World Rainforest Movement

The New Good and Bad Guys in Climate Politics – and How to Tell Them Apart

The climate crisis is a lot like other environmental crises. Coming to terms with the science is the least of the problems. What’s harder is to organize effective and democratic strategies for action. What’s the political landscape in which climate activists must operate? Who can you make alliances with and how? Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys?

To a lot of environmentalists, especially in the North, it all used to seem pretty simple.

The good guys were the guys who paid attention to the warnings of climate scientists, who promoted energy conservation and renewables, who got international negotiations going on what to do about global warming. You made alliances with them and tried to push governments into action to stop greenhouse gases from pouring into the atmosphere.

The bad guys were the guys who denied the climate was changing, or said that the changes weren’t anything humans could or should do anything about. They claimed things should go on pretty much as before. You tried to convince them and others that they were wrong, and fought their efforts to block international negotiations. The details could be left for another time.

In a few small corners of the planet, it may still feel like this is what climate politics is all about. After all, there are still powerful factions around saying that the weather is nothing to fret about, including US President Bush and the group of companies he speaks for. If you focus only on this rearguard, you’ll probably still see today’s big climate debate as between those who want to “do something” and those who don’t. Most journalists reporting climate fall into this category, continuing to build their stories around a simplistic “US bad, Kyoto good” or “Exxon/Mobil bad, greenies good” type of political analysis.

But this way of looking at things is fast becoming obsolete. Telling the good guys from the bad guys is no longer so easy. And coming up with effective strategies for action is even harder.

It’s clear something funny is going on when British Petroleum, admitting that the earth is warming, renames itself “Beyond Petroleum” and Shell International sets up a windmill in front of its London office to “do something” about climate change – while both go on trying to increase oil and gas sales.

It’s revealing when the European Union and the notorious energy trader Enron both call on President Bush to recognize the seriousness of climate change – while EU emissions keep going up and up and Enron shows no sign of getting out of the fossil energy business.

And there’s a strong smell of rat when firms large and small claim they are helping solve the climate problem by investing in tree plantations, and delegates to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – once proclaimed as a great hope for climate action – concentrate their attention on trading schemes and development projects which only exacerbate global warming.

In short, while more and more people claim to be taking some kind of climate action, things seem only to be getting worse. No wonder even environmentalists are confused.

Too Much Fossil Carbon with No Place to Go

It’s clearly time to reassess climate politics. But how to start?

One way is to return to the old insight that global warming, like other environmental problems, is not so much as a physical phenomenon as a political, social and economic one. Viewed this way, the climate crisis is nothing new. It’s just one more example of a centuries-old problem – overflowing waste dumps – closely tied up with power and rights.

Since the industrial revolution, some human societies have taken a lot of new carbon out of the ground and, by burning it, dumped it above ground. In effect, they have stashed this carbon in the atmosphere and the oceans as carbon dioxide and in vegetation and surface rocks as other carbon compounds.

These above-ground systems are pretty much able to handle above-ground carbon released through everyday biomass burning. But they are not built to recycle all the new carbon from underground – which amounts to a much bigger pool – into a safe form. This fossil-origin carbon tends to build up in the atmosphere, where it causes global warming. This overflow cannot go on indefinitely. If all the remaining fossil carbon were taken out of the earth and dumped above ground, the earth would probably become uninhabitable.

The thinking person’s response to a dump overflow this serious is to slow or halt the production of the substance that winds up in the dump. Reduce the dangers of dumped DDT or chlorofluorocarbons or polyvinyl chloride? Stop producing them. Reduce the dangers of climate change? Stop taking fossil fuels out of the ground.

There’s nothing new or shocking about this conclusion. Even the former Saudi Arabian oil minister, Sheikh Zaki Yamani, has pointed out that “the Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” Most fossil fuels are going to have to be left in the ground, just as most of the world’s stone is never going to be transformed into arrowheads or Stonehenges.

This is no big tragedy. The world did not end when Stonehenges stopped being built. And it need not suffer unduly if plans are made now to ensure that most coal now under the ground never sees the light of day.

