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Apollo’s Curse and Climate Change

29 Sep


            The fertile mythic mind of ancient Greece gave us a tragically relevant tale, told in different versions, of how the Greek god Apollo laid a curse of the beautiful and humanly captivating Cassandra. According to the myth Apollo was so moved by Cassandra’s beauty and presence that he conferred the gift of prophesy enabling her to apprehend accurately the future. Yet the gift came with a rather large macho string attached: he expected in return that Cassandra would agree to become his love partner, but she by tradition was sufficiently attached to her virginity and pride as to refuse Apollo’s crude entreaty. Angered by such defiance, Apollo laid upon this innocent young woman a lethal curse: she would continue to foretell the future but she would never be believed. Such a twin destiny drove Cassandra insane, surely a punishment of virtue that was perversely exacted. Or are we as mortals expected always to cast aside our morals and virtue whenever the gods so demand?


            The sad story of Cassandra is suggestive of the dilemma confronting the climate change scientific community. In modern civilization, interpreting scientific evidence and projecting trends, is as close to trustworthy prophesy as this civilization is likely to get. Modernity has proceeded on this basis, applying knowledge to bring greater material benefits to humanity, including longer and healthier lives. The culture is supposed to place its highest trust in the scientific community as the voice of reason,  and modernity is largely understood as allowing scientific truth and instrumental reason to supersede superstition and religious revelation. Galileo’s capitulation to the authority of the Catholic Church is the insignia of the pre-modern worldview that made religion the incontestable source of truth.


            The world scientific community has spoken with as much authority as it can muster in relation to climate change. The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), drawing on the work of thousands of climate specialists around the world, has concluded that the continuation of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates, as a result of human activities, is almost certain to cause a disastrous level of global warming, that is, above 2 degrees centigrade, that will produce, and is already producing, a series of disastrous effects on planet earth that cannot be adequately explained by natural weather cycles: extreme weather; polar melting; droughts and flooding; ocean warming  and acidification; desertification; destruction of coral reefs and fisheries . Among the societal effects, already felt in various places, would be food insecurity, ethnic conflict, environmental migrants and refugees, and coercive to patterns of governance. Depending on how much global warming takes place over what period of time, there are more dire predictions being made by reputable observers (James Hanson, Bill McKibben, James Lovelock) civilizational collapse and even threats to species survival.


            Why is the strong consensus of the scientific community so ineffectual on this issue? Why are its dire warnings substantially ignored? The full story is complicate and controversial. There are several underlying explanations: states primarily look after national interests, and are reluctant to cooperate when expected burdens on economic prosperity are likely to be heavy; this is particularly true when the complexities of an issue make it almost impossible to agree upon an allocation of economic responsibility for the buildup of greenhouse gasses over the course of several centuries; ordinary people are reluctant to give up present gains to offset future risks, especially when the sky that they daily see looks no different and massive poverty exists; politicians are far less moved to action by risks that will not materialize for some decades, given their short cycles of present accountability almost totally based on present performance; the worst current effects of global warming are taking place in countries, sub-Saharan Africa, which makes only minimal contributions to emissions, and so there is a mismatch between the sites of emission and sites of current harm; those with entrenched interests in refusing to curtail present uses of fossil fuels, have the incentive and resources to fund a counter-narrative that denies the asserted threat of global warming; as the threat is primarily in the future, despite some conjectured present harm, there is always an element of uncertainty as to the reliability of predicted effects, and there are likely to be some scientists who sincerely dissent from the prevailing views, especially if their research is funded by those with an interest in promoting climate skepticism. There is also a corporate mentality, generally sincere, that is convinced that a technological fix will emerge in time to address what truths are embedded in predictions of harm from global warming, and some geo-engineering ‘fixes’ are already at the blueprint stage.


            What then is the relevance of the curse of Apollo? By making the political process in a world of sovereign states primarily responsive to the siren call of money, the guidance of science is marginalized. More explicitly, when money in large quantities does not want something to happen, and there is absent countervailing monetary resources to offset the pressures being exerted, knowledge will be subordinated. We have become, maybe long have been, a materialistic civilization more than a scientific civilization.


