|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 174 Jan/Dec 2013/14
Profit-fuelled global warming
Predictably, empty words were all that came out of the UN-sponsored climate talks in Warsaw – the 19th climate summit since Rio 1992. Despite the latest IPCC report that the threat is even greater than previously thought, no concrete measures were put in place to stop the rise of greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming. MANNY THAIN reports on the impotence of the capitalist system to deal with this threat.
Typhoon Haiyan killed thousands of people as it tore through the Philippines. Unusually fierce tornadoes in the US Mid-West left a trail of destruction and took a number of lives. Intense storms dumped 450mm of rain in 90 minutes on Sardinia. Three extreme examples over the course of a week. At this point, we are obliged to include the disclaimer: no single extreme weather event can be linked to global warming. Nonetheless, it is clear to all except the most determined sceptic that these kinds of events are becoming ever more extreme, and are linked to global warming.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on 27 September, it was met by the customary hand-wringing by establishment politicians. Practically everyone agrees, it seems, that humanity and many other life-forms face dire consequences if nothing is done to halt the runaway emission of the greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) which cause global warming. Yet, world ‘leaders’ are stuck, unable to act against this existential threat.
As the recent UN climate talks in Warsaw showed (once again), the leading representatives of the corrupt, wasteful, oil and gas-guzzling, profit-driven capitalist system cannot agree any meaningful measures. Reflecting the cutthroat competition between major corporations, and the related fierce national rivalries, government leaders clashed over who should pay for solving the climate crisis – historic emitters, the US and EU, or the rising economies of India and China. As if to emphasise the impotence of the system, at the same time as it was hosting the climate talks, the Polish government organised a summit on coal. Not to reduce fossil fuel use but to burn more of it.
Revolutionaries in the past spoke of the ruling classes tobogganing to disaster with their eyes closed. If anything, the situation today is even worse. The weight of scientific evidence has forced their eyes open, yet they hurtle on full-throttle. The time for action is running out.
A catastrophic report
The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report did not contain anything that was really new, although it was its fullest report to date – over 2,000 pages, drawing on the work of hundreds of scientists. No-one can accuse it of being a radical document. On the contrary, the fact that it is a consensus position of so many scientists, signed-off by government representatives, means that it is very conservative.
What it contains, however, has far-reaching consequences. The report says there is a 95% certainty that climate change is occurring and is caused mainly by greenhouse gases released by human activity – above all, the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation – up from 90% certainty in the IPCC’s 2007 report. It says that it is ‘extremely likely’ that human activity has caused more than half of the observed temperature rise from 1951 to 2010.
There has been a 40% rise in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide between 1750 and 2011 – from 278 parts per million to 390 ppm. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are at levels "unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years".
Global average surface temperatures have risen by 0.89°C since 1901 and 0.6°C since 1950. The IPCC expects, at the very least, a 2°C rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by 2100, but it could be significantly higher. A rise above 2°C could trigger the release of methane from thawing Arctic tundra, while the polar ice caps, which reflect solar radiation back into space, could disappear. That will further accelerate global warming which could spiral out of control.
The IPCC report says that to have at least a 50% chance of keeping to less than 2°C of warming, we must emit no more than 820 billion to 1,445 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (in terms of CO2 equivalent) during the rest of this century. As around 50 billion tonnes are being emitted each year, we could reach that limit within 20 years.
Sea levels have risen by 19cm in the past century, the pace accelerating due to melting ice, and seawater expanding as the world warms. Levels are projected to rise by 26-82cm by 2100, with 62cm ‘likely’ – putting the lives of millions of people at risk, many of them the world’s poorest. The oceans have acidified having absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted.
The interaction of human and natural influences is complicated, however. Indeed, the IPCC found that the rate of the Earth’s surface warming has actually slowed in the past 15 years, with the rise dropping from 0.12°C per decade between 1951 and 2012, to 0.05°C between 1998 and 2012.
The report says that this is likely to have been caused by volcanic eruptions spewing ash into the air (which can dim sunlight and cool temperatures), fluctuations in solar radiation and natural variability in the planetary cycle. That there has been a slight increase in temperature in spite of these factors, the IPCC concludes, actually shows the strength of human activity. It states: "Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the northern hemisphere, 1983-2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1,400 years".
Sceptical about sceptics
Predictably, those who oppose 95% of scientific study and opinion have seized on the IPCC’s acknowledgement of this slower pace in surface warming. They are not interested in putting across the complexity of the issues, preferring to cherry-pick data, present it out of context, mix up medium and long-term trends, and confuse weather with climate.
There is often a capitalist politician willing to help. The IPCC report came out just before the Tory Party conference. At a fringe meeting, Owen Paterson, Con-Dem coalition environment minister, said: "People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries[!]. I think the relief of this latest report is that it shows a really quite modest increase, half of which has already happened, they are talking 1 to 2.5C. Remember that for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer. It would also lead to longer growing seasons and you could extend growing a little further north into some of the colder areas". (The Guardian, 30 September)
Clearly, the climate has changed throughout the Earth’s 4.5 billion years’ existence – not only over a few centuries. However, what we are talking about, here, is the human-induced global warming set in train since the industrial revolution over the past 250 years. In any case, global warming does not mean that everywhere and at all times the weather will be warmer. Paterson must be either the most wilful denier of human-driven climate change, or one of the most ignorant people on the planet. He also happens to be environment minister in what prime minister David Cameron promised – when the coalition was formed in 2010 – would be "the greenest government ever".
We need to be very sceptical of the vast majority of those who go under the title of ‘climate change sceptics’. Many of them hide vested interests, more often than not linked to the fossil-fuel industries, backed up by right-wing politicians and much of the right-wing media.
