Global warming: make the guilty pay

Countries and corporations that belch out carbon emissions and shun Kyoto might think again if they

The world's most constipated negotiation over an international convention, now going on in Milan, is in search of a laxative. More than a decade after the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed at the first Earth Summit in Rio, the subsequent deal drafted in Kyoto to make it operational still lacks enough support to kick into action. The announcement in Moscow, by a senior adviser to President Vladimir Putin, that Russia will not sign the protocol "in its current form" makes the prospects for Kyoto gloomier than ever. Warnings of northern Europe being plunged into a big freeze cut little ice (as it were) with Putin. If the global greenhouse switches off the part of the Gulf Stream that warms countries such as Britain and France, why should Russia, with its Siberian wastes, care?

With the US and Australia also out of the Kyoto picture for the foreseeable future, what else can be done? A cheap and increasingly popular option - as global warming offers either drought or floods to swathes of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and as Pacific islands sink beneath the sea - would be for the culprits of global warming to say sorry, as President Clinton did to Hawaiians and Elizabeth II to Maoris and Sikhs during a wave of post-colonial apology. But unless the apology comes wrapped in a multibillion-dollar promissory note to cover the damages, a more likely outcome is that global warming's losers will go to court. The law is one of the few buttons left to press, and it could get the bowels of the climate talks moving.

Using the courts to right historical wrongs and settle disputes between peoples and countries is increasingly popular across the world. As political processes fail, the pursuit of reparations for the guilt of nations and the crimes of corporations becomes more and more a matter for the courts. As well as the actions seeking compensation for slavery and restitution for Nazi looting, the Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse have been named in US lawsuits brought on behalf of victims of apartheid in South Africa. An eight-year-old Iranian refugee took a civil action against the Australian government after detention left him with possibly chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. The king of Bunyoro in Uganda sought £2.8bn compensation from Britain for acts of brutality and exploitation admitted in British military diaries dating back to 1894. Perhaps more than anything, the cases against "big tobacco" have made people believe in the potential of the law to tackle great injustices.

The Pacific island of Tuvalu, which could be devastated by climate change effects, has already announced its intention to bring legal action against the world's worst polluters. That is virtually its only option, given its small size and marginal place in world affairs. Its regional neighbour Australia would be first to be taken before the International Court of Justice. Australia, like the US, rejects Kyoto; but unlike the US, it accepts the court. Other low-lying island states, Kiribati and the Maldives, may join Tuvalu to bring the first international class action of its kind.

Such lawsuits reflect the increasing legalisation of international relations. One reason for that is frustration with a complex and constantly undermined United Nations. Another is the success of economic globalisation. As more and more business deals take place across national borders, an increasingly mature and comprehensive body of international law is needed to protect them. Also, wherever the US goes, it tends to take along its uniquely litigious political culture. Around half of all legal cases in the US are tort actions - claims for compensation and punitive damages where injury or harm has resulted from reckless, negligent or improper behaviour. The US is a country where, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, there is "scarcely any political question . . . that is not resolved sooner or later into a judicial question".

The law is not straightforward. It needs evidence, litigants, appropriate jurisdiction, and the ability to assess compensation commensurate with damages and to constrain the perpetrators of harm. But the law comes down to simple principles: if someone does you harm, they should first stop what they are doing and, second, compensate you for the harm done. The rest is just detail that a queue of hungry lawyers with help from the scientists will help work out.

German interior ministry officials estimated the costs of the great floods that hit Germany in the summer of 2002, affecting a third of a million people, at 9bn euros (£6.3bn). Heatwaves in Paris this year killed about 15,000 people more than the seasonal average, leaving countless aggrieved relatives. The only thing holding back court claims has been the problem of attribution.

Looking at how the insurance market works for the science journal Nature, Myles Allen, an Oxford University physicist, thinks that problem is now largely solved. All you have to do, he says, is work out "a 'mean likelihood-weighted liability' by averaging over all possibilities consistent with currently available information". Unpacked, it means that if past greenhouse gas emissions have increased flood risk tenfold, 90 per cent of the damage caused by a flood can be attributed to past emissions. Because carbon dioxide mixes itself in the global commons of the atmosphere, "an equitable settlement would apportion liability according to emissions", argues Allen.

According to Andrew Strauss, a US professor of international law, people harmed by global warming could sue their own government in the domestic courts; or they could sue the most guilty corporations in either domestic or foreign courts; or they could get governments hauled up before an international tribunal.

Some cases are under way. The US cities of Boulder, Colorado, and Oakland and Arcata, California, together with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and affected individuals, are suing the US export credit agency over its funding of fossil-fuel projects. Another action by the International Centre for Technology Assessment and the US conservation group the Sierra Club is trying to apply the Clean Air Act to force the Environmental Protection Agency to impose mandatory greenhouse gas reductions.

A less direct route could prove more effective than any of the above. In the context of world trade agreements - already the locus of disputes between Europe and America over steel tariffs and genetically modified foods - it could be argued that the US opt-out from Kyoto, by avoiding the costs of reducing carbon emissions, is in effect a subsidy to domestic US businesses. The EU could calculate the value of that subsidy and apply countervailing measures or "border tax" adjustments to a selection of US exports until America started to play ball again. The US could then take a complaint to the dispute mechanism at the World Trade Organisation. Trade sanctions, imposed collectively by countries in defence of a multilateral environmental agreement, are, however, entirely legitimate in international law and the decision would very likely go against the US.

If there is a problem with using the law to tackle the slackers over climate change, it is that ad hoc legal processes cannot replace the need for an effective global climate deal. Nothing can replace the need to set a target for shrinking emissions that is sufficient to prevent runaway climate change. Nor can anything substitute for a proper constitutional framework that allows an orderly convergence in the amount of fossil fuel that each person on the planet uses. But as we work painfully towards that end, the litigation laxative might just get things moving.

Andrew Simms is policy director of the New Economics Foundation. A new briefing, Free Riding on the Climate, is available at

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Way out

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.


The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.


The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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