Climate change and system change
Mainstream politicians, jetting royals, ‘progressive’ capitalists and their army of paid persuaders have no serious programme to avert runaway climate change. We on the Marxist left have. This article is based on a talk given to Communist University on August 18 by Jack Conrad.
Climate change is a real and present danger. But there is nothing new about climate change.
Our planet dates back around 4.5 billion years. Earth’s first atmosphere mostly consisted of hydrogen and helium - unstable elements which gradually drifted off into space. Even after many millions of years of cooling, surface temperatures are thought to have stood at a sizzling 93°C.
Because of the close proximity of the moon, churning volcanic activity and countless asteroid and meteorite strikes, a second atmosphere formed: ammonia, water, methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. According to the Oparim-Haldane hypothesis the foaming, mineral rich, storm tossed seas acted as a primeval, or prebiotic soup. The first life forms appeared approximately four billion years ago.
Some 500 million years later, tiny, single-cell, blue-green algae were converting carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis. Earth’s third atmosphere is the product of co-evolution. Our planet’s climate results from the interaction of atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere … and biosphere.
The ozone layer formed 600 million years ago. That made the existence of terrestrial, complex, multicellular animals possible. But the evolutionary leap happened in the shallow, balmy seas of 540 million years ago. The Cambrian explosion had a time frame of a mere few million years - in geological terms a blink of the eye - and led to “virtually all major groups of modern animals”.1
Temperatures tended downwards through the successive geological periods. Take 1960-80 CE temperatures as the benchmark. The Cambrian (600-500 million years ago) was 14°C hotter. The Silurian (425-405 million years ago) 4°C hotter. The Devonian (405-345 million years ago) 12°C hotter. The Permian (280-230 million years ago) 2°C colder. The Triassic 10°C hotter. The Jurassic 8°C hotter. The Cretaceous 4°C hotter. The Palaeocene (66-55 million years ago) 10°C hotter.
Doubtless, some of these temperature changes were due to volcanic activity and sun spots. There is also continental drift. Three billion years ago the vast mass of the Earth’s surface was covered with water. There were only a few spots of dry land. The first supercontinent, the Arctic, arose some 2.5 billion years ago. Eventually it broke apart, but after many more millions of years there were other superseding supercontinents: Kenorland, Columbia, Rodinia, Pannotia.
Beginning in the Neoproterozoic, about 550 million years ago, most of the Earth’s land masses are found joined together in the Gondwana supercontinent. Meanwhile, in the seas, giant plankton blooms resulted in a significant increase in atmospheric oxygen - conditions ripe for terrestrial animals. Probably, the invasion began in the Ordovician approximately 440 million years ago.2 It shuffled, clambered, crawled and slithered onto the land and rapidly evolved to occupy every conceivably niche.
Something like our present configuration of continents appeared 60 million years ago. Doubtless this helped establish our contemporary climate regime. The American and Eurasian land mass more or less encircles the northern pole; that and the continental plate centred on the southern pole provide almost perfect conditions for ensuring an oscillation between cool and cold conditions. The bulk of the Earth’s fresh water lies frozen in two gigantic ice sheets.
Over the last million years there has been an interglacial-glacial 100,000-year pattern. Each cycle has had its own particular features and oddities. Understandably, though, as with any study of the past, data becomes ever more uncertain, with increasing distances of time. So the best records we possess go from the interglacial, known as the Eemian, down to the present Holocene period - the last 130,000 years have in particular been revealed in some detail with deep ice cores drilled from Greenland to Antarctica.
In terms of climatic transition, the most reliable information is for what is called the Younger Dryas-to-Holocene, which ended the last ice age. At its maximum, some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, the Arctic ice sheet extended all the way down to Chicago, New York, Moscow and London and saw much lower sea levels. What is now Britain was joined to France, the Netherlands and Denmark. And, using the 1960-80 CE benchmark, we have a -10°C difference.
