We can’t confront climate change without stopping imperialism

Photo by Juan Barreto

After months of sabre-rattling from Venezuelan opposition forces led by Juan Guaidó, a small and pitiful coup attempt finally erupted in the streets of Caracas on Tuesday.

While the coup — which many mainstream media outlets insisted on erroneously describing as an “uprising” — was by all accounts a failure, major threats still loom. In between tweets about a NASCAR winner, U.S. President Donald Trump confusingly announced that Cuba was actually responsible for the crisis in Venezuela and that he would be applying “highest-level sanctions” to the island nation.

Meanwhile, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton reiterated support for self-proclaimed leader Guaidó and indicated that all options remained on the table. Such threats appear even more concerning given they arrived on the same day as news broke about Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s lobbying efforts to deploy up to 5,000 private mercenaries in Venezuela to topple the elected government.

The day’s events were obviously disturbing to anyone who cares about the contested Bolivarian Revolution, the residents of Venezuela’s impoverished barrios, aggressive U.S. foreign policy or basic principles of international law. Many such people voiced their opposition to the coup attempt on social media and at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C.

A resoundingly silent quarter, however, was climate activists across North America. It may seem an unfair expectation to place on overly burdened organizers doing their best to wrangle a Green New Deal out of centre-right demagogues while also blocking pipelines and leafleting for better public transit. But threats against the sovereignty of Venezuela and other resource-rich countries in the Global South are of truly critical importance on the climate change stage.

Runaway greenhouse gas emissions cannot be confronted in a global fashion unless we collectively oppose imperialism and colonialism in all forms.

‘We need to open up the oil industry to private investment’

There is no need to overly romanticize Venezuela’s government led by Nicolás Maduro. There are reasonable concerns of mismanagement of hyperinflation, ongoing corruption and nepotism, and a disappointing breach from the Chavismo legacy established by former president Hugo Chavez.

None of those are the reasons why the U.S. and Canada — along with a truly despicable group of colleagues including Brazil’s fascist Jair Bolsonaro and Honduras’ U.S. puppet president Juan Orlando Hernández — are backing the attempted efforts to overthrow Maduro with crippling sanctions and massive public pressure. The reasons are even clearer than they ever were in Iraq and Libya: massive capitalist investment opportunities, especially in resource extraction including oil and mining.

Guaidó’s accomplices have been completely transparent about this aim. It makes sense, given that Venezuela has the largest reserves of oil in the world.

In February, Guaidó’s U.S. envoy told Bloomberg that they would abolish the requirement that the state-run oil company PDVSA receives a 51 percent stake in all joint ventures, while the pretend president’s delegate to the Inter-American Development Bank told an energy conference in Houston in March that “we need to open up the oil industry to private investment.” Such comments echoed Bolton’s own conclusion in January that “it will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

One of the key legacies during the Chavez years, continued in a challenged form under Maduro due to the global oil price crash, was the nationalization of oil and redirecting of profits to social programs that specifically benefited people in extreme poverty. There’s certainly a case to be made that high oil prices allowed for such anti-poverty and educational measures to proliferate without a fundamental transformation in social relations. But the outcomes were remarkable, particularly for a country still reeling from centuries of colonialism, dictatorships and most recently IMF loans that incited the Caracazo in 1988.

As Oil Change International argued in February, the country will likely remain dependent on highly carbon-intensive oil extraction regardless of who wins the standoff between Maduro and Guaidó. But the future of global greenhouse gas reduction and climate change mitigation relies on the ability for countries to be able to have a major role in deciding factors like production and revenue usage. This is not to naively suggest that Maduro will embark on a rapid decarbonization of his country if he survives the coup. But Guaidó will clearly undercut much of the country’s control over its natural resources by privatizing a great majority of future production, leaving decision-making in the hands of massive transnationals.

If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that oil companies will fight tooth and nail to prevent anything that compromises their profit margins. The entire mandate of such private endeavours is to unleash as much production for as many years as possible, out-competing other international firms through constant reserve replacement and expansion of production. Oil assets remaining in the ownership of national governments allows for the possibility, however distant and improbable, of collectively negotiating for rapidly reduced production and emissions in coming years.

Without that power, almost all may be lost.

Green New Deal isn’t enough

It’s because of this potential further loss of control that climate activists must commit to opposing imperialism at every turn. Conditions are far from perfect in the few remaining countries that are explicitly fighting neoliberalism and Western interference — but they need to be preserved at all costs.

There have been a surge of smart summaries of a possible Green New Deal in recent months, including the all-star video collaboration between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Molly Crabapple and Avi Lewis. As with many conversations about the Green New Deal, it was entirely nationalistic in scope, focusing on the potential benefits to people living in the United States.

That’s obviously not enough. Climate change is and will continue to disproportionately ravage the poorest of countries in the Global South. Venezuela itself is already facing significant rainfall shortages, compromising hydropower and agricultural output. While the U.S. has a clear responsibility to decarbonize in a just and equitable way as rapidly as possible, it’s not nearly sufficient to frame it as a project that is reducible to artificial borders or fail to address the catastrophic impacts of militaries on communities and environments around the world.

Some have realized that, attempting to expand the discourse to an International Green New Deal that includes the need for reparations to countries that have suffered centuries of colonialism and imperialism. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. But even that fails to account for the incredible threats posed to any country that defies neoliberal hegemony.

Climate activists need to be on the front lines of defending the rights for countries in the Global South to determine their own national sovereignty. Some environmental organizers in the United States and Canada have correctly linked their struggles to the fight for Indigenous nationhood and an end to the colonial intrusions on that: poverty, incarceration, so-called child welfare. It’s becoming well understood that the rights of Indigenous nations in North America to decide how resources on and within their lands are used is a crucial step in decolonization and climate justice. That spirit now must escalate into seeing the backing of invasions in Global South countries as the maintenance of a fossil capitalist order that greatly jeopardizes climate stability. Struggles for climate justice have to be intricately connected with anti-war efforts, and vice versa.

Just as in Iraq and Libya, Western imperialist forces are attempting to overthrow the Venezuelan government to attain more profitable and stable sites for long-term investment. The coup may have failed on Tuesday but it is almost guaranteed that Trump and his fascist cronies will keep trying until they succeed — or we beat them back. We can’t come anywhere close to combating climate change without preventing the violent privatization of oil assets in the few remaining countries that adhere to a set of anti-neoliberal politics.

The struggle to curb oil production and consumption will be difficult if Maduro survives the coup attempt: Venezuela faces a long and difficult road ahead, and it is unclear what role oil will play in that. The fight against climate change will become exponentially more difficult if he doesn’t.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, focusing on energy & environmental politics. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University and is currently working on his MA in Geography at the University of Manitoba. He regularly contributes to The Narwhal, and has also written for VICE, The Globe and Mail, National Observer, CBC and Briarpatch. He tweets at @james_m_wilt.

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