The firms that use the most carbon dumps, unfortunately, don’t look at it that way. It’s not in their nature, or that of the system in which they play a part, to stop producing the stuff filling up the dumps or to take up new technologies which could invade their current core markets. Just as horse traders weren’t inclined to invest in the first auto industries, oil companies are not eager to shift out of hydrocarbon development, nor car manufacturers to go into some other business. Instead of reducing the flow of carbon from below ground, such firms – and their helpers – hope against hope to find new above-ground dumps to stow it in. Or they bank on being able to exclude others from using existing dumps.

There’s a common euphemism which can be applied to this process. Carbon dump space, like oil before it, has become an economically scarce resource. That means not just that more people are using a physically limited space. It also means that carbon dumps are now part of an economic system that makes it hard for the majority to stop a small group of elites from using too much of them – or for the elites to stop themselves.

Market Failures

The mainstream approach to this crisis is to formalize, intensify and manage this scarcity by turning dump space into a commodity and trying to “give it a price”. But this isn’t working.

One example of this privatization-oriented approach is the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto would hand Northern industry billions of dollars’ worth of rights to use existing carbon dump space, allowing it to sell any rights it didn’t use. But two problems immediately crop up. First, the right to sell this dump space would go only to the North, which already uses it the most. While Southern countries would be allowed to go on using existing dump space, they would not get any rights to sell it. Second, many times more rights would be given out than there is physical dump space. In 2012, the Northern beneficiaries of Kyoto would be allowed to go on making close to 100 per cent of the underground-aboveground transfers of carbon that they made in 1990. Scientific consensus is that this would have to be cut to 20-40 per cent of 1990 levels to stop dump overflow. This is one reason why the price of carbon dump space bears no relation to its climatic value.

Within nations, too, rights to buy and sell existing dump space would go almost exclusively to heavy users – and, again, far in excess of what there is to give away. For example, in the UK, under the EU emissions trading scheme, between half and two-thirds of dumping rights worth billions of pounds are to be handed to power-generating corporations and over 10 per cent to oil and gas firms. Almost none of the other people who use the dump space being given away – ranging from Bangladeshi rice farmers to London office workers – have been consulted about the deal.

Another problem is this. Just as the commodification and pricing of oil drove private firms and nations to seek new petroleum supplies starting early in the last century, so the commodification and pricing of existing carbon dumps is encouraging a search for new dumps. Fossil-fuel-based industries want to lower carbon dump prices by finding new ones. A growing number of firms and countries hope to make money by selling them. The World Bank, carbon brokers and consultancy firms are stepping in as middlemen.

As a result, two new dumps are being developed. One is to be carved out of land, forests, soils, water, even parts of the oceans. Carbon is to be shoved into new vegetation or dirt or piped into the sea. A second new dump is to be carved out of the future. Fossil-fuel users would buy permission to go on dumping by investing in activities which, while contributing still more fossil carbon flows into above-ground dumps, would be claimed to produce smaller flows than would “otherwise” be the case. Alternative futures which would use even less carbon would be dismissed as impossible. In effect, carbon would be stashed in the future.

The catch is that the project of developing these new dumps is impossible. Fossil carbon, biospheric carbon, and hypothetical future carbon belong to different categories. They can’t be added to and subtracted from each other in the same climatic ledger. For a variety of technical reasons, neither of the purported new “dumps” would be able to verify its ability to take on any specified quantity of new carbon. Any price assigned to them would be arbitrary, and any market in them almost guaranteed to exacerbate climate change. Already, the International Energy Agency foresees global emissions rising by 70 per cent between 1997 and 2012. The “new dumps” project – which the Kyoto Protocol supports – could only add to that figure by illegitimately sanctioning continued transfer of carbon from below ground to the existing (and overflowing) biospheric and atmospheric dumps above. For better or worse, the world is going to have to rest content with the above-ground carbon dumps it already has.

Here the contrast with oil exploration and development is sharp. Up to a point, new supplies of petroleum can be located when current ones run out. But there is no North Slope or Siberia where vast new carbon dumps are going to be found. Fossil fuel resources may be “non-renewable”, but “new carbon dumps” are, for the most part, figments of the imagination.

