Hugo Chavez on climate change: Rich countries must pay

By Shua Garfield

“We are destroying our planet. We need to realise that and we need to act”, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told the 64th General Assembly of the United Nations in his September 24 speech. “The effects of this climate change are now visible … These are scientific facts. There are … studies by NASA [showing] a 0.8 degree increase in temperature in the last 30 years. The last 2 decades of the 20th century were the hottest in hundreds of years and also the melting of the ice caps continues to increase.”

Since Chavez’s UN speech, even more evidence of the dangers of global warming has come to light. According to an October 6 report by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, the area of the Arctic Sea covered by ice at the end of September is shrinking at a rate of 11.2% per decade relative to the 1979-2000 average. The 2009 minimum extent of Arctic Sea ice was the third lowest since records began in 1979, 1.68 million square kilometres below the 1979-2000 average. Minimum ice coverage areas during the past five years have been the five lowest on record. Commenting on the results of the Catlin Arctic Survey of ice thickness in the northern Beaufort Sea, which were released on October 15, Professor Peter Wadhams, leader of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge, said the “data supports the new consensus view … that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years, and that much of the decrease will be happening within 10 years.”

A study published online on October 8 by Science magazine has cast doubt on the safety of the target for atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations — 450 parts per million (ppm) CO2-equivalent — widely accepted by numerous governments, including Australia’s, as a “safe” level of stabilisation. The study, which used new methods of measuring the chemical composition of ocean sediments, allowing atmospheric CO2 concentrations to be determined up to 20 million years ago, found that it has been at least 11 million years since atmospheric CO2 concentrations were as high as they are today. It has been 15 million years since concentrations peaked at around 450 ppm.

During this period, sea levels were 25-40 metres higher than they are now. There was no permanent Arctic or Antarctic ice cap. Global average surface temperature was 3-6oC higher than now. Indeed, according to the Met Office, the UK’s national weather service, if no measures are taken to reduce emissions, a 4oC increase above pre-industrial temperature could happen by 2060. This could threaten the water supply of half the world’s population and cause the extinction of around half of the world’s plant and animal species.

Developed countries avoid action

Despite the looming ecological catastrophe, Chavez noted in his speech to the UN that, “There is no urgency to change by the developed countries. But you need to do things. You can’t just talk about it … You have to save the human race. And I hope that in the next [UN climate change] conference in [Copenhagen in] December, hopefully we can have resolutions which are useful.”

But Chavez did not limit himself to pleading with the developed countries for real action to stop dangerous climate change. He also pointed out the unsustainability of the global economic system that they support and maintain: “We are consuming our natural resources — coal, oil — in less than a century and they took centuries to build up … Capitalist economies are very destructive and so it’s very important to … look at some issues of climate change in relation to the economy … We need an economy that supports human beings — that is socialism … It’s not capitalism. Capitalism excludes the majority … And it destroys the world. It destroys human beings”.

And it is capitalism that is impeding the possibility that “resolutions which are useful” for fighting climate change will emerge from the December 5-18 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. During a series of climate negotiations over the past few months, it has been the developed capitalist countries that have refused to take measures — such as guaranteeing adequate short-term emissions reductions or aid to the Third World — that are required to reach a global deal. The governments of the rich First World countries don’t want to do this because it would threaten the profits of the capitalist corporations they defend.

The second-last official pre-Copenhagen negotiation session took place in Bangkok from September 28-October 9 and ended with little progress towards a final agreement. Instead, First World governments fought with diplomats from Third World countries over whether to scrap the Kyoto Protocol framework at Copenhagen or to try to build upon and extend it. The US representatives, supported by the EU, led the push to scrap the protocol because it imposes binding requirements to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions levels and to provide assistance to underdeveloped countries.

The reluctance of the rich countries to abide by even the inadequate framework of the Kyoto Protocol was characteristic of their refusal to accept their share of responsibility for the climate crisis. According to an October 11 Associated Press report, most rich country diplomats left Bangkok only offering to cut GHG emissions to 15-23% below 1990 levels by 2020. The US appears likely to commit to cuts of only 17-20% below 2005 levels by 2020, which is only 4-7% below 1990 levels. Only Norway has agreed to even consider committing to the 40% cuts demanded of developed nations by China and many other Third World countries.

First World countries also failed to respond to calls from underdeveloped countries to help cover the costs of adapting to climate change and developing low-emissions economies. The World Bank estimates that measures to allow nations to adapt to unavoidable climate change will cost up to US$100 billion per year between now and 2050. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that expenditure of $10 trillion over the next 20 years will be required to transition to low-emissions economies and that 75% of these funds will have to come from the First World countries. That gives a conservative estimate of the First World’s climate “reparations” at $11.5 trillion over the next 40 years.

Responsibility or profit?

