Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The time to pay attention to the plight of the Maldives is long past due

On Monday Mohammed Nasheed, President of the Maldives, addressed the United Nations summit in New York. The Times was the only mass media outlet to offer coverage of it;
Once or twice a year we are invited to attend an important climate change event such as this one — often as a keynote speaker. On cue, we stand here and tell you just how bad things are. We warn you that unless you act quickly and decisively, our homeland and others like it will disappear before the rising sea, before the end of this century.

We in the Maldives desperately want to believe that one day our words will have an effect, and so we continue to shout them even though, deep down, we know that you are not really listening.
Unfortunately, he is correct in his assesment. Barack Obama addressed world leaders at the UN with the warning that "the danger posed by climate change cannot be denied — and our responsibility to meet it must not be deferred." He also insisted that "this is why the days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over."However, despite this plea - which Fidel Castro has called "brave" - it is unclear exactly how far the US President is willing to go.

In June, Obama's climate change bill passed through Congress, but the concessions made to win the vote severely weakened it. So much so, in fact, the Greenpeace issued a press release "call[ing] on the Congress to reject this bill and begin immediate and urgent work on legislation that treats seriously the dire threat of climate change." The group also insisted that Obama must "move beyond rhetoric and deliver on his commitments to “restore science to its proper place” and to lead the world in addressing climate change." The reasons for this strong statement are abundantly clear;
As it comes to the floor, the Waxman-Markey bill sets emission reduction targets far lower than science demands, then undermines even those targets with massive offsets. The giveaways and preferences in the bill will actually spur a new generation of nuclear and coal-fired power plants to the detriment of real energy solutions. To support such a bill is to abandon the real leadership that is called for at this pivotal moment in history. We simply no longer have the time for legislation this weak.
At the same time, China, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the United States, pledged to curb its emissions by a "notable margin" by 2020. This "prompted hopes" amongst those in political circles, and The australian spoke of how Chinese Premier Hu Jintao "stole the show" from Obama, it remain unclear how Jintao will achieve this "notable margin." There was talk of intensifying "efforts to conserve energy and improve efficiency," of the "vigorous development of nuclear and renewable energy," and of "increase forest coverage by 40million hectares and increase forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic metres." These measures, we are told, will allow the "development of a green, low-carbon economy" and "climate-friendly technologies." To what level the actions will match the rhetoric, admitedly far more concrete than Obama's, remains to be seen.

Even if individual leaders live up to their commitments, however, the threat of climate change looms large. China's target for its green policies is 2020. Europe's is 2050. The US is pinning its hopes on the Senate not watering down the climate change bill even further. However, to avoid the catastrophe feared by the Maldives, emissions have to drop drastically by 2015, perhaps sooner.

And still, among world leaders and in the discourse of the mass media, the "debate" that goes on is one of how to deal with some still far-away disaster. Talk of economics, targets, and the impact on business distracts from the fact that real human beings are effected today. The global food crisis, disease and starvation brought on by extreme weather conditions, and an increasing number of wars over natural resources are the cause of massive suffering worldwide. But this hardly even enters into the discussion.

It is not difficult to discover why. It is, in fact, part of the reason why nothing short of the complete dismantling of the present economic system will suffice to halt and reverse the damage done to the environment. As I wrote on Property is Theft;
In a capitalist society, then, anybody who takes the threat of climate change seriously will quickly be weeded out. Not because there’s a conscious effort to destroy the environment, but because that’s how the system operates. A rival who is unconcerned with long-term environmental effects will quickly undercut the profits of the environmentally conscious capitalist, thus undermining their position and their ability to make such decisions. This is why only those “green” measures that generate short-term profit are acted upon, and addressing the core issue with any seriousness is quickly sidelined.
The same is true of the mass media. Despite James Murdoch's recent, and ridiculous, claims that "the only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit," profit in fact guarantees the same "free market" propaganda system that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman outlined in Manufacturing Consent in 1988. As long as a for-profit system dominates the world, then only piecemeal, short-sighted measures on the environment are possible, and a media servile to established power will continue to offer these measures as the ultimate solution to a truly global catastrophe.

At the same time, the islanders in the Indian Ocean are faced with extinction. The now-redundant Vestas workers on the Isle of Wight continue to struggle valiantly against the factory's move out of the UK and the government's refusal to see, as the workers do, the neccesity of a shift towards a green economy. The Chinese people protest violently against deadly pollution that makes a mockery of Jintao's "notable margin." And, in the brutal struggle for diminishing natural resources, the Palestinian people are deprived "their fair share of water."

The need to pay attention to these plights is long-past due. We need a genuine global solution, one that puts the health of the people, the workers, and the planet before the interests of profit, now.