Adding insult to injury, the attempt to open up fictitious new carbon dumps would make existing global social inequalities even worse. Southern countries in particular are already diverting badly-needed land and human ingenuity to counterproductive efforts to open new carbon dumps for the North in the hope they will be a permanent source of dollars. That hope is misplaced. But before it is finally dashed, local resistance will make life hell for many carbon dump developers around the world. Already, opposition to the new carbon schemes has welled up in Hawai’i, where locals fought a US-Japanese ocean dumping experiment; Tanzania, where farmers were cheated by a Norwegian-backed carbon plantation project; Brazil, where a pig iron producer applying for climate subsidies is being opposed by farmers and trade unions; and many other locations.

The Question for Strategy

A better way forward than the “market-first” approach is to stop treating both fossil fuels and carbon dumps as resources. Human survival will be in question as long as either remains subject to the current relentless dynamic of conversion, exhaustion and search for new supplies in the service of a small elite.

Just as most remaining coal and oil are going to have to be left in the ground, so too the self-deceptive quest for fresh carbon dumps to receive the rich world’s emissions is going to have to be called off. Fossil carbon, biospheric carbon and hypothetical carbon cannot be put in the same accounting system and treated as the same “resource”. Five or six trees or a $50 investment in a biomass power plant can never be proved to be “climatically equal” to digging up a tonne of coal. What must emerge instead is a new politics of equitably sharing the world’s existing carbon-cycling capacity.

Who are the firmest allies likely to be in such a movement? Who, on the other hand, is likely to need some convincing? Dividing off “good guys” from “bad guys” in this way is not to make a moral judgement. It is only to make realistic guesses about where the most fruitful immediate climate alliances are likely to be made.

Some of the answers are surprising. For example, many of the seemingly “good guys” who want the US and Russia to sign the Kyoto Protocol are likely to fight the constructive approach sketched above tooth and nail. More and more, the Protocol is becoming a charter for facilitating further unsustainable transfers of carbon from underground to aboveground and annexing poorer countries’ resources for imaginary new carbon dumps. This drags those who are committed to getting the treaty ratified at all costs into increasingly dubious territory.

Nor is being “for” tree-planting or renewable energy necessarily any longer a mark of commitment to constructive climate politics. Today a range of corporate actors are willing to support such technologies merely as a way of “compensating” and smoothing the way for further exploitation of coal and oil, with little interest in their climatic effectiveness or impacts on local peoples.

In short, the questions to be asked by those seeking allies for a constructive climate movement are no longer questions like “Who is taking evidence for human-induced climate change seriously?”, “Who is committed to ‘doing something’ about global warming?”, “Who is for (or against) Kyoto?” or “Who is backing (or fighting) alternative energy sources?”

Instead, they are questions like:

* What social groups have the strongest interests in working to stop flows of fossil carbon into the atmosphere?

* Who has the firmest motivation to insist on a more equal use of existing above-ground carbon dumps?

* Who has the best reasons for trying to stop corporations and governments from taking over land and water for prospective new carbon dumps?

* Who has the integrity to hold the scientific line against putting fossil and biospheric carbon in the same accounting ledger?

On the negative side, meanwhile, the important questions include:

* Who is likely to remain committed to the destructive market-first approach of transferring more and more carbon from below the earth to above it, overloading existing dumps?

* Who has structural interests in fencing off existing carbon dumps for elite use?

* Who has the most incentives to go on seeking fanciful new “end-of-pipe” solutions to the climate crisis?

Looking over the Landscape

The answers give a lot of food for thought.

For example, the criteria above suggest that some of the staunchest supporters of a constructive approach to climate change are likely to be indigenous peoples and other local communities directly battling fossil-fuel extraction, fossil-fuelled plants, fossil-fuelled transport or airport expansion; environmental justice movements; movements fighting industrial tree plantations or other destructive “offset” projects; and so forth. (see following article)

They also suggest that standing against the constructive approach will be an equally wide range of actors, with different motivations and degrees of commitment.

