Post Copenhagen: Slavery In A Disappearing World

The sociologist Ulrich Beck once claimed that the effects of (smog) pollution were democratic (1). By this he meant that the world was flat in terms of the evenness with which the costs and risks borne by individuals from the effects of environmental degradation of the planet were democratically shared by all of its people. The Copenhagen conference on climate change that ended yesterday, finally nailed the lie to the proposition that the environmental and financial costs involved in helping to negate the crisis are to be shared on a similar basis.

Global warming, for which the rich world is largely responsible for, will continue to be disproportionately paid for by the poor nations in the global south. As with all previous conferences on global warming, Copenhagen will mostly likely be remembered for the economic interests of the powerful and their representatives in government taking precedence over and above the interests of the mass of people who inhabit the planet.

As I predicted would happen a fortnight ago, two diametrically opposing conceptions of “success” had emerged at the conference.

For the wealthy world “success” was principally about taking moderate deviations in their emissions, where they take on slightly reduced emissions targets. Allied to this was the presentation of a series of gimmicks as a substitution for the implementation of meaningful policies to tackle global warming.

This approach was evident during the second week of the conference following a speech by the US secretary of energy, Steven Chu which was regarded by environmental activist and writer George Monbiot as “pathetic” and “pitiful” which added nothing to the most fundamental issue facing humanity (2).

For developing countries however, the conference was not about deviations and the presentation of gimmicks, but about recognizing how to share the atmosphere fairly (3).

The rich world – as has been the case in previous conferences – set the agenda for Copenhagen by denying the poor world the space to develop their economies, on the basis that the carbon emissions necessary to maintain this growth, is not sustainable, even though the rich themselves followed this path in the past (4).

The fact that the rich world set the agenda at Copenhagen was further illustrated by their trademark deceptions.

For example, the US stated that they would reduce their emissions by 17-20 per cent, which is not only widely accepted as being an insufficient measure, but they also used a different standard to everybody else (5).

What does this mean?

The US proposal of a 17-20 per cent cut that was on the table at Copenhagen. However, unlike the rest of the world which uses 1990 levels, the world’s principle polluter uses 2005 as the basis for its calculations.

The Bolivian leader, Evo Morales, stated that this was unacceptable and argued that the US follow the rest of the world and base the above percentage cut on 1990 level, which in real terms would have translated into a far more equitable 49 per cent cut in emissions. In reality though, the US proposed a cut of just three to four per cent based on the 2005 terms (6).

Moreover, the sums the rich world proposed as a means of helping the developing nations leapfrog the dirty technologies of the past were proven to be totally inadequate. The rich offered the poor a fraction (10 billion) of the estimated 500 billion a year that is required (7).

COP15: A Haitian delegation during second-day session at the Bella center in Copenhagen
A Haitian delegation rests before the second-day session begins in Copenhagen. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images
Evo Morales put this in context in a speech he made on the Wednesday of the second week of the conference:

“Obama asked the US Congress for 4o billion dollars more than what has already been spent. The budget of the United States is $687 billion for defense. And for climate change, to save life, to save humanity, they only put up $10 billion. This is shameful. The budget for the Iraq war, according to the figures we have, is $2.6 trillion … to go kill in Iraq. Trillions of dollars. But directed towards paying the climate debt, $10 billion”. (8).

All this came on the back of the scandal involving a leaked Danish text, the contents of which undermined the entire deliberative democratic process that supposedly underpinned the conference.

What did this scandal amount to?

The Danish prime minister betrayed the UN process of multilateralism by consulting with a rich select few countries – the UK, the US and Denmark – and created a text that is essentially a marriage of the EU and the US proposal. The text set unequal limits on per capita carbon emissions for developed and developing countries in 2050; meaning that people in rich countries would be permitted to emit nearly twice as much under the proposals. (9).

An attempt was made by the rich countries to conceal the text from the poor. When the developing countries eventually got to see it during the second week of the conference, they were furious that it was being promoted by rich countries without their knowledge and without discussion in the negotiations (10).

One nameless diplomat who was privy to the texts’ contents during the first week of the conference, said:

“It is being done in secret. Clearly the intention is to get [Barack] Obama and the leaders of other rich countries to muscle it through when they arrive next week.”

“It effectively is the end of the UN process”, said another.

Antonio Hill, climate policy adviser for Oxfam International, said:

“This is only a draft but it highlights the risk that when the big countries come together, the small ones get hurting. On every count the emission cuts need to be scaled up. It allows too many loopholes and does not suggest anything like the 40 per cent cuts that science is saying is needed.” (11).

The text was clearly an attempt by the rich countries to engineer an agreement in secret, designed to favour them as well as an attempt to sideline the UN’s role in all future climate change negotiations. In essence, the leak highlighted an attempt by the rich to superimpose an “agreement” without discussion that amounted to a fundamental reworking of the UN balance of obligations.

