After Copenhagen: How Can We Save the World?

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Ian Angus, editor of Climate and Capitalism, gave this talk on March 26, at O Clima Farto de Nós? (Is the Climate Sick of Us?), a conference organized by the Left Bloc and the European Left in Lisbon, Portugal.


The December fiasco in Copenhagen has posed a major challenge to the left, indeed to everyone who wants to defend our world and humanity.

The world’s rich countries went to Copenhagen not to fight global warming, but to block any action that might weaken the narrow national interests of their corporate rulers. As Bolivia’s ambassador, Pablo Solón, writes,

“For rich countries, the key issues in negotiations were finance, carbon markets, competitiveness of countries and corporations, business opportunities along with discussions about the political makeup of the US Senate. There was surprisingly little focus on effective solutions for reducing carbon emissions.”

Even if they had reached agreement, it would have focused on the fraud of carbon trading, not on slashing emissions by rapidly phasing out coal and oil, as the crisis demands.

As the summit closed, United States President Barack Obama put forward a document adopted in a backroom meeting that excluded most of the delegates and that ignored the concerns of most of the world’s nations without discussion. With no timelines, no targets, and no enforcement mechanism, the Copenhagen Accord is a huge step backwards.

The Kyoto Protocol was clearly inadequate, but as Fidel Castro wrote recently, the Copenhagen Accord is “nothing more than a joke.”

The so-called world leaders spoke passionately to the cameras about the need to fight climate change. But that was just theatre: in practice, they wrecked hopes for a meaningful fight.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez pointed out the striking contrast between the rich nations’ response to climate change and their response to the banking crisis. He quoted one of the banners in the demonstration outside: “If the climate were a bank, they would have saved it by now.”

Why won’t they act?

To a naïve observer, this must seem bizarre. Climate change will affect everyone, including the children and grandchildren of politicians and corporate leaders.

If you ask any of them individually, our rulers would undoubtedly say that they want their children and grandchildren to live in a stable and sustainable world.

So why do their actions contradict their words?

Why do they seem determined, in practice, to leave their children and grandchildren a world of poisoned air and water, a world of floods and droughts and escalating climate disasters?

Why have they repeatedly sabotaged international efforts to adopt even half-hearted measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

When they do consider or implement responses to the climate crisis, why do they always support solutions that do not work, that cannot possibly work?

Karl Marx had a wonderful phrase for the bosses and their agents – the big shareholders and executives and top managers and the politicians they own – a phrase that explains why they invariably act against the present and future interests of humanity. These people, he said, are “personifications of capital.” Regardless of how they behave at home, or with their children, their social role is that of capital in human form.

They don’t act to stop climate change because the changes needed by the people of this world are directly contrary to the needs of capital.

Capital has no conscience. Capital has no children or grandchildren. Capital has only one imperative: it has to grow.

As Joel Kovel says, “Capitalism can no more survive limits on growth than a person can live without breathing.”

Only profit counts

Under capitalism, the only measure of success is how much is sold, and how much profit is made, every day, every week, every year. It doesn’t matter that they are producing and selling vast quantities of products that are directly harmful to both humans and nature, or that many commodities cannot be produced without spreading disease, destroying the forests that produce the oxygen we breathe, demolishing ecosystems, and treating our water, air and soil as sewers for the disposal of industrial waste.

It all contributes to profits, and thus to the growth of capital – and that’s what counts.

In Capital, Marx wrote that from a capitalist’s perspective, raw materials such as metals, minerals, coal, stone, etc. are “furnished by Nature gratis.” The wealth of nature doesn’t have to be paid for or replaced when it is used – it is there for the taking.

That’s true not only of raw materials, but also of what are sometimes called “environmental services” – the water and air that have been absorbing capitalism’s waste products for centuries. They have been treated as free sewers and free garbage dumps, “furnished by Nature gratis.”

Capitalism combines an irresistible drive to grow, with an irresistible drive to create waste and pollution. If nothing stops it, capitalism will expand both those processes infinitely.

