Combating the Capitalistocene
With global temperatures in danger of increasing to 1.5 ºC above pre-industrial levels by 2025, Eddie Ford fears that governments might actually do something - at our expense
Last week United Nations experts released a stark assessment of climate change in their United in science report. Obviously, they have not suddenly discovered something astoundingly new. The intention is to keep pressurising governments in the run-up to the Cop26 climate conference this November in Glasgow.
The sadly unsurprising news is that the world is heading in the wrong direction. At Cop21 in Paris back in 2015, over 190 governments agreed to limit global temperature increases to “well below” 2ºC by 2030, the aim being to limit the increase in global temperature to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, which began around 1850 (mainly in Britain). That is, global carbon emissions need to be cut by 45% within that time frame. But the UN analysis shows that those emissions are set to rise by 16% during this period. Therefore there is the distinct danger of the world undergoing a global increase in temperature of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels within five years - way above the targets set by the ‘international community’.
Clearly, 2025 is an extraordinarily worrying time frame. The UN is warning that, once we hit 1.5ºC target early, so to speak, the temperature will just keep increasing rather than hit some sort of plateau. In other words, the rate of increase is far steeper than originally feared and could actually hit 2.7ºC by 2050 - maybe even higher. We now know from climate science, which is developing in leaps and bounds, that what for us humans seem like tiny or imperceptible differences can have a profound impact on the global climate system - not just on a year-to-year basis, but for hundreds and thousands of years. If we reach 2.7ºC above pre-industrial levels, we will get a situation whereby, whatever is done after that, the ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic will continue to melt. Instead of maintaining water in the form of ice, that water will be released - which will continue for a thousand years or more. It will be an unstoppable phenomenon.
What happens then is a disastrous feedback mechanism: water levels keep rising and the permafrost keeps melting. In the process you get the release of CO2 and, crucially in this context, methane - which adds to the warming process, leaving the world in a very unhappy place.
Now we have had Boris Johnson in Washington meeting Joe Biden and addressing the UN general assembly in New York - speaking about how “history will judge” the world’s rich countries if they fail to act now to tackle the climate crisis, and urging other developed countries to increase their contributions to help meet the target of $100 billion (£73 billion) in climate financing, laid out more than five years ago. There are various meetings going on between governments pre-Cop26. The likelihood is that they will find it fairly easy to come to some sort of agreement on methane - it is not only released by the melting of the permafrost, of course, but also landfill sites, gas and oil drilling, and cattle. True, it is not so easy to know what you can do about cattle, for all of the various schemes about feeding them this or that, or using a form of genetic engineering that puts specially designed microbes in the guts of cattle, with the expectation that these microbes decompose and ferment the plant materials eaten by the animals - thus reducing the gas pressure that can build up. Frankly, if much of the world remains addicted to the beef diet, then there is not much you can really do about farting cattle.
But, on the other hand, you can do something about landfill sites - many of which are improperly sealed, which means it is a fixable problem with a bit of simple technology and common sense. As for gas and oil production, this is essentially down to poor management - you need to put in place the necessary measures to stop methane escaping. All quite doable. Various reports talk about how a 40% reduction in methane should be relatively easy. It needs to be remembered that methane as a greenhouse gas is something like 80 times more potent than CO2, though it does dissipate far quicker.
What do we expect from Glasgow? Obviously no pun intended, but plenty of hot air - with some solemn pledges about methane. But not much else. One thing you can guarantee is that there will be an awful lot of chest-thumping from Boris Johnson - something he is good at - and boasting about how Britain is “leading” the world when it comes to reducing CO2. But the reality is quite different, of course. It is not because any government in Britain has taken any meaningful action. Yes, if you wanted to concede a point, you could look at the not insignificant transitioning to solar panels and wind power - even if it has not been particularly windy or sunny recently.
Insofar as Britain has had any success in combating global warming, a significant factor is the class war waged by Margaret Thatcher and the Tory government against the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s. This led to the closure of deep mining, followed by the transition to gas and, later, to wind and solar power. There is also the considerable contribution from nuclear and - sometimes forgotten - deep-sea cables joining Britain to France and Norway - which channel in surplus power. Not to mention the fact that Britain has basically offshored production - meaning that pollution happens in China as opposed to Birmingham, Manchester and London.
