Tag Archives: Climate change

Climate Change: Post-Paris Challenges and Concerns

26 Jan

 

Hilal Elver and Richard Falk

 

[Prefatory Note: This jointly written post was previously published in Truthout on January 20, 2016 in slightly modified form, and with the title “Will Countries Follow Through on the Climate Pledges Made in Paris?” Our title here tries to broaden the scope of inquiry to encompass the problems with the agreement that extend beyond fulfilling the pledges. We focus especially on the insufficiency of the pledges given the goals with respect to average earth temperature, how to address climate change in a manner sensitive to the concerns of climate justice, especially the harm being imposed by global warming on various categories of vulnerable people.]

 

 

It is time to move on from the aura of good feelings of accomplishment created by the Paris Climate Change Conference of last December, and begin asking some hard questions. Above all we need to assess whether an agreement that consists of voluntary pledges that gained the participation of every country on the planet is workable and sufficient, and whether its contribution to slowing global warming should be celebrated or lamented at this stage.

 

Does the agreement really provide a realistic hope that the international community is going to regulate adequately human caused (anthropogenic) climate change? Or, should the Paris Agreement be dismissed as a ‘fraud’ as James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist turned activist, advises? Is every one of the 195 signatories at Paris genuinely committed to and capable of upholding the agreement? Are their pledges realistic and appropriate? The answers to such questions vary depends on who is giving the answers. Fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal) producer countries, along with most energy companies, are not happy with the agreement as it strongly anticipates shifts to renewables that threaten to eliminate fossil fuels altogether by the end of the century. At the same time, clean energy companies (wind, solar, and even nuclear) are understandably enthusiastic, expecting a surge in governmental and market support for their technologies and dramatic increases in demand for their products.

 

It is strange that the agreement never explicitly mentions that ‘fossil fuels, or coal and oil are going to be phased out.’ Yet everyone in Paris realized that fossil fuels were the elephant in the room. Drafters of the Paris Agreement were crafty enough not to use provocative language, while still sending clear signals to energy investors that the future belongs to the renewables. We should appreciate the fact that developing countries will continue to rely on traditional energy resources for a long time, and take into account the reality that the developed world has been relying on fossil fuels without restriction since the industrial revolution. It is not fair to insist that developing countries stop using fossil fuels because it is bad for the climate, without these richer countries shouldering the financial burden of the costly switch to clean energy, which would impose burdens on their development and poverty reduction plans. Ideally, this kind of transfer payment would be financed by a tax on transnational financial transactions, hedge fund profits, or international airline flights, but this seems highly unlikely to happen so long as the neoliberal ideologues of global capital continue to pull most of the strings that determine economic policy. The Paris Agreement is suspiciously silent about how such transfer payments will be financed, leaving it to individual states to decide.

 

Although the agreement lowered the threshold of tolerable warming by half a degree centigrade (from 2 to 1.5 degrees Celsius), the means to reach the goal is far from adequate. Even in the unlikely event that every country keeps its promises, the average earth temperature will rise at least 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and this will cause havoc in many parts of the planet. With this in mind, skepticism about the Paris outcome seems justified. The existence of this wide gap between the predicted average temperature rise expected by a consensus among climate scientists and the insufficiency of even full compliance with the Paris targets is a core dispiriting reality. There is a reset feature contained in the agreement that would allows parties to make an upward adjustment in their emissions commitments that would be more in keeping with what the scientific consensus on global warming. But how likely is this to happen? As with other aspects of the agreement this possibility is voluntary and vague, and so its value in enhancing the climate ambition of governments will depend on their increased dedication to ensuring a prudent future for the planet and upon the degree to which civil society pressures makes such action seem politically expedient as well as socially responsible.

 

Reducing Emissions Voluntarily

 

The climate change regime has a unique structure to differentiate responsibilities among the developing and developed parties by taking account of the needs and situation of developing countries, and assesses the historic responsibility of developed countries to explain the imposition of unequal obligations. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries and accumulates over time, making activities in developed countries responsible for current levels of global warming. Despite this, the Paris Agreement avoids mentioning ‘historical responsibility’ as this would be ‘a red flag’ that might agitate the Republican-controlled United States Congress, and maybe make some other governments as well so nervous as to repudiate the entire Paris arrangement. Excluding any reference to historical responsibilities was definitely a psychological victory for developed countries, but whether it also has substantive relevance only time will tell.

 

These richer countries led by the United States also achieved some big victories that were substantive as well as symbolic. They succeeded in weakening the ‘loss and damage’ principle, which was intended to make the developed countries financially responsible for addressing some of the adverse impacts that developing countries are experiencing due to climate change. Financial responsibility to repair the damage caused by extreme weather events could be extremely expensive. Such damage could be particularly catastrophic for acutely vulnerable low-lying coastal countries and several small island states. Their economic viability and even physical survival is at grave risk in the near future.

 

Without doubt, the biggest, and most disturbing, diplomatic success at Paris for the developed countries was to make the agreement formally voluntary in all of its aspects. Even the central pledges (‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ or INDCs ) of countries with respect to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are presented as voluntary. The language of the agreement is worded in ways that allow multiple interpretations, and its behavioral consequences are uncertain at this stage even if we grant good faith participation by all governments. Parts of the agreement are inflected with a tone of Orwellian doublespeak apparently intended to disguise any differences between agreeing to do something and not being obliged to do what was agreed upon.

 

There are many reasons why this feature of the Paris approach is most troublesome. Its presence mainly reflects America’s diplomatic muscle exerting a downward pressure on the negotiating process that produced a kind of linguistic race to the bottom. The Obama presidency if it were acting on its own would definitely be supportive of a stronger commitment process. It is rather the intimidating expectation that any international agreement of this magnitude would be considered as a treaty if it imposed financial and behavioral responsibilities in obligatory language and included dispute settlement procedures. Such an approach would constitutionally required the agreement to be submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification by a two-thirds vote, which would be unobtainable, meaning that the treaty would die in the legislative chamber, and likely that kind of more robust Paris undertaking would quickly become irrelevant. It should also be noted that several pivotal developing countries, including Brazil, China, and India also favored this kind of voluntary framing of national commitments, and seemed content to let America do most of the dirty work of watering down the language of what was agreed upon.

 

The good news is that the agreement will make all national commitments transparent, reviewable, and even expandable. The pledges do not become operative until 2020, and then starting in 2025, after each interval of five years, there will be a review of performances with respect to the fulfillment of pledges and an opportunity to reset the earlier emissions reductions commitment. If a signatory fails to live up to its pledge, it is presumed that it will be asked for an explanation. Will it then face any negative consequences? The preliminary unnerving answer is that ‘none at all’ are likely to follow– at least nothing is prescribed. At most, a process of ‘naming and shaming’ may be forthcoming that could conceivably tarnish the reputation of a state that inexcusably fails to meet its pledge. Of course, if such a non-complying state is the victim of extreme weather events or is in the midst of war, civil strife, or economic crisis, its disappointing performance will be overlooked. Even when the excuses for failing to meet the pledges are not credible, the etiquette of diplomacy makes most states reluctant to be critical of one another in public spaces unless the target of criticism happens to be an adversary.

 

Parallels with Human Rights Commitments

 

The coming struggle for climate compliance will no doubt resemble the long story of success and failure associated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1950), perhaps the most influential ‘voluntary’ set of commitments ever made. The very reliance on the word ‘declaration’ was meant to reassure governments that states were not any way obligated to uphold what was set forth as ‘rights’ in the text. When the UDHR was drafted and approved after World War II there was little expectation that the standards set would be met in practice, but what was created, and proved surprisingly effective, was a normative architecture that bestowed on the human rights community in civil society a powerful tool for the exertion of pressure that did create compliance incentives outside the international instrument itself. It turned out that most governments, although not all, cared sufficiently about their international reputations that they bent policy to satisfy many of the demands of human rights NGOs. In their turn the NGOs were discreet and deferential, doing their best to avoid embarrassing a government if it cooperated in ending an abusive pattern and appeared to be acting in good faith.

 

We believe the Paris Agreement creates a similar tool that can be used to great advantage by civil society. At this point it is far from clear whether a soft law, or voluntarism of this character even if effective within its term will prove nearly sufficient to curtail the menace of global warming. As with human rights the prospects for implementation will depend on whether NGOs and social activists exert sufficient pressure where it is most needed. We cannot be too hopeful about this. Climate activism varies greatly from country to country, and sometimes where needed most, it is absent or weak. But, there are also some positive developments. It is encouraging that the climate movement is becoming transnational and will be able to highlight the failure of some governments to make INDCs at appropriate levels and to offer criticisms of those that inexcusably fail to fulfill their pledges. If such activism is effective, it will also encourage governments and international institutions to be more vigilant with respect to their own implementation efforts, inducing ‘virtuous circles’ of compliant behavior, and even reset pledges that increase emission reductions.

 

Settling for a voluntary framework was the biggest departure from the approach taken by the Kyoto Protocol, the earlier climate change regime that had also been greeted with great fanfare when negotiated in 1997. In some respects the comparison is misleading. At Kyoto only developed countries were made responsible for greenhouse gas emission reductions. As a result the US and several other important countries gave this one-sidedness as their reason for refusing to adhere to the emissions reduction agreement. Therefore, Kyoto was virtually stillborn, engaging a group of countries that were responsible for only 12% of global emissions, and making almost no impact on the dangerous continuing overall buildup of GHGs despite the positive attention the agreement initially received in environmental circles.

 

From this point of view, the Paris Agreement is very different from Kyoto. As mentioned it makes all commitments voluntary, but participation is extended to all countries, rich or poor, developed or developing. ‘Differentiated responsibilities’ as imposing concrete duties on developed countries and leaving developing countries free to act as they wish has been replaced by a state-by-state approach in which each government indicates what it is prepared to do to cut emissions. Countries make these promises based on national assessments of their specific capabilities and circumstances. It will be important to examine objectively whether some countries submit unreasonably low INDC pledges, as well as to monitor whether the promises made are being kept in good faith.

 

The Paris approach is also reminiscent of the relationship between the UN and its predecessor organization, the League of Nations. The League had treated all countries as having an equal sovereign status, while the UN deferred to geopolitical realities by giving the five winners after World War II a right of veto and permanent membership in the Security Council. In effect, ‘a Faustian bargain’ was struck in which universality of participation was achieved at the price of giving geopolitical actors the discretion to disobey the Charter whenever their interests or those of their friends so dictated and to make respect for the authority of the UN essentially voluntary. Paris makes an equivalent tradeoff. In exchange for getting all states to participate, the content of what was agreed upon is seriously compromised, and prospects for compliance diminished, leaving the underlying challenge inadequately addressed.

 

This is not just a conceptual issue. The grossly different material circumstances of states, together with their great disparities in vulnerability and capacity to withstand climate change damage, makes it more problematic to achieve the collective good of climate stability. In this context, the free rider problem seems seriously to weaken incentives to comply, with countries standing to gain if others act conscientiously while they do less than is expected, either by making their INDC unreasonably small or by cheating and falling short. This vital concern is nowhere addressed in the Paris Agreement, and awaits future efforts to set standards, create a stronger sense of collective responsibility, and establish responses in the event of non-compliance. It is to be hoped that civil society will be especially vigilant in assessing whether the free rider aspects of the Paris Agreement are undermining compliance and the raising of the commitment level by important emitter countries.

