Time running out fast
Capitalism is a system unfit to cope with the ecological crisis, writes Eddie Ford
Posing as an unlikely saviour at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, Barack Obama declared on September 3 that “some day we may see this as the moment that we finally decided to save our planet”. He was referring, of course, to the decision by China and the United States (the world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide gases) to formally ratify last December’s Paris agreement on climate change, which is due to start taking effect from 2020. Before the summit, only 24 countries - responsible for about 1% of global emissions - had ratified the agreement. China and the US, however, generate about 38% of total greenhouse gases.
The United Nations-sponsored agreement, as readers might recall, saw 195 governments come to a consensus about “holding the increase” in the global average temperature to “well below” 2°C, compared to pre-industrial levels, and to “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5°C (as opposed to the 2°C agreed six years ago at Copenhagen). There is a general scientific consensus that 1.5°C and above marks the “tipping point”, whereby there is a serious danger of runaway global warming: large parts of the world’s surface could become virtually uninhabitable and we might face mass extinction of numerous species. But for this goal to be achieved there would have to be “net zero emissions” by the second half of this century - a UN climate science panel has predicted that this must happen by 2070 at the very latest to avoid ecological disaster.
There were also pledges from more than 180 countries to cut or curb their carbon emissions (intended nationally defined contributions, or INDCs, in the jargon). But these ‘promises’ are non-legally binding, have no enforcement mechanism, and are totally insufficient - in fact, perversely, they would lead to a 2.7°C rise or higher. For example, the EU has a “national determined contribution” of cutting emissions by 40% by 2030 on 1990 levels, and the US by up to 28% by 2025 compared with 2005 - don’t hold your breath. There will also be a “review mechanism” every five years and a scheme for addressing the financial losses of vulnerable countries hit by climate impacts, such as extreme weather - with a clause added to ensure that the US will not face claims for “any liability or compensation” naturally. There was also another non-legally binding decision, as a sop by the US, to financially help developing countries make the transition to clean energy - hence in theory the flow of $100 billion a year will continue beyond 2020. Overall, though, no detailed timetable or country-specific goals for emissions were incorporated into the Paris agreement - unlike the previous Kyoto protocol. The final text aims only to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”.
However, the Paris agreement only comes into operation when 55 signatories responsible for 55% or more of all emissions are attained - which may or may not happen before November’s UN climate summit in Marrakesh. Nevertheless, president Xi Jinping - also general secretary of the Communist Party of China and chairman of the central military commission - called the agreement a “milestone” that marks the “emergence of a global government system” for climate change and a move that would “safeguard environmental security”. Obama added that the joint announcement showed how the world’s two largest economies were capable of coming together to fight climate change “despite our differences on other issues” and “will inspire greater ambition and greater action around the world”.
The US presidential elections could possibly throw a spanner in the works. Donald Trump, predictably enough, has dismissed global warming as a “con-job” and a “hoax” that was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. Crazily, he believes that coal is an “abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource” and has promised to ditch the Paris agreement, stop US funding for UN climate change work, abandon Obama’s clean power plan and forbid the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide. The man has a plan.
Rather eerily, in an attempt to temporarily reduce air pollution in the days before the summit, the Chinese authorities semi-emptied Hangzhou - normally a bustling city of six million people: a third of its inhabitants were “convinced” to leave, as a week-long public holiday was declared and factories were asked to stop production, whilst dissidents were placed under house arrest or forced to leave the city by security agents.1
Clearly, the new commitment is far too little, far too late. The agreement, as we have seen, does not specify what action countries must take and the cuts in carbon dioxide will not be enough to keep to the 2°C threshold - let alone the 1.5°C limit mentioned in the Paris agreement.
But time is running out fast. By current estimates, this year will be the hottest ever measured - beating the previous record set last year and the one before in 2014. Indeed, 15 of the 16 warmest years have occurred in the 21st century and each of the past 14 months has broken the global monthly temperature record. For example, July was the warmest month since modern record-keeping began in 1880. Already the world’s average temperature has risen by a scary 1.38°C, meaning that we have a climate crisis right now - we could be toast by 2070. Last winter the Arctic sea ice covered a smaller area than ever before, an anthrax outbreak is raging in Siberia through the human and reindeer populations, because infected corpses locked in permafrost since the last epidemic in 1941 have thawed,2 India has been hammered by cycles of drought and flood, as withering heat parches the soil and torches glaciers in the Himalayas, while coral reefs around the world are bleaching and dying.3 Meanwhile, rainforests are retreating even further and deserts are spreading.
Adding to the grim picture, top climate scientists from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) have said that temperature records taken via analysis of ice cores and sediments heavily suggest that the warming of recent decades is out of step with any period over the past millennium - taking us into “exceptional territory”. Recent research shows that just five more years of carbon dioxide emissions at current levels will virtually wipe out any chance of restraining temperatures to a 1.5°C increase. Detailed temperature reconstructions found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4° and 7° over a period of 5,000 years, as the world moved out of ice ages, but the temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this. The increasing pace of warming means that the world will heat up at a rate “at least” 20 times faster than the historical average over the coming 100 years.