The qualitative transition to our present-day climatic regime occurred 11,650 years ago and coincided with the retreat of the great ice sheets. The tipping point seems to have taken only a decade or two. “The speed of this change is probably representative of similar but less well-studied climate transitions during the last few hundred thousand years,” argue the environmental scientists, Jonathan Adams, Mark Maslin and Ellen Thomas.3 These transitions include sudden cold events (Heinrich events/stadials), warm events (interstadials) and the beginning and ending of long warm phases, such as the Eemian interglacial.
There are less dramatic, but nonetheless significant, patterns of climate change on a smaller scale too. During the present (Holocene) interglacial period, there have been cold and dry phases occurring over a roughly 1,500-year cycle, and climate transitions on a decade-to-century timescale. There have been little ice ages, as well as bursts of relative warmth. Between 1100 and 1300 CE, for example, Europe experienced temperatures which allowed more productive agriculture throughout the continent and saw flourishing English vineyards.
It is also worth recalling that the Thames regularly froze solid during mid-17th century winters and that the years from 1805 to 1820 were comparably bleak and inclement. What we are experiencing at present certainly needs to be put into the context of the transition from the little ice age, which finally ended around 1880.
Incidentally, the kaleidoscopic history of global atmosphere, temperature variation and continental drift explains why those with even a passing knowledge of the Earth sciences consider the Campaign Against Climate Change such an odd choice of name. It conjures up notions that humanity can, if there is the will, act like some almighty king Canute and command nature to stand still. We can’t and it won’t.
Natural and unnatural
‘Climate’ and ‘change’ go together like ‘weather’ and ‘change’. The two are inseparable. The weather alters from hour to hour, day to day and month to month. Climate is just big weather. Nasa gives this useful definition of climate: “average weather for a particular region and time period, usually taken over 30 years”.4 So there is nothing unusual about climate change per se. In fact climate without change is impossible. Climate change has never ceased, is ongoing and must therefore be considered inevitable. Or, to use a loaded phrase - it is natural. Notions of fixing in place the climate as it now is, or returning it to a pre-industrial ideal, through some kind of technical wizardry or a human exodus, are half-childish, half-sinister and, crucially, are bound to fail.
Consider Britain’s climate - a solid record of it lies in the ground, mud and rocks beneath our feet. As well as periodic glaciations over the last 20 or 30 million years - in the Quaternary and Tertiary periods - as already noted, temperatures have in general been far higher than today. The coal seams of south Yorkshire, south Wales, Lanarkshire and Nottinghamshire were formed in tropical forests and swamps; Dover’s white cliffs were laid down under shallow, warm seas; London’s clay contains the remains of elephants, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses.
So claims such as that the hottest 10 years “since records began” have just occurred might apply in terms of reports issued by the London Met Office, but hardly when one considers the geological timescale.5
Nonetheless, runaway climate change is now an almost universally recognised danger. The global climate system probably stands on a knife’s edge. Only the self-interested, the downright stupid or the wilfully blind deny it nowadays. If we take temperatures in the northern hemisphere from 1000 CE to the present moment in time, we see alternating ups and downs, but then, around 1880, a sudden and very steep upward curve occurs. The result resembles a hockey stick. Already average global temperatures are 1°C above pre-industrial times6 - given the time span, very big in climatic terms.
Two additional points.
Firstly, while the climate constantly undergoes change, that happens within a relatively stable equilibrium, within a self-adjusting system. Till recently most scientists thought that all large-scale global and regional climate changes took place over a timescale of many centuries or millennia: ie, at rates hardly noticeable during a human lifetime. Gradualism was the ruling orthodoxy. That is no longer the case.
Scientific opinion nowadays recognises that quantitative change reaches a trigger point and then flips over into qualitative change. Adams, Maslin and Thomas vouch: “All the evidence indicates that most long-term climate change occurs in sudden jumps rather than incremental changes.”7 Such conclusions were long anticipated by Marxism. Frederick Engels in his Dialectics of nature described the jump or leap: “qualitative change takes place ... it is determined by a corresponding quantitative change.”8 Given the right conditions, climate change can be triggered by some relatively “small perturbation”, the entire system tips over into another system. New, radically different weather patterns, prevailing winds, oceanic currents, etc, kick in.
