What's needed to stop climate change?

By Zoe Kenny

The latest news on climate change is not good. According to research by a team of NASA scientists led by Goddard Institute of Space Studies director James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologists, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are already too high, and the targets set by the UN and governments around the world for CO2 emissions are far too low to prevent climate disaster within a few decades.

In a report entitled Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?, released in April, Hansen and his colleagues alter his 2005 position that the goal should be an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of 450 ppm. Hansen and his team conducted climatic research on the Cenozoic period — 65 million-1.8 million years ago — that showed that stabilisation at 450 ppm for any length of time, let alone at a higher level, would result in a sea-level rise of more than 60 metres.

Hansen now believes that the only possible way to avoid runaway global warming is to stabilise the Earth’s atmospheric CO2 at 350 ppm. The concentration of CO2 is already above that level — 385 ppm, and rising by 2-3 ppm each year. This means that a rapid reduction in the total level of atmospheric carbon is needed to prevent runaway climate change. However, even the target of 450 ppm, which Hansen previously advocated, was too strict for most governments. The target incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol and used by the European Union and Australian Labor government is to stabilise CO2 at 550 ppm — a guarantee of climate chaos.

In addition to setting inadequate targets, the dominant approach also relies heavily upon market mechanisms such as carbon trading schemes. All the evidence from the implementation of these schemes so far shows that carbon trading is a criminally insufficient means of stopping climate change. While carbon trading has been highly profitable for a new breed of bankers, environmental auditors and even the biggest corporate polluters (the global carbon market is now worth almost US$30 billion), these schemes do far less to reduce emissions. In fact, CO2 emissions are increasing at an accelerating rate.

In contrast with these carbon trading schemes, which have been labelled an “elaborate hoax” by some climate campaigners, Hansen proposes much more sensible solutions. He stresses that humanity “must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels” and attacks the “continued construction of coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture”, which he says will, if continued for even one more decade, virtually eliminate the possibility of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Furthermore, he recommends the harvesting of CO2, to be ploughed back into the soil as a fertiliser for agriculture, and a reforestation plan that would also soak up some CO2.

This path is certainly not that of mainstream politicians. Despite all their rhetoric about combating carbon emissions, incredibly, coal-fired power plants have been experiencing a resurgence. In the US, 151 plants are in the planning stages. In Australia, a new coal mine and a new coal loader have been approved for Newcastle, the world’s largest coal export port. Every week to 10 days, a new coal-fired power plant is opened in China. Furthermore, the World Bank, which is now a major player in the global carbon market, maintains more than US$25 billion worth of investments in oil, gas and coal projects, despite the recommendations of an internal inquiry for divestment from these polluting sectors by 2008.

Greenwashing fossil fuels

In order to justify the continuation or even increase in the number of coal-fired power plants, mainstream politicians and the big mining corporations, like Australia’s BHP and Rio Tinto, like to talk about “clean coal” technology. This will supposedly capture CO2 emissions from power plants and store them underground. However, there are numerous financial, technological, engineering and safety issues that would need to be resolved to apply this, as yet, non-existent technology. And the most optimistic prediction for its roll-out is 10 years — by which time CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will likely have passed the critical point.

Other highly polluting corporations are also now competing to give themselves the “green” image as a cover for continuing their old practices unabated. BP, for example, has changed its name from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. Some airlines have offered “carbon offsetting” services, no doubt in the hope of distracting attention from the fact that their industry currently has the fastest growing greenhouse gas emissions of any sector.

Through such greenwashing, corporations hope to reassure customers that they are part of the solution. It also serves to put the onus back onto the individual, whose “consumer choices” are presented as the major force for solving the global warming problem. Reinforcing the idea that individual purchasing power can change the world fits neatly into the framework of the capitalist political system, in which working people are politically atomised and powerless. This effort to greenwash capitalism dovetails with the underlying approach of most environmental groups and Green parties, and feeds illusions that, with the right combination of carrots and sticks, corporate capitalism will abandon its massive investments in highly profitable fossil fuels and rapidly switch over to renewable energy technologies.

