Changes and responses

Climate change is nothing new. Nor can we stop it. What we need, insists Jack Conrad, is a society that can cope with sudden change

Global warming and climate change have become major political questions. It is easy to see why:

l The British government's chief science adviser, professor Sir David King, has stated that climate change is "the most severe problem we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism". He has also forthrightly condemned the Bush administration for "failing to take up the challenge of global warming" and boycotting the Kyoto agreement.

l The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica reports that over the last 200 years carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen substantially - from 280 parts per million to 380ppm today. Scientists calculate that CO2 emissions rose 11% over the last decade and will grow another 50% worldwide by 2020. Concentrations are higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. Global temperature has also risen. Over the last century and a half there seems to have been an increase of about 0.6° centigrade. Sea levels are rising too. Coastal cities and low-lying islands such as Tuvalu are in imminent danger.

l In 2004 the World Wildlife Fund published a wide-ranging study, which starkly reveals the perilous condition of the global environment. If robbing the earth's natural resources proceeds according to the established pattern, it calculates that this will lead, by 2030, to "an unavoidable decline in human welfare, as measured by average life expectancy, educational level, and world economic product". Sustainable use of resources ended during the 1980s, says the report. Now we annually consume around 20% more of the planet's biological capacity than is restored. Given current trends, around 50% more will be consumed by 2050.

l Then there is James Lovelock, the environmental scientist and originator of the Gaia theory. He paints a not dissimilar picture to the WWF study in his book The revenge of Gaia (London 2006). Metaphorically, Lovelock likens the earth to a sentient being: she regulates her own climate and composition and hits back against anything that does her damage or causes pain. In other words it is not only living things that adapt according to changed conditions. The planet must be seen as an active agent in its own right.

Because Gaia has been so badly mistreated, contemporary civilisation is "in grave danger". Humanity has had the "ill luck" to start polluting at a time when the "sun is too hot for comfort". We have given Gaia "a fever" and soon her condition will worsen to a "state like a coma". She has been there before and recovered, "but it took more than 100,000 years" for that to happen.

l Tony Blair now candidly admits that the impact of climate change "may well be greater than we thought". In the foreword to the book Avoiding dangerous climate change, he writes: "It is now plain that the emission of greenhouse gases, associated with industrialisation and economic growth from a world population that has increased six-fold in 200 years, is causing global warming at a rate that is unsustainable." Blair is more circumspect than Lovelock; nevertheless in the name of halting global warming he too wants to fast-track the building of a new generation of nuclear power stations.

We can therefore safely say that global warming is now an almost universally accepted fact. The main questions are 'What causes it?' and 'What programme needs to be put in effect in response to it?'

When it comes to ecology and global warming, what most left groups do amounts to theft of the more easily lifted household items of green politics. Bits of green intellectual property turn up tacked onto famished, economistic programmes and election manifestos. The most blatant example of this pirating is what describes itself as red-green politics. But, one way or another, they are all guilty: hence from Respect-SWP we find the green call for "massive public pressure" in order to compel the government to take action "against climate change" (resolution 32 submitted by Respect national council and agreed by the November 19-20 2005 annual conference). The Socialist Campaign Group, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Forward Wales, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, etc - say more or less the same thing as Respect-SWP because the economistic left a whole take their lead from the Campaign Against Climate Change.


Quite frankly, the name says it all. No matter how well intentioned, such a clumsy title amounts to a plea for the entire world to collectively emulate king Canute. That is certainly how the economistic left sees things, given its 'stop climate change' slogans and resolutions. Needless to say, as Canute famously demonstrated in the 11th century, he could not stop the incoming ocean tides. Nor can we in the 21st century - even with our science and advanced technology - stop climate change.

'Climate' and 'change' go together like 'weather' and 'change'. The two are inseparable. Of course, the weather changes from hour to hour, day to day and month to month. Climate is just big weather. Karen Bice, of Pennsylvania University's department of geosciences, gives the following definition: "Climate," she says, "equals weather 'averaged' over a time period of more than one year or more". 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 an ideologically 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 bound to fail.

Think about Britain's climate - a solid record of it lies in the rocks under our feet. As well as periodic glaciations over the last 20 or 30 million years - in the Quaternary and Tertiary periods - temperatures have in general been far higher in the past than today. For example, the coal seams of Yorkshire, south Wales, Lanarkshire and Nottinghamshire were formed in tropical forests and swamps; Dover's famous white cliffs were laid down under shallow, balmy seas; London's clay contains the remains of elephants, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses. The claim that the hottest 10 years "since records began" occurred in the last 10 years might apply in terms of reports issued by the Met Office, but hardly when one considers the geological time scale.

