Kate Aronoff: The COVID-19 vaccine has provided an example of how state funding and industrial policy can make the rapid development of life-saving technologies possible. But the vaccines are being hoarded by wealthy countries, concentrated mostly in the Global North. Is this a preview for climate politics in the coming century?
Asad Rehman: COVID-19 is a curtain raiser for the climate crisis. And during a global pandemic, when we are meant to all be in it together, and we are told “none of us are safe until all of us are safe,” the response has been largely at the level of the nation-state. The richest countries have competed with the poorest countries, first for much-needed resources—for personal protective equipment, for vital treatments—and now for the vaccine. Fourteen percent of the world’s population in the richest countries have hoarded 53 percent of the vaccines. Vaccine rollout for the Global South isn’t likely until 2024. The richest countries have also blocked attempts to lift the patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Their governments are not interested in a global coordinated response centered on putting peoples’ health first. The richest countries are still saying that they need to protect the profits of big pharmaceuticals, which posted billions in gains last year. The European Union is paying about $2.20 for vaccine doses, while Uganda is buying them at $7.
All of this is an important lesson for climate activists. As we experience the effects of climate change around the world, the response will be to retreat behind national borders and sacrifice the Global South to protect the economies and citizens of the Global North. Rich countries ripped up the rule book and undertook massive public spending on job retention schemes and public health, while the poorest countries were offered, at best, a restructuring of debt and International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans that include clauses about austerity as soon as the pandemic ends, including the very cuts that left much of the Global South without the public services necessary to protect their citizens. Yet the IMF’s message to the Global North is: “No need for austerity, invest in recovery packages.” Of course, economic, racial, social, and gendered inequalities have been exposed within the Global North, too. If this is a snapshot of the climate crisis, we’re going to face climate apartheid.
Thea Riofrancos: Exactly, this is a preview. But maybe the preview is not as bad as the movie. The climate crisis, even more than COVID-19, features a deeply unjust and tragic inverse between, on the one hand, complicity and responsibility and, on the other hand, vulnerability and harm. Due to the blundering of neoliberal and neofascist governments in the UK, in the United States, and other rich countries, COVID-19 has really affected people in the Global North, including the wealthy, although the effects are deeply racialized and classed and gendered. But I think that the disparate impact of the climate crisis is even starker.
We also need to consider China, which presents another model for how to address both COVID-19 and the climate. There’s obviously a repressive and authoritarian element to the Chinese government’s response to many policy issues, including COVID-19, but there’s also unmatched institutional capacity—coordination within the public sector and between the public and private sectors—and an awareness of what’s coming. The Chinese government was promoting the electrification of transit well before anyone in the Global North. China has undertaken preemptive investments in areas like renewable energy and other green technologies, and in the supply chains to produce them. If you’re a country in the Global South and you’re looking at how different global powers have dealt with this problem, China looks like a model to follow. Not only that: China has shown that it is attuned to the geopolitical openings of this moment. It is offering to address the debt crisis in Global South countries in exchange for the establishment of economic relations.
Richard Kozul-Wright: We live in a neo-mercantilist system in which states have been captured by large corporations, and it’s not surprising to see that extended to the multilateral sphere. That’s clearly the case with vaccines. It’s also the case with finance. Consider the refusal to take on private creditors in the G20’s COVID-19 Debt Service Suspension Initiative. A pitiful amount of relief was extended to seventy-three of the world’s poorest countries. The advanced economies, meanwhile, are doing what they’ve been lecturing developing countries not to do. The European Union is talking about the need for strategic autonomy when it comes to strengthening sectors it needs to build its own resilience. That’s what developing countries have been demanding for two decades. Trump’s Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer argued that America needs more policy space to be able to address some of the shocks and problems it faces, and to manage trade. At the same time, wealthy countries continue to push a World Trade Organization agenda of more trade liberalization, strengthening intellectual property rights, and liberalizing services in the digital economy. It’s very easy to be pessimistic given the power asymmetries that have been exposed by this crisis, but there are opportunities to leverage, if the right kind of progressive agenda and alliances can be forged.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò: The capture of decision-making bodies by elite interests has had effects on states and multinational institutions that are difficult to overstate. A recent study at Northeastern University found that if we had an egalitarian distribution of the vaccines, we could expect more than a 60 percent reduction in death rates, while the Global North elite-focused distribution of the vaccine that we’re headed for will reduce rates only by 33 percent. In pursuing “national security” impulses, the Global North nation-states are failing to secure their own interests. From a long-term, more comprehensive perspective, it’s a deeply irrational policy, but the incentive structures in these institutions respond much more powerfully to the interests of AstraZeneca than to the populations of the countries that these decision-makers claim to represent.
