Cancun World Climate Conference - Another Predictable Capitalist Failure

Many people might not even have noticed that the latest UN climate conference was held in the Mexican resort of Cancun during the first 2 weeks of December. It was hardly reported in the bourgeois press and where it was mentioned the expectations of success were well and truly damped down. After the fiasco of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which was supposedly “the last chance to save the planet”, but which nonetheless ended in complete failure, this conference was a low key affair and major political leaders kept well away. The failure of Copenhagen was not, of course, accidental but clearly reflected the views of a powerful sector of the capitalist class who wish to carry on polluting as usual and have a direct interest in undermining the scientific basis of global warming.

The challenges, which their paid prize fighters have mounted to the science, have succeeded in taking the issue out of the headlines and producing a more widespread scepticism about climate change than existed before Copenhagen. Global warming now appears as something we don’t need to worry about any longer.1 This is absolutely not the case. There is general agreement among climate scientists that the threats to life on earth, posed by climate change, are now more severe than a year ago. Capitalist “civilisation” is like a juggernaut, out of control and heading for a precipice.

The Cancun conference was the 16th conference the UN has held to try to control man-made (anthropogenic) global warming and, like the preceding conferences, failed to do this. No binding agreement to do anything about emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) was reached. Today, the only international agreement for reducing the emission of GHGs, which are the principal cause of global warming, remains the Kyoto agreement. This agreement, which expires in 2012, and which covers only a quarter of global GHG emissions, because the US has refused to ratify it and countries such as China, India and Brazil were excluded from the start, is virtually useless. The Cancun conference committed the 200 participating countries to keep talking about the issues while agreeing to some fairly ill defined proposals. It is a measure of the inability of the main capitalist powers to address climate change that the pathetic outcome of this conference was described in the press as a “victory for multilateralism” or to quote UK Prime Minister Cameron a “significant” step forward.

The main conference agreements were:

  • To limit the increase in average global temperature to 2oC during the 21st century, with consideration being given to a 1.5oC rise. However since the means of achieving this, namely a 15% reduction in GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, remain completely voluntary such an ambition is virtually meaningless.
  • The creation of a “Green Fund” to provide loans for developing countries. The fund is supposed to provide $30bn by 2012 and $100bn annually by 2020. Where the funds are to come from is not made clear but its creation was advocated by the World Bank and the World Bank is to manage it. It is intended to provide loans to peripheral countries to buy green technology or employ consultants from the central capitalist countries The fund is likely to operate as a type of export credit fund for the metropolitan capitalists and will principally benefit them. The World Bank funded $6.3bn of fossil fuel developments in 2009 so does not exactly have a record of combating climate change (2).
  • A scheme for providing finance to developing countries for forest protection called “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation “(REDD) and another for Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM). These schemes serve to promote and prepare the ground for carbon offsetting schemes aimed at enhancing carbon trading. Finance to be provided to poor countries induced many countries to accept these schemes. Wikileaks has exposed the process of bullying and bribing by which the US and other metropolitan capitalist countries cajoled peripheral countries into accepting these schemes (3).
  • To keep talking and hope that a binding agreement could reached at next years talks in Durban. This was undoubtedly the main achievement of the conference. However the minor agreements reached set the parameters for future negotiations and are likely to result in future agreements on GHG reduction being based on Carbon trading and offsetting.

