4C Newsletter, April 2014

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14 april 2014

Amsterdam, April 13, 2014

Dear Friends,

Climate news, regardless of its importance, is usually overshadowed in media reporting by economic or political or international news viewed as a “crisis”. Coverage of the second part of the fifth report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on March 31 with dire analyses of present and future impacts on the planet of extreme weather (see our news digest of March 31), has, accordingly, been meager compared with accounts of the turmoil in the Ukraine, or, in most countries, with national news of ideologically tinted power politics (e.g., the threat of far right parties in France, the UK, and the Netherlands) and economic questions of growth, wages, dividends and pensions. Overlooked are the links between these issues and the climate problem. It is, for example the unquestioned dogma of growth – pushed by policy makers and corporate lobbyists in Asia as well as in the West – that makes the climate problem so intractable.

Yet, to take the Ukraine conflict, the issue most commonly scrutinized in the media, the Ukraine's geopolitical importance as transmitter of Russian oil and gas to western Europe has an intimate but generally ignored relationship to the climate problem. While business commentaries focus on gas price conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and on Europe’s need for Russian fossil fuel, they rarely admit the need for an energy supply that does not endanger the human future.

In doggedly choosing to present international crises in melodramatically colored geopolitical terms, the media gloss over what is in fact the deeper underlying problem: the increasingly unsustainable reliance on dwindling energy resources and the imminent menace of irreversible climate change. Michael Klare is one of the few who realize the link between our concerns about the Ukraine and our inability to kick the carbon habit in We Are Now in the Terminal Stage of Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction. Indeed, the meager media coverage of the increasingly bad news about the climate is a clear sign of the imperative need for a global paradigm shift from the old power-driven geopolitical and growth-oriented way of thinking to a serious focus on planetary sustainability, rapidly becoming chimerical because of anthropogenic global warming.

This need becomes clearer if we compare the copious media attention to the Ukraine with that given to another medium-sized country with three times its population and one quarter its area: Bangladesh.

While the 45 million people of the Ukraine have often been in the news as protesters against tyranny, the 150 million Bangladeshis (with far fewer mentions on the news sites) are portrayed as victims of underdevelopment, whose intense poverty has recently been alleviated by employment in the manufacture of clothing for Europeans and Americans. This employment is normally viewed as a “win-win” consequence of globalization: jobs for the impoverished of the developing countries, cheap clothing and other consumer goods in Europe and America. “Cost-efficiency” dictates exporting work to where it is cheapest. Most economists ignore the non-quantifiable “externalities”, such as growth-related climate change, social dislocation and the anguish of the unemployed.

Cheap labor, however, is usually unregulated labor, with consequences for the safety of the employed. A year ago, Bangladesh experienced the collapse of a shoddily-built factory building in Dhaka. The building contained thousands of garment workers, producing clothing for Benetton, Bon Marché, El Corte Inglès and Walmart. Eleven hundred of them died in the rubble and 2500 more were hurt. It was not the only such Bangladeshi disaster in the last few years, but by far the largest. Some in the West realized that their inexpensive shirts and undergarments were stained with blood. In fact, most of the cheap consumer goods that neoliberal globalization gives insecure Europeans and Americans to compensate them for the loss of secure jobs are purchased at the expense of much greater insecurity for the Asian masses that produce them.

More recently, Bangladeshis were on the front page of The New York Times for a different reason: as the anticipated victims of coastal flooding caused by climate change. The comprehensive Times article contained the following estimates of coming climate damage:

"The country’s climate scientists and politicians have come to agree that by 2050, rising sea levels will inundate some 17 percent of the land and displace about 18 million people, Dr.(Atiq) Rahman (executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies and the nation’s leading climate scientist) said....In an analysis of decades of tidal records published in October, Dr.(John) Pethick (a former professor of coastal science at Newcastle University in England who has spent much of his retirement studying Bangladesh’s predicament) found that high tides in Bangladesh were rising 10 times faster than the global average. He predicted that seas in Bangladesh could rise as much as 13 feet by 2100, four times the global average. ´The reaction among Bangladeshi government officials has been to tell me that I must be wrong,´ he said. ´That’s completely understandable, but it also means they have no hope of preparing themselves.´....Mr. (Tariq A.) Karim (Bangladesh´s Ambassador to India) estimated that as many as 50 million Bangladeshis would flee the country by 2050 if sea levels rose as expected.“

