Towards a Globalised New Orleans, or the End of Capitalism
Towards a Globalised New Orleans, or the End of Capitalism
Climate change is everywhere. Ramor Ryan gatecrashes the ineffectual UN Conference on Climate Change in Nairobi and comes back blaming Capitalism.1. The Quiet Apocalypse of Rising Tides
A momentous report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) confirms that climate change is 'man-made and unstoppable'. The
21-page report, described as conservative by the IPCC itself, says
human-made emissions of greenhouse gases are to blame for heat waves,
floods and heavy rains, droughts and stronger storms, melting ice-caps
and rising sea-levels.
The IPCC is comprised of over 2000 climate experts and scientists. It
was set up in 1988 by the UN and the World Meteorological organisation
to guide policy makers on the impact of climate change. Despite
strenuous attempts by oil companies and big business to undermine the
final report, it remains quietly apocalyptic in its assessment.
Its mind-boggling conclusion predicts serious water shortage for
between 1.1 and 3.2 billion people, food shortages for 200 to 600
million people. Coastal flooding will hit seven million people within
70 years. The list of potential catastrophe goes on and on.
Yet critics say the report underplays the size of the calamity. James
McCarthy, a climate expert at Harvard and former IPCC panel member
says the report underestimated the true level of rising sea levels,
possibly making the findings of the panel 'foolishly cautious and
maybe even irrelevant' on the issue.
Climate change is everywhere.
Even penetrating the fears of the righteously paranoid psyche of the
scientists and nuclear physicists of the pre-eminent Bulletin of the
Atomic Scientists. Their 'Doomsday Clock' has been ticking away to
midnight - the figurative end of civilisation - for 61 years of
nuclear holocaust watching. In an unprecedented move they have moved
the clock two minutes closer to midnight - now standing at a perilous
five minutes to midnight - not only because of the increase in
likelihood of nuclear war with the recent events around North Korea
and Iran. They also cite 'the potential for catastrophic damage from
human-made technologies'. In what represents a decisive paradigm shift
for the Atomic Scientists, Kennette Benedict, director of the bulletin
said, 'The dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those
posed by nuclear weapons.'
Climate change was a top priority at the conference of world business
leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, as well as the
conference of NGO operatives at the World Social Forum in Nairobi.
Meanwhile, the European Commission urged its members to adopt an
unprecedented common energy policy, aimed at cutting greenhouse gases
by 20% by 2020. It calls for a 'post-industrial revolution' based on a
dramatic shift to an internally produced low-carbon energy economy.
Climate Change has finally arrived at the White House. President
George W. Bush's State of the Union address, January 27, marked a
milestone for his administration by actually recognising that we may
indeed have a human-made problem after all. He acknowledged climate
change as 'a serious challenge' and the need for reduction in fossil
fuel consumption. Rather than announcing a mandatory cap on emissions
along the lines of the globally accepted Kyoto Protocol, Bush instead
meekly recommended an added emphasis on renewable or non-carbon energy
sources - ethanol, wind, solar and nuclear power. As the world's
leading producer of greenhouse gases, these are hardly the momentous
steps needed by the USA to put a break on runaway global warming.
What is to be done in the face of the looming catastrophe? The
predominant global platform to deal with fundamental issues that
affect all of humanity is the United Nations. The new UN boss Ban
Ki-moon has been asked to convene an emergency international summit.
'Climate change,' responded Ban, 'is one of the most important and
urgent agendas that the international community has to address before
2012.' An emergency global conference organised by the UN seems
imminently urgent and Nairobi has been suggested as a host.
But wasn't there an emergency climate change in Nairobi just last
year? Wasn't the much heralded 12th UN Conference on Climate Change
and 2nd Meeting of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol held there
November 6-17, 2006? Of course it was, and its abysmal failure to
produce agreements between nations and to begin to build capacity for
dealing with climate-induced problems has been brushed under the
To understand how limited the UN structure is in dealing with the
urgency of the matter and how these grand global meetings are
manipulated and side-tracked by powerful business and economic
interests, it's worth returning to Nairobi in November to have a
closer look at the workings of the UN.
2. Journey into the Heart of UN Darkness
Nairobi, Kenya, November 2006.