Aronoff: In the United States, global climate justice is talked about as if it’s a nice thing to include in climate policy, if it makes sense. Or it’s not brought up at all. Can we think of reparative politics, which take into account the historical responsibility of countries in contributing to this crisis, as a necessary feature of climate politics, rather than a charitable add-on?
Táíwò: I was less than reassured by Biden’s repeated claims during the campaign that he was going to make climate change a national security issue. There’s a rising eco-fascist sentiment in a number of Global North nations. I think these countries will fail to protect their own interests if they evaluate decisions through the lens of protectionism, particular corporate interests, or even national security interests within the framework of state competition, like competition between the United States and China. We need a political framing that takes decision-making out of the rubric of competition altogether. Climate reparations is a particularly powerful way of doing that. The concrete policy initiatives connected to that more collaborative perspective are bilateral or multilateral global green stimulus plans. This approach takes our common stakes in comprehensive social transformation more seriously.
Riofrancos: The arguments that I would make for the Green New Deal on a domestic scale—to tackle inequality and the climate crisis simultaneously, as imbricated phenomena—are similar to arguments I might make at the global scale. You can’t address the crisis without getting to the root of the problem, which is an unequal global political economy that produces what Andreas Malm calls “hazardous nature”—a backlash of nature onto the social system. And you can’t create the broad coalitions that are necessary to address that problem without bringing in the majority of the population in question, which is in the Global South. It is people that are struggling to get by day to day, and the governments that represent those people and are trying to address their basic needs. A competitive, securitized approach rooted in dominance denies those realities and recreates the problem.
Kozul-Wright: There is a dilemma for progressives here that goes back to the origins of multilateralism in the 1930s. Roosevelt needed to extract the United States from a deflationary international system, which was a reactionary force at that time, to rebuild the U.S. state around a progressive agenda. I would argue that was the basis for rethinking multilateralism at Bretton Woods in the 1940s, which ultimately took us in a progressive direction. Over the last thirty years, we’ve moved from a multilateral system designed to support national sovereignty and provide necessary structures to help countries cooperate, to a multilateral system whose job is essentially to constrain nation-states. I understand why Biden would move to a “Buy America” agenda, but it could be detrimental to many of the interests in the Global South unless you also make different rules for the international system so developing countries aren’t penalized for integrating into the global economy.
In a way, Roosevelt was lucky. He had time to rebuild state structures. Fascism became a major threat from the late 1930s onward, and he had to scale up the efforts, but the New Deal had already rebuilt the state so it could be retooled to create the “arsenal of democracy.” We don’t have that much time when it comes to the climate crisis, and there’s a real worry that as countries repair their domestic structures, they will forget about the kind of supportive international arrangements and rules and practices that are needed to address the climate challenge.
Rehman: Two fundamental principles emerged at the UN’s 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change: common but differentiated responsibility, and the polluter pays. There was a recognition that the Global South not only bore less responsibility than rich countries but were also facing crises of poverty and inequality. In the current discourse, “net zero by 2050” is the most ambitious proposal that could potentially be adopted. Within that framework is a way for rich countries to escape responsibility. That carbon budget for 2050 is a global carbon budget. The UK’s fair share of that global carbon budget would be reaching negative 200 percent of its 1990 levels of emissions by 2030. It’s not just decarbonizing; the goal requires supporting countries in the Global South, which would cost close to $1 trillion for the UK. That’s just on the mitigation side—not counting the cost of adaptive policies, or the incredible loss and damages that are coming.
Everybody’s been focusing on reaching this universal goal. Forget fairness, because fairness doesn’t get you there; what’s most important is the fastest route. The problem with that logic, even if you don’t care about justice, is that our capacity to reach that goal hasn’t improved by excluding equity. Rich countries are doing less than they need to, and countries of the Global South with the least responsibility are doing much more, but without the same means of implementation, finance, and technology.
