In Obama-McCain World, Is Carbon Regulation Inevitable?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain cosponsored the first major U.S. bill to establish a carbon trading system, and the likely Democratic nominee Barack Obama is cosponsoring a lineal descendant of that bill. So it's a foregone conclusion that we'll have legislation next year regulating and cutting carbon emissions, right? Not necessarily, to judge from the degree to which criticism is rising, not just on the political right but on the left as well, of the mainstream approach to reducing climate change risks.

In March this blogger reported on a conference in New York where climate skeptics showed force. Many of them were sponsored by small research organizations of neoliberal complexion (to use the European lingo; in the United States, at least as far as economic theory and policy is concerned, we'd say neoclassical). In those circles, the idea of mandating carbon trading is seen as statist and almost communistic.

Ironically, the carbon trading concept has come under considerable attack on the political left as well, to judge from a conference that took place a month later in New York, the Left Forum. Many socialists, it was apparent, viscerally dislike the idea of handing out emissions permits to big corporations that the companies can then trade, possibly for illicit profit. In one session, Karen Charman, the managing editor of a journal called Capitalism, Nature, Socialism argued that the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism--the rules that allow emitters in first-world countries to obtain permits to pollute by funding emissions-reduction projects in third-world countries--involves conjuring with imagined futures that corporations can shamelessly manipulate. When it was pointed out to her that her arguments were similar to those offered up by libertarians and climate skeptics, she said, irrefutably, "That doesn't mean they're wrong.

For a sampling of left critical opinion about carbon trading, find the December 2007 issue of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, which contains a long scholarly article drawing attention to a huge dump in Durban, South Africa, which local anti-pollution activists sought to close but which now is getting a new lease on life under the CDM, with plans to capture and burn methane to generate electricity. The February 2008 issue of Z Magazine contained an article by Anne Petermann detailing attempts by organizations representing indigenous peoples to get their voices heard at the Bali climate conference last fall: "Carbon finance mechanisms [like CDM] result in forests being transferred or sold off to large companies who aim to acquire profitable 'carbon credits' at some point in the future," a petition by the organizations complained.

The Carbon Connection, a short documentary film produced by Fenceline Films in partnership with TNI Environmental Justice Project and Carbon Trade Watch, juxtaposes two communities, one in Scotland, one in tropical Brazil. Though utterly lacking in "production values," not to mention context, narrative or analysis, the film vividly captures the essence of the left critique. In the Scottish town, a huge BP refinery continues to pollute, in part because it is able to obtain carbon emissions permits by funding reforestation in Brazil. But in a Brazilian community near where forest plantations are being expanded, water is diverted to feed the trees, leaving people who have depended on it for generations high and dry.


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