Socialist Alternative

World Leaders Fail at Copenhagen — Change the System to Protect the Environment!

Published on

The Copenhagen Climate Conference, charged with crafting a new international agreement to curb climate change, ended in failure, with the text of the accord recognizing the need to act but containing no commitments to do so. The conference did not fulfill its mission to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Nevertheless, politicians continue efforts to “greenwash” the outcome, calling it an important first step. They have been taking first steps since at least the 1992 talks in Rio de Janeiro, and climate change has only sped up.

The World Meteorological Organization reports that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have now reached 385.2 parts per million (ppm), the highest level for 650,000 years. This exceeds the 350 ppm limit beyond which we cannot pass, according to NASA scientist James Hansen, “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.”

The 2007 report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that, in order to prevent a rise in global average temperature of 2°Celsius (3.6°Farenheit), carbon dioxide levels should remain below 450 ppm. The “Copenhagen Accord” recognized the scientific validity of this more conservative 2°C limit, but made no binding agreement to reach that goal.

IPCC chairman, Dr. R. Pachauri, said in September that “business as usual” could mean a global average temperature rise of up to 7°C by the end of the century. To achieve the target of a 2°C to 2.4°C rise, he said, total global greenhouse gas emissions must stop increasing and begin to decrease by 2015.

Divisions Emerge
Climate change is an international problem, and it requires an international solution. The Copenhagen conference shows the inability of world leaders to provide the cooperation necessary to avoid ecological disaster. The system they represent, global capitalism, is based on ruthless competition for resources and short-term profits.

Following the law of competition, capitalists of all nations want to put the costs of green economic transformation onto everyone else. This led to the major world powers taking a “you first” attitude, refusing to take any meaningful steps until their competitors did so.

The ones with the most power over the outcome of the conference were the very ones least likely to take meaningful action. The U.S. and China, the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, supported an agreement that could condemn many in the continent of Africa, for example, to huge suffering. Severe drought is already affecting many African nations. Many African delegates, recognizing the danger to their continent, called for a target of only a 1.5°C global average temperature rise.

The ruling classes of most powerful countries use the neocolonial world as a cheap source of labor and raw materials without concern for the people or the environment. The neocolonial nations are, often, both the most vulnerable to climate change and the ones with the least responsibility for emitting greenhouse gases. The deal is supposed to provide $30 billion a year for poor countries to adapt to climate change from 2010 to 2012, and $100 billion a year by 2020, but it is unclear where the funds will come from.

Representatives of the most powerful ruling classes held a “conference within a conference,” excluding the majority of the delegates from their secret talks. This provoked a walkout by delegates from over a hundred countries on just the second day of the conference. The final loose non-binding agreement was arrogantly “announced” by the U.S. without full consultation, and the result is a lack of binding policies or immediate goals. This is another example of “hope” in Obama not leading to real “change.”

Severe Consequences
While world leaders fiddle, the planet burns. Eleven of the past fourteen years are the warmest years on record. As high temperatures decimate polar icecaps, mountain glaciers, and tundra, masses of carbon dioxide and methane – a less common but more damaging greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – will release into the atmosphere and accelerate the chain reaction of ecological destruction. The polar permafrost holds more carbon dioxide than is currently in the atmosphere.

If this carbon time bomb goes off, ecological chaos could follow. Half of all species could become extinct. Vast tracts of farmland will become desert, ending food security for much of humanity. The ocean will cover islands in the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and the Maldives. Flooding of coastal plains, where one tenth of humans currently live, will create a huge refugee crisis that spirals into a social catastrophe.

To avert these problems, far-reaching measures would have to be taken beyond what the big business politicians are proposing.

Even the Kyoto Protocol is fatally flawed. It locks the response to climate change within the logic of the market. Former World Bank chief economist, Briton Lord Stern, called climate change “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen.”

The centerpiece of the Kyoto Protocol is the cap-and-trade system. Here, governments allow corporations a limited amount of carbon emissions plus the ability to buy more from other corporations who are selling their permits, so that a market in carbon emissions credits is born.

Since purchasing carbon credits remains more profitable than investing in sustainable technologies, the cap-and-trade system ensures that a certain level of emissions will occur. Cap and trade encourages corporations to pollute at least up to the legal limit and worry about investment in sustainable energy later. The cost of carbon taxes should come out of the pockets of the capitalists and not be passed on to the working class and poor.

Change the System
The short-term profit motive brought us planned obsolescence, the wasteful production of shoddy goods designed to break after a short time, forcing consumers to buy more shoddy products. The technology exists to produce durable goods, just as the technology exists to harness the power of water, wind, and sun to create a sustainable world of plenty. The inability to use technology for the good of humanity rather than for profits for a few shows the limit of capitalism.

If capitalism cannot use technology for the public benefit, the public should find an economic system that can. Only democratic control of production by working people and the general population can guarantee that the resources of society will be treated rationally.

Socialist Alternative is the U.S. organization in political solidarity with the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). At Copenhagen, members of the CWI pushed the struggle forward by participating in a mass protest of 100,000 people. They faced police repression and arrests for this. The CWI also supported a People’s Summit demanding “System change not climate change!” that was organized to counter the official corporate fiasco.

The CWI calls for a massive investment in non-carbon technology to provide jobs and seriously start to address climate change. We call for a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020, leading to a minimum cut of 90% by 2050. This target could limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 – 2°C, but this goal could only be realized through the pressure and power of a mass movement.

The environmental movement should build alliances with workers in polluting industries, such as coal, demanding guaranteed rehiring and retraining where necessary.

A mass movement should call for democratic planning of the economy: for socialism. Only this can provide a real basis for international cooperation, one that rests on the satisfaction of human needs. The waste of military production could end. Scientists whose minds now think up better weapons could work on alternative energy. We could begin to heal the ecological havoc wreaked by capitalism’s blind pursuit of profit.

Some will say that democratic socialism is a great idea, but will never work because it is too “idealistic,” too “utopian.” On the contrary, the reality of climate change teaches us that the real “idealists,” the real “utopians,” are those who believe that things can remain as they are.

Latest articles


Private Insurers Leave Homeowners In The Lurch Of Climate Crisis

Working people across the country, especially in states such as Florida and California, which are on the front lines of the climate disaster are...

Despite Dire Warnings, Environment Is Secondary To Profit Under Capitalism

Every day the news cycle is flush with grim warnings from renowned scientists telling us that we urgently need to change course to avoid...

Earth Surpasses 1.5°C Warming Threshold In Hottest Year In Recorded History

2023 was the warmest year since global records began in 1850, and we just completed the hottest February in recorded history – after record-breaking...

Oil Executives Achieve Takeover Of UN Climate Summit

2023 demonstrated harshly and clearly what life would be like if we surpass the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold. Europe saw record-setting temperatures yet again, after heatwaves...