Looming ecological disaster

Climate change is only part of a general ecological disaster which capitalism is inflicting on the planet. According to the US National Academy of Sciences report of 2002 the world economy’s demands on the planet exceeded the earth’s regenerative capacity in 1980 and by 1999 it had exceeded it by 20%. (4) The current figure is 30%. (5) This means it would take 1.3 years for the planet to regenerate what we use in a year! In other words regeneration is not occurring. It is little wonder that 60% of the world’s ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangrove swamps and wetlands, are in now degraded and in decline. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that 15 out of the 24 natural processes on which our survival depends are in decline or are becoming unsustainable. Key processes under threat are provision of water via the water cycle, provision of food and timber, pollination of all types including crops, soil formation, photo synthesis and nutrient recycling. (6) Global warming, which itself represents a breakdown in another natural cycle, the carbon cycle, is making all this a lot worse. It is estimated, for example, that for each 1°C rise in temperature yields of major cereals’ such as wheat and rice will drop by 10%. If the Cancun ambition of a 2°C rise in temperature is achieved there is, therefore, likely to be a drop in food production of at least 12%. Many species alive only a few decades ago are now extinct, while others are heading for extinction and if we continue on the present trajectory Homo sapiens will also be added to the list.7 The simple truth is that instead of living in a sustainable metabolic relationship with nature, as we did in the hunter gather epoch or to a lesser extent in slave and feudal societies, capitalist society is trashing the planet, and this cannot continue indefinitely.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is now 390 parts per million (ppm) a rise of 3 ppm from the time of the Copenhagen conference. This concentration is 20% more than it was in 2000 and 40% more than it was in 1990. The principal concern of climate scientists is that if the concentration of GHGs rises above 450 ppm the process of global warming will spin out of control and nothing human beings do will any longer have any effect. The so called “tipping point” will have been reached.

This point is also, according to climate scientists, equivalent to a 2°C rise in temperature. This means the upper limit of temperature rise adopted by the Cancun Conference would put us at the tipping point. However, scientists calculate that even if the voluntary Copenhagen and Cancun reductions are met they will lead to a 4 to 5oC rise in temperature, and if they are not met we can expect a 7°C rise. (8) When one considers that the average temperature difference between that of the last ice age 12 000 years ago and the and average for the last 500 years is only 3oC9 one can imagine the catastrophic effects such temperature rises will create.

What exactly do the capitalist class propose to do about all this?

Capitalist responses to global warming

The capitalist class is divided in its response to this issue along three broad lines:

  1. A powerful section of capitalists headed by the energy sector, particularly the oil sector, want to take no action whatsoever. This sector is behind the attempts to deny global warming even exists. They have succeeded in undermining the Kyoto protocols and sabotaging any meaningful agreements at the subsequent climate change conferences. At present they have prevented the US “cap and trade” carbon trading scheme being passed by the US senate.
  2. Another sector, while recognising global warming is occurring; wish to combat it with green technology, carbon trading schemes and carbon taxes. Capitalist growth and accumulation, they argue, can continue as usual but must metamorphose into a “green” capitalism. Neo liberalism is to be coloured green.
  3. A small minority wish to impose a state capitalist solution with state enforced GHG reductions worldwide. This group, championed by Bolivia which opposed the Cancun agreement, includes the peasant movement “La Via Campesina” and groups of indigenous peoples immediately threatened by climate change and its consequences.

The first grouping do not hold out any solution whatsoever to the ecological crisis and if they retain their grip on the global political response to this problem the world will probably reach the “tipping point” in one or two decades. It seems likely, however, that as the global situation deteriorates their influence will decrease and the second grouping will become the most important.

The second group wish to rely on carbon trading and green technology.

As we have pointed out in previous texts10 , carbon trading is a complete swindle. The key issue remains the consideration that emissions trading schemes are controlled by the capitalist class and it is they who determine the carbon caps. The way the world’s major scheme, that in the EU, works it is at present more profitable to pollute than to install non-polluting technology. The carbon market is a capitalist market like any other and prices of carbon go up and down. At present 1 tonne of carbon, which in 2008 was traded at €30, is valued at €15. This makes it cheaper to offset and keep polluting, which is precisely what is happening. The offset mechanism, far from increasing the carbon sinks in the developing countries, often results in destruction of natural forests by imported timber plantations and displacement of indigenous peoples.

It is also allowing the major polluting nations to gain control of swathes of land in the peripheral countries. The scheme serves mainly to transfer the burden of the effects of global warming from the metropolitan capitalist countries to the peripheral countries.

