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Globalization Meets Global Warming

The following is an article from Les Leopold. Les is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi. As global warming negotiations move from Bali towards a worldwide treaty, it is important to address how global warming and global trade work hand-in-hand. Globalization is to global warming what warm water in the Gulf of Mexico waters was to Hurricane Katrina. And, unless we wisely limit rapidly accelerating global trade, we will see equally disastrous and deadly results—worsening global warming and a continued chemical poisoning of our world. For nearly a generation, the mainstream pro-globalization forces have ignored climate change. Instead we’ve been bombarded with the virtues of liberalized trade: It drives down prices, increases efficiency, lifts nations out of poverty, and contributes to overall global prosperity. Those who questioned NAFTA, CAFTA, GATT, and the like are derided as “protectionists,” who force artificially high prices on the rest of us while making our economy less competitive. Manufacturing unions attempting to stop the destruction of millions of middle-income, U.S.-based factory jobs are vilified as elitists who are more concerned about the privileged few than about the poor who gain new jobs in developing nations. The subtext of the messaging is clear: globalization is our fate, and there are no effective controls. Only a foolish Luddite would stand in its way, we are told. Missing from this narrative, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, has pointed out, is that globalization is a policy, not an act of God. He is right. Human policy-making shapes expanding world trade. And the policy of trade liberalization, among other things, is warming the planet. Global free trade proponents skillfully argue for comparative advantage, opening up markets, and economies of scale. They point to the communications marvels that have flattened and shrunken the world, putting us all in contact and in competition with each other for the best ideas and products. Global warming, however, puts a kink in this new global utopia because it demands that we also include the costs of “externalities”—the carbon dioxide emitted from shipping and flying goods all over the globe—goods that could easily be produced much closer to the point of consumption. It may be marvelous to text message your colleague in Bangalore, but from a CO2 perspective, it’s folly to fly fresh raspberries from Chile to California. And under current trade policies, we will import the next wave of high-efficiency light bulbs to save energy while wasting some of the gain on the carbon used to transport them here from around the globe. But the elephant in the room is hyper-development. Expanded trade indeed has contributed to the enormous economic growth rates in China (and India). As a result, China’s appetite for fuel and power has grown exponentially: As The New York Times reported (June 11, 2006), every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant comes online in China large enough to serve a major U.S. city. Pollyannaish analysts argue this too will pass when global carbon cap and trading schemas are put in place, and a price, in effect, is placed on carbon emissions. This, we are told, will lead to a burst of new technologies and efficiencies that dramatically reduce global warming gases. Perhaps. But it seems this should have been thought through as part of trade liberalization, rather than left to the indefinite future. As a result, we are trapped in a race against the accelerating forces of rapid, carbon-fueled development unleashed by our very own trade policies. And, it’s apparent who the winners are in this race as onto our store shelves and into our homes come toxic toys, toxic pharmaceuticals, toxic toothpaste, and toxic dog food—very predictable products of accelerated global trade. It is ironic to hear pundits and politicians rage against the poor regulatory and inspection protocols in “Communist” China—the virtual hub of global capitalist production. In fact, first world multinationals, the loudest cheerleaders for unfettered free trade, are commissioning these products and shipping them here. And as many early 20th century muckrakers would have warned, these corporations require stringent regulation. They need to be “guided” away from the age-old temptation to cut corners, or turn a blind eye when sub-contractors use forced labor or contaminated substances. Common sense would have called for those regulations to be in place before giving the green light to the transfer of production to wherever labor was least expensive and safeguards most porous. Already, the European Union is working to get these toxic substances out of consumer products, but the United States stands increasingly alone against such standards. And, we wonder why our kids are getting sick from playthings. [Ed. Note: See Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, by Mark Schapiro] Unfettered global trade will make efforts to reverse global warming and deliver safe products to our country all the more difficult. We must start with a renunciation of our fatalism and put a halt to the name calling. In fact, we should thank the labor and environmental critics of accelerated trade for alerting us to these dangers. Next we should insist that every trade agreement should include global warming impact studies that assess the carbon footprints of accelerated trade. And, as many have argued, rigorous safety inspections on food, pharmaceuticals, and other consumer items must be put in place before products cross our borders. And yes, we also will need carefully constructed border adjustment taxes so that new green, carbon-reducing industries can be nourished at home. Those high efficiency light bulbs, wind generators and solar panels should not be imported from factories tied to inefficient energy sources sent from afar on ships and planes burning fossil fuels. The next wave of green products should instead be manufactured closer to where they will be used, creating homegrown, green jobs while helping to reduce global warming. Or we can continue waiting for the invisible hand to determine our fate—a fate that will ensure global warming to go unchecked and unabated, and more children sucking toxic toys. Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).

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