A Mistaken Criticism of Cochabamba

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International Viewpoint, the “English-language magazine of the Fourth International,” recently published a criticism of the Peoples Agreement adopted by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change held in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April. This article, by Australian Socialist Alliance member Ben Courtice, responds to those criticisms: we encourage C&C readers to add their comments on this important international discussion.


by Ben Courtice
Blind Carbon Copy, June 28, 2010

In their article World People’s Conference on Climate Change: Some critical comments on the People’s Agreement Daniel Tanuro and Sandra Invernizzi have missed the main usefulness of this document.

They note that “The words “coal” and “natural gas” are simply not mentioned. The expression “renewable energies” is also absent” and that the document “overlooks the struggle against the capitalist energy lobbies and the sectors linked to it (cars, petrochemicals, shipbuilding, the aeronautics industry, transport …), whereas this is obviously the key question in the framework of an anti-capitalist strategy of stabilisation of the climate.”

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It is true the conference did not target the hydrocarbon industries. The Bolivian Hydrocarbon ministry in fact had a stall at the conference.

The conference was very Bolivian: 26000 out of 35000 participants were from Bolivia. It is true that it reflected many of the weaknesses and strengths of the Bolivian government and movement, but Tanuro and Invernizzi overestimate the weaknesses relative to the strengths.

Hydrocarbons and extractive industries are missing. This is not only apparent in their lack in the document, but that the group which formed to discuss these industries at the conference – the unofficial 18th working group – was almost stopped from convening, and its conclusions not taken into consideration for the final document. If there is one serious worry about the Bolivian government, it is that they may be closing their ears against even this constructive criticism.

Is the IPCC as radical as reality?

But at the same time, Tanuro and Invernizzi criticise the conference documents for being too radical in their overall aims such as limiting temperature rise to 1°C. “In fact, even a rise of 2°C can probably no longer be avoided,” they write.

“The most radical of the stabilisation scenarios mentioned in the fourth report of the IPCC estimates that there will be a concentration of between 445 and 490 ppm in 2050, corresponding to a rise in temperature of between 2 and 2.4°C and to a rise of the level of the oceans of between 0.4 and 1.4 m (on balance). We could possibly return one day to 300 ppm, and a difference in temperature of 1°C compared to the preindustrial era, as the declaration demands, but certainly not in the course of this century: that will demand a very long-term effort.”

While Tanuro and Invernizzi are not unusual in taking this IPCC view as the authoritiative statement, they are the ones who are actually being unrealistic – unrealistic to assume that it is possible to prevent dangerous climate change without taking such drastic and radical action as the Cochabamba summit demanded. Australian campaigner David Spratt writes that “if emissions keep growing at the present rate, the carbon emissions budget for the 2 degrees target will run out in 2021!”

Essentially, a 2°C rise runs a high risk that climate change will run away out of all hope of returning it to something like what we are accustomed to. It will mean melting icecaps, large sea level rises (upwards of 1m this century), drought and famine, and possibly worse if large-scale feedbacks like the Arctic tundra’s buried methane are activated.

The IPCC does not look at managing risks like these in any real detail. It takes only the most established, peer reviewed science -which is great if you want to build a watertight case to prove something beyond a doubt. If you want to avoid potential risk in the future, however, you also have to look at the latest research including worst-case scenarios that may not have yet gone through the whole process of peer review.

Further, if we want to “possibly return one day to 300ppm, and a difference in temperature of 1°C compared to the preindustrial era” then we have to stop temperature rise at 1°C. Temperature is held in the oceans, which store a vast amount of heat. Once the temperature does rise, it will take hundreds, perhaps thousands of years to revert – even if the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is returned to a pre-industrial level. The sea takes a lot longer to cool down.

Fortunately the sea also takes time to heat up. There is approximately a 20 year lag between when carbon emissions occur and when the resultant heating is felt in the atmosphere. This means that there is a (fast closing) window of opportunity to cut emissions now and start drawing carbon back out of the atmosphere, to arrest the rise in temperature at a lower level. It can still have an effect.

