World Bank’s call for slowing global warming ignores own role

Global warming appears, or so it seems, to have begun to be taken more seriously this week as none other than the World Bank issued a report sounding the alarm bells. But let us not grow warm in our hearts just yet that corporate leaders have suddenly decided to yield to science and reality.

What we have here is a case of truly monumental hypocrisy. The policies of the World Bank and its sibling, the International Monetary Fund, have constituted non-stop efforts to impose multi-national corporate control, dismantle local democratic institutions and place decision-making power into the hands of corporate executives and financiers, the very people and institutions that profit from the destruction of the environment.

The World Bank’s report, “Turn Down the Heat,” prepared for it by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, does incorporate the latest thinking of climate scientists. It paints a dire picture of a world in which the average temperature will increase by four degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the 21st century without large-scale policies to reverse the trend. Among the effects of such a rise in temperatures, according to the report:

“[T]he inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher under and malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased intensity of tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.”

The World Bank report advocates that the century’s temperature rise be held to less than two degrees Celsius. The bank says that “more efficient and smarter use of energy and natural resources” can reduce the climate impact of development “without slowing poverty alleviation or economic growth.” Despite the bank’s neo-liberal agenda, a goal stated in these terms is consistent with Center-Left political parties around the world. Among the initiatives proposed by the report are:

“[P]utting the more than US$ 1 trillion of fossil fuel and other harmful subsidies to better use; introducing natural capital accounting into national accounts; expanding both public and private expenditures on green infrastructure able to withstand extreme weather and urban public transport systems designed to minimize carbon emission and maximize access to jobs and services; supporting carbon pricing and international and national emissions trading schemes; and increasing energy efficiency.”

In other words, the very economic system that has brought the world to the brink of a disaster that could arrive in the lifetimes of many people alive today is supposed to magically eliminate the problem, and without significant changes to consumption patterns. Alas, that is wishful thinking.

The very energy corporations that stand to most profit from continued high energy use and increasingly damaging resource-extraction techniques are the biggest sources of misinformation intended to deny the reality of global warming or to claim that climate change is “natural” and to do anything about it would wreck the economy.

Increase in extreme weather events

Those executives who peddle that ideology will have long ago lined their pockets with outsized profits and will have left this Earth by the time the environmental bill comes due. Last month’s Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the coasts of New Jersey and New York, can’t be seen as anything other than a harbinger of what is coming; similar to the heat waves that destroyed crops in Russia and North America in 2010 and 2012, respectively, and the dramatic retreat of the Arctic ice cap.

Of course, no single storm or single heat wave can be attributed to global warming. But global warming increases the odds of destructive, deadly weather events. One measure is the number of “extreme” weather events (top or bottom ten percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, and drought) as measured by the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Through the end of October, 38 percent of the contiguous U.S. land mass had experienced at least one of these extreme weather events in 2012, the second-highest figure since records began to be kept in 1910. The average for the past century is 20 percent; all but four years since 1991 have exceeded this average.

Consistent with the initiatives proposed by the World Bank report, the Obama administration has advocated “green capitalism” to deal with global warming, although in practice (particularly during the just-concluded presidential election campaign) Barack Obama has offered little better than the standard head-in-the-sand ideas of ramping up oil and gas extraction, salted with chimera like “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy” — two concepts that are the epitome of oxymoronic construction.

Coal throws more global-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other energy source and the meltdowns at Fukushima and Chernobyl should be sufficient warnings against building more nuclear power plants even before we contemplate the impossibility of safely disposing nuclear waste.

Energy companies continue to sue to overturn regulations

Hydraulic fracturing of rock — or “fracking” — using jets of water and chemicals to force natural gas from underground is the latest offer from the world’s energy companies. Bitter battles across North America are raging over fracking and the pollution and destruction of water sources left in its wake. But lest we believe the latest World Bank report might induce a pause for thought, consider this: A U.S.-incorporated energy firm, Lone Pine Resources Inc., is suing under the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to overturn Québec’s regulations against fracking.

Lone Pine, which is actually headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, despite its formal incorporation in the U.S. tax-haven state of Delaware, is seeking $250 million in compensation, reports The Globe and Mail newspaper of Toronto. (More corporations are incorporated by far in Delaware than any other U.S. state because of its laws specially tailored to benefit corporate executives; the state even has a special court that only adjudicates business disputes.)

Technically, Lone Pine is suing the Canadian government because only the three national governments can be sued under NAFTA. The company is suing under NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which authorizes corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or act that might prevent the corporation from earning the maximum possible profit. The Wall Street Journal reports that Québec “banned shale-gas exploration in parts of the Saint Lawrence Valley and revoked previously issued mining rights as it studied the environmental consequences.”

NAFTA allows a Canadian company to sue the Canadian government in a way it wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do — an excellent deal for polluters.