            This overall picture is complicated by the fact that the scientific consensus is endorsed by most governments at the level of rhetoric, but without the political will, to change the relevant pattern of behavior.  If we look at the declarations being endorsed by governments at the annual UN climate change gatherings, we might be surprised by the degree to which political leaders are willing to affirm their sense of the urgency in relation to the climate change challenge, while at the same time in their diplomatic role using the geopolitical leverage at their disposal to make sure that no obligations are imposed that require an agreed level of reductions in emissions at levels that are responsive to the recommendations of the scientists.


            The case of the United States is exemplary. It remains the largest per capita emitting country, although surpassed for the last couple of years by China in relation to aggregate total emissions. It remains the world leader in relation to the formation of global policy on problems of planetary dimension. It has been led in the past decade by one president who was distinctly anti-environmental and another who once talked the talk of environmentalism, and yet the approach has been basically the same—avoid

all commitments that might encroach upon present or future economic growth. In effect, it has been the United States, more than any country, even during the Obama presidency, that has poured ice cold water on international climate change negotiations. There are some explanations for this disappointing de facto accommodation to the position of the climate skeptics, thereby wasting valuable adjustment time: an economic crisis at home and abroad that makes it politically difficult to weaken in any way economic prospects by invoking environmental concerns, a reactionary Congress that would block appropriations and national commitments associated with climate change protection, a presidential leadership that tends to shun controversial issues, and a public that cares about its immediate material wellbeing beyond asserted worries about the future.


            The long struggle to discourage smoking due to its health risks illustrates both the frustrations of the scientific community, the ambivalence of politicians, and the powerful obfuscating tactics of the tobacco industry. But smoking was easier: the health impacts could be addressed by individual action in response to what the scientific community was advising; there were no societal effects produced by a refusal to heed the warnings; time was not a factor except on a personal level; and adverse results were often concrete and afflicted the rich almost as much as the poor. In this sense, unlike climate change, there was a correlation between the harmful activity and the adverse effects on health, and less need for governmental action.


            Apollo’s curse, then, can be understood either in terms of the undue and destructive influence of money or as the cool aid of unconditional economic growth under present conditions of global warming and some additional issues of ecological sustainability. The warnings of the scientific community, while not quite voices in the wilderness, do increasingly seem shrill shouts of frustration that are only likely to intensify in the years to come as the evidence mounts and the heedlessness persists. Whether this induces madness remains to be seen? Perhaps, it is more likely, that most scientists will begin to feel as if members of a classic Greek theater chorus that bemoans the onset of a tragedy while recognizing their helplessness to prevent its unfolding before their eyes. Perhaps, it is easier to remain sane if part of a chorus than fated to make the life journey alone, an experience that undoubtedly added to the inevitability of Cassandra’s sad demise.    



27 Aug Map of Somalia-1

[This post is written jointly with Hilal Elver. It reflects our experience as members of the Intellectual Forum that held meetings in Istanbul during May 2011 parallel to the UN inter-governmental conference on the problems and future of the LDCs, and our continuing role in the Academic Council that was established by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide an intellectual input to the policy forming process, both by way of critique and prescription.]


by Hilal Elver and Richard Falk


         The unfolding tragedy in East Africa is a dramatic indicator of what humanity as a whole can expect in the near future ‘if business as usual’ continues to be the phrase that most accurately expresses global climate change policy. The unwillingness of the developed countries to provide adequate humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable peoples in the world also helps explain this worsening regional tragedy has reached such dire extremes.

East Africa is currently suffering from its most severe drought in 60 years. According to UN estimates 12.4 million people are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. 25% of Somalia’s 7.5 million people are currently displaced. Famine has spread to all parts of the Horn of Africa. As we write, 4.8 million Ethiopians, 3.7 million Somalis, and 3.7 million Kenyans are being catastrophically victimized.

Somalia has been hit worst of all countries in the region. An aggravating cause of the Somali crisis arises from the fact that much of the countryside is controlled by the Islamist Shabab movement that forbids most international aid agencies from entering territory controlled by its forces. More than 100,000 people have arrived in Mogadishu in the last two months in desperate search for food and subsistence, some by walking as much as 100 kilometers.

