December 16, 2009

Big Oil has landed: Hugo Chávez in Copenhagen

Quico and Juan Cristobal say: What do you think would happen if the head of one of the world's five largest oil companies started lecturing the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen about the evils of global warming?

How do you think the most esteemed delegates to the world's premier forum on the pressing issue of our time would react if a man who's leveraged his control over hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil rents into a spot in Forbes' list of the world's 100 most powerful people started to tell them what they need to do to save the planet?

Why, they'd fall all over themselves cheering him, obviously.

Hugo Chávez’s Copenhagen speech today was such an event, though on its face, the speech itself was boilerplate. The Venezuelan strongman delivered his usual twenty-minute anti-capitalist tirade, full of quasi-religious rhetoric about saving the world and such. Developing world delegates ate it up with mustard, spiraling into rapturous applause each time he blamed the rich countries for "destroying the planet."

It's insane. Cheering Chávez as he lectures you on climate change is like cheering Joseph Fritzl as he lectures you on fatherhood.

As far as Chávez can tell, it's not CO2 that's changing the climate, it's "capitalism." The specific mechanism through which this happens, the whole pesky issue of the actual fuel that generates all that carbon, the bucketfuls of petrodollars he makes out of the whole dirty business...the less talked about such things, the better.

Chávez’s green-standing, echoed by his hapless delegation and the minions in his vast media empire, stands in sharp contrast with the actual policies Venezuela has put in place.

Instead of taxing oil consumption, Chávez has spent a decade subsidizing it, making Venezuelan gasoline the cheapest in the planet. In fact, in real terms, gasoline is 85% cheaper in Venezuela today than it was when Chávez came to power ten years ago. The price of a liter of gas has not moved in ten years, while accumulated inflation is 655%.

This is a leader who subsidizes not just gas but car sales, a man whose idea of foreign aid is giving cut-price fuel oil to people in Boston. A gallon of fuel in Caracas costs less than a lolly-pop, a policy Chávez has no intention of relenting on. The man responsible for feeding oil junkies the world over - that's the guy who brought down the house in Copenhagen?

Talk about a real climate scandal.

In the days leading to the Summit, some in Venezuela wondered what the country's position would be. Chávez has rarely discussed the complexities of how climate change and the policies to stop it can affect Venezuela. You wouldn't expect him to: any decision that seriously cuts demand for oil at Copenhagen would directly undermine the whole material basis of his power.

Although Chávez has famously adopted every third-world, anti-imperialist, "us vs. them" pose in the book, it's not like the developing world was coming to Copenhagen with a unified voice. The Chinese and Indians do not want to sacrifice their development, the Africans are desperate for action sprinkled with a little bit of cash, and the Saudis would prefer the status quo. Countries like Bolivia have a real interest in curbing greenhouse emissions, which is causing melting glaciers. Bolivia’s vast reserves of lithium, which can be used to power the batteries in hybrid vehicles, mean it is poised to reap the benefits of a green economy.

Yet, Venezuela's position was a big question mark.

Chávez’s speech cleared up it up. He embraced the environmental movement and gleefully served as a spokesman for countries such as Cuba and Bolivia, highly vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

But the world would be foolish to confuse rhetoric with values.

Chávez knows the end of the oil era would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. He will peddle his oil while denouncing everyone else for burning it. He will demand a binding agreement but will not tolerate any imposition on his insane environmental policies.

This gasp-inducing pileup of ironies and contradictions can only be interpreted as a joke. Hugo Chávez came into the global warming summit and made a big hot mess of it. Thankfully, at least some of the world’s newspapers took note and shunned him.

The rest of the delegates - at least the ones looking for progress on this issue - should do the same.

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