The United Nations’ “Conference of Parties” (COP15) convention on biodiversity is meeting from Dec. 7-19 in Montreal in a heavily barricaded Palais des Congrès. Guarded by the largest police garrison mobilized in decades in the city, hundreds of state representatives and lobbyists meet for yet another round of meaningless talks and empty promises.
The fight to preserve biodiversity and stop climate change is undoubtedly one of the most important of our lifetimes. Millions of people all across the world have been mobilized by the mass movement to save the planet. But all the ruling class has to offer us are these glorified networking meetings, where ministers, industrialists, and bankers rub shoulders and prepare backroom business deals in an attempt to greenwash capitalism. After years of COPs, broken “accords”, and inaction, fewer and fewer people have illusions in the ability of these private companies and state representatives to do anything to stop the impending environmental disasters.
Carnival of hypocrisy
COP15 is the fifteenth meeting of the 196 countries that signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, first introduced in 1992—with the notable exception of the most powerful of them all, the United States. Among the 20,000+ participants are not only state representatives, but also an army of thousands of lobbyists from NGOs and the business world.
The stated goal of COP15 is to align nations, companies, and communities around the vision of living “in harmony with nature by 2050”. This laudable objective is however far removed from the real policies implemented by the various countries involved, starting with the hosts themselves.
Indeed, while Canada is more committed than ever to green(wash)-ing its economy, and environmental activist-turned Liberal minister Steven Guilbeault says there is “no time to lose” to save the planet, the actions of the Canadian state and companies speak louder than their empty words.
In a leaked letter, the Canadian ambassador to the European Union, Ailish Campbell, complains that proposed forest protection regulation in the EU will be “burdensome” to Canadian trade, and lobbies for “forest degradation” metrics to be softened or removed. This defence of profit over nature makes sense when we consider that two of Canada’s largest resource industries, logging and oil and gas, made the country the world leader in forest degradation. Indeed, the government would rather nobody know about the massive loss of biodiversity it greenlights; it does not even measure or report on forest degradation in its annual “State of Canada’s Forests” report!
Meanwhile in B.C., the NDP government continues to defend logging companies’ commitment to decimating invaluable old-growth forests as they seek ways to remain competitive in the world market. No amount of repression of activists trying to protect land and water is too much for the government to defend the profits of their industry buddies.
In Ontario, Doug Ford is even more brazen, bulldozing the province’s Greenbelt so that some of his party’s biggest financiers, housing development and construction companies, can make an even greater profit. Who’s to care for the millions of people who rely on this ecosystem for freshwater, or the animals whose habitat will be affected?
In Quebec too, the CAQ government has shown lately how much they care for the environment with their staunch defence of the Horne smelter’s right to pollute 33 times more the provincial standard. They have also loudly defended the need to build a new mega-tunnel between Lévis and Québec, without any study backing it up. The NGO Équiterre was forced to do their own study, through which they found the project would lead to the loss of natural habitats, among other environmental impacts. Whatever empty promises they make around COP15 will be tarnished by their actual actions so far.
Internationally, Canadian mining companies destroy ecosystems, murder environmental activists, and enslave and kill workers while expanding their exploitation of the world’s riches. These are the “business leaders” the Convention on Biodiversity proposes will participate in “harmonious cooperation” with local communities.
These examples from Canada could be duplicated at will with all the nations participating in the COP15. We have become accustomed to empty declarations from state representatives while the actions of their government go the opposite way. The next two weeks will be another round of this repelling spectacle.
Big business can’t be trusted
A recent article in the Financial Post was titled “At COP15, business will hear that it can’t afford to ignore the biodiversity crisis anymore”. But how many times over the last decades have businesses “heard” that they have to do something to stop environmental destruction?
They’ve heard it before, and have taken no meaningful action. A recent study by the World Benchmarking Alliance found that out of 400 companies they assessed, only five per cent have looked into how their activities impact nature and biodiversity. Only 14 per cent of them make known whether they are situated in areas of “high ecological value” which makes it “difficult to hold the majority of companies accountable for their impacts in these high priority areas.” And even of those few who have biodiversity and climate pledges, 98 per cent lobby for whatever is most profitable to them irrespective of their pledges.
This state of affairs is the hallmark of capitalism. Private property allows these companies to be left completely off the hook. Meanwhile, we’re left begging them to see the light and implement measures to save the environment.
This is the approach taken by the Collectif COP15, a broad-tent coalition including Quebec’s main trade unions, among more than 60 “civil society” organizations. This coalition calls, among other things, for banning investments in projects that threaten biodiversity, for fighting against “greenwashing”, for regulating the private sector, and to install “mechanisms” for “social dialogue” in order to ensure a “just and equitable” transition.
