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The “Free Market” Will Not Save Us From Climate Crisis: 5 Lessons From the Pandemic
If there’s one thing the past 18 months have taught us, it’s that a capitalist deus ex machina will not reveal itself anytime soon.
When attempting to convey the stakes of curbing climate change, it is tempting to reach for metaphors. What if an asteroid with the power to destroy our entire planet were headed for Earth, and we had the power to change its course, but only through international cooperation? Or what if we had advance knowledge of a massive nuclear explosion that will wipe out human civilization unless we stop it? Would we be giving so much air time to the “let the asteroid destroy the planet” lobby? Or to “pro-nuclear explosion” front groups? Would those positions have any credence at all?
But then, one realizes that we are already living through a metaphor for climate change: What if a deadly pandemic were devastating all of humanity, and we had the power to vaccinate people against it, but failure to vaccinate the entire world put everyone at risk, because it gave birth to new, dangerous variants? Of course, this comparison is imperfect and messy. After all, climate change is already here and, like shortages of vaccine supply, is most devastating for people in the Global South, where the harmful effects of both crises compound each other. From Bangladesh to Honduras, for example, the Covid crisis has hampered the emergency response to super cyclones and hurricanes. But as a reporter who’s been covering the advent of vaccine apartheid since before Covid vaccines were even developed, I have been chilled by what the abuses of private industries, and the fecklessness of wealthy nations in standing up to industry, portend for a climate crises that, scientists say, must be dramatically reversed now, lest we face humanity-threatening mega-storms, droughts, heat, famine, and mass deaths.
Which makes this interview with Thomas Friedman on CNBC Monday all the more bleak. His techno-utopianism is less popular than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still very much the prevailing ideology of policymakers, if not de jure, certainly by default. Again and again, we are told that “market incentives” and “innovation” will be largely sufficient to tackle the world’s most pressing problem:
As world leaders gather in Glasgow for the COP26 United Nations climate talks, now is an important moment to emphasize that the idea that “the market” will save us from climate change isn’t just bad in theory, it’s been definitely disproven by the wide-scale failures of the past year and a half.
Here are the lessons we learned, and the ones we should focus on in the coming week.
1. Companies lie. Since India and South Africa proposed in October 2020 that the World Trade Organization suspend patent rules so that more people can get access to cheaper, generic versions of Covid vaccines, the pharmaceutical industry has waged an all-out campaign against such a measure, to maximize its current and future profits. Companies like Pfizer and Moderna have embraced a key talking point against the sharing of vaccine recipes: Waiving intellectual property rules is useless, because the Global South doesn’t have the capacity to manufacture mRNA vaccines. Establishing such capacity is a laborious process that doesn’t happen overnight. As Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, put it in May, “There is no idle mRNA manufacturing capacity in the world. This is a new technology, you cannot go hire people who know how to make mRNA—those people don’t exist.” Such an argument, replete with racism and paternalism, has considerable currency. It makes people pushing for a patent waiver sound like kooky activists who don’t understand how the world works, and it makes pharmaceutical companies look like sage purveyors of advice to those who don’t know any better.
But it turns out that this is an empirical claim that is provably false. On October 22, the New York Times ran a story about 10 different facilities in the “developing world” that could start producing Pfizer and Moderna vaccines if the companies simply told them how—and legally permitted them—to do so. Those facilities are located in India, Brazil, Thailand, South Africa, Argentina, and Indonesia, and they include companies that “are already making other Covid vaccines” or testing or producing their own mRNA vaccines, journalist Stephanie Nolan notes. Of course, this is not news to people in those countries, who are well aware that rich western countries aren’t the only ones capable of producing life-saving vaccines. Indonesia's health minister told a World Health Organization event in May that the country could produce 550 million Covid-19 doses annually if pharmaceutical companies would just tell it how to.
