Corporations Are Not Going to Save Us From Climate Disruption

This post was written by Rachel Smolker, Co-director of Biofuelwatch, and originally appeared at Truthout on September 29.

This past week in New York saw some remarkable actions around climate change. The massive People’s Climate March was perhaps the main media spectacle, but it was not the only, or necessarily the most important event. Another important one: the Climate Justice Summit, which featured the voices and testimonials of people all around the country and the globe who are on the frontlines, bearing the brunt of both ruthless extraction and destruction of their lands and livelihoods, and also experiencing most directly the impacts of climate change itself. Many were tearful as they described lives and lands laid to ruin by tar sands, fracking, coal, uranium mining and more. The brutal, relentless and rapacious greed of corporate profiteers in the fossil fuel industries, big agribusiness and forestry and financial sectors seems almost unfathomable.

Clearly, the United Nations is not going to do what is necessary to change the path we are on, but rather is mired in blame and conflict, relegated to endlessly reenacting and rehashing the history of colonialism, apparently utterly incapable of taking any steps that could be construed as challenging to the economic status quo much less calling out capitalism. Why? Because the UN itself is beholden to corporate puppet masters.

With apparent naïveté, the UN insists on taking its cue from the very corporations who are responsible for degrading the planet, destroying lives and creating the crisis in the first place. This is pervasive throughout institutions and governments across the globe, not only the UN. The reason is money. With a handful of corporations owning and controlling most of the world’s wealth, little can be funded and executed on a large scale without the funding, involvement and decision making of the handful of ultra wealthy. Which means ceding control to those corporate interests and doing their bidding. Money is power – but not the only kind!

The proliferation of “public-private partnerships” is one of the manifestations of this political and economic reality. These are presented in diplomatic terms as attempts to “bring together” the public and private sectors with civil society, to ensure all “stakeholders” are represented in working toward various goals. Many are either initiated by, or granted a platform in, the UN. One such partnership in particular that was in the limelight at this climate summit was the “Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture.”

We’ve all heard the warnings about how climate change is wreaking havoc on crop productivity, fisheries, forests, livestock, water resources and soils. We know as well that food and water are the most fundamental necessities for life, and lack of access is the flashpoint that ignites civil unrest.

So perhaps then “climate smart” agriculture is a good idea? It sounds good anyway. But nice as it sounds, the movers and shakers behind this initiative are the very companies and institutions that have profited from and driven us smack dab into the highly destructive, climate damaging, livelihood undermining, GMO, chemical and fertilizer dependent, soil, water and diversity destroying, industrial monoculture model. Precisely what we desperately need to get away from.

Activists following the development of this initiative, from Friends of the Earth International, Action Aid, Third World Network and my own organization, Biofuelwatch, among others, have repeatedly voiced their concerns, and did so yet again at this summit, with a letter signed by 107 organizations in which they state:

By endorsing the activities of the planet’s worst climate offenders in agribusiness and industrial agriculture, the Alliance will undermine the very objectives that it claims to aim for.

They point out that the initiative has no environmental or social criteria leaving the door open to virtually anything to be referred to as “climate smart.” The creators of this initiative envision it to be funded via carbon offsets, which would enable polluters to use their investment as an excuse to continue polluting while facilitating land grabs and privatization. Further, the initiative already is providing a platform for promoting industrial agribusiness with companies such as Syngenta (GMO seeds), McDonald’s, Walmart and Yara (synthetic fertilizers) at the table.

“It is nothing new, nothing innovative, and not what we need.”

The world’s largest peasant farmers’ organization, representing some 200 million farmers from 73 countries agrees.

The Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture is just one of several such partnerships between industry, governments, the UN and the private sector that appear designed primarily to prevent serious challenges to the current business model, and further to expand access to markets by taking advantage of the crises of climate and proclaiming their motives are to alleviate poverty. Using terms like “climate smart” leave most people who do not have time to research these initiatives in depth, and are not familiar with the twists and turns of word play, confused and misled.

In advance of Rio+20, our organization, Biofuelwatch, worked with others to uncover the greenwash behind another nice-sounding initiative, the UN “Sustainable Energy For All” Initiative (SEFA). Tellingly, the very first step toward establishing that initiative was to consult with an array of the world’s worst fossil fuel industries. We pointed out in a briefing entitled “Sustainable Energy For All or Sustained Profits For a Few” that the initiative was fundamentally flawed – relying on a handpicked set of corporate leaders, including those with deep interests in expansion of fossil fuels and infrastructure for its delivery. Like the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, the SEFA Initiative similarly provided no criteria whatsoever towards defining what is or is not to be supported. The term “sustainable” could thus be applied to anything, including expansion of gas, oil, nuclear power, megadams, industrial biofuels – you name it.

While SEFA proclaims its charitable intent to deliver energy access to those lacking it, their chief aim appears more directed toward increasing companies’ ability to shape and direct public-sector energy policies and to create favorable investment climates. Delivering access to energy for those who lack it may be the Trojan horse for an underlying goal, far more profitable and less charitable. Hence constructing pipelines and grids down the spine of Africa (the goal of the related Africa Clean Energy Corridor Initiative) is likely as anything aimed at delivering electricity to enable the expansion of various energy intensive mining industries as it is to provide poor, rural women with opportunities to charge their cell phones.

