Dear readers: I am traveling/living outside the US for the next several months, improving my French language skills and doing some research (I can feel your sympathy for my difficult plight. Thank you.). I plan to use the occasion to post some guest columns alongside a weekly (or, if other commitments permit) a biweekly column by yours truly. Please continue to check in when you can.
Today, I’m very happy to introduce a guest column by Ben Grosscup, a Hampshire College alumnus and long active in ecological and environment issues. Mr. Grosscup offers some important reflections on why Al Gore’s neoliberal approach to climate solutions is flawed.
Guest Column: Al Gore’s False Climate Solutions
By BEN GROSSCUP
An earlier version of this piece was published on Friday, March 2, 2012 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
On April 27, former Vice President Al Gore will keynote the inauguration of Hampshire College’s new president, Jonathan Lash. Gore may be the world’s best-known climate activist. While he has educated the public about climate change, his solutions are based on a flawed assumption that the only way to address the climate crisis involves creating markets and extending corporate rights.
Despite his commitment to environmentalism, Gore’s political legacy has been ecologically disastrous. The pro-corporate policies he supports – nuclear power, agrofuels, so-called “free trade” and carbon trading – are false solutions to the climate crisis. They fail to contend with its root cause: an economic system that demands ever-expanding corporate profits. But as this avaricious system impinges upon the natural limits of the biosphere, our world breaks down.
Faith in the flawed ideology that we can transcend the ecological crisis without addressing this contradiction in capitalism makes Gore’s “solutions” part of the problem.
As vice president, Gore led the fight to increase the power of the corporate class at the expense of popular democratic rights in two major treaty negotiations. Gore relentlessly championed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the media and in Congress, and he played a pivotal role in restricting the Kyoto Protocol’s legal mechanisms to carbon trading.
In Gore’s nationally televised defense of NAFTA, which aired on CNN’s Larry King Live in November 1993 just before Congress approved the deal, he presented the treaty primarily as a means of reducing tariffs on trade. He argued that as governments reduce restrictions on corporations, business productivity would increase and improve everyone’s livelihood.
But NAFTA had only partly to do with trade. It also gave corporations in all three participating countries the right to sue signatory governments whose policies interfered with their profits.
Following NAFTA’s adoption, Americans didn’t get the secure livelihoods Gore promised.
Instead, companies that once paid relatively higher wages relocated factories to Mexico and Americans struggled to adjust to a more precarious job market. Mexicans went to work in new “free trade zones” where companies drove down wages and evaded taxes while public infrastructure crumbled. NAFTA privatized traditional Mexican community land stewardship systems, pushing millions off their land. This corporate cannibalism of the body politic has exacerbated an utter breakdown of much of Mexican society, manifesting as poverty, drug violence and desperate northward migration as people seek respite from this misery.
Gore’s record on climate policy echoes his trade policy record. In 1997, Gore traveled to Kyoto, Japan, for an international conference to develop a framework for a global treaty on climate change. He stated that the U.S. would not sign the Kyoto Accord unless every other country agreed to a “cap-and-trade” scheme for carbon emissions. The U.S. position conflicted sharply with competing proposals to directly require industrial countries to reduce pollution. Gore successfully pushed through this agenda, which became the basis for the Kyoto Protocol.
Under “cap-and-trade,” governments allot transferable rights to spew climate-destabilizing pollution to the worst corporate polluters, who buy and sell those rights on a market. This privatizes access to the biosphere’s carbon-cycling capacity. By framing everyday corporate pollution in terms of an exchange value rather than an urgent threat, this policy regime makes the incalculable harms of climate disruption interchangeable with the more easily measured financial costs of mitigating pollution.
It prioritizes what it can quantify – and ignores what it cannot.
Some within the environmental movement still defend Kyoto, because it remains the only existing legal mechanism for curbing emissions. In 2005, European signatories inaugurated the EU Emissions Trading System as the official carbon trading mechanism under Kyoto. Shamefully, these countries’ carbon footprints have been rising since, discrediting those who support “cap-and-trade” for its ecological benefits.
Besides not helping to curb the pollution that endangers our lives, the most disgraceful aspect of Gore’s legacy on climate policy is that today the notion of “tradable rights to pollute” dominates the U.N. climate negotiations, displacing non-market alternatives. Those negotiations lack credibility because, after 20 years, they aren’t ameliorating the climate crisis.
The system of market fundamentalism that brought us to the sorry place we’re in has failed catastrophically – a realization more people are making thanks to the Occupy movement. Growing numbers throughout the 99 percent have lost faith in the corporate state and gained confidence in their own initiative. Through creative occupations of public spaces, this movement demonstrates its commitment to creating and envisioning radically different alternative worlds that remain off-limits to market fundamentalists like Gore.
Hampshire College may view Gore’s visit as bolstering its reputed dedication to ecological sustainability, but Gore’s record violates this commitment. The same thinking that delivered the debacle of NAFTA and the calamitous distraction of carbon trading will help none but the clever investor in navigating the difficult times ahead.
The college should feature Gore as part of a debate in which his solutions to impending global catastrophe can be challenged, not just passively applauded.
Ben Grosscup of Amherst, a Hampshire College graduate, represents Precinct 9 in Amherst Town Meeting. He is actively involved in Occupy Amherst and is a board member of the Institute for Social Ecology.