It is generally accepted that the larger continental expanse of sub-Saharan Africa is now the region of the world most negatively affected by global climate change, particularly by global warming. Such a generalization needs to be qualified as not all African countries are suffering from climate change to the same extent, the degree of impact from country to country reflecting varying conditions on the ground. Farms in moist or dry savannah are more sensitive to higher temperature and reduced rainfall than are farms in humid and forest areas. These latter areas may actually experience higher agricultural yields despite adverse climate change trends.

Drought is not a stranger to the peoples of East Africa. According to Klaus Toepfer, the former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program: “It is a natural climatic phenomenon. What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during hard times. This is because so much of nature’s water and rain supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared. These facts are especially poignant when you factor in the impact of climate change which is triggering more extreme weather events like droughts.”  These remarks support our belief based on the evidence that climate change is a significant element of African humanitarian crises. Toepfer’s words also show us why human induced environmental damage further aggravates preexisting adverse environmental and economic conditions.

It is not possible to determine conclusively that the famine in Somalia is attributable to climate change alone or even predominantly, or is a result of the wider environmental context, as well as a belated consequence of colonial and post-colonial exploitations of Somali resources. A post-colonial example of this Western role in aggravating Somali misery involved the destruction of Somali coastal fisheries due to the activities of high technology distant fishing fleets that virtually rendered traditional Somali fishing obsolete.

Also contributing to Somalia’s downward spiral was illicit toxic dumping by global corporate interests. With no patrols along its shoreline after the collapse of government in 1991, Somalia coastal waters became a dumping area for the developed world’s toxic wastes resulting in severe damage to the fish stocks upon which the Somali fishing industry and population had so heavily depended. Westerner economic actors were desperate to discover places to escape from strict and expensive environmental regulations in their own countries that regulated the discharge of their industrial wastes. As a result, the lives and livelihoods of Somali fishermen along Somalia 3333-km coast were being seriously jeopardized.


It is tragic to realize that piracy has replaced fishing as the dominant coastal means of livelihood for these traditional Somali communities. This piracy has been criminalized, but without   account being taken of Western responsibility for depriving Somalia of a leading source of its food and in the process destroying employment opportunities in a previously vibrant commercial activity.

Taking advantage of this difficulty of connecting the dots of causation, the climate deniers are making the most of a highly selective use of meteorological statistics to insist that there is no occasion for special worry or measures in response to Somalia’s crisis. These problems should be interpreted as nothing more threatening than a routine phase of the African weather cycle that the region has been living with for centuries.

Climate change skeptics are not alone in their contentions, but have some unexpected allies. Somalia’s extremist Islamist group, allegedly linked to Al Qaida, Al Shabab, contends that the “drought is caused by Allah and people should pray for rain.” This evasion of problem-solving by reliance on a pre-modern religious mentality has become politically fashionable even in Western countries. Not long ago the governor of Oklahoma urged residents to pray for rain to end a state-wide drought and the Republican Party presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, preceded the recent announcement of his candidacy by holding a public prayer meeting. Another American presidential candidate, Michelle Bachmann, sounds remarkably similar to Al-Shabab militants when she warns that advocates of action to reduce greenhouse gasses are displacing the work of God.

In addition to its presumed distrust of foreign intrusions, Al-Shabab has a material reason for its belief that the Somali drought and famine were not a result of human behavior. A UN investigator, Matt Bryden, recently concluded that “Al-Shabab has evolved from a small, clandestine network into an formidable organization that generates tens of millions of dollars a year by organizing charcoal export to Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.” Bryden suggests that the deforestation that has taken place in areas under the control of al-Shabab have probably contributed to the famine by their indiscriminate plunder of forest areas. It is well established that unregulated deforestation is responsible for reduced rainfall.

To be sure, Al-Shabab has its reasons for denying that the famine in Somalia is due to environmental damage, including the detrimental impacts of global warming. Perhaps, if its membership were more sophisticated about the nature of climate change, Al-Shabab would shift their argument, and blame the West, which can be presented as overwhelmingly responsible for the harmful impacts currently being felt in Africa due to almost two hundred years of industrialization with its accompaniment of unregulated greenhouse gas emissions. There is little serious dissent from the view that it is the engines of modernity that have led the climate change challenge to reach its present crisis proportions.

