It is clear that humanity is facing several extremely serious threats. The stakes in the struggles that are set to define the next decade will have seismic implications for the future of our species.
I met with Dr Paul Oquist, Nicaragua’s Secretary of the Presidency and National Policies and long-time representative of Nicaragua to the UN on climate change, to interview him on the launch of his new book ‘Equilibra: The Philosophy and Political Economy of Existence and Extinction’ which explores the multiple existential threats that are facing humanity.
The global coronavirus pandemic – which has already claimed the lives of over 800,000 people in the first eight months of 2020 – is continuing to spread uncontrollably in many parts of the world, particularly in the US, Brazil and India. At the same time, the prospect of a much larger human catastrophe is looming as global temperatures continue to rise towards the critical point of 1.5°C. Should this threshold be surpassed dramatic changes to the climate will occur, ushering in an era of human suffering with extreme weather, famine, floods, hurricanes, drought and heatwaves on a scale that would threaten the lives of millions of people.
Oquist argues that the United States is a major obstacle in the way of humanity achieving cooperation to solve our problems. The US is set upon the goal of achieving “full spectrum domination” he argues. It is this ‘America First’ mentality that is driving US foreign policy towards constant aggression against progressive and left governments in Latin America, including Nicaragua, and towards a large attack on China, through the the launching of a new cold war.
In the face of these immense threats to humanity, Qquist is calling for a global ‘survival’ movement to challenge US domination and tackle to urgent problems facing humanity from climate change to nuclear weapons.
The stakes: existential threats facing humanity
I started by asking Dr Oquist what are the main messages he is trying to get across in his new book, ‘Equilibra’.
His answer is frank and to the point: “We are really in a much more precarious state of affairs than we think. We live in a false stability.”
He argues that the long-term balance of planet, a vital balance that sustains and makes possible human life, is now unstable and facing multiple near-term threats that could tip it off balance.
The reason for this, Oquist contends, is because of “inflection points” – tipping points we are nearing following 170 years of emitting carbon since the industrial revolution, beyond which “basic ecosystems that maintain human life and life in general” face “permanent and irreversible impact”.
The focus on capital accumulation at all costs, and a dominant economic system that is “based on taking short terms gains despite long term negative consequences” is central to the problem, says Oquist.
“The continued use of fossil fuels is an example of that” he says, and “the belief that growth in production, consumption and accumulation of capital can continue endlessly, mindlessly, without any limit whatsoever in a planet with finite, degraded and limited resources.”
The risk of a nuclear exchange is another scenario where the earth’s balance, and human-sustaining eco-systems could be thrown off in a short space of time: “It is a sad commentary on our species that we are playing Russian roulette with our own existence, that we are playing with a potential species suicide by having these 4,000 operational nuclear weapons laying around and if they continue to lay around someday they will be used so let’s get rid of them while we can.”
The United States is the “number one challenge” to solving climate change
I asked Dr Oquist what are the main challenges in stopping climate catastrophe within the next decade. His answer was emphatic: “The number one challenge is the United States of America… The US is a major problem. The rest of the world has to do the heavy lifting because the US is a free rider in terms of this.”
Oquist proceeded to explain on how the US has played a destructive role in international climate change discussions for two decades, starting with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997:
“The Kyoto Protocol was a good agreement, it was legally binding, it had targets for the world… The US was a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol and then the US Senate did not ratify it so the US was out.”
He characterises the next period of international climate change politics in the run up to the UN Paris Agreement in 2015 in the following terms:
“The Europeans and the Latin American right made concession after concession after concession to the US in order to get them on board with the Paris Agreement.” One of the important concessions made to the US was to make the Paris Agreement not “legally binding” but “voluntary.”
Yet despite the efforts of the European governments and Latin American right wing governments, the US President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Oquist says:
“So given all this history you can imagine the bitter pill that it was for the Europeans and the Latin American right that having made all the concessions in the world the US withdraws from the Paris Agreement. So once again the US is outside the agreement. The world’s largest economy is not going to participate in the Paris Agreement and is currently basing its economic model on fossil fuels. The US is the largest producer and exporter of oil and gas in the world.”
Why the West should pay for the climate crisis
The US ruling class is determined to block a vital demand that has been consistently put forward by developing countries in international climate change negotiations: that those countries and companies most responsible for causing climate change pay for the losses and damages caused by climate change. This is perhaps not surprising as the US is responsible for a quarter of all carbon emissions ever released.
Oquist explains why the demand of developing countries for loss and damages is just:
“We know from the industrial revolution onwards, who the big emitter countries are and who the big emitter companies are. They should be held responsible for the losses and damages to the extent of their responsibility for having caused the problem. Some people say that is very radical. It isn’t radical at all.”
He points out that the idea that if you cause harm to another person you should pay for it is a central part of common law. “This is the only scientific way of deciding who should pay for the loss and damages… by asking historically and currently who has caused it and to what extend? They can then contribute proportionately to the cost.”
