The Promise of Beijing

By BILL ONASCH

It was a startling sidebar to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. The heads of state of two economic and military titans, who between them are responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions warming our planet and altering our climate, announced measures to reduce them. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed hope that their action will contribute to a new global climate accord, succeeding the expiring 1997 Kyoto Protocols, to be hammered out in Paris next year.

While this was the first formal joint declaration of the two on climate matters, there is history of back-channel collaboration going back to their division of labor in wrecking the most promising chance yet for meaningful international climate action–the Copenhagen Climate Summit five years ago. Neither government wanted to see binding quotas for reducing emissions adopted there.

The Guardian reported at the time, “After eight draft texts and all-day talks between 115 world leaders, it was left to Barack Obama and Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, to broker a political agreement. The so-called Copenhagen accord ‘recognizes’ the scientific case for keeping temperature rises to no more than 2C but does not contain commitments to emissions reductions to achieve that goal.”

At that gathering China defended the right of poor nations to develop without restrictions imposed by the rich ones. The tensions of rich-poor are real and need to be addressed in a just way by the rich, supporting sustainable development of the countries they have long exploited.

A token promise of help for the poor majority of humanity was made in Copenhagen by then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, pledging the USA would help put together $100 billion over 20 years. Not much has accumulated in that fund so far, though President Obama announced several days later at the G20 (now 19) meeting in Brisbane that he was sending another three billion. That is less than half the amount he ordered for inspection and maintenance of America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

Certainly, we will not have a satisfactory resolution to the climate change crisis without both China and the USA doing the right thing—and pronto. But what was dished up in Beijing wasn’t a healthy diet change plan for a world overdosing on carbon.

United Nations officials, as you would expect, praised the two presidents for their initiative. UN climate scientists were much more reserved in their comments—and no comments. The governments of Poland and Australia, who had earlier in the week rejected any reduction in the use of coal, didn’t rush to recant. The global warming denier Republican leadership in Congress, flexing their muscles after giving the president’s party a shellacking in the recent midterm elections, promised a fight to the finish against the White House “war on coal and jobs.”

Naomi Klein, who recently published a book entitled “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” promptly wrote a short piece for The Guardian, “Some Very Initial Thoughts on the US-China Deal” (see http://thischangeseverything.org). While duly noting the inadequacy of this deal, and reiterating the need for a climate movement, she is surprisingly nuanced in her Guardian piece, finding some positive attributes in “context.” She states that “the US-China climate deal is a badly needed piece of good news. It signals that Barack Obama is willing to expend political capital fighting for his climate legacy.”

In her book, however, Klein minces few words, concluding, “Only mass social movements can save us now.” You can read a useful review of her book by Canadian eco-socialist John Riddell at climate&capitalism.com.

America’s most prominent environmentalist, Bill McKibben, called the promises at APEC “historic,” claiming they represented a limited victory for the movement. He wrote, “Today is an achievement for everyone who’s held a banner, signed a petition, and gone to jail—and a call for many more to join us going forward!” While I respect McKibben’s dedication and heartily endorse his call to swell the ranks of the climate movement, I suspect that he, and most other traditional environmentalists, still have lingering illusions about Obama’s wanting to do the right thing and that our movement can help him to do so.

Just what was pledged in China? Aljazeera America summarized, “President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would move much faster in cutting pollution, with a goal to reduce it 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels. Earlier in his presidency, Obama set a goal to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

“Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country’s emissions are still growing as it builds new coal plants, didn’t commit to cut emissions by a specific amount. Rather, he set a target for China’s emissions to peak by 2030 or earlier if possible. He also pledged to increase the share of energy that China will derive from sources other than fossil fuels, such as solar and wind.”

In my view, paraphrasing Naomi Klein’s book title, this changes nothing. As China continues to build on average a new coal-fired power plant every 10 days, they also pledge to keep expanding use of solar and wind as well. They want all the energy they can get. Declining to quantify a cap on emissions 15 years down the road means the cap will be whatever they are churning out at that time. In Midwest vernacular, President Xi is giving us snow in the wintertime.

No less disingenuous is President Obama’s promise. The Republican Congress has made clear that among their top priorities is reversing the EPA authority to regulate carbon emissions. A bipartisan effort to guarantee approval of the Keystone XL pipeline—often called the Gettysburg of the North American environmental movement—passed the House but on Nov. 20 was narrowly rejected by the lame-duck Senate, still controlled by the Democrats.

Nevertheless, Senate Republicans have promised to re-introduce the bill early next year. There is zero chance of Congressional support for the modest Beijing pledge during the final two years of the lame-duck president.

That pledge is a slightly enhanced version of the president’s carbon cap-and-trade initiative for power plants, announced with great fanfare a few months ago. Its legality rests on EPA directives submitted by the White House that must go through a lengthy process of “industry and public comment,” vulnerable to corporate filibuster. Like the Affordable Care Act, it would be structured around state or regional exchanges. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Obama selected a peak year for emissions as his baseline for reductions. As well as cuts in energy consumption during the Great Recession and weak recovery, there has been widespread conversion of power plants to natural gas, which produces about half of the carbon emissions of coal. This low-hanging fruit has yielded quick results even before Obama’s plan has been launched—which may not be sustainable over the long haul.

In any case, the president’s cap-and-trade reform, which the electric utilities have indicated they can live with, is far less than even the European Community has agreed to. It is certainly nowhere near the actions that climate scientists tell us are urgently needed.

“Promise” is a word that is found in the dictionary somewhere between two apt descriptions of the one in Beijing—phony and protracted. Too many who should know better are treating it like a good-faith hesitant first step that should be welcomed and nurtured, as they politely suggest more has to be done. The only context for seeing the hype at APEC as promise is the lack of any previous goals. Its timing has helped divert attention from several new dire warnings from science calling for much more far-reaching measures now.

Bill McKibben was spot on in regard to one point: we wouldn’t see their Beijing hype at all if they didn’t see the need to answer an insurgent climate action movement that in September brought hundreds of thousands into the streets on all continents—as well as the growing, sometimes successful localized protests against pollution in China.Obama and Xi are neither ignorant nor bashful. We don’t have to explain anything to them. They know full well, as they advance the interests of their respective ruling classes, that they risk leaving an irreparably degraded biosphere for future generations. They frankly, dear reader, don’t give a damn.

Those who know the truth need to tell it like it is. I believe our task is to expose the scam at APEC and answer it with an action plan of our own. We must address our plan not to the con artist politicians looking out for the climate wrecker class but to the workers, farmers, and students who have the material interests and power to save us from climate disaster. We must do as Naomi Klein says—build and unite the mass class and social movements that are our only hope for salvation.

This is an edited and updated version of an article that first appeared in the Nov. 16 “Week in Review” at kclabor.org/wordpress.