The news that companies lie certainly is not groundbreaking, and is something that news observers are already aware of, after oil company Chevron was caught lying to the public about the harms of climate change for decades. But when those lies unfold in real time, they can be difficult to detect: Large companies have an air of officialdom and seriousness, especially when those companies claim they are saving the world, and their assertions are frequently treated as fact by news outlets and politicians. In a world where the fossil fuel industry—the equivalent of the pro-Earth-destroying-asteroid lobby—is exerting influence over the COP26 negotiations (even if its formal role has been scaled back), identifying and exposing these falsehoods is of vital importance.
2. International financial institutions like the World Trade Organization are an impediment to survival. The global intellectual property rules established by the WTO in the mid-1990s weren’t just favorable to pharmaceutical companies—they were largely shaped by them, in order to protect their bottom lines. Companies like Pfizer campaigned aggressively to ensure that international patent rules conform to a U.S. model, in which a patent owner has monopoly control over how that patent is used, with rare exceptions. That Pfizer is now profiting handsomely from these rules, while an estimated only four out of 100 people living in poor countries are fully vaccinated, is by design. The WTO rules, after all, were created in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which saw pharmaceutical companies deny life-saving drugs by invoking patent norms. More than a year ago, Global South countries petitioned the global body to suspend patent rules, but such an effort has so far been unsuccessful. While the United States was initially one of the main opponents, now the European Union is leading the blocking of such a measure. Much of the negotiations take place in the shadows, far from public oversight, even though it’s harder to imagine a debate of greater interest to public wellbeing.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Global Justice Movement knew the WTO rigs international rule in favor of unbridled corporate power, and those protesters have been horrifically vindicated by the pandemic. But this harsh reality also applies to the climate crisis. As the watchdog group Public Citizen noted in 2018, the WTO has been invoked numerous times to squash environmental protections: “The European Union and Japan have used WTO tribunals to attack Canada over the state of Ontario’s successful feed-in-tariff program that incentivized the production of renewable energy, forcing Canada to revise its groundbreaking clean energy program. The United States successfully attacked India’s programs that incentivized local solar production.” But the harm goes beyond direct obstruction of environmental protections. There are also opportunity costs: International bodies that tip the scales in favor of corporate power foreclose on other possible forms of international organization that prioritize solidarity and internationalism.
3. Don’t trust rich countries’ promises of benevolence. Instead of throwing robust support behind patent waivers, wealthy nations have actually lobbied against them while making repeated and much-vaunted pledges to donate vaccines to the Global South throughout the pandemic. (The Biden administration said in May it supports some kind of patent waiver, but its actual support has been half-hearted, at best.) Yet, there is just one problem: Those countries have fallen dramatically short when it comes to actually delivering on such pledges. An October 21 report from People's Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of more than 75 organizations, found that rich countries have collectively promised 1.8 billion donations of Covid vaccines, but just 261 million have been delivered, coming to a paltry 14 percent. The global COVAX vaccine distribution effort, backed by the Gates Foundation, fares no better: The report finds that western pharmaceutical companies have made good on just 12 percent of the doses promised to the initiative. These promises garner countries fawning headlines, but delays translate directly into more preventable deaths. While the United States is delinquent on its own promises, it’s already moving forward on booster shots for its own people, infuriating public health activists throughout the world.
Such broken promises are relevant to the climate change discussion because wealthy nations are making similar voluntary promises when it comes to climate change. At the recent G20 summit in Rome, for example, world leaders agreed that they must take action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which we would see snowballing catastrophe, but were vague on their commitments to actually achieving this, and didn’t even commit to achieving net zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century. If the behavior of wealthy nations during Covid teaches us anything, it’s that rhetoric means very little, and what really counts is what’s materially happening on the ground.
4. Nationalism kills in more ways than one. Since the pandemic began, the United States has continued imposing devastating sanctions on countries like Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba. As I noted for the American Prospect, the Biden administration has continued the worst Trump-era sanctions, including maximum pressure sanctions on Iran, which are cutting off vital supplies for treating Covid, and are estimated to be responsible for 13,000 excess Covid deaths between May and September of 2020. Some initial payments from Venezuela to COVAX were rejected due to sanctions, though they eventually went through. As Natasha Hakimi Zapata noted for In These Times in August, “While Cuban researchers have been able to develop a handful of vaccines using Cuba’s reserves, they face shortages of syringes, test tubes, reagents, and other supplies necessary for both testing and administering their vaccines.”
