Still time to stop catastrophic climate change

A widely-reviewed recent book by David Wallace-Wells presents a grim picture of the future consequences of continuing global warming. But the real story of the future, argues JUDY BEISHON, is that socialist change can stop catastrophic climate change.

The Uninhabitable Earth – A story of the future

By David Wallace-Wells

Published by Penguin Random House, 2019, £9-99

David Wallace-Wells isn’t an environmentalist or scientist, but a New-York based journalist who has drawn from hundreds of sources to warn about the future impact of global warming on human lives. He made his book grim reading, opening with: “It is worse, much worse, than you think”. From there the message gets worse still, until about two-thirds of the way through he comments: “If you have made it this far you are a brave reader”.

Chapter after chapter hammers home the estimated environmental effects of each half point rise in planet temperature. The extent of heatwaves, floods, storms, deaths and migration. Already the planet has warmed by about 1.1 degrees celsius above the pre-industrial level and the effects so far are summarised, including that since 1980 there has been a 50-fold increase in dangerous heatwaves and a quadrupling of flooding. A study last year revealed that the melt rate of the Antarctic ice sheet has tripled in just a decade, indicating an increased pace of sea level rise.

The book stresses how recent the worst damage has been. Over half the carbon in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels has been emitted in just the last three decades: “Never in the earth’s entire recorded history has there been warming at anything like this speed – by one estimate, around ten times faster than at any point in the last 66 million years”.

Wallace-Wells rightly states that global warming and its cause – burning fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases which then trap heat – is “established beyond any shadow of a doubt” but he adopts appropriate caution regarding the future. “Exactly how that warning will play out, over the next decades and then the next centuries, is less certain, both because we don’t know how quickly humans will drop their addiction to fossil fuels, and because we don’t know precisely how the climate system will recalibrate in response to human perturbation”. He also cautions that the physics of glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost melting – and the tipping points – is far from fully understood, not least because for human knowledge these are unprecedented processes.

Nevertheless, necessary caution on timescales and the size of effects doesn’t invalidate the usefulness of making predictions based on the scientific studies done so far. In particular, it’s clear that the measures being taken by the world’s capitalist powers are woefully inadequate. Wallace-Wells mentions that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if every commitment made at the 2016 Paris climate summit is met, global warming would still go beyond the two degree limit the summit decreed as an essential cap. Rather, the commitments are estimated to take warming to over three degrees, which “would eventually flood not just Miami and Dhaka but Shanghai and Hong Kong and a hundred other cities around the world”.

Moreover, not a single industrialised country is even on track to meet the commitment it made. Since the Paris summit, as also happened after the 1997 Kyoto treaty, carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise. Also, the book points out that, with the exception of Australia, countries with the lowest levels of gross domestic product will warm up the most. So countries with the least wealth will face some of the biggest climate disasters, though no part of the globe will escape them if warming isn’t stopped.

This is already the case, from the 2017 floods in south Asia which affected over 40 million people, to the recent wildfires in California from which thousands had to flee. While ordinary people – including workers in the emergency services – do all they can to help the victims, capitalist governments and institutions the world over usually respond deplorably.

Wallace-Wells noted that after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017 flooding farm land and wiping out power and running water, “Trump barely mentioned Puerto Rico in the week after Maria, and while that may not surprise, neither did the Sunday talk shows”. He also notes that as climate change punishes the poor more than the rich, it is “showcasing an increasingly stark income inequality unconscionable already to more and more”.

Solutions?

The book’s title and much of its content raises the idea that the earth could eventually become inhabitable and humans extinct. But the author denies this is his outlook. Interspersed through the pages are glimmers of optimism. He says that climate activists are right to say “we have, today, all the tools we need to avoid catastrophic climate change, even major climate change”. He comments: “That we know global warming is our doing should be a comfort, not a cause for despair” because “we remain in command”.

Although admitting that he wants to create alarm, he resists a fatalist approach even if global warming isn’t arrested in the near future, writing: “The fight is, definitively, not yet lost – in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less”.

However, while he recognises that the tools and answers exist for stopping climate change and that the only missing ingredient is “political will”, he gives utterly confusing and clueless messages on how the “political will” can be created and a solution arrived at.

He accepts that capitalism is to blame and writes that “the world’s wealthy possess the lion’s share of guilt”, but suggests this is due to their individual carbon footprints – “the richest ten percent producing half of all emissions” – rather than the existence of a ruling class in society.

At the same time, while he rightly doesn’t view individual choices as bringing a solution, he wrongly concludes that the responsibility for climate change is “shared by each of us” and bemoans that “we have such a hard time acknowledging or understanding our own responsibility and complicity in the changes now unfolding”. This leads to him searching around for psychological deficiencies in human beings which lead people away from carrying out the necessary actions.