Second point. Scientific opinion is overwhelmingly agreed. The temperature rises over the last 100 years or so are primarily due to “human activity”.9 We really are in the Anthropocene. Industry, agriculture, transport and domestic heating release carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and other such greenhouse gases which have an observable climate impact.
A recent report by the International Panel on Climate Change projects that warming will continue at the current rate of ~0.2°C per decade and reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial times around 2040.10 However, 1.5°C could easily be exceeded in half that time - around 2030 - and 2°C reached by around 2045.
Though theirs is an inexact science, climatologists fear that 1.5°C itself represents a boundary, a tipping point. If that is correct, after that we could see much reduced cloud cover, an end of the ice caps, soaring temperatures, much higher sea levels and the inundation of low-lying cities and fertile planes. Because this might happen within a, relatively speaking, exceedingly short period of time, it could conceivably threaten the “survival of human civilisation”.11 Given the continuation of existing social relations, expect mass migrations, resource wars and pandemics.
True, there is the 2016 Paris climate agreement. Its 195 signatories pledge to limit emissions, so as to ensure that temperatures do not exceed a 1.5°C increase. But the Paris agreement is voluntary, vague and contains all manner of get-out clauses.
And, suffice to say, the leaders of all countries are in thrall to the mantra of economic growth. Typically this is done in the name of ensuring the wellbeing of all. But in reality outcomes are extraordinarily unequal. The mass of the world’s population barely ekes out a living. Meanwhile, the few accumulate staggering riches. Forbes reports that 1% of the world’s population own 45% of the wealth.12
Then there is Donald Trump. He threatens a US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2020. The 45th president has already rolled back the Obama administration’s environmental measures and is on record as saying that global warming is a hoax concocted by the Chinese government in an attempt to hold back US industry.13 He is, of course, one of many influential climate-change ‘sceptics’ operating in high politics.
Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland all come from the same mould. All view action on climate change as an imposition on national sovereignty and a barrier to growth. These counterrevolutionary revolutionaries seek to undo the ‘evils’ of the October Revolution, roll back democratic rights, stoke up blood-and-soil national chauvinism and extinguish even the possibility of socialism. That is the meaning of the so-called populist right.
There are many brilliant scientists, engineers and technologists who are busily working away, using their considerable talents, to develop, refine and invent. They offer the wonders of nano-technology, stunning computer advances, electronic aeroplanes, novel power sources, automated vehicles and genetically modified crops and animals.
However, as shown by William Stanley Jevons back in the mid-19th century, such innovations lead to a paradox. Increased efficiency results in cheaper commodities, which in turn results in increased demand, and with that comes the increased use of resources. The Jevons paradox is his one and only worthwhile contribution to human knowledge. Amazingly, early Fabians, such as Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw and Herbert Somerton Foxwell, considered Jevons and his marginal utility economics far superior to Karl Marx’s labour theory of value. Deservedly, however, Jevons is now nothing more than an obscure historic footnote.
However, the point has been made. Capitalism treats increased efficiency merely as an opportunity to increase demand. Exchange-value rules. Not use-value. Capitalism moves according to a single-minded formula: M-C-M’. Money is laid out in order to secure materials and labour-power with a view to one objective and one objective alone: gaining more money. That law of political economy controls the capitalists themselves - even the greenest of greens amongst them - and makes capitalism the most uncontrollable, the most rapacious, the most polluting, the most short-termist system imaginable. Frankly, if one wanted to design a system with the intention of wrecking nature, it would be capitalism. Capitalism is a mode of destructive reproduction.
Should the left rally to the defence of the Paris agreement and seek allies amongst greens, NGOs, liberals and ‘progressive’ capitalists, such as Bill Gates, George Soros and Mark Zuckerberg? Absolutely not. There are two main reasons.
Firstly, we have already demonstrated the criminal inadequacy of the Paris agreement. Its maximum goal could actually represent the tipping point that brings civilisational collapse. Why uphold that? We stand for working class political independence. That requires developing our own programme - not calling for a general strike and the formation of soviets to ensure the implementation of the Paris agreement.