One group, of course, comprises many of the biggest extractors and users of fossil fuels:

* Oil companies, whether “enlightened” ones like Shell or “dinosaurs” like Exxon/Mobil, continue to demonstrate their commitment to indefinite transfers of fossil carbon to the atmosphere and the privatization of carbon dumps. BP-Amoco, for instance, may have pledged to reduce its own corporate emissions, but also goes on seeking subsidies for projects such as a new million-barrel-a-day oil pipeline transferring underground carbon from the Caspian Sea to US and European fuel tanks and a $7.7 billion development of Siberian reserves. It is also a leading investor in the attempt to develop new carbon dumps through the World Bank.

* Fossil-fuel-intensive power generators such as Electric Power Development Company of Japan or TransAlta invest in “offset projects” in tree-planting, renewable energy or livestock methane control as part of integrated programmes for further fossil-fuel exploitation.

* Other heavy industries such as auto manufacture, transport, iron and steel, chemicals, construction, pulp and paper and non-ferrous metals, even if forced by legislation to take account of climate change, also favour solutions which would trade above-ground or hypothetical carbon for continued fossil fuel extraction.

* Well-off consumers in their millions have also become massively dependent on heavy fossil-fuel use.

Such actors need to be singled out in order to counter the facile claim that “we are all responsible for climate change”. The fact that the main pipelines conveying carbon from beneath the earth’s surface are opened and kept open for the benefit of a small minority of the world’s people should never drop from view.

Yet a deeper problem is less the overusers themselves than the system which produces and sustains patterns of overuse. The difficulty is not that a bunch of morally bad guys who by nature like to use coal, oil and gas have somehow got their hands on the levers of power. If this were so, the climate crisis would be less frightening than it is.

Yet neither is it true that the system “locking” the world into overuse and unequal use of carbon dumps comes out of an impersonal “economic necessity” or out of nowhere. It is, instead, a system painstakingly maintained by still other sets of actors, who deserve even closer attention. For example:

* International financial institutions subsidize continuing fossil fuel extraction with one hand and try to create a market for imaginary new carbon dumps with the other. For example, over the past decade, the World Bank has supported 22 times more fossil-fuel energy projects than renewables, and continues to back extraction projects such as the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline. At the same time, through its Prototype Carbon Fund, Community Development Carbon Fund, and BioCarbon Fund, it fights local people’s efforts to keep their land, water, air and future out of the hands of carbon dump investors such as Mitsubishi, Deutsche Bank, Tokyo Electric Power, Gaz de France and the governments of The Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden and Japan.

* Northern governments, even the firmest supporters of the Kyoto Protocol, continue both to subsidize fossil fuel developments and to support privatization of carbon dumps and untenable “carbon trading” schemes. In July, for instance, the European Commission, which likes to present EU member states as “climate heroes” in contrast to the US, proposed to allow private companies to help develop speculative new overseas carbon dumps instead of cutting their own fossil fuel use. That could mean that the EU could burn as much as one-third more coal, oil and gas than it would be allowed to otherwise under the Protocol. Governments such as that of The Netherlands are meanwhile going out of their way to help prepare overseas dumping projects which would enable them to continue emitting more greenhouse gases at home.

* International business lobby groups are also pressing for maximum development of new, private carbon dumps to receive fossil fuel emissions. These include the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Emissions Trading Association and the Emissions Marketing Association.

A fast-growing group of firms, organizations and researchers have meanwhile carved out a niche for themselves providing “carbon dump services”, helping develop a booming trade in new dumps and avoiding the democratization of existing dumps. In doing so they are helping minimize the threat which public and legislative reaction to scientific and United Nations warnings about global warming present to the shorter-term interests of fossil fuel exploiters. These actors have also exercised a gravitational force which helps “pull” the UN climate apparatus, including its climatologist advisers, toward a corporate position supporting more fossil fuel burning combined with the development of more dumps. Their motivations, however, tend to be highly diverse. For example:

* Financial sector firms such as EcoSecurities, NatSource, and Climate Change Capital sell consultancy, brokerage and financial services for firms looking for new carbon dumps, especially as a way of dealing with the increasing amount of climate legislation worldwide. They are often aware that the climatic impact of their work is a subject of criticism, but have deftly seized and expanded a fresh market opportunity.