Most of our 7 billion fellow-earthlings have been informed at length of the crisis in the Ukraine, but only a small fraction are aware of this oncoming catastrophe in Bangladesh, in Asia in general and in particular in low-lying countries like the tiny but mortally endangered Marshall Islands. In fact, news like the Dhaka disaster, as well as the catastrophic flooding of the past year in Beijing, Manila and Shanghai and southern England, is treated by most of the Euro-American press as faits divers with no lasting relevance for the planet as a whole. This is one symptom of the cognitive dissonance between our lively concern and quick recognition of matters that fit old stereotypes and our blindness to those requiring a new paradigm: the imminent disasters of climate change.

Another such symptom is the discrepancy between policy makers’ urgency to wrap up a free trade treaty between the United States and Europe (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP) and the continually stalled, snail-like progress toward a global climate treaty.

TTIP is being pushed by several EU commissioners as well as by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many large corporations hoping to reduce costs. As always, free trade advocates emphasize the economic benefits for jobs and growth of lowering tariffs and “harmonizing” regulations. What "harmonization" means in practice, however, is a race to the bottom. One lowers costs not by agreeing on the more stringent of two regulatory systems but the less expensive – and less strict. The corporate world is hoping to save a major part of current costs of EU-US regulation (nearly $100 billion in 2011, compared with about $10 billion in tariff charges).

Whichever side, for example, has the more lax and less “cumbersome” financial regulations, will beneficently extend its rules to the other, which invites the world to a replay of the financial collapse of 2008. In the case of climate legislation, this means that the U.S. congressionally mandated absence of any national limitations on greenhouse gas emissions could be imposed on Europe, which has a complex, if as yet ineffective, emissions trading system and clear international goals for emissions reductions. Baskut Tuncak, the Chemical Programs Attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law, after comparing U.S. and EU regulations on matters like asbestos and food regulation concluded: “Indeed, TTIP is primarily about regulation. But, let’s be clear, TTIP is not about better regulation.” Moreover, European restrictions on fracking could be pushed aside, and efforts by European countries to maintain their own rules on fracking or anything else could be challenged by private corporations in non-governmental arbitration panels under an “investor to state dispute clause”.

At the moment, the only democratically elected EU body, its Parliament, is under pressure from its Environment Committee, which has commissioned a special report on the environmental implications of TTIP, to reject it or, at the very least, not to accept many of its clauses. The crucial significance of TTIP, however, is the degree to which, just as in our view of the Ukraine drama, our policy makers and media are trapped in an obsolete paradigm of economic growth through globalization. In failing to see the dangerous limitations of this paradigm, they ignore the emerging counter-vision of sustainability, the need for a comprehensive, binding international climate treaty.

In our Breaking News rubric for the first quarter of 2014, you will find over a hundred articles evoking the dangers to humankind of business as usual and the struggles of scientists and climate activists to combat the obsolete, but still thriving, paradigms of globalization, GDP growth and corporate beneficence. This struggle involves reports like that of the IPCC, demonstrations against fossil fuel exploitation and the very important fossil investment divestment movement, whose most recent champion, Bishop Desmond Tutu, compares its significance to that of the anti-Apartheid boycott movement.

In conclusion, a suggestion: Most of our signatories are from EU member states where, in June, elections for a new European Parliament will occur. The political coloration of this Parliament will influence EU climate policy for the next five year. Given the habitual lethargy of most parties in these elections and the surge of reactionary populist dissatisfaction with globalization, parties of the far Right are expected to do well. Why not push the parties of the Center and Left by attending their meetings to ensure that appropriate questions raised? Questions about candidates’ positions on TTIP, about fossil divestment and about the European Commission´s reluctance (challenged in February by the European Parliament and a galaxy of NGOs) to commit itself to specific goals for renewables and energy efficiency. Those of us with affiliations to environmental NGOs might also urge their organizations to challenge candidates and parties to speak out on these issues.

Best wishes from Amsterdam,

Arthur Mitzman for Concerned Citizens against Climate Change


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