Further, the clear intent was the abandonment of the principles set in place by the Kyoto protocol, handing effective control of climate change finance to the World Bank. The aim is that the World Bank makes money as a result of enforcing the flawed EU [carbon] Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) upon the poor nations (12).

Matthew Stilwell of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development – one of the most influential advisers in these talks – says the negotiations were not really about averting climate change but were a pitched battle over a profoundly valuable resource: the right to the sky.

There is a limited amount of carbon that can be emitted into the atmosphere. If the rich countries fail to radically cut their emissions, then they are actively gobbling up the already insufficient share available to the south. What is at stake, Stilwell argues, is nothing less than “the importance of sharing the sky” (13).

Europe, he says, fully understands how much money will be made from carbon trading, since it has been using the mechanism for years. Developing countries, on the other hand, have never dealt with carbon restrictions, so many governments don’t really grasp what they are losing.

Contrasting the value of the carbon market – $1.2 trillion a year, according to leading British economist Nicholas Stern – with the paltry $10bn on the table for developing countries for the next three years, Stilwell says that rich countries are trying to exchange “beads and blankets for Manhattan”. He adds: “This is a colonial moment. That’s why no stone has been left unturned in getting heads of state here to sign off on this kind of deal … Then there’s no going back. You’ve carved up the last remaining unowned resource and allocated it to the wealthy.” (14).

So this was a summit whose “negotiations” were predicated on a scheme that the environmentalist James Lovelock describes as “a scam”…. that… “is destined to be distorted by business pressures.” (15).

Lovelock described similar market mechanisms that attempt to put a price on “services” provided by the natural world as akin to “slavery”. Lovelock was uniqivocal in saying that the scheme had “failed.” (16).

Former UK environment minister, Michael Meacher added:

“In principle [carbon trading] is not a bad idea but in operation it’s been disastrous. Business has frankly made billions out of artificial reductions of what is called hot air with absolutely no environmental benefit at all.”

Singling out the ETS for being distorted by commerce, he added:

“Government’s come under pressure from industry – the worst example is Germany –  which gave away far more allowances than industry actually needed.”

As a result, he said, the carbon price collapsed and the ability for companies to claim carbon credits by investing in developing world emissions-cutting projects meant western economies had done little to de-carbonise their industries.(17).

Despite this, many well-meaning people are under the misguided belief that the ETS is a first step in the right direction. Some of these people include, for instance, the friends of the film-maker Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff), who, she says, “really care about our future but support cap and trade. A lot of environmental groups that I respect do too. They know it’s not a perfect solution and don’t love the idea of turning our planet’s future over to these guys [The World Bank], but they think that it is an important first step and that it’s better than nothing.”

However, as Leonard’s film demonstrates, carbon trading is not better than nothing, it’s far worse than nothing. As the US’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, insisted in the New York Times last week, a Senate bill or Copenhagen deal based on cap-and-trade are indeed worse than no bill, no deal: carbon trading “actually perpetuates the pollution it is supposed to eliminate” (18).

Thus, according to Hansen, any basis for an agreement centred on carbon trading would be so deeply flawed that it would be better to start again from scratch. “I would rather it not happen if people accept that as being the right track because it’s a disaster track.”  (19).

James Hansen

‘We don’t have a leader who is able to grasp [the issue] and say what is really needed. Instead we are trying to continue business as usual,’ say James Hansen. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

For Hansen, dealing with climate change allows no room for the compromises that rule the world of elected politics. “This is analagous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill,” he said.

“On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can’t say let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50 per cent or reduce it 40 per cent.”

He added: “We don’t have a leader who is able to grasp it and say what is really needed. Instead we are trying to continue business as usual.” (20).

The outcome of the conference?

As widely anticipated, Copenhagen ended up as a farce. Once again, the politicians failed to deliver on activists demands, which included large emissions cuts, the payment of ecological debt to climate victims, and the decommissioning of carbon markets. No binding agreement was forthcoming. In this sense, it was “business as usual”.

The fault for this can be laid fairly and squarely with the rich world who sidelined the developing world from the discussions from the beginning. Thus, the limitations of a non-transparent decision-making process which granted a disproportionate amount of leverage to the rich developed world – principally the US – was brought to bear on the conference from the outset.

As the Indian environmentalist and activist Sunita Narain put it:

“The breakdown” [in the negotiations] happened because “the United States…wants to dismantle the Kyoto Protocol. They want to dismantle the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is based on the notion of equity…and replace it with a completely different multilateral system [designed to suit their interests]” (21).

This much was apparent to the discerning observer. In this regard, it was clear the rich world were motivated by a very different set of negotiating conditions than the poor world – the template for the former being the implementation of a non-binding arrangement that the poor were urged to sign up to. This explains why, for example, the US was able to put on the table a very small number, three percent cut in emissions below 1990 levels, when it needs to cut 40 percent.

