Chris Carlsson and Tom Athanasiou Debate Cap and Trade at COP15

I spent a week rushing about Copenhagen, trying to find my friends, get the scoops, figure out how best to understand this crazy global gathering.

On a rented bike I blasted across town to the Candy Factory where the Bike Bloc was busily "putting the fun between their legs." It’s a brick warehouse full of discarded bicycle frames, parts, wheels, and more, where dozens of people were building bikes when I passed through (I donated about 70 “Bicycles: Use in the Event of Global Warming” signs). Welding in one room, tools for borrowing in another, at the gate a cursory monitoring going on to make sure everyone knows where they’re going or what they’re doing there.

Tomorrow (December 16), the Bike Bloc will take action, along with thousands of others under Reclaim Power, Climate Justice Network, La Via Campesina, and an alphabet soup of non-governmental organizations, ad-hoc affinity groups, multinational activist coalitions, and so on. Thousands of activists plan to gather in a parking lot on the perimeter of the COP15 (as the Climate Summit has been nicknamed) where they are expected to meet hundreds, if not thousands, of delegates, who plan to come out and welcome them in.

The police, of course, will have ideas of their own, probably mirroring the preferences of the leading industrial countries’ chief negotiators. The upcoming confrontation could be quite interesting, an unprecedented redirection of a global negotiation process by popular mobilization within and without.

Or it could be a bust.

No matter: Copenhagen is spawning a great number of unpredictable one-to-one alliances. I saw a small (but perhaps illuminating) example last night when we dined with our hosts at a very good local restaurant, and watched a long table of about 60 COP15 delegates sit down to a shared dinner.

We discovered they were representatives of green/sustainable development at the municipal level from many places, including Mexico City, Mumbai, an indeterminate city in the U.S. South, a variety of European cities, and others. We overheard several of them talking about the problem of the process being dominated by their national governments, but their gratitude for the chance to meet with each other horizontally and make their own plans to take action on Climate Change, irrespective of the success or failure of the nation-to-nation negotiations.

Earlier I had a chance to talk to an old friend, Tom Athanasiou (at left!), who is participating in COP15. He has a Bay Area organization called Eco-Equity and is co-author of “The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework: The right to development in a climate constrained world,” which is summarized as “A climate protection framework designed to support an emergency climate stabilization program while, at the same time, preserving the right of all people to reach a dignified level of sustainable human development free of the privations of property.” Tom is my gauge of how technical and abstract the “real” conversation among the negotiators really is!

We got to discussing the cap-and-trade plans being negotiated, something I’m opposed to on the grounds that it is a marketing of the sky--the last enclosure of our commons if you will--and Tom claims to have a more nuanced position. Here is an excerpt of our conversation, somewhat roughly transcribed: 

Chris Carlsson: I think cap-and-trade is about selling the sky, fundamentally about commodifying the atmosphere, which is the latest round of enclosure of common goods.

Tom Athanasiou: I think you have a point. Now don’t laugh: I think we have to create intermediate forms of property. I think we have to get away from the fact that something is either private property…

CC: I understand the logic of that argument, and I’m not unsympathetic to it. Check out the essay “Computers and Potatoes” in Turbulence. It’s on this topic. It’s a very interesting transitional argument that says we should not kill the goose that laid the golden egg until it lays the last egg. And we should buy our way to the revolution by making the capitalists obsolete. Tell them that the only deal they can have is to sell the means of the abolition of capitalism and they can only have a very small profit doing that… it’s an interesting argument, very Swiss!

TA: The thing about the enclosures argument… the title “The Tragedy of the Commons” is wrong. It wasn’t just that the argument was wrong. The correct title is “The Tragedy of Open-Access Resources.” It was unregulated open-access resources.

CC: In a market economy…

TA: No, no, because the tragedy of the commons happened in pre-market societies… if you have a situation where there’s a closed resource and population pressure increases, then you can have a tragedy of the commons, even if you have no markets at all… Annie Leonard [in "The Story of Cap-and-Trade," at bottom] is right when she argues that cap-and-trade is so complicated that it makes it easy for the bad guys to manipulate the system.

The problem is that the tax approach is just as bad… There’s a concept called Pigovian Taxes. Pigou was an economist. Pigovian taxes are taxes where you tax the bad. The social good created by the tax exceeds the cost of the tax. A well implemented carbon tax would be a proper Pigovian tax. Some people would pay for things they didn’t have to pay, but if you added up all the payments that people had to make, it would be smaller than the increase in the total social good. It reallocates goods by taxing bads. That’s the sort of flavor of the problem.

My issue, the one I specialize in, is how we’re going to get the rich world to meet its obligations in the context of a global crisis. Because if it doesn’t we’re toast right?

My claim is that we can’t talk about North and South. No, we live in a twice divided world. We have North/South and we have Rich/Poor. In the north we have Rich/Poor, and in the south we have Rich/Poor. You cannot tax the poor in the rich world and have any of that money go to the rich in the poor world. Because if there’s any kind of transfer like that the Glenn Becks in the world will tear you up.

CC: Plus, it’s fucked up!

TA: Yeah! In that context these questions matter. What Greenhouse Development Rights [GDRs] is, the secret is, it’s a mildly progressive capacity-and-responsibility tax that is embedded in the international climate regime. You design an international climate regime by attending to the science, working out the size of the global cap, and distributing it by way of a mildly progressive capacity-and-responsibility tax, distributing the effort to meet that mitigation gap by way of this mild tax. 

