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Socialism Today 160 - July/August 2012

Socialist answers to climate change

Twenty years have been wasted since the first Rio earth summit and the second, which ended in failure on 22 June. The capitalist powers and their profit-driven system are incapable of tackling the urgent issue of global warming. Socialism Today interviews PETE DICKENSON whose new book, Planning for the Planet, puts forward a positive, socialist alternative to deal with environmental destruction.

Your starting point is that the climate has already been adversely affected by increased carbon emissions. Some people argue, therefore, that the emphasis should be on adapting to the effects of climate change. How would you respond to that?

It is true that the eco-system has, in some ways, been damaged irreversibly by climate change. The main climate research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has recognised this. This is an indictment of the present capitalist market system that has totally failed to take effective action in the 20 years since the first Rio earth summit highlighted the problem, due to the imperialist rivalry between the main industrial powers. However, if action is taken immediately to cut greenhouse gas emissions the worst effects can be avoided, according to the IPCC, and so adaptation should not be the priority.

Because of the neglect of our present rulers, adaptation will have to be carried out alongside efforts to mitigate climate change. If this is attempted on a capitalist basis, the industrialised states may possibly have the resources to contain the worst effects of climate change, but the peoples of the poorest countries, many of whom live on river deltas susceptible to flooding, will be devastated, after being left to fend for themselves. The strongest proposers of adaptation over mitigation are often those linked to Big Oil and climate change deniers who promote adaptation to highlight the supposed futility of efforts to reverse global warming.

People in wealthier countries can buy food and commodities from all over the world. Should we restrict ourselves to locally sourced produce? How viable is ‘the power of small actions’, such as growing vegetables on roundabouts to provide food locally?

There was the notorious case where flowers grown in Israel were flown to a main central market in the Netherlands and then some of them flown back again to Israel to be sold. Since air transport is a major culprit in causing global warming this sort of practice causes huge damage to the environment. It could be largely avoided in any rational system not subject to this market madness. Many poor countries now partly rely on flying cash crops to Europe and North America to support their economies, but it is no model for development in which large amounts of food are being exported from countries where people are going hungry.

In the west, due to agricultural subsidies, huge areas of fertile land are not being used. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has calculated that there is the capacity to grow almost twice the food needed to feed the world’s population. In these circumstances, there is no need to cultivate vegetables on roundabouts. What is needed is to plan food production to minimise or eliminate air freighting and to produce as much as possible locally while maintaining sufficient consumer choice. This could be achieved through the operation of democratically run bodies of consumers and producers, after the distortions of the market system have been removed.

What about carbon taxes on air travel, fuel, overseas products, etc? Proponents say that they empower the consumer. Is that a fair option?

Carbon taxes are proposed as the main instrument to tackle environmental problems by nearly all green groups and activists. There are two major problems with carbon taxes, though. Firstly, in our highly monopolised market system, they would be largely ineffective. Consumers, far from being empowered, simply do not have the option of choosing a green energy supplier, for example, because there are very few of them around. This would not change significantly regardless of how much tax was put on coal, gas or oil.

Proponents may argue that, if the cost of fossil fuels was sufficiently high, then in the long term there would be an incentive for suppliers to switch to green energy. Even if this was true, which is highly doubtful, it would take decades for the change-over to take place. Decisive action needs to be taken now to have a chance of tackling global warming.

A second reason to oppose carbon taxes is that they are unfair. The poor spend a higher proportion of their income on fuel for heating, cooking, etc, and would be hit hardest by any carbon tax, particularly one which was sufficiently high to have any chance of being effective. A better approach would be to introduce a subsidy to encourage green behaviour. For example, in the 1980s the then left-led Greater London Council slashed fares on public transport. This led to a huge increase in the use of environmentally friendly public transport and helped the poor at the same time.

What would you say to those who argue that the biggest threat comes from the economic growth and large populations of countries such as China and India, as more people adopt western lifestyles (increased meat in diets, mass car ownership, etc)?