It seems likely that the leaders of Al-Shabab do not have the scientific background needed to appreciate the seriousness and nature of climate change as it bears on the future of Somalia. Their leaders do seem to operate themselves according to the major premise of capitalism, to wit, that selfish economic interests come before the wellbeing of people, even those starving to death. From such a perspective, the leadership of Al-Shabab rejects what must seem to them to be an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of their country by the international community, plausibly fearing that their own political existence might be jeopardized under the pretext of carrying out ‘humanitarian’ operations under Western auspices. Recalling the disastrous effort of the Clinton presidency to impose a centralized governmental structure on Somalia in 1993, this suspicion about Western intentions seems reasonable, although tragically costly for the people on the ground daily suffering from inadequate supplies of affordable food.

In such a situation it is not surprising that many Somalis are blaming Al-Shabab for the severity and prolongation of the food shortage, which has weakened the movement’s political credibility with the populace. Islamists in Somalia themselves now seem deeply divided. Earlier Al-Shabab enjoyed considerable popular support during a period when chaotic conditions prevailed due to the absence of a competent  government. Prior to the onset of the current emergency in 2006, the majority of the Somali people longed most for an end to the lawlessness and rampant corruption that has paralyzed the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, and saw Al-Shabab as offering this prospect.

For all these reasons, combined with the abject poverty of the country, Somalia has become the international poster child for failed states, environmental disaster, and human misery. This has also made Somalia seem to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world, both because of these extreme internal conditions and due to its appropriation as a base for international terrorism. Despite these perceptions, the Turkish Foreign Minister observed in relation to the Turkish Government’s state visit to the country in August of 2011 that “there is no reason that Somalia could not recover from its problems.”

Despite the crisis, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took the highly unusual step of visiting Somalia in the company of several ministers in his cabinet, their families, and a group of Turkish business leaders. This was truly a dramatic initiative that contrasts with the approach taken toward Somalia in recent years by other governments. It a fact that despite its woes Somalia is one of the few countries in the world that no Western leader has dared to enter over the course of the last 20 years, presumably fearful of the chaos and unrest, as well as concerned by security threats posed by religious extremists, warlords, criminal gangs, and worried about the health risks associated with the uncontrolled presence of several lethal infectious diseases.

Against such a background, it is only natural to wonder ‘why’ Turkey has decided to take such an initiative at this time. Several important symbolic and functional reasons have been given by Turkish officials to explain the timing and purpose of this high profile diplomatic event situated outside of Turkey’s geographic orbit of normal diplomatic activity. “The purpose of the visit was first symbolic,” Erdogan declared. He went on to say “[t]here was a perception that nobody can go to Mogadishu; we try to destroy the perception. We came, many others can come.”

There is a second kind of explanation not far in the background. A few months ago Turkey hosted in Istanbul the Fourth United Nations Least Developed Countries (UN-LDC) Summit. Somalia may well be the most afflicted of the 48 LDCs, and so Turkey singling the country out in this way to call attention to its broader concern with world poverty. After all, the LDC summit was held under Turkish auspices because Ankara had expressed a willingness to take on the responsibility for shaping UN policy towards these ‘poorest of the poor’ during the next 10 years. In view of this initiative it would have been difficult for the Turkish government to close its eyes to the desperate situation in Somalia. Such a show of indifference would also have seemed incompatible with its professed desire to do everything possible to help address the challenges faced by the LDCs.

Thirdly, as a devout Muslim, Prime Minister Erdogan was undoubtedly moved by the ordeal confronting the Muslim community in Somalia during the holy month of Ramadan. As all Muslims are deeply aware, this is a time when religious devotion encourages generosity to others less fortunate. The Somalia case presents a compelling opportunity for Erdogan and associates to fulfill their religious duties during Ramadan.

It is also relevant to observe that shortly before the Somalia visit, Turkey hosted a major meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at which $500 million was set as a goal pledged by the assembled government to assist drought and famine stricken Somalis. The Turkish government is additionally sponsoring a national campaign for Somali emergency relief that is seeking to raise an additional $250 million in funds from private Turkish donors.

