Climate Crisis in the Age of Austerity
by Chris Bisson
The crowds of international power brokers are amassing in Durban, South Africa and a rainy chill has set over the sub-tropical port city. As the curtain rises over the spectacle of the international climate negotiation, spectres of financial ghosts loom in the alleyways of South Africa – so divided by wealth – a microcosm of the world represented within the negotiations. Enter protagonists brought forward to contemplate questions of life or death.
Atmospheric temperatures continue to accelerate, as banks in Europe are being set on fire. International climate negotiations continue to fail from the influence of the oil industry – notably the Canadian Tar Sands, as global financial institutions are progressively usurping governments as appointed managers. The developing world is increasingly forced into the commodification of our shared atmospheric commons through carbon credits and clean development mechanisms, while people living in Turtle Island (North America) endure continued displacement from their public spaces. There is no denying the power of finance in the struggle over control of people and the planet, especially when discourses of debt and security surreptitiously eclipse the most basic expectations of democracy. There is a battle unfolding right now, and it is the biosphere and its human participants against the failed colonial financial complex. Meanwhile the heroes, assumed by the audience to be fighting for the survival of the planet secretly plot the demise of one another as if submerged in an Elizabethan tragicomedy. Something smells rotten in the province of KwaZulu Natal.
The financial and ecological crises are both founded in a drive to separate people from land and the production of labour for the purpose of supporting the power of a small privileged few who are granted ownership titles over the lot through violence, indenture and dispossession. It is no coincidence then that the major concerns of international civil society have recently been the fortification of global economic institutions and international climate negotiations from the democratic will of the public, especially those most vulnerable to the impacts of human-caused climate change and the neoliberal attack on social welfare.
The major question looming off stage, as delegations arrive in Durban, is how sovereign debt will be balanced with economic development and atmospheric governance, missing the critical questions of how runaway climate change will be avoided and human security fostered. Despite the optimistic speaking notes of negotiators and environment ministers, it is concerning to consider the true intentions of such powerfully rich states whose major domestic policy priorities are austerity.
As governments worldwide face the moral imperative to shift the global economic juggernaut, climate solutions remain set on based on free market ideology. A last attempt to disembed capital from nature. The same mistake was made by countries like the United States in 2008-2009 in resolving the collapse of cheep housing credit and speculative financial institutions by nationalizing their losses and and bonuses giving the impunity of moral hazard to the very perpetrators of the crisis. In recent climate negotiations, especially since COP15 and the Copenhagen Accord, negotiating parties have sought to turn crisis into an opportunity for the greater accumulation of private wealth. This has been done by creating global financial and political infrastructure to enact the trade of carbon emissions and offsets on the same speculative financial practices that caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis. They have also created a programme that will lead to the unprecedented enclosure of common land in history under the guise of forest conservation for carbon sequestration, all at the expense of the world’s peasant farmers and Indigenous peoples’ homes and livelihoods. The two new global institutions of international carbon finance and carbon-driven forest conservation, operating under irresponsible speculative financial mechanics, are evidence of the chilling resemblance of the negotiation framework to the most violent historic examples colonization.
This influence is especially evident in the political regimes of rich countries, and the emergence of newly industrialized economies like Brazil, China and India. States around the world are rushing to operate their governments under market logic to supporting finance, contrary even to the principles of free-market capitalism, by subsidizing “profitability” and insuring risk. The priority of private financial accumulation are taking over the direction of governments and are now reflected in the narrative of international climate negotiations. As announced in a recent speech by Environment Minister Peter Kent, the Canadian Government discloses an imperative for the adaptation of communities vulnerable to climate impacts as an opportunity for market-based insurance schemes to protect property and capital in poor countries, which is disproportionally owned global elites. Such a plan seems only to insure the future development of Canadian resource extraction industries and international development banks.
The global economy is coming to a critical barrier for the future of capital accumulation which is swiftly converging with the barrier to emissions of pollutants into the biosphere. Climate debt and financial debt are beginning to intersect in ways that will bring humanity to new levels of social and economic disparity. This double economic-ecological limit is being handled by states and negotiating parties in precisely the same way: the recession of democratic participation, civil rights and popular sovereignty. When the rationality of markets inevitably fail, the cost is borne by the people in the form of their freedoms, safety and fundamental human needs. Public space is being controlled by state police, funded by financial institutions in Wall Street; forest ecosystems and local forest economies are being evacuated of their immemorially inhabited peoples in order to support the continued profitability of the fossil fuel industry; and the houses of the precariously working and unemployed majority living in suburbs, city centres and informal settlements globally are being foreclosed in order to progress the profitability of real estate development, and bloated investment portfolio inflated by high-risk credit. The global poor, displaced, indentured and working are set to face the increasing costs of this human-caused economic-ecological crisis.
This convergent moment in history, where we chose to either radically alter our political and economic systems to face the realities of ecology and society or allow such systems to carry us through more crises at the expense of Earths habitability, will mark the character of our capacity for justice, compassion and reason. But given the speaking points of the parties it is hard to see how negotiators will be working towards anything other than poisoning the ability of other parties to collaborate on action imperative to solving the climate crisis. With the international community jockeying for the lowest cost and greatest financial benefits to climate negotiations this competitive approach predicated upon market assumptions of the role of government will sabotage the entire process. The tale of the Shakespeare’s Danish Prince reminds us that as the members of the court connive against one another for power and riches, in the end the rest is silenced.