Profits before people

Capitalism’s inherently anti-ecological character, however, is the result of its subordination of the needs of society to the accumulation of profits through the production and sale of an ever expanding mass of goods and services, regardless of the costs to society as a whole. Capitalist businesses try to turn every human activity into a commodity, an article for sale for corporate profits. Because capitalist businesses’ interaction with nature is seen solely through the prism of profits, businesses are incapable of making decisions according to the common interests of humanity, including our need to protect the natural environment for future generations.
Nature is regarded as an “externality” to human productive activity, including capitalist business operations — as a “gift” at the start of the production process, while during production the natural environment is used as a giant sewer. The impacts of this ruthless disregard for nature are also externalised by capitalist businesses — leaving ordinary people or governments to deal with polluted air, rivers, oceans and land.

When attempts are made at forcing capitalist businesses to “internalise” the environmental costs of their activities, for example through the imposition of “green” taxes, these are vigorously opposed, watered down or simply passed on to consumers. Similarly, corporations often make the calculation that fines for polluting are cheaper than investing in the technologies to avoid pollution in the first place.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx wrote that capitalism creates a “metabolic rift” between humans and nature through concentrating the population in gigantic urban centres, leading to the un-recycled consumption of vast amounts of nutrients sourced from the countryside. Since World War II, this trend has been greatly accelerated, with food production becoming increasingly reliant on city-made artificial fertilisers (sourced from fossil fuels).

Exacerbating the ever-more intensive and destructive profit cycle is the drive by each capitalist business to dominate the market. This produces the absurdity of multi-billionaires perpetually in pursuit of their next corporate takeover. The drive to maximise business profits is achieved through cutting business costs. Workers’ wages and conditions are constantly under attack as a result.

Profit-oriented cost-cutting also leads to constant and often harmful or wasteful technological innovation — although the big corporations seek to have the cost of research and initial development borne by society through massive taxpayer-funded subsidies.

But the use of every new technology is subordinate to one goal only — the maximisation of profit, regardless of the effects of those innovations on human health or the environment. For example, after World War II production methods underwent what US environmentalist Barry Commoner called a “qualitative leap” in the amount of pollution created, with a massive expansion in the production of synthetic chemicals by the petrochemicals industry.

Technologies such as solar and wind power, which would be beneficial for all by eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, have not been applied in any extensive way because they threaten the profits of the corporations that produce and use fossil fuels.

Irrational consumption

Capitalism incorporates working people into its cycle of pollution through the imposition of irrational consumption patterns. The outstanding example of this is the forced reliance on private motor vehicles as the overwhelming method of commuting in the developed capitalist countries, with most Third World countries aspiring to the same levels of car ownership. This situation has been consciously manufactured by the oil and auto corporations in collusion with governments. In the US in the 1930s, for example, tram and rail lines in most of the major cities were bought up by a consortium of auto, oil and rubber companies and destroyed to make way for roads.

Designed obsolescence also forces working people into wasteful consumption patterns. Many household items that previous generations expected to last for decades now need to be replaced every few years. Such waste is integral to the capitalist profit-making machine.

Capitalism divides the world into rich and poor nations. The economic underdevelopment of the majority of countries is essential for capitalist corporations, which rely upon those countries’ reserves of cheap labour to produce raw materials and low-tech manufactures, and also use them as dumping grounds for their wastes. The impoverished people of much of the underdeveloped countries are driven to destroy their natural environment, through slash-and-burn farming techniques for example, in the daily struggle to survive on incomes of a few dollars a day.

`A complete revolution’

Capitalism sows the seeds of ecological destruction by ignoring humanity’s dependence on nature. In 1876, Marx’s life-long collaborator Frederick Engels pointed out that the negative impacts on human welfare of environmental destruction remind “us that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.” But, if we are to apply nature’s laws correctly, this requires more than scientific knowledge. It also requires, as Engels observed, “a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order”.

The historically necessary project of replacing capitalism with a socialist system, in which the rule of the capitalist profit-makers is replaced by the democratic self-rule of the working majority, will enable society to subordinate economic activity to the common interest. If decisions about economic activity could be made democratically by society as a whole — because society as a whole owned the economic resources (all the mines, mills and factories) — then the root causes of global warming could be rationally and rapidly tackled.

Certainly the most obvious place to begin would be with the world’s energy systems. Today pro-capitalist politicians like George Bush and Kevin Rudd tell us that any attempt rapidly to replace the use of fossil fuels like coal with renewable energy sources would “wreck the economy”, by which they mean it would wreck the profits of big business. But the consequence of going slow in abandoning the use of fossil fuels so as to preserve the big capitalists’ profits will be increasingly catastrophic climate events, which will destroy the livelihoods and possibly the lives of hundreds of millions of working people.

