Climate change under neoliberal capitalism

Wednesday 10 September 2008, by Ahmed Swapan Mahmud

There is little doubt that climate change is happening. As countries and international organisations ponder over how resolve an impending crisis brought about by global warming, they should also stop to consider whether the prevailing market oriented economy makes enough of an allowance to arrive at sustainable and genuine measures to contain this impending crisis.

The consequences of climate change already threaten the planet and communities around the world. However, strong resistance is present among the northern as well as southern communities to change the existing system of over consumption and exploitative nature of the global transnational corporations and international financial institutions. Although it is the North that is mainly responsible for carbon emission and destruction of nature and socioeconomic condition the Southern elites cannot avoid the responsibility either. It is also clear that the southern elite show little willingness to take proper measures against pollution and destruction by corporations often backed by the international financial institutions. Rather, it is observed that these institutions and corporations undermine government policies undertake activities that cause enormous damage to the nature and people’s livelihoods.

Martin Khor of the Third World Network points out that the global reduction of 80 per cent greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050, that many consider necessary, will have to translate into reductions of at least 150 to 200 per cent on the part of the global North if the two principles—’common but differentiated responsibility’ and recognition of the right to development of the South—are to be followed. But are the governments and peoples of the North prepared to make such commitments?

Northern societies are still obsessed with over consumption while the development discourse is still predominated by the neoliberal economic school of thought promoting capitalist free market. And this dominant economic model is considered as an obstacle to dealing with climate change.

Walden Bello finds it to be the central problem. It is becoming increasingly clear that it is a mode of production whose main dynamic is the transformation of living nature into dead commodities, creating tremendous waste in the process. The driver of this process is consumption—or more appropriately overconsumption—and the motivation is profit or capital accumulation: Capitalism, in short. It has been the generalisation of this mode of production in the North and its spread from the North to the South over the last 300 years that has caused the accelerated burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil and rapid deforestation, two of the key man-made processes behind global warming.

Climate catastrophe is a major component of today’s global scene. The leaders of developed countries, international financial institutions and corporations are mainly responsible this crisis for having damaged environment and ecology, destroying people’s livelihoods. Those very quarters are raising the issue of mitigation and adaptation. The communities of the developing countries are also feel pressured about how they will generate enough resources for adaptation and mitigation.

The adverse effect of climate change is increasingly growing with a higher frequency and intensity of weather events like floods, droughts, cyclones and hurricanes globally which affect people’s livelihood causing substantial damage to agriculture, environment and the communities in general. The rise of sea level will inundate low lying coastal areas which will cause a fourth of Bangladesh to disappear according to one report. Also extreme heat and warmer waters will cause even further damage to the communities concerned.

As profit driven mode of production by corporate agencies, over extraction of natural resources and over consumption hasten global warming, poor communities of the developing countries continue to suffer from poverty and malnutrition without any effective access to public services.

There have been attempts to intervene into climate change and avert the impending crisis. The Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol were adopted but substantial progress was not made. Rather the Kyoto deal does not intervene into the root causes—corporate globalisation and the mad pursuit of profit by global conglomerates. The destructive process is continuing in the South through carbon trading and reallocating quota for further extraction of natural resources for profit of companies through energy extensive operations. The Kyoto Protocol overlooks the damage caused by climate change and avoids the principle of ’right to development and human rights’ including people’s authority over their own natural resources.

The Bangladesh paper on climate change was prepared without substantive participation of communities, the poor and the vulnerable and civil society actors. It does not highlight the root causes of climate change and also does not undertake proper measures based on human rights and justice framework. Limited participation is the fundamental flaw of the paper. Among many, major concerns include, for instance, regarding food security, poverty and health, the government counts on increased food production but based on commercialisation and industrialisation that will threaten people’s food sovereignty and farmers’ rights. Even on the health issue, proper measures are not considered regarding how to ensure people’s right to health while climate change has a serious impact on food production and health.

Support based programmes do not necessarily help people in the long run if natural disasters frequently hit those areas. Community based programmes should be undertaken with community management. As climate defence, physical infrastructure is prioritised over what should have been a ’reorientation and integration’ approach from a human rights perspective.

Considering low carbon technology, as it would compel the country to thwart its process of industrialisation, Bangladesh should assert its right to development and adopt appropriate measures towards the proven path of industrialisation, economic growth and poverty alleviation.

It should be noted that per capita carbon emission per year in Bangaldesh is only 0.02 tonnes while in the US it is 20 tonnes, literally a thousands times more, and in China and India it is around 10 tonnes.

As decided at the Bali Conference, an adaptation fund will be created under the UN as there was and continues to be strong opposition against separate initiative under any lending agencies. But the World Bank has already taken such an initiative at the G8 Summit in Japan that parties present there lauded and agreed to support. These lending agencies are equally responsible for climate injustice, having imposed their policy conditions undermining the right and policy sovereignty of different countries and thereby undermining core democratic values. This initiative must be opposed.

Greater cooperation and collective effort including the vulnerable communities need to be taken to mitigate the problem. The fundamental principles should adhere to policies so as to overcome the damaging factors sustaining people’s sovereignty over food and natural resources. Global responsibility must be considered for immediate and long term strategies with due consideration for the poor and vulnerable.

Climate change is not only an environmental issue. It must be understood how under the ’free market’—the neo-liberal economic order and capitalist globalization—the transnational agencies, backed by lenders, pursue profit through over exploitation of nature causing excessive carbon emissions. The neoliberal package is also behind defining the nature of investment, through myriad different means including multilateral and bilateral agreements and aid conditionalities. The root causes of climate crisis must be addressed appropriately that guarantees social justice and democracy.

The role of social movement groups, civil society, political actors, indigenous people, coastal communities, farmers, fisherfolk, poor and vulnerable when considering measures to address climate change for it must be inclusive and fully owned by the people that must adopt these measures. Market driven mechanisms must not be the central pillar to climate mitigation but it should hinge upon eco-sufficiency and sustainability. The People’s Protocol on Climate Change has already brought these issues to the forefront for building alternative mechanisms to resolve climate crisis.

However, the fundamental question is whether neo-liberal capitalism as a system in the current economic order will create the space to resolve climate change. And moreover, does the capitalist mode of development led by the global North can properly deal with climate change.

Ahmed Swapan Mahmud is a writer and activist and can be reached at

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