Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow: Greenwashing the Democrats and Global Capitalism

As all film critics have said, The Day After Tomorrow (Dir. Roland Emmerich, 2004) is "profoundly silly" (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, May 28, 2004). Even sillier than the film itself, however, is a Democratic Party front group's attempt to use it as a tool for electioneering in the guise of environmentalist consciousness-raising about global warming. "One man stands in the way of real progress toward stopping global warming: President George W. Bush. At every turn, President Bush has sided with his friends and campaign contributors in the oil, coal and automobile industries," unabashedly declares's The Day After Tomorrow flyer.

As Gary Younge of The Guardian reports, however:
Bush's decision to renege on the treaty is a vicious attack on the environment. But Clinton's record was not much better. He signed up to Kyoto, but he did not honour it. The US, by far the world's largest polluter, promised to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 7% from 1990 levels by 2012. Instead, emissions rose by more than 10% on 1990 levels by 2000.

It was thanks to Clinton's administration that last year's climate talks in the Hague [in 2000] collapsed. The problem was not only that he could not get the legislation through a Republican Congress, it was that he dared not take on the might of the oil and gas companies. They gave Republican candidates $10m last year; but they gave Democrats, including Gore, $4m. Bush may be in hock to them, but Clinton was in awe of them. ("Challenging the Big Buck," April 16, 2001)
Ultimately, Kyoto itself should be seen as a case of multinational greenwashing of capitalism, by enshrining the domination of the world market -- emissions trading -- in a halo of environmental credentials. Patrick Bond writes:
[W]hat are we learning about the commodification of air, via various Kyoto "emissions-trading" mechanisms? Several WSF [World Social Forum] seminars were sponsored by progressive groups like Carbon Trade Watch, the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, Oilwatch and the Energy Project, joined by coal-face activists from labour, community, women's, indigenous-peoples and environmental justice campaigns across the South.

A booklet just published -- "The Sky is Not the Limit: The Emerging Market in Greenhouse Gases" (TransNational Institute briefing series) -- does a brilliant job explaining the problem and accusing various enemies, including coopted green groups. The five Carbon Trade Watch authors warn, "events have been set in motion which are likely to have devastating impacts on people and planet if allowed to continue".

At issue is how to halt global warming by controlling greenhouse gases from industrial, agricultural and consumer emissions: carbon dioxide (C02), methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. Kyoto ultimately leaves emissions reduction to corporate profit-seeking, as opposed to the administrative command-and-control powers that, in my view, must urgently be constructed.

This is dangerous terrain on which to compromise. At the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development last August, Greenpeace sold out, Carbon Trade Watch alleges, by implicitly endorsing "market-based corporatist approaches to environmental and social policy. . . Greenpeace's increasingly muted opposition to emissions trading and its tacit and active endorsement of companies that support the Kyoto Protocol has been a major ideological victory for sophisticated corporate lobby groups such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and has paved the way for further expansion and development of the market-based mechanisms. Many image-conscious corporations seek to show off their environmental credentials and thereby allay public concern by teaming up with a trusted major environmental brand such as World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace." ("Commodification: Kyoto Threatens, WSF Inspires Resistance," ZNet Daily Commentaries, February 28, 2003)
As environmental NGOs like Greenpeace served to greenwash the brown business agenda of creating and commodifying the right to pollute air, promulgating the myth of Kyoto as the solution to global warming, non-environmental NGOs like MoveOn exploit the Kyoto myth to greenwash the Democratic Party.

In contrast to the MoveOn shenanigan, The Day After Tomorrow, in all its silliness, does raise one important topic: the question of debts, moral, economic, and environmental. The movie has American refugees wade across the Rio Grande as illegal aliens fleeing from an environmental catastrophe caused by global warming. Mexico, which initially closes the border, reopens it after the United States government cancels the entire Latin American debt, allowing the surviving Americans to set up refugee camps on its soil. The Vice President of the United States (a Dick Cheney look-alike), who was shown earlier aggressively dismissing the threat of global warming, apologizes ("We were wrong, I was wrong") and humbly thanks "what we used to call 'the Third World'" for their hospitality. Poetic justice of the film has Nature act like the God of liberal wish fulfillment, forcing the global North -- Japan, Europe, and the United States -- to pay the price of environmental destruction and to repay its moral, economic, and environmental debts to the global South by canceling the financial debts that have oppressed the South in the recent decades.

In the profane world of global capitalism, though, there is no god, nor is Kyoto the testament of liberal providence. Far from it, Kyoto is a form of "ecological triage" in reverse:
Global average sea level is rising as the climate warms. In turn, this has increased coastal inundation. The South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme reports that rising sea levels have already swamped several small islets in Kiribati and Tuvalu, destroyed coastal roads and bridges, and caused traditional burial places to collapse. Forecasts of future sea level rise vary greatly, but the central range of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scenarios suggests an increase in the vicinity of 0.5 meters over this century (IPCC, 2001a).8 Sea level will continue to rise for the next two centuries regardless of future GHG emissions, such is the extent of the lag effect between emissions and the response of the climate and ocean systems.

For coastal communities and especially those on small islands, increasing sea level means the loss of a way of life for some and the loss of habitability on others. Sites for habitation and infrastructure dwindle, availability of freshwater and indigenous food sources is diminished, and normal economic activity is made impossible as a result of coastal habitation threats. . . . For a 20-centimeter rise, 18 million additional people worldwide will experience yearly storm surges, and at an 80-centimeter rise in sea level, 65% of the Marshall Islands and Kiribati will be inundated. It is estimated that a 100-centimeter rise in sea level could inundate 70% of the landmass of the Seychelles (United Nations Department of Public Information, 1999).