Secondly, it should not be assumed that protests, declarations and speechifying against the danger of runaway climate change leads to progressive conclusions. Environmentalism usually comes with an ingrained acceptance of capitalism as the natural order and easily leads to demonising the urban and rural poor, especially females, in the so-called third world. This is decidedly the case with the so-called ‘population problem’.
In class terms greenism amounts to a disenchanted petty bourgeois rebellion against capitalism’s accelerating despoliation of nature. Yet, whatever the good intentions, greenism carries a deadly barb. Its denunciations of ecological destruction are joined with talk of “overpopulation” and the limited “carrying capacity” of the planet: “population growth … must be addressed to avoid overpopulation”, says the Green Party.14 Alan Thornett, of Socialist Resistance and Campaign Against Climate Change, likewise argues that a “major contributory factor” to the ecological crisis is overpopulation.15
Greenism has a very dark side too. The Nazis had their green wing. Hitler’s agricultural expert, and later a Reichsminister, Walther Darré, was a nature-worshipper. Hitler himself expressed his longing for a new faith rooted in nature. He fervently believed that humanity - authentic Aryan humanity, that is - must eventually break with Christianity and fully merge with nature. His alternative religion ended, of course, in the holocaust and the extermination of millions.
In Britain the Soil Association counted Jorian Jenks amongst it leading members. He edited its journal Mother Earth till his death in 1963. He is also considered something of a founding figure of the green movement. However, in the mid-1930s he became a regular contributor to the Blackshirt and stood as a candidate for the British Union of Fascists. He was the BUF’s official advisor on agriculture: “fascism alone could make agriculture prosperous again”.16 No surprise - the language Jenks used about Jews “is very close to genocidal”.17
The origins of the Green Party in England and Wales lie in the feudal ideal of Oliver Goldsmith and the PEOPLE party. Aristocrat and commoner alike would once again know their place. And let’s not forget Jonathon Porret and David Icke. They advocated halving Britain’s population.
There are royal greens too. Speaking barefoot - wow - at a recent Google ecocamp in Sicily’s exclusive Verdura resort, Harry Windsor promised to limit his family to no more than two children - his contribution to saving the planet. The irony is unmistakable. The 300 A-list guests flew into Verdura aboard 143 private jets, landed in luxury yachts and stayed in luxury apartments - each with its own swimming pool. The total carbon footprint must have been hundreds of tons. More importantly - much more importantly - the royal parasite legitimised the toxic notion that ‘people are the problem’.
In that ominous spirit (Saint) David Attenborough backs Population Matters - a charity which opposed Syrian refugees coming to Britain because of its insistence on zero migration.18 Another Population Matters sponsor is Paul R Ehrlich, the US biologist and author of the bestseller The population bomb (1968). Back then Ehrlich apocalyptically announced: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Instead of giving aid to the needy and feeding the hungry, responsible states should henceforth put in place hard measures designed to dispose of surplus people on a global scale.19
Indira Gandhi sought to implement that Malthusian programme. During her 1975 emergency six million men were forcibly sterilised. And, of course, China imposed a one-child policy. Selective abortion has robbed China of 11.9 million females. Even with the abolition of the one-child policy, today there is a 100:117 disparity between the number of girls and boys.20
In fact, each society possesses its own population laws. Put simply, the reproduction of the human species takes place within different social formations and under different historical circumstances - something the reverend Thomas Malthus palpably ‘forgot’. His theory of population floats outside a theorised history and therefore took no account of the fundamental distinctions that exist between one society and another. Eg, 11th century feudalism had significantly different population dynamics compared to present-day capitalism.
The peasant family - indeed broadly speaking patriarchal production as a socio-economic system - has an interest in maximising the number of children. Put more accurately, maximising the number of male children - a vital distinction. Sons are treasured because they remain within the family and through marriage bring in extra wealth in the form of dowries, wives, inheritance and in due course their own children. Girls leave the family and marrying them off costs a small fortune … their birth is often the cause of mourning in pre-capitalist social formations. Female infanticide was therefore frequent.