If the corporations won’t move rapidly to a renewables-based energy economy, because that would threaten their profits, this is not a rational argument for continuing to rely on fossil fuels. It’s a rational argument for replacing capitalist governments with governments that will organise working people to bring about profound changes in who owns industry, how it is run and who it serves.

Society structurally organised to meet the common interest rather than corporate profits would be free to weigh up the costs and benefits involved in how to meet its energy needs, and then to organise a massive and urgent program of public works to make the switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Similarly, why would a socialist world continue relying on hundreds of millions of privately owned vehicles for daily travel, with all their associated problems? Far superior would be state of the art, integrated free public transport systems with frequent services. This could dramatically reduce greenhouse pollution if rolled out in a systematic way worldwide. The human resources to do these things will be massively enhanced when millions of workers can be transferred from highly profitable but socially unproductive work, such as the advertising and public relations industries and the military-industrial complex.

The obstacles to achieving an ecologically sustainable society do not lie in the lack of alternatives to CO2-generating fossil fuel technologies, but in the power of the capitalist “market forces” system to resist abandoning the latter for the former.

Carrot and stick

The dominant political answer to getting the capitalist corporate profit system to adopt renewable energy technologies is a combination of carrots (huge taxpayer-funded subsidies to the corporations) and sticks (CO2 emissions taxes, which will be passed on by corporations to consumers) — both of which involve making working people pay to fix a problem created by the corporate elite.
This approach is what the Swedish government’s Stockholm Environmental Institute calls the “Policy Reform” scenario in its study on a “market forces”-dominated transition to global sustainability — published in 2002 as Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead. The authors of the study argued that “great strides toward a sustainability transition are possible without positing either a social revolution ... or a technological miracle” through the application of government policy reforms to “market forces” (which they acknowledged are dominated by the “special interests” of the big “rich country”-based transnational corporations).

However, because solving the problem of global warming “requires a pace and scale of technological and social change [that] is daunting”, the “reform path to sustainability is like climbing up a down escalator”. Furthermore, for “the reform path to succeed, an unprecedented and unyielding governmental commitment to achieving sustainability goals must arise. That commitment must be expressed through effective and comprehensive economic, social and institutional initiatives. But the necessary political will for a reform route to sustainability is today nowhere in sight. To gain ascendancy, the Policy Reform vision must overcome the resistance of special interests, the myopia of narrow outlooks and the inertia of complacency. But the logic of sustainability and the logic of the global market are in tension. The correlation between the accumulation of wealth [in the form of capital] and the concentration of power erodes the political basis for a transition.”

This surely points to the necessity for a social revolution — a fundamental change of ownership and management of society’s economic resources from the capitalists to working people — as the only way to remove the institutional obstacles to countering the gathering global warming catastrophe. But the authors of Great Transition — myopically wedded to their “market forces” outlook — rule this out of consideration.

Living example

What worldwide socialism could do to protect our environment is already on display, on a small scale, in Cuba. Socialist Cuba has become the world’s undisputed leader in low-input sustainable agriculture, and has taken major steps towards energy efficiency.

Cuba was also the first country in the world to implement a universal low-energy lighting program. In 2005, the Cuban government mobilised social workers — many of them university students on study leave — to distribute and install low-energy fluorescent light globes. By the end of the year, 5 million people had been supplied. By mid-2006, this program had cut electricity for lighting by a third. Cuba remains the only country in the world to implement a universal low-energy, low-polluting lighting policy. Since mid-2006, the low-energy, low-polluting globes have been the only ones sold in Cuban stores.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s The Living Planet Report 2006, Cuba is the only country in the world that enjoys sustainable development, assessed on the basis of commitment to improving the quality of life of residents while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems. This is despite Cuba being a relatively poor country subjected by Washington to nearly five decades of economic blockade.

If the economic and political institutions of Australia and other rich countries — with their massive scientific and technological resources — were organised, via a social revolution, to serve the interests of working people rather than corporate profit-making, then we’d be able to get on the fast-track to solving the global warming crisis, instead of trying to “climb up a down escalator”. But this will only become possible when the working people of Australia and the other rich countries follow the example of the workers and farmers of Cuba and carry out a revolution to replace the pro-big business governments that now rule us with working people’s governments committed to building socialism.

[Zoe Kenny joined the Democratic Socialist Party (now the Democratic Socialist Perspective) in 2002 and was a staff writer on environment issues for Green Left Weekly from 2006-07. She is now a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]