The drift and configuration of the continents might possibly explain our present climate, at least in part. A huge ring of American and Eurasian land more or less encircles the northern pole; that and the continental plate centred on the southern pole provide almost perfect conditions for ensuring cold conditions and freezing the bulk of the Earth's fresh water in two gigantic ice sheets.

Pangea, which existed some 280-230 million years ago, joined together the bulk of today's land masses in one supercontinent, including a huge slab which occupied tropical latitudes. This configuration helped produce much warmer climatic conditions. The US Science Foundation gives a figure of 10° centigrade higher. Leave that theory aside: for most of the Mesozoic and Palaeozoic eras - which together cover many millions of years - the Earth was a considerably hotter place than now. An undisputed fact. Even in more recent times - ie, over the last few million years - the climate has been generally warmer than today.

Climatic statis is always relative and temporary, and is constantly punctuated by rapid change - mostly involving transition periods lasting perhaps a century, sometimes a few decades or even less than that. Until recently most scientists thought that all large-scale global and regional climate changes took place over a time scale of many centuries or millennia: ie, at rates hardly noticeable during a human lifetime. Gradualism was the ruling orthodoxy. No longer the case.

Scientific opinion nowadays recognises that quantitative change reaches a trigger point and then flips into qualitative change. Climatologists Jonathan Adams, Mark Maskim and Ellen Thomas vouch that: "All the evidence indicates that most long-term climate change occurs in sudden jumps rather than incremental changes." Such conclusions were long anticipated by Marxism. Frederick Engels in his Dialectics of nature described the jump or leap: "in so far as qualitative change takes place ... it is determined by a corresponding quantitative change".

Over the last million years there have been large-scale oscillations in the global climate, producing an interglacial-glacial-interglacial 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 unreliable with increasing distance. 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 and the Antarctic.

In terms of climatic transition the most detailed 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 near the Thames and saw much lower sea levels. Huge volumes of water were trapped in snow and ice. What is now Britain was joined to France. The transition to a new climatic regime occurred about 11,500 years ago and seems to have taken only a decade or two to complete. "The speed of this change is probably representative of similar but less well-studied climate transitions during the last few hundred thousand years," argue Adams, Maskim and Thomas. 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.

Many causes, including ocean currents, sun spots, volcanic eruptions, cloud cover, CO2 and methane concentrations, planetary wobbles, ice caps and meteorite and comet strikes have been invoked to explain these sudden transitions. Doubtless a combination of these and other factors are at play.

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 time scale. There have been little ice ages, as well as bursts of relative warmth. Between 1100 and 1300, for example, Europe enjoyed temperatures that were on average 0.7°-1.6° C higher than today. That encouraged 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 comparatively bleak and inclement. So what we are experiencing at present needs to be put in the context of the transition from the little ice age that finally ended around 1880. Not that there is a straightforward linear trend. From 1946 till the 1970s things turned somewhat cooler and only since then has there been a return to warmer conditions - although admittedly still cool compared to the distant past and geological time.

Climatic change can produce both new opportunities and terrible calamities for us humans. Palaeontologists suggest that climate change played a major part in the emergence of our species. Growing polar ice sheets and the spread of the African savannah coincided with the split between our ancestors and modern chimpanzees. Subsequently, other glacial periods and low sea levels eased the human colonisation of Australia and then the Americas. Getting to a bigger Australia from a bigger Asia some 70,000 years ago needed only a short hop from the island of Timor; and 22,000 years ago Siberia was connected to Alaska by the Baring land bridge. Tribal groups, perhaps only five in all, simply wandered in and then over the next 10,000 years or so peopled the whole of the Americas down to Tierra del Fuego.10 

Archaeologists blame sudden climate change for the collapse of the classic period of Mayan civilisation, and alternating wet and dry periods seem to have played a role in the rise and fall of the coastal and highland cultures of Ecuador and Peru. The beginning of crop agriculture in the Middle East certainly corresponds very closely with a sudden warming event that marks the beginning of the Holocene. Milder weather saw Norse colonists establish permanent settlements in Greenland in the 10th century; the population finally petered out in the 15th century, due in part to the "cooling conditions in the north Atlantic" brought about by the little ice age that began in the 13th century.11 

Of course, the climate is chaotic and subject to countless interacting variables. Modelling accurate predictions, especially long-term ones, are therefore fraught with immense difficulties. After all, we do not understand exactly why or how changes occurred in the recent geological past. Hence we largely remain in the dark when it comes to forecasting future events. Even if we knew everything there was to know about past climate mechanisms, "it is likely that we would still not be able to forecast such events confidently into the future".12  This is because the climate system and its chaotic nature means that comparatively tiny quantitative changes can suddenly result in qualitative changes in the initial conditions. The so-called 'butterfly effect'.