Green technology can, at best, mitigate the problems of ecological destruction it cannot prevent them. As will be discussed below, capitalist society demands continual accumulation of capital and consequently continual growth. There is thus an absolute contradiction between a social system which demands continual, i.e. infinite, growth and a planet with finite resources. The capitalist system is simply incompatible with preservation of the earth’s ecosystem and any solution of the problems we face must start with the overthrow of capitalist production. Green technology, under capitalism represents a new field of profit generation and a new field of capital accumulation and must inevitably run up against the same problems of continual accumulation versus finite resources. Green technology served up as a solution to global warming is a fraud.

The third group held an alternative Climate Conference of its own at Cochabamba in Bolivia in April 2010 and produced a manifesto. The main items the manifesto calls for are:

  • 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2017
  • stabilising temperature rises at 1°C above pre industrial levels and reducing GHG concentrations to 300 ppm
  • acknowledging the climate debt owed by developed countries
  • full respect for the rights of indigenous peoples
  • a universal declaration of the rights of Mother Earth
  • establishment of an international court of climate justice
  • rejection of carbon markets and commodification of nature and forests through REDD
  • promotion of measures that change the consumption patterns of developed countries
  • end of intellectual property rights for technologies useful for mitigating climate change
  • payment of 6% of developed countries’ GDP to address climate change.

The demands for the reduction of GHG emissions and temperature stabilisation would have to be imposed by the state and would demand statecapitalist control of the economy on a global scale. While it is true that the demands for GHG reduction and limitation of temperature rise are ones which could reverse the trend towards runaway global warming, they remain reforms within the compass of the capitalist system of production.

They would not be able to overcome the contradiction between the need for continual accumulation and the finite nature of the earth and would not be able to solve the ecological crisis in the longer term. The Bolivian president, Morales and his Venezuelan counterpart, Chavez, have nationalised the energy resources of their countries in defiance of the US. This has enabled them to present their anti-Americanism as anti-imperialism, and their versions of state capitalism as different from that of the former Soviet Union, and as a movement toward socialism. But state capitalism remains capitalism and workers remain wage labourers separated from the means of production and the dynamics of capitalism remain intact. The Cochabamba demands were, needless to say, completely rejected by the Cancun Conference.

“La Via Campesina” group in its statement following the conference called again for acceptance of the Cochabamba manifesto but added its own demand for something called a “cosmovision”. They stated: “We must go beyond the anthropocentric model. We must rebuild the cosmovision of our peoples, based on a holistic view of the relationship between the cosmos, mother earth, the air, the water and all living beings. Human beings do not own nature but rather form part of all that lives.” Such a vision is one which predates class society. Unfortunately we live in class society and we cannot go back to previous forms of existence. To get out of the mess we are in we need to move forward to socialist production and a classless society. The amorphous nature of such statements illustrate how the peasantry is unable to see a future beyond their doomed way of life. Where the solutions they offer are not reactionary, they are utopian.

Capitalism - the real threat to humanity’s future

It is the capitalist system of production which has led us into this mess and continuing with capitalism will only take us into worse trouble still. The capitalist system is a system in which production is for profit not for human needs. One of the consequences of this is that capitalism has a continual need to accumulate capital. This means it needs to grow continually. When growth stalls the system collapses into crisis. Empirical studies have shown that since the start of capitalism in the late 18th century, capitalism has grown at an average rate of 2.25% per year. (11) This means that the global economy doubles in size on average every 30 years. The period since World War 2 has seen much more rapid growth as shown in Table 1 below: In the 50 years since the war the world economy grew by a factor of approximately 7.