That’s the deal they wanted which is a totally unacceptable proposition for the world. But in the last days of the conference there was enormous pressure on governments to sign on the dotted line backed by the coercive power of money and the logic of the market which the rich world is tied to.

From the environmentally sustainable aspect, the conference was a failure irrespective of whether an agreement was to be eventually signed up to or not, because a previously good agreement had been undermined. (22).

In effect, the US didn’t budge on its totally inadequate offer of a three per cent cut in emissions. This was on the back of U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing’s comment that the Obama administration is willing to pay its fair share, but that donors “don’t have unlimited largesse to disburse.” (23).

Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva responded:

“I think it’s time for the U.S. to stop seeing itself as a donor and recognize itself as a polluter, a polluter who must pay. … This is not about charity. This is about justice.” (24).

The countries that Shiva had in mind for whom justice needs to be served, include the least-developed countries, or LDCs; African nations; and nations from AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States. These are places where millions live on the edge, directly impacted by climate change, dealing with the effects, from cyclones and droughts to erosion and floods. Tuvalu, near Fiji, and other island nations, for example, are concerned that rising sea levels will wipe their countries off the map. (25).

It didn’t have to be this way. The position of the G77 negotiating bloc, including African states, had been clear: a 2C increase in average global temperatures translates into a 3-3.5C increase in Africa. That means, according to the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, “an additional 55 million people could be at risk from hunger”, and “water stress could affect between 350 and 600 million more people”.

That is precisely what the leaders of the rich world at Copenhagen have condemned Africa too. (26).

What can be done?

The fact that the conference was undemocratic, unrepresentative and non-transparent in nature, reflects the undemocratic organizational structure of the UN that oversaw it.  A workable alternative has been argued by George Monbiot. (27).

Within a fully democractized UN of the kind conceived by Monbiot, the amount nations pay towards combating global warming could be made according to the amount of carbon they produce per capita, coupled with their position on the human development index, as envisaged by Oxfam. (28).

On this basis, the US should supply over 4o per cent of the money and the European Union over 3o per cent, with Japan, Canada, Australia and Korea making up the balance. (29).

But however desirable this potential solution appears to be in theory, in reality, the chances of nations voluntarily committing themselves through agreement to these kinds of sums are highly unlikely.

What is needed is global enforcement. But who will do the enforcing in what would the effective bucking of the very economic system that the rich are tied to?

Further, this is the same failed unregulated capitalist orthodoxy that has seen crisis follow crisis and fudge follow fudge. And it is an orthodoxy and a logic that the politicians in the rich world seemingly adhere to unquestioningly.

Worse, they apparently fail to comprehend that the market is not only not the solution to the issue of global warming, but rather it is the problem. The people of the world urgently need a new radical shift away from the reliance on the market as a way of solving the biggest crisis facing humanity.

In this regard, the leaders of the rich world would do well to heed the speech of Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez who, in echoing the sentiments of many of the 100,000 protestors in Copenhagen, cited capitalism as the cause of the greatest threat to humanity:

“Capitalism is threatening to eradicate life as we know it on this planet.” (30).

He complemented his charge with the protests two main motto’s:

“If the environment were a bank, they would have saved it by now.”


“Don’t Change the Climate, Change the System.” (31).

His speech was similar in content and spirit to that of the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, who said to the press and to the convention that “the cause of climate change is the capitalist system. If we want to solve this problem, we’re going to have to do away with the capitalist system.”

Morales also called for the formation of a “climate justice tribunal to prosecute those countries,” which pollute too much. Only that way, he said, would it be possible for a place like Africa to avoid the horrors of “a climate holocaust.” (32).

Today the battlelines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments to economic growth and the logic of capitalism that overrides it, and those who believe that we must live within limits.

Even if we manage to prevent climate breakdown, growth means that it’s only a matter of time before we hit a new constraint, which demands a new global response: oil, water, phosphate, soil.

We will lurch from crisis to existential crisis unless we address the underlying cause: perpetual growth cannot be accommodated on a finite planet (33).

The failure of the politicians at Copenhagen to tackle the underlying cause, is akin to bidding Africa, south Asia, the world’s glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforests, a final “goodbye,”… “not that we really cared.” (34).

In the end, if we continue on the path we are heading, it will not only be the developing world who will be the slaves to capitalism and the process of global warming that is induced by it, but it will be all of us.


(1). Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.



(4). ibid.

(5). ibid.





(10). ibid.

(11). ibid.



(14). ibid.



(17). ibid.

(18). ibid.


(20). ibid.


(22). ibid.


(24). ibid.

(25). ibid.


(27). Manifesto for a New World Order (2004, The New Press) ISBN 1-56584-908-6

(28). Oxfam, May 29, 2007.



(31). ibid.

(32). ibid.



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