But the earth is not infinite. The atmosphere and the oceans and the forests are very large, but ultimately they are finite, limited resources – and capitalism is now pressing against those limits. The 2006 WWF Living Planet Report concludes,

“The Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand – people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.”

My only disagreement with that statement is that it places the blame on “people” as an abstract category. In fact, the devastation is caused by the global capitalist system, and by the tiny class of exploiters that profits from capitalism’s continued growth. The great majority of people are victims, not perpetrators.

In particular, capitalist pollution has passed the physical limit of the ability of nature to absorb carbon dioxide and other gases while keeping the earth’s temperature steady. As a result, the world is warmer today than it has been for 100,000 years, and the temperature continues to rise.

Embedded in capitalism’s DNA

Greenhouse Gas Emissions are not unusual or exceptional. Pouring shit into the environment is a fundamental feature of capitalism. Waste and pollution and ecological destruction are built into the system’s DNA.

How big a problem is this?

A recent study conducted for the United Nations found that the world’s 3,000 largest corporations cause 1.6 trillion euros [US$2.2 trillion] in environmental damage, every year. More than half of that is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

If they were forced to pay for the damage they cause, their total profits would be reduced by a third. Many including some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies, would have no profits at all if they could not offload these environmental costs onto society,

That’s what the pioneering environmental economist William Kapp meant nearly sixty years ago, when he wrote, “Capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs.”

In short, pollution is not an accident, and it is not a “market failure.” It is the way the system works.

Former US vice-president Al Gore, In his book An Inconvenient Truth, quoted the American socialist writer Upton Sinclair: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” That is an oversimplification of the complex relationship between consciousness and social context, but it is fundamentally true.

Al Gore himself, who seems to understand the seriousness of the climate crisis and who sincerely wants to solve it, cannot accept the really inconvenient truth that the crisis is caused by the system that made him rich, the system that he has devoted his life to defending. He cannot accept any change that limits or restricts capitalist operations, let alone one that challenges its fundamental nature.

That’s why the so-called world leaders spoke passionately in Copenhagen about the need to fight climate change, while in practice ensuring that nothing was done.

The other side of Copenhagen

But that was only one side of Copenhagen. The rich nations didn’t get everything their own way.

The great majority of the world’s peoples, those whose lives are at stake, were also represented in Copenhagen, inside and outside of the conference centre.

Inside the summit, protests and dissent from the global south could not be ignored. Delegates from the poorest nations staged several walkouts to protest the dirty Copenhagen deal. They chanted: “We will not die quietly.”

Opposition to Obama’s backroom deal was led by members of the ALBA alliance, particularly Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, along with Sudan and the heroic Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. These countries are small and poor, but in this cause they are moral giants, and they deserve our honour and gratitude.

Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the first elected indigenous head of state in South America, condemned Obama’s Copenhagen Accord:

“There is a profound difference between their document and the peoples fighting for humanity and the planet.

“This group of friends led by Obama accept that temperatures can increase by 2 degrees Celsius by 2020. This will end the existence of many island states; it will end our snow-capped mountains.

“And Obama only seeks to reduce gas emissions by 50% in 2050. But we want and need 90 to 100% reduction, in order to save the planet.”

Evo went beyond proposing emission targets: he called for a legally binding enforcement mechanism.

“We want an International Climate Justice Tribunal that can sanction failure to comply with agreements, so that we can govern based on balance and achieve real solutions.”

Outside the hall, climate protesters took over Copenhagen’s streets for days. These were the biggest climate demonstrations ever held in Europe.

The unofficial counter-summit, the Klimaforum, attracted 25,000 activists to discuss and debate how the people can force political change. Klimaforum issued a People’s Declaration on Climate Change, which was everything the Copenhagen Accord was not.

It called for building “a global movement of movements dedicated to the long-term task of promoting a sustainable transition of our societies”.