In the course of an impassioned speech to Muslim leaders during the OIC meeting, Erdogan provocatively called negative attention to the luxurious life styles of the leaders of oil rich countries. Some commentators interpreted these remarks as an attack on capitalism, but it is more reasonably understood as a warning and diatribe against the excesses of some capitalists! And the importance of acting responsibly toward those who are less fortunate.

We need remind ourselves that Turkey has done very well in the Erdogan period of leadership by adhering to economic policies based on free market principles. Erdogan and the AKP are far from the orientation of such avowedly anti-capitalist leaders as Hector Chavez or the Castro brothers. Yet his ideological affinities with capitalism does not mean that Erdogan is not responsive to the social principles of Islam, or that he is being inconsistent when he calls for what used to be promoted by Western leaders under the banner of ‘compassionate capitalism.’  In some speeches to Turkish audiences Erdogan does not hesitate to use language that incorporates Islamic thought, which probably comes very naturally to him when he speaks, as he often does, spontaneously, and without a prepared text. This Muslim influence or style of advocacy was not common in Turkey during the Kemalist years when strictly secular politicians were running the country, and it remains somewhat unfamiliar to those Turks whose identity is derived from European models.

Erdogan also does not hesitate to criticize the West. While in Somalia, he said: “The tragedy in Somalia is testing modern values. What we want to emphasize is that the contemporary world should successfully pass this test to prove that Western values are not hollow rhetoric.” Such a direct challenge seems warranted when the leading Western countries have turned increasingly away from the humanitarian emergency conditions affecting not only Somalia, but all the LDCs. Also neglected by the affluent societies are the large enclaves of extreme poverty in a variety of countries that have relatively high average per capita incomes, but skewed income distribution patterns favoring the ultra-rich and containing deep pockets of extreme poverty.

We can affirm the Turkish initiative associated with the recent visit to Somalia as an imaginative and brave step to mobilize public concern throughout the world. The real test of its worth comes during the years ahead when Turkey and AKP will be under self-imposed pressures to take the lead in tangibly exhibiting empathy for the most deprived segments of humanity along with displaying an increased sensitivity to the seriousness of the climate change dimensions of these economic conditions.  Of course, this Turkish role should not be interpreted as offering a free ride to other countries, including those in Europe, North America, and Asia. The governments of these countries have the resources and responsibilities to act as world citizens in an era of ever increasing globalization both in relation to pursuing economic policies that could dramatically reduce world poverty and taking on climate change for which their past and present activities are primarily responsible.

A Few Notes on WHAT IS LEFT (or Toward a Manifesto for Revolutionary Emancipation)

19 Jun


WHAT IS LEFT in two senses:


            –what remains of the historic left, conceived more universally as emancipatory politics independent of place and cultural nexus; that is, not

just Marxism, and its progeny, but all forms of resistance to oppression, including by indigenous peoples or in response to religious convictions;

            –the definitional challenge associated with defining ‘the left’ under contemporary conditions; the position taken here is that the left is somewhat obsolete if conceived in Eurocentric terms as opposition to the right, and needs to be conceived in relation to visions and projects of emancipation and through the aperture of historic struggles.


Toward a Manifesto for Revolutionary Emancipation:

            –the need for a radical depiction of transformative politics that takes full account of the historical particularity of present world conditions;

            –the importance of repudiating and transcending the anti-utopian ethos of prevailing political perspectives on change and reform;

            –the potentiality of generalizing a politics that seeks a just and sustainable future for all living beings on the planet;

            –the engagement with a conversational approach to political advocacy, and a corresponding rejection of all forms of dogmatic thinking.


