Le capitalisme survivra-t-il au changement climatique ?

Publié le jeudi  10 avril 2008
Mis à jour le samedi  5 avril 2008
popularité : 22%

April 3, 2008

There is now a solid consensus in the scientific community that if the
change in
global mean temperature in the twenty-first century exceeds 2.4 degrees
Celsius,
changes in the planet’s climate will be large-scale, irreversible, and
disastrous. Moreover, the window of opportunity for action that will make a
difference is narrow ­ that is, the next 10 to 15 years.

Throughout the North, however, there is strong resistance to changing the
systems of consumption and production that have created the problem in the
first
place and a preference for « techno-fixes, » such as « clean » coal, carbon
sequestration and storage, industrial-scale biofuels, and nuclear energy.

Globally, transnational corporations and other private actors resist
government-imposed measures such as mandatory caps, preferring to use market
mechanisms like the buying and selling of « carbon credits, » which critics
says
simply amounts to a license for corporate polluters to keep on polluting.

In the South, there is little willingness on the part of Southern elites to
depart from the high-growth, high-consumption model inherited from the
North,
and a self-interested conviction that the North must first adjust and bear
the
brunt of adjustment before the South takes any serious step towards limiting
its
greenhouse gas emissions.

 Contours of the challenge

In the climate change discussions, the principle of "common but
differentiated
responsibility" is recognized by all parties, meaning that the global North
must
shoulder the brunt of the adjustment to the climate crisis since it is the
one
whose economic trajectory has brought it about. It is also recognized that
the
global response should not compromise the right to develop of the countries
of
the global South.

The devil, however, is in the detail. As Martin Khor of Third World Network
has
pointed out, the global reduction of 80 percent in greenhouse gas emissions
from
1990 levels by 2050 that many now recognize as necessary, will have to
translate
into reductions of at least 150 to 200 percent on the part of the global
North
if the two principles ­ ³common but differentiated responsibility" and
recognition of the right to development of the countries of the South ­ are
to
be followed. But are the governments and people of the North prepared to
make
such commitments ?

Psychologically and politically, it is doubtful that the North at this point
has
what it takes to meet the problem head-on. The prevailing assumption is that
the
affluent societies can take on commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas
emissions but still grow and enjoy their high standards of living if they
shift
to non-fossil fuel energy sources. Moreover, how the mandatory cuts agreed
multilaterally by governments get implemented within the country must be
market-based, that is, on the trading of emission permits. The subtext is :
techno-fixes and the carbon market will make the transition relatively
painless
and ­ why not ? ­ profitable, too.

There is, however, a growing realization that many of these technologies are
decades away from viable use and that, in the short and medium term, relying
on
a shift in energy dependence to non-fossil fuel alternatives will not be
able to
support current rates of economic growth. Also, it is increasingly evident
that
the trade-off for more cropland being devoted to biofuel production is less
land
to grow food and greater food insecurity globally.

It is rapidly becoming clear that the dominant paradigm of economic growth
is
one of the most significant obstacles to a serious global effort to deal
with
climate change. But this destabilizing, fundamentalist growth-consumption
paradigm is itself more effect rather than cause.

The central problem, it is becoming increasingly clear, is a mode of
production
whose main dynamic is the transformation of living nature into dead
commodities,
creating tremendous waste in the process. The driver of this process is
consumption ­ or more appropriately over-consumption ­ and the motivation is
profit or capital accumulation : capitalism, in short.

It has been the generalization of this mode of production in the North and
its
spread from the North to the South over the last 300 years that has caused
the
accelerated burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil and rapid
deforestation,
two of the key man-made processes behind global warming.

 The South’s dilemma

One way of viewing global warning is to see it as a key manifestation of the
latest stage of a wrenching historical process : the privatization of the
global
commons by capital. The climate crisis must thus be seen as the
expropriation by
the advanced capitalist societies of the ecological space of less developed
or
marginalized societies.

This leads us to the dilemma of the South : Before the full extent of the
ecological destabilization brought about by capitalism, it was expected that
the
South would simply follow the « stages of growth » of the North. Now it is
impossible to do so without bringing about ecological Armageddon. Already,
China
is on track to overtake the U.S. as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases,
and
yet the elite of China as well as those of India and other rapidly
developing
countries are intent on reproducing the American-type
over-consumption-driven
capitalism.

Thus, for the South, the implications of an effective global response to
global
warming include not just the inclusion of some countries in a regime of
mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, although this is critical :
in
the current round of climate negotiations, for instance, China, can no
longer
opt out of a mandatory regime on the ground that it is a developing country.

Nor can the challenge to most of the other developing countries be limited
to
that of getting the North to transfer technology to mitigate global warming
and
provide funds to assist them in adapting to it, as many of them appeared to
think during the Bali negotiations.

These steps are important, but they should be seen as but the initial steps
in a
broader, global reorientation of the paradigm for achieving economic
wellbeing.
While the adjustment will need to be much, much greater and faster in the
North,
the adjustment for the South will essentially be the same : a break with the
high-growth, high-consumption model in favor of another model of achieving
the
common welfare.

In contrast to the Northern elites’ strategy of trying to decouple growth
from
energy use, a progressive comprehensive climate strategy in both the North
and
the South must be to reduce growth and energy use while raising the quality
of
life of the broad masses of people. Among other things, this will mean
placing
economic justice and equality at the center of the new paradigm.

The transition must be one not only from a fossil fuel based economy but
also
from an over-consumption-driven economy. The end-goal must be adoption of a
low-consumption, low-growth, high-equity development model that results in
an
improvement in people’s welfare, a better quality of life for all, and
greater
democratic control of production.

It is unlikely that the elites of the North and the South will agree to such
a
comprehensive response. The farthest they are likely to go is for
techno-fixes
and a market-based cap-and-trade system. Growth will be sacrosanct, as will
the
system of global capitalism.

Yet, confronted with the Apocalypse, humanity cannot self-destruct. It may
be a
difficult road, but we can be sure that the vast majority will not commit
social
and ecological suicide to enable the minority to preserve their privileges.
However it is achieved, a thorough reorganization of production,
consumption,
and distribution will be the end result of humanity’s response to the
climate
emergency and the broader environmental crisis.

 Threat and opportunity

In this regard, climate change is both a threat and an opportunity to bring
about the long postponed social and economic reforms that had been derailed
or
sabotaged in previous eras by elites seeking to preserve or increase their
privileges. The difference is that today the very existence of humanity and
the
planet depend on the institutionalization of economic systems based not on
feudal rent extraction or capital accumulation or class exploitation but on
justice and equality.

The question is often asked these days if humanity will be able to get its
act
together to formulate an effective response to climate change. Though there
is
no certainty in a world filled with contingency, I am hopeful that it will.

In the social and economic system that will be collectively crafted, I
anticipate that there will be room for the market. However, the more
interesting
question is : will it have room for capitalism ? Will capitalism as a system
of
production, consumption, and distribution survive the challenge of coming up
with an effective solution to the climate crisis ?

Walden Bello est Senior Analyst auprès de Focus on the Global South(Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute) et membre du Conseil
international du FSM


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