There is the occasional passing remark in the right direction. One of our psychological limitations is cited as being that capitalism seems unassailable, that “the perceptual size of market capitalism has been a kind of obstacle… too big to fail”. And then the welcome qualification is made that “it does not quite seem that way now, standing in the long shadow of the financial crisis and watching global warming beginning to darken the horizon”. This at least is some recognition that consciousness is not static. The book was written before millions participated this year in the school student climate actions and ‘earth strikes’ worldwide and before the wave of mass revolts against the governments in Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, Iraq, and Hong Kong, among others. These movements might give the likes of Wallace-Wells more confidence in the willingness of ordinary people to struggle. But the crucial question then is: what must the struggles achieve?

Historical materialism

The whole book shows the massive limitations of writing about the environment without having an understanding of the class nature of society and what capitalism is, as a system. Marxists have a materialist conception of history, identifying the beginning of class-based societies as arising at the end of the very long era of hunter-gatherer existence. Wallace-Wells inadvertently recognises some of the consequences of class-based society when he refers to hunter-gatherers: “We are still, now, in much of the world, shorter, sicker, and dying younger than our hunter-gatherer forebears, who were also, by the way, better custodians of the planet on which we all live. And they watched over it for much longer”.

He goes on to ponder how and when human ‘progress’ came to an end and whether it was in fact progress at all. If, on the other hand, a materialist view of history is taken, it’s possible to see the underlying, material stages of development regarding the production of food and goods. After the non-class hunter-gatherer era, the first settled, class societies were based on slavery, followed by feudalism. Subsequently, the next stage, capitalism, saw very rapid growth of technology along with the mass production of goods. These developments were not an even, strictly schematic process internationally and there have always been vast class-based and geographical inequalities in the amount of benefit delivered to people across the planet.

Crucially, on the question of ‘progress’, Marxists also recognise that while capitalism brought great advances, it has also from its outset contained in-built contradictions which were brilliantly explained by Marx and Engels. These contradictions always made it inevitable that what was once, in many respects a progressive system, would pass to the opposite and eventually become the rotten fetter on the further development of humanity and a sustainable planet that it is today.

Wallace-Wells mulls over whether fossil fuels were a cause of capitalism and essential for its development. They were not a cause, as capitalism arose in Britain before fossil fuels were exploited in its interests. But as the market-driven, capital accumulating and profit-motivated capitalist system developed, steam from coal burning came to be favoured over power from water-wheels, later to be joined by oil and gas as central energy sources.

Global warming isn’t in the interests of capitalism, points out Wallace-Wells, as climate change could – according to one study cited – reduce global output by more than 20% by the end of this century, i.e. it will cost big business less to act than not to. But he doesn’t draw the necessary conclusions from the fact that this practical logic has not led the international climate summits to agree to the necessary action and carry it out.

While limited environmentally-friendly measures are nowadays taken by virtually every government and corporation – including by fossil fuel multinationals – they all only act within the restraints of the system which serves their short and medium term interests. It is a system subject to chaotic market forces, not need, and is based on nation states in competition with each other. These factors prevent the massive amount of investment, fundamental reorientation and global planning that would be essential to end climate change.

Not only is capitalism destroying the environment and many species along with it, but it is completely unable to offer a decent future to most of humanity irrespective of that. As well as many millions of people already being very badly affected by flooding, wildfires, heatwaves and other climate shocks, vast numbers are also suffering from poverty, wars, insecurity and other nightmares which capitalism is unable to end.

As a system, capitalism has outlived its usefulness and is becoming an ever greater threat to the overwhelming majority of people and the environment. The next logical and vital sequence in the way in which society is organised is socialism, which would place the major companies and the organisation of the economy and society as a whole – at every level – in the hands of democratic decision-making, led by the working class majority.

Wallace-Wells argues that “the socialist countries of the world” past and present haven’t behaved responsibly with carbon. But he’s referring to ‘socialist’ governments in name only and also to Stalinism, not to what genuine socialism would be.

He does realise that some kind of fundamental change is necessary. Borrowing the phrase ‘thinking like a planet’ from astrophysicist Adam Frank, he writes: “‘Thinking like a planet’ is so alien to the perspectives of modern life – so far from thinking like a neoliberal subject in a ruthless competitive system – that the phrase sounds at first lifted from kindergarten. But … thinking like one people, all the relevant inputs are within our control, and there is no mysticism required to interpret or command the fate of the earth”.

Here he is touching very slightly on the outlook that humanity could take in a socialist world, without realising that socialism is the form of change necessary. Rather, he drifts all over the place, giving coverage even to wacky ‘posthumanity’ ideas, before returning at the end of the book back to reality: “There is one civilisation we know of, and it is still around, and kicking – for now, at least. Why should we be suspicious of our exceptionality, or choose to understand it only by assuming an imminent demise? Why not choose to feel empowered by it?”

