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Issue 55

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Issue 55, April 2001

Where's the Cash in Global Warming?

    Answering the sceptics
    Market mechanisms
    A new anti-capitalist wave
    A global answer

How to deal with global warming is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity. Last November, climate change talks in the Hague completely broke down along national fault lines. MANNY THAIN looks at the threat to the environment and why the capitalist world powers are unable to act decisively.

THE STATED AIM of the Hague talks was to decide how to cut greenhouse gas emissions to help reverse global warming. Instead of ratifying the 1997 Kyoto protocol of the 1992 United Nations (UN) climate change convention, the whole event collapsed in disarray. British minister, Michael Meacher, announced on BBC Radio Four's Today programme that a deal had been struck, unaware that the talks had faltered. Acrimonious exchanges between the US and European delegations were matched by a spat between representatives from France and Britain. Britain's attempt to compromise with the US was vetoed.

This summit was another indication that the world economic system is paralysed by national and corporate interests. A follow-up meeting held in Brussels on 18 December also collapsed. Another UN climate meeting is due to take place in Bonn at the end of May.

A few weeks before the Hague talks, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC - a UN-sponsored body of leading climate scientists) circulated a 1,000-page draft report to governments. The report reinforced the widely held view that global warming is taking place and that human activity is a significant factor.


The IPCC predicted an increase in the earth's surface temperature of between 1.5-5.8 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years. In 1995, the IPCC put the increase at between 1-3.5 degrees Celsius - it has already risen by about half a degree since 1975. Whereas the earlier report recorded "discernible human influence" on the earth's climate effect, the panel now says that burning fossil fuels and emissions of human-made chemicals have "contributed substantially to the observed warming over the last 50 years". (The Guardian, 27 October 2000)

Six of the ten warmest years on record were in the 1990s and the other four were in the 1980s. Climatic zones could move towards the poles by as much as 150-550 kilometres, shifting entire ecosystems and agricultural zones with them. The permafrost, which covers 65% of Russia, is melting. The diamond-producing town of Mirny, Yakutia, has evacuated a quarter of its population because homes have begun to slide into the melting snow. Were the upper section of permafrost to melt, up to twelve times the level of carbon dioxide normally in the atmosphere would be released, and 2,500 times the normal level of methane. (Guardian, 14 November 2000)

top     Answering the sceptics

OBJECTIONS HAVE BEEN raised on the basis that 'feedback' could damp down the rate of warming: more heat produces more evaporation, and more water vapour means more clouds to reflect sunlight back into space. But Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that warmer air produces thinner clouds, lessening this effect.


The Hadley Centre in Britain showed that as the northern forests warmed there would be less ice and snow, less sunlight would be reflected into space and forests would flourish. Possibly around 2050, however, the amount of carbon released by bacteria in the soil would be greater than that absorbed by the trees and warming would accelerate. (The Guardian, 15 November 2000)

The earth's climate has always warmed and cooled in cycles, long before humanity existed. Do natural factors, such as volcanic eruptions, the eleven-year sunspot cycle, changes in the earth's orbit, and the shape and position of continents, dwarf the effects of human activity?

Carbon dioxide is produced when fossil fuels are used or forests burnt. Agriculture releases other powerful greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. Industrial processes release chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), some of which trap heat in the atmosphere. The emission of particles of sulphates, on the other hand, can have a cooling effect by reflecting sunlight back into space. Nasa looked at the net effects of these factors. Human-made greenhouse gases now cause a 'forcing' of more than two watts per square metre, the equivalent of increasing the sun's brightness by around 1%. Nasa concluded that greenhouse gases were the main cause of the earth's recent warming. (The Economist, 18 November 2000)

The frequency of extreme weather events is increasing. Their effects are becoming ever more catastrophic, especially in the poorest parts of the world, less able to deal with the consequences and the least responsible for causing global warming in the first place. The US pours more than 1,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year - 23% of the world total. Britain, on 3%, produces as much as the whole of Africa. In 1997, the US emitted 20.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita; the EU 8.7 tonnes; China 2.5 tonnes; and India 0.9 tonnes.