Because the rules of NAFTA are heavily tilted in favor of business and against labor or environmental regulation, almost every case brought to a tribunal under NAFTA ends with either a hefty payout to the suing corporation or an overly generous settlement by governments seeking to avoid an even bigger payout, and a reversal of regulations passed by democratic governments. These decisions are handed down in secret tribunals in which many judges are attorneys who specialize in representing companies in disputes with governments.

The rules of NAFTA, draconian as they are, are merely the starting point for still harsher rules under the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated by nine countries. Moreover, the TPP would require the use of a tribunal controlled by the World Bank, a tribunal already in common use under many existing trade agreements. Each time a tribunal overturns a regulation or protection, it becomes a precedent — that is, a new starting point from which further corporate control of national laws can be launched.

World Bank policies fuel global warming

Environmental laws are frequently the target of corporate assaults under free-trade rules, and the most frequent initiators of these assaults are energy and chemical corporations. Tribunals controlled by the World Bank or other institutions that promote corporate globalization ensure that environmental, labor and other legal protections are eviscerated, thereby accelerating the destructive activities that fuel global warming.

The World Bank has long imposed harsh austerity on countries around the world, in exchange for drowning those countries in debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and itself, which enforces those interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws.

The bank also plays a direct role in global warming, having provided billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world in the past few years.

The World Bank is a key organization in the concatenation of processes that has brought the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. To issue a report on the likely future destruction to be wrought by global warming without acknowledging its own role and without calling for a fundamental change in the global economic system that it enforces — which is the root cause of a potentially runaway chain of environmental disasters — is beyond chutzpah.

Capitalism is incapable of reversing global warming. All of its incentives are for private profit without regard to public effect. The maximization of profit in the short term is the aim of a capitalist corporation (indeed, for one listed on a stock exchange, it is required by law to have no other purpose). Its incentive, then, is to shed costs whenever possible — not only to reduce wages, but to offload the costs of pollution and other public nuisances onto governments and, ultimately, taxpayers.

The rigors of competition require that ever bigger profits be made and expansion continually undertaken, under pain of going under if a competitor does this more successfully. Because of the necessity of endless growth, and the lack of need to take into account pollution and of the amount of carbon dioxide thrown into the atmosphere because those are not assigned to the corporate bottom line, every systemic incentive exists to extract and use more natural resources, regardless of long-term costs.

It is impossible for such a system to clean up its own mess. At best, it might, in the future, innovate new technologies for renewable energy, but not in a rational manner. The Chinese government has so over-invested in solar-energy equipment, for example, that it is estimated that capacity is now three times more than demand. This explains why U.S. solar-equipment companies are going out of business despite being granted significant government subsidies.

Capitalism has developed to the point where the very existence of humanity could be at stake in the future; where ever more inequality leads to deepening crises and an inability for humanity to deal logically with these crises, even ones that carry the potential for catastrophic destruction. What could be more unsustainable?

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6 comments on “World Bank’s call for slowing global warming ignores own role

  1. JAH says:

    Pete,
    First rate analysis, as always.

    You might dimly recall the last two poems I read at the Alternative New Year’s
    Day readings touched on the flooding of New York and the “safe word” -“Clean Coal”.

    There is no pleasure in being “right”.

    Fact is, we are well past the 11th hour and are into the wee hours of “The Change”. We could shut EVERYTHING down today that contributed to atmospheric carbon build up, and the effects will continue for decades.

    Those of us who survive will do so because we will live differently, and in different locations, using modified and green technologies.

    The capitalist Prime Alphas have only one answer for all this mess they have caused, and that is global conflict/ war. (Maybe no one will notice us during the carnage???). I can’t believe they still pine for that moldy trope of the Bronze Age, but it seems hard wired into the species.

    Sorry, no place to hide from H bombs, and your particular skill set will not be required in the post apocalypse, where collective cooperation is mandatory for remnant humanity’s survival. Longing for the Prime Alpha Ethicals.

    In the words of Austin Power’s Dr. Evil-

    “Ya just don’t get it, do Ya?”

    Onward to our brave new world.

    In solidarity –

    J. A. Holt

    • As always, thanks for your generous comments, John. It would seem you will have ample opportunities to read those poems some more.

      I would like to say that I don’t think war is necessarily “hard-wired” into humanity; it is a product of the fact that every system since the beginning of recorded history is based on exploitation, conquest and domination, with the vast inequalities that flow from those. Now that humanity can destroy the world along with their enemies, we have no choice but to bring into existence a world on radically different lines. Otherwise, the future of total war and an post-apocalyptic struggle for survival you describe will be our descendants’ fate.

      A few years ago, I read an Ursula K. LeGuin short story, “Solitude,” about an observer for an interstellar organization (and her two kids) who travels to study a planet with few people and an extremely primitive standard of living, in which people were so isolated that there were no towns. The planet had suffered some sort of worldwide war that wiped out without a recoverable trace the previous civilization. This happened so far in the distant past that nobody had any knowledge about the civilization or what happened. A story that stuck with me.

