SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 217 April 2018

Economic nationalist climate threat

Rising protectionism is not only a threat to the world economy it also threatens international cooperation to tackle global warming. That is the conclusion being drawn by sections of the capitalist ruling class. Indeed, it was a central theme at the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Davos, Switzerland, at the start of this year.

Participants lectured each other on the dangers of rising inequality, the need for world peace, and how to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The only condition was that the plutocrats’ wealth and power remain intact. It was a surreal pantomime. Nonetheless, their fears are real enough, especially of mass mobilisations against austerity, poverty, environmental destruction and war. After all, such movements can quickly turn into a questioning of the capitalist system as a whole.

Without of course drawing the conclusion that their system is the main block to solving these issues, it is notable that the WEF sees that they are all connected – something single-issue environmental campaigns and charities would do well to consider. Instead, the WEF’s Global Risks Report 2018, published in advance of the Davos gathering, reminded participants of its previous call for "fundamental reforms to market capitalism", and "a rebuilding of solidarity within and between countries".

It raised the alarm: "We have been pushing our planet to the brink". It presented irrefutable and detailed evidence, pointing out that 2017 will be one of the three hottest years on record – the hottest was 2016 – and the hottest non-El Niño year. The first nine months of 2017 brought temperatures 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. Emissions of CO2 rose to 403 parts per million, against the pre-industrial 280ppm baseline.

This trend could have many catastrophic effects. More than three-quarters of the food consumed by human beings come from just twelve plants and five animal species, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. The WEF says that there is a one-in-twenty chance every ten years that weather events will cause a simultaneous failure of maize production in the world’s two main growers, China and the US.

The collapse in pollinating insect populations is raising fears of ‘ecological Armageddon’, with the WEF citing research from Germany which found a decline of more than 75% over 27 years. In addition, 29.7 million hectares of tree cover was lost in 2016 – an area the size of New Zealand – another record. This was about 50% higher than 2015. Cattle ranching claimed up to 80% of the deforestation in Amazonia.

World Health Organisation research that air pollution accounts for more than 10% of all deaths worldwide each year was reiterated. Of particular concern to the capitalists is that the overall cost of pollution to the global economy was estimated at $4.6 trillion (equivalent to 6.2% of output) by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, October 2017.

Most of all, however, the WEF wanted to issue a stark warning: "A trend towards nation-state unilateralism may make it more difficult to sustain the long-term, multilateral responses that are required to counter global warming and the degradation of the global environment".

One of the fundamental obstacles they face is that the nation state is a foundation stone of the capitalist system. Despite all the moves towards globalisation – and inter-state pacts and deals such as the European Union and World Trade Organisation – there is relentless competition for markets and profits between corporations and the countries in which they are based. This stokes tensions and conflict especially at times of economic crisis.

This is reflected by the WEF. It reported that 93% of those who responded to its Global Risks Perception Survey expect ‘political or economic confrontations/frictions between major powers’ to worsen in 2018. Meanwhile, the top three risks identified in the survey were (in descending order) extreme weather events, natural disasters, and the failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

The Global Risks Report recognised that "... the truly systemic challenge here rests in the depth of the interconnectedness that exists both among these environmental risks and between them and risks in other categories – such as water crises and involuntary migration". Eight of the ten natural disasters that caused the most deaths in the first half of 2017 involved floods or landslides, "76% of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016 were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events".

The phrase ‘truly systemic challenge’ is not used in the same way socialists would use it. The WEF is stuck firmly in ‘fundamental reforms’ mode. It therefore fails to find a meaningful answer. This is the best it can do: "The risk that political factors might disrupt efforts to mitigate climate change was highlighted last year when president Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris agreement. However, several other major economies – notably China – reaffirmed their support of the Paris agreement during 2017. In addition, many US businesses, cities and states have pledged to help deliver on the country’s emissions reduction targets. This kind of network of subnational and public-private collaboration may become an increasingly important means of countering climate change and other environmental risks, particularly at a time when nation-state unilateralism appears to be ascendant".

Certainly, the Chinese regime has much to gain by this kind of deployment of ‘soft power’, especially as it rolls out its ‘belt and road’ economic and geopolitical expansion project. There is clearly an added bonus for president Xi Jinping if he can also use it to undermine US influence on the world stage.

