The phenomenon variously known as climate change, global warming or the “Greenhouse Effect” is caused by an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases in the atmosphere as result of human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels (oil and gas) and destruction of forests. Despite the best efforts of our world leaders to brush it under the carpet, it has become impossible to deny. Last week, a discussion forum held by leaders of the G8 richest nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK and US) plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa issued the closing statement that man-made climate change is now “beyond doubt”.
Another recent development is that scientists have issued warnings about the discovery of fast-moving rivers underneath Antarctic ice-sheets, leading to worry about the speed at which sea levels might rise if world temperature increases further. And it’s not looking good on this front, given that average arctic temperatures have increased at almost twice the global average rate over last 100 years.
So there is no denying that the situation is severe. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released this month showed that as a result of human activity, global temperatures will rise by up to 6.4°C this century – while it is already accepted that a 4°C rise would be enough to cause catastrophic floods potentially displacing millions of people and leading to loss of hundreds of species and extreme food and water shortages. We are already seeing the devastating effects of global warming and the way it alters weather patterns, for example in Hurricane Katrina last year and more recently, flooding in Indonesia.
A large part of the problem is that even if all the concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols were kept constant at the same levels they were at in the year 2000, further global warming of 0.1°C per decade is expected. This is because global warming has actually changed ecosystems to the point that they now cause more heating themselves – for example warmer oceans are less able to absorb CO2.
But what really woke the bosses up to the threat was the Stern report on the economic impact of climate change. This warned of a 20% shrinking in global economy in the next few decades if no action taken to stop climate change, and suggested a programme of investment to limit its effects. The President of the Royal Society (a scientific body) said this should be “a turning point in a debate which has pitted short term economic interests against long-term costs to the environment, society and the economy”. In other words now that they have realised it might actually harm their profits, the capitalists are starting to worry!
But the solutions proposed by capitalists will never be able to tackle climate change. The idea of a “Green tax” on activities such as the use of fossil fuels is problematic as it is not based on wealth or income so will hit workers hardest; corporations are unlikely to accept it if it actually damages their profit. Another popular proposal is “carbon trading”, where the government issues permits to companies allowing them to emit a certain amount of CO2 and if they emit above these allowances they have to buy permits from those emitting below.
The problems are obvious: the biggest companies – i.e. those that cause the most damage – will be able to continue doing as they wish, as this will be profitable and allow them to have enough money to buy up permits. While idea is that the “cap” (the total amount of permits given out) for emissions is gradually lowered, this seems unlikely as governments are in the pockets of big business so would be unlikely to contradict their interests.
This has been shown already by their track record – for example, the EU has had a similar scheme in the past which was unsuccessful because governments set over-generous emission levels. Secondly, it relates to the class interests of our government, which rules on behalf of the capitalists and has business interests at its heart. Businesses do not want climate change to be taken seriously as it would damage their profits – for example the director of Easyjet recently said that governments should not over-react to climate change.
Capitalist governments have neither an interest in nor the ability to challenge such companies or to rationally control the market. The most extreme example is the link between the US government and the oil companies it subsidises, which are making a fortune out of destroying environment. Such companies aren’t going to sit back and let their market share be taken over by renewable energy and, reflecting this, the government has put negligible investment into researching this. The UK government’s agenda is the expansion of nuclear power, but this is a dangerous undertaking within capitalism since the necessary security and environmental measures are expensive and reduce profits, and the capitalists do not take them seriously.
These governmental measures act on the national level only, but global warming is obviously an international issue. Some efforts have been made to negotiate on an international, notably the Kyoto Treaty for the reduction of carbon emissions by 5.2% compared to the year 1990.
There are many problems with this – firstly, it didn’t come into force until 2005, eight years after it was signed. The world’s biggest polluter, the US, refused to sign up, and has blocked and sabotaged all such global agreements. Australia also has not signed up while other countries like India and China are not required to reduce emissions despite their large populations.
Most of the countries that did sign up are not even meeting its limited goals. For example, the UK government previously claimed to have reduced carbon emissions since 1990, but it was recently revealed that this left out everything caused by shipping and airplanes!
So, if we can’t rely on the government or the businesses, what is the solution to global warming?
A popular view among charities and the liberal left is opposition to “consumerism”, “productivism” and “industrialism” – the idea that people should use less and even in some cases that humanity should retreat back to an earlier stage of development. Socialists reject this argument – we are not “against consumerism” but believe that workers are entitled to small comforts such as holidays and electronic gadgets, etc.
The real problem is the massive waste caused by corporations who put profit before the environment, and the super-rich capitalist class who live in incredible luxury. We don’t want to go back to a pre-industrial society (and we couldn’t anyway!) – we want to go forward to socialism. We also realise that governments and corporations can’t be “side-stepped” by individual action because they have a massive effect on our lives and the planet.
Since climate change is such a pressing issue, we must put demands on capitalist governments for reforms such as:
- Strict controls and penalties on corporate polluters & confiscation of property where these are broken
- Massive investment in alternative energy e.g. wind, wave, solar power to allow a shift from fossil fuel burning
- Huge expansion of public transport and reduction in its cost
A global programme of reforestation
Where these reforms are granted, this will obviously help to lessen the damage done by global warming. But most of these will never be met, and we must use this fact to expose the capitalists as enemies of the environment.
Socialists understand that climate change and environmental destruction are inherent to capitalism, the system that puts the profit of a tiny handful of individual capitalists before the needs of both the majority of society and the planet itself.
Under socialism, the means of production would be expropriated from the capitalists to common ownership by majority. Humanity would no longer be at the mercy of market forces; an international plan of production could shift resources in favour of those regions worst damaged by climate change, and a democratically planned economy would allow the needs of the environment to be taken into account as a serious matter, so that climate change could finally be stopped.