In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement was agreed. But how effective was it? In a process that has now been running for over 25 years, this 2 part article explores how climate change was kicked into the long grass by the rising tide of neoliberal expansion.
The Bruntland Report
In 1983 the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was established. It was chaired by the Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The objective of the WCED was to create a united international community with shared sustainability goals by identifying sustainability problems worldwide, raising awareness of them, and suggesting the implementation of solutions. The result was Our Common Future, published in 1987, also known as the Bruntland Report. It led to the Summit for Sustainable Development at Rio de Janeiro (Earth Summit) in 1992.
Post War Boom And Globalisation
After World War 2, major changes took place that would shape the economic, political and social dynamics of the 20th Century and beyond. It began with the establishment of the ‘Bretton Woods’ organisations.
The Bretton Woods conference took place in July 1944. This led to the establishment of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD — the forerunner of the World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
There was also a proposal for an International Trade Organisation. But it wasn’t until 1947 when, under the auspices of the UN, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was established. This was superseded by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995.
The aim of the Bretton Woods agreement was to create open markets and encourage trade and to engage in the free movement of capital — reasonable proposals in an environment of post war reconstruction. With the financial and economic chaos created during the inter war years, which ultimately created the conditions that led to the outbreak of world war 2, there was no desire to repeat the same mistakes again.
The Bretton Woods era, which ran from the cessation of hostilities to 1971 was a period of considerable growth and recovery. Part of this process was attributed to the Marshall Plan, which took effect in 1947, allowing the US to funnel funds into boosting ailing post war economies. Essentially the Bretton Woods era was a model of how a successful well regulated economic process could work.
The post war success story was linked to the strength of the US Dollar, which was pinned to the gold standard. But that began to change in the ‘70’s. What happened next would lead to the emergence of the neoliberalism and financial globalisation.
During this period, two opposing forces would conflict with each other, namely the rise of corporate power and the environmental and anti-globalisation movement.
Following the release of the Bruntland report, a sequence of events was triggered that would culminate in the establishment of a climate agreement at Rio.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and later endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 43/53.
The concept of climate change first emerged in the late 19th century. Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius published research he had been conducting, on CO2 levels in the atmosphere. He had estimated that rising CO2 levels could cause warming on the earth.
It wasn’t until the ‘50’s when hard evidence emerged that scientists began to take the issue of climate change seriously. The report A history of climate activities from the WMO traces the time-line of research on climate change.
At Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Charles Keeling began monitoring levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. He produced the famous Keeling curve. The following graph is the full record of CO2 rise since Keeling began his measurements in 1956.
As the WMO report notes, the first steps were taken in 1961 to understand the climate:
A 1961 United Nations General Assembly Resolution called on WMO and the non-governmental International Council for Science (ICSU) to collaborate in developing the new scientific and technological opportunities for monitoring, predicting and eventually controlling, weather and climate and triggered the twin birth of the WMO World Weather Watch and the WMO/ICSU Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP). The World Weather Watch was aimed at providing the basic global infrastructure for supporting operational weather forecasting and for describing and monitoring climate, while GARP was focused on the dual objectives of improved weather forecasting and a scientific basis for climate prediction.
In the ‘70’s there was an alternative view that the earth was heading for an ice age. However in 1974:
WMO established an Executive Committee Panel of Experts on Climate Change which, in its final report, largely dismissed the speculation on global cooling and reaffirmed the general scientific expectation of greenhouse warming but stressed the importance of making better use of existing climate knowledge in learning to live with the large natural variability of climate. It inspired the early WMO planning for an inter-agency World Climate Programme and triggered the WMO decision to convene a World Climate Conference in 1979.
The 1979 conference was a watershed moment. From this stemmed a global endeavor to understand the implications of climate change and what steps could be taken to deal with the issue. This was followed by the the Villach Conference in 1985, which considered the available scientific evidence at the time. The conference took an urgent view of climate change. This was tapped into by the Brundtland commission:
The Tenth World Meteorological Congress in May 1987 considered both the outcome of the Villach Conference and an advance briefing on the conclusions of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) which had drawn heavily on the Villach findings in highlighting global warming as a major threat to sustainable development.
It was out of these considerations that the IPCC was formed. At the same time plans emerged for the creation of a framework treaty on climate change (UNFCCC). The Second World Climate Conference (WCC-2) consolidated the plans:
The second purpose of the Conference, which emerged relatively late in the planning, was to undertake an initial international review of the First Assessment Report of the IPCC as a lead-in to the negotiations for a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which were scheduled to begin in Washington DC in February 1991 and to conclude in time for signature at the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992.