Climate Change is everywhere, especially in Third World metropolises
like Nairobi. Stuck in a massive traffic jam from the airport to the
city centre, I ask the taxi driver if people here know much about
climate change and global warming. He nearly ploughs into a passing
family of four on a bicycle he was laughing so mirthfully.
'Droughts, floods, famines, the rains comes heavy or don't come at
all,' he says. 'Yes, of course we know all about global warning!'
He goes on to explain how the British colonisers had chosen the site
of Nairobi as the Capital because it was cool and mosquito free.
'This is no longer the fact,' explains the taxi man. 'Now Nairobi is
warm and we are plagued by mosquitoes.'
This bustling city is like a blueprint for all major population
centres in the not too distant future - a place overburdened by
massive migration from the countryside, chronic insecurity and an
infrastructure woefully inadequate to deal with basic matters of
water, drainage, transport, and communication. Nairobi hosts one of
the worlds largest slums - Kuresoi; population over one million living
in dire poverty. This very week in the nearby Mathare slum rival gangs
battled each other, causing ten deaths, dozens of burnt shacks and
thousands of slum-dwellers fleeing the violence. The near post
apocalyptic landscape of the enormous Mathare slum and its almost
unbearable living conditions contrasts obscenely with the lush,
enclosed UN enclosure occupying most of the posh district of Gigiri.
The wealthy enclave host numerous embassies, government minister
residencies, NGO headquarters and a massive shopping mall, all heavily
patrolled by armed guards and state of the art security features. The
walled oasis of the privileged elites exists uneasily amidst a desert
of the multitudes depravity, like a global Baghdad Green zone.
It's here at the extensive UN compound that over 70 ministers of
state, and 6000 of their bureaucratic UN and NGO lackeys gather under
the auspices of the UN's Climate Change Conference to hammer out a
strategy to tackle the calamitous situation.
'The world is keenly awaiting the outcome of the deliberations going
on there,' says Mr. Gilbert M. Kari somewhat anxiously, a local pest
controller who has witnessed first hand the chaos climate change is
wreaking on national coffee production. His is an almost universally
heard concern. He and the rest of the world are in for a big
This 12th session of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC) conference of parties also serves as the second meeting of
the parties to the Kyoto Protocol. The 1997 Protocol is a legally
binding set of targets for cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for
developed nations to an average of 95% of individual countries' 1990
levels. Baby steps perhaps, but still too great a leap for the USA.
186 countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol but still the US balks.
The US produces a quarter of global greenhouse gases but has only 4%
of the world's population. The whole of Africa, in contrast, emits
The keystone document for this particular Conference is the Stern
Report. Where once global warming was seen as an ecological and
environmental issue, the report focuses on the economics of climate
change. The study led by World Bank Economist Sir Nicholas Stern, with
its dizzying array of figures and calculations, leads inexorably to
the conclusion that the battle against climate change makes good
economic sense. The financial cost of action, it warns sternly, will
be much less than the cost of inaction.
Mingling somewhat uncomfortably amongst the throng of expensively
coiffured UN delegates sporting the ubiquitous top range lap-tops and
talking incessantly on cell-phones, I stumble down corridors flanked
by a trade-fair collection of stands hawking a variety of alternative
energy plans or carbon-free initiatives. Technical companies
advertising their genetically modified bio-fuel producing crops
compete for the carbon free market alongside representatives of the
nuclear industry: climate change for some is becoming big business.
With all the verve of Michael Moore, I door-step one of the official
US delegates rushing along the corridor. He is an immaculately
presented young man with the appearance of a Navy Seal and the
arrogant attitude of a cantankerous frat boy.
As the largest single contributor to the greenhouse effect and global
warming, I ask him, is there any sign of change in the US position on
restricting carbon emissions or signing up to the Kyoto Protocol, with
the other 186 nations?
'There are no signs of change in that policy soon,' the delegate
answers somewhat mechanically; definitely disinterested. 'The US won't
sign the Kyoto Protocol.'
'Even in light of the Stern Report, which suggests the world economy
will shrink by 20%, isn't there a clear economic imperative to tackle
the problem,' I insist somewhat earnestly, 'and ...'
He stops me in my tracks, looking me up and down for my credentials to
ascertain who I was or what organisation I belonged. Unaccredited, a
gatecrasher of sorts, I lack my badge.
'Who the heck are you?' he quips somewhat amusingly, 'some kind of Irish Borat?'