In sum, the United States government, at least the White House, most Democrats, and the majority of citizens, are pleased for the present about what emerged from Paris. After all the agreement embodies the American-led insistence on a voluntary approach that is long on rhetoric while being short on commitments, yet rhetorically responsive to the asserted urgency of curtailing global warming. The large American delegation provided influential leadership on drafting issues before and during the conference using its good offices to foster a constructive atmosphere of compromise and accommodation among the assembled governmental representatives. Even the energy companies were not too disappointed. They succeeded in avoiding being openly targeted in the agreement. Beyond this, they were given enough adjustment time to accommodate major changes in the way energy was supplied.

 

Delays and Abstractions

 

Parties are not asked to start fulfilling their emission pledges until 2020. That is when the Paris agreement goes into effect. After this there is another five-year period until assessments of performances are made. This gives energy companies ample time to bring petroleum resources under their control to market and at the same time, making large investments in clean energy technology to ensure future returns on capital for their shareholders. Taking an even longer view, these companies have until the end of the century to become clean technology suppliers, and will be benefitted in the process by government subsidies and a downward trend in production costs for renewables.

Transparency and monitoring for the fulfillment of the INDC s are important. China was reluctant, at first, to accept even this limited form of oversight, but in the end went along. It appears that its cooperative posture was induced by Obama’s skillful courtship. The United States shared with China the informal status of being dual leader in the shaping of a voluntary approach the broad contours of which had been agreed upon even before the Paris conference began. China seemed satisfied with the agreement, apparently relishing its own prominent role, and in the end promising to make a large financial contribution to Green Fund established to support the adaptation efforts of developing countries. China is also looking forward to selling their cheap and efficient solar technology around the world. At the same time the severity of China’s domestic air pollution problem reached emergency levels during the conference, making urban pollution in the country an urgent priority. The direct link between China’s polluted cities and reducing carbon emissions for the sake of climate change undoubtedly also encouraged Chinese support of the Paris proceedings. At the same time, it is important to understand that polluted cities are distinct from the sort of atmospheric blockage that GHG emissions have caused. In effect, the global warming dangers could be just as great or even greater than at present, while the cities of the world enjoyed healthy and clean air.

 

It may seem strange that climate change negotiations often seem to be more about finance, development, and energy policies than about preventing global warming. If you were in the great halls and back rooms where governments were trying to overcome their disagreements, you might well conclude that the conference was about money not emissions. There was a tug of war involving decisions about how much assistance a particular country will receive, and which countries would accept responsibility for contributing specific amounts of funds.

 

There are also voiceless communities that were essentially unrepresented in Paris, including one billion persons struggling with extreme poverty and hunger, 350 million indigenous people that constitute ‘nations’ that often exist as captive communities within sovereign states, and the plight of future generations faced with the prospects of rising temperatures and sea levels. Only states that were members of the UN participate directly with voice and vote in international lawmaking conferences. A recent Oxfam report on Extreme Carbon Inequality confirms that the poorest half of the global population of about 3.5 billion are responsible for only around 10% of total global emissions attributed to individual consumption, yet live disproportionately in the countries that are suffering most from climate change.

 

For those at these margins, the concern is less about the abstractions of money, than the concrete issues of daily subsistence, quality of life, and even survival. Human rights activists were conscious of the plight of those excluded from real representation at Paris, and did manage to insinuate these social concerns in the text of the agreement, but only in its Preamble (rather than among the operational articles). Mention in the Preamble gives civil society activists ‘a hook’ with which to raise such issues of climate justice, and provides an ethical context that is relevant to future interpretations of what was agreed upon if issues are brought before an adjudicating institution.

 

The Paris Agreement is awkwardly abstract and indefinite about how it will fund its central undertaking to limit global warming. There is an estimated need for $16 trillion over the next 15 years if the average global increase in temperature is to be kept under 1.5 C. The developed world has so far agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 to cover both the costs of emission reductions and to defray the adaptation expenses of measures adopted by developing countries to adjust to rising temperatures. This pledge is as voluntary as it gets, and doesn’t even take effect until 2025. One consequence is that any loss or damage experienced will not provide the victim society with any entitled basis of recovery assistance. It must rely on charity and the efficacy of its begging bowl. Judging from past experience the financial goals set are highly unlikely ever to be reached. From all that we know from the past there has been created a dangerous shortfall between what will be needed and what has been pledged, and thus the financial dimension of the Paris Agreement is as susceptible to disappointment as is the emissions dimension.

 

What Can We Expect Post-Paris?

 

After this closer scrutiny of the Paris outcome we need to ask ourselves ‘what can we reasonably expect from post-Paris?’ With the coolness of retrospective eyes, the Paris Agreement failed to ensure that the necessary concrete steps will be taken to avoid future climate change harms, yet still pretended to the world that finally the challenge of climate change had been successfully met by the collective energies of multilateral diplomacy under UN auspices. This could have the debilitating effect of complacency, leading many to think that Paris overcame the challenge of climate change, that was what the cheering at the end of the conference was about.

 

At the same time, there are some bright silver linings. The outcome in Paris did bear witness to a consensus among governments that strong collective action was needed to reduce carbon emissions in coming years to avoid catastrophe. Furthermore, the experiment of making the agreement an evolutionary process, with opportunities for correction every five years, does enable a heightening of commitments if public pressures about climate change grow in the future as the planet continues to warm.

 

Beyond this, the very obvious shortcomings of the Paris Agreement should encourage vigilant and militant transnational activism, and hopefully give rise to a robust climate justice movement that could exert a benign influence by inducing countries to revise their emission pledges upward at the periodic reset five year intervals, which start at 2025, and to spread burdens equitably. To confine issues of human rights and climate justice to the Preamble of the Paris Agreement, and to exclude considerations of equity and food security altogether is to reinforce the misleading impression that addressing climate change effectively is only a matter of climate science and economics. In our view, without adding climate justice to the policy equation, unacceptable climate suffering will accompany even good faith efforts to slow down further overheating of the planet. In this respect, the woeful saga of desperate waves of refugees perishing at sea or clinging for life in overcrowded boats is a telling metaphor of an inhumane world order, and a warning of worse to come as pressures mount to leave overheated and impoverished societies.

 

Now that the Paris Agreement exists, our attention needs to shift to whether countries are fulfilling their pledges and what can be done to make up for the deficiencies in this supposedly historic approach to climate change. It is particularly opportune to focus on the reset opportunity for closing the gap between what was agreed upon in Paris and what climate experts agree is needed. This would seem to be a logical next step. What has become crystal clear is that our human future will depend more than ever on the transnational mobilization of civil society in support of both sufficient emission reductions and climate justice. Governments unless pushed hard lack the political will to do what is needed to ensure a sustainable and just future for the peoples of the planet, and we need to remember that will be pushed in regressive directions by well financed lobbies and special interest groups.

 

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After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

8 Oct

(Prefatory Note: A shorter somewhat modified version of this post was published in Al Jazeera Turka, but only in Turkish translation. The thesis set forth is that the UN has disappointed the expectations of those who took seriously its original promise of war prevention, but that it has over its lifetime done many things that need doing in the world. It also provided a meeting place for all governments, and has developed the best networking sites for all those concerned with the state of the world and what can be done by way of improvement. The UN System faces an important test in the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of November. The event is billed as the make or break session for the governments of the world to agree finally to serve the human interest by establishing a strong enough framework of constraint governing the release of greenhouse gasses that will satisfy the scientific consensus that global warming will not eventuate in human disaster. If Paris is generally regarded as successful, the UN stock will rise steeply, but if it should fail, then its stature and role of the Organization could become even more marginalized. Either way, it is important to appreciate that the UN as of 2015 is a very different kind of political actor than when it was founded in 1945, disappointing to those who hoped for permanent peace and some justice, while pleasing to those who sought from the outset a wider global agenda for the Organization and felt that its best contributions would likely be in a wide range of practical concerns where the interests of major political actors more or less overlap.]

 

 

After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

When the UN was established in the aftermath of the Second World War hopes were high that this new world organization would be a major force in world politics, and fulfill its Preamble pledge to prevent future wars. Seventy years later the UN disappoints many, and bores even more, appearing to be nothing more that a gathering place for the politically powerful. I think such a negative image has taken hold because the UN these days seems more than ever like a spectator than a political actor in the several crises that dominate the current agenda of global politics. This impression of paralysis and impotence has risen to new heights in recent years.

 

When we consider the waves of migrants fleeing war torn countries in the Middle East and Africa or four years of devastating civil war in Syria or 68 years of failure to find a solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict or the inability to shape a treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and on and on, it becomes clear that the UN is not living up to the expectations created by its own Charter and the fervent hopes of people around the world yearning for peace and justice.

 

The UN itself seems unreformable, unable to adapt its structures and operations to changes in the global setting. The Security Council’s five permanent members are still the five winners in World War II, taking no account of the rise of India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria or even the European Union. Despite globalization and the transnational rise of civil society, states and only states are eligible for UN membership and meaningful participation in the multifold operations of the Organization.

 

How can we explain this disappointment? We must at the outset acknowledge that the high hopes attached to the UN early on were never realistic. After all, the Charter itself acknowledged the geopolitical major premise, which is the radical inequality of sovereign states when it comes to power and wealth. Five permanent seats in the Security Council were set aside for these actors that seemed dominant in 1945. More importantly, they were given an unrestricted right to veto any decision that went against their interests or values, or those of its allies and friends. In effect, the constitution of the Organization endowed the potentially most dangerous states in the world, at least as measured by war making capabilities, with the option of being exempt from UN authority and international law.

 

Such an architectural feature of the UN was not a quixotic oversight of the founders. It was a deliberate step taken to overcome what perceived to be a weakness of the League of Nations established after World War I, which did look upon the equality of sovereign states as the unchallengeable constitutional foundation of an organization dedicated to preserving international peace. The experience of the League was interpreted as discouraging the most powerful states from meaningful participation (and in the case of the United States, from any participation at all) precisely because their geopolitical role was not taken into account.

 

In practice over the life of the UN, the veto has had a crippling political effect as it has meant that the UN cannot make any strong response unless the permanent five (P5) agree, which as we have learned during the Cold War and even since, is not very often. There is little doubt that without the veto possessed by Russia the UN would have been far more assertive in relation to the Syrian catastrophe, and not found itself confined to offering its good offices to a regime in Damascus that never seemed sincere about ending the violence or finding a political solution except on its own harsh terms of all out defeat of its adversaries.

 

Of course, the General Assembly, which brings all 194 member states together, supposedly has the authority to make recommendations, and act when the Security Council is blocked. It has not worked out that way. After the General Assembly flexed its muscles in the early 1970s emboldened by the outcome of the main colonial wars geopolitics took over. The GA became a venue controlled by the non-aligned movement, and in 1974 when it found backing for the Declaration of a New International Economic Order the writing was on the wall. The larger capitalist states fought back, and were able to pull enough strings to ensure that almost all authority to take action became concentrated in the Security Council. The Soviet Union went along, worried about political majorities against its interests, and comfortable with the availability of the veto as needed. The General Assembly has been since mainly relegated to serving the world as a talk shop, and is hardly noticed when it comes to crisis management or lawmaking. Despite this development the GA is still relevant to the formation of world public opinion. Its Autumn session provides the leaders of the world with the most influential lectern at which to express their worldview and recommendations for the future. Even Pope Francis took advantage of such an influential platform on which to articulate his concerns, hopes, and prescriptions.

 

There is an additional fundamental explanation of why the UN cannot do more in response to the global crises that are bringing such widespread human suffering to many peoples in the world. The UN was constructed on the basis of mutual and legally unconditional respect for the territorial sovereignty of its members. The Charter itself in Article 2(7) prohibits the UN from intervening in matters that are essentially internal to a state, such as strife, insurgency, abridgement of human rights, and even civil war. Such an insulation of domestic strife runs counter to the practice of intervention by geopolitical actors, and in this respect gives the UN framework a legalistic character that is not descriptive of the manner in which world politics operates.  

