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Who Owns the Sky? The Climate in the Globalization Trap

by C. Methmann, A. Haack and J Eisgruber Tuesday, May. 24, 2016 at 4:02 AM

The bad news is that there are more inconvenient truths. Climate change is present, not future. Globalization and protection of the atmosphere do not go together. Climate policy has a past. Economic profit dominance always has a priority over climate protection.


By C. Methmann, A. Haack and J. Eisgruber

[This introduction to the 2007 “Who Owns the Sky?, an Attac Basis Text, is translated from the German on the Internet,]

This is not a book about climate change. In 2007, global warming entered the mainstream. The culprits of decayed grain harvests from rainy weather are quickly named: the global temperature increase. Costs will be high if we remain inactive according to the report of the former World Bank economist Nicholas Stern. In unusual harmony, environmental associations and the Bild newspaper campaign for more protection of the atmosphere. Climate skeptic number 1 wavers and Chancellor Angela Merkel travels through the world for environmental protection. Climate change is talked about everywhere since Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film “The Inconvenient Truth.” Is the danger recognized and banished? No. The bad news is that there are even more inconvenient truths.

The first is: climate change is present, not future. People in many African countries lack water. In India, no one knows when an unusual monsoon will bring a flood. Millions of people are fleeing from the consequences of global warming. Is there financial help for developing countries in their adjustment? Is there asylum for climate refugees? No such luck. No one wants to see that climate change is a problem of global justice. The second is: too many black sheep jostle on the market of solutions. Coal and nuclear are protectors of the atmosphere. In the US, bio-fuels are sold as “freedom fuel.” The European emission trade has hardly had any appreciable effects up to now. Only the electricity price has risen filling the pockets of energy companies.

The third is: globalization and protection of the atmosphere do not go together. It is modern to increase the “upswing of the worldwide economy” and “clearly and immediately lower greenhouse gas emissions” (A. Merkel). No one sees a contradiction when global shipping today emits more CO2 than all Africa and when air traffic posts enormous growth rates. The whole neoliberal architecture of globalization undermines the goals of climate protection.

The fourth is: climate policy has a past. Much has been discussed, planned and ratified since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. But nothing was done: “We seriously consider cutting global CO2 emissions in half by 2050,” we read in the final document of the 2007 G8 summit in Heiligendamm. The impression often arises that only political will was lacking in the past. That the causes are dee4per is hardly admitted. The power relations in globalized capitalism stand in the way of protecting the atmosphere. Economic profit dominance always has priority over climate protection.

This book grapples with these and other inconvenient truths (the masculine and feminine forms alternate). Starting from very concrete examples, we show that global warming is not simply an environmental problem. Climate change and climate policy have enormous social effects. Protection of the atmosphere involves the roots of our economic system. The globalization of capitalism opposes the most powerful tendency of our society to solve the climate problem.

Whoever speaks of climate change may not ignore capitalism. This is an introduction and several questions will remain open at the end. Climate change is more a social than an ecological question.


“Whoever has long been active as a climatologist felt like Stanislav Lem’s honest astronaut Ijon Tychy who fell into a bizarre time loop on his adventurous space travel. The World Climate Report of the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (IPCC) appeared and warned of the consequences of greenhouse gases in 1990. The scientific facts shook up the public and politics. Heads of state focused on climate change and resolved countermeasures, the climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf wrote (2007). The present turmoil around global warming is nothing new. Only one thing has changed. The carbon dioxide emissions of industrial states today are 16% above those of 1990 (DIW 2006).

Almost weekly there is a new report that climate change is striking earlier and more vehemently than expected. The Arctic will be free of ice in less than 35-40 years. That we humans change the climate is an irrefutable fact. The miserable balance of 15 years of climate policy is really inconvenient. It is high time to admit this inconvenient truth. Nothing less than the predominant climate ideas must be radically reconsidered. In the meantime, many hopeful initiatives exist. Many past answers are obviously not automatically false. The global CO2 emissions must be cut at least in half by 2050 at any price. Industrial countries must reduce their emissions 80%. A combination of renewable energy and energy savings is the only realistic way to that target. For that reason, we need a strong realistic international agreement.

16% more greenhouse gases in 15 years shows impressively that the conventional answers were hardly adequate. Climate change is a social problem, not a technical or ecological problem. Three crucial points result that are indispensable for genuine climate protection.

Firstly, climate change is a question of justice. The change of the climate concerns the whole world. Those who have nothing to do with the causes are threatened, expelled and even killed. On the other side, the global South will only be included in protection of the atmosphere when it is organized. The North must compensate for climate damage in the South and pay for the necessary adjustment in urban development, coastal protection, agriculture and so forth. Every person deserves the same right to CO2 emissions. There must be an accounting for the ecological damages of the North. Only a climate regime with these two fundamental principles of ecological justice deserves its name.

Secondly, the debate around global warming is caught in the neoliberal paradigm. Guillaume Paoli (2006) summarized in a few sentences how irrational is this economic rationality. The original question whether world destruction is delayed is replaced by whether the venture counts. When war is declared on a country, those attacked do not ask can the defense be financially rewarding. Decision-makers who still make growth the supreme goal should be viewed as suicide-assassins. Since the Stern Report, climate change has been regarded as the greatest market failure of our history. The market should be judged by this.

Without doubt, the ecological reconstruction of our society is a profitable business. Nothing against earning money with climate protection. However this often happens at the expense of the South and the environment. If climate change is reduced to a cost-benefit calculation, principles like ecological justice and sustainability are ignored. Trade with bio-fuels and the Clean-Development mechanism are impressive examples how climate protection can backfire with an oblique economic logic. Protection of the atmosphere must be freed from the golden cage of ecological modernization. Climate protection first of all is a question of ecological necessity and social identity, not of cost efficiency.

Thirdly, we will only reduce global warming to a somewhat tolerable level if we do our utmost for another globalization. The globalization of finance market capitalism must be countered with a democratic globalization from below. Such a global democracy is inseparably connected with the demand for global social rights, democratic regulation of property, the more just distribution of wealth, the democratization of society and the expansion of the solidarity economy. Another world needs strong international institutions that fulfill these claims. It needs a nation-state policy that sets social and ecological rights above growth and profit. It needs a solidarity society that exerts pressure on politics and the economy and tests and expands initiatives for another economic system. Ecological justice and climate protection can only be realized in such a world society. A struggle to save the climate must also be a struggle against the globalization of capitalism.

Some will reply: no time remains for far-reaching changes. The threatening climate chaos does not allow any delay. But what happens if these far-reaching changes do not occur? Fifteen lost years and a haphazard climate policy imply that climate protection is only possible with an essential reorganization of world society. We cannot wait for the world revolution. But we also cannot close our eyes to the roots of the misery.


Credible alternatives to the status quo can only arise out of society (Altvater 2005). When we question ecological modernization and globalized capitalism, our criticism concerns principle sand alternative suggestions become vague. Radical social change does not originate on the drawing board and a comprehensive picture of a new world system cannot be simply projected on the wall. Building blocks for another policy are vital.

The Kyoto Protocol needs a strong successor agreement that also includes developing countries. Such an agreement must set binding reduction goals to 2050 on the basis of a per-capita formulation. The basis must be the historical responsibility of industrial countries and the different reduction capacities of individual countries must be considered. In this way, the powerful blockers would not emerge as winners from the negotiations. The contraction and convergence model can serve as an example. The Mechanism for Environmental Development must be replaced by binding technology transfer and a fund that develops renewable energy in the South and finances adjustment measures like dikes.

The development assistance of the North must be generously increased for this fund. The assistance must cover the 0.7% of the GDP earmarked for combating poverty… The strange double standards of transportation policy should be ended… If the emission trade should prove unjust and ineffective, it must be replaced by energy taxes.

Industrial countries must change to renewable energy as quickly as possible… Patent protection outside industrial countries must be dissolved so climate-friendly technologies can be available to everyone at affordable prices.

Democratic reforms in the IMF and World Bank must lead to a fair weighting of votes. Local communities must have a right to join the project-based conversations. The IMF and World Bank should invest the released money in renewable energy and abolish structural adjustment programs and not invest one more cent in fossil projects.

Real climate protection is closely connected with fighting poverty. This is best guaranteed through self-governing energy production systems so the little money of developing countries is not spent on energy imports. With these two approaches, the organizations will not be misused any more as instruments of industrial countries for securing raw materials.

De-globalization does not require a relapse to small states with high protective tariffs against everything under the sun (Bello 2005). But all social and ecological cost advantages must have priority over alleged comparative cost advantages. In a first step, transportation services should be given their true costs so the trade streams regionalize for cost reasons. This will reduce transportation revenue. If economically weak states can re-regulate their trade and capital streams and not be forced to liberalization by the WTO, they will gain possibilities for protecting social and ecological interests. Free trade with agricultural products should be abolished because it undermines food sovereignty and furthers the expansion of industrial agriculture.

The WTO meddles too intensely in national responsibilities and thereby undermines climate protection. Exemptions of GATT and GATS in the scope of a Border Tax Adjustment could favor climate-friendly products. The basic principles of most-favored nation states and domestic preference oriented purely in economic criteria must be restricted. A product always bears an ecological and social footprint and is not only a product.

Climate protection often falls victim to the logic of the financial markets. A whole bundle of measures is necessary. Short-term speculation must be stopped. Hedge funds should be prohibited. Currency transactions and stock market profits should be taxed globally. Such capital transaction controls would bind invested capital in the long term. A democratization of businesses and operational joint decisions in firm takeovers is needed as a counterbalance to the rule of the financial markets. A globalization of democracy is nece3ssary as a counterbalance to the globalization of finance market capitalism. Otherwise the economic dynamic will take the water from climate protection. The demand for global social rights is part of protection of the atmosphere. Climate protection must go hand-in-hand with fighting poverty. Precarious living conditions must be consigned to the past. Every person has a right to a dignified survival worldwide, whether with or without work.

Opposing the global wealth economy also means limiting the rights of property and capital. Climate protection needs common property. The example of the four big energy conglomerates in Germany shows climate-sensitive areas like energy production should be under public control – not vice versa. Therefore the energy companies should be transferred to the public hand. A socialization is necessary, not a nationalization. Sacramento, California has a large share in renewable energy.

Different forms of solidarity economy exist worldwide as a concrete alternative to business as usual. In Argentina, workers occupied closed factories and successfully operated them under their own control. In Germany, a multitude of cooperative projects tested an economic style beyond competition. These initiatives must be promoted. The example of the Schonau electricity plant shows such initiatives can be very promising in energy policy. The “power rebels” took over their local energy production network and are successful nationwide in the production of eco-current.


These building blocks are a beginning. Obviously they only function when individuals are ready to change their personal lifestyles. The change to an eco-current provider hardly costs more than customary current… The way to another lifestyle is far greater than the right decision in the supermarket. Our economic logic determines our personal conduct. “Greed is sexy” as a maxim of everyday conduct is the logical consequence of a globalized capitalism that makes the rich richer and the poor increasingly poor. Where individuals become individual capital, members of society cannot be reproached for flying from Hamburg to Munich when it is cheaper than rail…

Many examples - transfer-coffee, Brent Spar and bio-land – show individuals can accomplish something – while society as a whole is overstrained. Acting as citizens and not only as consumers is crucial.

The building blocks have one thing in common. They can only become reality when we mobilize enough social power behind them. The forces that earn their way in fossil energy and the globalized world economy are too stubborn. We will only prevent climate change against these forces, not with them. A social awakening is necessary that resists the dominant interests in politics and the economy with new radicalism.

In short, a climate movement must emphasize the connection between ecology and justice, globalization criticism and climate policy, a climate movement that together in North and South fights for another environment, a climate movement that offensively raises the power question with political protests, legal resistance and civil disobedience.

There are many starting points for such a movement. Where politics preaches climate protection while serving economic interests, we as a society must oppose the power relations. Whoever builds new coal power plants must be called to account. When gas guzzlers like SUVs are sold as modern forms of transportation, a social headwind must arise. When politicians withdraw from affairs with informal announcements, the movement must take to the streets. While the book was written, coal power plans in Koln, Bremen and Bielefeld were abandoned because they could not be carried out socially. We can win these struggles if we adopt them. Who should prevent this nonsense if not us?
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