Leaving aside the vague character of what is put forward, we have to say that none of this can be achieved if the decisions are left in the hands of a few CEOs and the politicians they have in their pockets.
This is because at the end of the day, you cannot control what you do not own. Private ownership of the key levers of the economy means corporations have the power to dodge regulations with little or no consequences. And polluting industries hold governments hostage by threatening closures and job losses if governments don’t cooperate with them. An economy run by thousands of capitalists trying to outcompete each other in extracting profit from workers and the planet also means the type of coordination, cooperation and long term planning needed for transforming industries to be ‘in harmony with nature’ is impossible. Private property is a complete barrier to meaningfully tackling the climate crisis.
Begging for small change
Much fanfare surrounds this COP15 meeting, at least in the business world, where capitalists see something to gain from participation. Pompous declarations about saving the planet abound. In this context, some would expect the numerous delegates to put their money where their mouths are and move mountains to meet their grandiose declarations. But when it comes down to it, the most concrete goal is to raise $700 billion to “reverse the global biodiversity crisis”. Even this, they say, will be difficult to achieve.
All this fanfare for $700 billion! It would be funny if the biodiversity crisis weren’t so serious. This is not even half of the $1.5 trillion of “dead capital” in the bank accounts of rich Canadian businessmen alone. The profits of the Fortune 500 in the U.S., many of whom will be at COP, amounted to $1.8 trillion this year alone. And yet, “it’s unclear whether enough will be pledged to protect and restore biodiversity.” Perhaps these companies are interested in what new business opportunities they may snag at COP more than they care about saving biodiversity…
Even the UN emphasizes that they’re begging for pennies. Back when the goals were drafted, Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Programme, pointed out that $700 billion annually is “less than 1% of global GDP and only a fraction of the $5.2 trillion that we spend on fossil fuel subsidies every year.” And those were 2019 numbers; we are on track to exceed $9 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies annually by 2025. Crumbs go to the environment, while polluting industries are showered in cash straight from the public purse.
Governments also heavily subsidize agricultural, forestry and fishery companies, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year—at four times the rate they support biodiversity protection. These industries, in the hands of a tiny class of capitalists, suck the lifeblood out of the Earth as much as out of the workers they exploit. These biodiversity bulldozers do as they please, profiting off the destruction of the land, with no say from the people that are affected. The few regulations that exist are sloppily formulated and loosely applied, for all too obvious reasons when we consider the revolving door between regulators and the regulated.
Under capitalism, the ruthless logic of the market and competition leads states to do everything they can to protect their own capitalists with subsidies and other similar measures. Nation states are pushed to loosen environmental restrictions in a race to the bottom, to attract investment by lowering the costs and the red tape for businesses.
In reality, the money, resources, knowledge, and technology exist to plan the economy in order for humanity to live in harmony with nature. But this cannot be achieved while private companies and their narrow interests call the shots, and public money goes into the pockets of big business regardless of environmental considerations.
Marxists often say that the two main barriers to progress today are private property and the nation state. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than on the question of the environment.
Revolutionary change, not climate change
The climate and biodiversity crises are on the minds of millions, and this time again there are mobilizations to protest the carnival of hypocrites at COP.
Most notably, the “Coalition anticapitaliste et écologique contre la COP15” has been mobilizing for the event and are organizing a series of demonstrations. The group was also behind the student strikes that will happen during COP15; up to 20,000 students will be on strike for one or more days to protest the conference.
While the anticapitalist coalition correctly denounces capitalism and the nation state and appeals for workers’ and students’ strikes, they emphasize the vague call to “block” COP15 without putting any alternative forward. Most workers who vaguely know about COP15 would be puzzled at the idea of “blocking” a meeting nominally for protecting biodiversity without explaining the alternative.
After years of mass mobilizations to fight climate change and all its disastrous consequences, many can feel the urgency of the situation, but also the impasse of the movement. A mood of “doomerism” plagues sectors of the youth, who’ve seen years of mobilizations with little recourse or reform from the ruling class.
At its root, this impasse can be explained by the absence of a clear socialist perspective. More and more, people understand that capitalism and climate change are completely intertwined. Symptomatic of this phenomenon, Greta Thunberg recently denounced capitalism openly. But this denunciation of capitalism is rarely accompanied by any concrete proposal. To refuse to fight for a socialist alternative is to continue down a blind alley.
In order to save the planet, a massive overhaul of the way we produce and gather resources is necessary. To achieve this, democratic control and planning of the economy by the working class is necessary. The working class needs to wrest power from the hands of the minority of lobbyists, CEOs, and their friends in governments who own the industries, the land, and the water. We need to nationalize the commanding heights of the economy, and develop a democratic socialist plan of production in harmony with nature, and in the interest of all working people. The struggle to save the planet is a class struggle. It is high time the movement starts saying things as they are: We need a socialist revolution!