The ‘left’ agenda of the early 21st century:


            –support for the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, including its BDS campaign as both a creative form of resistance to oppressive circumstances, not just territorial occupation, but also to the struggle to overcome the enforced refugee and displacement status that has afflicted millions of Palestinians for more than six decades and a vision of justice and reconciliation;

            –struggle against global capitalism, especially in its neoliberal globalizing phase of super-financialization, as fundamentally unjust and unsustainable;

            –support for movement from below to push for adjustments to the challenges of climate change; the emissions of greenhouse gasses must be drastically reduced as an urgent priority; waiting until the harm is sufficiently tangible to produce effective governmental responses will be waiting too long, and involves the neglect of justice to future generations and indifferent to the present sufferings of sub-Saharan  Africa, islands and coastal areas subject to flooding.






The leading forces for and against emancipatory politics:


            –FOR: the declining effectiveness of hard power politics either in its governmental or resistance forms; militarism is failing, although the political elites of the world, led by the United States, seem oblivious to this decisive historical trend; confirmations include the revolutionary potential of the Arab Spring, as well as the outcome of the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the still persisting Afghanistan War; it is not that military power has become irrelevant, but that it rarely in this historical period determines the political outcome; the great series of struggles in the last 60 years against colonialism ended with victory by the militarily weaker side, or by the side, as in India, that did not contest the imperial presence by violent forms of resistance; in contrast, hard power warfare and rulership were effective in earlier historical eras, and throughout the world;


        –AGAINST: the spreading of materialist consumerism as the new opiate of the people that hides the destructive and alienating dimensions of late modernity, and shields capitalist behavior from transformative critique; economic globalization as exhibited through franchise capitalism is the most widely endorsed regressive ideology operative in the world today, and is characteristic in different formats of the two leading exponents of the capitalist path: the United States and China. The absence of a counter-ideology of wide applicability after the Soviet collapse combined with discrediting a socialist ethos as alternative foundation for economic and political activity and organization has contributed to a widespread mood of resignation (‘there are no alternatives’). Replacing despair with hope is indispensable if new

globally attractive forms of emancipatory politics are to emerge and evolve.



Comments on Legitimacy Wars as the encompassing form of struggle:


–an overriding recognition of the historical ascendancy of soft power;

–tactical and strategic commitments to nonviolence, although not unconditionally;

–crucial emphasis on gaining the high moral ground to widen popular appeal,

and use of law as an instrument to mobilize support, especially international law (‘lawfare’ as an approved modality of struggle);

–use of international arenas, whether regional or global, local or national, to wage symbolic struggles on behalf of legitimate claims, with a special stress on the symbolic significance of gaining support in the United Nations;

–understanding that most struggles for legitimate goals are non-territorial in relation to the symbolic and soft power battlefields that give potency to public opinion, to exemplary leadership (e.g Gandhi, Nelson Mandela); to tactics such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and to the certification of the moral and legal authority of grievances and claims (e.g. the Goldstone Report);

–patience and perseverance  as cardinal political virtues, along with the realization that legitimacy wars can be lost as well as won, with outcomes contingent on many contextual factors (e.g. self-determination for Tibetans, Chechens; indigenous peoples);

–a vision of the goal that includes reconciliation, accountability, and forgiveness, with the realization that there will be tensions and contradictions present in clearing the path forward, away from conflict, toward sustainable and just peace.





These notes are meant as tentative and conversational expressions of an emergent political point of view, and will be revised in response to commentary by others. Obviously, also, there is no pretension on my part of comprehensiveness, or else many other issues would have been addressed: struggles against various types of patriarchy; the need to renounce nuclear weaponry, and work toward a phased process of nuclear disarmament, as well as other aspects of demilitarization; extending rights of self-determination to indigenous peoples variously situated; and establishing institutional arrangements giving opportunities for popular and direct representation of the peoples of the world (e.g. a UN Parliament of Peoples); building in all social spaces substantive democracy based on the equality of persons, reverence for the natural environment, and celebration of diverse spiritual and religious traditions. A cosmopolitan ethos that affirms love of self and others, tradition and otherness, and the familiar and the exotic.

