After the massive buildup and colossal letdown around last year's landmark global climate talks in Copenhagen it can be tough to see the promise in this year's Cancun round of talks. But despite the gloom of low expectations, climate advocates have found a few bright spots on which to center their hopes.
One leading light in the picture is the issue of adaptation funding. Last year, under the so called Copenhagen Accord, developed countries pledged to start shelling out 10 billion dollars a year (and 100 billion annually by 2020) to help the developing world cope with climate impacts and jumpstart their clean energy economies. This year, advocates are hoping for a breakthrough on the institutional mechanisms for financing that adaptation aid.
Given this hope it's ironic that few issues besides adaptation funding better highlight the one fundamental obstacle to global climate action -- that big gaping black hole at the center of the global climate talks that will inevitably devour any progress negotiators may make on the margins until we figure out how to plug it up. It's the same black hole that has continued to suck the life from countless other vital global efforts from preserving bio-diversity to hitting the UN millennium development goals: Growth capitalism, the gravitational center around which our global civilization currently orbits.
If adaptation funding has typically taken a backseat in global climate talks to other issues like emissions targets or technological development, it stands to reason. Those other issues, while also hindered by growth capitalism, are more easily co-opted into its ideological framework. Both represent potential markets for capitalist profiteering, whereas adaptation funding revolves around a very different set of values. Adaptation means making investments not in the name of profit, but in the name of human welfare and development. It means denying the trickle-down myth of growth economics and focusing existing global wealth with laser like precision on growing the things it's supposed to grow -- not GDP but the real indices of human welfare like health, food security, and environmental integrity.
Moreover, real adaptation assistance is about social and economic justice -- i.e. requiring wealthy developed states to take responsibility and pay for the global warming pollution debt they've passed on to the developing world. Such a notion doesn't square with the ideology of growth-capitalist countries like the US, as Washington's top UN climate negotiator Todd Stern reminded us in Copenhagen last year when he "categorically reject[ed]... the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations" for damages done by US historical emissions.
Indeed the only way to bring adaptation assistance within the rubric of growth capitalism would be to twist it into a way for developed countries to make a profit, say via debt financing facilitated by an institution like the World Bank. But if adaptation assistance means making countries more stable, secure and resilient it's hard to see how it could be administered by an institution whose policies have historically undermined those very objectives. Scarily enough, negotiators in Cancun are considering just such an arrangement with the World Bank, prompting protests like the Climate Justice Now network's "World Bank out of Climate Finance" campaign.
Even if rich countries ratchet up their adaptation commitments to the hundreds of billions required annually and the Cancun talks result in a just financing mechanism, it's a safe bet that growth capitalism will make short work of those achievements. For proof, one has only to consider how quickly G20 leaders scaled back on their global AIDS funding promises following the recession so they could bail out the banks that caused it. Then there's the fact that a bigger economy will be even more of a challenge to power cleanly, thus making it harder to stabilize the climate and even more costly to adapt to the impacts.
The bottom line: to have any serious chance of producing a meaningful global climate agreement going forward, the UN climate talks have to recognize and address that big gaping black hole of growth capitalism at their center. For instance, next year's talks in South Africa should aim to reinvigorate the UN process by including a new working group focusing on finding an economic model that works for the climate like the one recently laid out in the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy's new report Enough is Enough.
Of course, the scale and scope of talks to reconfigure the global economy extend far beyond the ambit of the UN climate process. Addressing the multiple crises of growth capitalism is the single biggest challenge facing the world today -- a challenge that underlies virtually every other major challenge we face from stabilizing the climate, to ending AIDS and poverty and preventing future economic crises. So until we organize global talks to address the growth problem, we should stop scratching our heads and throwing up our hands in frustration as progress stalls and the lights of hope for climate and our other great challenges flicker dimly on edge of that insatiable black hole we call growth capitalism.