 

True, when the political winds blow strongly in certain threatening directions as was the case in relation to Serbian behavior in Kosovo that seemed to be on the verge of repeating the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, NATO effectively intervened but without the blessings of the UN, and hence in violation of international law. Then again in Libya the Security Council actually gave its approval for a limited intervention in the form of a no-fly-zone to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe befalling the besieged inhabitants of Benghazi. In that setting, the SC relying on the new norm of ‘responsibility-to-protect’ or R2P to justify its use of force. When NATO immediately converted this limited UN mandate into a regime-changing intervention that led to the execution of Qaddafi and the replacement of the Libyan government it was clear that the R2P argument acted as little more than a pretext to pursue a more ambitious, yet legally dubious and politically unacceptable, Western agenda in the country. R2P diplomacy has been further discredited by the failure to offer UN protection in the extreme circumstances of Palestine, Syria, and now Yemen.

 

Not surprisingly, Russia and China that had been persuaded by Western powers in 2011 to go along with the establishment of a no-fly-zone to protect Benghazi felt deceived and manipulated. These governments lost their trust in the capacity of the Security Council to set limits that would be respected once a decision was reached. This is part of the story of why the UN has been gridlocked when it came to Syria, and why R2P has been kept on the diplomatic shelf. The Security Council to be able to overcome the veto depends upon trust among the P5 sufficient to achieve a consensus, which was badly betrayed by what NATO did in Libya. Human rights advocates have long put forward the idea that the P5 agree informally or by formal resolution to forego the use of the veto in devising responses to mass atrocities, but so far, there has been little resonance. Similarly, sensible proposals to establish an UN Peace Force that could respond quickly to natural and humanitarian catastrophes on the originating initiative of the UN Secretary General have also not found much political resonance over the years. It would seem that the P5 are unwilling to relax their grip on the geopolitical reins on UN authority established in the very different world situation that existed in 1945.

 

Kosovo showed that, at times, humanitarian pressures (when reinforcing dominant geopolitical interests) induce states to act outside the UN framework, while Libya illustrates the long term weakening of UN capacity and legitimacy by manipulating the debate to gain support of skeptical states for intervention in an immediate war/peace and human rights situation. The hypocrisy of the R2P diplomacy by the failure to make a protective response of any kind to the acute vulnerability of such abused minorities as the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province of China, the Rohingya in Rankhine State of Myanmar, and of course the Palestinians of Palestine. There are, of course, many other victimized groups whose rights are trampled upon by the state apparatus of control that for UN purposes is treated as their sole and unreviewable legal protector.

 

In the end, what this pattern adds up to is a clear demonstration of the persisting primacy of geopolitics within the UN. When the P5 agree, the UN can generally do whatever the consensus mandates, although it technically requires additional support from non-permanent members of the SC. If there is no agreement, then the UN is paralyzed when it comes to action, and geopolitical actors have a political option of acting unlawfully, that is, without obtaining prior authority from the Security Council and in contravention of international law. This happened in 2003 when the U.S. Government failed to gain support from the SC for its proposed military attack upon Iraq, and went ahead anyway, with disastrous results for itself, and even more so for the Iraqi people.

 

It is helpful to appreciate that disappointment with the role of the UN is usually less the fault of the Organization than of the behavior of the geopolitical heavyweights. If we want a stronger UN then it will be necessary to constrain geopolitics, and make all states, including the P5 subject to the restraints of international law and sensitive to moral imperatives.

 

Another kind of UN reform that should have been achieved decades ago is to make the P5 into the P8 or P9 by enlarging permanent membership to include a member from Asia (additional to China), Africa, and Latin America. This would give the Security Council and the UN more legitimacy in a post-colonial world where shifts in the global balance are still suppressed.

 

Along with the above explanation of public disappointment, there are also many reasons to be grateful for the existence of the UN and to be thankful that despite the many conflicts in the world during its lifetime every state in the world has wanted to become a member, and none have exhibited their displeasure with UN policies to leave the Organization. Given the intensity of conflict in the world, sustaining this universality is itself a remarkable achievement. It perhaps expresses the unanticipated significance of the UN as the most influential and versatile hub for global communications.

 

There are other major UN contributions to human wellbeing. The UN has been principally responsible for the rise of human rights and environmental protection, and has done much to improve global health, preserve cultural heritage, protect children, and inform us about the hazards of ignoring climate change.

 

We could live better with a stronger UN, but we would be far worse off if the UN didn’t exist or collapsed. The only constructive approach is to do our best in the years ahead to make the UN more effective, less victimized by geopolitical maneuvering, and more attuned to achieving humane global governance.

Pope Francis and Religious Cosmopolitanism

10 Jan

 

Points of Departure 

Perhaps, the most hopeful recent development in human affairs is the emergence of Pope Francis as the voice of global conscience. Although Francis speaks with papal authority to the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, he also increasingly speaks with human authority to the rest of us. How significantly this voice will resonate might be viewed as the ultimate test as to whether ‘soft power’ is overcoming the geopolitical death dance that imperils the human species as never before.

 

When visiting occupied Palestine in May of 2014 Francis prayed at the notorious Israeli separation wall in Palestine that the World Court had ordered dismantled as unlawful back in 2004. The pontiff chose to pray near a scrawled graffiti that read ‘Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice.’ While in the Holy Land Francis articulated what justice should mean in relation to the Palestinian reality: the pope called the existing situation ‘increasingly unacceptable,’ defied Israel by speaking of the ‘State of Palestine’ while touring the West Bank, and urged the establishment of a ‘sovereign homeland’ for the Palestinian people where there would be freedom of movement (so long denied). By this visit and declaration, Pope Francis indirectly underscored the ethical insight of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu that after the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the great symbolic moral challenge directed at the conscience of humanity is the empowerment and liberation of the Palestinian people. Such an affirmation also confirms Francis’ credentials as an independent world leader who will not defer to Washington’s craven submission to Israel’s continuous trampling upon Palestinian rights.

 

More broadly, Pope Francis has made it repeatedly clear that he is a critic of global inequality and of a capitalist world economic system that has produced ‘plunder of nature,’ a ‘frenetic rhythm of consumption,’ and worship of ‘the god of money.’ Above all, according to the German cardinal, Walter Kasper, this is a pope who “wants to lead faith and morality back to their original center” in authentic religious experience. Such leadership is definitely taking a form that is responsive to the array of unmet global challenges that threaten future harm to all peoples in the world, as well as to those most marginalized and vulnerable due to their particular circumstances. The spirit and substance of Pope Francis’ pastoral ministry is clearly within the framework of the Roman Catholic tradition, but its outreach is essentially ecumenical, touching deeply all who care about spirituality, survival, and global justice.

 

The Failures of Secular Global Leadership

 

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 there was a hope throughout the world that he would provide the kind of inspirational leadership that could nurture political confidence in the human future. Surely, such expectations are the only conceivable explanation for awarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize the following year while America was involved in two major wars of aggression (Afghanistan, Iraq) and was pursuing a militarized foreign policy of global scope involving navies in every ocean, hundreds of overseas bases, and the potential weaponization of space. It still seemed plausible in 2009 to suppose that only a charismatic American leader possessed the will and ability to forge cooperative solutions serving the human interest in response to global challenges. The United States at its best managed to combine the pursuit of its national interests with some sense of responsibility for upholding global interests. This role was played by the United States with varying degrees of success. It has been a characteristic of world order since 1945.

 

In the months after his inauguration as president, Obama seemed to share this sense of historic mission by making in the Spring of 2009 rather visionary speeches in Prague proclaiming a commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons and then in Cairo about turning a new page in the Middle East, including exerting pressure on Israel to create finally the political basis for resolving the conflict. Unfortunately, all too soon it became apparent to all who observed the scene that Obama was a president committed to the continuity of American global power and influence, and not at all ready to engage in battles against entrenched forces that would be required to achieve global justice. On both the Middle East and nuclear weapons Obama quickly yielded to those who insisted on the absoluteness of Washington’s support for Israel and gradually showed his willingness to appease the American political establishment that was far more interested in modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal than considering prudent moves toward its abolition.

 

On a global scale, the failure of all efforts to heed the warnings of climate scientists to curb carbon emissions on an urgent basis or continue the trend toward global warming with dangerous intensifications of its attendant harms. Conference after conference each year under UN auspices have exhibited the inability of states to cooperate for the global common good to nearly the extent called for by a prudent response to what the scientists are saying about climate change. What prevails in these gatherings of over 190 states is the unwieldy interplay of national interests, and a grim recognition that the only practical way forward is to rely on the voluntary pledges of governments, and in doing so, abandoning the goal of imposing ‘common but differentiated’ legal obligations on all states. In effect, this shift to voluntary undertakings gives up any pretense of establishing an effective public order of climate protection. There is no doubt, as has been evident since the failure of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the domestic political situation within the country makes it unrealistic to seek a responsible climate change treaty if it makes encroachments on national sovereignty, as it must, as well as likely on profit-making, economic growth, and employment. In effect, the structure of international society based on the interplay of sovereign states and market driven economic actors makes it politically impossible to reconcile patterns of global governance with upholding the human or global interest. This structural reality of statism has become more relevant given the inability of the United States to any longer possess credibility as the chief promoter of global interests of benefit to all peoples of the world.

 

There are also ideological resistances to acknowledging limits with respect to human activity, mainly associated with the persisting strength of nationalism as compared to competing transnational belief systems. As became evident as long ago as World War I, working class solidarity promoted by socialist values was no match nationalist sentiments supportive of European colonial interests overseas. In effect, political leaders of states, whether democratic or authoritarian, are products of political cultures that continue to be shaped by the predominance of nationalism. Such a reality underscores growing tension between the human exploitation of the natural environment and a variety of threats to ecological sustainability.

 

Pope Francis as an Agent of Global Revolution

 

It is precisely here that Pope Francis’ entry upon the scene has potential revolutionary consequences. In line with this, it seems entirely appropriate that his most concerted commitment to date is to awaken the world to the menace of global warming arising from unchecked climate change. The Vatican has announced the Pope’s intention to issue a major encyclical that will set forth an authoritative statement of the Catholic Church’s thinking on climate change. This will be followed by a speech to the UN General Assembly in the Fall and after that, by a Vatican call for a global summit of religious leaders drawn from around the world. What the Pope brings to the table is a meta-political promotion of the human interest that has so far been absent from all efforts, including those of the UN, to meet global challenges. In this sense, mobilizing the pope’s Catholic base and reaching out to other religions is the kind of global leadership needed to have any prospect of fashioning the sort of robust response to climate change that is needed with growing urgency.

 

I have long believed that within each of the great world religions there exists an ongoing struggle between sectarian and universalist tendencies. Both tendencies can draw on their respective traditions to support contradictory claims about the nature of the core religious message. What is exciting about Pope Francis is that he seems to be moving the most globally constituted and influential world religion in a distinctly universalist direction at an historical time when such an orientation is directly related to building a positive future for the peoples of the world, and even more generally, for the human species and its natural habitat. Whether he is able to attract other religions to exert their influence in similar directions remains to be seen. As has been already observed, there are some influential doubters within his own Catholic hierarchy, seemingly threatened by his assaults on their bureaucratic positions of prestige (he has notably accused the Vatican Curia of ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s and a ‘funereal face’) and privilege associated with its proper custodial role of administration and the protection of the traditions of the Church. Some forces within the Catholic hierarchy hostile to Pope Francis’ ministry are allied with predatory political and economic interests. It has also been reported, for instance, that the great majority of Christian evangelists are deeply suspicious of this pope’s emphasis on climate change as arising from human activities. They even accuse Francis of propagating a ‘false religion’ by undermining their religiously based belief that global warming and extreme weather are clear signs of an approaching apocalypse rather than being negative byproducts of a fossil fuel world economy.

