First World rulers fiddle while Arctic melts

By Shua Garfield

As the Sun disappeared below the horizon of the North Pole on September 22 — ending the Northern hemisphere’s summer — it left behind the second-lowest minimum level of Arctic summer ice cover since satellite records began 29 years ago. At 4.52 million square kilometres (on September 12), the ice cover area was 2.24 million sq km lower than the 1979-2000 long-term average summer minimum.

Despite ice cover not dropping below the record low of 2007 — 4.1 million sq km — a disturbing new record was set this year: For probably the first time in 125,000 years — according to climate modelling based on data from ice cores — the North Pole could be circumnavigated without passing south of any continent. Satellite pictures taken by NASA on August 29 showed that both the north-east and north-west passages were open. The north-east passage around the northern coast of Russia is known to have opened once before, in 2005, while the north-west passage, between Canada’s northern islands first opened in 2007. The simultaneous opening of both passages, however, is believed to be unprecedented in human history.

Other disturbing developments seem to support the claim by Professor Mark Serreze — a sea ice specialist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center — that the Arctic ice cap may now have entered a “death spiral”. On July 31, the Canwest news service reported that tourists had to be evacuated from Baffin Island’s Auyuittuq National Park because of flooding from thawing glaciers. Auyuittuq means “land that never melts”. On August 6, researchers at the University of Alberta reported that the thickness of sea ice in the central Arctic Ocean declined by 50% between 2001 and 2007.

On August 16, US government oil survey scientists spotted 9 polar bears 100 km off the northern coast of Alaska, swimming north towards an ice shelf 640 km away. While polar bears are exceptionally strong swimmers, they cannot swim more than around 160 km before succumbing to exhaustion and drowning.

Amid mounting evidence that the Arctic is warming faster than previously predicted, climate scientists have revised estimates of how soon ice-free summers can be expected in the Arctic Ocean. Speaking on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners program on August 4, Canadian Institute of Ocean Sciences researcher Robie Macdonald said: “The modellers … initially … said [that there would be ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean] by the end of this century, 2100. And then they said 2070 and then they said 2050 and then they said 2030. And there was a very recent one when I was up on the Amundsen a couple of months ago. Do you know what it said? Maybe by 2013.”

As ice — which reflects 50-85% of the Sun’s energy back into space — is replaced by dark ocean water — which absorbs up to 93% of the Sun’s energy — warming of the Arctic accelerates. This is already accelerating the melting of Greenland’s massive ice sheet, leading to predictions that sea levels may rise up to a metre in the coming century. According to Mark Sidall, a geologist at the University of Bristol, this would submerge 2.2 million sq km of land, displacing 145 million people and inflicting global damages worth US$944 billion. Already, the World Health Organization estimates that the effects of climate change — increased frequency of storms, floods, droughts and associated crop failures, as well as spread of diseases — are killing an average of 150,000 people per year.

In the face of mounting evidence of an impending climate catastrophe, one would hope that the governments of the world would be doing their utmost to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. On August 23 Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA announced agreements with the Vietnamese government to expand the joint manufacture and installation of solar energy systems and to create a company to manufacture energy-saving light bulbs. Similarly, socialist Cuba’s near-complete transition to organic agriculture during the 1990s, its large-scale reforestation program, and its recent efforts to reduce energy wastage inspire hope. Unfortunately, the capitalist governments of the world are not emulating the example of their revolutionary socialist counterparts.

Worse than Nero

According to popular legend, during the Great Fire of Rome in July 64, emperor Nero spent his time dressing up in costumes, singing and playing musical instruments while much of the city burned. Hence the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns”, commonly used to describe gross neglect or irresponsibility on the part of authority figures during a time of crisis. And, in delaying action on climate change, promising inadequate targets for emission reductions and proposing ineffectual mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes, today’s capitalist political leaders have shown themselves to be disciples of Nero.

The capitalist fossil fuel industries and the governments that serve them have gone one step further, seeking to massively expand their climate-endangering activities in the face of the crisis. The melting of the Arctic has been seen by some capitalist governments not as a warning sign of impending catastrophe, but as a chance to deliver even more oil and gas to their national fossil fuel industries. The US Geological Survey estimates that up to 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas lies beneath the Arctic. The melting of Arctic ice makes it more feasible to exploit these reserves, and governments in the region are competing to claim seabed territory and shipping lanes, raising the spectre of military conflict.