  2. You really nailed the World Bank and its hypocrisy (“beyond chutzpah” actually seems like an understatement!)..I predict we’ll see lots of this sort of hypocritical hand wringing by the perps as time goes by and things continue to heat up. We can’t expect public or private officials to tell us the truth about the the climate or the causes of the disaster–the worse things get, the more disinformation they’ll put out to “keep us from panicking” (read: throwing them out of office, refusing to cooperate with their system, etc.). So part of the struggle ahead will take the form of an “information war”–which is where blogs like yours may prove useful if we can get them around widely. The other part, of course, will be having the determination to organize and the courage to rebel against a system that is headed toward suicide and will take us all down with it if it succeeds.

    • We’ll need much determination, that is certain. None of the major parties in the advanced capitalist countries are addressing the problem in any serious way, buying into the false notion that a healthy economy and a healthy environment are incompatible. Countries like India and China seem determined to uphold their “right” to pollute in the name of development, pointing out that countries that industrialized earlier had no “fetters” on their development. None of them want to confront the fact that the whole system is unsustainable and nobody will prosper if clean air or water are at a premium.

      Readers wanting to hear sophisticated analyses with a feminist perspective can check out Joy of Resistance: Multi-Cultural Feminist Radio.

  3. Barb says:

    We have a tendency to blame corporations and do-nothing politicians for their lack of incentive/lack of will to implement solutions, but we’re also overlooking the lack of will on the part of the average citizen (so-called ‘first world’ citizens, anyway) to drastically alter our way of life. We don’t really want to give up our cars, our comfy warm houses with clean running water to flush our waste down the toilet to some far-off place (that’s really just the waterway next door) and a weekly garbage collector to ship our consumerist by-products to the dump. We have a collective denial much like the smoker with lung cancer who refuses to quit.

    There’s no real commitment from enough people (“I recycle! I’m saving the planet!”) to turn any of this around. I’m not blaming anyone else here, by the way. As concerned as I may be about the inevitable decline of civilization into the abyss of human misery that is to come, I really don’t want the inconvenience, say, of riding the bus over 2 hours across town to get to work (and I’m far too lazy to ride a bike). That’s just one example of many ways that my lifestyle is unsustainable on a mass scale. WIth China and India joining the madness in record numbers (and frankly I don’t blame anyone for wanting a more upscale lifestyle), there really is no way to turn it around. Species are dying off, the oceans and air are poisoned, rain forests are disappearing, and as JAH mentioned above, even if we stopped doing everything bad for the environment right this second, the damage will continue far into the future.

    I don’t just blame the corporate elite. They’re doing the same thing we’re all doing- living in denial, continuing short-term behavior (profits for them, convenience for us) above the needs of the future (a sustainable planet for all). We’re ALL enmeshed in the system that is killing us. Yes the World Bank and capitalism are inherently part of the problem, but they’re also just a reflection of the overall consciousness of the majority of the industrialized world. After all, if I can’t even refuse to buy products made by children in sweatshops because it’s too difficult to find fair-trade equivalents, why should I expect the CEO/president of the World Bank to behave any differently?

    • Thank you, Barb, for bringing up points that we all need to think about. Recycling is popular because it is easy to do. The other two R’s — re-use and reduce — are much harder and are ignored, although those would have more an impact than recycling. Unfortunately, we in the West with our unsustainable consumerism will have to change. The question is: Will we begin to do it now in some orderly fashion or will we wait until an overstressed environment and depleted natural resources impose it on us?

      I wish I could disagree with your general assessment of widespread denial, but I can’t. We don’t want to give up our toys and conveniences. But someday we’ll have to, and I believe that day will come in the lifetimes of many people already born. Where I would disagree is that capitalism and its institutions “reflect the overall consciousness.” It is the other way around, mass consciousness is created by the elites in a society, and in all capitalist countries that is the business elites and their wealthy descendants, who have the means and power to suffuse their desired messages (buying more, compete with one other, there is no alternative) throughout society through the institutions they control and the ability to disseminate their messages through almost all other institutions.

      Yes, people do like modern conveniences, shiny toys and all that come with them. But so much of these desires are manufactured, and if it were natural for people to continually buy all these new and improved products there wouldn’t be such vast amounts of money advertising them. Desires become needs, but are they really needs? The CEO wants this system to continue because s/he profits directly from it; all the other big capitalists profit, too, and they are the ones who have the power.

      We can change all of this through collective action, but, as you point out, we are not yet prepared to make any real change. I do hope that inertia, resignation to Western consumerism and indifference to the human, social and environmental costs will be reversed before it is too late. So let us keep sounding the alarm.

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