system had any likelihood of acceptance. He also wrote of the importance of direct regulation.

Climate finance is a major concern for poorer countries faced not only with adapting to the early impacts of climate change but also the challenge of developing their economies without the fossil fuel energy sources which were used by the world’s richer economies in their development.  That there is a debt owing to such countries is a notion hard to argue with for anyone who has a feeling for justice in human affairs. Bond puts the case for a very substantial transfer of funds from the rich countries to the poorer, but in ways which ensure that they go to poor people, not to venal elites, and which also ensure developing economies emancipated from current fossil fuel dependency. He sees little chance of such finance being provided through market-centred emissions trading. The Green Climate Fund looks like a step in the right direction, but Bond sees it as too dependent on carbon markets to provide much of the funding and as open to rewarding allied Southern elites and investing in false solutions.

Governments of developing countries are often susceptible to bullying and bribing from the more powerful governments in international negotiations and persuaded to scale back their best intentions, as Bond explains in the course of a quite complex narrative of the politics involved in climate finance.  He rests more hope on the contribution that civil society can bring to the process of negotiation. He advances the kind of demands that have been put together by such groups as the World Council of Churches, Action Aid, Africa Action, the Third World Network and the radical Cochabamba Conference in Bolivia in 2010. On the matter of the distribution of climate debt repayments, assuming they ever become part of Northern climate concessions, he draws attention to the idea of simply passing a universal monthly grant to each African citizen through an individual Basic Income Programme payment. This would bypass the corruption which too easily assails African governments.

The claims of full climate justice owed to poorer countries can seem like crying for the moon. But Bond sees hope in the development of grassroots activist movements and in his final chapter offers an analysis of how they might better combine their energies and concerns to challenge the dominance of the failing climate solutions currently employed. Eco-socialism and eco-feminism feature as important directions in his analysis.

The world needs to be constantly confronted with what climate change means for the precarious livelihoods of poorer populations, and challenged to accept a fair measure of responsibility to assist them. Bond’s book does a valuable service both to those populations and to our own moral awareness, supposedly one of the characteristics that mark us out as civilised human beings. I sometimes felt he was too exclusive in his judgments of people less progressive politically and economically than he deems necessary for effective climate change activism, but his insistence that we address the injustices being suffered is absolutely right. It’s also a necessary part of any effective response to the dangers ahead.

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