More Nasa research shows that sea levels worldwide have risen an average of nearly eight centimetres since 1992 due to warming waters and melting ice - three years ago a UN panel predicted sea levels would rise from between 0.3 and 0.9 metres by the end of the century. Obviously, low-lying regions are especially vulnerable. Unless drastic action is taken, cities like London, New York and Tokyo could eventually disappear beneath the waves.
If you want to feel depressed, there is plenty more research like this to investigate. For instance, three years ago the Nature Climate Change journal published an extensive study outlining how more than half of common plant species and a third of animal species are likely to see their living space halved within seven decades on current CO2 emission trends. The study also warned that Earth is on track for at least a 4°C hike by 2100 - something that has calamitous implications. Experiments conducted at the International Rice Institute led scientists to conclude that with each 1°C increase in temperature, rice, wheat and corn yields could drop by 10%. Work it out for yourself.
Oddly, the Democratic Party’s manifesto (or platform) approved in Philadelphia seems to think you can solve or alleviate climate change by expanding roads and airports - it boasts about “record sales” in the car industry and promises to cut “red tape”, which normally is a euphemism deployed by corporate lobbyists to mean public safety, workers’ rights, environmental protection, etc.4 But if you are serious about tackling pollution and global warming, and creating a genuinely human society, the world needs far fewer cars, planes, ships, roads, airports, factories and so on.
As this paper has argued many times, capitalism is a system unfit to cope with the ecological crisis that is so obviously convulsing the planet. Given its very nature, predicated on production for production’s sake - not on the basis of satisfying rational human need - it is constantly throwing more fuel on the fire.
Contrary to a relatively widespread ‘common sense’ view, capitalism is not the result of countless individual actions taken by ‘bad’ or ‘greedy’ people - though, of course, many of them are corrupt and fantastically greedy. I’m looking at you, Sir Philip Green. Rather, it is a form of human relation based on the uncontrolled self-expansion of exchange-value, and this inner dynamic
imposes itself on its personifications - ie, the capitalists, who ultimately are just as much slaves to capital as we in the working class. Accumulate, accumulate: that is the real alpha and omega of capitalism. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist manifesto that the need to constantly expand “chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe” - a frenzied need that sends it drilling a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico, when that very same substance is virtually oozing out of the ground in countries like Saudi Arabia. But a profit can be made, so damn the consequences whether environmental or human. Irrationality reigns.
Yes, obviously, other past socio-economic systems damaged various aspects of the environment - deforestation under the Romans, Han dynasty rice production that caused air pollution, Greek metal production ...5 But, crucially, capitalism does it on a more vast and terrifying scale. Left to itself, capitalism will ‘industrialise’ to the point of self-destruction, making the air unbreathable and the rivers dead with toxic sludge. On the other hand, it will effectively leave underdeveloped whole areas of the globe, where it calculates no profit can reasonably be made.
Contrary to another popular myth, Marxism is ecological to its very core - in that sense, Karl Marx was the very first ‘eco-warrior’. Why? Karl Marx fought to overcome the “metabolic rift” between humanity and nature, between town and country, which itself was a reflection - and product - of capitalist class rule over the workers, of dead labour over living labour. We in the CPGB firmly believe that any Marxist who is not an environmentalist, not fighting for a genuinely sustainable planet, is not a Marxist at all. In that intransigent spirit, we severely criticise those on the left who peddle the notion that some form of left, green Keynesianism is the solution - ‘green’ jobs, ‘green’ growth, etc. A thousand times no - it is still capitalism based on growth for the sake of growth; on the absolute primacy of the profit motive.
Due to this inner logic - from which its wretched personifications can never escape - capitalism can never preserve the environment in the long term, or even the short-to-medium term. It is a system pre-programmed to inflict ecological degradation. No matter how incredible the scientific advances under capitalism, whatever marvellous ‘green’ technology it might develop and deploy, we will still see the same monstrous waste of resources. The same assault on planet Earth and despoliation of nature. Indeed, paradoxically, technological innovation - ‘green’ or otherwise - under capitalism can actually lead to an increase in pollution and general environmental destruction (‘Jevons paradox’).
For example, as a general tendency, car engines are becoming progressively more efficient - leaving aside for now the Emissions Analytics discoveries. In that narrow sense, the triumphant propaganda produced by BP and co is true - capitalism can respond to environmental concerns in a certain way. But this response is very contradictory. Because of capital’s constant need for expansion - production for production’s sake - it has to sell us more and more cars, thus the energy-saving efficiency gains that result from technology innovation are negated and thrown into destructive reverse. Bluntly put, 300 million ‘green’ cars - electric or otherwise - cause more environmental damage than 30 million gas-guzzlers, and they burn away more of our planet’s precious and ultimately finite natural oil reserves. In other words, technological progress may increase the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.
We must fight for the sustainable use of nature’s resources because it is necessary for our common human survival. The struggle to protect the environment and the struggle for human emancipation (communism) are one and the same.