The first Conference of the Parties to the Convention (COP) was convened in 1995. Since then they have taken place on an annual basis, with COP21 producing the Paris Agreement.
In 1997 at COP3 in Kyoto (Japan), the Kyoto Protocol was adopted and entered into force on 16 February 2005. The detailed rules for the implementation of the Protocol were adopted at COP7 in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2001, and are referred to as the “Marrakesh Accords.” Its first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. A second commitment period was subsequently agreed, as stipulated on the UNFCCC website:
In Doha, Qatar, on 8 December 2012, the “Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol” was adopted. The amendment includes:
- New commitments for Annex I Parties to the Kyoto Protocol who agreed to take on commitments in a second commitment period from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2020;
- A revised list of greenhouse gases (GHG) to be reported on by Parties in the second commitment period;
- Amendments to several articles of the Kyoto Protocol which specifically referenced issues pertaining to the first commitment period and which needed to be updated for the second commitment period.
With respect to the Paris Agreement:
In Durban, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) was established to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention, applicable to all Parties. The ADP is to complete its work as early as possible, but no later than 2015, in order to adopt this protocol, legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.
The Paris agreement is therefore the outcome of this process and if this plan is followed, there should be another Protocol in place by 2020.
But the UNFCCC process has come under criticism in recent years. COP15 at Copenhagen became the focal point for civil society protest. By the time Kyoto was adopted, there had been two IPCC assessment reports. In 2007, the Forth assessment report was published. It was clear from this that the science had moved beyond what was available at Kyoto. With the first commitment period ending in 2012, COP15 was targeted by civil society as means of influencing the UNFCCC process in order to push the scientific necessity of a stronger legal process following 2012.
Copenhagen was regarded a failure. But why was civil society ignored and indeed why was the science also rejected in favour of a second commitment period on Kyoto? To answer that question, the politico-economic shift that took place after the end of the Bretton Woods era needs to be considered.
Post Bretton Woods
A BBC article summarises the consequences of the breakdown of Bretton Woods:
The end of the Bretton Woods system unleashed two decades of financial globalisation, encouraged by the deregulation not just of currency markets, but also of rules about banking and investment.
This led to increased flows of private money to rich and poor countries alike, which helped boost growth but also created greater instability.
The rapid reversal of such private sector flows when currencies were threatened with devaluation was the central cause of the Asian financial crisis in 1997–98, which spread to Russia and eventually Argentina.
The resources of the IMF proved inadequate to compensate for the run on their currencies, and the adjustment proved painful, with sharp falls in GDP. Since then, many Asian countries, including China, have accumulated large currency reserves to insulate themselves against future crises, avoiding the need to call on the IMF.
The financial crash of 2008 could be attributed this process. And in a sense, the market failure of 2008 parallels the failure of the UNFCCC to engage in any meaningful solution towards the climate change problem. With the emergence of neoliberal economics over the past three decades, Brundtland would end up being consigned to the archives.
Since the early ‘70’s there has been a tug-of-war between sustainable development and neoliberalism. The global system that followed the breakdown of Bretton woods, has come to endorse the neoliberal philosophy. This has countered the realisation of sustainability.
The seeds were sown in the Chicago School of Economics by Milton Friedman, who’s economic theories eventually became mainstream. Friedman trained groups of students who became known as the ‘Chicago Boys’. Naomi Klein covers the story of the Chicago Boys and Friedman’s influence in detail in her book The Shock Doctrine.
Friedman was effectively the Godfather of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism. He recognised disaster as an opportunity for ‘economic development’. This was the ideology that Friedman instilled in his students. As Klein notes in her book:
Like all fundamentalist faiths, Chicago School economics is, for its true believers, a closed loop. The starting premise is that the free market is a perfect scientific system, one in which individuals, acting on their own self-interested desires, create the maximum benefits for all. It follows ineluctably that if something is wrong within a free market economy — high inflation or soaring unemployment — it has to be because the market is not truly free. There must be some interference, some distortion in the system. The Chicago solution is always the same: a stricter more complete application of the fundamentals (emphasis added).
Prosperity grew during the post war period, but there was relative equality. Friedman’s goal was to open up the market. Everything should be privatised. That way the state would be exonerated from the cost of providing public services. It would effectively be the thin edge of the wedge for free market neoliberalism.
At the time the world was in the grip of the cold war. Communism was the enemy and needed to be defeated. As part of this process the CIA was created. This provided the means for the US to engage in subversive US foreign policy.