Urgency becomes a way to reinforce global inequalities and the power of the Global North. This gets to a fundamental issue: What are you trying to solve? Is it a problem of carbon, or is it a problem of inequality and injustice? If you think it’s a problem of carbon, then you might end up with negative emissions technology, with geoengineering, rather than seeing the connection between carbon emissions and wealth and consumption in the Global North.
A global Green New Deal needs to have a fair share policy, but also a goal to address structural inequality and injustice. Without those elements, we should be planning for a 3-degree Celsius increase.
Aronoff: A recent Carbon Tracker study showed that forty countries whose public budgets rely on oil and gas revenues could face a $9 trillion shortfall if we capped warming at 1.65 degrees. Many of the same countries are dealing with crushing debt loads that have gotten a lot worse in the last year. How should this massive shortfall shape the conversation about an energy transition?
Riofrancos: It’s important to underscore how deeply debt and environmental harm are related to one another. Debt agreements to private debtors and to public multilateral financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank limit the policy and fiscal room to maneuver in the Global South. Time and again, they’ve prevented governments from making necessary investments in public health, climate policy, and renewable energy. In Ecuador, which is an oil-dependent country, the IMF suggested deep cuts to the public health sector, which were implemented under the current government. Unsurprisingly, Ecuador had one of the worst and most rapid outbreaks of COVID-19.
The debt burden incentivizes short-term economic thinking. The most attractive short-term sectors are extractive sectors that have assured global markets; you can always extract stuff and sell it to somebody. Debt both limits long-term economic planning and the public-sector building necessary to avert the worst of the climate crisis and transition to green energy. Part of our global Green New Deal policy framework has to include real pathways to remove policy conditionalities, lower sovereign debt, and, ultimately, cancel it.
Kozul-Wright: There’s always been a problem with how we handle sovereign debt in the multilateral system. After the Second World War, it was done on an ad hoc basis, as in the case of Germany, which saw a huge cancellation of debt and became an economic powerhouse. (Now, Germany refuses to see that this logic could also work for other countries, which are in many respects in a much worse situation.)
Without a mechanism that is not beholden to creditors, you cannot deal with the kinds of debt burdens that many developing countries have faced since the late 1970s and early 1980s. And that’s true whether the creditors are multilateral or bilateral institutions or in the private sector. Rolling over this problem just adds to the burden that many developing countries face. You need a mechanism that deals with the problem both fairly and quickly. Yet modest attempts to refine bond contracts or other sorts of financial instruments have become the only ideas that policymakers in the advanced economies are willing to listen to.
We’ve argued for independent mechanisms since the Latin American debt crisis of the early 1980s, but except for a very brief moment in the early 2000s when the IMF itself considered the idea, it has just been dismissed. The more powerful private creditors become, the less policymakers in the advanced economies are willing to consider this as a serious option.
Part of hyper-globalization is the privatization of the credit system. Private financial interests have become more and more influential in policymaking. The problem facing many developing countries now is severe—it’s not just the Argentinas or the Lebanons of the world, but much poorer countries like Mozambique and Zambia. Even before the pandemic it was simply impossible for developing countries to meet sustainable development goals. The COVID-19 shock has multiplied that problem. Developing countries are not going to be able to generate and mobilize resources on the scale of a Green New Deal under their current debt burdens.
Rehman: We have to undo the harm of unrestricted capital flows, structural adjustment programs, tax havens, unequal tax systems—everything that has allowed corporate profits to be extracted from the Global South—to start to talk about a genuine renewable energy transformation. And we have to start talking about energy as a public good. How can you produce energy within material limits, so that the Global South doesn’t face another round of extraction in the name of solving the climate crisis, while doing nothing to solve the crisis of energy poverty that has left 3.5 billion people without access to electricity or clean cooking? You can only do that if you ask what socially useful energy is. How much energy should we have? How equitable is energy distribution around the world?
Do you say to countries in sub-Saharan Africa that may have just discovered fossil fuels and see them as a pathway to development that they are not allowed to extract those resources that have benefitted the Global North for centuries? Everybody must stop at the same time? The Global South countries need longer to bring down fossil fuel use, and they need the means to access and implement new energy technologies. It’s always been a challenge for leaders of poorer countries to deliver their people the schools, hospitals, education, health, and housing they need for a dignified life. They want the basic foundations. And if you are not able to meet those needs, far-right populist movements will come in and say, we will deliver them; ignore the climate crisis.