Sea level is already rising. As the oceans warm, they expand and rise. Glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. Even without massive polar melting, the IPCC expects the mean sea level to rise by anything between 15-95 centimetres by 2100. Hundreds of millions of people are at risk in places like New York, Mumbai, Bangladesh, or Guyana (where 90% of the population lives below sea level). In 1998, 25 million refugees were created by environmental catastrophes - more than by wars, for the first time ever. (UN Report, 1998)

Areas of the northern hemisphere may experience milder winters and improved harvests. But there could be dramatic changes in the mid-Atlantic ocean circulation system responsible for the generally mild winters in Britain. A breakdown in the flow of warmer water would result in Britain and neighbouring countries experiencing much harsher winters. Southern Europe could suffer severe water shortages, crop failure and even desertification.

top     Market mechanisms

THE KYOTO PROTOCOL, signed by 170 governments, agreed that the rich countries would cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels. This negligible target would be reached by 2008-12. Yet, a reduction of between 60-80% is needed to reverse global warming trends and, since Kyoto, carbon emissions have actually risen by 1.3% each year. US emissions have risen by 10.7% a year since 1990.

In the Hague, all the proposals centred around market mechanisms, such as 'sinks' and clean development mechanisms'. These are licences to pollute. If buying carbon credits is cheaper than investing in cleaner technologies (for instance, converting coal-fired power stations), that is what companies will do.


New and growing areas of vegetation are called 'sinks' because they absorb carbon from the atmosphere and hold it. Ultimately, they delay the emission of carbon dioxide rather than stop it. Nonetheless, advocates argue that this reduces a country's net emissions, that reforestation deserves credit for absorbing carbon, as does agricultural practices, such as not tilling soil. These credits could be traded internationally. Due to devastating industrial collapse, Russia's greenhouse gas emissions are below expected levels. Therefore, if this system was in place, Russia would earn carbon credits.

Clean development mechanisms (CDMs) were first mooted in Kyoto. CDMs would allow companies to offset their emissions by funding pollution-reducing projects in 'developing' countries. American Electric Power, which supplies power generated mainly from coal-fired power stations, has invested in a carbon project in which the Bolivian government has agreed not to clear 650,000 hectares of forest.

This is the way the market moves - follow the dollar signs. CDMs are open to all kinds of 'interpretation'. Pristine forests could be felled to make way for eucalyptus which is more efficient at absorbing carbon and so would earn more credits. Countries could claim that an area would have been logged, in order to solicit funds not to do so. What is a sink, anyway? Does it have to be as big as a 'large' tree, or would a carrot count? How much 'sinking' can a country do?

At the Hague, most European states wanted to restrict the use of sinks while the US pushed for the most generous definitions. Reportedly, US representatives even suggested feeding sheep, pigs and cows anti-flatulence diets to reduce methane levels. (The Observer, 19 November 2000)


Some commentators say that nation states no longer play a crucial role. Failure at the Hague to tackle a crisis as potentially devastating as climate change indicates that capitalism is not a seamless, global whole. The capitalists do not form an international ruling class but a series of national ruling classes, each obliged, in order to keep control of society, to maintain their own social and political base within their own national boundaries. The structures of nation states remain of decisive importance to the capitalist economic system.

Even the phenomenon of cross-border mergers are an illustration of that. The Daimler-Benz and Chrysler 'merger of equals' was a German takeover. Alstom (transport and engineering), Messier-Dowty (aircraft manufacture), and Eurotunnel became British-French joint ventures. They are now dominated by French executives. ABB, Royal Dutch/Shell, and Unilever are the nearest things to global companies but are, more accurately, bi-national corporations.

Carbon emissions and pollution do not respect borders. Climate change is a global phenomenon, calling for global solutions. With the US to the fore, however, the dominant economic agencies - the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organisation (WTO) and World Economic Forum (WEF) - serve the interests of those with power, the ruling class, in the rich countries. US interests predominate, followed in the pecking order by the rest of the G7: Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Canada and Italy.


On the issue of reducing greenhouse gases, the US insists on 'meaningful participation' by poor countries. The neo-colonial world sees this as an attempt to limit its economic growth. Low-lying Pacific islands will be among the first casualties of global warming and want compensation. Big oil producers are demanding a hand-out for the harm they will suffer from lost oil sales. All of these interests interconnect and/or clash to varying degrees.