One of the projects SEFA lists among its “accomplishments” is President Obama’s “Power Africa” initiative. In November 2013, a coalition of African groups did not mince words when they wrote:

When we read statements from the White House about “new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas,” and that “The recent discoveries of oil and gas in sub-Saharan Africa will play a critical role in defining the region’s prospects for economic growth and stability, as well as contributing to broader near-term global energy security” – our response is to say, “Leave the oil in the soil; leave the coal in the hole.” It is simply impossible to continue to exploit fossil fuels if we want to avoid climate catastrophe.

Another project listed under commitments is Eni SpA. Eni is one of the world’s largest energy companies, largely Italian, which has been developing tar sands and palm oil in Republic of Congo. Never heard of it? Neither have most Congolese, because virtually nothing about Eni’s agreements with the Congolese government has been disclosed. Given the track record on both tar sands and palm oil, is it not highly problematic that such projects should be sold to the public as “sustainable development for poverty alleviation?”

Indeed, there seems to be no end to the nonsense that the business and industry community will offer up under the guise of providing solutions, both inside and outside the UN. At the September 23 summit, the CEO of Saudi gas company Aramco announced at the private sector luncheon (weren’t you invited?) a new “Oil and Gas Climate Initiative,” which aims to explore what the industry is willing (voluntarily that is) to do to provide “solutions,” including energy access, reduction of flaring and methane emissions, carbon capture and storage, and expansion of natural gas and renewables. It seems highly unlikely, to say the least, that the oil and gas industry is going to solve the climate crisis.

For its part, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development launched a bizarre animation showing a model New York City getting flooded by oil, gas and coal. They argue, (rightfully) that the current expanding demand for energy is only driving emissions up faster and faster. But their solution: a carbon price with proceeds directed toward the development of carbon capture, utilization and sequestration. The carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) part of this many are somewhat familiar with, and recognize as a red herring. But where did “utilization” sneak in?

Utilization refers to Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), achieved by injecting compressed carbon dioxide into depleted wells to force remaining oil to the surface. The Department of Energy estimates that somewhere around 85 billion barrels of the estimated 400 billion barrels that are “stranded” (identified but inaccessible), could be accessed in this manner. (For perspective, proved reserves amount to a mere 21 billion barrels.) But access to that oil would depend in large part on availability of inexpensive compressed carbon dioxide. Hence oil industry support for CCS, funded via a carbon tax.

These are the fossil fuel industry’s ideas about how to solve the climate crisis. Not exactly instilling you with hope and inspiration?

The events out on the streets in New York this week did provide some hope and inspiration. There were plenty of wishy-washy, nonsense calls (“100 percent renewable energy, now,” “Go Vegan: Save the Planet,” “electric cars,” “biofuels” etc.). But there were also many who have dug in deep enough to conclude that our only real chance for addressing the multipronged crises we face is to overcome divisions and disparities to build unity and take action including bold nonviolent direct action targeting the roots of the problem. People are recognizing that all of the various issues, concerns and struggles that we contend with – from tar sands, to fracking, from nukes and uranium mining to biofuels, from oppression and incarceration to poverty, sexism, racism and a lack of basic rights – all stem from a common root cause (named capitalism). With virtually everything at stake, we can and must use our power in numbers to put an end to the utterly grotesque system that currently reigns and which has demonstrated that it is willing to go to any lengths – including destroying our only planet – in the name of endless profitmaking and accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny few. Only then can real solutions prevail.

The UN will not deliver: Ban Ki-moon called for this climate summit. And he came out and joined “the people” at the march on September 21. But he appears unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that the corporations that created this mess will not lead us out of it. In spite of the somewhat remarkable announcement that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund will divest from fossil fuels, or the letter from hundreds of institutional investors calling for a price on carbon, we cannot expect real solutions to come from those invested in endless growth. This is made crystal clear, for example, when Jeffrey Sachs and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network submit a letter calling on the UN to support expansion of nuclear power and CCS (among others) for “a dramatic reduction of carbon dioxide emissions alongside a growing economy.” It is further made clear when governments and businesses proclaim a noble intent to achieve “net zero emissions,” which is simply code for carbon offsets and perpetuation of false assumptions that nuclear and bioenergy – or any form of energy generation for that matter – produce no emissions.

We have a big lift ahead in figuring out new ways to live in a post-capitalist world. The transition will no doubt be messy and painful and we don’t necessarily know where we are headed, only that the current status quo is certain demise. Fortunately, there are people on this planet – indigenous peoples – who have long carried a vision of how to live on this earth worthy of emulating in spite of centuries of attempts to crush their vision and disempower them. They indeed continue to shine the light in spite of an onslaught of oppression, most recently as their lands are targeted for extraction. From them, not from the UN and their corporate partners, we can find inspiration, hope, humanity and leadership as we move forward.

Copyright, Reprinted with permission.