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<nettime> Interview with Larry Lohmann about the politics of climate cha
pavlos hatzopoulos on Fri, 26 Sep 2008 15:14:04 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Larry Lohmann about the politics of climate change

by Arlen Dilsizian*


Arlen Dilsizian:* One way to begin would be too look at the way your work
has explored how the fight against climate change connects with struggles of
social justice both in the global south and in industrialized nations. Can
you explain to us the links and why do you see such struggles as a playing a
key role in mitigating climate change?

*Larry Lohmann:* Climate change is a social issue like other social issues,
and as such will always be connected with concrete, specific struggles over
fossil fuel exploitation, pollution, health, agriculture, livelihoods,
access to energy and so forth. Surprisingly, I think that hasn't always been
understood. There's this impression that climate change is a radically new
issue, 'the worst problem humanity has ever faced', 'an issue of hard
science', and that it's completely different from any other issue that we
face. However, I don't think that's a good way of looking at it. I think
it's important to look at the climate change issue as a continuation and
manifestation of some of the same social forces and social problems that we
have been dealing with for centuries. It's a question of political power, a
question of who wins and who loses in terms of access and rights, and is
continuous with a whole range of issues starting with the struggles of
peoples in places like Ecuador and Alaska to stop the depredations of oil
companies on their lands.

Climate change is also an issue that has a lot to do with the question of
who owns the atmosphere, who's going to have power over the capacity of the
earth to stabilize its own climate, and so forth. These questions have to do
with power and politics, so of course they have to involve struggles for
democracy at all levels.

*AD:* Well, building on this, there also seems to be the issue that the way
climate change is presented to us is in a very depoliticised context,
essentially one of preventing certain greenhouse gases from reaching the
atmosphere. Would you say that depoliticising the very idea of climate
change has been a strategy for not dealing with some of the more important
social issues underlying it?

*LL: *I don't know if it is a strategy or not, but the fact is that there
are constant pressures to depoliticise the issue, and that happens in
several ways. As I mentioned, climate change is often presented to us as a
scientific issue of molecules moving here and there. Scientists tell us what
to do and then we institute some supposedly technical procedure for
governing the molecules. That's obviously one way of depoliticising the
issue. There are no people and no power struggles in that equation at all.
Who decides what means we are going to use to try and stabilize the climate?
Who decides where the carbon molecules go? Such questions are elided.

Another respect in which the whole debate is depoliticised ? and here I
think maybe your word 'strategy' might be a good word to use ? has to do
with the way that the social and political issues that arise out of climate
change (who owns the atmosphere and so forth) have been obscured by
neoclassical economics jargon. For example, when you look at the reports of
the official body of experts that advises the UN climate negotiators,
the Intergovernmental
Panel of Climate Change <http://www.ipcc.ch/>(IPCC), their whole framework
is basically one of natural science plus neoclassical economics. There is no
political or historical analysis of where the climate problem came from or
what history tells us about what sort of struggle is needed to deal with it.
Even when it tries to predict what the effects of certain levels of
emissions are going to be in the future, the IPCC tends to rely
disproportionately on things like population projections, speculations about
GDP growth, and so on. A lot of the 'options' that the IPCC presents to the
world's governments are based on a discourse that has been captured and
dominated by orthodox economists. Intellectually and politically speaking,
this is a serious problem.

*AD:* We have seen a fair share of public misunderstanding about the very
nature of climate change negotiations. The US failure to ratify the Kyoto
Protocol has often led to its being interpreted as a serious piece of
legislation that threatens big carbon emitters. Yet you have shown that the
US was in fact the main architect behind the Kyoto legislation. How can we
explain the simultaneous US support and rejection of the Kyoto treaty?

*LL:* It's not too hard. The US was very powerful in the international
climate change negotiating arena, and in 1997 at the Kyoto Protocol
negotiations the Bill Clinton regime said they would not participate further
unless three market mechanisms were introduced and Kyoto was turned into a
trade treaty. The justification was that this would provide 'flexibility'
for US industry. So Kyoto was written, largely by the US, as a treaty
friendly to big business. Companies like Enron, which as an energy trader
was well placed to make profits off carbon trading, were happy about Kyoto
and wanted the US to be part of it. Al Gore was the standard-bearer for this
business faction at the Kyoto negotiations. The rest of the world went along
with the US pressure in hopes that this would ensure the US would stay on
board any further climate negotiations.

Then George Bush was elected (or not elected, depending on how you look at
it) and decided that, unlike Clinton, he didn't want any part of Kyoto at
all, even a Kyoto defined by market mechanisms. This wasn't because Bush
thought Kyoto was a big threat to US business, but he was concerned about
the effects on one particular faction of US business ? the more
dinosaur-like faction represented by companies like Exxon, who didn't see
the same profit opportunities that Enron did, and were against having any
climate treaty. Bush sided with this faction, much to the consternation of
his friends at Enron like Kenneth Lay.

