From the January-February 2023 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
Two hotly anticipated global summits on ecology and climate yielded agreements hailed as breakthroughs, and yet the results amounted to little of substance. Instead they papered over a raging war of capital against humanity and Planet Earth—a war manifested in open conflict between “developed” and “developing” countries, but also in a more or less concealed war of the two worlds within each country: ruling classes against working classes, peasants, Indigenous peoples, women, youth and people with disabilities. These summits followed a year of unprecedented climate disasters that—in conjunction with war, pandemic and economic disarray—killed thousands of people, displaced millions, and disrupted food supplies and infrastructure.
LOFTY WORDS AS CAPITALISTS SELL HUMANITY’S FUTURE
As lofty words flowed at the Dec. 7-19, 2022, biodiversity summit called COP15, deforestation of the Amazon continued to drive it toward the point of no return, while the Democratic Republic of Congo was moving ahead with plans to open up ecologically sensitive lands to oil drilling, including part of the peat lands that store 30 billion tons of carbon.
The Nov. 6-20, 2022, COP27 climate summit coincided with deepening hunger in East Africa, with agencies debating whether to label it a famine. Pakistan had not recovered from devastating summer flooding that is still draining. Multiple countries held climate activists behind bars, while the U.S. and the European Union pushed expansion of oil, gas and even coal production and use and tried to pass off ecologically harmful “bioenergy” such as burning wood pellets as a climate solution.
COP15 and COP27 reflect the deadly serious interlinked crises of global capitalism, and at the same time the system’s desperation to fight to the last human to preserve itself. For that reason, the conferences and every measure they settle on are rife with contradictions, and their proposed solutions tend to become part of the problem.
CLIMATE SUMMIT VS. CLIMATE MOVEMENTS
Held in Egypt, COP27 marked a new low in exclusion of climate movements. Egypt’s authoritarian regime, which institutionalized the bloody counter-revolution against the Arab Spring revolutions, pre-emptively arrested anyone they feared might protest anything during the summit. Even nonpolitical environmental scientists were silenced. Arab Spring participant Alaa Abd el-Fattah, long imprisoned along with tens of thousands of other dissidents, carried on a months-long hunger strike until he collapsed and nearly died during COP27.
Climate activists are being thrown in jail in many more countries than Egypt—including the U.S., Australia, Britain, India, China and Russia—because they are seen as a threat by the fossil fuel establishment. But, as Mary Adams of Just Stop Oil in the UK wrote after a stint in prison for a protest at an oil facility:
“This is a deliberate strategy by the government and judiciary to silence voices challenging the status quo of political apathy and collusion with the fossil fuel industry….These penalties stand in stark contrast to the position the courts take vis a vis the relentless contravention of global agreements by the fossil fuel industry….And until our government responds with authentic leadership to the meta crisis, climate activism in the form of civil disobedience will be part of all our lives.”
Though demonstrations by visitors and locals are standard features at every COP, the Egyptian government banned them except at a designated enclosed zone in the remote resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where the conference was held. Using the zone required advance permits and information about the participants. Police spies monitored large and small, formal and informal discussions within the conference.
POLLUTERS RAN THE SHOW
The government refused admittance to a number of Egyptian civil society groups. Meanwhile, the summit was crawling with lobbyists from oil companies and agribusiness. Its lead corporate sponsor was the world’s top plastic polluter, Coca-Cola—plastic production is seen as a lifeline by oil and gas companies—and summit communications were managed by the oil-soaked public relations company Hill+Knowlton.
The UN acquiesced to all these restrictions without a peep—while climate activists insisted that climate action without human rights is impossible, precisely because governments resist it without pressure from movements.
Protests did occur. The conference threw out four U.S. Indigenous activists for raising a banner reading “People vs Fossil Fuels” during Joe Biden’s speech. Other non-permitted protests broke out at the conference site demanding freedom for political prisoners along with climate justice. And more protests were held around the world.
Despite their limitations, the UN processes of which the COPs are part do produce real actions that have some effect, though far short of what is needed. States were forced into it by a combination of climate justice movements, agitation by climate-vulnerable countries, an avalanche of scientific studies and mounting weather disasters.
LOSS AND DAMAGE
COP27 began with a battle over putting “loss and damage” onto the agenda. Less than two months earlier, President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry had ranted against funding for loss and damage, claiming that money instead “needs to go to the technology that’s gonna save the planet.” Leading imperialist countries like the U.S. do not want to be forced to pay for the loss and damage that is already being visited upon poorer countries due to the climate crisis.
