Climate Change and the Left in the Global South

Can the #Left in the Global South mitigate climate change any better than the neoliberals? A lot rides on the answer because the trends in this neoliberal era are particularly dire in the tropics. In many countries, populations have doubled in less than 30 years. Meanwhile, rising incomes have vastly expanded the level of consumption of national populations. When global warming is added to this equation, various unfortunate consequences follow.

They include, among others, a precipitous decline in groundwater, the shrinking of lakes and rivers, pressures on rain forests, periodic failures of crops with the attendant spikes in food prices, and population movements as a result of desertification and soil erosion. Economically, these trends will undercut potential economic growth. And politically, shrinking resources, especially fresh water, and population shifts, are conducive to conflict, both civil wars and inter-state hostilities. The stresses push already fragile states closer to state collapse. Yet, as emissions of greenhouse gases diminish or remain flat in most post-industrial countries, those in many developing countries, especially China and India, steadily and dramatically increase.

On the surface, it seems unlikely that leftist governments will do much better. They have embraced economic growth and job-creation as fervently as the Right. Plenty of evidence suggests that the vast majority in the developing world endorses “development” as the path to social progress. Environmentalists view the growth ideology as the major obstacle to sustainability, but the Left aligns itself with economic growth or risks losing support. This orientation toward rapidly raising production and consumption levels leads to significant growth in emissions and environmental damage.

Nevertheless, in comparative terms, progressive governments have a superior environmental record. Yale University’s “environmental performance index” indicates that, among 163 countries ranked on 25 environmental indicators in 2010, the top six are social democracies from Northern Europe and the Global South. Remarkably, Costa Rica ranks third, Mauritius sixth and Chile sixteenth, far ahead of the United States, which is tied with Brazil in sixty-first place. The countries in which neoliberalism is most heavily entrenched tend to have the worst environmental records, especially per capita carbon emissions. What explains this correlation?

There are several possible explanations. One reason may simply be that left-of-center regimes arise and survive in countries with relatively strong institutions. Effective state developmentalism, a feature of such regimes, depends on a moderately strong state apparatus. Thus, contemporary progressive governments, when they decide on sustainable development, can actually implement their environmental regulations and incentives. And with the growth of a middle class, the demand for such regulation normally grows (along with their consumption), according to the World Bank. Also where eco-tourism or luxury, beach-oriented tourism is a mainstay of the economy, as in Costa Rica and Mauritius, a pristine environment is a requirement. Rconomic growth in some cases requires environmental rectitude.

Finally, in countries with large indigenous populations supporting leftist governments, deference to this base and its way of life may dictate attention to environmental concerns. Progressive governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, for instance, have embraced the notion of nature having rights. In Bolivia, the “Laws of Mother Earth” in 2011 assigned to nature “the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alterations.” Ecuador amended its constitution about the same time to declare that nature had “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” Yet both governments face a difficult dilemma because their economies depend on environmentally destructive oil and mineral extraction for raising living standards and state revenue. Pragmatism sometimes trumps Mother Earth.

The Left has a comparatively good environmental record, but forestalling catastrophic climate change demands more from governments than simply ensuring greater efficiency in conducting business as usual. It necessitates the emergence of a new paradigm or vision that breaks with the high-growth, high-consumption model in favor of a new, austere paradigm aiming at sufficiency for all. It is unlikely that the drastic reductions in GHG emissions, which are clearly needed, can be achieved in the absence of such paradigmatic change. Yet such a paradigm is as distant from current preoccupations in the Global South as in the Global North.

Nevertheless, despite its current growth orientation, the Left may yet become a strong ally of green movements. The alternative paradigm, to have any chance of prevailing, must include equality and justice at its core, in addition to low growth and a levelling off of overall consumption. Not only will equity allow for an increased quality of life for the vast majority (despite ecological constraints), but also without justice there is no cooperation and hence no solution to the climate conundrum. Justice refers to the equitable sharing of costs at both the global and national levels. The Left is well placed to handle this transition owing both to its critical stance vis-a-vis neoliberalism and capitalism, and its fundamental mooring in solidarity and equality values.

The latter values are sorely needed. At the global level, a climate agreement must fairly allocate burdens to win acceptance. The negotiation of such an agreement depends on the rich countries bearing a heavier reduction in their carbon emissions than the populations of the Global South. As the Cochabamba Declaration of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change rightly noted in 2010, the Global North’s payment of their #“climatedebt” is the only basis for a fair and effective solution. The post-industrial countries are disproportionately responsible for generating the accumulated carbon emissions in the atmosphere; therefore, they should pay a disproportionate share of the costs of mitigating climate change (through deeper cuts in GHG emissions) and adapting to the effects of climate change world-wide. Major reductions in the North would allow some ace for further growth and poverty reduction in the developing world. A “climate Marshall Plan,” as it is sometimes called, will also be needed to direct substantial resources to the developing world to fund green initiatives and help it adapt to the effects of global warming. Initiatives would include projects that develop renewable energy sources, invest in energy and resource efficiency, and protect the forests (important carbon “sinks”) and biodiversity. Without North-South equity, a substantial international agreement to limit greenhouse gases is unlikely, and without such an agreement, the future is bleak.

But the countries of the Global South – or at least the handful that accounts for the bulk of emissions – will also need, very soon, to rein in their own growth to prevent a climatic disaster. #China is already the world’s largest source of GHG emissions, and India is not very far behind. A similar logic of equity applies domestically as globally. It is the wealthiest 5-10 percent of the world’s population that is responsible for the bulk of emissions. It will thus be necessary to curb the emissions of this small, but rich and powerful group. Both social justice and ecological survival require a drastic decrease in conspicuous consumption and inequality. #Inequality skews demand toward energy-intensive luxury goods – extensive air travel, large automobiles, air-conditioning – rather than basic-needs goods. Catering to luxury tastes not only places heavy demands on the environment, but also further separates the rich from the poor. In addition, the appropriation of natural assets by the rich – arable land, choice residential areas, forests, fresh water, fossil fuels and mines – drives the poor into marginal areas; this pattern both spreads environmental destruction and guarantees that floods, heat waves and droughts will lead to widespread death and devastation.

Above all, vastly unequal societies are unlikely to exhibit the solidarity needed to forge a consensus around a new paradigm underpinning ecological sustainability. The wealthy can use their wealth to buffer themselves against certain environmental problems, such as environmental pollution, heat and the threat of such natural disasters as floods and droughts. And high inequality means that many people are poor – and thus highly vulnerable to environmental pollution, unhealthy living conditions and climatic disasters. Social equity and environmental sustainability are closely linked.

In sum, a more efficient business-as-usual scenario is unlikely to suffice. We either adapt to a finite world, or its finiteness forcefully adjusts us to its reality. If we are to find a way to adapt, the Left may play a major role despite its current productivist inclinations

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