Tanuro and Invernizzi then suggest that “In the name of the precaution principle, it is only logical and right to demand that the global North make at least 40 per cent of reduction by 2020 and 95 per cent by 2050, not counting the purchases of carbon credits.” But this is not fully following the precautionary principle. Spratt has answered this very well in an article entitled What’s up with emisions reductions of 25-40% by 2020?.

Australian research/campaign group Beyond Zero Emissions has just released a fully costed plan to replace all Australia’s energy, using only available technology, within ten years. While not every country could achieve this as easily as Australia (which has a large, sunny, windy land mass and small population) it gives real hope for the demand that the rich countries cut emissions by 50% before 2017.

It also counters the pessimistic notion that “the countries of the global North would need to have recourse to dangerous and socially doubtful technologies such as clean coal, biofuels and nuclear power.”

Constructing alliances for ecological revolution

Tanuro and Invernizzi suggest that the Cochabamba demands are so wildly unrealistic that “for it to be practicable, it would in fact be necessary for an anti-productivist socialist revolution to triumph tomorrow, simultaneously in all the developed capitalist countries.”

We can hope! But of course that is unlikely. And the lack of attention paid to the hydrocarbon industries does leave a gap in terms of what activists could do to attack the system right now. But it does not leave a complete gap in terms of what to do.

They write that “there is something unrealistic about the People’s Agreement when it demands that the countries of the North not only go further than the most radical scenario of the IPCC, but are furthermore the only ones who have to make an effort.”

In my reading between the lines, the reason why the Bolivian (and other ALBA) governments are putting such hard demands on the rich world while not making demands on the poor countries is that they are trying to construct a bloc of the poor countries that can challenge the “Copenhagen club” of rich industrialised countries.

As an international alliance, this has to be called on clear demands that can realistically be agreed on. The omission of demands on poor/developing countries (which includes China, Brazil and India in the Kyoto definitions) does not mean that climate activists ought to ignore problems in those countries. It is, however, an opportunity to gain ground against the central cause of the problem – the nations at the centre of the imperialist power structure.

There is a key role for activists in the imperialist nations here. While the ALBA countries and the Alliance of Small Island States can rail against the world’s carbon criminal governments inside summits, their words are only given weight in the media of the rich countries if they are matched by mass protest outside of the summits.

“Third worldist”?

Tanuro and Invernizzi write:

“In the case of the global South, the way in which the agreement proposes to concretise the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities tends to ignore the necessary criticism of the productivist development strategies of certain ruling classes, such as those of Brazil, China or … Venezuela, for example, as a large oil producer.”

Is it fair for Bolivia and Venezuela to take the moral high ground when they depend on fossil fuel exports? I live in Australia, the world’s worst per capita carbon polluter and world’s biggest coal exporter. Unlike Australia, these countries are very poor and would probably not survive if they ended their fossil fuel exports rapidly. If Australia did so, the main pain would be felt by the shareholders of various mining multinationals. Australia is a rich country with enough capital to diversify and replace these industries.

How can Bolivia move away from simple resource extraction industry? It is a real battle to get even the most basic industrialisation in a country so poor.

I don’t know much about Venezuela, but it is quite clear that Bolivia’s “productivist” use of its natural gas exports is simply a survival mechanism. They are an incredibly poor, cash-starved country. A friend of mine in Bolivia said he finds it hard to get supplies as basic as a 6mm stainless steel bolt for building his watermotor. That’s a standard size, it shouldn’t be hard to find! That is how de-industrialised they are. The measures in the Cochabamba documents that call for 6% of rich countries’ GDP to go to climate aid are a real need, not some kind of “third-worldist” ideological stunt.

Of course these demands could be hard to sell to a first-world working class mired in consumerism and suffering a class struggle that in many countries is very one-sided (on the employers’ side!).

On the other hand, the revolt in the third world could be a powerful inspiration for the first world: this is what happened in the 1950s-70s as the great wave of decolonisation struggles shook the world.