Friedman was presented with a golden opportunity to test his theories in Chile. The US developed a scheme where Chilean students would have their education sponsored and paid for by the US Government. Klein picks up the narrative:
By selecting Chicago to train Chileans — a school where professors agitated for the near-complete dismantling of Government with single-minded focus — the US state department was firing a shot across the bow in its war against developmentalism, effectively telling Chileans that the US Government had decided what ideas their elite students should and should not learn.
The ‘Chile project’ marked the beginning of US interventionism on a grand scale. The infamous military Junta of Argentina followed the same pattern. The middle east had been and still is a target by virtue of its oil reserves.
But the experiment needed a push as South America was predominately left wing. With billions at stake in US investments, newly elected president Richard Nixon gave the CIA the go ahead to bring down newly elected Chilean president Salvador Allende.
The CIA engineered the Chilean Coup through opponents of Allende, with the Chicago boys working furtively in the background. When General Augustus Pinochet came to power through the military, the regime agenda was already in place.
Pinochet was a brutal dictator. Thousands of people lost their lives during the Coup and in the purges that followed. A fascist dictatorship was the perfect home for unfettered capitalism. But the experiment was a catastrophic failure. After a year, inflation went through the roof. Unemployment was rampant. The economy was facing imminent collapse. Finally in 1982, Chile crashed and Pinochet was forced to backtrack and shift into socialist mode. Klein sums it up:
Chile… was a country where a small elite leapt from wealthy to super-rich in extremely short order — a highly profitable formula bankrolled by debt and heavily subsidised (then bailed out) with public funds. When the hype and salesmanship behind the miracle are stripped away Chile under Pinochet and the Chicago boys was not a capitalist state featuring a liberated market but a corporatist one. …What Chile pioneered under Pinochet was an evolution of corporatism: a mutually supporting alliance between a police state and large corporations, joining forces to wage all-out war on the third power sector — the workers — thereby drastically increasing the alliance’s share of the national wealth.
As far as Friedman and the faithful were concerned, the experiment wasn’t a failure, it was the fault of some external influence — the ultimate in group think. Or as Klein put it, the elitist in their cocoons — smothered by their wealth — ‘have been the crack cocaine of financial markets ever since. And that’s why the financial world did not respond to the obvious contradictions of the Chile experiment by reassessing the basic assumptions of Laissez-faire. Instead it reacted with the junkies logic: where is the next fix?’
A similar fate befell other countries in South America. It seemed the lurch towards neoliberalism was unstoppable. Although Friedman ended up in the wilderness after the South American disaster, unfettered capitalism was about to enter stage West — courtesy of Margaret Thatcher and then Ronald Reagan. And it wouldn’t need a military coup to accommodate it.
Thatcher was a convert of Friedman’s theories. He was one of her economic advisers. She also had high respect for Pinochet. But not so much his methods. When it was suggested to her that she implement what happened in Chile in the UK, she refused.
But a great irony was about to transpire. By 1982, Thatcher had become the most unpopular prime minister in history. She and her Government were heading for oblivion in the next election.
In April 2, 1982, the Chicago inspired Junta of Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. And lets face it, there’s nothing like a good war to bolster one’s public image. And that precisely was what happened. Both sides had the same objective. But it backfired on Argentina as the British task force sent to the South Atlantic ejected the Argentinians. It also led to the collapse of the junta, whilst at the same time giving Thatcher the green light to launch the experiment at home.
After a landslide victory in the next election, Thatcher began a widespread process of privatisation. This sparked possibly the most bitter rivalry in history between the Thatcher Government and the Unions, with the miners strike of 1984 taking centre ground.
But Thatcher won this battle as well. As a result, the UK economy was allowed to transform. Ominously the plan to retake the Falkland’s was called ‘Operation Corporate’.
Meanwhile in the US, Chicago influenced ‘Reaganomics’ was taking shape. He charted a course that put conservatism into the ascendancy. But he was nothing more than a political puppet, bouncing around at the whims of his advisor’s, an ‘amiable dunce’ according to one commentator.
Today’s political climate in the US can be attributed to Reagan, with increased militarisation, surveillance and republican domination of congress:
Accompanying the Reagan era was the rise of a well-oiled corporate-funded conservative propaganda machine — including think tanks and lobby groups, endowed professorships at universities, legal advocacy organizations, magazines, and college student internships to train the next generation — designed to demonize activist government and glorify unregulated markets. Years before Rush Limbaugh began his radio ministry to his conservative congregation of ditto-heads, Reagan and this right-wing echo chamber were on the job.
By the end of the ‘80’s, the neoliberal gospel was being adopted by the Bretton Woods institutions. This would ensure subsequent globalisation in the ‘90’s. Pivotal to this process was the establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which superseded the original GATT on 1 January 1995.