Marx in Copenhagen

“Goodbye Africa, goodbye South Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest; it was nice knowing you.” Such was George Monbiot’s dismay as the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference ended.

La Jornada newspaper blamed “a web of interests that are the main obstacle to reaching a serious accord,” including “governments and their accomplices in the corporation and financial world.” Consumption, economic growth, accumulation, and profit have accompanied the profligate burning of fossil fuels. Capitalism “imposes what is in effect a scorched earth strategy,” writes Monthly Review analyst John Bellamy Foster.

The Copenhagen debacle recalls markers of other capitalist crises, the 1914 war over empire, for example, and the 1930’s world depression. This time, capitalism is putting humankind on the road to hunger, migrations, rampant disease, and die-off. Harking back to Marx, Samir Amin asserts, “The accumulation of capital destroys the natural bases on which that accumulation is built: man…and the earth.”

The Copenhagen gathering followed years of scientific recommendations, negotiations, and wrangling, beginning with the 1992 Earth Summit. With Washington opting out, industrialized nations accepted the 1997 Kyoto Protocol calling for modest, but legally binding limits on emissions. To keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C., scientists have called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 385 parts per million at present to 350 ppm.

Before the Copenhagen meeting, the UN issued guidelines accepting a temperature rise of 2 degrees C. By 2020, industrialized nations were to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent of 1990 levels, to 80 percent by 2050. The European Union had promised a 20 percent cut; the United States, in effect, a four percent cut. China, exempted from Kyoto requirements, offered an ambiguous plan tying emissions cuts to units of GDP rise

No agreements were in sight when world leaders arrived at the meeting’s end. President Obama met with Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, and South African representatives, later with those of 25 industrialized nations. He then issued a press conference announcement of an “agreement” affecting 194 nations. Participants learned of it via television.

Legal commitments under the Kyoto Protocol morphed into a political agreement lacking commitments and time tables. Reaching out to nations individually, not the world, it focused on monitoring and backed the two-degree limit on global warming.

A leaked UN scientific report predicting a 3 degrees C global temperature rise under UN-recommended emissions limits was ignored. “Shock Doctrine” author Naomi Klein saw bribery in Secretary of State Clinton’s $100 billion offer from unspecified sources to help underdeveloped nations cope with climate disaster. Danish police arrested over 1000 peaceful protesters under a new “pre-crime law.”

Speaking for the G-77 group of 134 underdeveloped nations, Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Pping demanded a 1.5 degree C limit on global warming and 60 percent emission reductions by 2020. “I will not accept the total destruction of my continent, her people, in Copenhagen,” he declared.

That’s where a Marxist approach comes in. The struggle, defined by class interests, continues. And just as the labor theory of value provides a material basis for unified struggle by industrial workers, Marx’s distinction between use value and exchange value does likewise for victims of natural resources pillage. Use values, taken together, become the public’s wealth that, in abundance, benefits all. The sum of exchange values constitutes private riches, promoted through scarcities.

Capitalists want use values to be absorbed into the exchange value category opening them up to engineered scarcities and accumulation. Or, according to Marx, quoted by Foster: “The earth is the reservoir from whose bowels the use values are to be torn.” Climate change sets the stage for profiteers to look covetously at food and fuel shortages, high technology energy fixes, and carbon trading. Working people, inhabitants of small islands, and poor African farmers – among others – fight to protect wealth held in common.

And under a socialist banner: “Socialism is designed in terms of a society founded on use value, not exchange value,” claims Samir Amin, who specifies, “Socialism should be ecological, indeed can only be ecological.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and President Evo Morales of Bolivia came to Copenhagen with a message from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). “We cannot consider climate change without thinking about changing the system,” it said. “The capitalist production and consumption model is taking life on the planet to a point of no return.”

Chavez reminded assembled leaders of “socialism, the other specter Karl Marx spoke about, which walks here too… Socialism, this is the direction, this is the path to save the planet.”

Photo: Martin Mounzer/Arbejderen


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.