Climate fraud, carbon profits

18 January 2008
In the media
Published at
By the looks of it, environmentalists should be celebrating a great victory. For decades, their warnings about the devastating consequences of pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year were met with a strange combination of arrogance, paralysis and denial. Now, everybody seems to finally recognize the gravity of the problem.
A recent BBC survey polled 22,000 people in 21 countries to find that an overwhelming 80 percent believe that human activity is a significant cause of climate change. And no less than 70 percent say they are willing to change their lifestyles - even in the U.S. and China, the world's top emitters of greenhouse gases. Climate change is the hot new topic around dinner tables, young couples calculate their "carbon footprint," and jetting around the world with a slideshow on the subject is enough to get you awarded a Nobel Prize. But is this sudden rush to jump on the climate bandwagon really so encouraging? Not if you look at the bigger picture. One might have expected, for example, that the vindication of environmentalists' warnings would also translate into more attention to the solutions they have been offering all along: reduced consumption, diversified and self-reliant local economies, and an end to our civilization's obsession with economic growth at all costs. But these options remain largely silenced and ignored. Instead, the new hype around climate change is being shaped almost exclusively by global political and business elites, and their interests seem unchanged: more power, more money. Much has been made of the "success" of the recent climate conference in Bali, where U.S. negotiators finally succumbed to international pressure and ceased to stonewall progress toward a new climate treaty. But the real story remains the flawed content of the Kyoto Protocol and whatever succeeds it. In fact, the international framework on climate change merely strengthens the same global system of inequality and exploitation, whose logic of infinite growth is what landed us in this mess in the first place. Its centerpiece is a new global market - the trade in carbon dioxide. Major polluters can now buy carbon credits that allow them to pay someone else to reduce emissions, instead of cutting their own pollution. Meanwhile, under the innocuously named Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), governments and corporations can generate new carbon credits out of thin air by financing renewable energy and/or "offsetting" projects that allegedly absorb greenhouse gases. All this will certainly put more money into the global economy and generate new investment opportunities. Israel, for its part, managed to get itself defined as a "developing country" in the Kyoto Protocol and is not required to reduce emissions, at least until 2012. But it has already drawn undisclosed millions in CDM investments - including schemes for methane capture from the Hiriya landfill and Kibbutz Nirim's pig farm. But whether turning the atmosphere into just another commodity does anything to effect climate change remains highly debatable. Environmental-justice organizations like Carbon Trade Watch argue that the CDM system is highly flawed. With no regulatory framework to verify claimed reductions, hundreds of credit-generating projects are being realized under corporate self-monitoring, dangerously relying on the polluters' own integrity. These potential conflicts of interest were at the heart of the Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals, both pioneers in emissions trading. Moreover, a ham-fisted approach to ecological complexity guides the use of vast single-crop plantations to allegedly "sequester" carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, generating carbon credits for investors to use or sell on. There is only limited scientific understanding of the complex mechanisms of carbon exchange between forests, oceans and atmosphere, and the damage done by these projects may outweigh their benefit. The World Bank's flagship CDM project in Brazil, started in 2002, involved planting 23,000 hectares of eucalyptus - displacing local communities, destroying biodiversity and the water table, and poisoning the soil with pesticides. Still, entrepreneurs charge ahead with plantations. The incentive to develop the emerging offset industry takes precedence over any genuine concern for climate stability. So much for profit. As for power, it takes only a small dose of cynicism to realize that the climate crisis is becoming a new weapon in our governments' politics of fear-mongering. Our leaders no longer bother promising us welfare or peace - only protection from drummed-up menaces, ranging from terrorism to juvenile delinquency. As long as the alarmist talk is not backed up by any form of action that would jeopardize the existing structure of wealth and power, the climate is a convenient way to keep us scared and obedient. What is frightening about economic decentralization and local self-reliance is not that they are difficult to achieve - social and ecological approaches to planning and productivity have been successfully tested for years, from England to Cuba to Japan. The real problem is the threat that self-reliant, resilient local economies might pose to the state-capitalist regime. If communities controlled their own food and energy sources, they might turn out to be a bit too independent, a bit too difficult to exploit and command. And this prospect makes our leaders shake in their shoes.
Uri Gordon teaches environmental politics at the Arava Institute. His book "Anarchy Alive!" was recently published by Pluto Press