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Socialism Today 114 - December 2007/January 2008

Looking for a quick fix?

THE UN climate change talks in Bali to discuss a follow up to the discredited Kyoto treaty are taking place after the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) update on global warming warned for the first time that some of its effects are already irreversible.

This sombre warning is particularly worrying because the IPCC is being criticised by some climate scientists for making conservative estimates of the dangers, due to out-of-date data. For instance, the IPCC is still saying that the Greenland ice sheet will take 1,000 years to melt, whereas many climate scientists think it will happen much sooner. Greg Marland of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, quoted in New Scientist, backed up the criticism by claiming that the projections in the IPCC report used data published in 2000, some of which were probably collected in 1998. Since then however, carbon intensities have grown faster than expected partly due to China’s recent rapid increase in emissions, seriously undermining previous predictions.

China’s new polluting role was also recently highlighted by the International Energy Agency, which calculated that China is about to overtake the USA as the largest producer of greenhouse gases. The country’s unsustainable growth, evidenced by the opening of two coal-fired power stations a week currently, coincides with data that the carbon sinks, such as rainforests, which have absorbed half of human greenhouse gas emissions up to now, can no longer keep pace.

This data is linked to growing fears that new tipping points are being reached where environmental degradation will become irreversible. A key one could be the collapse of the global ocean circulation system which may shut down not only the Gulf Stream but also affect the Asian monsoon, leading to warming of the Southern Ocean and possibly the destabilisation of the West Antarctica ice sheet. At the same time, El Nino in the Pacific could become a permanent feature, hastening the disappearance of the Amazon rainforest, a key carbon sink. Connected to the disruption of ocean currents is another tipping point that is linked to the melting of polar ice, whose absence, because it is no longer there to reflect the sun’s rays back beyond the atmosphere, further reinforces global warming. These and other tipping point effects all tend to feed on each other and could lead to a rapidly deteriorating situation.

Although one extreme weather event cannot be statistically linked to tipping point effects, it is nevertheless very possible that hurricane Katrina was caused by the rise in temperatures in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico linked to this phenomenon. This catastrophe though, as predicted in Socialism Today, resulted in no safe, effective action by the US government to tackle climate change because the big corporations were not prepared to see their profits hit, even to a relatively small extent, by a move to renewable sources of energy. Instead there was a policy switch in the US and in most other industrialised capitalist countries to develop nuclear power because, coincidentally, it does not produce much greenhouse gas and involves relatively low switch-over costs.

The dangers of nuclear power have been described many times in Socialism Today since it does not represent a safe sustainable solution to the problems of climate change. But this is a secondary consideration for a profit system where the bottom line always comes first, hence the decision to re-adopt nuclear power. But it now appears that a search is on by the US government for an alternative ‘magic bullet’ fix to global warming, maybe because the cost of building new nuclear plant is unacceptable, particularly with a possible approaching recession. On the other hand, it could also be linked, after 20 years of inaction, to panic related to the rapidly accelerating effects of global warming that recent evidence is pointing to. If a quick cheap ‘solution’ was proposed, particularly during an economic crisis, then could there be a temptation to try it regardless of any dangers?

In 1883 there was a volcanic explosion at Krakatoa off the coast of present day Indonesia, which was the most severe in recorded history, the noise being heard in Australia. Millions of tons of volcanic ash shot into the atmosphere that wind currents subsequently carried round the world and, significantly for the discussion here, it was noticed that there was an effect on climate because heat from the sun was reflected back into space by sulphate particles in the ash. More recently after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 which sent huge amounts of sulphate particles into the stratosphere, there was a cooling of the earth by a few tenths of a degree for several years. This might seem small, but it is significant in global warming terms.

There is a proposal now by some scientists to mimic the effects of a volcanic explosion by pumping sulphate particles into the atmosphere to reproduce its cooling effects. New research though in the scientific journal, Geophysical Research Letters, has shown that there could be severe consequences if this was done. The study by researchers at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado into the after-effects of the Pinatubo explosion found that there was a marked decrease in rainfall. They concluded that any attempt to inject sulphate particles into the stratosphere could have a disastrous effect on the earth’s water cycles, leading to catastrophic drought and famine.

But is it possible that a future US president would try to mimic volcano activity as a way out of her or his dilemma? It is relatively cheap and easy to implement and Bush has already raised the possibility of putting huge reflecting mirrors into space to deflect the sun’s rays, something that would have a similar climatic effect to a volcanic explosion. Before jumping to conclusions though about a possible doomsday scenario, the likelihood of this happening needs to be put into perspective. Bush raised his idea largely to deflect criticism that he was not taking climate change seriously, and never really intended to act, not least because of the vast cost involved. Also, future US leaders would have to think more carefully than Bush about the effects and political repercussions.

Nevertheless, in the context of an increasingly crisis-ridden desperate system, to raise this eventual possibility is not scare-mongering but a sober warning of the dangers that we face. It is not entirely impossible to imagine a scenario in which a cheap, dirty method could be tried, for example, after a new Katrina struck the USA, but on a far bigger scale and during a severe economic slump. A future president may then be tempted into trying a cheap, quick but catastrophic ‘fix’.

At a recent meeting in London to build support for the December climate change demo, the journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot said that although the capitalist system was the cause of climate crisis, since it could not be removed immediately other urgent action needed to be taken now. Although he undoubtedly did not have anything like the ideas posed here in mind, to divert attention from the struggle to replace capitalism by creating illusions that there is any short-term alternative while remaining within the market system, unfortunately only increases the chances of a future disaster.

Pete Dickenson


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