Democracy & Climate

April 15, 2013
by phil
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Do we need to reform democracy in order to start getting the right response to the climate crisis?  If corporate capture of government is the underlying problem confronting all progressive change, should we be switching from fighting single issue campaigns, to uniting behind a single campaign focussing on democratic reform?

In the studio we were joined by:

Are we facing a democratic crisis in the UK?

Why do scientists and civil society struggle to get government to respond to the climate crisis while the government’s default position is to side with powerful vested interests?

Why are millionaires getting tax cuts and bankers still getting obscene bonuses while ordinary people are facing cuts to jobs, wages, benefits and public services?

Are we effectively living in a corporate oligarchy or “corporatocracy” where power is exercised by the few in the interests of the corporations and financiers?

Do we, as former World Bank economist Joesph Stiglitz put it, have a government “of the 1%, by the 1% and for the 1%”?

What the 2012 Democratic Audit of the UK found

  • “There are very firm grounds to suggest that the influence large corporations and wealthy individuals now wield on the UK political system is unprecedented”
  • “Almost all available indicators suggest that “representative democracy” is in long-term decline, but no viable alternative model of democracy currently exists. While the same basic trends are found in all established democracies, the UK compares especially poorly on just about every conceivable measure.”
  • “Public faith in democratic institutions is decaying: Long-term evidence suggests that the public trust politicians and political parties less and less, and that they regard democratic institutions such as Parliament as increasingly irrelevant.”
  • “Provisions intended to guarantee basic human rights are increasingly being brought into question”

From: The 2012 Democratic Audit of the UK (pp. 9-10)

What WDM’s Web of Power report found

WDM’s Web of Power report found that “up to a third of all coalition ministers may have past or present links with fossil fuel companies or with financial and services companies supporting oil or gas projects.” Check out WDM’s cool infographic which shows how directors of banks and fossil fuel companies sit on each other’s boards and the links they have with members of the cabinet.

The following ministers have all worked for the oil industry in the past:

  • Vince Cable (Business Secretary), worked for Shell as Chief Economist and in other positions (1990-97), Shell described him in a letter in 2012 obtained via FoI as “contact Minister for Shell in HM government
  • William Hague (Foreign Secretary) worked for Shell
  • Alan Duncan (International Development Minister) worked for Shell
  • Greg Barker (Energy & Climate Minister) was employed by Russian oil business Sibneft
  • Maria Miller (Secretary of State for Culture) worked at Texaco
  • Alan Robathan (a defence Minister) worked for BP
  • Elizabeth Truss (Education Minister) worked for Shell

Education Secretary Michael Gove who is currently trying to remove the study of climate change from the school curriculum has received a financial donation of £10,000 from Aidan Heavey, the boss of Tullow Oil.

Ministers and other cabinet members who have links with banks and big finance are a concern from a climate change perspective because it is these institutions that bankroll extreme energy projects such as coal, tar sands, biofuels, gas fracking, deepwater and Arctic drilling.

ActionPut pressure on Vince Cable to make sure banks are required to disclose the carbon footprint of their investments.

Is the fossil fuel-finance nexus at the heart of government a problem?

Does this “web of power” explain why we keep getting the wrong answers when it comes to climate change? For example, we should be banning extreme forms of energy which we science tells us we can’t burn if we want to maintain an hospitable planet but the UK Foreign Office is assisting companies that want to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic and the UK government is secretly helping Canada to push its tar sands project.

In order to tackle climate change we need to keep 80% of fossil fuel company reserves in the ground. This requires a massive effort of war-time proportions to shift to a clean, low-carbon economy. Such a shift could be enabled by an end to fossil fuel subsidies, massive investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency and a carbon tax.

The conflict between the corporate interest and the public interest is shown clearly in the current fight over our future electricity supply.

Why is the government mortgaging our future to gas?

The government’s own independent advisers, The Committee on Climate Change, have said that relying on gas to produce our electricity in the future would be illegal, crash our carbon reduction commitments and be more expensive. Yet Chancellor George Osborne is planning to build 30 new gas fired power stations and has announced subsidies and bribes for gas produced by the dangerous process of “hydraulic fracturing” also known as “fracking“.

It’s easy to see why the government is going down this road when you see to what extent the gas mafia has penetrated the heart of government:

  • Lord Browne – former CEO of BP, the man responsible for ushering in the poor safety culture at BP which resulted in the Deepwater Horizon disaster – is now board member at Riverstone which owns 40% of UK gas fracking company Cuadrilla. Browne is lead non-executive director at the Cabinet Office and has promoted a number of his associates into positions on government boards.
  • David Cameron’s special advisor on energy is Ben Moxham, an associate of Browne’s who was previously on the board of Riverstone which owns 40% of UK fracking company Cuadrilla.
  • Lord Howell is an oil and gas lobbyist who acts as personal advisor to Foreign Secretary William Hague and is also the father-in-law of Chancellor George Osborne.
  • Lord Green – is a minister at Foreign & Commonwealth Office who heads UK Trade & Investment which has been promoting gas fracking worldwide. He is also non-executive director at BASF which produces the chemicals used in the production of gas from fracking.
  • Baroness Hogg is both a non-executive director at the Treasury and at multinational oil and gas company BG Group which would profit from gas fracking in UK and already profit from fracking in US.
  • Ian Taylor donated £ ½ million to Conservative Party. He’s president of  multinational energy and commodity trading company Vitol which owns 5% of extreme gas company Dart energy.
  • Guy Robinson is special advisor to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and a former lobbyist at Australian Petroleum Production and Exploratioin Association whose members would profit from UK gas fracking/dash for gas.