The family is a unit of production. Boys and girls alike labour in their father’s fields from the age of five or six and, of course, not in return for money wages. Food, clothing and shelter are provided - little more. After the age of 10 it is reckoned that children are fully paying for their upkeep. From then on it is gain. Male heirs are also expected to maintain parents into old age. Children are therefore unpaid labourers and a form of social insurance. Given high infant mortality rates, it can easily be appreciated why it is a case of ‘the more, the better’.
Apart from capitalism’s more primitive, unrestrained and brutal forms, children are an enormous expense for the proletarian family - from the cradle and now well into adulthood. During the industrial revolution, it is true, parents sold their children into work from a tender age. Children of eight or nine did 12 and 14 hour days (until factory acts limited hours). Families could only survive if all available members brought in some kind of wage package (the wife was frequently pregnant - and, lacking reliable birth control and with the peasant mentality still lingering on, she was also typically burdened with a brood of young children hanging on to her breast and skirts).
What of the present-day proletarian family? It is a unit of consumption. With universal primary and secondary education, and around half the school population expected to go on to university, the financial outgoings are considerable. Prudential, the insurance company, estimates that on average children cost over £40,000 each.21 Even after graduation many mums and dads go on to help out their offspring with mortgages, etc.
Certainly nowadays, for the simple reproduction - not expansion - of the proletarian family, it requires two adult incomes. Average individual hours might have been forced down - in 1846 parliament passed the first 10-hour act (for what was a five and a half-day week). Full-time male workers in Britain now notch up an average of 39.2 hours.22 But the workforce has expanded significantly; not least by drawing in more and more women. The total number employed is now over 32 million. Roughly a threefold increase over the 1930s. At the beginning of the 20th century females made up 29% of the workforce. Now it is 48%. Women workers today do on average 34.3 hours.23 Add those figures together and what it tells you is that the family unit is more exploited nowadays and is certainly under more psychological pressures (put another way, an intensification of labour and relative exploitation). Not least due to these extra drains and life-limiting pressures, on average women have children later and fewer in number compared with the recent past.
In 2018 the average woman in Britain had 1.7 children24 - down from 2.6 in 1960. What is true of Britain is also true of other so-called developed capitalist countries.
Then there are the many and varied technological solutions on offer. In all probability though they would release a Pandora’s box of demons. What is being contemplated is proudly upheld by Cambridge University’s Centre for Climate Repair.25 Amongst the suggestions are sucking CO2 from the atmosphere, spraying salt water over clouds, seeding the oceans with iron filings, firing dust into the upper atmosphere, stationing a giant, 2,000-kilometre-diameter eye patch in space to deflect 2% of the sun’s rays, growing huge algae beds in the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide, building massive cloud-generating machines, etc. Carbon capture belongs in the same category. Holding, transporting and storing all have considerable costs - in total an estimated $70-100 per ton - and, especially given the vast lacunas in our knowledge, could easily produce completely unintended results.
Influenced by Justus von Liebig, the founder of modern organic chemistry, Marx developed his theory of a metabolic rift between capitalist production and nature. See ‘Large scale industry and agriculture’ in Capital volume 1 and ‘The genesis of capitalist ground rent’ in volume 3. Driven by its lust for profit, capitalism pollutes the water and air, destroys forests, exhausts the soil and creates deserts. The natural metabolic cycle has to be restored. There has to be sustainable development.
As a step towards that end I would recommended this immediate programme - ie, what can be technically achieved under capitalism.
- Nationalise the land. Nationalise the banks. Nationalise water, electricity, gas, railways and other such natural monopolies.
- Industrial, transport and agricultural polluters must be progressively taxed according to the emissions they produce. That includes shipping and air flight. Carbon, methane and other such greenhouse gases must be minimised. Set a date for the banning of fluorinated gases. End tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. Phase out fossil fuels.
- Boost solar and wind power.