Over at Plenary Room 2, the conference is in full swing before a great
assembly of dignitaries and functionaries fanned out in a great swathe
of seated rows. The speaker's voice booms over the PA and their image
is projected on two huge video screens on the flanking walls like a U2
concert. The delegates glance at their lap-tops, whisper on their
cell-phones, sip bottled water and occasionally listen in on the
simultaneous translation earphones. Sure enough, the gripping words of
His Eminence Nurlan A. Iskakov, Minister of Environment Protection of
Kazakhstan go unappreciated. When the senior US representative, Paula
Dobriansky, Under-secretary of Democracy and Global Affairs takes the
stage, a hush finally descends, cell-phones are downed and the whole
auditorium pays rapt attention.
'The most effective strategies on climate change,' says
Under-secretary Dobriansky, a hard-core Bush-ite and neo-con, 'are
those that are integrated with economic growth, with energy security,
and reducing air pollution.' In her oblique obfuscation, she is
spelling out US refusal to agree on mandatory emissions limits,
thereby wrecking any concerted global attempt to move forward at this
conference. Dubriansky's supercilious presentation talks up US Aid to
Africa and, by omission, reiterates the Bush administration's mantra
that unfettered US-led capitalist globalization hand-in-hand with war
in the Middle East to secure oil supplies are the priorities. Global
warming, or 'air pollution' as the unctuous Under-secretary refers to
it, is a side-show to the main event - capitalist expansion. Business
as usual then on the United Nations world stage: US economic interests
come first and the UN is held hostage to the world's sole superpower.
Taking lead from US intransigence, other heavyweight capitalist
globalizers (and emerging major contributors to the greenhouse effect)
China and India steadfastly refuse to cap their emissions citing their
own economic interests. Joining the refusnik fest, Russia also begins
to drag its feet.
'There is a scandalous lack of urgency!' says Mr. Tearfund Andy
Atkins, summing up the conference mood and, it could be said, the NGO
position in general.
The rest of the conference seemed to fade after the US
Under-secretary's pronouncements, as if the participants knew little
could be achieved without the nod or blessing from the US. The much
lauded UN conference retreats into incoherent and incessantly
procedural issues that revolve mostly about recording itself, and its
own bureaucratic inanity. I attend one torturous two-hour meeting,
seating myself in the vacant Irish delegate's place and availing of
their bottled water and ear-phones. Casting a glance around at the
disinterested attendees who seemed as bored as I, it is clear that
they are more preoccupied with their personal email than the plodding,
inchoate official proceedings. The minutes released the following day
are delivered with the usual fastidious fanfare. Methodological
issues: protocol: HCFC-23: SBSTA adopted short conclusions.
(FCSTA/2006/L.23). Noting that the issue had not been resolved. I
would imagine little gets resolved at conferences like this ever, with
their inordinate bureaucracy and general obsequiousness - like a
secular Tridentine mass for 21st Century globalization zealots. There
is no place for dissent.
'The Nairobi Conference may not be remembered as one of the critical
milestones when a major breakthrough occurred,' records the official
UN summary benignly. Although perhaps, the report continues, it
prepares the way for what some hope will be another 'momentous
meeting' within the next four years.
'The conference has let Africa and the rest of the developing world
down,' say Oxfam,
Maybe the conference has let down Oxfam and the other NGOs speaking on
behalf of Africans, but some with a more critical understanding of
what the conference can actually achieve are getting on with some
practical direct action.
'We should not wait until Mombassa is under water,' says Kenyan Nobel
Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, at a conference side event. 'We
know the problems. The problem that we have is what to do. What will
make the difference is not the negotiations, but what we do when we go
Known locally as 'the tree lady' due to her propensity to encourage
Africans to plant trees, she is part of a movement whose aim is to
plant our way out of the crisis. Trees perform as carbon sinks,
inhaling CO2 and hence offsetting CO2 emissions: to re-forest Africa
with a billion trees appropriate to regional diversity is the target
of the Green Belt Movement.