Táíwò: We also need to get real about the stakes of the failure to secure fair-share investments from Global North countries. About 80 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s government budget comes from fossil fuel extraction; South Sudan is even more dependent on fossil fuel revenues, at 90 percent. In Nigeria it’s over 60 percent, and in Angola over 30 percent. This is the fine print of the just-transition discussion. We in the Global North are talking about this shift to renewables, without talking at all about the fiscal consequences of that shift for places like South Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. They haven’t had the luxury of the historical and geopolitical conditions to develop a fully diversified economy, and they are constrained by their debt burdens, along with fluctuations in global fossil fuel demand.
These places are socially already on the brink. We’ve seen dozens of fuel riots, especially when consumer-side subsidies for energy access have been curtailed. In countries where it’s possible to do ambitious industrial policy to change grid systems, it’s not enough to say we’re going to support renewable energy and to hell with the fossil fuel companies. We need an answer about what that looks like for Ecuador and Nigeria and Angola—whether it’s a combination of capital transfer, technology transfer, debt cancellation, debt for credit, debt for climate action swaps, or something else. We can’t continue to frame the problem in terms of nationalism, national security politics, corporate-first politics. That’s something we on the left need to be a lot better about. Otherwise, we’re going to condemn hundreds of millions of people to drastically worse living conditions in the name of progress.
Aronoff: There’s a strain of Green New Deal thinking that looks back fondly at the mid-century United States, with its rapidly growing manufacturing economy, and imagines a similar economic mobilization on climate. Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan would revive U.S. manufacturing, in hopes that the country would dominate export markets for clean energy. What does this story get wrong about what happened then and what needs to happen now? Does it get anything right?
Riofrancos: What it gets wrong is that it misunderstands what makes jobs good. There’s a conflation of manufacturing, which has certain gendered, racialized, and geographic associations in U.S. history—white men with hard hats—with “good jobs.” Unions have the capacity to make any type of job a dignified job. If workers have control and autonomy over the conditions of their workplace, their jobs will be better.
Now, there’s plenty of room for more green manufacturing jobs. We have a scarcity of green technology in the world, and we should have government and industrial policies everywhere that encourage their production. The danger is the idea that the only type of good job is a manufacturing job. That simply isn’t where the working class is right now in the Global North. In the United States, the majority of the working class is in service sectors. Those sectors overrepresent women, women of color particularly, and immigrants. What does this framework say to them?
There are a lot of other types of jobs that are needed to transition to a low-carbon economy—in totally reconstructing our built environment, installing green technology in buildings and grids and factories, and retrofitting them to make them more energy efficient. A lot of jobs are created per dollar invested in those sort of building trades projects. And we also need lots of care work. That’s a low-carbon sector.
Kozul-Wright: One of the things that the older model got right was the idea that a developmental state could lead to a growth path that was more inclusive and more sustainable (at least in a certain economic sense of that term). If the United States is willing to talk about industrial policy and the developmental state, that shifts the narrative that we’ve been up against in a very significant way. I welcome that, whether I think Biden has a real plan or not.
Neoliberals in the multilateral world reduce inequality to this idea that some people are being left behind, and if we just educate people better, then they will be able to benefit from all these nice things that hyper-globalization has brought. You say to these people, “We know that strong unions and progressive taxation will deliver you less inequality. We know that because history over 150 years has shown that!” But they don’t want to talk about that.
Rehman: “Build Back Better” is a fascinating phrase, because I don’t want to build back. I want to leap forward to something different. Building back lends itself to right-wing populism. In a moment of crisis, people are looking back at some rosy-tinted past. For minorities in many of the Global North countries, those are very white images; going backward is also about excluding diverse communities.
We’re not trying to build back manufacturing jobs. We’re trying to think about what kind of economy we want. How do we support a different kind of relationship with work, a different work-life balance? How do we put well-being at the center of it? Asking these questions in the Global North allows us to rebuild internationally.
