It's going to be difficult to find an empty four star hotel room in Paris at the end of November. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Environmental Ministers and the inevitable trailing bands of advisers, lobbyists and public relations officers will be descending on the French capital for the yearly UN Climate Conference - COP21. This conference, like every other UN Climate Conference for well over a decade, is being billed as an urgent and possibly final opportunity for world leaders to commit to substantial changes to environmental policy and enforcement before the planet is pushed past a “point of no return” of environmental destruction and climate change. It's no joke, and it's made even worse by the fact that the previous conferences have all thoroughly failed despite initial optimism.
The good news is that a growing international movement actually understands the urgency and has begun using these big events as opportunities to demonstrate its size and popularize its demands. The largest climate march in history happened in New York outside the UN Climate Summit on September 21 of last year. Over 400,000 people joined the “Peoples Climate March” with over 270,000 more participating in 2000 coordinated actions in 166 countries across the globe. Also very important is the fact that revolutionary and progressive Latin-American governments like Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador are creating new economic and climate solutions and proving what is becoming increasingly obvious to more and more people: You cannot save the environment if creating profit continues to be the driving force of society. We cannot save the planet with “business as usual.” No UN Conference, no matter how much hype, can solve the climate crisis as long as capitalism is the dominant global economic system.
Chevron in Ecuador – the Chernobyl of the Amazon
Chevron, the world's seventh largest oil and gas company, has been found repeatedly guily in Ecuadorian courts of massive environmental contamination stemming from its oil drilling operations in the Amazon rainforest (under the Texaco brand) in Ecuador from 1964 to 1992. It has been proven time and time again that Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, knowingly operated without concern for the environment or wellbeing of local residents. Their most drastic crimes include:
- Dumping 18 billion gallons of waste water into rivers and streams.
- The construction of more than 900 open-air, unlined toxic waste pits that leach toxins into soil and groundwater.
- Release of contaminants through spills, spreading oil on roads, gas flaring, and burning of crude.
- The creation of a pipeline and road system that opened pristine rainforest to uncontrolled and widespread clearing, resulting in more than a million acres of deforestation.
Due to Chevron's toxic contamination of their soil, rivers and streams, and groundwater, local indigenous communities continue to suffer an epidemic of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, and other ailments. Ecuadorian courts have found Chevron liable for 9.5 billion dollars in clean up fees and damages, and today today, more than 30,000 Ecuadorians who were directly affected by Chevron’s pollution are fighting for justice through a class-action lawsuit.
Why were Chevron's actions so damaging in Ecuador? Was there not better technology available at the time? The answer is simple – in a highly competitive industry they needed to maximize their profits. Industry field manuals at the time required that waste pits be lined and used only for temporary storage. Chevron used unlined pits for permanent storage. Their own documents show the company considered spending money to address environmental problems from use of the pits, but they decided it was too expensive. In the end, by handling its toxic waste in Ecuador in ways that were illegal in the United States, Chevron saved an estimated $3 per barrel of oil produced.
For savings of $3 per barrel over 1400 Ecuadorian people have already died unnecessarily from cancer. For $3 a barrel Chevron ravaged these communities with childhood leukaemia, miscarriages and birth defects. For $3 a barrel they permanently and massively damaged one of the most diverse and sensitive habitats in the world.
Chevron stripped its assets in Ecuador in 2007 anticipating it would lose the court case. The company, which as an example made almost 27 billion dollars in 2011, has spent roughly 2 billion over the past 2 decades trying to fight not to pay what it owes. Interestingly, the Supreme Court of Canada has found that the Ecuadorian villagers can proceed with a legal claim for the 9.5 billion dollars owed against Chevron’s ample assets in Canada.
"This is no longer just a cause in Ecuador – this is a cause for any country where the same thing could happen. We have a responsibility beyond our own interests", said Ecuador's environment minister, Lorena Tapia. "We know this isn't an easy path, but we are very convinced of our arguments, and there is no way we will step down or stop doing everything we can to get the oil company to respond."
Global Phenomenon – Global Disaster
This case is not accidental or expectational. Chevron knew full well what kind of damages they were creating, but in the cutthroat race for profit these were unimportant. Recently it was exposed that energy giant ExxonMobil had been advised directly by its scientists as early as 1978 that climate change was real, caused by humans, and would raise global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius this century. They continued to substantiate these findings in the 1980's and 1990's. As the head of one key lab at Exxon Research wrote to his superiors, there was “unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere”.
Despite all of this information, ExxonMobil has been a key player in spending untold millions of dollars in organizing the campaign to instill doubt in the reality of climate change, and the responsibility of human driven industry in its creations. ExxonMobil is the largest oil company in the world, and the most profitable enterprise in human history. While the climate crisis became more and more drastic, they continued to try and suck the earth dry for everything it was worth and hide the consequences.
