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?