Now it is time for a great struggle for decarbonisation. There are indeed gaps in the Cochabamba agreement. Some of these omissions seem to serve useful purposes. Others need to be filled in, but overall, the course set at Cochabamba is far closer to what is needed than Tanuro and Invernizzi realise.


  • simamak mehr: Your question is answered by Daniel Tanuro and Sandra Invernizzi, who say:

    “[T]he question is: how do we address the working class of North so that it becomes aware of its crucial responsibility for the rescue of the climate?

    “To this question, the Declaration does not answer in a convincing way.”

    I thought the Tanuro/Invernizzi article was bang on. Contrary to what Ben Courtice says, the authors did not “criticise the conference documents for being too radical in their overall aims such as limiting temperature rise to 1°C.” Rather, they pointed out what the scientists are already saying – that “the limit of a 1°C rise can no longer be attained: the temperature has increased by 0.8°C since 1850, an additional rise of 0.6°C is ‘in the pipeline’ (delayed only by thermal inertia from the oceans) and every year we add 2 to 3 ppm CO2 to the atmosphere… In fact, even a rise of 2°C can probably no longer be avoided.”

    Or as David Spratt says: “[W]e know that the present level of greenhouse gases is enough to increase temperatures by more than 2 degrees Celsius over time. We have already gone too far, there is already too much carbon in the air.”

    Their point was not that reducing global warming to 1°C was “too radical” a target, but that there was a big disconnect between that target and the analysis in the Cochabamba Declaration of what must be done to achieve it. In particular, they noted, the Declaration did not provide any perspective for a complete switch from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy – something that would have to be done “in the short term” if there was to be any hope of reducing global warming back to 1°C above pre-industrial levels.

    In other words, their criticism was that the Declaration was in fact not radical enough!

    In this regard, Courtice is turning the facts on their head when he asserts that Tanuro and Invernizzi were unrealistically assuming that dangerous climate change could be avoided without drastic and radical action; that was the very criticism that T & I were leveling against Cochabamba – and moreover, it was eminently justified!

    Simply put, Cochabamba is writing cheques it can’t cash. It calls for a 50% reduction in GHG emissions in the developed capitalist countries between now and 2017. Barring an immediate anti-productivist socialist revolution simultaneously in all the developed countries, as T & I point out, such a reduction is impossible. But Cochabamba stops short of the “radical, revolutionary refusal of the capitalist system” that its own emissions targets require.

  • Once again, it seems a river of inks going to be spilled between two reformist camps– sorry `anti-capitalist` camps: International Viewpoint and Socialist Alliances over technical details of climate change. And both articles full of advices to capitalist states as to how manage or avoid climate disasters (which by the way is a very real issue – no sarcasm is intended here)

    However, the question that I would like to ask these comrades is this: is there any mention of the following or similar statement in Cochabamba declaration?

    For example, statement such as this:

    Working brothers and sisters of the industrialized societies (or whatever you like to replace with), your living standards and living conditions under a constant attack (isn’t that true though?) by your government which serve nothing but international capitalists to grow and prosper! and create environmental disasters as a consequences. We need your solidarity in this difficult situation of climate change. It is only through our collective actions/resistances that we can topple international capitalism and do something serious about controlling our natural resources. Join us in this struggle!

    I do not see anything like that in Cochabamba declaration. Or did I miss it? Or as some comrades might suggest this is too early or unrealistic … I ask why? Maybe someone can enlighten me. Haven’t we learned enough from these third world national bourgeois liberation movements, which gather a wide range of classes (including working class) under its umbrella, as they are hammered and oppressed by international capital movements. But then what?

  • There is a simple rule in life: Be careful what you wish for, for you might get it. If we let the 2 Degree Club carry on “targeting” 2 degrees, we will reach a 2 degree increase (and shoot past it, jeopardizing life on Earth) — because that’s what they’re so focused on.

    We need to refocus and create a new mantra and, frankly, the Cochabamba mantra is the best one we’ve got: limit (not target) heating to 1 degree max, get down to 300 ppm, create a zero carbon economy (rich guys go first), and do it fast.

    Julie Johnston
    GreenHeart Education