In 2001, Russia became the first to make a move, submitting a claim to the UN for 1.2 million sq km of Arctic waters, including the North Pole. The Russian Ministry of National Resources estimates that this territory contains up to 586 billion barrels of oil — more than twice the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. The UN’s rejection of this claim did not deter Russia from dispatching a nuclear-powered ice-breaker and two submarines to plant Russia’s flag on the North Pole seabed in August 2007.

That same month, the Kremlin ordered resumption of strategic bomber flights over the Arctic Ocean for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In response, Canadian PM Stephen Harper announced funding for new naval vessels to patrol the Arctic. Canada also plans a new military base in the Arctic and has launched a satellite surveillance system to search for ships “trespassing” in waters that it claims as its own, including the Northwest Passage.

After Russia, Norway was next to submit a territorial claim, in 2006. Canada and Denmark (the colonial power that controls Greenland) are preparing their own claims, both of which may overlap with Russia’s 2001 claim. Canada and Denmark dispute the possession of Hans Island in the resource-rich Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. The US government is also compiling data to support a possible territorial claim to waters extending north of Alaska.

Though coal-burning creates even more carbon pollution per unit of energy generated than oil, its use is also being expanded. In the US, 151 coal-fired power 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 7-10 days, a new coal-fired power plant is opened in China. The World Bank maintains more than $25 billion worth of investments in oil, gas and coal projects, despite the recommendations of an internal inquiry for divestment from these sectors by 2008. Nero’s fiddling looks benign by comparison: At least playing musical instruments doesn’t make the crisis worse!

Trying to look ‘green’

Political leaders such as Australian PM Kevin Rudd have sought to cover for the coal industry’s environmental vandalism by promoting the white elephant of “clean coal”. On September 19, Rudd announced a proposal for a A$100 million global institute to accelerate the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS: also known as geosequestration) technology, which will supposedly make it possible to permanently bury the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel-burning power stations in deep underground cavities. This is on top of $500 million already committed to develop and deploy technologies designed to reduce emissions from coal use.

However, currently the most efficient coal-burning power stations emit more CO2 per unit of power generated than other fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. CCS remains an experimental technology and it’s unclear whether permanent storage of industrial-scale carbon emissions will ever be possible. Even the government’s September 19 press release announcing the “global institute” proposal admits that “no industrial-scale integrated CCS power stations have been built”. Moreover, the press release reveals that the intention of the institute would be to allow “commercial deployment [of CCS technology] … by the end of the next decade”, too late to prevent catastrophic climate change according to scientists such as NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies director James Hansen.

This environmental recklessness is consistent with the Rudd government’s approach to the climate change crisis — prioritising the huge profits of dirty industries over the health of the natural environment. The government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme “green paper”, launched on July 16, made clear that public money would be given away to the coal industry — and other highly polluting industries — as part of the carbon emissions trading scheme it intends to launch in 2010.

In emissions trading schemes, capitalist governments auction a limited number of “carbon pollution permits”. Corporations compete to purchase a permit, which entitles them to emit a specified amount of pollution. By imposing a cost on carbon emissions, this supposedly creates an incentive to reduce emissions. However, where these schemes have been implemented, they have failed to encourage big business to significantly reduce emissions.

The one major test of carbon trading on an international level has been the European Union scheme, which began in January 2005. At its outset, emissions licences were granted free of charge to established corporations. In some industries, allocations exceeded real carbon emissions by up to 50%. After only 16 months, the price of carbon credits collapsed. Buying the “right” to pollute has remained far cheaper that investing in cutting emissions.

A similar scheme in NSW, which began in January 2003, collapsed in September 2007. As in the EU scheme, the decline in the cost of carbon credits was largely the result of the free issuing of credits to companies that had done nothing to reduce emissions. Similarly, the Rudd government’s proposed scheme is likely doomed to be ineffective at achieving adequate emission reductions, thanks to proposals to grant the most polluting industries the majority of their emissions permits for free and to provide financial assistance to coal-fired power generators.

Garnaut writes the fiddle music

But rapid and substantial emissions reductions are not the aim of the Rudd government in any case. This was made clear by the Targets and Trajectories report released on September 5 by the Rudd government’s climate change court jester, Professor Ross Garnaut. In this paper, Garnaut proposed that the price of emissions permits be set so as to reduce emissions levels by a pathetic 10% from 2000 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Garnaut suggests these emission reduction levels would be an appropriate Australian contribution to any international agreement to try to keep atmospheric concentrations of GHGs below 550 parts per million (ppm).