Small islands will bear among the worst harms from global warming, yet this crisis is not in anyway of their making. Island communities can have little impact on global carbon dioxide emissions because their per capita emissions are small and their populations low. The average 1996 per capita emissions for 32 island states and territories that are members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was 0.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (molecular weight) (Marland, Boden, & Andres, 2001). By contrast, most Annex I countries exceed 6 tons of carbon dioxide per capita, with the United States in excess of 19 tons per capita.

The Kyoto Protocol lacks any provision to prevent the sacrifice of island states. In fact, its elevation of economic efficiency above sustainability promises to risk this prospect as part of the ineluctable logic of a global least-cost strategy. Cost-benefit calculations among wealthy countries will direct attention to emission trades that are cheap and easily managed in national portfolios. . . . This almost certainly will favor actions that are well suited to the technological and economic strategies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Such a rationale for international action can bring little comfort to island states. The omission in the protocol of any measure of the effectiveness of its policies in terms of island impacts is disturbing. Islands are left to experience the first major threats from surface warming, whereas the rest of the international community congratulates itself for committing to act on the problem. . . .

In brief, the Kyoto framework may represent a significant barrier to island sustainability. The protocol is shaped by the needs of wealthy continental interests who, because of their comparatively lesser vulnerability (especially those of North America, Europe, and Australia), can "go slow" (Nordhaus, 1991) and have adaptation strategies available to them that are simply not feasible for small islands. In a reverse of the more typical triage strategy, those at greatest risk are being left to fend for themselves, whereas continental states are provided "flexibility" to protect their self-interest (Byrne & Inniss, 2000, pp. 21-44). Islands have a dual interest in the rapid development of renewable energy technologies, both for their domestic energy service needs and for averting the worst impacts of climate change. Regrettably, nothing in current international negotiations augurs well for a significant change to the existing energy system that the continued well-being of island communities requires. (John Byrne, Leigh Glover, Gerard Alleng, Vernese Inniss, Yu-Mi Mun, and Young-Doo Wang/Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at University of Delaware, "The Postmodern Greenhouse: Creating Virtual Carbon Reductions from Business-as-Usual Energy Politics," Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 21.6, 2001, pp. 445-447)
Last but not the least, the problem of global warming is not a matter of the future -- "The Day After Tomorrow" -- but of the present. Unlike the spectacular special effects of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, the impacts of global warming as well as of global capitalism, its systemic cause, are hardly visible as such. More often than not, the most devastating effects of them are seen and even experienced as "tribal" and "religious" conflicts:
Before there were mass graves here, there was the matter of cows and corn patches.

Some years ago, in a nearby village called Kassa, farmers accused cattle herders of deliberately sending their long-horned beasts to trample across their plots. Cattle herders accused farmers of deliberately setting their grassy meadows on fire to keep their animals from grazing.

Conveniently for leaders of both camps, this simple, primordial conflict around land was stoked by fiercer passions: Tribe and creed, resentment against outsiders, competition for political power, an overabundance of guns and frustrated young men to put them to use.

That combustible mix fueled a recent orgy of violence across this fertile central Nigerian state. Churches and mosques were razed. Neighbor turned against neighbor. Reprisal attacks spread until finally, in mid-May, the government imposed emergency rule.

In this way, the Nigerian conflict resembles many others across the broad midsection of Africa, from the Tana River Basin of northern Kenya to the arid savannas of western Sudan to the tips of the Sahara in northern Mali.

On the surface, they may look like tribal or religious wars. But they are more like Matryoshka dolls, one stacked inside the other, said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the London-based Royal Institute of African Affairs. The smallest doll, he said, the one at the very core, is often a contest over land. "Then you've got all these layers on top," Mr. Vines said. "These things get manipulated and exacerbated." . . .

In recent years, as the desert has spread, trees have been felled and the populations of both herders and farmers have soared, the competition for land has only intensified.

In northern Mali, swords and sticks have been chucked for Kalashnikovs, as desertification and population growth have stiffened the competition between the largely black African farmers and the ethnic Tuareg and Fulani herders. Tempers are raw on both sides. . . .

In the Darfur region of Sudan, competition over land and water underlies longstanding tensions between Arab camel herders and black African subsistence farmers. Those tensions, among other things, have fed into a terrifying civil war there, with Arab militias backed by the Sudanese government chasing black Africans off their land in what United Nations officials have deplored as a campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

Here in the central highlands of Nigeria, farmers and herders are divided along ethnic as well as religious lines. The farmers call themselves natives of the land, and they are overwhelmingly Christian. The herders are ethnic Fulani who range across the region in search of pasture for their herds, and they are overwhelmingly Muslim.

For generations, those distinctions didn't matter much. Over time, though, they began to matter very much. (emphasis added, Somini Sengupta, "Where the Land Is a Tinderbox, the Killing Is a Frenzy," New York Times, June 16, 2004)
Why did the tribal, religious, and other distinctions begin to matter much? Because of class politics within and between the nations that allowed -- and continue to allow, Kyoto or no Kyoto -- the rich few to exploit the poor many, in the process destroying the environment and pushing the poor into lethal competition over natural resources among themselves.

Some say that Kyoto, the Democratic Party, and NGOs like Greenpeace and MoveOn are like a small Band-Aid over a big life-threatening wound. A more appropriate metaphor for them, I submit, is a limitless roll of industrial-strength duct tape used to gag, blindfold, and hogtie social movements on the left that could grow and challenge the foundations of the world ordered by the logic of profit-driven accumulation.

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