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A capitalist economic system dependent on fossil fuels and the exploitation of natural resources to generate profit has left people and ecosystems across large parts of the planet – including swathes of Africa – vulnerable to climate change, Ama Biney writes in this week’s Pambazuka News. The ‘derisory’ funding developed nations have offered to ‘assist developing countries to adapt to climate change’ is not enough to solve the problem, Biney argues. The real focus, says Biney, should be on ‘transforming the exploitative, unsustainable, profit-driven ethos that underpins the current system of wealth accumulation that simultaneously damages the environment’.

Why is it that trillions could be found to bail out the banks by both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown? Is bailing out the banks to the tune of trillions more important than climate change? Why is it that millions have been spent waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and continue to be spent, yet sufficient funds cannot be offered to assist developing countries to adapt to climate change with clean technology, other than the derisory US$100 billion a year? If we have sent a man to the moon, how is it not possible that the global community with research capabilities and technology have invented wind turbines as a source of energy but cannot enable African countries to harness the one thing they have in abundance – sunshine – into solar energy?

The fundamental cause of global warming and carbon emissions has been perpetrated by the developed nations of the world and most critically the profit motive they are wedded to. In other words, it is the neoliberal capitalist system of overproduction in the North that has damaged the planet and continues to do so.

Capitalist accumulation is based on the inexorable rape of the world’s resources in terms of fossil fuels to power industry and create products; oil energy to transport via sea, land and air such goods; pillage of forests such as the Amazon and those forests in Africa that are rarely mentioned in relation to climate change. Yet, African forests take in 20 per cent of carbon absorbed by trees across the world and therefore Africa has a central role to play in the collective endeavours to save the planet.

The colossal exploitation of the resources of the planet has been waged by the drive for increased profits. The juggernaut of capital searching for greater returns for its money in markets, and human beings transformed into consumers purchasing goods is the ruthless logic of the capitalist system that has evolved for over two hundred years. It is aided in the North by the arm of powerful subliminal advertising agencies that are effective in getting consumers to become modern slaves to materialistic objects to the extent of buying such goods (cars, TVs, computer games, etc) on credit. For in neoliberal capitalism there is never a cut off point for maximum profit – it is infinite. Corporations simply swallow up whatever stands in their way in takeovers. Neither is there a moral compass nor ethic in capitalist production, other than ‘greed is good’. If there was, such an ethic would have resolved world hunger when ‘milk lakes’ and ‘butter mountains’ existed in the 1970s and 1980s with such overproduction in the European community, whilst others starved and died in the ‘Third World’ as it was then called.

Africa’s contribution to carbon emissions is a mere 3.8 per cent. Yet we are all aware that the continent, along with other developing countries such as the tiny Association of Independent Island States, is highly vulnerable to future climate changes. Vulnerable countries are likely to be wiped off the face of the earth if there is not a commitment by richer nations to 2 degrees Celsius as the maximum temperature of global warming. Lumumba Di-Aping, chairman of the G77 group of nations, has said that such a figure entails both a ‘certain death for Africa’ and a type of ‘climate fascism’ imposed on Africa by high carbon emitters. Di-Aping states that in reality 2 degrees Celsius means 3.5 degrees Celsius for much of Africa.

Exacerbating the future of Africa’s ability to deal with climate change will be the need to ensure that the ongoing land deals by Saudi Arabia and other rich Gulf States do not make particular communities in Sudan, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia and elsewhere, even more vulnerable to poverty and hunger. In northern Kenya, the UN has estimated that 400 people have died this year as a result of conflict between ethnic groups over grazing rights for cattle in areas that have seen decreasing amounts of rain. The director of the UN Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, has pointed out that the consequences of climate change for Africa and other developing countries will be desertification in the Sudan, rainfall decline in the Horn of Africa, freshwater evaporating in the South, droughts, heat waves, epidemics and floods. He says climate change ‘amplifies and escalates vulnerability.’ There is no doubt that such pronouncements paint a doomsday scenario. However, he says ‘It doesn’t mean that conflict is inevitable, but it’s much more likely.’

Similarly, should we not consider the implication of toxic waste dumping in Africa by companies such as Trafigura, which dumped truck loads of sulphuric sludge in Ivory Coast in 2006, and the damaging consequences it has for Africa, or the ecological damage caused by Anglo-Dutch Shell in the extraction of oil in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria? Surely any deal at Copenhagen should ensure that richer nations are made to dispose of toxic waste safely? Equally important should be fair compensation for the victims of environmental degradation and not the paltry £100 million paid by Trafigura to the Ivorian government in 2007.

African NGOs such as the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance and Northern NGOs genuinely committed to climate justice in an egalitarian global community need to consistently mobilise post-Copenhagen to ensure that the movement for climate change does not become a business opportunity for the corporate world to profit from. There is a need for all of us to be aware of the smokescreen that will be presented by the elaborate carbon emissions accounting.

For example, developed countries can claim they have ‘cut’ their emissions without actually releasing lesser CO2 emissions by paying a poor country to discharge less. It could be argued that theoretically this is acceptable as we all breathe the same air. However, whose interests does this really serve? Doesn’t the earth continue to suffer under such an arrangement? If the developing countries seek to imitate the model of capitalist development often pushed by the North, it will need another planet to pillage and plunder in order to catch up with the West.

Another creative carbon emissions accounting that developed nations can adopt is to trade their allocated permits in carbon emissions. For example in 1990 the Soviet Union and several Eastern Europe countries such as Romania and Poland were issued such permits. Some have used them. Those who have not can sell them to rich countries to use. Consequently, the US or UK can buy them from Poland and proudly claim they have reduced emissions. We must not be bamboozled.

Therefore reading the fine print that comes out of any Copenhagen deal and holding all to account, particularly the rich nations, is necessary.

Climate change is the single most important threat to human existence today. It is one of the myriad problems facing the African continent and it acutely exacerbates other long-term problems in Africa. I do not accept that some US$100 billion per year until 2020 – or whatever figure – is a key to addressing the fundamental problem. It is simply applying a sticking plaster to a world suffering from a brain haemorrhage. Transforming the exploitative, unsustainable, profit-driven ethos that underpins the current system of wealth accumulation that simultaneously damages the environment is the real focus. Helping countries in the South to develop greener technologies – whilst the North does the same is a cosmetic tinkering with the capitalist economic system that remains intact. We must recognise and accept that it is the way wealth is created and distributed in our world that causes the devastating impact of climate change as well as huge social, economic, and political global inequalities.

With the implosion of the banks, the capitalist system has been discredited and the people of the North and the South must lead the way in finding another fairer economic system that is in harmony with the environment. The challenge of progressive forces both in the South and North is to demand the realisation of the slogan on one placard hoisted at Copenhagen: ‘System Change Not Climate Change!’


* Dr Ama Biney is a Pan-Africanist and scholar-activist who lives in the United Kingdom.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.