Donate for the Sake of Japan, for the sake of our shared humanity

1 Apr

I will rarely use my blog to encourage donations even to good causes, but today I am making an exception. The horrifying combination of a monumental earthquake followed by a huge tsunami producing damage to the Fukushima reactor complex at the Daiichi plant makes me feel that we all have a historic stake in expressing solidarity with the Japanese people. Friends in Japan have shared with me their experiences of coping with the disaster/tragedy in an atmosphere where the full effects are not yet known or knowable and where the government and private sector actor (Tokyo Electric Power Co TEPCO) are not trustworthy, and have a past record of downplaying past nuclear mishaps. The magnitude of the catastrophe is for older Japanese comparable to the situation in Japan after the end of World War II when the country was devastated by bombardment, including the two atomic attacks, and was without food or needed consumer goods. The remarkable recovery that included the development of an extraordinary ‘economic miracle’ is reminder of the strength of the Japanese will and spirit as well as their capacity to overcome adversity.

One further overarching thought: the world cannot consider an incident of this sort as befalling only the country where the locus of the harm is being now experienced. There is every possibility, especially if the worst scenarios about the release of radioactivity and other toxic substances happen, that societies other than Japan will be negatively affected. Even here in the United States there are conjectures about sushi no longer being safe, along with other anxieties, which are real even if exaggerated. A similar issue is present in the climate change context. Global warming is widely thought to be responsible for higher temperatures and resulting droughts in SubSaharan Africa, while the main emitters of greenhouse gasses producing this added heat arises from outside of Africa ever since the industrial revolution. What is being suggested is that matters as diverse as nuclear safety and climate change, as well as recourse to war, can no longer be entrusted to the governments of sovereign states. We no longer live in a state-centric world, and yet this is the way global policy is formed and implemented. Unless the human species finds ways to overcome political fragmentation, reinforced by anachronistic nationalist ideologies, there is almost no prospect that we will find ways to live well together on this lonely, lovely, endangered planet.

So take a small step in the direction of global solidarity by donating today to:


Impressions from Cancun

8 Dec

Having spent the last several days as a delegate to the Climate Change Conference in Cancun, I am left with many impressions. As Copenhagen is remembered as a disaster due to Disappointed Expectations, Cancun is likely to be forgotten altogether except possibly by archivists of global conferences, or referred to by those who attended as ‘a grand occasion despite being a moment of Minimal Expectations that were themselves, not even realized. What makes this outcome disturbing to many participants is that the rhetoric of climate change diplomacy continues to stress convincingly urgency, responsibility, the vulnerability of small island states and sub-Saharan African countries, the fervent hopes of world opinion that governments will act beyond national and large-scale private sector interests on behalf of humanity as trustees for a viable future. At stake, in part, is whether multilateral mechanisms of statist diplomacy under UN auspices can fashion credible responses to twenty-first century challenges. In the twentieth century these mechanisms proved effective in relation to negotiating the law of the seas and a public order for the administration of Antarctica in a manner sensitive to the global public good. The magnitude of the climate change agenda combined with the radical unevenness of the situation of sovereign states makes it seems highly unlikely that this format can produce satisfactory results, and failure here could darken overall human prospects.

There is much to be said about the Cancun experience, but I want primarily to call attention to a profound dilemma that bedevils the good intentions and hard work of thousands of persons representing governments and civil society who are in attendance here. Just as Copenhagen illustrated the illegitimacy of a self-appointed, American-led bloc of states seeking to push an agreement down the throats of the rest of the world community overriding texts of a proposed agreement on emissions painstakingly negotiated by the assembled governments through a heroic effort, Cancun epitomizes the gridlock that follows from delivering on promises of transparency and inclusive participation from the almost 200 governments gathered in Cancun representing states. What emerges is unmanageable complexity together with a variety of clashes of perception and priorities. One persistent theme are the claims of vulnerable states that have made minimal contributions to the buildup of greenhouse gasses naturally seeking maximal attention and generous help from the rich developed countries that have yet to appreciate, or acknowledge, the harm to themselves that is being caused by climate change (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, forest fires in Russia, floods and droughts in China, the hottest year ever recorded, Arctic melting). Without strong and benevolent leadership this assembly of governments lacks the political will to make compromises, strike bargains that are indispensable to reach needed decisions on greenhouse gas restrictions in accordance with the widely accepted, yet still vacuous, formula of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities.’ Here in Cancun those chairing the conference repeat over and over again the solemn mantra that they have heeded ‘the lesson of Copenhagen,’ and they even seem to mean it: much seems transparent, although in brackets (meaning not yet agreed), there are apparently no secret texts being circulated by hegemonic actors. Of course, these reassurances are only partly convincing, and may turn out to have been fraudulent as soon as the next cycle of WikiLeaks commences, as it surely will, and surely must.