Not to mince words, Britain has done nothing worth talking about. For example, look at the switch to electric cars - which is basically window-dressing. Essentially, it is a huge business opportunity, or scam, for car manufacturers - including Elon Musk’s Tesla - to re-equip car fleets and lorry fleets and scrap the old ones. Of course, this is done in the name of the green economy and the glorious future - but much of this is nonsense. What do these cars run on - no prizes for guessing: electricity. How is it generated? Yes, there is a contribution from wind and solar power, but most electricity is generated using gas and oil - which releases CO2. How do you produce the steel that the cars are made from? By digging iron and coal out of the ground, which is hardly a green-friendly process. What about the tyres, glass, computer chips, plastics, etc? There is nothing carbon-neutral about the various components of an electric car - do not buy the green capitalist propaganda.
If you really want to put a significant dent into global CO2 emissions, what is necessary - as the scientists are telling us - is doing something serious about the car economy, which is inherently destructive to the environment. You also have to do something about air travel and shipping, not forgetting farming and the meat industry in particular - it is obviously irrational to grow grain to feed cattle rather than human beings.
No government anywhere has done anything serious yet about the climate crisis. But one possible hypothesis is that sooner or later governments will have to do something. The effectiveness of the measures taken is an entirely different matter, of course.
Nevertheless, runaway climate change promises nothing but a collapse of existing civilisation - as a mere Google search about which cities are under threat of inundation will tell. We are not talking about 50 metres, or anything like that, but sea level rises of ‘only’ 1.5 metres. Jakarta has already been written off by the Indonesian government, it seems - which is busily building a new capital right now that will not get flooded during the monsoon season. Dakar, Lagos, Houston in Texas, Miami, New Orleans, Rotterdam, the Hague, Shanghai, Venice … all risk been drowned by the sea in the near future.
Recently we have had protests in Britain by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, sitting down on the M25 motorway, taking over Oxford Circus in London, etc. They are demanding that the government do something. However, the fear is that this could merely create the conditions for what we have termed ‘climate socialism’ - which has nothing positive to do with proletarian socialism. In other words, state-led action to impose necessary measures in the ‘general interest’.
But measures introduced by the bourgeois state will surely result in attacks on the living standards of the working class masses and our democratic rights. Yes, there would be all sorts of restrictions on industry and business, but also great opportunities for those with close connections to the state to corruptly amass breathtaking fortunes. Yes, obviously, something must be done - but do not imagine that, if and when governments start to act, they will do so in the common interests of humanity. They will be acting in the interests of the state and those close to the government.
Compare such ‘climate socialism’ to the Kriegssozialismus (‘war socialism’) of the German high command in 1916, an argument put before in the Weekly Worker. This involved all manner of draconian restrictions upon the working class, like the drafting of prisoners of war into industry, and so on - nothing to do with workers’ control: quite the opposite. It is related to proletarian socialism only in the sense that here is the outer limit of capitalist society - capitalism in extremis - suspending the law of value, directing industry and delivering on the basis of need, not profit. A ‘socialism’ in this context that means a form of capitalism.
Communists admire and obviously sympathise with XR and IB, and naturally condemn the fact that activists blocking the M25 face possible imprisonment after National Highways was granted an injunction against their protests - Priti Patel ranting about how “guerrilla” activists “cannot keep disrupting and endangering people’s lives”. But they do not have a programme for socialism or working class power, meaning instead that a ‘man on a white horse’ - or perhaps a tank - could sweep in claiming to have all the answers. Answers at the expense of the working class.
Joe Biden and Boris Johnson have been talking about how to put pressure on China, which is still building coal-fired and oil-fired power stations - saying now, though, that it will no longer be building them abroad. Beijing argues, inevitably enough, that they have only just started to industrialise - whilst the west has been churning out CO2 since the mid-19th century. Chinese people deserve higher living standards, which is hard to argue against.
Yet what really needs to be emphasised is that the problem is global capitalism (including within China), not this or that country. For that very reason, the term ‘Anthropocene’ should be discarded, as it conveys the picture that the climate crisis is just the fault of human beings in general, that humans are the problem.
Rather, much better to start talking about the ‘Capitalistocene’ - the drive for profit and production for production’s sake. As for the Soviet Union, though not driven by the profit motive, it was not fundamentally any different. The target system was utterly irrational and took on the appearance - maybe the reality - of production for the sake of production, even if the political economy was radically different.