Protestors are streets ahead of governments on climate change
Published 18/12/2009 | 09:00
Irish people of all persuasions will have little difficulty empathising with the up-all-night climate change negotiators in Copenhagen.
We have more experience than most of the problematical attitude standing in the way of a breakthrough agreement - the expectation of salvation without adopting the necessary means to attain it.
Everyone apart from clowns, geeks and Sammy Wilson recognises that catastrophic consequences are inevitable unless there are drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions very soon. But few, if any, of the national delegations in Denmark - and none at all of the delegations from the richer nations - are willing to contemplate the measures needed to bring emissions down to livable levels.
Major governments tend to contemplate the problem of global warming in the perspective in which they see the world generally - refracted through the prism of neo-liberal assumptions.
At the first global gathering to focus specifically on the environment, the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, a lobbying operation led by President Bush senior and Environment Minister Michael Howard succeeded in deleting any reference to hard and fast targets and fending off proposals to make multinational companies liable for environmental damage which they could be shown to have caused.
Instead, 'self-regulation' was seen as the way forward - and has proven as brilliantly successful as in the case of the banks and finance houses.
The next, logical, step was to create a free market in emissions. Permits were issued to pollute to a particular level. Countries which reduced their emissions to less than the level they were licensed for could sell their unused allocation to others. The scheme was key to the Kyoto Treaty signed in 1997.
However, the effect of the trading of emissions has been to enable some countries to pollute more rather than less. In Russia and the former Eastern bloc states, for example, emissions plummeted, not as a result of good practice, but on account of economic collapse. Permits to fill the shortfall were then sold off on the free market, with the result that, as the chimney stacks of the East ceased belching CO2s, new plumes of poison funnelled skywards elsewhere.
Irrational reliance on the market is reflected in a myriad of individual Government decisions every year. Gordon Brown arrived in Copenhagen two days earlier than planned, in a "demonstration of the priority the Prime Minister gives to the issue". His spokespersons reminded delegates of his pledge to create 400,000 'green' jobs in Britain by 2018. But no mention of the refusal of his Government in July this year to lift a finger to save 600 jobs at the Vestas wind-turbine plant on the Isle of Wight.
To have nationalised the plant and kept it in production, as the Vesta workers, trades unions and environmental campaigners wanted, would have been to interfere in the market. And we couldn't have that. But interference in the market is the sine qua non of saving the planet.
To achieve the stated goals of the Copenhagen conference, we need decisive state intervention in the economy and the dismissal of market solutions out of hand. The conventional wisdom insists that this cannot happen, certainly not in the country most essential to the process, the United States. Happily, the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Pearl Harbour was blasted by the Japanese air force on December 7, 1941. By Christmas, President Roosevelt had sent Congress a list of what was needed from industry asap to win the war: 60,000 airplanes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, eight million tons of shipping and so on. The administration costed the list at more than $50bn - the equivalent of the country's entire GDP at the time. Congress didn't blink.
In the land of the free market and home of the entrepreneur, the War Production Board had taken control of industry by January 1942. The board issued decrees telling industries and even individual plants to cease production of this, begin production of that.
Ford, Chrysler and General Motors were told to shift production to planes, tanks and Jeeps. By the end of the war, the three auto companies had turned out 27,000 planes, 50,000 tanks, 2.6m military trucks and more than 4m engines (Figures from Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming: Save the World).
Steel companies were told how much steel to make and of what kind and which factories to send it to. The factories were told what to manufacture from it and where to deliver the finished product and by when. The notion of allowing the market to dictate the pattern of production was abolished for the duration.
Because the tanks and ships and planes needed an endless supply of oil, petrol for personal use was rationed to three gallons per family per week. Car use was discouraged and rail travel promoted. Rail came to account for 34% of US travel miles by 1945, compared to 9% before the war.
When the mass of the people became persuaded that very survival was at risk, impossible things began to happen. Everything is possible given mass support and political will. Survival is at stake again.
This time what's needed is not a national, but an international mobilisation in opposition to the rule of the market.
It's the raggedy demonstrators from all arts and parts on the streets of Copenhagen, not the government delegations in the conference halls, who offer hope to the world.