During the cold war, the two superpowers vied for spheres of influence. There were relatively clear lines of demarcation. Post-cold war, the old certainties have gone. The implementation of neo-liberal policies has accelerated with the US superpower capitalising on its economic and military dominance.

Immediately after the Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe disintegrated, the world appeared to be more straightforward. The cold war ended and capitalism had won, apparently. The Soviet Union was a brutal, military dictatorship based on a top-down, bureaucratically run economy. It was not socialist. However, for all its grotesque distortions - which were used to try to discredit genuine, democratic socialism - Stalinism was based on a nationalised planned economy and represented a non-capitalist alternative to the capitalist system. Its disintegration and collapse gave an opportunity for the capitalist leaders to launch a triumphalist ideological campaign that socialism is unworkable and that the capitalist market is the only viable way to organise society.


top     A new anti-capitalist wave

THE DEMONSTRATIONS against the WTO in Seattle at the end of 1999 shocked the representatives of world capitalism. That demonstration - one in a series of similar protests - struck at the heart of neo-liberal capitalism, the US. Since then, every meeting of the World Bank, IMF, WTO, WEF and European Union (EU) is met with counter-demonstrations linking a myriad of campaigns together against globalisation, under the anti-capitalist banner. These protests enjoy massive support throughout society. The most powerful individuals in the world meet behind barricades of razor wire and riot police, under siege.

This development alarms The Economist: "The protesters are right that the most pressing moral, political and economic issue of our time is third-world poverty. And they are right that the tide of globalisation, powerful as the engines driving it may be, can be turned back. The fact that both these things are true is what makes the protesters - and, crucially, the strand of popular opinion that sympathises with them - so terribly dangerous". (23 September 2000)

Under pressure, 'world leaders' now couch their neo-liberal policies in words of concern for the world's environment and peoples - a change of spin not substance. The ruthless exploitation of working-class people, landless peasants and indigenous peoples, and the plunder of natural resources, continue apace. Politicians also seize any opportunity to portray themselves as environmentally friendly.


During the Hague talks, Britain crowed about its record in slowing down the rate of carbon emissions. This is, in fact, an accidental by-product of the closure of Britain's coal industry, undertaken by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in the 1980s. Her aim was to smash the most militant trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers, as part of a general strategy of breaking union resistance to the government's neo-liberal policies. Subsequently, whole swathes of manufacturing (already in decline) were decimated as the British economy was shifted from a manufacturing base to the financial and service sectors.

In human terms, hundreds of thousands of skilled workers were thrown on the dole, their jobs replaced in the main by low-wage, unskilled and temporary employment, with whole communities destroyed. Similarly, Germany's 'successes' are mainly due to shutting down East Germany's obsolete industries. Once again, the results are deteriorating living standards of working-class people. US politicians may soon start bragging about emissions cuts as the recession curbs industrial production.

The impoverishment of working-class people - or holding back the economic development of the neo-colonial world - is not the way to cut carbon emissions. Everybody should enjoy a decent standard of living, measured in income and quality of life terms. Some environmental campaigners want to go back to before the industrial revolution, when people were, allegedly, 'close to the land'. But the history of slavery, feudalism and capitalism - class-based societies - shows that only the minority in control at the top enjoy the good things in life. The majority languish in poverty. In primitive societies before class division, life was basically a battle for survival for all.


By assessing all the social, economic and environmental factors, long-term planning could be introduced. If the economy was run by and in the interests of the majority, workers would not be thrown into unemployment and social exclusion. If an industry was no longer viable, workers would be re-employed, their skills applied to socially useful work. Technological advances - IT for instance - could free people from the drudgery of many jobs. Labour-saving devices would be used to shorten the working week. A balance would be struck between economic development and ensuring a sustainable world. Working-class people would have the necessary time to participate and implement the decisions made at local, regional, national and international, democratically-elected and accountable meetings.