ActionsFind out if your MP is supporting a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill. This would rule out new gas-fired power stations. If not,email them. Follow @nodashforgas and @frack_off to find out about future actions you can be involved in.

How oil and gas companies dictate our foreign policy

Our foreign policy has had strong links with oil and gas company interests since we carved up the Middle East between ourselves and the French at the end of World War I. This has led to the UK supporting a range of undemocratic rulers and has made us complicit in their human rights abuses. To take a few recent examples:

Iraq – Gregg Muttitt obtained minutes of meetings between Shell, BP and the UK government before we attacked Iraq in 2003 showing the oil companies eagerness to get their hands on Iraq’s oilfields. Muttitt’s book Fuel on the Fire is the story of how the US & UK worked tirelessly during the occupation to transfer oil production over to international oil companies in spite of the wishes of the Iraqi people to the contrary.

Libya – Before we rebranded him as an international pariah, Colonel Gaddafi was our friend.Tony Blair lent his personal support to secure Shell and BP’s massive oil and gas contracts.

Azerbaijan – Similarly Margaret Thatcher was personally drafted in to help BP get its hands on oil and gas from the Caspian Sea in what was then known as “the contract of the century”. Thatcher personally delivered a sweetener cheque of £30 million on behalf of BP in 1992 at the end of negotiations during which Azerbaijan’s share of the profits dropped from 50% to 20%.

The extent to which we have tied our foreign policy to the needs of oil and gas companies has not only resulted in a long legacy of human rights abuses, it is also now trashing the climate. For example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is supporting Arctic drilling despite the fact that opening up Arctic oil and gas reserves is inconsistent with maintaining a hospitable climate.

Corporate capture across government

The disproportionate and corrupting influence of business and finance seems to be a consistent pattern across government. To give a few key examples:

  • NHS privatisation/reformSocial Investigations found that “Over 200 parliamentarians have recent past or present financial links to companies involved in healthcare and all were allowed to vote on the Health and Social Care bill, turning it into an Act.”
  • The Leveson inquiry concluded that the close relationship between politicians and the press is against the public interest: “Taken as a whole the evidence clearly demonstrates that, over the last 30-35 years and probably much longer, the political parties of UK national government and of official UK Opposition have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest […] and there has been a persistent failure to respond more generally to public concern about the culture practices and ethics of the press.” [Leveson, Executive Summary, paras 117-199]
  • The arms trade has the special privilege of having an arm of government devoted to promoting sales, the UKTI Defence and Security Group (previously DESO). Campaign Against the Arms Trade estimates we subsidise arms trade to the tune of £700m annually. Weapons supplied by the UK have been used to suppress democracy protestors in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Despite the need to prevent another financial crisis little change has been made to re-regulate the banking sector

How do corporations capture the democratic process?

The “revolving door” outlined in WDM’s Web of Power report – whereby ministers and senior servants move to and from the business world – is perhaps the most concerning and obvious way that corporations align their interests with the political elite. Here are some of the other ways that corporate capture takes place:

  • Over 50 employees of major companies such as Shell, British Gas, EDF and npower were seconded to work on energy issues inside the UK government over the four years to 2011
  • Shell has run free training courses for mid to senior level civil servants at its headquarters schooling them in Shell’s vision of our energy future
  • Ministers at the Treasury have met with representatives from energy-intensive industriesseven times more than with representatives from environmental campaign groups or clean energy lobbyists. There has been an enormous growth in lobbying and yet the sector remains unregulated.
  • Since the Blair years, the influence of the corporate wealthy over the Labour Party has been reinforced through their increased dependence on private donations
  • Corporations finance think-tanks that frame public debate in a self-serving way
  • Senior civil servant posts are increasingly filled from outside government
  • Ministers often come from the unelected House of Lords
  • “Departmental boards” – teams appointed to lead government departments – are stuffed with appointees from business
  • Government-private sector partnerships are set up to promote the interests of business from within government and to open up the public sector to private business

For more information see: Unelected Oligarchy: Corporate and Financial Dominance in Britain’s Democracy (July 2011)

A lesson from history

It was only a reform of democracy that finally enabled legislation abolishing the slave trade to pass in Britain. After centuries of slave rebellions and decades of campaigning, the 1832 Reform Act made Parliament somewhat more representative – meaning the number of pro-slavery representatives fell – and a year later  The Abolition of Slavery Act passed.

So what?

If corporate capture of government really is the single underlying thing holding progressive politics back, should we be switching from fighting single issue campaigns, to uniting behind a single campaign focussing on democratic reform?

Do we need to reform democracy in order to start getting the right response to the climate crisis?

Should we be focusing on reforming government – kicking out the vested interests of the corporations and banks?

What might that mean?

  • Closing the revolving door between government and business
  • Introducing transparency in lobbying so that the public know who is influencing government decisions
  • Recognising that corporations operate in the interests of their shareholders and not in the public interest and therefore corporate directors and lobbyists should not hold key positions within government
  • Writing a constitution that ensures government operates in the public interest, not the interests of corporations and finance
  • Rewriting corporate law so corporations act in the public interest
  • Continuing to build a grassroots tradition of direct democracy

What tools do we have to achieve it?

  • A civil society wide movement
  • Traditional campaigning
  • Creative non-violent direct action
  • A campaign for divesting from fossil fuels

Will it happen?

Over to you…

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