Fourteen Days that Burned the World
As John Reed began his reflections on the Russian revolution, we can say of these reports that they are “a slice of intensified history.” While the characters in this play are not new, here they perform a world system in its final acts, and a world history at a dramatic climax. The first enclosure of the commons culminated in Durban with an enclosure of the world; and the first colony was crowned here with the colonization of the global climate.
As the meetings went into days of overtime, a mirage of hope appeared. Perhaps a murderous deal would not be reached after all. Perhaps these criminals would not get the opportunity to gloat in yet another press conference that their deathly consensus had been reached. Perhaps the unexpected delay would even embolden some of the parties or observers to break ranks and desert the planetary death squad. But it was not to be. Details aside, COP17 will go down in history as fourteen days that burned the world.
What happened in Durban was not an anomaly or an aberration. It was the logical next step in the UNFCCC system that was inaugurated in 1992. Cold and calculating this logic may be, but it would be wrong to call it heartless or amoral. This international system has values, and they are values, as Lumumba Di-Aping candidly assessed at COP15 in Copenhagen, “that funneled six million people in Europe into furnaces.” Climate catastrophe after all, is not indiscriminate. This time the genocide does not target one ethnic group in particular, but the poor of the entire world. And if the system has its way, Africa in particular is going to burn.
Why cook Africa? It is not malice, nor only a merciless defense of business as usual, but an insatiable avarice for ever more. “After centuries of plunder,” Nnimmo Bassey asks in his recent book To Cook A Continent, “what is there left in Africa to attract adventurers and seekers of El Dorado? (Bassey p12) The answer, he explains, is horrifically simple. What they want is Africa without Africans. The people they can do without. Their eyes are on the prize: “75 per cent of the world’s platinum group of metals (cobalt, chromium, etc), 50 per cent of the gold, 45-50 per cent of the diamonds, 25-30 per cent of the bauxite, 10 per cent of the nickel and copper, 12 per cent of the uranium, 7 per cent of the manganese and 5.8 per cent of the tantalum (coltan).” (Bassey p16)
Already, the global temperature is 0.85 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and since this warming has been absorbed by the oceans, these temperatures will not go back down anytime soon. And due to the particularities of its geography, climate change in the continent of Africa exceeds the global temperature by 1.5 times, bringing Africa’s fever to over 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. (groundWork) Due to these changes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that “in some countries, yields from systems that are rain-fed may decline by as much as 50 per cent by 2020.” The United Nations has consequently predicted that “nine out of ten peasants will not be able to grow food by 2100. (Bassey p102) With 26 billion tons of CO2 emitted annually, and 70 per cent of the African population directly dependent on rain for food, Bassey writes that “it is very clear that the continent is being cooked on carbon fires.” (Bassey p101 and 105) In Bassey’s home country of Nigeria, the situation is already desperate. By 2020, climate change will result in a 50 per cent loss of production of cereals, and an 80 per cent loss by 2050. “This is worse than any armed conflict,” Bassey concludes. (Bassey p114) If the Durban deal is not disrupted, the African continent may be largely uninhabitable in a few hundred years.
Scientists on every continent are agreed that absent an emissions peak by 2015, followed by a drastic reduction which ends with negative emissions after 2050, we are scheduled for a four degree Celsius rise in global temperatures above the preindustrial era by the end of the century — from human intervention alone. (groundWorks) Climate feedback loops, such as the methane released in melting permafrost, or the albedo effect of heating the oceans due to the disappearance of ice caps, promise to push the temperature even higher.
While COP17 has decided to delay meaningful action until 2020, virtually guaranteeing a four degree increase globally by the end of the century (and worse for Africa), the interim period will have morbid symptoms of its own. Under the guise of “mitigation” and “adaptation,” plans are being made to turn a profit on the disasters that are already underway. Bassey writes that “[t]he major thrust of carbon trading and carbon offset strategies is to transfer the responsibilities for the impacts of climate change to the South while the polluters reap profits from the new business built upon disasters.” (Bassey p112) In addition to climate finance, a new armory of weapons for accumulation by dispossession, disguised by a litany of acronyms such as CDM, ETS, REDD, GCF and more, threaten to make matters even worse. The Oil Watch Declaration, distributed in Durban summarizes:
Proposals such as “payment for environmental services”, ”emissions absorption programmes”, “forest conservation programmes”, “benefit sharing”, extractive enterprises with “indigenous participation” and a series of other systems of covert debt-creation and co-optation represent new tools for the occupation and control of territories that facilitate new means of clearing the way for extractive industries… that in many cases… are strategies to maintain and expand capitalism, with a green image.
The tragedy of the many will be transformed into the treasure of the few. The results of the whole affair can be captured in a poem by Dennis Brutus, titled “There will be ample provision for the elite”:
There will be ample provision for the elite
– and their servants — and their poodles –
in the planetary colonies
while we moulder to disintegration
(gas masked) on the miasma
of an uninhabitable fug
or frizzle in the holocaust
of a themonuclear fry.
The ample provision for the elite was not a hidden agenda at COP17, but very much on display, particularly in the “Climate Change Response Expo” at the entrance of the International Convention Center, which unlike the ICC itself, was open to the public. It showcased — I am not making this up – slick displays of clean coal, clean nuclear, and all the latest high-tech creature comforts for the environmentally disposed ruling class. The exposition prefigured a “green zone” of eco-apartheid in the coming age of climate collapse. While browsing the future amenities of green apartheid, such as a hydrogen powered bicycle, visitors were treated to free champagne, and could buy vouchers to purchase, in eco-scrip, greenwashed food, to wash down with solar-powered cappuccinos.
If COP17 goes down in history as fourteen days that burned the world, Africa first, then the elite were not the only cooks in the kitchen. This thing we call civil society is also highly implicated. Thousands of rural women, shackdwellers, waste pickers, fisherfolk, and grassroots township organizers arrived in Durban singing, dancing and ready for struggle. There was every tactical possibility of either shutting the event down and/or formulating a new platform and organization for a shared international struggle. Elements within civil society are responsible for distracting and diverting both the mass mobilizations and the consciousness that surrounded them from the kind of actions necessary to really beat the devil. There must be a reckoning.
What’s next? In the literal wake of COP17, ‘saving the world’ can no longer be dismissed as a vague proposition. It must be understood as a specific struggle against capitalism, and it is the birthright of us all to take up the challenge. This requires much more than “political will”, the empty mantra recited by everyone as a substitute for struggle. It requires an existential commitment to a radical rupture in human civilization. This is the horizon and the rhythm that awaits our vision and our dance.
To Cook A Continent, Destructive extraction and the climate crisis in Africa, by Nnimmo Bassey, Pambazuka Press, Cape Town, Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford, 2012
Position Paper on Climate and Energy Justice, published by groundWork, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, December 2011
The Petroleum Civilization at its Limits, Declaration by Oilwatch, Oilwatch International, www.oilwatch.org