Business as usual
Catastrophic climate change is very unlikely to be averted under capitalist conditions, says Simon Wells
In 1880, William Gladstone was prime minister, Queen Victoria was on the throne and Friedrich Engels wrote his Socialism: utopian and scientific. And it was also the year that temperatures were first reliably recorded. The news in the past week has been that 2014 ranked as Earth’s warmest since 1880. And at a joint press conference on January 16 David Cameron and Barack Obama placed “the international fight against climate change” among their top areas of cooperation.
The Goddard Institute of Space Studies, part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have both released data showing a continuing long-term trend in the warming of the planet. The GISS press release stated that since 1880 Earth’s average temperature has increased by about 0.8° Celsius, and GISS director Gavin Schmidt was clear about the cause: “The long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.” The 10 hottest years on record have all come since 1997.
If that does not make people take note, then we can take a look at some of the extreme weather events of the past year. At the beginning of 2014 Britain had its wettest winter for 250 years, Australia suffered from intense heat waves and the Philippines continue to be battered by destructive tornadoes. Adjectives such as ‘intense’ and ‘destructive’ are not used for effect: they reflect very real concerns - 97% of climate researchers are in agreement with the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century.1
However, public opinion is as fickle as the weather, and climate scientists are believed about as much as the politicians who appear on our TV screens. But that is how the climate deniers like it, despite the persuasiveness of the statistics and the evidence of extreme climactic events themselves.
Cameron and Obama will acknowledge climate change, but for them it will be business as usual. Their predecessors mouthed similar phrases in response to the previous five assessment reports of the IPCC. They promised ‘action’ on the international frameworks, such as Kyoto and emissions trading, but they have been frameworks without teeth, committing no-one to reduce carbon emissions.
What government is going to commit economic and political suicide by prioritising the safeguarding of the planet in the long term over the ability to make a profit in the here and now? And what pro-capitalist government can prioritise the long-term interests of the planet, when the lifespan of the political leader is determined by the next opinion poll, an editorial in the evening newspaper or the latest Twitter time bomb in our 24-hour-networked world?
Former US president Jimmy Carter once said: “The biggest handicap we have right now is some nutcases in our country who don’t believe in global warming.” However, it is the corporate lobbyists, the ‘greenwashing’ publicists and the free-market think tanks that persistently cast doubt on the science of climate change - not the lunatic fringe, who think that the scientific consensus is an anti-west and anti-democratic plot. Carter may believe that catastrophic climate change can be prevented by working within the status quo, but when the battle for public opinion on the issue is so divisive, business as usual is the safe option.
And business as usual will be on the agenda as Cameron and Obama sit down with their respective cabinets and kowtow to the needs of capital. They tell us time and again that wealth can only be created through the free market and free enterprise. But if companies are forced to limit production in line with the needs of the planet that will call into question future profits. Investors are going to turn elsewhere, and the companies in question will be threatened with bankruptcy. That, under the system of capital, means a fall in production and increased unemployment. Bourgeois governments must therefore attempt to promote growth, irrespective of the nature of that growth and the climatic consequences.
Capitalist expansion will continue - today China, tomorrow India. Marx said in the Communist manifesto: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”2 The capitalists cannot but be indifferent to the fate of both the majority and the future of the planet in its drive to continuously expand.
Marx said there was an “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”.3 Just as there is a contradiction between exchange-value and use-value, so there is a contradiction between capitalism’s lust for growth and the ecological capacities of the environment to handle that growth. What Marx called a “metabolic rift” between society and nature show that capitalist reproduction is both contradictory and non-sustainable.
Capitalism and the preservation of the ecosystem are diametrically opposed to each other. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio in 2012 called for the reconciliation of the environment and the economy. Such pious calls for a more compassionate, more considerate production that embraces ‘sustainable’ development, while also ‘sustaining’ capitalism, have, of course, come to naught.
Left Unity has just released its draft manifesto for comments. Quite rightly, it includes a set of minimum demands which Left Unity will fight for within capitalism: eg, the use of renewables, an end to fracking and reduced energy use. However, the preamble recognises this “metabolic rift” between society and nature. It says: “Ecological devastation, resulting from the insatiable need to increase profits, is not an accidental feature of capitalism: it is built into the system’s DNA and cannot be reformed away.”4 This puts Left Unity in an altogether different league compared to the petty bourgeois Green Party, which does not seek the end of capitalism, but the greening of capitalism.
1. WRL Anderegg et al, ‘Expert credibility in climate change’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.abstract.
3. K Marx Capital Vol 3, London 1991, p949.