Marx in Copenhagen

by W.T. Whitney Jr.


“Goodbye Africa, goodbye South Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest; it was nice knowing you.” Such was UK Guardian writer George Monbiot’s dismay as the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference ended without a binding agreement.

Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper blamed the meeting’s failure on “a web of interests that are the main obstacle to reaching a serious accord,” including “governments and their accomplices in the corporate and financial world.” The profligate burning of fossil fuels has accompanied corporations’ economic expansion, accumulation, and incessant quest for profit. In the course of this quest, capitalism “imposes what is in effect a scorched earth strategy,” writes Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster.

The Copenhagen debacle may well go down in history as a turning point in capitalist development, much as the 1914 war over empire, for example, or the Great Depression in 1929. This time, capitalism is putting the whole of humankind on the road to hunger, migrations, rampant disease, and die-off. Harking back to Karl Marx, Samir Amin asserts, “The accumulation of capital destroys the natural bases on which that accumulation is built: man…and the earth.”

The Copenhagen gathering followed years of scientific recommendations, negotiations, and wrangling, beginning with the 1992 Earth Summit. With Washington opting out, industrialized nations accepted the 1997 Kyoto Protocol calling for modest but legally binding limits on emissions. To keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists have called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the present 385 parts per million to 350 ppm.

Before the Copenhagen meeting, the United Nations issued guidelines accepting a temperature rise of 2° C. By 2020, industrialized nations were to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent of 1990 levels, to 80 percent by 2050. The European Union had promised a 20 percent cut; the United States, in effect, a 4 percent cut. China, exempted from Kyoto requirements, offered an ambiguous plan tying emissions cuts to units of GDP rise.

No agreements were in sight when world leaders arrived at the meeting’s end. President Obama met with Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, and South African representatives, later with those of 25 industrialized nations. He then issued a press-conference announcement of an “agreement” affecting 194 nations. Participants learned of it via television.

Legal commitments under the Kyoto Protocol morphed into a political agreement lacking commitments and time tables. Reaching out to nations individually, not collectively, it focused on monitoring and backed the 2-degree limit on global warming.

A leaked UN scientific report predicting a 3° C global temperature rise under UN-recommended emissions limits was ignored. “Shock Doctrine” author Naomi Klein saw bribery in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s $100 billion offer from unspecified sources to help underdeveloped nations cope with climate disaster.

Meanwhile, outside the meeting, Danish police arrested over 1,000 peaceful protesters under a new “pre-crime law.” The protesters were demanding swift and effective action to reduce emissions.

Speaking for the G-77 group of 134 underdeveloped nations, Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Pping demanded a 1.5° C limit on global warming and 60 percent emission reductions by 2020. “I will not accept the total destruction of my continent, her people, in Copenhagen,” he declared.

That’s where a Marxist approach comes in. The struggle, defined by class interests, continues. And just as the labor theory of value sheds light on the need for unified struggle by industrial workers, Marx’s distinction between use value and exchange value does likewise for victims of natural resources pillage.

Use values in the natural environment, taken together, constitute the public’s wealth, which, in abundance, benefits all. In contrast, the sum of exchange values — commodities produced from these resources for exchange on the market — constitute the basis for private riches.

Capitalists want use values to be absorbed into the exchange value category, opening them up to engineered scarcities and accumulation. Or, according to Marx, quoted by Bellamy Foster: “The earth is the reservoir from whose bowels the use values are to be torn.”

Climate change sets the stage for profiteers to look covetously at food and fuel shortages, high technology energy fixes, and carbon trading. Working people, inhabitants of small islands, and poor African farmers—among others—fight to protect wealth held in common.

Samir Amin advocates waging this fight under a socialist banner: “Socialism is designed in terms of a society founded on use value, not exchange value,” Amin says, adding,: “Socialism should be ecological, indeed can only be ecological.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales came to Copenhagen with a message from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). “We cannot consider climate change without thinking about changing the system,” the message said. “The capitalist production and consumption model is taking life on the planet to a point of no return.”

Chavez reminded assembled leaders of “socialism, the other specter Karl Marx spoke about, which walks here too…Socialism, this is the direction, this is the path to save the planet.”

[For the full text of Chavez’s speech at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, go to: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/23421]

[Also, for Fidel Castro’s article about the failed conference, go to: http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/23483]