Moreover, sustainable energy, the production of electric cars and other commodities is big business. Europe-based corporations – and those in California and other parts of the US – will do all they can to gain competitive advantage. Of course, they will ultimately be bound by the chaotic and cutthroat ‘rules’ of the capitalist game, notwithstanding the introduction of any state-aid or protectionist measures.

What is significant is that sections of the capitalist class are grappling with these issues. It casts a spotlight on systemic failure. In their own way, they see that the system is not working. However, just as profit-driven, nation-state-based capitalism imposes limits on the development of the productive forces, and how human and natural resources can be used, the capitalists’ place in society puts limits on how far they can go. We do not expect them to draw far-reaching socialist conclusions.

The WEF seems to be acutely aware of the dangerous instability that would accompany measures to shift the global economy onto a more environmentally sustainable track. It is correct, of course, if we remain bound up in the capitalist straitjacket. The WEF warns that "... dramatic changes in the way energy is produced are likely to trigger large-scale labour-market disruptions. Structural economic changes in affected countries and regions could also stoke societal and geopolitical risks".

There is much that can be stoked. It could well be that the authors of the Global Risks Report have in mind the EU referendum in Britain, the leave vote winning through working-class anger at the political establishment, poverty and austerity. No doubt they also had an eye on Rust Belt USA’s turnout for Donald Trump. Both votes shattered the arrogance and complacency of the ruling class.

This is just the start, however. Far more powerful are the movements to come, when workers take action in their own independent class interests. That leads on to what is the most important factor: that mass pressure, above all by the organised working class, can compel governments to take action – even at a time of capitalist crisis if the movement is strong enough. That applies to measures against pollution and to cut greenhouse gas emissions, just as it does on pay, cut-backs, gun control and even war (if the movement attains general-strike proportions).

One of the reasons that regular international environmental summits take place – invariably resulting in grand but very limited declarations – is precisely this mass pressure. ‘World leaders’ have to at least be seen to be doing something about this existential threat. Had they emerged from the Paris talks in December 2015, for instance, saying they didn’t agree to anything, anger would have erupted onto the streets worldwide.

Nonetheless, fundamental change is required if humanity is to deal with mass poverty, environmental destruction, military conflict and so on. Shifting the global economy from its dependence on the fossil fuels driving global warming to one based on sustainable energy means taking on the vested interests of big oil and gas, and of the nation states pumping them out. Moving production from weapons of mass destruction to socially useful products, and turning destructive R&D into cutting edge research in medical and other fields would require a similarly seismic shift.

In reality, it could only be achieved on the basis of the socialist transformation of society. Instead of profit-driven capitalism, there would be a democratically run planned economy, based on the collective endeavour of workers, scientists and technicians, on solidarity between peoples, and environmental sustainability. The interconnectedness of which the WEF speaks means this would have to be on an international basis. The fundamental difference with the summits that take place today is that working-class representatives from around the world would have common interests. Exploitation and attempts to manoeuvre for geopolitical gain would be removed from the equation.

Ironically, the Davos gathering took place at a time when things looked a bit more optimistic for the capitalist class. Participants were buoyed by apparent good news on the economy – record high stock markets, official growth figures, etc. The global movers and shakers felt confident enough to take on wider issues, hence the crocodile tears on poverty and inequality.

The optimism did not last long. Within weeks, a wild storm struck the financial markets and new ‘America first’ pronouncements by Donald Trump triggered counter-proposals by other powers, while the UK/EU capitalist Brexit sore continues to ooze. Elections in Germany and Italy have added to this volatile mix, and the uprising in Catalonia further rattles the EU cage.

In addition, the resignation of Gary Cohn as Trump’s top economic adviser and the sacking of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state further strengthened the hands of the economic nationalists in the US administration. Way back in January, the authors of the WEF’s Global Risks Report lamented that "... the erosion of institutions of multilateral dialogue and decision-making damages the prospects of reaching new global agreements at a time when the need for cooperation looks more urgent than ever".

We can only wonder what they are thinking now! Meanwhile, there is a race against time. Sections of the capitalist ruling class might be aware of the global challenges, but their parasitic system is in crisis, incapable of providing the far-reaching solutions required.

The working class, on the other hand, has the potential social and economic strength, and the collective organisation, to take on the task. On the basis of an internationalist socialist programme, it could link the struggles of workers and oppressed peoples to rid the world of poverty, inequality, environmental destruction, terrorism and war. There is a world to save.

Manny Thain

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