Revolution #255, January 8, 2012

Durban Platform Climate Agreement—A Criminal Charade

The world's major imperialist powers and other major countries cobbled together a last-minute agreement at the UN-sponsored international climate talks in December 2011 at Durban, South Africa. As with agreements at similar talks held previously in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancún in 2010, the deal that came out of the Durban talks will do nothing of meaning to stop the immense damage to our planet's ecosystems from climate change.

The European Union (EU) and the U.S. claimed the new agreement (known as the Durban Platform) was a success in addressing climate change because it supposedly builds on past agreements and because it calls for all countries to "launch a process" to produce a legally binding treaty or agreement. Some mainstream news sources called this a breakthrough.

In reality, this agreement does nothing to enforce actual cuts in emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation that is driven by capitalist production, transport, and consumption. Instead, the Durban Platform actually obstructs and further delays urgently needed action. Under the Durban agreement, the "road map" for a binding treaty won't be finished until 2015—and if a treaty does come out of that process, it would not even take effect until 2020!

Promises have been made that in the meantime, countries will voluntarily begin to cut their emissions. But such pledges have been declared before, and emissions of greenhouse gases in the world as a whole have continued to rise each year, with a massive rise in C02 (carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas) of 6% in 2010.

To put off until 2020 any actual enforcement of cuts in greenhouse gases is a criminal and horrendous act that guarantees even more damage and increasing danger to living ecosystems (webs of life interacting with each other and their physical environment as a unit) and the people of the world.

A Global Emergency

Climate change tied to human activity is already transforming ecosystems and leading to extinctions of species around the world. It is causing more intensive storms, more extreme droughts and flooding, and rising sea levels that threaten island nations. In terms of the impacts on people, the most devastating effects of climate change have been in the poor, oppressed countries that have contributed the least historically to the causes of global warming. But these problems will become much, much worse for the planet and humanity as a whole—because the greenhouse gases, already at destructive levels, are continuing to build up, and because these gases last for long periods of time in the atmosphere. The do-nothing agreement out of the Durban talks furthers the possibility that climate "tipping points" will occur, where more extreme changes happen quickly.

The consensus of climate scientists worldwide is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gases are demanded immediately. A recent article, "Climate Change and the End of Australia" by Jeff Goodell in the October 3 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, details how Australia is being hit by record heat waves, extreme drought, bush fires, and more intensive storms that are driven by the warming climate and that threaten to make the whole island country unlivable. According to a climate researcher at the University of Melbourne, "Australia is the canary in the coal mine. What is happening in Australia now is similar to what we can expect to see in other places in the future." Goodell writes, "A recent study by MIT projects that without 'rapid and massive action' to cut carbon pollution, the Earth's temperature could soar nine degrees this century." A temperature jump of that size in such a short time is unprecedented in human history.

A 2009 study by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showed that "changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped."

This and other evidence from scientific studies make it unmistakably clear that global climate change is an emergency. The situation cries out for immediate action to massively cut emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. Immediate moves are demanded to stop drilling, mining, and burning fossil fuels, to stop slashing and burning of forests, and to develop systems of sustainable, renewable energy. And radical transformations of economic systems are needed to do everything possible to stop the worst devastation yet to come and figure out how to limit the effects that are already inevitable.

But instead of the urgent, global action needed now, the U.S. and other world powers played out a criminal charade at these latest climate talks.

There is no reason to believe that any future legal treaties that the U.S. and others may agree to will have any impact. The U.S. under President Clinton "pledged" to join the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a supposedly binding treaty that compelled "developed" countries to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2% below 1990 levels. But under President Bush, the U.S. backed out of Kyoto. And Obama has continued to refuse to join the Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto itself has resulted in only a 2% overall reduction in emissions by the covered countries, not the 5.2% goal, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). This study reported that even these small reductions likely occurred in great measure due to the transfer of capitalist production from the "developed" countries to "developing" countries, where there is massive exploitation of low-wage labor. The PNAS report shows that this transfer of production from the rich countries that participated in Kyoto to the poorer countries actually caused five times greater greenhouse gas emissions to the world, than the 2% reduction in emissions in the rich countries as a result of Kyoto! So in other words, overall emissions didn't go down, they increased.