Now the pendulum is starting to swing back in the other direction. Various
regions in the US are busy setting up carbon markets, and during the next
administration the federal government may follow suit and, who knows, may
even take part in some post-Kyoto treaty. Businesses including investment
banks, hedge funds, commodity speculators, and carbon consultants are
looking to make big profits out of this new market.

There's no mystery about any of this unless we are taken in by the idea that
the battle to put the Kyoto Protocol into effect was a battle between the
big bad US and the more progressive rest of the world. It would be more
accurate to say that it was a dispute between two business factions within
the US.

*AD:* Why do you see carbon trading failing even by the standards it sets

Carbon trading was designed as a way to save costs on emissions reductions.
It works (when it works at all, which it hasn't so far) by spreading around
the costs of any reduction that the government mandates. The idea is that
any emissions cuts should be made where they are cheapest. After all, the
justification goes, if we can cut emissions cheaply, we needn't be so
worried about having to make steep cuts.

So carbon trading allows industries like electricity generation or aviation
not to have to make immediate cuts if those cuts are very expensive ? as
they are likely to be, since both these industries are heavily invested in
fossil fuel use. Instead, these industries can pay money to have other
industries cut emissions 'for' them, so that the overall societal target is
met. Or those industries can finance special carbon-saving projects in other
countries, if they find that that's even cheaper as a way of meeting their

The first problem with this scheme is that it's aimed at the wrong goal.
Dealing with climate change is a matter, above all, of phasing out fossil
fuels in a way that does not cause too much suffering. Most coal, oil and
gas remaining underground is just going to have to stay underground. But
reducing emissions just any old way is not necessarily by itself going to
help with a long-term transition away from fossil fuels. You can reduce
emissions in the short term by a small amount without starting any of the
structural changes that you are going to need to make in the long term. In
fact, you can slow down those structural changes if you spread around your
emissions cuts in the right, market-approved way. What makes carbon markets
possible is that they abstract from this fact. Carbon trading says that to
reduce emissions is to deal with global warming. But you don't want to
indulge in this kind of abstraction, because it takes you away from the root
of the problem.

To fill in the picture a bit more, carbon trading is based on the assumption
that it doesn't matter to the climate who makes the emissions cuts, or how
or where they are made. Every emissions cut of say, 1 million tonnes of
carbon dioxide, is the same, whether it is made by an electricity generator
or a refrigerant plant. But again, this is false. The cheapest cuts of 1
million tonnes are likely to be those that you can make by doing very little
? for example, making basic efficiency improvements you should have made
anyway and that may even save you money. These cuts are likely to be the
kinds of cuts that make no difference whatever to long-term technological or
social development away from fossil fuel use. Yet by making these cheap
cuts, you are allowing the industries that are buying the pollution rights
to delay the investments that need to be made immediately for the sake of
the long-term future. You're actually blocking progress away from fossil
fuels. You're keeping the wheels on the fossil fuel industry.

And once you get this market going, there's no way you're going to remember,
or care about, what it was supposed to be for in the first place.
Everybody's too busy trying to figure out extremely clever new ways of
making money. A couple of weeks ago an analyst for Deutsche Bank came out
and said that the price of carbon pollution rights in Europe was likely to
go up, and that to 'cushion against the risk of an excessive price spike',
industries should be allowed to finance more carbon-saving projects in the
global South from which they could buy especially cheap carbon credits so
they could continue business as usual. The whole game becomes ensuring a
price for carbon that is high enough, but not too high, and to arrange
things any way you can so that industry, banks, hedge funds, carbon
consultants and so forth are all making money. Whether any of this has
anything to do with global warming becomes simply irrelevant.

There are a lot of other problems with carbon markets ? for example, the way
supposedly 'carbon-saving' projects generating carbon credits in the global
South are actually blocking constructive action on climate change there ?
but this is probably enough for a start. You can find a lot of documentation
on the websites associated with the Durban Group for Climate Justice, for
example www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/subject/climate<http://www.re-public.gr/en/www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/subject/climate>or

*AD: *You make the connection that the people at the forefront of the
climate change battle (those that are making sure that hydro-carbons stay in
the ground) are the ones whose livelihoods are most affected by fossil fuel
extraction. Yet in a sense a lot of these struggles are both spatially and
politically separated from the bulk of the end users of these resources,
Western middle class consumers. Do you see this class of people playing a
pivotal role in the debate, would it not be safe to say that so far there
has been a lot of apathy on the issue of global warming among the global
North's middle classes?

*LL:* I don't see the middle classes in industrialised nations as playing a
leading role in the struggle right away, but that's not because of any
inborn limitation that they have, but in part, at least, because they've
been so extremely disempowered in political debates like this. This is
especially the case when you consider what the climate crisis calls for is a
restructuring of a lot of aspects of society, including the way we produce
and think about energy, the way we organize our transport systems,
communities and so forth. There will eventually be more motivation among the
middle classes in industrialized societies to discuss the changes that need
to take place, but I think that probably the first impetus for building a
more unified movement will come from people with a different kind of
political power, peoples whose livelihoods are actually more immediately
connected with the problems of fossil fuel extraction and use, as well as
other problems that require structural change.

But of course, even the middle class in industrialized societies is by no
means monolithic. You have, for example, lower middle-class communities who
are suffering from pollution and health problems due to fossil fuel use, for
whom there is a more immediate basis for understanding the nature of the
climate problem. We've seen this in places like California, where the
government is planning on building 21 new fossil fuel-fired power plants,
all of which, without exception, I believe, are going to be sited in poorer
communities of colour. The environmental justice movement there doesn't want
to see these plants built, and they as a result they see carbon trading ?
which is, of course, the official approach to the global warming problem ?
as a threat. This is because carbon trading is designed in a way that blocks
efforts to work towards a different kind of economy that would not require
that those plants be built and instead would put resources into, for
example, community employment to retrofit existing houses so that they use
less energy, and so forth. You wouldn't call the environmental justice
movement in California a middle-class movement, but there can be links
insofar as issues of pollution and fossil fuel dependence also affect
middle-class people. So it's not a black and white picture.

But at the same time, it is a real problem that the growing concern about
the climate problem among the middle classes in the North is mostly found
among people who don't want to ask more structural questions ? including
traditional environmentalists ? and sometimes don't even want to question
fossil fuel dependence. These are people who are worried about global
warming but are likely to support technical and market fixes proposed by
governments, corporations and neoclassical economists without thinking too
much about it. From your average middle-class perspective, these supposed
fixes are the 'politically correct' approaches. The middle classes in the
North remain pretty isolated from potential allies elsewhere ? they don't
usually have to come face to face with people of different backgrounds with
views that would challenge their preconceptions about politics. That
isolation is a problem that will have to be faced, but the leadership will
probably have to come from elsewhere.

*AD:* There has been a lot of media coverage on the emerging role of China
and India as major producers of greenhouse gases. Do you think the role of
China and India complicates the picture of a simple North/South divide over
the responsibility over climate change?
*LL:* With respect to historical responsibility, no. The historical reality
remains: climate change is basically a problem which has been created by the
historically industrialized countries. Recently there's been a push to
'other' the problem, to say that China and India are largely responsible, or
are going to be largely responsible in the future, and that therefore 'we'
can't do anything unless 'they' do. This is worrisome especially in that
this line often comes from people who are happy to engage in China-bashing
or Malthusian kinds of thinking. 'Let's not talk about history,' the line
goes. 'Let's not talk about the realities of power, let's talk about the
future of those millions of Chinese and Indians who are going to be
demanding cars as their birthright, and who want a high fossil-fuel using
lifestyle.' That plays into a whole range of racist and colonialist
political discourses.

It's also important to look at patterns of fossil fuel use in a global
perspective. What exactly is being produced by the coal-burning in China
that so many pundits are talking about? A very sizable proportion of it is
going to, and will continue going to, producing goods for the industrialized

It's a complicated issue, and I think it requires a lot of understanding of
what the internal situation is in these two countries, and the struggle of
the groups within them, because neither of these countries is a monolith.
There are a lot of voices within both that are stressing that they need to
think carefully about a fossil fuel-dependent path. It is important to make
contact with those voices and understand their context, and what they think
can or should be done.

One of my Chinese activist friends recently joked that when he talks about
global warming with people who say the problem is going to be China and
India, he often gets the feeling that they think that carbon molecules must
somehow be very different in China from the carbon molecules in Europe, and
much more damaging.

*AD:* There seems to be a belief that the very technological qualities of
some of the alternative technologies that are being promoted such as fuel
cells, solar and wind power make for a more decentralized model of energy
production and distribution. Yet doesn't the risk of monopolization of these
technologies remain a real threat to such alternatives?

*LL: *Yes. That is another way that the climate debate is often
depoliticised. People say, 'Oh, well, it's a question of coming up with
technical alternatives, a question of scientific innovation'. But again this
is actually a political question. We have the example of oil companies like
Shell buying up smaller companies involved in non-carbon or low carbon
energy production. While they are stepping up exploration for oil resources
they are at the same time attempting to monopolize as much as possible any
new energy sources. If you look at the climate problem as basically a
problem of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, then this is a very worrisome
development. In the past we have seen all sorts of precedents, such as in
California, the way light railways in cities like Los Angeles were bought up
by automobile companies in the middle of the last century and shut down, to
help the growing automobile economy. This sort of precedent gives you a hint
of what you have to look for in the monopolization of any technology. So the
answer is not in technology alone. Of course some technologies are
inherently friendlier to decentralised approaches than others. DC
electricity is slightly more adaptable to local production than AC, which is
historically associated with big centralized electricity production. But you
are not going to solve all your problems simply by promoting a technology
that in theory can be more easily adapted to decentralized use.

Wind power is an interesting example. Wind power has by no means been a
positive development for certain local communities in India. Land has been
taken over, excluding villagers from common pasturelands, for large wind
farms that are not in any way reducing the expansion of the fossil fuel
economy. Someone sitting 8000 km away and looking at the decentralization
possibilities of wind and how it could in theory be a more ecologically and
politically friendly technology might miss some of the political realities
of what can happen with a technology like that on the ground.

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