It proposed four central demands that the movement should support:

  • A complete abandoning of fossil fuels within the next 30 years, which must include specific milestones for every five-year period. We demand an immediate cut in GHG of industrialized countries of at least 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2020.
  • Recognition, payment and compensation of climate debt for the overconsumption of atmospheric space and adverse effects of climate change on all affected groups and people.
  • Rejection of purely market-oriented and technology-centred false and dangerous solutions such as nuclear energy, agro-fuels, carbon capture and storage, Clean Development Mechanisms, biochar, genetically “climate-readied” crops, geo-engineering and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), which deepens social and environmental conflicts.
  • Real solutions to climate crisis based on safe, clean, renewable and sustainable use of natural resources, as well as transitions to food, energy, land and water sovereignty.

If a movement based on that program is built, it will be a huge step forward. For too long, the conservative wing of the environmental movement, headed by big NGOs, has locked the climate movement into a strategy of lobbying politicians and adapting to corporate power, in the hope of winning petty reforms. The failure at Copenhagen proves once again that backroom lobbying has not worked and will not work.

We are not yet powerful enough to win permanent solutions by ending the capitalist system forever, but we can make the political and economic costs of inaction unacceptable to our capitalist rulers.

To do this we can and must build mass democratic movements against the climate vandals. Mass climate emergency movements in every country are the only force with the potential to force the politicians into effective action against greenhouse gas emissions. That is the only way to win time for the earth and humanity.

That is the most important task we now face.

On to Cochabamba

The most positive result of Copenhagen was the evidence that a mass democratic movement against climate change has already begun to grow.

The next step in building that movement will take place next month in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when thousands of activists from around the world meet, answering Evo Morales’ call for a Peoples’ World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights.

The meeting’s ambitious goals include:

“(1) To analyze the structural and systemic causes that drive climate change and to propose radical measures to ensure the well-being of all humanity in harmony with nature.

“(2) To discuss and agree on the project of a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights.

“(3) To agree on proposals for new commitments … that will guide future actions in those countries that are engaged with life during climate change negotiations …

“(4) To work on the organization of the Peoples’ World Referendum on Climate Change.

“(5) To analyze and develop an action plan to advance the establishment of a Climate Justice Tribunal.

“(6) To define strategies for action and mobilization to defend life from Climate Change and to defend Mother Earth’s Rights.”

That’s an ambitious but absolutely essential agenda. I urge the parties represented here today, along with socialists and climate activists around the world, to endorse that project, to participate in it if possible, and to give its outcome the widest possible publicity and support.

The defeats and achievements in Copenhagen, combined with the Cochabamba conference, offer an historic opportunity and challenge for ecological activists to join hands with workers, with indigenous activists, with anti-imperialist movements here and around the world, to make ecological transformation a central feature of the broader economic and social changes that are so clearly needed.

Together we can stop the climate vandals, together we can build a better world for future generations.

It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but together we can make it happen.

Thank you.


  • I believe this article is getting to the nub of the problem. We are continuing to see climate change as a problem but we should properly begin to see it as a symptom; a product of the very nature of free market capitalism. For neo liberalism brings with it the notion that the free market is the most efficient way to provide for our needs.
    I do not agree that Copenhagen was a failure. The problem with the way we view Copenhagen is that we and the media were focussed on the theatre provided by the world leaders – ignoring the very real progress that was made by the dialogue among activists that had descended on Copenhagen.
    Increasingly we need find ways to bypass the established political structures or at least make sure that they bend to the will of the masses.
    One final observation, we will be most naive if we do not reflect on this statement made in Ian’s speech:

    To a naïve observer, this must seem bizarre. Climate change will affect everyone, including the children and grandchildren of politicians and corporate leaders.

    Capitalism has a history of finding foot soldiers who are prepared to act against their own interests – Lenin famously observed that a rifle with bayonet has a worker at both ends. (Someone may know the precise wording.) We currently see people in America resisting health care reform even though the pitiful measures proposed by Obama fall far short of the real need people still object to this as an exercise in socialism – even those who will benefit from the legislation are far from convinced. The same will be true when we take action against climate change even though it is in all of our interests, that the people who will genuinely be worse off will be that small minority whose wealth is dependent on burning fuels, we will discover that there will still be those who are prepared to resist any changes even though change is in their own interest.
    We have been here before – go back to the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, and the activism of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg to see the size of the struggle that awaits.