The Biden administration did withdraw from Afghanistan (although a different kind of war still continues), but the United States is barreling forward on other interventions, from drone war in Somalia to continued support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Countries in the grips of Covid crises must also grapple with this direct violence, as well as medical systems battered by intervention. One report issued in 2019 found that the U.S.-Saudi coalition is responsible for 72 attacks on medical facilities in Yemen, for example. Meanwhile, rather than sharing vaccine information openly in the spirit of cooperation, the United States has poured resources into cracking down on research “theft” and “piracy,” targeting geopolitical foes like China, Russia, and Iran.
If there is any time to set aside a nationalist, belligerent approach to world affairs, it’s during a pandemic where the wellbeing of everyone on this planet is so obviously tied together. Yet our “national security” apparatus, the most bloated in the world, is actually making the whole world less safe. This includes, paradoxically, the United States, which is left more vulnerable to dangerous new variants that are more likely to emerge when the virus replicates uncontrolled. This reality offers a grim warning as climate change worsens. Not only is the U.S. military a bigger greenhouse gas emitter than 140 countries, but it encourages fortressing, nationalism, and confrontation, in the face of a problem that can only be resolved through global cooperation.
5. The markets will not fix it. Since the beginning of the Covid crisis, we’ve been told that our current system of pharmaceutical development and distribution, in which research is heavily subsidized with public funds but then funneled into private pharmaceutical monopolies, is the best way to get the vaccine to the world. Industry trade groups and pharmaceutical companies themselves told us over and over that they simply would not be motivated to do such research without the profit motive that lies at the heart of this system. Nearly two years into the pandemic, we have an opportunity to look at how this system is performing for the entire world, and all signs suggest it’s not well. On October 28, ahead of the G20 meeting, the World Health Organization issued a dire warning: “Africa has fully vaccinated 77 million people, just 6% of its population. In comparison, over 70% of high-income countries have already vaccinated more than 40% of their people.” This terrible global reality, for which the term “apartheid” is an accurate description, should be grounds alone for reimagining our entire global system of getting vaccines into people’s arms.
Unjustified faith in the market goes hand in hand with the fact that, around the world, pharmaceutical companies have the upper hand over national governments. This is brazenly on display in Latin America, where pharmaceutical companies are muscling terrified governments into abusive contract terms. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in February, “Pfizer has been accused of ‘bullying’ Latin American governments in Covid vaccine negotiations and has asked some countries to put up sovereign assets, such as embassy buildings and military bases, as a guarantee against the cost of any future legal cases.” There are even examples of industry trade groups making veiled threats of withholding vaccine supply in retaliation for policies that challenge patents. Such policies are not incidental: They are built into the DNA of corporations. After all, a corporation is legally required for its only fealty to be to its shareholders. Which is why it’s profoundly misguided to look to such companies to resolve shared global crises, whether it’s the pandemic or the climate crisis.
There is no world in which we curb the climate crisis without taking on the fossil fuel industry. As the latest IPCC report shows, this industry must be stopped in its tracks if we want to prevent the worst-case mass-death scenarios, and even then a certain amount of climate change will still be locked in. That’s why piecemeal, market-based “solutions” like carbon pricing will not make a dent in the problem, and arguably do more harm than good.
Ultimately, the pandemic shows us that our best hope for global survival lies not in the markets, but in our collective ability to beat back the power of capital and its close sibling, imperialism. There is no shortage of people who recognize this, from global protesters demanding an end to vaccine apartheid, to climate activists rallying under the slogan, “socialism or barbarism.” The pandemic and its horrible lessons are a dress rehearsal for an even greater climate crisis to come. Our only choice is to learn the grim lessons from this catastrophe, so that we can mitigate—and survive—the next one.