It has this overarching virtue: It makes sense! It’s still physically possible to avoid a global climate catastrophe. No, no it’s very important to realize that it’s still physically possible to do it. We have the money, the technology and just barely the time. What this means is it’s only a political problem which means it’s solvable. That’s the way I like to look at it.

How can we make a step change, institutionally and structurally, so we can begin to build a global system?

Then that’s when the equity question comes in, but only as a North/South question. And it’s huge at that level. That’s where we come in, and there’s a problem: how do you share the burden? Who has to do what?

That’s what GDRs is. GDRs is the best burden sharing proposal yet, and I say this in all honesty. And we know all the competition, we’ve studied all the competing proposals. It’s not rocket science. The sacred text in the UN says that “each country must act within its historic responsibility and within its differentiated capabilities.” Now you tell me which quote from Marx that echoes? From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. This is what it comes down to, the only deal that can possibly work is a deal that is based on that principle. I’m willing to argue this point in a completely realist key. I will put my personal preferences aside. I think it’s a social emergency.

Because of the fact that we’re not yet doomed, because we still have the possibility of stabilizing the situation, we’re morally obligated to attempt to do so. So if you think the only way we can do that is by operationalizing this kind of an equity principle then you have to do it. It becomes a moral imperative in Kant’s terms. All we do is take the concept of historical responsibility and the concept of national capability and quantify them in a rigorous way that takes account of internal income distribution within countries. In other words, we introduce class into the equation.

In that context, fall back to what happened with Tuvalu [an island nation threatened by rising sea levels]. What they said is they want 1.5 [degrees Centrigrade as a maximum temp rise] because otherwise we’re going to cease to exist. Our existence rights will be violated, our most basic rights.

That’s interesting too, because it goes into the hierarchy of rights as its evolved in the human rights community. GDRs is constituted as a social and economic right, which asks the question what is the right to development, what is the right to sustainable development, what kind of development or consumption rights do people have in a climate constrained world? Where must the global poor be set?

But Tuvalu said ‘fuck development rights, fuck social and economic rights, we have existence rights. This is well established in human rights law. You can’t kill me.'

Someone just used the term yesterday ‘benign genocide’… ‘inadvertent genocide’ would be more accurate. What Tuvalu said was we want a deal that actually drives emergency decarbonization and we’re not going to agree to anything else. Because the large developing countries like India and China will not agree to anything like that, it implicitly divides the G77 negotiating bloc. The G77 is actually 128 countries including everyone from little Tuvalu to China, which has modeled a new kind of capitalist development predicated on an ENORMOUS plume of carbon.

So it’s extremely controversial. Tuvalu and the U.S. want the same thing. The U.S. wants the Kyoto Protocol to die. There’s a new crew in Washington and they’re actually adults. John Holdren is Obama’s science advisor, and he’s a panicking scientist. This guys knows! He knows how deep the shit is.

The issue is it has to do with the legal form of the Copenhagen agreement. Is it going to be a single agreement, or a two-track agreement?

A two-track agreement would maintain the Kyoto Protocol for the Annex 1 countries, and create a Convention Track for all the other countries to go in to. The problem is that the large developing countries don’t want to go into any kind of formal convention track because it would start taxing them, ideally in proportion to their responsibility and capacity, but less ideally in some ham-handed fashion in which the rich countries try to deny the fact that they owe anything to the poor and try to sweep ecological debt under the table. Ecological debt is a big part of this.

CC: The Africans revolted over the so-called “Danish text" [a draft secret agreement among leading industrial countries to among other things, fix unequal carbon emission rights]….

TA: Which was fair enough, but was not the big event. The Big Event is going to [be] the technical paper that justifies the African negotiating position—[it] has been completed, and what it shows is that Africa is uniquely fucked. If you want to look at the world in terms of spatially differentiated winners and losers, Canada is the winner and Africa is the loser.

African representatives want a real deal. A Real Deal is hundreds of billions in adaptation assistance and extremely stringent global carbon targets. So the question is tied up with the legal form, it’s tied up with the two tracks, and also with the idea that the African bloc might walk out. [Which they did for a half day on Monday, Dec. 14.]

My claim would be that we’re never going to get the American state to make international financial transfers on any significant scale if those transfers are structured as money going in as taxes to the U.S. treasury and then leaving as American payments to China.

CC: We already do that all day long!

TA: The cap-and-trade models allow you to do all sorts of clever shit where no one ever has to write a check. The whole point of this is to defeat the political problem. You have to hide the transfer in a market…

[The best scenario is] you collect the money using transnational multilateral institutions, but you disperse the money through social networks. In fact that’s the only thing that will work. If Botswana gets its cut, which is supposed to be clean energy subsidies and adaptation support, as a check to the Botswana government, guess where it’s going to go! [Nowhere.] So it has to go to social movements and they have to be organized enough, and disciplined and transparent enough that they can accept the money and do the right thing with it. The big model is the AIDS fund.

What to know more about cap and trade? You can start by either reading "What is Cap and Trade?" in The Nation or watching this new video from Annie Leonard:, "The Story of Cap and Trade":

Want to know more? Check out ongoing publications from the conference called Climate Chronicle: issues 2 and 3 a series detail horror stories from Thailand, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.