According to Garnaut, this would limit global warming during the 21st century to 1.6-3.2oC. Even at this level, 8-39% of Earth’s plant and animal species would become extinct, according to Garnaut. However, according to Hansen, long-term stabilisation of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations at 550 ppm would pose a serious risk of inducing a 6oC rise in global temperatures. By Garnaut’s own reckoning, an increase in global temperatures of 3.5-7.1oC would result in extinction of 48-100% of all plant and animal species.

However, compounding the environmental irresponsibility of Garnaut’s proposals — most of which are likely to become government policy — is the suggestion that in the absence of a global agreement, Australia should only aim to reduce its GHG emissions by 5% by 2020. Garnaut suggests that the most likely scenario leading to failure to reach a global agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol — which expires in 2012 — would be if Third World countries, particularly China, refuse to accept constraints on their emissions.

Blaming the Third World

Garnaut is not the first to point to China’s (and other Third World countries’, including India’s) current and potential future emissions in an attempt to absolve the First World of its responsibility to reduce its own emissions. The absence of requirements for Third World countries to reduce emissions was one of the main reasons cited by the US and, under Howard, Australian governments for refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. These governments argued that it is unfair to have one set of rules for First World countries and another for Third World countries and that there should, instead, be a “level playing field”.

This argument ignores the disproportionate responsibility of the developed capitalist countries for both the climate crisis and the Third World’s underdevelopment. In the process of reaching the advanced level of industrialisation that is the basis of its relative wealth, the capitalists of the First World burned massive quantities of coal and oil, generating most of the GHGs that currently pollute the atmosphere. Furthermore, the First World’s plundering of precious metals and enslavement of the population of what is now the Third World gave the First World its headstart in industrialisation. Colonial plunder and imperialist exploitation has meant that the economies of the colonial countries were distorted to provide cheap raw materials and labour to further enrich the First World capitalists. The most advanced technologies, the most well-funded research and development programs and the highest concentrations of highly trained technicians and scientists are, therefore, found in the First World.

Despite being in the best position, technically, to tackle the climate crisis, the First World countries have higher per-capita GHG emissions than the global average. In 2004 the average per capita emissions of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries — the imperialist First World — were 2.6 times higher than the global average and three times higher than China’s. And a quarter of China’s GHG emissions are caused by export-oriented industries that largely service the irrational consumption patterns of the First World. Yet, instead of applying their technical resources to this problem, and sharing these resources with Third World countries to help them sustainably develop, the ruling classes of the First World seek to blame Third World countries for the absence of an effective global response to climate change.

Technology transfer — where wealthy countries share sustainable technologies with poorer countries — has been recognised as an essential part of addressing the climate crisis in a socially just way. The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism allows First World countries to transfer sustainable technologies to the Third World as part of meeting their obligations to reduce emissions. However, sharing technology goes against the logic of capitalism: Those who have a monopoly of a certain technology have an edge over their business competitors. Even if you’re not going to use that technology now, keeping it for yourself ensures that you’ll have that edge if and when it does become profitable.

This is institutionalised by the patenting of inventions and “intellectual property” agreements. The 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), administered by the World Trade Organization (WTO), requires signatories to grant patents in all fields of technology which must be recognised internationally. Through government-subsided R&D programs, First World corporations are assured of patents for new technologies and can therefore set the agenda for what does and does not get implemented.

An example cited in a May 19 article in Biofuels News by Steve Suppan, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, is the effect of patents on research into synthetic biofuels. According to Suppan, patent claims on synthetic biology products and processes are so broad that scientists are worried that research in the area will grind to a halt for fear of litigation.

Garnaut admits in Targets and Trajectories that it is already technically possible to reduce GHG concentrations to 400 ppm with existing technologies. However, he only sees this actually happening if these technologies became “commercialised” — i.e., profitable to capitalists. This, he suggests, depends on the price of emissions permits rising well above the profit-friendly levels he proposes — something the capitalist class would never tolerate. This shows the irrationality of trying to solve the climate crisis with corporate profit-making as the driving force.

If the capitalists won’t implement the changes that the world needs, it simply confirms that their wealth and political power needs to be taken from them by ordinary working people. Only a rationally planned allocation of resources on a global scale gives us a chance to avoid catastrophe. Mass movements of a sufficient scale to threaten the system may win reforms that go part of the way to addressing the crisis, but if they leave capitalist power intact, even partial reforms will be under threat of being rolled back. Facing the carnage of World War I, German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote that humanity faced a choice between socialism and barbarism. In the face of climate disaster, the choice may now be between socialism and extinction.