A number of key countries that agreed to "binding" commitments under Kyoto—such as Japan, Russia, and Canada—did not meet these commitments. And now, these countries have reversed themselves and essentially pulled out of the agreement. So much for "binding" agreements!

On top of all this, the Durban agreement actually breaks with the basic consensus of previous UN talks that the rich countries, who are overwhelmingly responsible for the massive build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, have much more responsibility to cut emissions than "developing" countries, including rising powers like China and India. Currently, China is the top producer of CO2 emissions in the world, followed by the U.S. But as the PNAS report alluded to, much of the growth in emissions in the "developing" areas of the world is driven by export of production by the imperialist economies to those countries. This export is an immense source of super-exploitation and profit for the U.S. and other capitalist-imperialist powers. China and India are still filled with impoverished masses of people and have served as sweatshops for imperialist capital, even as the ruling classes of these countries are exploiters and oppressors in their own right who are producing increasing amounts of greenhouse gases as they pursue their big power ambitions.

U.S.—Guilty of Sabotaging Action on Climate Change

The U.S. has polluted the Earth's atmosphere with more greenhouse gases than any country in history—and the U.S. has also been the main force in sabotaging any action to stop climate change. This pattern continued at Durban. Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, wrote on in the midst of the Durban talks, "The U.S. is once again trying to kill the global climate talks by eviscerating the mid-summit draft agreement." Naidoo said the U.S. had "axed a whole section of the draft agreement that would have offered real protection to those who are being hardest and fastest hit by global warming."

And within the U.S., it is becoming almost taboo in official discourse to even discuss and do research on climate change, let alone actually taking action to reverse the course toward global catastrophe. A recent New York Times article pointed to the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, including in the U.S., and the need for scientific research into how those events are connected to global climate change. Benjamin Santer, a leading climate scientist, is quoted as saying, "It's clear we have the scientific tools and the statistical wherewithal to begin answering these types of questions." However, the Times writes, "Washington is essentially frozen on the subject of climate change." The article notes that "the political environment for new climate-science initiatives has turned hostile and with the federal budget crisis, money is tight." ("Harsh Political Reality Slows Climate Studies Despite Extreme Year," New York Times, December 24, 2011) Many Republicans openly deny the scientific reality of global warming. And Obama, representing the overall interests of the U.S. ruling class, is not going to take any action that cuts the oil dependence of its economy (and the military that protects its vast empire).


Behind the outrageous inaction by the U.S. and others in the face of the global environmental emergency are the workings of an economic and political system—the system of capitalism-imperialism. This isn't a matter of "lack of political will" on the part of government officials or rapacious greed of huge multinational corporations. In order to actually deal with the enormity of this problem, people have to come to grips with the reality of the situation.

As Revolution's special issue on the environment (#199, April 18, 2010) laid out, "The fundamental point is this: capitalism as a system cannot deal with the environment in a sustainable and rational way—even if an individual capitalist, or group of capitalists, sincerely wanted to. Capitalism cannot cope with the many-sided effects of its own production. Capitalism cannot plan for future generations.

"Why? Because capitalists, or blocs of capital, confront one another as competitors; sometimes they cooperate but at bottom each must be ready to seize on any advantage, to undercut their competition, lest their competition undercut them and drive them under. This basic underlying dynamic is what drives the actions of individual capitalists..." (From "Why Capitalism Cannot Solve the Environmental Emergency," in the Environment special issue. Check out this special issue for much more on the global environmental emergency and what it's going to take to tackle this problem in a real way.)

These workings of the system we live under now are what is fundamentally behind the failure of the major powers to agree on any meaningful action at Durban or any of the other climate change conferences over the years. Every one of these powers is seeking to gain advantage over the others, to force others to make compromises economically while heightening conditions more favorable for their rivalry and competition against the others. None of them are making any decisions based on the needs and the natural limits and cycles of the world ecosystems, which is what is actually required.

Again from the Revolution special issue on environment: "Actually saving the earth cannot be done within the framework of capitalism. It cannot be done by entrusting the fate of life on this planet to those whose only qualification is their history as the chief despoilers of that life. This may be a hard truth to facebut face it one must. A whole new way must be found."

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond