History repeats itself at The Hague

As much anticipated, the global summit at The Hague, called to debate the issue of pollution that causes global warming collapsed on 25th November. We were not alone in foreseeing the debacle – environmentalists had in fact warned months previous that the Hague round of talks would be doomed to failure for the same reasons we cited.

At its simplest, the meeting ended in disaster because European countries, headed by France, shunned an eleventh hour compromise brokered by John Prescott – the self appointed mediator between the US and the EU. If accepted, it would have necessitated the US ditching its plans to offset forests planted abroad against its domestic targets for the reduction of carbon emissions.

Throughout the talks the US insisted on a market for carbon trading – a plan which, if agreed upon, would have given the US the ‘right’ to pollute the planet at will. The details of this issue became increasingly confusing for many delegates, with European negotiators, opposed to a market approach, querying how such a set up could be regulated and without corruption. Neither were delegates from Sweden, France, Denmark and Germany calmed by the fact that Prescott had persuaded the US delegates that they could not buy ‘carbon credits’ by planting forests abroad.

Even if the compromise had have been agreed upon it would have had a negligible effect upon the main problem – the unwillingness of the US – presently producing 25% of global Carbon emissions – to check its insatiable appetite for gas.

Moreover, European delegates were upset that a second key stumbling block – the US insistence that forestry and agricultural changes at home be allowed to be counted as carbon credits – remained unresolved.

Throughout the conference and indeed during the three years it was in preparation the US sought to widen loopholes to undermine the Kyoto protocol. Many now think that with Bush in the White House – himself a fierce opponent of the Kyoto agreement – future compromises will be nigh on impossible.

Many delegates made the same criticism of the US, namely that the world’s most powerful country is reluctant to risk the campaign contributions it gets from oil firms nor to put in jeopardy its cosy relationship with the US corporate elite it represents.

The latter is indeed an indictment on a system that continually prioritises profit to the detriment of matters far more pressing. As Klaus Tapfer, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme informed the conference : “Climatic change is not a programme for the future, it is beginning now” (Independent, 26/11/00).

And the facts were well presented to the Hague meeting. For instance, that polar glaciers are retreating faster than in any period during the last 5,000 years; that the Arctic cap is half as thick as 25 years ago and that flooding and droughts have tripled in the past 10 years.

Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change presented a report to the conference which showed that global warming was happening twice as fast as previously thought, and further predicted that in coming years successive harvests would fail dramatically in India, Africa and Latin America, that diseases such as malaria would spread and that sea level rises would displace millions of people.

If capitalism is presently incapable of solving the more pressing problems faced by humanity, we can well ponder what a difficult time ahead we face in a world in which we are increasingly at the mercy of the elements.

For many, environmental issues are new. As socialists, forever scrutinising the effects of the capitalist mode of production, we have been aware of them for generations. In fact one of our spokespersons had this to say 125 years ago, a statement that well anticipated the discussions at The Hague:

“At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing over nature – but that we, with flesh and blood and brain, belong to nature and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly. We are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our productive activity, and so are afforded the opportunity to control and regulate these effects well. This regulation, however, requires a complete revolution in our existing mode of production…in our whole contemporary social order” (Frederic Engel’s in Dialectics of Nature, 1875).