Necessary steps

The book outlines some of the obvious technical-managerial steps that would be necessary to solve the environmental crisis, though without, as outlined above, the understanding that only socialist societies could deliver enough of them fully. This point also applies to measures proposed in the Green New Deal advocated by left Democrats in the US or those in the Green Industrial Revolution being discussed in the Labour Party in Britain, many of which are welcome demands in as far as they go.

Wallace-Wells states: “Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue”. Drastically reducing heat waste and moving to 100% recycling of goods and food – all fully technically feasible – would be part of a socialist plan.

Also mentioned is: “Over the last twenty-five years, the cost per unit of renewable energy has fallen so far that you can hardly measure the price, today, using the same scales (since 2009, for instance, solar energy costs have fallen more than 80%)”. In a damning indictment of capitalism the author adds: “Over the same 25 years, the proportion of global energy use derived from renewables has not grown an inch”.

Only socialist societies could put massive investment into further research into renewable energy and implement rapid transitions from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Fundamental ‘root and branch’ changes would also need to be applied to forestry management and farming methods, not forgetting a transformation of the transport sector towards non-polluting distribution and travel. Not only could all this be achieved on a sustainable basis but it could be part of transforming people’s lives in every other respect too: providing a wide variety of nutritious foods, decent housing, and frequent, safe public transport – all, and much more, at genuinely affordable prices.

Wallace-Wells doesn’t offer many of his own opinions, but one which socialists would disagree with him on is nuclear power. Although he doesn’t see a need for more nuclear power stations because they are more expensive to build than wind or solar installations, he thinks the case for dismantling existing nuclear plants is “considerably weaker”. For him, the urgency of reducing global warming overrides the unsolved problem of mounting nuclear waste and the ever-present risk of devastating nuclear accidents. This isn’t, though, a choice that has to be made. Socialist societies will be able to end the use of nuclear power and generate sufficient replacement energy from non-nuclear renewable sources.

Regarding geoengineering technologies like carbon capture or ‘solar radiation management’, Wallace-Wells acknowledges that at present these are nowhere near developed enough to be seen as viable parts of a solution to climate change. Also, he recognises that some such interventions could have substantial negative side-effects. This caution is welcome, while at the same time it’s important to be open to new advances in science and technology which could safely help a transformed society to halt and reverse the damage done by capitalism.

A bottom line in a socialist programme of ending all dirty, polluting or environmentally risky industries would be to guarantee no job losses or reduced pay for the workforces in them. Workers would be offered skilled jobs in decommissioning or in the renewable or other sectors of the economy. And as public ownership would mean the ending of both shareholders’ dividends and astronomical directors’ salaries, regular pay increases for workers and reductions in working hours would be possible.

Wallace-Wells occasionally raises ordinary people’s defence of their living standards as obstacles to stopping climate change, including citing a vote last year in Washington State against a carbon emissions tax and the French ‘yellow vest’ protests against a higher fuel tax. A socialist programme would implacably oppose any extra burden on working class or middle class people. It would rightly neither win their united support – and so help to build the mass workers’ formations needed to transform society – nor would it deliver an end to climate change.

Climate link to instability

Important references are made in the book to the link between climate change and ‘instability’. It is noted that the war in Syria followed a five year period of drought, which caused crop failures. In later pages Wallace-Wells mentions that Lebanon had the same crop failures but at that stage remained ‘stable’, so he rightly points out that climate shocks make upheavals more likely but not with a predictable timescale.

However on this issue, as on many others, he is muddled, at times exaggerating the role of climate change in present and past conflicts. Certainly conflicts over resources have been at the root of most wars throughout history and climate change will increase resource scarcity. Migration due to climate change is also destabilising for capitalism. But when, for instance, he writes of “a new form of political nihilism emerging in the region of the world already baked hardest by global warming, the Middle East”, he views developments through the prism of climate change without bringing into the picture crucial political and economic factors, including – in this example – the historic and present role played by imperialism.

Also, at times he makes points which detract from the serious message he is claiming to give. For example, when he makes a passing reference to the possibility of “insurrection”, he adds: “which would have the perhaps unintended effect of clearing from the stage all of the most obvious villains and their guardians, leaving no easy marks to which we might apportion blame and expect commensurate payback”. As if blame and payback are suddenly more important than stopping climate change!

Some capitalist governments will go further than others in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But clearly the issue is international, as are goods production networks. A country achieving reductions will still be importing goods from higher carbon-emitting countries. However, as well as capitalism’s devastation of the climate having a global impact, so does its inability to offer decent living standards to present and future generations. The mass revolts across many countries show how rotten the ruling elites are everywhere and a willingness to challenge them. When these movements become armed with democratic workers’ organisations and socialist ideas, the timescale for socialist change will not be too late to safeguard the environment.