3. Towards a Globalised New Orleans, or the End of Capitalism.
Many in the global north speculate upon the wisdom of having (more)
children considering the nefarious world they may well inherit. People
in the south - in places like drought-ridden northern Kenya - have the
more pressing issue of wondering how they will feed their living
It seems a hopeless situation. Two thousand of the world's eminent
scientists confirm that climate variability is a product of human
activity, that we might have a short window of opportunity - say 15
years - to do something about it, but there isn't the political will
to act amongst the powers that be. Not just the USA, China and Russia,
but even European 'champions' of the cause refuse to set an example.
While his government will say in the strongest terms it is 'an
imperative' to take action to prevent further climate damage, British
Prime Minister Tony Blair will still balk at personal sacrifices. 'I
think these things are a bit impractical actually to expect people to
do that,' said Blair in response to the suggestion that cutting back
on flights might be a positive step. For him, science will save the
planet. 'All the evidence is that if you use the science and the
technology constructively, your economy can grow, people can have a
good time but do so more responsibly.'
A conclusion shared by President Bush. 'Leaving behind the debate
whether global warming is caused by natural or man-made causes,' said
Bush chillingly to the New York Times (25/05/2006), 'we are going to
focus solely in the technologies which can resolve the problem.' So
Bush is saying that we don't so much as have a problem (that doesn't
matter) but we don't have a solution. So what's on offer in terms of
technological or scientific solutions to wean us off fossil fuels (and
The front runner is ethanol. But replacing fossil fuels - an intensely
compact source of fuel - with crop derived bio-ethanol requires
felling vast tracks of forest to make way for plantations, thereby
creating even more ecological damage.
Meanwhile, entering into the twilight zone of capitalist solutions to
capitalist problems, we find the resurrection of the old technological
bogeyman: nuclear energy, or the new bio-technical Frankenstein:
genetically modified bio-fuel crops. Both these solutions are
low-carbon, but the potential ecological cost of the energy succeeds
in merely pushing the climate change problem upriver a while.
Another solution involves juggling carbon around. With capitalism's
love of the market we now have complicated emissions trading schemes
for 'cost-effective' reductions in carbon emissions (selling them on)
and more bizarrely, carbon drops - including the notions of storing
emissions under the sea bed or down disused mine shafts.
Capitalism's last technological card and one that is proving a current
growth business is geo-engineering - the intentional manipulation of
the climate. Taking inspiration from the CIA's (unsuccessful) attempts
to provoke intense rains over Vietnam to wash out the rebel crops, to
the Chinese Olympic committee's promise to secure sunny days for the
2008 Olympics via technical measures, the geo-engineering industry is
having a field day in the era of climate variability. From attempts to
fertilise the ocean to lower the water temperature to filling the sky
with sulphate nano-particles to intercept sun-rays, geo-engineering
scientists are busy interfering with and intervening upon the climate,
undeterred by potential disequilibrium disasters or mass
Beyond technological meddling, dealing with the problem of climate
change - ecologically, politically, economically and socially - needs
a lot more than the Kyoto Protocol, developing alternative energies or
holding another emergency Climate Change Conference.
It is necessary to consider the root of the problem. A global economy
based on the colossal demand for highly concentrated and rapidly
depleting fossil fuel deposits is ecologically unsustainable. Do we
need to change fuel or change the structure of consumption? But under
the present model - global capitalism - is change possible, or even
'Capitalism has always relied on infinite expansionism in a finite
planet,' explains Alex Troochi of the Green Apple Collective,
'something has to give and at the moment, it's the planet that's
giving as Capitalism plunders ahead.'
Capitalism relies on ever-expanding markets and inputs to continue to
make profits based on the extraction of natural resources and
transforming them into dead capital. This ceaseless addiction to
growth-for-growth sake leads inexorably to ecotastrophe. Capitalism is
now being forced to consider other strategies. But the magic
technological or scientific bullet to save the day remains illusive.
Hope lies beyond the pale; it requires a fundamental shift in
thinking, a revolutionary paradigm shift away from the cloistered
confines of the imagination of the United States government, the
European Union or the United Nations assembly. In the long term, the
human world will have to evolve some kind of post-capitalist society
The doomsday clock ticks away at a perilous five minutes to twelve.
Meanwhile its still early morning on the revolutionary clock. Despite
the alarm ringing, the revolutionary protagonist, although stirring,
has yet to awake. The writing is on the wall once more - be realistic,
demand the impossible.
(Ramor Ryan is the author of Clandestines : The Pirate Journals of an Irish Pirate, AK Press, 2006)