 

There is a further concern. Even if the religious summit is a glowing success, it will not by itself exert a sufficient impact on the political system to get the job done, given the hegemony of the state structure of world order and its supportive nationalist ideology when it comes to the adoption of global policy norms. Overcoming statist resistance will only be brought about if religious pressures are backed up by a transnational mobilization of people, a popular movement that alters the political climate within which leaders of states act. We need to remember that even the most inspirational of religious leaders does not have access to the policy mechanisms at the disposal of sovereign governments that alone have the ability to solve problems through institutionalizing cooperative action. Only with a surge of bottom-up politics can there be mounted a sufficient challenge to status quo forces resistant to change.

 

Note should be taken of the relevance of the US-China Agreement (Novemeber 2014) to place certain modest limits on carbon emissions, less for the substance of what was agreed upon by these two governments that account for about 50% of the buildup of greenhouse gasses, then to illustrate that if a populist movement calls for change and is then reinforced by the top-down initiatives of the dominant geopolitical actors, it becomes much more likely that a prudent globally oriented policy on climate change will finally emerge. Most optimistically viewed, the US/China agreement could be a breakthrough if it heralds a recognition by these dominant political actors to combine their pursuit of national interests with assuming geopolitical leadership in defining and promoting the global interest, thereby merging 21st century humanism with geopolitics.

 

Of course, what makes Pope Francis’ presence on the global stage so welcome extends beyond climate change. It involves the entire gamut of global justice issues. It represents a dramatic move toward what might be described as ‘moral globalization.’ It challenges the statist character of world order, the nationalist hold on the political imagination, and the predatory manipulation by neoliberalism of our wants and desires. In the end, what is being offered is a spiritual and cosmopolitan alternative to human fulfillment and the meaning of life. Such a worldview is not presented through an exclusivist prism of Catholicism, but rather through a renewed nurturing of the deep roots of the human condition. These roots include a coevoultionary reenchantment of nature as the indispensable bio-political partner of humanity in the work of safeguarding this planet against the rising dangers of ecological implosion. Such a realignment of fundamental attitudes also involves subordinating the technocratic and calculative sides of modernity to more holistic cosmopolitanism. This will involve reestablishing contact with the deeper emotional and spiritual sides of our being mainly lost in the modern quest for a scientifically validated technocratic salvation.

 

At a time when there are many strident voices insisting that religion is irrelevant or worse, the example and messages of Pope Francis offer cosmopolitan hope. It has never been more important to counter the widely disseminated view that religion is inherently responsible for political extremism, and more destructively, to blame Islam as a religion for sociopathic violence when the culprits are Muslim. True, religious doctrine can be twisted to serve any values, however demonic, as can secularist thinking.

Remembering 2014 (Badly)

25 Dec

 

Considering the year that is about to end is a time to pause long enough to take stock of what went wrong. In the United States not much went right aside from Barack Obama’s surprising initiative to normalize relations with Cuba after more than 60 years of hostile and punitive interaction. Although the sleazy logic of domestic politics kept this remnant of the worst features of Cold War diplomacy in being for a couple of extra decades, it is still worth celebrating Obama’s move, which when compared to the rest of his record, seems bold and courageous. As well, Obama exhibited a strong commitment to doing more than previously on climate change, using his executive authority to circumvent Congressional unwillingness to act responsibly. Obama’s immigration reform proposals also seem on balance to be positive, although whether they will be implemented remains an open question.  

 

Drifting Toward Cold War II: Remembering World War I

 

There are several signs of a worsening global setting that seemed to gain an ominous momentum during 2014. Perhaps, worst of all, is a steady drumbeat of anti-Russian rhetoric backed up by Western sanctions, that seems almost designed to produce Cold War II. No less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate an event observing the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, warned of a renewed Cold War, and wonder aloud as to whether it had already started. There is little reason to praise Vladimir Putin, but there is far less reason to transform the tensions generated by the confusing and contradictory happenings in the Ukraine into a renewal of high profile geopolitical rivalry, replete with crises and confrontations that pose world-shattering threats that could be actualized by accident, miscalculations, or the over-reactions of extremists bureaucrats and leaders.

 

In this year when the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I is being observed in many countries it is helpful to remember that this ‘Great War’ was started rather frivolously and proclaimed to be “the war to end all wars.” Instead, it is better remembered as the war that helped produced political extremism in Europe, unleashed forces that led to an even more devastating Second World War, and created the conditions that brought the nuclear age to the world. Perversely, as well, the origins of the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East today can be traced back to the world war one diplomacy that produced both the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up the region by establishing artificial states to satisfy the greedy appetites of British and French colonial ambitions and the Balfour Declaration that committed the British Foreign Office and the League of Nations to the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish homeland in the heart of historic Palestine without ever bothering to consult the indigenous population. Although some of the mistakes associated with the punitive aspects of the peace imposed on Germany by the Versailles Peace Treaty were corrected after World War II, these colonialist moves converted the collapse of the Ottoman Empire into an ongoing regional catastrophe that shows no signs of abating in the near future. We cannot rewind the reel of Middle Eastern history to learn if things would have turned out better if things had been handled more in accord with Woodrow Wilson’s premature advocacy of a self-determination ethos as the foundation of legitimate political communities deserving of membership in international society as sovereign states. These developments of a century ago are to an extent lost in the mists of time, but we should at least be alert about the roots of the present ordeal of chaos, strife, and oppression.

 

Torture Revelations

 

On December 9th after months of delay and controversy, the 500 page Executive summary of the 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture was released. It contained some grizzly additional information and interpretations to what had been known previously, adding such practices as ‘rectal re-hydration’ to the repertoire of state terrorists, and indicating that there were at least 26 individuals tortured by the CIA who were improperly treated as suspects.

 

Perhaps, the most disturbing feature of this phase of the controversy about the treatment of terrorist suspects is the absence of remorse on the part of those associated with the policies relied upon during the Bush presidency in the period of hysteria following the 9/11 attack. Dick Cheney was particularly out front about his readiness to do it all over again, and refused even to lament the abuse of those detained by mistake.

 

The former Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morrell, has attempted to insulate the CIA from blame by suggesting the reasonableness of CIA’s reliance on the ‘torture memos’ prepared by John Yoo and Jay Bybee that encouraged the CIA to think that their forms of coercive interrogation were ‘legal,’ and argued the reasonableness of the post-9/11 inclination to take exceptional measures to gain information given the fears that abounded at the time within the U.S. Government of further attacks, including according to him, of a credible threat of al-Qaida’s access to a nuclear weapon within national borders. George W. Bush, never one bothered by nuance, assures us that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ who were engaged in doing the good work of protecting the security of the country. Bush seems to be saying that patriotism wipes clean the slate of individual criminal accountability.

 

Morrell, and his colleagues, conveniently ignore the fact that the Nuremberg Judgment concluded that even ‘superior orders’ are no defense for someone charged with violating fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. If we stop for the briefest of moments, and consider how we would view the interrogation practices of the CIA if roles were reversed, and white American males were seen as the victims rather than dark Muslim men from the Middle East, it would seem clear beyond a reasonable doubt, that the label ‘torture’ would fit, and the description ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (further euphemized as EITs) is a malicious evasion of reality.

 

Even liberal centers of opinion, including the ever cautious New York Times, have reacted to the Senate Report with calls for criminal investigations leading to probable indictments of those responsible for implementing torture, with the ladder of responsibility leading up at least as high as Cheney as Vice President, and conceivably to George W. Bush. [See editorial, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” Dec. 22, 2014] The even more cautious American president, Barack Obama, has disconcertedly combined his repudiation of EIT culture and practices with a steadfast refusal to besmirch the reputation of the CIA or to look backward in time. Obama’s strange view, which is entirely destructive of any notion of governmental accountability ever, is that with respect to torture allegations the effort should be to prevent such behavior in the future, but not to investigate or impose any accountability for what was done in the past. I am led to wonder why he does not apply a similar logic to the leaks associated with such well-intentioned whistleblowers as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and above all, Edward Snowden! Perhaps somewhere in the dark recesses of Obama’s mind he distinguishes between crimes of government (deserving impunity) and crimes against government (deserving severe punishment).

 

It is not that Obama is necessarily wrong in his disposition to overlook the past when it comes to torture revelations, although he supplied the citizenry with no appropriate justification for this de facto conferral of impunity. It is not at all certain that the United States political system could manage such self-scrutiny without experiencing such a deep polarization as to put domestic and world peace at risk. It is evident that the country is split down the middle, and the risks of strife and a surge of support for the extreme right in the event of arrests and prosecutions are far from being paranoid excuses of the timid. We need to face the reality, with all of its shortcomings in relation to law and justice, that we live in a world of pervasive double standards when it comes to the official treatment of criminal accountability for international state crime, whether perpetrated within the American domestic legal structure or at black sites around the world. It is plausible to hold defeated dictators like Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi, accountable, but quite another matter to indict Bush, Cheney, and Tony Blair, although both groupings have been responsible for heinous crimes.

 

Part of the liberal concept of legality is to overlook what it is not feasible to do and focus on what can be done. From this perspective it was good to prosecute surviving German and Japanese leaders at Nuremberg and Tokyo because those charged were associated with vicious behavior and it was important to discourage and deter in the future. The fact that the indiscriminate bombing of German and Japanese cities by the victorious democracies, and the unleashing of atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would also by any criminal court be deemed as crimes is true but irrelevant. It is better not to go there, and leave it to dissident anti-imperialist scholars to whine about ‘victors’ justice’ and ‘double standards.’ “We liberals do what we can to make the world better, and to fight against the nihilistic nationalism of the extreme right.” Such is the liberal credo.

 

What liberalism ignores is the relevance of structure and the organic connectedness of equality with the rendering of justice. If we are unwilling to prosecute the most dangerous perpetrators of state crime, is it not hypocritical to go after only those whose behavior appalls or angers the reigning hegemon? Does it not make the rule of law susceptible to dismissal as a cynical exercise in the demonization of ‘the other,’ whether belonging to an adversary religion, ethnicity, a marginalized class, or defeated nation? The experience of the International Criminal Court during its first thirteen years of operation is illustrative of this two-tier discriminatory approach to individual accountability. This parallels the more overtly discriminatory approach to nuclear weaponry adopted via the profound shift away from the initial concern about apocalyptic dangers posed by the weaponry to anxiety about its spread to certain unwanted others.

 

Although these questions about criminal accountability are rhetorical, the prudential dilemma posed is genuinely challenging. I am not convinced that it would on balance be constructive in the present national atmosphere to attempt the punishment of political leaders in the United States who in the past authorized the practice of torture. The potential costs and risks seem too high compared to the benefits. The related question is whether or not to create some kind of equivalence at lower levels of expectations. If ‘well-intentioned’ torturers are given a free pass why not do the same for ‘idealistic and responsible whistleblowers’? It would seem almost beyond debate that the whistleblowers should not be prosecuted if the torturers are beneficiaries of such a pragmatic form of impunity. I would make the case that Assange, Manning, and Snowden deserve an honorific form of pardon, namely, the application of a doctrine of ‘principled impunity” as distinct from the notion of ‘pragmatic impunity.’ Here I think the social system in the United States would benefit despite producing some severe political strains that would almost certainly follow. I would argue that the highest pragmatic virtue of prudence would mandate taking such steps, namely, protecting one of the few safety valves available to citizens living in a modern national security state, which when added to the principled recognition of selfless and virtuous citizenship makes an overwhelming case for decriminalization. If we cannot have accountability for certain categories of abhorrent state crime, at least we should encourage transparency, making whistleblowing integral to the preservation of political democracy.

