Nov 272017

  by Bill Onasch

Bonn Voyage

Not much good news was expected to come out of the annual UN COP23 gathering in the former capital of west Germany–and it certainly lived up to anticipation.

This year’s host country has done more than most major industrial powers to ameliorate the climate crisis. About half of their electricity is powered by non-fossil fuels, 37.6 percent by clean renewables. But the leader of the world’s third biggest economy was nevertheless apologetic at the COP for good reason. Writing in the New York Times, Brad Plumer summarized remarks by Chancellor Angela Merkel–who is also having trouble forming a new government after losing seats in a recent election,

After declaring that ‘climate change is an issue determining our destiny as mankind,’ Ms. Merkel acknowledged that Germany was likely to miss the goals it had set itself for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 because of its continued reliance on coal power. While vowing to grapple with the issue, she said that phasing out coal use would require ‘tough discussions’ with German policymakers in the weeks ahead.”

Graphic by Der Spiegel

An in-depth study by the German newsweekly Der Spiegel explains Merkel’s quandary. To produce about a quarter of their electricity, Germany annually consumes more than 170 million metric tons of lignite—so-called brown coal—more than any other country. It emits much more carbon and other nasty stuff than even the more familiar dirty black bituminous or anthracite. Not far from Bonn the biggest hole in Europe has been dug, clearing big swaths of the once carbon absorbing ancient Hambach Forest, for an open cast lignite mine—a site currently enduring ongoing protests. Merkel’s “tough discussions” will include the big energy capitalists who want to expand their destruction of the Hambach, along with the unions representing their workers.

As highlighted in an earlier WIR, COP23 began with a warning by UN climate officials and scientists that pledges made by the Parties to reduce greenhouse emissions were woefully inadequate for meeting the modest goals of Paris. They urged everyone to take greater measures. The admission that Germany will likely fail to meet already deficient initial promises is bad news indeed.

Though Trump has already begun the lengthy process of withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Accords, a rump delegation headed by a low level acting assistant Secretary of State was dispatched to defend their boss under attack by Junk Science and Fake News. They sponsored an event titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.” After much jeering, most of the audience walked out.

Also previously noted, for the first time there was a rival American delegation—the U.S. Climate Center whose slogan is “We Are Still In.” It is comprised of mainly Democrat state and local elected officials with a sprinkling of academics and a few capitalists. Defiance of a sitting President may appear heroic. But these lions were as meek as the one Dorothy encountered on the Yellow Brick Road during the eight years of Obama.

For sure, Obama is no Denier. Global climate awareness was beginning to peak during his first year in office and it appeared a transformative international agreement might emerge from the 2009 COP held in Copenhagen. But, instead, like in the Bard’s Hamlet, there turned out to be “something rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Combining a trip to the Danish capital with a journey to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize, Obama was a late arrival at the COP. But once there he was like the cat among the pigeons. He demanded a tentative consensus be scrapped while he negotiated with major players. The President also offered a palpable bribe of billions to poor countries who accepted the watered down deal he brokered with China—though little, if any, of this promised hush money was ever paid.

In the end, the delegates refused to vote on this backroom deal and the most the Chair could salvage was recognition that the body “took note” of the agreement crafted by the two leading greenhouse polluters. Friends of the Earth called it “A Sham Deal Requires Nothing, Accomplishes Nothing.” Der Spiegel wrote a scathing editorial entitled “Full Throttle In to the Greenhouse.” There were to be no other meaningful agreements until the Paris Accords six years later.

In the interim between Copenhagen and Paris Obama gave short shrift to coal—but also established himself as the Fracking President. Environmentally destructive hydraulic fracturing made the USA oil self-sufficient and drove down the price of marginally cleaner natural gas to make it cheaper than coal. That in turn led to a massive conversion of coal-fired power plants to gas.

This one-off gain in reducing utility smokestack carbon emissions was supplemented by executive orders launching a “Clean Power Policy.” It encouraged states to form regional cap-and-trade structures, similar to those that have been in place in Europe since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

But Obama chose a model based on the shaky structure of his Affordable Care Act—that was dissed by about half the states. The ACA at least had the force of a law passed by Congress and a Republican majority has been frustrated by failures to repeal and replace. Undoing past executive orders, however, requires only a countermanding order by the next President—and Trump is quite proud of his calligraphy. In so doing 45 eliminated most of what Obama committed to do in the Paris Accords.

When California Governor Jerry Brown and his followers declare “We Are Still In,” it is Obama’s Clean Power—and the inadequate goals of most other nations—that they are in for. Cap-and-Trade, Carbon Tax–and virtually all market measures–have failed to even slow the relentless escalation of global warming.

Most informed people realize today’s climate change is not a “natural” threat but is the consequence of human activity. Not yet widely understood is the danger of collapse of the biosphere that has nurtured human civilization is the result of what Marxists like John Bellamy Foster describe as capitalism’s Metabolic Rift.

The WIR is not a theoretical journal and I make no claim of being an expert theoretician. But in a nutshell, this Rift is apparent in the way capitalism exploits natural resources where profitable with little regard for either short term or long range environmental impact. Even in Germany, where the Greens are a big party sometimes included in capitalist coalition governments, and there is an almost spiritual worship of forests, old growth forests are clear cut, and fertile farm land dug up, to get to deposits of the brown coal that is canceling out other efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions.

As we say Abschied to COP23 we need to redouble our efforts in the joint struggle for class and climate justice. As usual, you can expect further concrete suggestions in the WIR.

In Brief…

* Amazon I—CNBC reported that when Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, woke up Friday he found that he had surpassed Bill Gates as the richest man in the world. The stock market had been so bullish about Amazon’s “Black Friday” prospects it added 7 billion dollars to his wealth overnight. His estimated fortune now stands at 90 billion.

* Amazon II—AP reported “Workers at a half-dozen Amazon distribution centers in Germany and one in Italy walked off the job Friday, in a protest timed to coincide with Black Friday to demand better wages from the American online giant. In Germany, Ver.di union spokesman Thomas Voss said some 2,500 workers were on strike at Amazon facilities in Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig, Rheinberg, Werne, Graben and Koblenz. In a warehouse near Piacenza, in northern Italy, some workers walked off the job to demand ‘dignified salaries.’”

* Making Students Smarter—Apple was the first to market the “smart phone.” According to the Financial Times, the offshored production of the new I-phone X by Foxconn depends largely on student labor working 11 hour days—a violation of China’s labor laws. Last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan shared the glory of luring Foxconn to build a plant in Ryan’s district with Wisconsin’s union-busting Governor who also provided a lot of “incentives” to the Taiwan-based corporation. Not mentioned was the fact the plant is a short bus-ride from the UW Madison campus.

That’s all for this week.

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