So no-one can reliably talk in terms of what will 'definitely' happen even in the near future - despite the doom-mongering certainties presented to the public by the Green Party, Greenpeace, Earth First, etc. All that can reasonably be said is that there are possibilities and probabilities. There is the possibility that the climatic instability seen in the recent geological past is not relevant to our immediate future, because it represents a different system - a 'glacial' state characterised by an entirely different pattern of deep-sea circulation.13  However, there remains the probability that there is a correlation with large-scale global shifts that occurred within earlier interglacials (eg, the Eemian and the Holstein Interglacial in Europe).

As shown by past glacial (eg, the ending of the Younger Dryas) and interglacial (eg, the various Holocene climate oscillations leading up to the 20th century) conditions, climate has a tendency to remain relatively stable and then suddenly leap, sometimes over just a few decades, due to various triggering or feedback mechanisms. Doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere could be enough. A relative pin-prick, but climate is a temperamental, easily roused and vengeful monster.

Most climate scientists and the whole gamut of environmental protest groups believe that today's changes in temperature and sea levels are at least in part down to human beings. We must certainly factor into any calculation the extra complexities caused by the pin-pricks of human activity: eg, greenhouse gases resulting from air and road transport, domestic heating, power stations, industry and agriculture. Paul Crutzen, the Dutch Nobel prize winner, has even talked of the Anthropocene beginning 200 years ago with the industrial revolution. So the warning that human activity is in danger of bringing about another sudden climatic transition cannot be dismissed. Judging from what we know of the past, the quantitative conditions seem to be building up for a qualitative leap and another dramatic change in the climate system. As we have noted above, worst-case scenarios have temperatures in 2100 soaring by 6°C, with all manner of runaway consequences.

Soberly recognising that we might be living on a razor's edge when it comes to climate is not to indulge in historical pessimism or hysterical catastrophism. Does that mean we should simply trail behind the green agenda in the copycat manner of Respect and the SWP? No, as recommended by John Bellamy Foster, we must develop our own Marxist environmental programme and counterpose it to a green environmentalism, which is always partial, often naive and sometimes Malthusian and profoundly reactionary.14 

The Green Party is officially committed to using the capitalist state to carry out its petty bourgeois programme. The sorry results of this reformism are - unlike the climate - easy to predict and can be seen in Germany, where the Greens shared power with the Social Democratic Party until September 2005. Needless to say, Joschka Fischer's Greens did not transform capitalism. On the contrary capitalism transformed them. The Greens were easily tamed by their eagerness to get into office and, once there, they acted as loyal servants of German capitalism. As it has chosen the path of reformism, doubtless so would Respect. It would loyally serve British capitalism. If by some madness it were given the chance.

Deep greens

There are deep greens - the biocentrics, the Gaian cultists and the eco-theologians - those who are committed to planet Earth in a mystical sense and who thereby simultaneously become antipathetic to humanity and all its achievements. People are depicted as some kind of plague that has infested and is thereby destroying the planet. People are the problem. The solution therefore lies in cutting back numbers and winding down economic activity back to peasant agriculture or even the sort of hunter-gathering practised in pre-Neolithic times. Not so long ago the Green Party was programmatically committed to depopulating Britain: from 60 million to 20 million. In the name of nature deep greens reject civilisation, technology ... and the mass of humanity. Logically that leads to extermination camps and the sort of genocide attempted by the Nazis over 1943-45.

Another profoundly reactionary enemy is green capitalism. Ecology has been colonised by business and is now bought and sold like any other commodity. Goods in the supermarket come labelled as 'organic', 'ozone-friendly' and 'gentle on the environment'. Perhaps the most cynical and obnoxious example of this rebranding has been the transnational giant, British Petroleum-Amaco - since 2000 it has marketed itself under the tag, 'Beyond Petroleum'.

As Sharon Beder tellingly explains, the rebranding was part of a concerted effort to portray BP as an "energy company", not just an "oil company": one that incorporated solar energy in its portfolio and was willing and eager to move away from oil. BP changed its old logo for a vibrant green, white and yellow sunburst named after Helios, the ancient Greek sun god. The whole exercise cost a cool £150 million.15 

Needless to say, no company would lay out such a vast sum on presentation unless it had something to hide. And BP has an awful record of condoning human rights abuses, breaking strikes, hiring mercenary goons, causing widespread pollution and altogether despoiling the environment. Hence CEO John Browne had to go to great lengths in the attempt to prove that BP-Amaco had authentic green credentials. In 1997 the company pulled out of the Global Climate Coalition, a group of 50 corporations and trade associations that had been stubbornly maintaining that global warming was unproven and action to prevent it thereby unwarranted. In several highly publicised speeches during that year Browne announced that, rather than continuing to prevaricate, it was time to act to prevent greenhouse warming.

