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A global just transition

Banners wave at the opening ceremony of the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth near Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 2010. The People’s Agreement signed at the conference called for the Global North to repay a ‘climate debt’ to the Majority World.

When it comes to climate change, predicting how things will play out is tricky: how fast is the permafrost melting, how quickly will glaciers slide into the sea, and can cities armour themselves against floods?

One fact however is simple: if we burn all the coal, oil, and gas currently owned by nations and corporations the world over, human life could end. We need to stop as soon as possible.

That’s where the simplicity stops and the complexity begins. We is a complex term. We as human beings have a lot in common, including living on a shared planet. But some of the ‘we’ need the money from selling oil and gas to buy food and other consumer items, while others do not and will be more or less OK without.

How the West underdeveloped the rest

The history of global colonialism and capitalism explains why. Although historically and to date Europe and North America are important hydrocarbon producers, most oil especially is held in the Global South – the lands that suffered colonialism and Western imperialism.

Due to the historical partnership between oil extraction and imperialism, the Global North has concentrated most of the wealth arising from fossil fuel production. Countries like Canada, the UK and the United States are now ‘developed’. They have used domestic economic planning to build industrial capacity, produce most of their required cereals, milk, meat and food oils, and become centres for scientific research and development.

Their economies became diversified – producing a range of things – and different sectors became interlinked: tool plants supplying furniture plants, and so on. A lot of profit thus remains domestic, and wages are earned and can be spent at home, spurring economic activity.

Purge oil and gas? The big frackers and oil multinationals are unhappy. But overall, exchange and production can carry on provided there is alternative energy architecture in place. Northern economic activity, accumulation, and middle-class life could continue.

It would be different in the Global South.

In Angola, Nigeria, Venezuela, Bolivia, Iraq and Iran, if oil and gas production suddenly stopped, the consequences would be catastrophic for overall economic activity. In Angola, oil represents 25 per cent of GDP; the Republic of Congo, 43 per cent; Iran and Iraq, 20 and 39 per cent respectively. In Timor-Leste, gas accounts for 29 per cent of GDP.

This is not due to Southern incompetence. Those countries that have considered nationalizing resources or radical agrarian reforms have faced murderous imperialist coups d’état. From the 1953 coup against Iranian nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh, to the little-known US-backed coup in Iraq, on to destabilization in Venezuela and Bolivia, it is extremely hard to achieve real sovereignty over natural resources and use mineral wealth to break dependence on commodity export, let alone build up the full range of domestic industries and research and development capacities.

Furthermore, underdevelopment and dependency produce underdevelopment and dependency in a vicious cycle. Even Southern countries that have industrialized remain mostly poor. As a result, they continue to send wealth and cheap natural resources to the North, relying on it for technology and needed goods, including cereals.1

Amid talk of ending fossil fuel use, we cannot simply ignore that history. What we call ‘development’ – including flexible and advanced industry capable of swiftly switching to renewables – is the fruit of the North’s plundering of the South.

Flares in front of an oil refinery and storage tanks in Southern Iran.

Repaying climate debts

Ending fossil fuels cannot simply ignore the distinction between oil and gas production in the North and South. Transition must be anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist.

This notion has been partially crystallized in international climate meetings: the idea of ‘common and differentiated responsibility’. Common: every state has to do something. Differentiated: each state does not have the same amount of responsibility, nor obligations.

Southern states have emitted far less carbon dioxide per person and overall than Western capitalist states. In fact, Western countries have burnt so much oil, gas and coal in their build-up of industrially intensive ‘development’ paths and militaries, they have exhausted the South’s fair share. Now the South cannot use those readily accessible and cheaper energy sources if global warming is to be held below 1.5° Celsius.

What we call ‘development’ is the fruit of Northern plundering of the South

Conflict over responsibility has been a battleground between radical states like Venezuela and Bolivia and imperial power. In 2010, in reaction to Northern attempts to bin ‘common and differentiated responsibility’, Bolivia hosted a meeting which led to the historic Cochabamba People’s Agreement. Based on Northern colonization of atmospheric space, the agreement called upon the industrialized capitalist countries to repay a ‘climate debt’ to the Third World.

That would include returning atmospheric space occupied by unjust amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, debts related to loss of development opportunities and to climate change’s impacts.

To enable transition they urged shattering a pillar of capitalism, intellectual property rights: ‘Patents... should move from the hands of private monopolies to the public domain in order to promote accessibility and low costs.’ And within an eco-socialist framework that would depart from ‘the path of capitalism, depredation, and death’.

The Bolivian government further demanded that rich countries pay 6 per cent of their Gross National Product per year to poor countries: 3 per cent for adaptation, 1 per cent for mitigation, 1 per cent for technology development and transfer and 1 per cent for capacity building: around $1.2 trillion annually from the US, or $3.2 trillion from the Global North as a whole.

Capitalism could no longer endure alongside such tremendous North-South resource transfers, because it requires domestic and worldwide polarization of incomes and wealth.

Defending self-determination

Because such a shift of the world system in the direction of global eco-socialism requires strong advocacy from radical states, it would need a far stronger commitment to Southern self-determination.

The starting point needs to be active defence of the rights of Global South nations to determine their social, economic, and ecological policies. For people in the North, that means anti-imperialism: opposition to sanctions (Iran and Zimbabwe), military assault by proxy (Yemen), direct assault (Iraq), coup d’état (Bolivia, 2019) and blockade (Cuba); ending coercive lending terms (IMF and World Bank); and working against imperialist propaganda.

Secondly, it means dismantling the Pentagon system, or Euro-US militaries, including military-mercenary outsourcing. These are major sources of emissions. And they are the North’s tools to deny Southern sovereignty and scare countries off the adoption of more radical domestic transformations.

Third, the South would need to change its own neo-colonial development paths, to pursue new more self-reliant and eco-socialist policies, based on the interests of the poor and marginalized: peasants, women, indigenous, racially or ethnically oppressed sectors, slum-dwellers, all woven into national development projects.

Agrarian reform and appropriate technology will be central. And fiscal transfers will be critical for acquiring needed technology, especially for renewable energy. Self-determination also requires active defence of those countries when their people push though such policies.

A movement of movements

A new convergence of progressive Global South states and massive social movements across the North and South is needed to force this onto the world agenda.

We can build on the leadership shown by countries like Bolivia with its radical climate discourse. Worldwide struggles for ecological transitions in farming like La Via Campesina can also form part of this potential movement-of-movements. In the North it will mean the conversion to peacetime economies working towards a framework of a worldwide eco-socialist just transition.

The prime obstacle is imperialism and building this platform will require us to make anti-imperialism a key part of people’s day-to-day politics in the North. Rising to that challenge is the order of the day.

1 Harriet Friedmann, ‘The Origins of Third World Food Dependence’, in H Bernstein et al, eds, The Food Question: profits versus people?, Routledge, 1990. 

Max Ajl is a postdoctoral fellow at Wageningen University and a researcher at the Tunisian observatory for food sovereignty and the environment. He is a long time anti-war and anti-zionist activist. His recent book is a People’s Green New Deal (2021).

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