Lurking in the background is the word “reparations,” which none of the diplomats dare speak because the U.S. and European former colonizers are adamant that they will not be obligated to pay for the damages. They do not want their whole history of exploitation, genocide, slavery and colonization to be mentioned in connection with their resulting domination of the world up to today, and the lasting harm that African, Asian, Latin American and island nations still suffer under the corresponding hierarchy of globalized capitalism.
Or, as Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley put it, “We were the ones whose blood, sweat and tears financed the industrial revolution. Are we now to face double jeopardy by having to pay the cost as a result of those greenhouse gases from the industrial revolution?”
The dominant countries only allowed “loss and damage” on the agenda on condition of a ban on discussion of “liability or compensation.”
In the end the European Union had to give in to the demand of the “developing” countries to add “new and additional” funding for loss and damage to the final agreement. This comes after years of young climate activists consistently stressing that climate action demands that the rich countries aid poorer ones in eliminating fossil fuel use and deforestation and in adapting to the effects of the global heating that is already baked in. The U.S. then had to fall in line with Europe. However, the European formula mixed in a big dose of vagueness, specifying that the funds would “assist developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” They avoided naming an amount of funding or where exactly it would come from, and, instead of creating a fund immediately, scheduled discussions of “operationalization” over at least the next year.
TOOTHLESS TREATIES, PROTECTED PROFITS
That is the substance of the big “breakthrough.” Besides that, COP27 got nowhere on initiatives to phase out fossil fuels and put a halt to climate-busting destruction of ecosystems like forests and peat lands.
In the real world, emissions continue to climb and countries from the U.S. to China continue to lock in future oil and gas use. And yet climate disaster is already striking multiple times a year.
The treaties issuing from the UN climate and biodiversity processes are toothless by design—as demanded first and foremost by the U.S. While the future of humanity and the planet is banked on alleged good intentions, the profits of multinational corporations are protected by binding enforcement mechanisms. The British oil company Rockhopper used a trade treaty to sue Italy for its moratorium on oil projects near the coast—a moratorium demanded by the public in large protests—and in August was awarded approximately $190 million plus interest, after having invested less than $50 million. Meanwhile, the COP agreements have never even called for an end to oil and gas drilling and use. That is why the low-lying Pacific island nations of Vanuatu and Tuvalu are calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty that is backed by thousands of scientists.
The COP15 biodiversity summit was also stormy, with fights over funding from the exploiting countries sparking a walkout by over 60 countries, led by Brazil. The funding fight led to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s objection to the final text of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Its objection was overruled through a legalistic maneuver by the Chinese chair, despite the fact that unanimous consent is required. African countries Cameroon and Uganda protested the maneuver, but that evening the objection was dropped after private negotiations.
That Framework was hailed for its ambitious 23 targets. At the same time, their significance was questioned, since not a single one of the previous targets from 2010 had been met. Most celebrated was the new “30 by 30” target of protecting 30% of land and water area by 2030. This had been seen as dangerous, since nature protection has almost always meant violently evicting Indigenous and other local communities.
However, Indigenous struggles have won tremendous support worldwide, including recognition by climate justice movements, so they were able to pressure the summit into writing multiple references to their rights, territories and knowledge in the text.
This is backed up by the IPCC, the UN body of climate scientists, whose 2022 report on impacts of climate change found that “Supporting Indigenous self-determination, recognising Indigenous Peoples’ rights and supporting Indigenous knowledge-based adaptation are critical to reducing climate change risks and effective adaptation.”
Still, it is hard to forget the difference between words on paper and actions. Signatories of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have hardly respected those rights. Example: the repression of Wet’suwet’en resistance to pipelines that the Canadian government forced onto their sovereign land, which sparked transcontinental support protests and blockades in 2020.
The contradiction is written right into the COP15 text precisely because the actions, not the words, flow from the inner law of motion of capitalism, which dominates the world today. The 23 targets embody the logic of private finance and technological fixes.
COP15’s contradictions can be traced back to the 1992 Earth Summit, where the original biodiversity treaty was signed and which projected turning nature into “natural capital” as a solution instead of a fundamental part of the problem. So today the COP15 framework’s “vision” of a future “harmony with nature” and its call for “ensuring the non-commodification of environmental functions of Mother Earth” are just lip service.