As resources are used up and dry out, the race for profit under capitalism leads to the development of others in increasingly unsustainable ways. A case in point is the Tar Sands developments in Alberta. According to Greenpeace, “Two tonnes of tar sand is needed to produce a single barrel of oil. Three to five times more water and energy are required per barrel than any other source known to mankind. The tar sands use more water every day than a city of two million people and consume enough natural gas to heat six million Canadian homes.”
“The tar sands generate 40 million tonnes of CO2 per year, more than all the cars in Canada combined. Because of the tar sands, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown more since 1990 than those of any other G8 nation, according to the 2009 national inventory report that Environment Canada filed with the United Nations.”
“Key waterways like the Athabasca River are being polluted to the tune of 11 million litres of toxic runoff every day”
Changing the Balance of Nature
All of this has even larger consequences, as absolutely everything in nature is connected. Even a slight change in one area, can cause massive and unpredictable consequences in another. This was how Carbon Dioxide became such an important topic. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps more and more of the sun's heat on earth. This causes temperatures to rise, which then causes a whole other series of problems we are currently starting to deal with very directly.
As ExxonMobil was telling us everything was OK, Richard Smith wrote an article, “Green Capitalism: The God that Failed” and outlined the current crisis: “As soaring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions drove global CO2 concentrations past 400 parts per million in May 2013, shell-shocked climate scientists warned that unless we urgently adopt "radical" measures to suppress GHG emissions (50 percent cuts in emissions by 2020, 90 percent by 2050) we're headed for an average temperature rise of 3 degrees or 4 degrees Celsius before the end of the century. Four degrees might not seem like much, but make no mistake: Such an increase will be catastrophic for our species and most others. Humans have never experienced a rise of 4 degrees in average temperatures... Sea levels will rise 25 meters - submerging Florida, Bangladesh, New York, Washington DC, London, Shanghai, the coastlines and cities where nearly half the world's people presently live. Freshwater aquifers will dry up; snow caps and glaciers will evaporate - and with them, the rivers that feed the billions of Asia, South America and California.”
There is no mistaking it, the climate crisis is real.
There is no “Planet B”, but a Better World is Possible
“The capitalist system seeks profit without limits, strengthens the divorce between human beings and nature; establishing a logic of domination of men against nature and among human beings, transforming water, earth, the environment, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice and ethics into goods. In this regard, the economic system of capitalism privatizes the common good, commodifies life, exploits human beings, plunders natural resources and destroys the material and spiritual wealth of the people.” - Introduction to Bolivia's national submission to the COP21 Conference.
Bolivia is playing an increasingly important role in the global climate debate. Recognizing that the UN Conferences were going nowhere fast, Bolivia organized the “World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Defence of Life”. The Conference united social movements and progressive governments to discuss concrete proposals for solving the climate crisis. The first Conference was in 2010, and the second was completed in October of this year. The final Conference Declaration is 25 pages long and packed with concrete proposals for saving the environment. The key is – all of them prioritize human life and environmental preservation above profits. Once this shift in priorities is made, the possibilities become endless. Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa were also in attendance and offering full support.
Cuba has been leading the world in sustainability for decades. A World Wildlife Fund study concluded it is the only country in the world with both a high UN Human Development Index and a relatively small “ecological footprint”. Bolivia's Constitution specifically recognizes the rights of Mother Earth, but it was Cuba who led the way by amending its own constitution in the 1990's to entrench the concept of sustainable development.
All of this is exciting because it proves that it's not impossible to create meaningful changes to preserve the environment. If relatively poor countries in Latin America can do it, imagine what the wealthy Western capitalist countries could do if the diverted even just their bloated war budgets into sustainable development and solving the climate crisis!
The Way Forward
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Many are already forecasting that the COP21 Conference in Paris will be a failure, many more have already realized they are designed to fail. As we wrote in FTT, Volume 9 Issue 10, “Humanity is at an pivotal time. We live on a planet which has more than enough resources to provide for everyone who lives on it. Humans have also developed technologically so incredibly that we have all of the resources available to ensure that everyone has everything they need. Yet we live in a world where the majority go hungry, war and occupation dominate the political landscape and the environment is being rapidly destroyed. As long as the primary driver of society remains profit and not people, this will continue as all other considerations are thrown into the ever growing garbage heap. Climate change is the symptom, capitalism is the problem.”
So let the so called “world leaders” get dressed up in expensive suits for their COP21 Conference. We will be marching together in the hundreds of thousands on the streets of Paris, building the global climate justice movement. We also not let those who have been actively destroying the planet dictate to us how to fix it. There is enough human and environmental capacity to make it work, but we need to continue to mobilize the anti capitalist and climate justice movements. Mother Earth, and everyone of us, deserve better.
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