It’s a huge challenge for trade unions, because the sectors that are most densely unionized in a deregulated labor economy are the very sectors we’re saying need to go. So we need to make an argument that manufacturing jobs are not the only good union jobs. Fighting for union jobs in care work is just as important, and those jobs have the same value as work done by truck drivers or miners.
Kozul-Wright: The flip side of your argument, which I largely agree with, is a romanticization of the precariat. There is a parallel now between the North and the South in discussions of labor informality. For me, the single biggest challenge we face is the unbelievable concentration of economic and political power in sectors like finance, tech, and pharmaceuticals. You can’t challenge that without having some sort of strong backbone, and I don’t think the precariat will provide that backbone. The old vision of unionism may have problematic legacies. But the notions of solidarity and strength that are hardwired into the union vision will be imperative to building the kind of alliances that can force through the changes we want to see and challenge those people who don’t want to see those changes take place.
Rehman: During a period of economic recovery, the balance between jobs, justice, and climate is going to fall mostly on jobs. That will be the primary short-term goal of every government. There’s a study about how much of the COVID-19 stimulus packages has gone to the extractive and fossil fuel industries, and how much has gone to new green jobs; for the latter, the numbers are lower than in 2008. That’s quite incredible. It speaks to the fear that even right-wing governments have of social revolt when millions of people are unemployed.
Aronoff: A green boom for clean energy is going to spike demand for new resources like lithium and cobalt. How is the political economy around this kind of green extraction similar or different from the one around fossil fuels? Does a new era of resource internationalism or nationalism around these commodities seem at all likely?
Riofrancos: It’s hard to overstate how mineral-intensive green technologies are. The expected boom in the production of these technologies (already underway in China and to a lesser extent in the EU and the United States) is predicted to trigger another commodity super-cycle of the kind that we saw in the first decade and a half of this millennium. Extraordinarily high demand will drive high prices for minerals across the board, from cobalt to copper to lithium to rare earths, and also for land itself—both because renewable energy is land-intensive and because of “offset” programs.
The concern is that this cycle will replicate the uneven territoriality of extraction under fossil capitalism. Extraction harms particular places and people to benefit other places and people. It generates sacrifice zones, primarily in the Global South, although indigenous movements in Canada and the United States have made clear that these sacrifice zones also exist in the Global North. They’re structured by preexisting marginalization, around people and places that are deemed disposable.
There are also some differences with the fossil fuel era. A key difference is that the EU, the United States, and China all want these extractive sectors within their borders, which is not what you would expect, since neoliberal globalization always offshores and externalizes to wherever labor and nature are deemed cheap. These powers want territorial and political control over extractive sectors due to concerns about the security and resilience of supply chains, and due to trade wars. I think that’s going to open up new theaters of local conflict, from Portugal to Nevada, for example, where communities are contesting lithium extraction.
The effects of this move to nationalization for the Global South are ambiguous. On the one hand, we might think it’s good that the Global North is going to pay its own cost, environmentally, though these extractive sites are structured so deeply by inequality within the Global North that it is hard to make that argument. But there’s an old Marxist adage that the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited—in other words, marginalization from the global economy, disarticulation from global supply chains, abandonment and neglect.
We’re still going still have lots of extraction in the Global South; there will just also be extraction in the Global North, because so much is needed at the rate of current production of these technologies. Thinking about how to reduce the resource intensity of these technologies would be a better route than promoting nationalism around supply chain placement, as would rigorously enforcing labor, indigenous, and environmental rights and standards at the sites of extraction, wherever they are.
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at the New Republic and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. She is the co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need A Green New Deal, the co-editor of We Own The Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, and the author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—And How We Fight Back, out this April.
Richard Kozul-Wright is director of the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies in UNCTAD and is responsible for its annual Trade and Development Report. He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Cambridge and has published widely on economic issues, most recently as co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Industrial Policy.
Asad Rehman is the executive director of the radical anti-poverty and social justice charity War on Want and the co-coordinator of the Global Green New Deal Project. Over the last thirty-five years he has worked both globally and in the UK with the anti-racist, alter-globalization, and antiwar movements.
Thea Riofrancos is an assistant professor of political science at Providence College. She is the author of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador and co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and serves on the organization’s Green New Deal Campaign Committee.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where he focuses on social/political philosophy and ethics. He is also a member of Pan-African Community Action and an organizer of the Undercommons.