Climate Negotiations and "Big Power" Rivalry

Raymond Lotta | November 25, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


The following is an excerpt from a recent article by Raymond Lotta, "On the 'Driving Force of Anarchy' and the Dynamics of Change: A Sharp Debate and Urgent Polemic: The Struggle for a Radically Different World and the Struggle for a Scientific Approach to Reality." In this excerpted section, Lotta discusses the environmental crisis, including what the recent climate negotiations have been really about. We urge readers to dig into the whole article, which examines crucial issues of political economy and methodology in the international communist movement, which are also "issues of concern, theorization, and contention in broader progressive political and intellectual-academic circles, issues of profound import and moment."

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On May 9, 2013, the Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Hawaii recorded that the carbon dioxide levels in Earth's atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million. The last time Earth supported so much carbon dioxide was some three million years ago, when there was no human life on the planet. Climate science has established that a rise in the Earth's temperature beyond two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels could lead to irreversible and devastating climate change.

The capitalist industrial revolution beginning in the 1700s, the leap to imperialism in the late 19th century, and the enormous acceleration of environmental stresses of the mid-20th century through today have created a dire environmental emergency.*

The impacts are already with us: extreme climate events (unprecedented floods, cyclones, and typhoons), droughts, desertification, Arctic ice melting to its lowest levels.

Meanwhile the imperialists continue to make staggering investments in fossil fuels, with an ever-increasing share going to so-called "unconventional" oil and gas reserves (hydro-fracking, deep offshore, tar sands, heavy crude, and shale oil, etc.). Global climate negotiations, most significantly Copenhagen 2010, go nowhere.

On the one hand, oil is foundational to the profitable functioning of the whole imperialist system. Six of the 10 largest corporations in the U.S., and eight of the 10 largest in the world, are auto and oil companies. On the other, oil is central to inter-imperial rivalry. Major capitalist firms and the major capitalist powers—the U.S., China, the countries of the EU, Russia, Japan, and others vie with each other for control over the regions where new fossil-fuel sources are to be found: in the Arctic, the South Atlantic, and elsewhere.

Rivalry among the great powers for control of production, refining, transport, and marketing of oil is in fact rivalry for control over the world economy. U.S. imperialism's military depends on oil to maintain and extend empire, to wage its neocolonial wars and to maintain its global supremacy. And, right now, one of U.S. imperialism's global competitive advantages is exactly its growing fossil-fuel capability: in 2012, the U.S. posted the largest increase in oil production in the world, and the largest single-year increase in oil output in U.S. history.

None of what is happening (and not happening) in the sphere of energy can be understood outside the framework of the drive for profit and intense competition and rivalry at the enterprise, sectoral, and national-state levels in the world economy and imperialist interstate system.

The most salient characteristic of recent climate negotiations is the fact that they have been sites of intense rivalry among the "great powers"—on the one hand, unwilling and unable to make any substantive moves away from reliance on fossil fuels; and, on the other, pressing climate-change adaptation into the tool-box of competitive positioning (the Europeans and the Chinese, for instance, having advantage in certain renewable energy technologies).

And not just energy: the major powers are engaged in sharp global competition for the planet's minerals and raw materials. It is a scramble for the reckless plunder of Earth's resources, or as one progressive scholar has called it, "the race for what's left."

The emergence of China as the world's second largest capitalist economy, with its demand for resources and its growing international reach, is a major element in the ecological equation. Its growth has been fueled by the massive inflow of investment capital over the last 20 years, and that growth has been a major, if not the major, source of dynamism in the world economy. And China is now the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

The real threat of unstoppable climate change is part of a larger environmental crisis. The planet is not only on a trajectory towards massive extinction of species but also the collapse of critical ecosystems, especially rainforests and coral reefs, with the threat of cascading effects on the Earth's global ecosystem as a whole. There is the real possibility of Earth being transformed into a very different kind of planet... one that potentially could threaten human existence. No one can predict the precise pathways and outcomes of what is happening. But this is the trajectory that we, and planet Earth, are on.

Why are tropical forests being wiped out by logging and timber operations? Why is soil being degraded and dried out by agribusiness, and oceans acidified? Why is nature turned into a "sink" for toxic waste? Because capitalism-imperialism invests, speculates, trades, and roams the globe treating nature as a limitless input to serve ever-expanding production for profit.


* See the special issue of Revolution, "State of EMERGENCY: The Plunder of Our Planet, the Environmental Catastrophe, and the Real Revolutionary Solution," April 18, 2010, at [back]


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