 

It would be a mistake not to connect the torture revelations to related issues of police brutality associated with the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and of Eric Garner in Staten Island New York. Beyond this, the militarization of American political culture has been reaffirmed at the level of the citizenry by polls confirming the highest level of support for gun rights in the history of the country. It is little wonder that the elected leadership, as reinforced by the entrenched bureaucracy, cannot think much outside the military box when it comes to conflict resolution. Above all the resources of the moral and legal imagination have been degraded for so long as to be virtually irrelevant, which of course satisfies the comfort zone on ‘political realists’ who continue to distort our perceptions of 21st century realities.

 

 

 

Multiple Atrocities

 

More than in previous years, 2014 seemed to be a time of multiple atrocities, events that went beyond the ordeals of warfare and massive poverty, to shock the conscience by their violent aggression against the purest forms of innocence—deliberate brutality directed at young children, exhibiting depraved political imaginaries. By calling attention I have no intention of downplaying the widespread suffering associated with such continuing struggles at those taking place in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Kashmir, and many other places on our tormented planet.

 

ISIS or Daesh: This extremist movement, claiming an Islamic identity, emerged suddenly in the early part of 2014 as an occupying force in Iraq and Syria, proclaiming a new Sunni caliphate under its authority, and representing a sociopathic and sectarian response to the failed American occupation of Iraq. Initially welcomed by many Sunni Iraqis living in the northeastern parts of the country as liberation from Shiite abusive domination that resulted from American policies of debathification following the 2003 regime change in Baghdad, ISIS outraged the world by its televised beheadings of Western journalists, by its uprooting and slaughter of Shiite males belonging to the mainly Kurdish-speaking minority Yazidi community, and its alleged practice of turning Yazidi girls and women into sex slaves. Yazidis are considered an old religious sect that adheres to a pre-Muslim syncretist beliefs drawn from Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions, and drawing on other later religions as well. It would seem that the American-led response to ISIS is proceeding by way of yet another military intervention mainly in the form of air strikes. Although the political impact are yet to be clear, this does not a constructive path to restore peace and order.

 

Boko Harem: Another manifestation of sociopathetic extremist politics gained world attention in April by the kidnapping in Nigeria of some 200 schoolgirls who were later abused in various ways, including being sold into slavery. Boko Harem has controlled parts of northern Nigeria since 2009, and has continued to engaged in behavior that constitutes crimes against humanity, and a total disregard of the innocence of Nigerian children, repeatedly engaging in kidnappings and wholesale destruction of villages. As recently as December 18th, Boko Harem forces kidnapped at least 185 young men, women, and children from a village in northern Nigeria. Its political goals, to the extent evident, are to protect Muslims in the country and establish a strict version of sharia law for areas under their control.

 

Pakistani Taliban: The mid-December attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School by the Pakistani Taliban produced the massacre of an estimated 134 children and 14 others. The writer, Pervez Hoodbhoy, says that the Taliban, in ways that he believes parallel the ambitions of the Afghani Taliban, Boko Haram, and ISIS, are “fighting for a dream-to destroy Pakistan as a Muslim state and recreate it as an Islamic state.” The implication is a radical transformation from some kind of religious normalcy into a fearsome embodiment religious fanaticism.

 

Israel’s Military Operation ‘Protective Edge’ Against Gaza: For the third time in less than six years Israel launched a vicious attack against Gaza that continued for 51 days, with the resulting humanitarian crisis caused accentuated by imposing a punitive ceasefire that has hampered recovery. The entire viability of Gaza is at severe risk. The attacks, known by the IDF code name of Operation Protective Edge, produced heavy civilian casualties (over 2,100 Palestinians killed including 519 childen, about 11,000 wounded, and as many as 520, 000 displaced, many homeless; on the Israeli side 70 were killed, 65 of whom were IDF, and one child) including among children, and traumatized the entire population locked into Gaza, with no exit available even for women, children, and disabled seeking sanctuary from the attack.

 

Identified above are just a few highlights from this year’s catalogue of atrocities. It is also evident that there exists a pattern of numbed response around the world that amounts to a collective condition of ‘atrocity fatigue.’ Beyond this these incidents and developments illustrate the inability of many governments in Africa and the Middle East to exert effective sovereign control over their own territory, as well as the inability of the United Nations to protect peoples faced with threats underscoring their acute vulnerability. Account must also be taken of geopolitical priorities that accords attention to ISIS and Pakistan’s Taliban but much less to Boko Haram and none at all to Israel’s IDF. If there is any hope for effective responses it is a result of national and transnational activations of civil society that do their best to fill these normative black holes.

 

Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons

 

Without dwelling on these familiar issues threatening the future of the entire human species, it is worth noticing that little of a constructive nature took place during the year. A notable exception, which may make a difference, was the U.S./China agreement in November to regulate emissions and to cooperate in an effort to prevent the global buildup of greenhouse gasses. These two dominant states are responsible for almost 50% of this buildup, and suggest that geopolitical cooperation may produce more positive results than the dilatory movements of unwieldy UN mechanisms that involve the more than 190 states that make up its membership. On its surface the agreement was not impressive with the U.S. agreeing to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025 and China agreeing to peak its emissions in 2030, and by meet its energy needs by relying for 20% on zero emissions sources, but the very fact of such an agreement was looked upon as ‘a game changer’ by some. I would be more skeptical, especially of the American side of the commitment, given the possibility that a Republican could become president in 2016, and might well ignore such an agreed target, especially if it is perceived as slowing economic growth. The UN Conference in Peru a month later ended up doing little more than issuing the Lima Call for Climate Action was one more disappointment. The bickering among states pursuing their distinct national interests was manifest and a resulting race to the bottom. It does not generate any confidence that the hope for a 2015 breakthrough in Paris will actually address climate change in a manner that heeds the warnings of climate scientists. Relying on voluntary guidelines so as to circumvent domestic debate, especially in the United States, is not an encourage feature of what is expected.

 

As for nuclear weapons, the less said the better. Obama’s Prague visionary statement in 2009 has been swept aside by the nuclear weapons establishment, not only in the United States, but in all the nuclear weapons states. And even the possibility of bringing a measure of stability to the Middle East by eliminating nuclear weapons from the region has been taboo because of Israeli sensitivities. Instead the United States is embarked upon an expensive program on its own to upgrade its arsenal of nuclear weaponry. There is no serious initiative evident within international society to move toward the one solution that has long been obvious and yet unattainable—phased and verified nuclear disarmament as a prelude to a wider demilitarization of the global security system.

 

What is at stake, above all, is whether the species as a species can manifest a collective will to survive in strong enough forms to meet these mounting unprecedented challenges of global scope. The species will to survive has never been seriously challenged previously, with all past survival collapses being of civilizational or sub-species scope. Humanity has been facing something new since the advent of nuclear weaponry, but has responded managerially rather than either with moral clarity or prudential wisdom.

 

Conclusion

 

Despite all, we can look to 2015 with some measure of hope, almost exclusively because there seems to be a slow awakening of civil society, at least in the domains of the BDS Campaign relating to Palestinian rights and in the form of the separate emergence of a transnational movement that takes global warming as seriously as the realities suggest. As for the future, we see, if at all, through a glass darkly, and thus have no excuse for refraining from a dedication to the struggle for global justice in its many shapes and forms. A posture of cynical hopelessness or despair worsens prospects for positive future developments, however empirically based such a negative assessment seems. All of us should recall that those who struggle for what seems ‘impossible’ today often turn out to be the heroes of tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

Shifts in the Climate Change Debate: Hope and Suspicion

2 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The text below is a revision of the previous post that enlarges upon the earlier arguments so that it seems justified to publish it here as a revised text, that is, something more than editorial modifications]

 

Ignoring the Scientific Consensus 

 

Governments disappointed the world in Copenhagen at the end of 2009 by failing to produce a global agreement that would mandate reductions of carbon emissions in accord with recommendations of climate scientists. Ever since there has been a mood of despair about addressing the challenges posed by global warming. The intense lobbying efforts by climate deniers, reinforced in the United States by a right wing anti-government tsunami that has paralyzed Congress, succeeded in blocking even modest market-based steps to induce energy efficiency. This bleak picture raises daunting biopolitical questions about whether the human species possesses a sufficient will to survive given its persisting inability to respond to the climate change challenge despite well-evidenced warnings about the consequences of a failure to do so. Less apocalyptically, this pattern of inaction makes us wonder whether a state-centric structure of world order can surmount the limits of national interests to undertake policies that promote the human interest in relation to global warming.

 

International experience shows that where the interests of important states converge, especially if complemented by the interests of business and finance, collective initiatives upholding human interests can be implemented. The international regulation of ozone depletion, the public order of the oceans, the avoidance of international conflict in Antarctica, and the protection of some endangered marine species, such as whales, are illustrative of what is possible when a favorable lawmaking and compliance atmosphere exists. This record of regulation on behalf of the global common good are examples of success stories that make international law seem more worthwhile than media cynics and influential political realists acknowledge. Yet in relation to the climate change agenda, despite the strong, even stridently avowed, consensus among climate scientists (at about the 97% level), the dynamics of forging the sort of agreement that will keep global warming within prudent and manageable limits has not materialized.

Such a world order failure is imposing serious costs. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, the longer the buildup of greenhouse gasses is allowed to continue, the worse will be the harmful effects on human wellbeing and the greater the costs of preventing still worse future impacts. Anticipated harm will take the form of rising sea levels, drought and floods, damaging fires, extreme weather, melting polar ice caps and glaciers, and crop failures. At some point thresholds of irreversibility will be crossed, and the fate of the human species, along with that of most of nature, becomes negatively determined beyond easy alteration.

American Leadership: For What?

There are many factors that have contributed to this policy stalemate. Among the most serious is the decline of responsible American leadership. Ever since the Copenhagen fiasco American leverage has been used irresponsibly, mainly to oppose climate change ambition in international negotiations and block efforts to impose obligations on governments that relate to the emission of greenhouse gasses. In an atmosphere where adverse national interests and perceptions were difficult enough to overcome, the United States in effect has been insisting that constraining their pursuit for the sake of serving a widely shared understanding of the common good was neither politically feasible nor desirable. The policy of the U.S. Government was in large part a reflection of the political climate in Washington that had become hostile to international commitments of almost any kind. This Washington mood especially opposed any undertaking related to environmental protection, which were automatically regarded as anti-market. In such a policy context in which the United States as global leader and leading per capita emitter refuses to take a responsible position, it is certainly not in a position to encourage others to act responsibly. It is evident that without geopolitical leadership with respect to climate change policy, selfishly conceived national interests with short time horizons, will carry the day, and the world will continue to drift disastrously toward a hotter future.

After being reelected in 2012 Barack Obama has been making the urgency of national and global action on climate change a rallying cry of his second term. In June of this year he gave a commencement address at the Irvine campus of the University of California in which he urged the graduating students to demand more responsible action on climate change by their government, especially by Congress, as crucial to obtaining a hopeful future for themselves. The students and their families present at the graduation ceremony received such a message with enthusiastic applause, but there is little reason to be hopeful that Obama on his own will be able to turn the tide in Washington sufficiently to restore confidence in American leadership with respect to climate change either at home or abroad.

