Making Climate History?

Blog by Milan Rai

ImageThe climate negotiations in Paris in December are shaping up to be an orgy of self-congratulation for the great powers, as they trumpet pledges to reduce their carbon emissions. There's a real risk that an inadequate - and non-binding - deal will nevertheless be represented as ʻsolvingʼ the problem of climate change.

Thereʼs an ominous parallel here with the 'Make Poverty History' campaign 10 years ago. The mass media projected the impression that global poverty was on the way out, because of pledges made at a G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005. This picture of the G8 agreements was reinforced by some figures at the centre of the Make Poverty History campaign itself, and even more by British rock star Bob Geldof, who organised a series of 'Live 8' concerts in support of the campaign.

The Make Poverty History campaign officially demanded: the cancellation of the debt of the poorest 62 developing countries; the doubling of aid, with G8 countries committing 0.7% of national income; and trade justice between the North and the Global South.

Debt cancellation was the most successful area. As is well-known, the G8 cancelled the World Bank and IMF debts of 18 of the world's poorest countries (the number grew after the summit).

What is less-well-known is that the debt cancellation came with a neoliberal agenda. Only countries which completed the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative qualified for debt cancellation under the Gleneagles agreement.

John Hilary, then War on Want's campaigns director (now its executive director), said at the time: 'To qualify for [HIPC] debt relief and have the opportunity to tackle poverty, countries have to do these sometimes very damaging things like privatising their water or education systems. They only get to be a chosen country by jumping through all these hoops.' He pointed to Tanzania, which had to privatise its Dar es Salaam water programme in order to complete HIPC.

On aid, the G8 promised an extra $50bn (£27bn) in annual aid by 2010. The Stamp Out Poverty network noted that, according to the OECD, most of this growth in aid was part of existing trends and commitments: 'So what is on the table is basically $15- $20 billion more than we would otherwise have had in 2010.'

Oxfam, the international development agency, later recorded that: 'The G8's collective $50 billion promise was missed by around US$20 billion at the 2010 deadline.'

Soon after the Gleneagles meeting, British chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown admitted that the increased aid promised by the G8 'includes the numbers for debt relief'. British journalist George Monbiot commented: 'The extra money they had promised for aid and the extra money they had promised for debt relief were in fact one and the same.'

On trade justice, everyone agreed, the G8 made the least progress - a non-binding pledge towards 'eliminating all forms of export subsidies'.

How was all this understood by and through the world's media? One key voice was that of Bob Geldof, who had heard a damning analysis from the NGO coalition. He had been urged to say: 'The people have spoken, but the politicians have not listened.' He refused, instead saying: 'There are no equivocations. Africa and the poor of that continent have got more from the last three days than they have ever got at any previous summit.... On aid, 10 out of 10. On debt, eight out of 10.' On trade, Geldof said there had been 'a serious, excellent result.' He concluded: 'Mission accomplished frankly.'

The collective response from the Make Poverty History coalition to the G8 summit was rather different in tone and content.

On aid, in contrast to Geldof's '10 out of 10', MPH described the deal to increase aid by 2010 as 'mostly made up of money already pledged', with support arriving 'five years too late' and 'far short' of the scale of aid needed to end poverty in the world's poorest countries.

On debt, the coalition said that the G8 debt deal was 'an inadequate response to the global debt crisis', which would provide 'the equivalent of no more than one dollar per person in the countries that are due to benefit'. MPH wrote: 'this debt deal is a small step compared to the giant leap that was called for'.

On trade justice, much more significant in terms of eliminating world poverty than increasing foreign aid, MPH said: 'By forcing free trade on poor countries, dumping agricultural products and not regulating multinational companies they [the G8] have chosen not to take the necessary decisions to make poverty history.'

How is all this relevant to the Paris climate talks?

One part of the Make Poverty History story is that the voices of people affected by the issues, and the efforts of campaigners were eclipsed by white, Global North celebrities who claimed the right to judge the outcome of the negotiations. These celebrities didn't just gain attention because of their fame, and the star-studded events they organised, they were also given a platform by the NGOs, a mistake that is unlikely to be repeated.

Another part of the story is that at the centre of MPH there were organisations and key individuals who favoured a strategy of supporting the British government (as the most 'progressive' member of the G8) and pressuring other governments to match British policy. There's a rationality in trying to get the best deal available at the moment, and in using powerful governments against each other. However, MPH publicity went beyond these tactical goals to actually endorsing British policy.

One MPH insider told Red Pepper: 'Our real demands on trade, aid and debt, and our criticisms of UK government policy in developing countries have been consistently swallowed up by white bands, celebrity luvvies and praise upon praise for Blair and Brown.'

There may be a risk of a similar dynamic over climate, where the lure of 'the best deal available at the moment' and 'supporting the most progressive major power on the scene' could lead to self-censorship (or self-delusion) which undermines public understanding and effective political action.

Patrick Bond, a South African contributor to Telesur, has criticised Avaaz for framing the recent G7 summit as a 'giant step closer to a huge win at the Paris summit in December' (Greenpeace International described it as a 'significant' step). In fact, Bond points out, the G7 communique represented a step backwards in removing any language about binding countries of the Global North to actual emissions goals, or about reducing global emissions by 50% by 2050, a previously-declared goal.

Unlike eliminating global poverty, the climate crisis has a hard deadline in terms of how much more carbon we can burn if we are going to avoid disastrous climate change. One projection is that if all the carbon pledges made in advance of the Paris negotiations are fulfilled, temperatures will still definitely exceed the theoretical safe level of 2C by 2100. If the pledges are actually fulfilled.

The Make Poverty History campaign can tell us something about the importance being honest about what the great powers are doing, and, more, the need to continue forcing them to not only live up to their promises, but to exceed them.

This article originally appeared in Telesur.

Topics: Climate change