For Oquist, the refusal of the US and the West to pay for the climate crisis is a continuation of exploiting the world’s people and resources for the benefit of capital. He points out that capital in the West got rich by using up a common resource, the world’s carbon budget.
‘Full spectrum domination’: from regime change in Latin America to the US’s new cold war against China, what ‘America First’ means for the world
Oquist believes that “there is a low level of consciousness about the fact that Latin America this century has been subject to very vicious regime change actions by the US.”
“You had the coup d’etat in Venezuela in 2002 in which Hugo Chavez was detained and taken to an island. It was only after 3 demonstrations, great pressure from some sections in the army and some international pressure that that was resolved. Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the Presidential election in Haiti with 92% of the vote but that was not good enough. The US deposed him in 2004; there was even a brief military intervention at that time. In 2009 elected President Zelaya in Honduras is deposed in a coup d’etat, followed by Paraguay where elected President Lugo is deposed by a coup d’etat. Then we have Dilma in Brazil with the coup d’etat.
“And then to top off this very sad list, we have 2019 the Bolivian coup d’etat, overthrow[ing] a very powerful social movement and revolution that had led for the first time the indigenous groups finding their independence. Because independence prior to that had not been for the Indian groups, it had been for the European descent groups not for the Indians who were never recognised.”
On the failed US-backed coup attempt at Nicaragua in 2018, Oquist says that the reality of what really happened is not understood in the US and Europe due to distorted Western media coverage. He says:
“24 police officers were killed by gunfire in that coup. They took the highways of the country and did great damage to the economy of the country because they wanted to strangle the capital city by stopping foodstuffs from coming in. These blockades on the highway were very, very violent – they were imposed violently, they were maintained violently and from them you got kidnappings, torture, murders.
“The US used the same handbook as in the colour revolutions” he states. As in many other cases on the continent where the US attempts regime change, any action taken to control extreme violence and coup attempts on the part of the government is then presented in the Western media as government repression of peaceful demonstrators. “Which is ridiculous” he says, clearly frustrated by the ease in which such obvious lies go unchallenged.
“It is hard for me to understand why the Europeans have such great difficulty in understanding there was a coup attempt. When all you have to do is listen to President Trump, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo who explicitly state that they want regime change, that they want to overthrow the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.”
US policy of “full spectrum domination” is leading the world towards a new cold war, according to Oquist. The US is “trying to impose its will on everyone with this ‘America First’ policy.”
“The current stage of imperialism is the US policy of full spectrum domination. To not only dominate the world militarily and politically but also to dominate the mass media, to dominate social media, to dominate science and technology. That is why you have this second impending cold war, this time around between the US and China because the US wants to remain hegemonic with regards to science and technology – and it so happens that in terms of artificial intelligence and 5G its behind China.
“The US and its allies don’t have systems that can compete with Huawei. The US is very explicit that it is against socialism – internationally it will combat socialism wherever it is to be found, as declared by President Trump, his Vice President and his Secretary of State. But it would seem also that they don’t believe in capitalism very much either because instead of competing with Huawei in a free market place they want to exclude it from the market place.”
A new movement for survival
With the threats of permanent warfare, a new cold war, weapons of mass destruction, global warming and environmental degradation identified in ‘Equilbra’, what solutions does the Secretary see as a way forward for humanity? His hopes are placed in the people.
“If you look at the history in recent centuries, major social change, really deep, transformative change has come from social movements.”
He believes a movement for survival, uniting social movements and progressive governments resisting US pressure across the world, is needed to overcome climate change and the other urgent threats facing humanity.
Without this pressure, the UN negotiations will continue to go nowhere. “The UN negotiations can drag on for another century without solving it. What can solve it are the people – it has to be the people organised in a social movement for survival who oblige the politicians and oblige the countries in their votes and in their actions in international organisations to take the measures to abolish fossil fuels, to abolish nuclear weapons, to control our science and technology.”
Oquist regards the US election in November as critical in its potential to break up the “climate denial coalition” growing around Trump. If Trump loses the election “the US will come back into the Paris Agreement.”
He also sees hope in the group of US states and cities that say “we are still in” to the Paris Agreement. “They are very influential and these cities can take very major actions and the states also because they have power over energy and emissions and so that’s a positive sign within the US.”
It is young people that he puts the most faith in, however. “I was very impressed in Madrid, one evening leaving the UN COP meeting late. Greta had had a large manifestation. You had these 16 and 17 year olds there with their picket signs going home. And then I saw 10, 11, 12 year olds that were going home with their picket signs. From there you can get some very profound generational change… We might see sea-change faster than we think when this generation moves into positions where their activism can oblige politicians and international organisations to take action.”
“At 67 years of age that is my hope – to see something happen while I’m still on this planet and my hope is that the youth will come to the rescue with a survival movement.”