One wing of the green movement enthusiastically welcomed his conversion and today wants to side with the green captains of industry against the old-fashioned, greedy and irresponsible kind. A form of incorporation, but, as Jonathan Porritt shows, it can be well rewarded. He is an advocate of what he calls "sustainable capitalism" - capitalism, he says, is the "only game in town".

Green capitalism trumpets the idea that emissions trading is the "key the to the climate battle".16  But this is little more than fiddling with the figures while Rome burns.

There are green technoquacks. The Pandora's box of demons they would unleash were proudly put on display when British and American 'experts' had their recent get-together at Cambridge University. They were encouraged to think up a range of technological solutions to global warming. Among other forms of madness they suggested were firing dust into the upper atmosphere; stationing a giant, 2,000-kilometre-diameter eye patch in space to deflect two percent of the sun's rays; growing huge algae beds in the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide; building massive cloud-generating machines, etc.

Meeting the challenge of global warming and sudden climate change is primarily not a technological, but a social question. Social solutions must therefore come first. The inescapable fact of the matter is that capitalism is an exploitative metabolism that must endlessly grow and overcome all barriers to growth. Profit is the beginning and end of the system. Capitalism moves according to the formula, M-C-M. Money is laid out by capitalists in order to purchase raw materials and labour-power for one object and one object alone. Gaining more money. That law controls the capitalists themselves - even the greenest of greens among them - and makes capitalism the most uncontrollable, the most rapacious, the most polluting, the most short-termist system imaginable. Capitalism is therefore a mode of destructive reproduction. Hence to be a consistent environmentalist one must be a consistent anti-capitalist. In other words, one must be a Marxist.

We support a whole range of measures designed to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions in the short to medium term - energy conservation, insulation of the housing stock, solar and other renewable energy sources, massive reforestation, free urban public transport and encouraging a radical shift away from artificial patterns of consumption driven by advertising and celebrity culture. All this relies, however, on a societal turn to the principle of need and a break with market imperatives.

Sustainable reproduction is impossible without positively superseding the insatiable metabolic appetite of capital. This immediately, and unavoidably, raises the question of communism. Communism alone offers a viable opportunity for humanity to practically master nature - not, it should be emphasised, like some brutal conquistador, but in the way a student masters a foreign language with its rules of syntax and grammar. Unlike the economistic left, we do not confine this perspective to private meetings, only to practise routine trade unionism and crass electoralism in terms of our daily activity.

We readily admit that climate change cannot be halted. With our current knowledge, resources and capabilities, whatever humanity does, there is the likelihood that sooner or later a new ice age will take hold and once again considerably reduce sea levels. Equally there is the likelihood that there will be warmer and even hot periods - periods that will see some low-lying coastal areas and whole islands disappearing under the rising waves.

Planetary engineering

Attempts at planetary engineering now - especially with the alienated drives of capital and vast lacunas in our knowledge - are bound to produce completely unintended, potentially cataclysmic, consequences. After all, even the best weather forecasts cannot accurately tell you what things will be like even in a month's time. But surely some time in the future humanity will develop the theory and the necessary means for reliable manipulation. Climate change could be nudged or eased in this or that direction. Our descendants will then usher in the real Anthropocene that will see the greening of deserts and the general enhancement of nature for the benefit of humanity.

Undoubtedly there will be many problems if temperatures soar in the short term. But the answer to such a monumental challenge lies neither in a reliance on so-called 'pure' science nor the futile attempt to 'return to nature'.

Whole tracts of the world are in urgent need of infrastructural and industrial development. Therefore in terms of our immediate programme we accept the idea of CO2 convergence and reduction. Given the vastly uneven levels of carbon emission - the US 5.5 units per person, the EU 2.2, China 0.7 and India 0.2 - there can be no question of equal sacrifice.

The plain fact of the matter is that industrially developed societies are much better placed to manage climate change than impoverished ones. They can afford to put in place flood defences, operate robust social security systems and, if need be, relocate people in an orderly fashion.

There are still those enchanted by the dream of universal and balanced development under the existing capitalist system. Stupid - that or they are paid agents employed to pull the wool over people's eyes. Capitalism means uneven development and by definition a declining capitalism can mean de-development. A capitalist Bangladesh can never achieve parity with western Europe or the US. Today such countries face a further descent into the hell holes of barbarism, not the steady ascent to the peaks of civilisation.

So what climate change demands is not the suspension of the class struggle for higher wages, land redistribution, constitutional reform, etc: rather global coordination of a deeply organised working class for the positive supersession of capitalism. What our fraught and increasingly strained relationship with nature requires is the elevation of the class struggle into a challenge for state power and the perspective of general human freedom.