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Climate change: a failure of leadership

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 May 2009

The spreading effects of the global economic recession are making the hopes of reaching even the modest Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by the target date of 2015 recede even further.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The Global Monitoring Report 2009: A Development Emergency, released on 24 April 2009,  outlines some of these likely effects in stark terms. The economic growth-rate of countries in the global south, which was 8.1% in 2006-07, is expected to fall to 1.6% in 2009. The worldwide recession will mean that huge numbers of people - estimated as between 55 million and 90 million people - will be additionally trapped in extreme poverty this year. The recent gains in fighting  malnutrition (whose elimination is the first goal of the MDG) will be reversed, as the number of chronically hungry people is expected to climb to over 1 billion. 

The global recession is unlikely to be short term. The Global Monitoring Report - an International Monetary Fund / World Bank document prepared for the organisations' spring 2009 meetings in Washington - says:

"The numbers will rise if the crisis deepens and growth in developing countries falters further" with sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia most affected as the recession "essentially eliminates the pre-crisis prospect of continued reductions in the poverty count in 2009."

The report's lead author, John Lipsky, adds:

"Even though the recession is being felt most strongly so far in the advanced economies, unfortunately, conditions in developing countries are deteriorating dramatically. With simultaneous recessions striking all major regions, the likelihood of painfully slow recoveries is very real, making the fight against poverty more challenging and more urgent."

The pain is not equally shared. The relatively strong growth of a handful of large economies means that they have some capacity to insulate citizens from the worst outcomes. But even China faces problems of its own as the great expansion of the last decade slows. Moreover, in these countries as elsewhere, increases in population mean that conventional economic growth is required just to ensure they stand still - and any contraction is felt most acutely by the already poor.

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This differential social impact of the "great recession" is an important feature of what is happening, not least as elites in most states (including in the majority world) are able to ensure that their own circumstances are preserved in ways that hard-pressed working citizens are not. To reduce the employee roll from four to three servants is no great hardship, but for the sacked assistant-gardener (and his dependants) it is a calamity.

A reformed system

The rapidity, severity and worldwide nature of the current crisis are unprecedented; indeed, predictions of even a 1.6% growth for the south may be optimistic, given that the European Union on 4 May 2009 forecast a 4% contraction this year for the twenty-seven member EU and the sixteen-member eurozone - down from the more manageable 1.9% expected as recently as January 2009. This will mean the loss of 8.5 million jobs in the union in 2009-10.

The extent and duration of the recession may have raised the profile of the G20 as an emerging body that at least begins to draw in governments from beyond the first-world elites; but the overall political reaction from governments and transnational bodies is a very long way from guaranteeing any fundamental changes to the world economy.

Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South sees a generalised move towards a "global social democratic" (GSD) discourse - supported by Kofi Annan, George Soros, Jeffrey Sachs and others - which may be best seen as an attempt to tame the excesses of the globalised free market (see Walden Bello, "Capitalism's Crisis and Our Response", Focus on the Global South, March 2009). This is designed, he argues, "to bring about a reformed social order and a reinvigorated ideological consensus for global capitalism".

Such a reformed capitalist system must recognise the futility of the neo-liberal approach and must include a reduction in global inequalities including debt cancellation and a massive north/south "Marshall plan", as well as a huge investment in environmentally sustainable development. Bello is suspicious of this approach: not least because he does not believe that "an inherently socially and ecologically destructive process can be made palatable and acceptable", but also because a GSD approach "is a technocratic project, with experts hatching and pushing reforms from above, instead of being a participatory project where initiatives percolate from the ground up". For Bello, GSD is about social management, not social liberation.

A missing leadership

Whatever one's view of his analysis, there is no doubt that GSD is already beginning to prove unable to respond to the other great issue facing the world community - the formidable problem of climate change (see Anthony Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change [Polity, 2009]). As the recession took hold in 2008, even some establishment political forces saw the possibility of stimulating a recovery by an emphasis on energy conservation and renewables. Such a "green new deal" would meet both problems head on, but the progress since then has been lamentable.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcomingInstead, there has been a transnational downturn in the renewable-energy sector, especially in western Europe, at precisely the time when a major advance is needed. BP announced on 1 April 2009 that it was cutting about a quarter of the workforce from its solar-energy division in the United States and Spain (620 jobs in all) because of lack of demand. In the first quarter of 2009, sales were the equivalent of 15MW of power-generation compared with 34MW for the same period in 2008 (see Tim Webb & Graeme Wearden, "Solar slump contributes to $800m green energy losses", Guardian, 29 April 2009).

The same day, the Danish energy company Vestas announced that it was closing its wind-turbine plant in Britain because of lack of demand; the 600 jobs lost there would be compounded by 1,300 more in Denmark (see Tim Webb, "Closure of turbine factory takes the wind out of Britain's low carbon sales", Guardian, 29 April 2009). At least Vestas is expanding in the US and China where demand is higher, but the downturn in Britain is all the more amazing as the country both has one of the best wind-energy resource bases of any and a government that claims to be seeking a low-carbon future.

The fact that the United States and China are each expanding into renewable- energy resources is greatly welcome. But the contrast with western Europe - whether in individual governments or at the level of the European Union - is extraordinary, and reveals a profound lack of political leadership. Western Europe is particularly well endowed with wind, wave and tidal energy; recent technical improvements allow most countries to utilise solar power. It is a region that was until very recently to the forefront, but it is being overtaken just when political leadership is urgently required. 

In the absence of such leadership, much more is needed from civil society, even in the face of deliberate attempts by some authorities, not least in Britain, to suppress dissent (see "Climate change: rock the state, save the planet", 21 April 2009). The recession is worse than expected; climate change is happening faster than predicted; the opportunity to respond to both at the same time is waiting to be grasped. All this - yet the political vision in Europe is missing. That is an abdication of responsibility that deserves to be challenged as forcefully and persistently as possible.

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