But Cancun also highlights the cumbersome ineffectuality of global democracy (at least of the intergovernmental variety) in this setting of addressing urgent and severe policy challenges affecting the wellbeing of the entire world, now and in the future. This cumbersomeness is experienced despite the effective exclusion of bothersome civil society voices from the political process, which is a severe shortcoming from the perspective of genuine global democracy. At the very least, this exclusion reinforces normative arguments in favor of establishing a Global Peoples Assembly within the framework of the UN System. Without a civil society presence, the peoples of the world lack an authentic vehicle to express a variety of societal concerns at variance with statist diplomacy. Without this voice being heard and heeded, the outcomes in Cancun and elsewhere lack full legitimacy, especially as with regard to climate change. It is only the dominant voices of civil society that are calling for the sorts of major commitments that will give the peoples of the world some realistic prospect of escaping from the worst effects of global warming. Major governments are continuing to play statist games, pursuing geopolitical strategies designed to shift burdens and responsibilities away from themselves. The short-run dominates, a preoccupation with what will be popular at home trumps what might reduce the buildup of carbon densities and higher global temperature, and great power leverage is used shamelessly to avoid unwanted commitments.

Time is also an enemy. Each year makes a humane framework of adjustment to the multiple challenges of climate change less and less likely, and adaptation and mitigation more costly. It makes the tensions between illegitimate, yet more effective, authoritarian approaches and more legitimate, yet ineffectual, democratic approaches more prominent, and disturbing to those of us who affirm democratic values.

Next year at Durban this format of an inter-governmental mega-conference is to be repeated, but the talk in the corridors here is filled with heaps of understandable skepticism about what might be accomplished there in 2011. I am sure that the UN Secretary General will again give a solemn address, that heads of state will again manifest their deep concerns about the future, and that the best that can be hoped for as an outcome will again be ‘a muddling through’ that remains long on rhetoric and short on tangible results. In Cancun there is a back room consensus that a perception of muddling through (neither giving up nor making notable progress) is the most that can possibly emerge despite the dedicated efforts of thousands, and even this is far from assured: a legally binding agreement on carbon emissions is unattainable, recrimination and open conflict is undesirable, leaving us with only the ‘realistic’ middle, muddling option as the only possible way to push toward incremental steps that propose vague guidelines and leave subsequent implementation up to the voluntary and highly untrustworthy action of states. One basic trouble with this statist realism is that its historical agency is being superseded by ecological realism based on the growing density of greenhouse gasses, the rising temperatures already beyond safe thresholds, the harm to lives and livelihoods being done presently and in the near future, and the general distraction being caused by a climate skeptic campaign financed by oil and gas interests designed to confuse the public as to actuality of global warming, and if possible prevent the scientific consensus from getting translated into a political consensus that insists on obligatory global norms. Yet statist realism remains so deeply embedded in our political culture that it entraps the mind in obsolete ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.

We have to ask ourselves, what kind of framework will be most likely to respond benevolently (justly, effectively, legitimately) to the multiple challenges posed by climate change. It is discouraging that there is no present response that seems both coherent and plausible. Neither imperial nor democratic solutions are promising at the moment. The planet burns, leaders talk, the people wait, not yet nearly nervously or apprehensively enough!

Perhaps, but only perhaps, a new global setting is emerging at the edges of these intergovernmental exhibitions of global gridlock that will give way unexpectedly to an extraordinary populist surge that reconstitutes world order on the basis of global law and global justice, an emergent attachment to sustainable global commons, that renounces militarism and militarist geopolitics, that transforms the world economy so that it serves people rather than capital, that couples political representation with effective participation, and that gives rise to a new type of transnational engaged citizenship that gains its primary identity from the global community and conceives of its essence as journeying to a preferred future, what I have called in the past the vocation of ‘the citizen pilgrim.’


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