The noxious 90
A recent report in the journal, Climatic Change, says that a mere 90 companies have produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial carbon dioxide and methane from 1751 to 2010. Nearly 30% of those emissions were belched out by the top 20 companies. Half the estimated emissions occurred in the past 25 years. (Suzanne Goldenberg, Global Warming Down to ‘90 Big Firms’, The Guardian, 21 November)
The list includes oil firms such as BP, Chevron, Exxon, and Royal Dutch Shell, and coal producers such as British Coal Corp, Peabody Energy, and BHP Billiton. About 31 were state-owned companies, such as Saudi Aramco, Gazprom (Russia) and Statoil (Norway). Nine were government-run, mainly coal, industries in Poland, China, the former Soviet Union and North Korea. So, to be more precise, it is not really ‘human activity’ which is the driving force. It would be better to describe it as profit-driven global warming – with the noxious 90 in the driving seat.
Big companies pay big bucks to think-tanks and other organisations to undermine the work of climate scientists. Myron Ebell, director of the Centre for Energy and Environment at the right-wing US think-tank, Competitive Enterprise Institute, said: "We should be worried that the alarmist establishment continues using junk science to promote disastrous policies that will make the world much poorer and will consign poor people in poor countries to perpetual poverty". (The Guardian, 21 September)
Of course, the last people the CEI is concerned about are poor people in poor countries. Its funding has come from the likes of Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, Texaco, General Motors, and foundations funded by the Koch family plutocrats, whose colossal wealth is based on fossil fuel exploitation.
This bank-rolled reactionary lobbying has an impact. In the week before the release of the IPCC report, the UK Energy Research Centre published a survey showing that 19% of British people do not think the world’s climate is changing. That is up from 11% last year, and 5% in 2005. (The Observer, 22 September)
Kicking the fossil fuel habit
Humanity faces a huge problem and a real dilemma. To reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases we need to cut down on burning fossil fuels, and stop cutting down the world’s rainforests. Meaningful action, therefore, would require fundamental changes in the way the economy and society works.
This cannot be achieved by incremental measures on the margins. It would require a major shift. Part of that would be the need to invest huge amounts of financial and human resources into developing and improving the efficiency of renewables: solar, wind and sea power. The usual argument against renewables is that they have not made the required progress to take over from fossil fuels. But that is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if renewables are starved of such investment – because of capitalist economic and political interests – it is obvious that their progress is held back.
It is also necessary to rid the system of all the duplication in production processes and in research, inbuilt obsolescence of products, competition between similar companies and nation states, and money squandered on advertising and so on. The way goods are distributed globally, the food industry being a prime example, is in need of root-and-branch reorganisation. Undoubtedly, an increased use of rail for freight would be key, alongside the development of integrated public transport systems.
These issues and many more go to the heart of the economic system. How is it possible to plan sustainably the world’s resources, production and distribution of goods and services when they are owned and controlled by an unaccountable minority elite? How is it possible to have a plan when the vast majority of the world’s people – who do all the producing, servicing and distributing – have no say in how the economy is run?
A systemic straitjacket
Unfortunately, most commentators cannot see beyond the capitalist system and so are bound by its rules. George Monbiot, environmental campaigner and columnist, writes eloquently on the problems, and often exposes the hypocrisy of the capitalist politicians. He has highlighted the double standards of the Con-Dem government, which pays lip service to environmental concerns while pushing fracking and fossil fuel use.
From being an opponent to nuclear power, Monbiot now endorses it as an alternative to fossil fuels. The utter failure of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs (or rather, ran) the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, shows how dangerous this position is. Fukushima Daichi went into triple meltdown in 2011 following a tsunami. The disaster is not yet over. It has not even been contained, with reports of continued leakage of radioactive material into the sea. Whole tracts of land are contaminated and will remain uninhabitable for an indefinite period of time.
There is some logic to Monbiot’s changed position, however. He points out: "Climate change and global warming are inadequate terms for what it [the IPCC report] reveals. The story it tells is of climate breakdown… It’s a catastrophe we are singularly ill-equipped to prevent". (The Guardian, 28 September) If there is no viable alternative to the capitalist system, you have to look for solutions which are available right now. If the future of an inhabitable world is in the balance, in desperation some believe that the occasional nuclear disaster is a price worth paying.
Lord Stern, former World Bank chief economist who calls for action on global warming, puts it another way: "What we could do instead is create a story of rising living standards, stronger communities and a more resilient society, embracing the challenge of poverty reduction – with everlasting benefits. Our children could inherit a low-carbon economy that will be safer, cleaner, more secure and more efficient, created through investment in technological innovation". (The Observer, 22 September)
He says this can be achieved through cooperation in the private sector and more cooperation between nation states. Undoubtedly, there is cooperation between the major polluting and emitting corporations and their political backers: often to lobby against and spread disinformation about climate science, to fix prices, etc. The profit-based capitalist system is driven by short-term gain. It can never be changed into one which takes long-term care of the planet, its people and resources.
The Financial Times ran an editorial which shows that, it too, is grappling with the threat posed by global warming. It concluded: "To be sceptical of the UN talks is not to doubt the scientific consensus that climate change is real and threatening. But it cannot be solved with empty words. A new approach is needed to replace 20 years of futile talks". (Wasting Energy on a Successor to Kyoto, 20 November)
We would agree wholeheartedly, but the FT cannot possibly articulate what that new approach could be. To develop a carbon-neutral global economy, economic and political power must be taken out of the hands of the noxious 90, the other major corporations and the establishment political parties. Only a democratically organised planned economy could do that, with the full participation of the vast majority of the people – the workers, service providers and consumers. The fight to halt profit-driven global warming is the fight to replace capitalism with a world socialist system based on human solidarity and respect for the planet on which we live.