The issue is particularly timely as the world is gearing up for a 2015 global meeting of governments in Paris that may represent the last real opportunity for collective action on a global scale to slow down the march toward species decline, if not oblivion, in an overheating planet, perhaps a moment of truth as to whether the coordinated behavior of governments is capable finally of serving the planetary public good in relation to climate change. According to ‘Giddens Law’ by the time the public will awaken to the seriousness of the global emergency it will be too late to reverse, or even manage, the trend. Obama at Irvine put this same issue more conditionally: “The question is whether we have the will to act before it is too late.” Such a question is itself enveloped in clouds of unknowing as there is no way to be sure in advance when it becomes ‘too late.’

 

The Market Awakens?

Despite this recital of discouraging aspects of the national and global response to climate change, I believe for the first time in this century that there may be reasons to be guardedly hopeful, maybe not in relation to what kind of global compact will emerge in Paris, but with respect to a tectonic shift in how the climate change challenge is being understood by the public and by hegemonic elites, especially in the globalizing domains of high finance and transnational corporate operations. Publication of a report in June 2014 playfully named Risky Business might at some future date be acknowledged as prefiguring a basic change in the political atmospherics relating to climate change. The visual iconographic adopted to introduce the report is indicative of its message to the society: a disabled theme park roller coaster inundated by rising coastal waters. Such an image expresses the idea that commercial property is at risk due to a disregard of longer term impacts attributable to global warming, suggestive of the sort of devastation experienced by the American northeast coastline in 2012 due to superstorm Sandy.

Risky Business explains and analyzes impending economic burdens on American business interests associated with continuing insufficient action on climate change. It is a think tank offering based on empirical research and risk analysis methodology that comes with the imprimatur of a self-anointed group of high profile economistic figures with impeccable private sector credentials. The chairs of this blue ribbon American effort were Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury under Bush during the deep recession, Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City and environmentally oriented billionaire, and Thomas Steger, a prominent former hedge fund manager, identified as a major donor of the Democratic Party. Among these ten business world notables, an establishment mix of conservative and mainstream heavyweights, whose role seems to be to lend legitimacy and visibility to the report and its assessments. Thres of the ten are former secretaries of the treasury (Paulson + George Shultz, Robert Rubin), several business leaders connected with big corporations, including Gregory Page the ex-CEO of Cargill, the worldwide agribusiness giant, three political figures who have held important government posts in the past, and Alfred Sommer, the former dean of the School of Public health at Johns Hopkins. In keeping with the national focus of the undertaking, the global dimensions of climate change are completely ignored, and all ten endorsers are American. This self-consciously nationalist assessment of what is in its essence a global challenge is somewhat puzzling, and nowhere explained.

In his Irvine commencement address Obama quotes approvingly Woodrow Wilson’s remark: “Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American.” Obama adds his own emphatic affirmation by way of echo: “That’s who we are.” In contrast, the tone and rationale of Risky Business is not idealist, but rather ‘sensible’ and ‘prudent.’ It is not dedicated so much to doing what is right for the country as it is to doing what is deemed beneficial for the future of the American economy, and helping to realize the central goal of business–maximizing benefits from the efficient use of capital. The report is realistic in style as well as substance–doing its best to avoid being ‘political.’

 

In this spirit Risky Business deliberately refrains from offering policy recommendations, presumably to avoid seeming partisan or pushing ideologically sensitive buttons. There is a claim made by the authors that their analysis is meta-political (quite a political novelty these days), and that its recommended approach should appeal to everyone concerned with the health of the American economy regardless of their political persuasion. As indicated, the report somewhat artificially looks at climate change exclusively through a national lens. It offers no direct commentary on the global aspects of the climate change challenge and even fails to offer any insight as what should be done internationally to lessen the adverse national economic impacts for the United States that can be attributed to the global mismanagement of climate change. The modestly framed objective of this report is to stimulate active participation by business representatives in debates about how to mitigate harmful climate trends.

Co-chair Paulson (of bailout notoriety) published a widely influential article publicized to coincide with the release of Risky Business, capturing attention with an unusally alarmist headline, “The Coming Climate Crash,” (NY Times, June 21, 2014) The piece summarizes the outlook of Risky Business, proposing a new attitude toward climate advocacy that could exert a major influence on the investment community, as well as among Washington’s think tanks and lobbyists, and hence, eventually, may even get a hearing in Congress. The main messages delivered in the report are that human-generated global warming is real and dangerous for the economy (and incidentally for human health), and that inaction and delay in attending to these risks will make the situation worse than it already is and much more expensive to control. The bottom line is that business and finance stakeholders should immediately enter the national policy debate as a matter of self-interest. If sufficiently heeded, such involvement is likely to change the balance of forces on Wall Street and in Washington, the two venues that count most in this country when it comes to the shaping of the government role in the economy.

 

Risky Business, in keeping with its outlook and patrons, adopts a risk management approach to climate change. It seeks to demonstrate the specific anticipated effects of unattended risks from warming trends on the economic wellbeing of eight distinct geographic regions that together make up the whole of the United States. Some regions in certain sectors will actually gain from climate change, while others lose, with the conclusion that the losses will far outweigh the gains. For instance, agriculture in northern states of the mid-West will benefit from longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures, while the mid-West and South will suffer from the increased heat and greater frequency of extreme weather events.

The report summarizes its outlook as follows: “The signature effects of human-induced climate change..all have specific, measureable impacts on our nation’s current assets and ongoing economic activity.” (p.2). In effect, these projected impacts are not treated as mere speculation, but are set forth as the reliable results of risk analysis that should be taken into account in business planning. The essential lesson to be learned is that “..if we act aggressively to both adapt to the dangers and to mitigate future impacts by reducing carbon emissions—we can significantly reduce our exposure to the worst risks from climate change and also demonstrate global leadership on climate.” (p.3) This sole reference to the ‘global’ sensibly presupposes that if the United States gets its national house in order it will likely regain its reputation and leverage as a responsible leader in global policy settings. The positive prospect of climate change adjustment is set off against a criticism of present complacency: “Our key findings underscore the reality that if we stay on our current emissions path, our climate risks will multiply and accumulate at the decades tick by.” (p.8) All of this induces the following conclusion: “With this report, we call on the American business community to rise to the challenge and lead the way in helping to reduce climate risks.” (p.9)

The auspices of Risky Business immediately gave the report a media salience and respectful reception that earlier more authoritative scientific studies along the same lines did not receive, including the exhaustively researched comprehensive reports of the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even the Wall Street Journal, a media hub for climate change cynics, took respectful note of Risky Business without recourse to its usual snide anti-environmental commentary. The report is arousing great interest by offering what amounts to a business friendly certification for counter-branding climate change. It offers a vivid alternative to the climate denial prescriptions being peddled by Koch Brothers/Tea Party/fossil fuel industry anti-environmentalism. By arguing that the failure to act now on climate change will in the future exact bigger and bigger costs on business as well as be harmful to society, the report overrides the contentions that regulating greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is unnecessary and if undertaken will put American manufacturing operations at a competitive disadvantage internationally. Risky Business supports the opposite position on the facts and their implications for government. Rather than leaving the private sector alone to sort out its own course of action, the report declares that it is in the interest of business to have the government set “a consistent policy and a regulatory framework” that will keep carbon emissions below dangerous thresholds.

If this recommended action is not taken, Risky Business anticipates annual costs to the country of several billion dollars arising from increasing heat, storm surges, and hurricane intensity, as well as projecting 10% reduced crop yields over and a 3-5% livestock production decline over the course of the next 25 years. The approach adopted is congenial to the hedge fund and shareholder mentality by stressing risk management as the prescribed pattern of response rather than advocating a carbon tax or market constraints.

In this spirit, attention is given to such an undertaking as the Ceres’ Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), which reports that already as many as 53 of the Fortune 100 companies have on their own adopted policies responsive to climate with an aggregate saving $1.1 billion annually, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 58.3 million metric tons (an amount equal to closing 15 coal-fired plants). In effect, smart business practices are already taking advantage of carbon-lite methods of production, although the scale is far too small and without overall direction provided by the government. This decentralized approach to the use of energy represents as indirect way of addressing carbon emissions that is seen as the essential feature of this self-management climate risk paradigm, and suggests that big business despite the clamor in Congress is being quietly and effectively enlisted in the battle against global warming. Whether this turn will be on a large enough scale without being reinforced by innovative government policies is an important issue to resolve, and Risky Business leaves little doubt as to its view that a more self-conscious approach needs to be centrally implemented as a matter of urgency. At this time, the benefits of this risk management approach seem quite marginal to the kind of public mobilization that will be needed, and this is precisely where Risky Business seeks to make its views felt among the constituencies that count.

Beyond Risky Business

 The substantive challenge for the economy is clear: Given seemingly inevitable economic costs, how can such burdens be best addressed to lessen their harmful effects on business and finance. The central message of hope issued by Risky Business is that jobs can be generated (not lost) and GNP increased (not diminished) while at the same time doing what is needed to reduce carbon emissions by a sufficient amount to contain global warming within safe and prudent limits. Further, that all this can be done without requiring a carbon tax provided appropriate action is taken on a large enough scale in the very near future. This risk management approach is not just wishing global warming away while carrying on without any big adjustments. The report while avoiding policy recommendations does offer some prescriptive ideas about how to beat global warming without directly regulating carbon emissions. Among the ideas endorsed are taking such steps as investing heavily in the development of clean public transport systems, enhanced energy efficiency in industry, and increased energy conservation in building design and operation. These kinds of initiatives are all within the scope of what has come to be called ‘smart development,’ which is becoming the new fashion for demonstrations about how to make economic growth compatible with environmental sustainability, and doing so in ways that do not scare off the neoliberal elites that run the economies of the world primarily for the sake of private sector profitability.

 

The main arguments of Risky Business are complemented by a recent World Bank study with the relevant title, “Climate-Smart Development: Adding Up the Benefits of Actions that Help Build Prosperity, End Poverty, and Combat Climate Change.” The study puts forward the new enlightenment oriented claim that the intelligent application of reason enables society to have it all without disturbing the ideological status quo—nurture growth, eliminate poverty, deal with climate change. If the world begins to act prudently in the design of climate policy, there is nothing to worry about. Best of all, this kind of new thinking does not require any major ideological modifications in the capitalist worldview. It does call for an abandonment of what is referred to as “the tyranny of short-termism,” presupposing shareholder acceptance of longer-term planning that may have some negative impacts on near-term quarterly earning statements that have so far stymied most efforts to deal prudently with climate change risks. This kind of shift can be fully rationalized within the risk management paradigm, optimally adjusting business for profit to the new realities of global warming by adopting a new concept of ‘corporate time’ by which to maximize profit-making activity.

There are some further elements in this more hopeful approach to the climate change challenge. The development of huge natural gas deposits supposedly reduces by as much as 50% the release of greenhouse gasses. More importantly, a policy focus on cutting the emissions of what are called ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ (‘black carbon’- diesel fumes, cooking fires, methane, ozone, some hydrofluoride carbons) if implemented ambitiously is capable of lengthening the time available to make the more fundamental adjustments in the management of energy sources associated with the long lasting buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, including the expansion of reliance on low-carbon production technology and the expansion of renewable energy (solar, wind).

It does seem that Risky Business represents a kind of breakthrough in the national debate on climate change. When business speaks, America listens. The report aligns business with science and reason without an accompanying future scenario of economic decline or any questioning of capitalist dependence on environmentally damaging consumerism. It advocates sub-national understandings of the risks and responses based on the characteristics of eight specific geographic regions in the United States, which fits the remedy to the challenge in a more convincing manner than grosser templates. Indirectly, it posits an alternative both to the business funding of climate denial and to those who insist that the structures of national sovereignty and capitalism are incapable of dealing with the global challenges being posed by climate change. This more optimistic approach rests on the assumption that the risks are accurately measureable, and can be offset without incurring significant economic burdens if action is quickly undertaken both by the private sector acting on its own and by government acting to protect the national public good.