The ability of the US to dictate to the world is being undermined. Tensions with the EU over the Balkans and plans for a European rapid-reaction force, disagreement at Kyoto and the Hague, trade disputes, as well as the bombing of Iraq (backed by Britain), are some of the many grievances between the various capitalist powers, and between the northern and southern hemispheres. According to the UN, the seven richest people own more than the poorest 48 countries. The gap between rich and poor countries was 3:1 in 1820, 11.1 in 1913, and is 74:1 today. After a decade of uncontested rule, the capitalist system has made the world more unstable and unequal than ever.

Some commentators have started writing of a 'crisis of multilateralism': that the erosion of US hegemony in the world will mean that nation states go it alone. The US recession and its global repercussions will add to the pressures and instability. With a contracting market, each nation state - or bloc of states - will do what it can to protect its own industries for its own economic, social and political reasons.


top     A global answer

BUT WHAT ARE the alternatives if the world's power brokers cannot reach agreement?

In January 2001, as the WEF met in Davos, Switzerland, the anti-capitalist movement organised the first World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The aim was to formulate global alternatives to neo-liberalism. The event attracted thousands of people: trade unionists, landless peasants, socialists, community and environmental campaigners, anti-racists, women's groups and so on.

Over several years, we have seen the direct action, single-issue campaigns widen out into a general anti-capitalist movement. This has focused on globalisation as the cause of inequality in all its forms. The anti-capitalists are looking for a way forward. For how change can be implemented.

There has been an endless stream of new publications dealing with globalisation and the anti-capitalist movement. New leaders, or 'anti-leaders', have emerged, all with a view and a new book. Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, delights in the fact that the anti-corporate movement is "taking a little bit from Marxism, a little bit from socialism, from environmentalism, from anarchism, and also a lot of inspiration from even older places and more indigenous theories about self-determination". (The Observer, 13 November 2000)

The only way to fully understand the world is to have as open, democratic and wide-ranging an exchange of opinions as possible. To build a movement capable of winning battles, however, conclusions have to be drawn and decisions taken on how best to take the movement forward. Although the world today has many unique characteristics, lessons can still be learned from the past. Otherwise, every new generation that takes to the streets would have to learn the same lessons over and over again, often through bitter defeats. We can use the vantage point offered by history. We should then be able to recognise that some ideas are more effective weapons to aid struggle than others.


The conclusions that Klein & Co draw are not accidental. Klein basically calls for more regulation of the system. Sensing that this is inadequate in and of itself, she wants grassroots movements mobilised to ensure that it happens. There are similarities with the citizens' movement outlined by Nader during the US presidential campaign. Klein urges people, "through unions, laws and international treaties" to "take control of their own labour conditions and the ecological impact of industrialisation". (No Logo)

For working-class people to have that degree of control, more than trade unions and laws will be necessary. Any improvements in pay, work or environmental safeguards last as long as the workers' movement fights to maintain them. Any such reforms are taken back by the capitalists as soon as they are able to do so. That is why individual campaigns need to be brought into a wider movement fighting to change the whole way society is run. Anti-capitalism is a step in that direction. The cause of the problem has been identified and unites many diverse campaigns together.

John Lloyd, writing in the Financial Times, warns: "Porto Alegre, and the demonstrations and fervour associated with it, are now a fixture. If the causes it champions cannot find in reforms a satisfaction of some of the needs to which it points, then the two planets will collide more often, and more violently". (Financial Times, 24 February 2001)

Given the present economic and political situation, this is not a good time to call for far-reaching reform. Today, even the smallest improvement requires hard and bitter struggle. Can the market reverse the African Aids pandemic by providing free drugs and developing decent healthcare facilities? Can capitalism stop poor peasants' shanty towns being washed away in floods by building decent accommodation with well-paid work? How can this system, based on profit, individual wealth and power, stop the planet's destruction? A viable alternative to capitalism in all its forms - globalised and localised - needs to be adopted. A socialist alternative.


When Klein talks about 'taking control', it must mean that working-class people hold in their hands the economic, political and state power currently exercised by the World Bank, IMF, WTO and WEF. Then there would be no need for secret sessions behind closed doors. The deliberations could be transmitted throughout the world, as part of an open, democratic discussion on how best to use the world's resources - the basis on which a socialist society would organise.

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