Country 1950 1973 1990 2003 2030 est.
W. Europe U 1396 4097 6033 7857 12556
USA 1456 3537 5803 8431 16662
Japan 161 1243 2321 2699 3488
All rich countries 3193 9399 15015 20264 35120
Russia 315 872 1151 914 2017
Latin America 416 1389 2240 3132 6074
China 245 739 2124 6188 22983
India 222 495 1089 2267 10074
Africa 203 550 905 1322 2937
World 5341 16022 27136 40913 96580
Table 1. Gross Domestic Product in $bn at 1990 purchasing power parity (12)

Capitalism has always treated nature as a resource to be exploited mercilessly to maximise profits. Bellamy Foster, in his book “The Ecological Revolution” expressed this as follows:

The class/imperial war which defines capitalism as a world system, and that governs its system of accumulation, is a juggernaut that knows no limits. In this deadly conflict the natural world is seen as a mere instrument of world social domination. Hence, capital by its very logic imposes what is in effect a scorched earth strategy. The planetary ecological crisis is increasingly allencompassing, the product of the destructive uncontrollability of a rapidly globalising economy, which knows no law other than its own drive to exponential expansion (13).

Exponential growth is not compatible with finite resources. This alone shows how futile it is to try and reform aspects of the system and deal with its worst excesses while the central dynamic tendencies of the system remain intact.

Any slowing down of emissions of GHG represents a threat to accumulation and a threat to growth. It is for this reason that even the more intelligent members of the capitalist class cannot countenance this. Nicholas Stern, for example, in his 2006 report for the UK government admits that GHG emissions are driven by economic growth yet he proposes to continue accumulation as usual and concludes that GHG concentrations will have to rise to between 500 and 550 ppm before they can be stabilised, because anything else would be too costly.

This level is, of course, well beyond the tipping point and would have catastrophic effects, but for capitalism doing anything about it is considered too costly.

The capitalist system is leading us to ruin and the task of replacing it is becoming ever more urgent. As we wrote in RP 53:

There is a glaring need for a new world order: a global community without national borders where production can be planned directly to meet human needs and can take account of environmental consequences of alternative courses of action; a community without the intermediary of money and commodity production, where economics becomes a question of social allocation of time, particularly working time, and no longer a question of what is immediately financially profitable….Capitalism remains, by definition, a system dependent on generating profit, the source of which is the surplus labour workers are obliged to yield to capital over and above the wages they receive. It is this system which has to be abolished and only the concerted force of an internationally unified and politically conscious working class will have the power to do so…. a new world is possible - and necessary. Perpetually campaigning to reform this or that aspect of capitalism is not the way forward. The only way to halt capitalist ‘business as usual’ and save the planet for humanity is by world working class revolution. The spark for that will come from the politically conscious minority who have organised to campaign in the only revolutionary way possible: amongst the working class for the communist political programme.


(1) Minor errors which have come to light in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 4th report such as locations of temperature readings in China or predictions of shrinking Himalayan glaciers have been used to discredit the whole report.

(2) According to Grace Garcia from Friends of the Earth Costa Rica, “Only a gang of lunatics would think it is a good idea to invite the World Bank to receive climate funds, with their longstanding track record of financing the world’s dirtiest projects and imposition of death-sentencing conditionalities on our peoples.” Quoted by Patrick Bond see .

(3) See Patrick Bond .

(4) Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences 99 No 14.

(5) See Water and Environment Management WEM Vol 14 No 8.

(6) See Millennium Ecosystem Assessment UN 2005 7 The latest update of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ shows that 17,291 species out of the 47,677 assessed species are threatened with extinction. The results confirm that 21% of all known mammals, 30% of all known amphibians, 12 per cent of all known birds and 32% of all known gymnosperms (conifers and cycads) are threatened with extinction.

(7) “The scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis is mounting,” says Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group. “January sees the launch of the International Year of Biodiversity. The latest analysis of the IUCN Red List shows the 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss will not be met.

(8) See Patrick Bond node/2041 .

(9) See James Lovelock “Revenge of Gaia” pg 67.

(10) See RP 52 “Environmental Disaster or Communism” and RP 53 “After all the hot air at Copenhagen Global Warming is set to continue” available at .

(11) See David Harvey “The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism” pg 27.

(12) See David Harvey “The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism” pg 27.

(13) J Bellamy Foster “The Ecological Revolution” pg 46.

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