 

A Concluding Skepticism

There are several reasons to be doubtful about whether Risky Business is providing the country with a reliable roadmap. First of all, the failure to relate national policy to the global setting is a significant shortcoming with respect to assessing risks and costs. The level of global warming in national space is dependent on what others do as well as to what happens in the United States. If emissions are reduced globally in accord with scientific understanding, the anticipated national costs and risks will be far lower than if this understanding continues to be ignored. Also, it seems doubtful that rational argument alone can sway the fossil fuel establishment to stop muddying the waters of democratic deliberation by continuing to fund the climate denial lobby.

Risky Business completely ignores the potential roles of civil society in mobilizing a prudent and equitable response, and contains no consideration of how to distribute whatever burdens are present in a manner that accords with ‘climate justice.’ In the end, it is questionable nationally and internationally, whether a business-friendly win/win scenario for meeting the challenges of climate change can on its own save the planet from impending disaster. Nevertheless, Risky Business might be helpful in forging a national consensus, also being urged by President Obama, that rests on an acceptance of the understanding among climate scientists of the realities of human-induced global warming. We do know that in a capitalist society when business raises its voice the message gets delivered, but we also should realize that this voice should not to be trusted without the most careful scrutiny. A politics of suspicion is appropriate.

With this move from the top echelons of the business world, it is time for civil society to come forth with a response that does emphasize the global setting of national policy responses on climate change and seeks to inject the perspectives of the climate justice transnational movement into the policy debate. Part of this response also needs to consider such structural issues as the persisting dominance of sovereign states in the making of global policy relating to climate change, and the questionable capacity of neoliberal globalization to serve the human interest, including that of safeguarding the future.

 

What seems most hopeful is the growing public recognition of climate change as mounting a challenge to society, government, and the peoples of the world that cannot be evaded without producing severe future damage. Also encouraging, is the emergence of thinking about indirect and innovative steps that can be taken to improve prospects of reducing carbon emissions—encouraging public transport, systemic moves to increase energy efficiency in building and maintenance, and reductions in air pollution from short-lived pollutants (differing from carbon dioxide with its greenhouse effect lasting for thousands of years). Behind the edifice of analysis and prescription it remains obscure who will foot the bill, and without such awareness, the real political implications of what Risky Business is proposing are uncertain.

 

Shifts in the Climate Change Debate: Hopeful Horizons?

28 Jun

 

 

Ever since governments disappointed the world in Copenhagen at the end of 2009 by not producing a global agreement that would mandate reductions of carbon emissions, there has been a mood of despair about addressing the challenges posed by global warming. The intense lobbying efforts by climate deniers reinforced in the United States by a right wing anti-government tsunami that has paralyzed Congress even in relation to modest market-based steps to induce energy efficiency is part of the bleak picture. It raises daunting biopolitical questions about whether the human species has a sufficient will to survive given the nature of the climate change challenge. Less apocalyptically, it makes us wonder whether a state-centric structure of world order can surmount the limits of national interests to undertake policies that promote the human interest.

 

International experience shows that where the interests of important states converge, especially if complemented by the interests of business and finance, collective initiatives upholding human interests can be implemented. The international regulation of ozone depletion, the public order of the oceans, the avoidance of international conflict in Antarctica, and the protection of some endangered marine species, such as whales, are illustrative of what is possible when the lawmaking and compliance atmosphere is supportive. This record of regulation on behalf of the global common good are examples of success stories that make international law seem more worthwhile than media cynics and influential political realists acknowledge. Yet in relation to the climate change agenda, despite a strong consensus among climate scientists (at about the 97% level), the dynamics of forging the sort of agreement that will keep global warming within prudent and manageable limits has not materialized. Such a world order failure imposes serious costs. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, the longer the buildup of greenhouse gasses is allowed to persist, the worse will be the harmful effects on human wellbeing and the greater the costs of preventing still worse future impacts taking the form of rising sea levels, drought and floods, extreme weather, melting polar regions, and crop failures. At some point thresholds of irreversibility are crossed, and the fate of the human species, along with that of most of nature, becomes sealed.

 

There are many factors that have contributed to this policy stalemate. Among the most serious is the decline of responsible American leadership. Ever since the Copenhagen fiasco American leverage has been used irresponsibly, to discourage climate change ambition in the negotiations and to oppose any new effort to impose obligations on governments. In an atmosphere where adverse national interests and perceptions were difficult enough to overcome, the United States in effect insisted that constraining their pursuit was not politically feasible or desirable. Stymied by a political atmosphere in Washington that is hostile to international commitments of any kind, but especially to those that concern environmental protection and impose constraints on market activities. In this kind of situation, if rich and powerful America refuses to take a responsible position, it cannot effectively encourage others to do so, and without geopolitical leadership, selfishly conceived national interests with short time horizons, carry the day.

 

President Barack Obama has been making the urgency of action on climate change a rallying cry of his second term. In June of this year he gave a commencement address at the Irvine campus of the University of California in which he urged the graduating students to demand more responsible action on climate change from the government, especially Congress, as crucial in seeking a hopeful future for themselves. The assembled students and their families received such a message with enthusiastic applause, but there is little reason to be hopeful that Obama is able to turn the tide in Washington sufficiently to restore confidence in American leadership with respect to climate change. The issue is crucial as the world is gearing up for a 2015 global meeting of governments in Paris that may represent the last real opportunity for collective action on a global scale to slow down the march toward species oblivion in an overheating planet, perhaps a moment of truth as to whether the coordinated behavior of governments is capable of serving the planetary public good in relation to climate change. According to ‘Giddens Law’ by the time the public awakens to the seriousness of the emergency it will be too late to reverse, or even manage, the warming trend. Obama at Irvine put this same issue more conditionally: “The question is whether we have the will to act before it is too late.” The issue is further clouded as there is no way of knowing in advance what is ‘too late.’

 

Despite this recital of discouraging aspects of the national and global response to climate change, I believe for the first time in this century that there may be reasons to be guardedly hopeful, maybe not in relation to what will emerge in Paris, but with respect to a tectonic shift in how the climate change challenge is being understood by the public and by hegemonic elites, especially in the globalizing domains of high finance and transnational corporate operations. Publication of the report in June 2014, Risky Business, is certainly a weathervane of change in the political atmospherics relating to climate change. The visual iconographic adopted by the report is a damaged roller coaster inundated by rising coastal waters, that is, the destruction of commercial property by disregard of the longer term impacts attributable to global warming.

 

This report explains and analyzes impending economic burdens on American business interests associated with sustained inaction on climate change. It is a think tank offering based on empirical research and risk analysis methodology that comes with the imprimatur of a self-anointed group of high-level economistic figures with impeccable private sector credentials. The chairs of this blue ribbon American effort were Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury under Bush during the deep recession, Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City and environmentally oriented billionaire, and Thomas Steger, a prominent former hedge fund manager, identified as a major donor of the Democratic Party. Among the ten notables, an establishment mix of conservative and mainstream heavyweights, whose role seems to be to lend legitimacy and visibility to the report and its assessments. Two of the ten are former secretaries of the treasury (George Shultz, Robert Rubin), several business leaders connected with big corporations, including Gregory Page the CEO of Cargill, the worldwide agribusiness giant, three have held prominent political posts in the past, and there is even one lonely academic. In keeping with the national focus of the undertaking, the global dimensions of climate change are completely ignored, and all of the endorsers are American.

In his Irvine commencement address Obama quotes approvingly Woodrow Wilson’s remark: “Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American.” Obama adds his own emphatic endorsement: “That’s who we are.” In contrast, the tone and rationale of Risky Business is not idealist, but what one might call ‘sensible’ and ‘prudent.’ Not so much doing what is right for the country as doing what is beneficial for the the future of the American economy, and helping to realize the central goal of business–maximize benefits from the efficient use of capital. The report is also realistic in the sense of doing its best to avoid being ‘political’ or stepping on ideologically sensitive toes.

 

In this spirit Risky Business self-consciously refrains from offering policy recommendations, presumably to avoid seeming partisan or pushing ideologically sensitive buttons. There is a claim made by the authors that the analysis is meta-political (quite a political novelty these days) because its recommended approach should appeal to anyone concerned with the future of the American economy. As indicated, the report somewhat artificially looks at climate change exclusively through a national lens. It refrains from any direct commentary on the global aspects of the climate change challenge and even fails to offer any insight as what should be done internationally to lessen adverse national economic impacts associated with the global mismanagement of climate change. The modestly framed objective of this report is to stimulate active participation by business representatives in debates about how to mitigate harmful climate trends. Paulson (of bailout notoriety) wrote a widely influential article publicized with an unexpectedly alarmist headline, “The Coming Climate Crash,” (NY Times, June 21, 2014) that effectively publicized the outlook of Risky Business, proposing a new attitude toward climate advocacy likely to exert a major influence in both the investment community, Washington’s think tanks and lobbyists, and hence, eventually, even Congress. The main messages being delivered are that human-generated global warming is real and dangerous for the economy (and incidentally for human health), and that inaction and delay in attending the risks will make the situation worse than it already is and much more expensive to control. The bottom line is that business and finance stakeholders should immediately enter the national policy debate as a matter of self-interest. If sufficiently heeded, such involvement is likely to change the balance of forces on Wall Street and Washington, the two venues that count most in this country when it comes to the shaping of the government role in the economy.

 

Risky Business, in keeping with its orientation, adopts a risk management approach to climate change. It seeks to show the specific anticipated effects of unattended risks on the economic wellbeing of eight distinct geographic regions that together make up the whole of the United States. Some regions in certain sectors will actually gain from climate change, while others lose, with the conclusion that the losses will far outweigh the gains. The report summarizes its outlook as follows: “The signature effects of human-induced climate change..all have specific, measureable impacts on our nation’s current assets and ongoing economic activity.” (p.2). In effect, these impacts are not mere speculation, but are the reliable results of risk analysis that should be taken into account in business planning. The essential lesson to be learned is that “..if we act aggressively to both adapt to the dangers and to mitigate future impacts by reducing carbon emissions—we can significantly reduce our exposure to the worst risks from climate change and also demonstrate global leadership on climate.” (p.3) This sole reference to the ‘global’ sensibly presupposes that if the United States gets its national house in order it will regain its authority to exercise leadership in global settings. The positive prospect of climate change adjustment is set off against a criticism of present complacency: “Our key findings underscore the reality that if we stay on our current emissions path, our climate risks will multiply and accumulate at the decades tick by.” (p.8) All of this induces the following conclusion: “With this report, we call on the American business community to rise to the challenge and lead the way in helping to reduce climate risks.” (p.9)

 

The auspices of Risky Business immediately gave the report a media salience and respectful reception that earlier more authoritative scientific studies along the same lines did not receive, including the well-grounded comprehensive reports of the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even the Wall Street Journal, the media headquarters for climate change cynics, took note of Risky Business without recourse to its usual snide anti-environmental commentary. The report is arousing great interest by offering what amounts to a Wall Street certification for a counter-branding of climate change. It is a vivid alternative to the climate denial prescriptions being peddled by Koch Brothers/Tea Party/fossil fuel industry anti-environmentalism. By arguing that the failure to act now on climate change will in the future exact bigger and bigger costs on business as well as be harmful to society, the report overrides the contentions that regulating greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is unnecessary and if undertaken will put its manufacturing operations at a competitive disadvantage internationally. Risky Business asserts an opposite position on the facts and their implications for government. Rather than leaving the private sector alone to sort out its own course of action, the report declares that it is in the interest of business to have the government set “a consistent policy and a regulatory framework” that will allow for orderly planning.