- Those who produce harmful waste materials should be made to safely dispose of them. Supervision to be carried out by committees of workers, local residents and elected specialists. Recycling must be enforced. The export of waste material for dumping abroad must be banned.
- Reduce meat and dairy consumption. Encourage a vegetable-based diet.
- Free urban transport. Restrict international business air flights. Encourage conference calls. Shorten the distance between home and work. Facilitate cycling and walking.
- End the housing shortage. Build good-quality, energy-efficient, well-insulated council houses.
- Encourage urban parks, small farms and roof gardens.
- Rewild selected areas of the countryside. Native species should be reintroduced. Restore flood plains, marshes and wetlands. Turn grouse moors and upland estates back to nature. There must be a concerted programme of reforestation.
- Establish no-fishing zones in the seas. Create a sustainable fishing industry.
Historically too many on the left have taken for granted a kind of technological Prometheanism, whereby human beings can do what they like with nature - an approach that can be seen in the Soviet Union. In Literature and art (1924) Leon Trotsky breathlessly writes:
The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.26
And the heedless technological Prometheanism preached by Trotsky, Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev tried to put into practice. Leave aside the radioactive waste littered over Kazakhstan, the open-cast mining and the ruinous industrial practices, which caused chocking air pollution, poisoned rivers and dead lakes.
In the second half of the 1940s Stalin proposed his ‘great plan for the transformation of nature’. This was in response to the 1946 drought, which in 1947 left an estimated 500,000-one million dead. Tracts of land were forested in the southern steppe to provide a gigantic network of shelterbelts. Rivers feeding into the Aral Sea were diverted - once the world’s fourth largest lake, it has now virtually disappeared. Irrigation canals, reservoirs and countless ponds were to improve soil fertility. Crop rotation would ensure high yields. Scientific oversight was given to the now thoroughly discredited agronomist, Trofim Lysenko (he considered the Mendelian theory of gene inheritance an example of “metaphysics and idealism”27). Due for completion in 1965, the whole project ended in disaster. The trees died. Crop yields were disappointing. The soil was soon exhausted and blown away on the wind.
Khrushchev had his virgin land scheme. In the 1960s the black earth belt was put under the plough. However, crop yields steadily declined. And to irrigate the arid south Khrushchev looked at proposals to divert 12 rivers that were “uselessly” flowing into the Arctic ocean. Reversing the flow of the Pechora was not only going to boost agricultural production: the shrinking Aral and Caspian seas would be replenished. Part of the project envisaged the digging of a new channel, using 250 nuclear devices. Three 15-kiloton devices were actually detonated - inevitably causing fallout. The harebrained scheme was finally abandoned in 1986 - who knows what the dreadful consequences would have been if it had been fully implemented?
Our maximum programme begins after the overthrow of the capitalist state and involves the epochal transition to communism. However - and it needs to be emphasised - even the associated producers can make disastrous choices. Nature must be treated with respect and care. The humans of one generation have to pass on the Earth to succeeding generations in an improved state. They should therefore act as responsible guardians. They are not the Earth’s owners.
. SJ Gould Wonderful life: the Burgess shale and the nature of history London 1990, p24.↩︎
. J Adams, M Maslin and E Thomas, ‘Sudden climate transition during the Quaternary’ Progress in Physical Geography March 1999: www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/transit.html.↩︎
. The Daily Telegraph July 31 2019.↩︎
. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p358ff.↩︎
. See climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus.↩︎
. D Spratt and I Dunlop Existential climate-related security risk: a scenario approach Melbourne 2018, p6.↩︎
. A Thornett Facing the apocalypse: arguments for ecosocialism London 2019, pp161-62.↩︎
. Quoted in PM Coupland Farming, fascism and ecology: a life of Jorian Jenks London 2017, p95.↩︎
. Open Democracy September 23 2016.↩︎
. Quoted in www.overpopulation.com/faq/people/paul_ehrlich.html.↩︎
. i May 10 2019.↩︎
. TD Lysenko The situation in biological science Moscow 1951, p24.↩︎