World climate conference

Mastering nature

Public scraps between British and French politicians always provide an amusing story for the press. The slanging match between British deputy prime minister John Prescott and French environment minister Dominique Voynet after the collapse of the world climate conference at The Hague did at least draw public attention to the issue of global warming and the need to stabilise the rate of increase of greenhouse gas levels, especially carbon dioxide.

The present level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 25% higher than it was 300 years ago. This change is within the range of natural variability seen over the past million years, but it is extremely unlikely that it was not caused by fossil fuel burning since the industrial revolution. That is why I disagree with comrade Tom May, who denies the significance of carbon dioxide emissions and dismisses the entire notion of global warming (Weekly Worker November 9). If the increase is not checked, there is a real danger of significant climate change within the next few hundred years, possibly even the global disaster of a runaway greenhouse effect.

The 12-day conference, involving delegates from 180 countries, was a follow-up to the meeting three years ago, and was supposed to clarify how the targets for greenhouse gas emissions agreed at Kyoto would be met and made into law. The failure to reach agreement at The Hague was fundamentally caused by the conflicting attitudes of the EU and the US to global warming. European politicians, encouraged by the greens who are junior government partners in France and Germany, believe the threat is sufficiently serious to make legislative action necessary, by for example imposing carbon taxes or subsidising schemes to reduce fossil fuel usage. The decimation of the union-strong coal industry and the turn to nuclear power are also undoubted factors allowing EU ministers to parade their ecological credentials.

Although opinion surveys show a high level of concern for the environment among the American public, many US politicians, including George W Bush, do not accept that global warming is caused by human activity, and even those who do are not willing to interfere with the operation of capitalism to halt it. European liberal condemnation of the US attitude is typified by Madeleine Bunting: "The whole international effort had been hijacked and corrupted by America's ideological obsession with the disciplines of the market as a panacea for all ills" (The Guardian November 27). As usual the British tried to negotiate a middle-of-the-road compromise between the US and Europe. On this occasion Prescott was not successful.

At Kyoto the US agreed to cut carbon dioxide emissions to seven percent below their 1990 level by 2010. The continued growth of the US economy means there is no way it can meet this commitment by simply burning less carbon, so the US delegation hoped to negotiate 'carbon credits' to be set against this target by agreeing to manage forests and refrain from clearing them and by selling cleaner US technology to developing countries, thus helping them meet their own targets. They also tried to buy pollution quotas from countries which have more than met their targets.

Backward countries, along with China, formed a third bloc at the talks which seems to have been hardly noticed by reporters, although one commentator did claim that poor countries "can only be persuaded to tax energy more heavily as their economies grow if the rich world does so first" (The Independent November 27). In fact poor countries can claim with some justification they have the right to develop their industries to catch up economically with rich countries, who have been polluting a lot more and for longer, and they insisted at the conference that the economic development needed to enable their people to escape from poverty should not be held back by the restrictions on pollution imposed by the rich for the benefit of the environment. Equal rights to pollute, it seems.

A correspondent wrote to The Guardian: "No one should be in any doubt by now that the US government is intent on overcoming any obstacle to US corporate interests, regardless of the impact on the world's poor and the global environment" (letters, November 27). This attempt to link the poor, if by that is meant capitalistically backward countries, and the environment as victims of global capital is typical of radical greens, and leftists who tail the green movement, but it glosses over this looming contradiction. The problem is not the USA but the global system of capital.

If capitalism could ever give the majority of the world's population a reasonable standard of living, let alone western European or US levels of productivity, that would - using present technology - massively increase the world's output of greenhouse gases, negating many times over any reductions achievable by Europe. Therefore the bourgeois politicians in rich capitalist countries may well unite with greens in order to curb economic development in the so-called third world in the name of the environment.

Most green campaigners have an easy solution: instead of workers and the poor in the backward countries radically improving their standard of living, everyone, crucially the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, should accept frozen or lower living standards. Above all they should have less children to reduce the world's population, and should stop 'interfering' altogether with nature. Britain's Green Party wants to reduce the country's population to 20 million. That would also necessitate strict immigration controls for these neo-Malthusians.

Many environmentalists are aware of the evils of capitalism, but because they have no alternative system to suggest their only answer to the problems of today is an impossible return to an imagined past.

Unfortunately much of the left, which should be the bearer of the revolutionary answer to this dilemma, actually lines up behind the greens, who fundamentally see people and their life activities as the problem. Communists believe human ingenuity can find a solution to all problems caused by human activity.

People are part of nature, and everything we do has impacted on it. Even stone age hunter-gatherers disrupted the then balance of nature when they spread into new areas - after human beings first entered America via the Beringia land bridge, created by the lowering of sea levels during the last ice age, many species of large mammals were hunted to extinction within the space of a comparatively few years. It is a complete myth to imagine that in the 21st century we can exist without also affecting nature.

The point is to make our influence on nature conscious and planned; to master nature not in an antagonistic sense, but in the same way as mastering a craft or a language, by learning how it works so as to use it creatively. In order to regulate and control our relationship with nature, we must first regulate and control our relationship with one another.

Capitalism blocks this necessary social advance. We live under social conditions dominated by the alienated drive of the self-expansion of capital, seemingly uncontrollable by human beings. Capitalism is not open to a fully human approach to the production of our wants, because it produces and accumulates for its own sake.

Even if capitalism can reverse global warming in response to mass pressure, it will create new hazards. As noted above, many European countries are close to reaching their Kyoto greenhouse gas emission targets because they have closed most of their coal mines and switched from coal to nuclear powered electricity generation. But this in turn threatens to pollute the world with deadly nuclear waste.

Communists are convinced that once capitalism, with its concomitant waste and injustice, is eliminated from the world, rational planning by the associated producers can provide an ever enriching life - materially and spiritually - for all, while simultaneously safeguarding the living planet on which society depends.

Mary Godwin