As the ETC Group pointed out, governments friendly to biotech—notably the U.S., EU, and Brazil, then still represented by the genocidal Bolsonaro administration after he lost re-election—inserted “exhortations to promote ‘science, technology and innovation’…in line with the biotech and agribusiness strategy to attempt to establish a made-up ‘innovation principle’ (basically an ‘anything goes’ principle) to usurp the role of the precautionary principle….The plan is that the new funding will explicitly open the door to large infusions of private capital that will let large corporate and philanthropic donors further influence biodiversity policy making.
“Even more concerning is the final Global Biodiversity Framework text, which welcomes the development of speculative financial instruments and approaches…—a corporate wish list to commodify nature….”
The truth is that, however much the Framework parrots the science by calling for “transformational change,” it does not and cannot name capitalism, let alone call for its abolition. Grandiosely, it includes a Section E expounding its “theory of change,” but that is no theory but just a reduction of transformation to “policy action.”
No matter the intentions, the references to the rights and territory of Indigenous and local communities tend to degenerate into lip service because their lifeways are in contradiction to the capitalist mode of production, and yet the “solutions” inscribed in the agreement follow the logic of subsuming all aspects of life under capitalism.
Far from being marginal to modern society, communal land—one-half to one-third of it managed by Indigenous peoples—is estimated to cover half of the world’s land area. Close to one-third of the world’s population relies on communal land and ecosystems for their livelihood. Capital’s drive for ever more self-expansion pushes its representatives to try to extinguish what remains of these people’s self-determination and to assimilate their labor, lands, resources and consumption under its mode of production.
It is precisely their resistance to that mode of production—even though it has made inroads into their lives—that explains why those lands are the best managed from the standpoint of ecology and biodiversity, as scientists have demonstrated. And it explains why they are the target of such violence, which has risen to the level of genocide in many places, such as the Brazilian Amazon.
CAPITAL: HANDS OFF INDIGENOUS AND LOCAL COMMUNITIES!
COP15’s promises must not deter us from fighting capitalism’s encroachments on these lands and communities. At the same time revolutionary solidarity does not mean they are sacrosanct just as they are today or were in the past. Right from within the struggles of Indigenous and local communities come challenges to the dualities of traditional societies, seen especially in the way many women have come to the fore in these struggles and simultaneously challenged traditional roles and limitations.
What becomes crucial is Karl Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence, with its multilinear view of human development, including the relationships between “developed” and “developing” countries: non-capitalist formations can develop without being gobbled up by capitalism, and at the same time full human development calls for revolutionary transformation that does not halt at any fixed stage.
Raya Dunayevskaya brought this to the fore for our age, showing that Marx’s studies of non-capitalist societies were for purposes of “perceiving new revolutionary forces, their reason,” so that his study 140 years ago of the communal formations in Russia showed that their preservation and development must be “related to a capitalist world in crisis, since it is this which creates favorable conditions for transforming primitive communism into a modern collective society: ‘In order to save the Russian commune there must be a Russian Revolution.’ In a word, revolution is the indispensable, whether one has to go through capitalism, or can go to the new society ‘directly’ from the commune.”
‘SOLUTIONS’ TURN INTO OPPOSITE
The contradictions are such that the actions that are taken up by nation-states and multinational corporations turn into their opposite and become barriers to effective action or actively undermine it. And every area of action—from mitigation of global heating, to adaptation to its effects, to establishment of areas that are supposed to protect nature—is a field of concealed class warfare, not only over whether such actions will be taken but how.
Governments and private capital are concerned to impose “solutions” from above that not only protect profits but minimize self-determination from below. This involves an attitude to technology and planning that even infects part of the Left and environmentalism.
The fact that each “solution” keeps turning into its opposite reflects the depth of the world crisis as well as the fundamentally alienated nature of capitalism. It shows the need for social revolution to abolish capitalism and replace its distorted “development” with real human self-development, inseparable from self-activity and self-liberation.
 COP15 means 15th Conference of the Parties, where the parties are the national governments that joined the original 1992 biodiversity treaty. COP27 was the 27th Conference of the Parties to the treaty on climate change.
 “Climate Protests Are Being Criminalised, but We Will Not Stop,” by Mary Adams, People and Nature, Jan. 6, 2023.
 “A Bittersweet Bargain on Biodiversity,” Dec. 21, 2022, https://etcgroup.org/content/bittersweet-bargain-biodiversity.
 “By the Numbers: Indigenous and Community Land Rights,” by Peter Velt and Katie Reytar, March 20, 2017, World Resources Institute.
 Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 187, 183.