First World countries have emitted 70% of the industrial GHG emissions that have accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began at the end of the 18th century. They continue to pollute at a per-capita rate that, in 2004, was 2.6 times higher than the global average. So it is fair that they make larger and earlier cuts in emissions than Third World countries and that they share the majority of the cost of helping the Third World out of the mess the rich countries have created.

But it is obviously more profitable to sell something than to give it away. The carbon-fuelled industrialisation of the First World, and these nations’ colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of what is now the Third World has left the First World with a relative monopoly over the most advanced technologies, including those necessary for adaptation and GHG-clean development. In the capitalist system, when a capitalist firm has something that someone else doesn’t have but needs, it’s a perfect opportunity to make a profit, and corporations of the First World are reluctant to miss this opportunity by giving away clean technology to the Third World.

In fact, helping the Third World to develop economically would actually undermine the technological monopoly that gives First World corporations their privileged position of control over the world economy. This would also be the case if First World countries agreed to emissions cuts which eroded the profits of, or even made unviable, some of their biggest corporations — those associated with the fossil fuel industry. Never mind what their responsibility is or what is fair — the richest of the rich don’t want to pay for the mess they’ve made. As much as they try to cloak their irresponsibility in rhetoric about “sharing responsibility” with countries like India and China, their approach is the same as their approach to every crisis caused by capitalism — make the poor pay.

ALBA as a model

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA), a trade bloc set up by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004 and which now also includes Antigua and Barbuda, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Honduras, Bolivia and Dominica, provides an alternative vehicle for international trade and cooperation which could be a real model for fighting climate change. Unlike “free trade” blocs that emphasise increasing the ability of private corporations to access resources and markets to realise profits, ALBA emphasises mutual assistance between governments and peoples. This has allowed ALBA to incorporate the ambitious goals of providing free health care and education to the people of all ALBA member-states, to promote land redistribution and state-owned enterprises, and to develop alternative media so as to counter US corporate media domination.

Environmental aid and sustainable development has also been part of the new economic cooperation between ALBA nations. Venezuela and Cuba have collaborated to install 8400 solar panels in Bolivian communities that had previously been without electricity. Venezuela has pioneered the manufacture of petrocasas — light, easy-to-construct and highly durable houses manufactured from by-products of oil refining. As well as reducing waste from refining, these houses have high thermal insulation, reducing the energy needed to heat or cool them. Tens of thousands have been constructed in Venezuela, Cuba (where they have been used to rebuild after the immense damage caused by hurricanes in 2008) and Peru (where they have been used to aid reconstruction after a 2007 earthquake). With Venezuelan assistance, Bolivia now plans to construct a petrocasa factory to provide new housing in poor areas.

Not surprisingly, it is an ALBA country — Cuba — that has made more progress in the fight against ecological destruction than any other country. Many of Cuba’s environmental gains have resulted from its battle to provide a decent standard of living to its citizens in the face of a 47-year economic blockade by the US. After the collapse of the USSR and the loss of most of its petrochemical imports in the early 1990s, Cuba carried out a mass transition to organic agriculture, including the creation of thousands of small urban organic vegetable gardens. Around the same time, Cuba’s revolutionary socialist government imported 1 million bicycles and sold them at heavily subsidised prices.

More recently, Cuba has carried out an “energy revolution” which has resulted in huge cuts in the amount of oil used in energy generation. In 2005-06, the government organised 30,000 young social workers to install 9 million energy-efficient light globes and replace millions of obsolete electrical appliances with low-energy ones. Cuba is also a leader in alternative energy. Solar power provides electricity to off-grid rural areas, including several hundred hospitals and community centres and more than 2000 schools. Waste material from Cuba’s sugar industry is also burned to generate electricity, providing 30% of Cuba’s energy needs during the harvest season.

Add these and other measures to the reforestation program Cuba has conducted since shortly after its 1959 revolution — which increased forest coverage from 14% to 24.3% between 1959 and 2006 — and you get Cuba’s unique 40% decrease in GHG emissions between 1990 and 2003. In 2006, Cuba was described by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature as the only country to have sustainable development. This is because Cuba was the only country to have both a high human development index — calculated by the UN on the basis of life expectancy, literacy, school enrolment and income levels — and which does not use resources faster than the planet can naturally replace them. Cuba’s closest ally and co-founder of ALBA, Venezuela, has now embarked on its own programs of reforestation, energy saving, public transport extension and alternative energy generation, largely inspired by Cuba’s successes.

Cuba’s rapid cuts to GHG emissions, while maintaining its free education and health care systems and its impressive programs of international aid, are all the more remarkable when one considers that Cuba has around one tenth the per-capita GDP of Australia and continues to be economically blockaded by the US. This shows that it is possible to make the rapid and profound changes needed to avoid the worst aspects of global warming — if the profit motive is taken out of the equation and international relations are based on solidarity and cooperation rather than competition between different nations’ capitalist classes.