* Risk management or accounting firms such as Det Norske Veritas and Societe Generale de Surveillance “validate” and “verify” the amounts of fossil carbon “absorbed” or “compensated for” by the new dumps. They are also well aware of questions from local activists and other environmentalists about their work, but are often torn between pressures to abide by UN rules or scientific or accounting norms and the need to attract future corporate clients.

* United Nations agencies such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) help the corporate sector research and develop new carbon dumps. All understand the possible future importance of “climate mitigation money” for development bureaucracies.

* Forestry, plantation, dam and “clean coal” companies stand ready to put their industrial trees or power installations at the service of fossil fuel emitters.

* Southern governments hope to get funding for their development projects and bureaucracies from corporations and international and bilateral agencies keen to develop new carbon dumps. In doing so they often put themselves potentially at odds with the interests of local people.

* Academic researchers in universities and national research establishments, in fields ranging from economics to soil science, biology, genetic engineering, forestry, engineering and geology provide additional (and often well-funded) research on how to develop and justify new carbon dumps.

* Think tanks such as Point Carbon help analyze the carbon market for interested corporations. NGOs with market-based approaches to environmental problems, such as the World Resources Institute, Pew Center for Climate Change, Environmental Defense and the National Resources Defense Council, also lend a hand.

* Marketing firms claim to be able to create “offset” projects such as woodlands to absorb “all the harmful carbon dioxide” emitted by individuals, firms, or UN meetings. One outstanding example is the UK-based Future Forests, which sells a patented “carbon-neutral” label to clients. Unlike companies such as EcoSecurities, Future Forests concentrates less on helping its customers cope with new climate-related legislation than on helping them advertise themselves to the public as climatically responsible.

* Some mainstream NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, Forest Trends and Pelangi hope to translate carbon-dump funding into support for nature conservation, alternative energy or rural development establishments. Less constrained by professional norms than validators, their schemes for using climate money to support their core concerns tend to be even more far-fetched.

Somewhere in the middle, meanwhile, are organizations confusedly following first one current, then another. The list here is large, but some of the more interesting examples are as follows.

* The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change remains buffeted between contradictory interests. On the one hand are scientific findings stressing the importance of reducing flows into biospheric and atmospheric carbon dumps, together with pressures from Southern countries to democratize access to existing carbon dumps. On the other hand are corporate pressures to privatize carbon dumps and expand their capacity. Corporate influence has won out in the Kyoto Protocol, but the treaty’s status remains uncertain.

* Reinsurers facing financial risk from catastrophic weather events such as Swiss Re and Munich Re have strong incentives to press for reduced underground-aboveground carbon flows and greater business awareness of climate change. But at the same time they have been seduced by the mirage that construction of new carbon dumps is a “proactive” response to the issue.

* Climate scientists, while often calling attention to the dangers of continued transfer of fossil carbon aboveground, are also vulnerable to pressures to lend support to untenable dumping projects.

* Many influential NGOs active in the international Climate Action Network such as the World Wide Fund for Nature recognize the untenability of treating carbon “sink” projects such as tree plantations as carbon dumps. But naively seeking leverage with dump developers and hoping for new funding for alternative energy, they have embraced the idea of other types of new dumps as long as they meet various proposed standards of quality. Such standards tend to be unattainable in practice and will have to be loosened to let enough dump projects through to justify their existence.

A New Landscape?

This sketch of the new landscape of climate politics suggests that old strategic assumptions may well be ripe for revision. As old boundaries dissolve, new alliances among environmentalists, specialists, financiers, governments and corporations seeking common benefits are coming to the fore. In particular, a group of powerful NGOs are increasingly aligning themselves with corporations and against people affected by both climate change and destructive new carbon dump projects. At the same time, new and perhaps unforeseen alliances may be in the offing among others concerned with both climate change and grassroots democracy.

By: Larry Lohmann, The Cornerhouse, e-mail: