Atmospheric commons and social justice

Literature on commons is abounding, and the term is increasingly seen as referring to practices that are alternative to both states and markets. The case of the “atmospheric commons” shows that states and markets are not alternatives to commons, but modalities of its management. Very problematic modalities to be sure, since the result of state and market access to the “atmospheric commons” in the context of capitalist production create hierarchies of power, reproduce social injustice and is leading us all to environmental catastrophe.

This interview with Angelica Navarro on Democracy Now!, the chief climate negotiator for Bolivia at the Copenhagen climate summit, makes the point very clear when she says:

“developed countries have over-consumed atmospheric—common atmospheric space. Twenty percent of the population have actually emitted more than two-thirds of the emissions, and as a result, they have caused more than 90 percent of the increase in temperatures. As a result, developing countries, we are suffering. Bolivia’s glaciers are melting between 40 to 55 percent. We have extended droughts. We have in the lowlands more flooding. And we are losing between four to 17 percent of our GDP in the worst years. That is climate debt.

And what we are asking is repayment. We are not asking for aid. We are not asking—we are not begging for aid. We want developed countries to comply with their obligation and pay their debt. “

Commons are not a substitute for justice. Injustice, and the struggle for justice, also occurs within commons. In the “atmospheric commons”, as in any commons, justice involves taking responsibility, and this is the basics for a relation of trust. Memories of past injustices can be put aside in moving on to a new terrain of commoning only after they have been truly recognized as injustices.
Instead, the idea that the North owes to the South a “climate debt” has been rejected at the COP-15 meeting by Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change. As if he was pleading insanity in a court of law, he defended himself by saying industrial countries did not know that CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution would provoke climate change (but theoretical knowledge of this exists since 1824).

Furthermore, the recently secret draft agreement leaked to The Guardian newspaper known as the “Danish text,” and worked on by a group of individuals known as the “circle of commitment” to include Britain, the United States and Denmark and a handful of countries — shows world leaders next week will be asked to sign an agreement that both in terms of decision making process among “commoners” and in terms of the projected outcome is quite problematic. In terms of process, it hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN’s role in all future climate change negotiations. In terms of outcome, is sets unequal limits on per capita carbon emissions for rich and poor countries in 2050, meaning that people in the former would be permitted to emit nearly twice as much as those in the latter countries.

Atmospheric commons is a commons, but the relation among the “commoners” — which at this scale and in the given political configuration is mediated by governments — is one in which equity and justice are foregone principles.

This is well captured by  Angelina Navarro

“What the Danish text seems to do is . . . [to] impose new obligations to developing countries. So we are the ones who are supposed now to be mitigating. And I’m asking, what will a developing country, rural men or women—indigenous women in Bolivia doesn’t even have electricity—will mitigate? And for what? So that developed countries can even have still have two, three cars? Or just like four times change their clothes in a year? What are they asking? Do they want all us to finance the problems they are causing? Why should I pay for them? But on top of that, why should we choose between building a school, a bridge or a hospital, and adapt? So that is what we think.

Why should a “commoner” pay for the abuses of another, especially when this other has far more means than the victims of these abuses?
Discourses on commons are often discourses that highlight the important questions of “responsibility”, “stewardship”, “trust” and “community”, but with a little or no preoccupation with the underlying power relations and hierarchies that construct these questions in the real world. I would go as far as to say that without making the questions of power relations and hierarchies as central to the issue of commons constitution in terms of both process and outcome, we risk to make of commons what previous generations have ended up making of democracy: ineffective in terms of outcomes and corrupted by money and power in terms of means.  And the catastrophic indication is already there. To put it again with Angelina Navarro:

“the level of ambition that was what is proposed in the Danish leaked text is definitely not enough. It will not solve the problem. It will not solve the climate change.”

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