Capitalist, profit-driven growth will inevitably be unsustainable and degrade the environment. We are seeing this in China which now has the world’s biggest environmental footprint. It is not inevitable, though, that growth is unsustainable: the technology exists to generate clean energy and to produce carbon neutral motor vehicles, for example. Switching over will never happen on a sufficient scale to make a difference while profit is the driving force. This is a key theme of the book. Only when a democratically managed economic system is brought in, will it be possible to achieve economic growth in places like China and India without polluting the planet.

Many greens blame ‘too many people’ for environmental problems, but this is missing the point. There could be a theoretical limit to the population the earth can support, but we have not reached it yet. If the basic requirements for a decent life are provided, such as food, shelter, healthcare and education, then the pressures for population increases will subside and the population of the globe will stabilise. The growth needed to get to this point can be done sustainably, but only outside the framework of capitalism.

In your book, you call for the expansion of rail networks to minimise air travel. So, should socialists support the proposed high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham?

Air travel does cause particular harm to the environment and its polluting effects need to be urgently addressed. A key way of doing this will be to introduce alternatives, such as a network of high-speed trains in highly urbanised areas such as western Europe which could then replace most short- and medium-haul air travel. In general, this means supporting the development of high-speed train networks. However, particular schemes, such as the proposed London to Birmingham link, must be judged individually.

A key factor in doing this must be the environmental impact of the scheme, which has been given insufficient importance in this case. For instance, if the line stops at Birmingham the environmental gain will be minimal at best, if not negative. It needs to extend to Scotland to potentially deliver significant green gains. There are no concrete plans to do this in the foreseeable future. Also, the rights of the population of the areas affected have to be respected, which has not been done sufficiently in the proposed scheme. Maximising profits should not be allowed to negatively impact on people’s lives when, for instance, building a tunnel could eliminate the need to demolish homes.

When faced with the problem of how to move away from fossil fuels, a common response is that nuclear power is an available, effective alternative: it does not produce greenhouse gases, and can produce massive quantities of energy. What’s not to like?

George Monbiot made a big mistake when he started to back nuclear power as a lesser evil. There are two main problems with nuclear: the probability of recurring disasters such as at Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the unresolved issue of how to safely store nuclear waste for 100,000 years. The nuclear experts tell us that the statistical chances of an accident occurring like Fukushima are vanishingly small. However, in less than 60 years of nuclear power generation there have been four major incidents: at Windscale (now Sellafield), Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, and Fukushima. These have been caused by a combination of human error and technical failure and there is no reason to think others will not happen in the future.

Safely storing nuclear waste is an even greater problem than accidents linked to nuclear power generation. No way has yet been found to store highly toxic radioactive waste safely for the tens of thousands of years that will be necessary. It is true that significant quantities of nuclear material already exist and will have to be dealt with, but it would be irresponsible to add to this problem by expanding nuclear power.

The title of your book, Planning for the Planet, is also its conclusion. But the nationalised planned economy in the former Soviet Union presided over massive environmental destruction. How would you answer those who say planning on such a huge scale inevitably leads to such catastrophic consequences?

There was not a genuine socialist planned economy in the former Soviet Union. The Russian revolution was, for a number of reasons, isolated in an economically backward country. Workers’ democracy was replaced by dictatorial rule under Stalin, based on the growth of a privileged bureaucracy whose main aim was to preserve its power and privileges. Under those conditions, as I explain in the book, efficient, democratic planning was impossible. In spite of its achievements in laying the foundations of a modern economy, Stalinist planning became more and more distorted and dysfunctional – and harmful to the environment.

So, how could a democratic socialist system plan and use technology, the productive forces and natural resources in a positive, sustainable way?

The book makes the case that only a democratically managed, planned economy can effectively address environmental problems. This, I hope, is a powerful argument for socialist change and will convince green activists of the urgent need for a socialist approach. The book goes into some detail on how planning mechanisms will operate in order to present as persuasive a case as possible. This is not an attempt to write a cookbook for the future, since the detail of what a socialist society will look like will largely be determined in the course of the struggle to change society. However, after the events of the last 20 or 30 years, many young people in particular are unaware of socialist ideas and so it is necessary to make clear in general terms how a future society could operate. The book explains this in a lot more detail.

Click here to order Planning for the Planet


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