 

Risky Business anticipates annual costs to the country of several billions arising from increasing heat, storm surges, and hurricane intensity, as well as projecting 10% reduced crop yields over and a 3-5% livestock production decline over the course of the next 25 years. The approach adopted is congenial to the hedge fund and shareholder mentality by stressing risk management as the prescribed pattern of response rather than urging taxes or market constriants. In this spirit, attention is given to such an undertaking as the Ceres’ Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), and indications that already as many as 53 of the Fortune 100 companies have on their own adopted policies responsive to climate with an aggregate saving $1.1 billion annually, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 58.3 million metric tons (an amount equal to closing 15 coal-fired plants). In effect, smart business practices are already taking advantage of carbon-lite methods of production, although the scale is far too small and without overall direction provided by the government. This decentralized approach to the use of energy represents as indirect way of addressing carbon emissions that is seen as the essential feature of this self-management climate risk paradigm, and suggests that big business despite the clamor in Congress is being quietly and effectively enlisted in the battle against global warming. Whether this turn will be on a large enough scale without more centralized regulation is certainly an important issue to resolve, and Risky Business leaves little doubt as to its view that a more self-conscious approach needs to be centrally implemented. As matters currently stand, the benefits of this risk management approach seem quite marginal to the kind of public mobilization that will be needed, and this is precisely where Risky Business seeks to make its views felt among the constituencies that count.

 

The substantive challenge for the economy is clear: Given seemingly inevitable economic costs, how can such burdens be best addressed to lessen their harmful effects on business and finance. The central message of hope issued by Risky Business is that jobs can be generated (not lost) and GNP increased (not diminished) while at the same time doing what is needed to reduce carbon emissions by a sufficient amount to contain global warming within safe and prudent limits. Further, that all this can be done without requiring a carbon tax provided appropriate action is taken on a large enough scale in the very near future. This risk management approach is not just wishing global warming away while carrying on without any big adjustments. The report while avoiding policy recommendations does offer some prescriptive ideas about how to beat global warming without directly regulating carbon emissions. Among the ideas endorsed are taking such steps as investing heavily in clean public transport systems, enhanced energy efficiency in industry, and increased energy efficiency in building design and operation. These kinds of initiatives are all within the scope of what has come to be called ‘smart development,’ which is becoming the new fashion for demonstrations about how to make economic growth compatible with environmental sustainability, and doing so in ways that do not scare off the neoliberal elites that run the economies of the world.

 

The main arguments of Risky Business are complemented by a recent World Bank study with the relevant title, “Climate-Smart Development: Adding Up the Benefits of Actions that Help Build Prosperity, End Poverty, and Combat Climate Change.” The study puts forward the new enlightenment oriented claim that the intelligent application of reason enables society to have it all without disturbing the ideological status quo—nurture growth, eliminate poverty, deal with climate change. If the world acts intelligently, there is nothing to worry about. Best of all, this kind of new thinking does not require any major ideological modifications in the capitalist worldview. It does call for an abandonment of what is referred to as “the tyranny of short-termism,” presupposing shareholder acceptance of longer-term planning that may have some negative impacts on quarterly earning statements that have so far stymied most efforts to deal prudently with climate change risks. This kind of shift can be fully rationalized within the risk management paradigm, optimally adjusting business for profit to the new realities of global warming by adopting a new concept of ‘corporate time’ by which to maximize profit-making activity.

 

There are some further elements in this more hopeful approach to the climate change challenge. The development of huge natural gas deposits supposedly reduces by as much as 50% the release of greenhouse gasses. More importantly, a policy focus on cutting the emissions of what are called ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ (‘black carbon’- diesel fumes, cooking fires, methane, ozone, some hydrofluoride carbons) if implemented effectively is capable of lengthening the time available to make the more fundamental adjustments in the management of energy sources associated with the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, including the expansion of reliance on low-carbon production technology and the expansion of renewable energy (solar, wind).

 

It does seem that Risky Business represents a kind of breakthrough in the national debate on climate change. It aligns business with science and reason without projecting a future scenario of economic decline. It advocates sub-national understandings of the risks and responses based on geographic region, which fits the remedy to the challenge in a more convincing manner. Indirectly, it posits an alternative both to the business funding of climate denial and to those who insist that the structures of national sovereignty and capitalism are incapable of dealing with the global challenges being posed by climate change. This more optimistic approach rests on the assumption that the risks are accurately measureable, and can be offset without incurring great costs if action is quickly undertaken both by the private sector acting on its own and by government acting to protect the national public good.

 

There are several reasons to be doubtful about whether Risky Business is providing the country with a reliable roadmap. First of all, the failure to relate national policy to the global setting is a significant shortcoming with respect to assessing risks and costs. The level of global warming is dependent on what others do as well as to what happens in the United States. If emissions are reduced globally in accord with scientific understanding, the anticipated national costs and risks will be far lower than if this understanding continues to be ignored, and the problems of adjustment less difficult. Also, it seems doubtful that rational argument alone can sway the fossil fuel establishment to stop muddying the waters of democratic deliberation by continuing to fund the climate denial lobby. Risky Business completely ignores the potential roles of civil society in mobilizing a prudent and equitable response, and contains no consideration of how to distribute whatever burdens are present in a manner that accords with ‘climate justice.’ In the end, it is questionable nationally and internationally, whether a business-friendly win/win scenario for meeting the challenges of climate change can on its own save the planet from impending disaster. Nevertheless, Risky Business is helpful in forging a national consensus, also being urged by President Obama, that rests on an acceptance of the understanding by 97% of climate scientists of the realities of human-induced global warming. What we do know in a capitalist society is that when business raises its voice the public is made to listen, but we also should know that this voice is not to be trusted withoutthe most careful scrutiny.

 

With this move from the top echelons of the business world, it is time for civil society to come forth with a response that does emphasize the global setting of national policy responses on climate change and seeks to inject the perspectives of the climate justice transnational movement into the policy debate. Part of this response also needs to consider such structural issues as the persisting dominance of sovereign states in the making of global policy relating to climate change, and the questionable capacity of neoliberal globalization to serve the human interest, including that of safeguarding the future.

 

What seems hopeful is the growing public recognition of climate change as mounting a challenge to society and government that cannot be evaded without experiencing mounting harm. Also encouraging, is the emerging of thinking about indirect and innovative steps that can be taken to improve prospects of reducing carbon emissions—encouraging public transport, systemic moves to increase energy efficiency in building and maintenance, and reductions in air pollution from short-lived pollutants (differing from carbon dioxide with its greenhouse effect lasting for thousands of years).

Forget ‘Normal’ Politics

5 Feb

 

 

            Political life is filled with policy choices that are made mainly on the basis of calculations of advantage, as well as reflecting priorities and values of those with the power of decision. In a constitutional framework of governance the rule of law sets outer limits as to permissible outcomes. The legitimacy of the decision depends on adhering to these procedural guidelines, and the fact that if the societal effects turn out badly it can be corrected by altering the ‘law.’ Of course, all sorts of special interests behind the scene manipulate this process, and the public debate mirrors these pressures. The results of highly contested policy choices usually reflect the power structure (class, race, ideology) more than they do the outcome of rational detached assessments of the public good. At present, the national public good in the United States is being held hostage to the lethal extremism of the gun lobby as led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which combines special interest politics with a political culture that is violent and militarist. Such a political culture seems unlikely to be able to prohibit the sale of automatic assault weaponry to private citizens even in the immediate aftermath of a series of horrific shootings in American schools and public spaces by individuals gaining access to assault rifles and pistols.

 

            If we agree with this line of interpretation, we must have the courage to raise radical questions as to whether under these conditions a flawed democracy is any longer capable of serving the national public good in fundamental respects. In my view, the only morally responsible position is to mobilize the citizenry around the need for drastic reform of American democracy. At the very least, the role of big money in shaping policy choices and the electoral process must be ended, and the glorification of violence and militarism must be repudiated. To seek such results a reliance on  normal politics is to inhabit the land of illusion. In some respects, a revolutionary situation is present in the country but a revolutionary movement is no where to be seen. Only utopian reasoning can be hopeful about the future of the country, and it is the case of hope against hope. 

 

            This politicization of policy choice is to some extent inevitable, and is usually not so threatening to the wellbeing of a country, but at present there are increasingly harmful repercussions that follow, also with respect to global stability and security. Within societies where policy choice depends on governmental action there is a play of contending forces, but the outcome is at least coherently oriented around a shared commitment to the national public good. Internationally, in contrast, there are no social forces, other than transnational civil society actors (NGOs), that are dedicated to the global public good. Governments, including that of the United States, determine and justify national policy choices by reference to the pursuit of national interests. When a dominant state opts to play a global leadership role as the United States did after 1945, it can sometimes promote a type of imperial world order that is beneficial to itself, but also at the same time helpful to most other states and to the human community generally. Such initiatives as financing the economic reconstruction of Western Europe, the establishment of the United Nations, and the promotion of international human rights illustrate such a convergence of national and global interests. But note that global interests, aside from civil society advocacy groups, have no independent base of support. Even the United Nations, which is supposed to promote peace and justice for the whole of humanity is little more than a collection of unequal states each jealous of its sovereign prerogatives. In addition, the UN gives an unrestricted special blocking power (veto) to the five permanent members of the Security Council. The UN despite its many contributions has been unable to become effective in curtailing violations of international law by leading states and their friends and has not been able to meet such global challenges as ridding the world of nuclear weaponry or fashioning a constructive response to climate change.

 

            In relation to climate change there has been an overwhelming consensus among relevant experts for over two decades that global warming is causing severe harm to the ecology of the planet, and that this situation is likely to reach an irreversible tipping point if the average temperature on the earth rises above a 2°C level compared to what it was at the start of the industrial age. This knowledge had been irresponsibly contested by a well-funded campaign of climate skeptics that has been especially effective in the United States in hijacking the public debate, and undermining policy choices that are in accord with the scientific consensus. The skeptic undertaking is funded by fossil fuel interests, and is being managed by some of the same public relations firms that delayed public appreciation of the link between cancer and cigarette smoking by several decades. This campaign has destroyed the capacity of the United States to play a constructive leadership role needed to establish an obligatory framework for prudent restrictions on the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Without U.S. leadership there is lacking the political will on a global level to act with sufficient seriousness to protect the global interest, and human destiny becomes jeopardized in a highly destructive manner from the perspective of species survival.

 

             Just as national democracy needs drastic reform, so do the structures and procedures of world order. One direction of reform would be to establish institutions with resources and capabilities to serve distinctively global interests. Steps in such a direction would include a global revenue producing mechanism, a global peoples parliament, an independent UN peace and emergency relief force, a repeal of the veto right in the Security Council, a revision of the authority of the International Court of Justice by converting current ‘advisory opinions’ into binding enforceable decisions, convening a nuclear disarmament process, and upgrading the existing UN Environmental Program (UNEP) to the status of super-agency called UN Agency on Environmental Protection and Climate Change.

 

            Such a thought experiment as this is oblivious to horizons of feasibility that befuddle politicians and set artificial parameters limiting responsible debate.  My diagnosis is anchored in an interpretation of horizons of necessity. By recognizing this huge gap between feasibility and necessity it is implied that normal politics are futile, and in their place we are forced to embrace utopian politics, which can be described as horizons of desire, faith, and hope.