Socialism or catastrophe

There is no solution to global warming under capitalism, says Jim Moody in response to the UN report on the issue

t's official: humanity faces dire consequences over the next century unless something is done to stop the surge in global temperature caused by industrial, transport and other such human activity. Unless action is taken now, the danger is that the climate will suddenly flip over into another system and unleash catastrophic change to the delicate environment we share in common and all rely upon.

On February 2, working group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, issued its 'Summary for policymakers' report, entitled Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Its unanimously agreed scientific findings are that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. Key conclusions are:

l Global warming is occurring.

l The probability that this is caused by natural climatic processes is less than 5%.

l The probability it is caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases is over 90%.

l World temperatures will probably rise by between 1.8°C and 4°C during the 21st century.

l Sea levels will probably rise by 28-43cm.

l It is more than 66% certain that there will be an increase in droughts, tropical cyclones and extreme high tides.

l Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium (anthropogenic effects, processes, objects or materials are those derived from human activities, as opposed to those occurring in natural environments without human influences).

This is a heavy-hitting report, assessing scientific information relevant to human-induced climate change, its impacts and the options for adaptation and mitigation. Its contributors include 600 authors from 40 countries; over 620 expert reviewers; a large number of government reviewers; and representatives from 113 governments (see www.ipcc.ch/ and http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu).

When the report came out on February 2, environment secretary David Miliband said: "What's now urgently needed is the international political commitment to take action to avoid dangerous climate change. This has been absent so far. If we are to succeed, we will require the engagement not just of environmental ministers but heads of state, prime ministers and finance ministers ... Man-made climate change poses an increasing risk to people and business across the globe. It will have disastrous consequences if we don't act now. The economic evidence, following the Stern Review, is clear that tackling this challenge is both achievable and affordable" (Defra News: www.defra.gov.uk/news/latest/2007/climate-0202.htm).

Cant and hypocrisy. When Miliband and other mouthpieces of capitalism speak of climate change posing "increasing risk to ... business" and its management being "affordable", it is all too clear what their priorities are: to ensure capitalism survives and that the cost of its survival is borne by the world's working class.

Miliband does not really expect the world's governments, capital's loyal minions, to do anything that might damage their master. His words are mere pretence that 'something will be done'. Government bluster over the report is no more than fiddling while Rome burns (literally, if the planet heats up as promised).

In 1997, the Kyoto protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change amended the international treaty on global warming. Signatory countries have mandatory targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs and PFCs) - or they can engage in 'emissions trading' if they maintain or increase emissions. Targets for 2008 to 2012 are 8% reductions for the EU, 7% for the US, 6% for Japan, 0% for Russia. But since the USA, the world's largest polluter, refused to join, this has been environmentally useless, though a nice little earner for some.

Economist John Kay wrote about carbon trading: "Investment banks salivate at the prospect of new speculative markets. So, instead of a simple mechanism for transferring credits between businesses, we have an online, real-time market in which the price of carbon fluctuates wildly to the benefit of day traders ..." (The Financial Times May 9 2006) After all, carbon credits are exchangeable instruments, so financial investors can trade them on the stock exchange.

Carbon Trade Watch researcher Kevin Smith notes: "The availability of these cheap permits has been a further disincentive for industry to invest in energy efficiency and clean energy infrastructure ... there is much evidence that, while a great deal of money may have been saved, or even earned, through the development of these markets, they have not necessarily been effective in delivering the required emissions reduction" (Parliamentary Brief December 2006).

The EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has provided large boosts to company profits without any noticeable effect on the environment - here 'the polluter earns', not 'the polluter pays': "Under the EU ETS, some of the worst greenhouse offenders, like Germany's RWE, have garnered hundreds of millions of pounds in windfall profits for pursuing business as usual, while ordinary citizens suffer higher electricity prices and developers of renewable energy go begging" (Larry Lohmann, 'Carry on polluting' New Scientist November 2 2006).

Last autumn's Stern report had already warned world leaders that unless something was done dire economic consequences would follow. Climate stability was essential for big business stability, so by 2050 greenhouse gases had to be reduced by 25% (subsequently by 80%).

'Carbon offsetting' has now been recruited in the public bamboozling stakes. This means that the carbon emission for which an individual is said to be responsible is calculated and can be 'offset' by purchasing credits to prevent or remove an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) somewhere else. All quite similar to Kyoto, in fact, but on the level of the individual consumer. And just as useless. Those who cannot afford to pay the consumer offsetting charge may in the future be unable to utilise a CO2-producing product or service. A perfect capitalist solution: you only get what you can pay for at the time of need.

Specialist companies now offer tree-planting or investment in renewable energy, or both, for between $5.50 and $13 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. A field day for scam artists. Some projections suggest that by 2009 the carbon offset industry will be capitalised at a billion dollars: there is no solution like a capitalist solution. Tim Yeo, Tory chair of the House of Commons environmental audit committee, has even suggested it may call for mandatory carbon offset charges for air travel.

Since capitalism's sole purpose is to generate profit, restriction of its profits will be resisted to the death. Capitalism does not produce to fulfil human need; and, whether through competition or the material destruction of war, it is an incredibly wasteful system.

In fact, capitalism's 'solutions' to environmental crisis are directed against the working class and the poor. Apart from the problems of carbon offsetting, other projects bear disproportionately on the majority. The congestion charges in London, which the relatively wealthy laugh off, weigh heavily on most potential car travellers, who instead have to put up with grossly overcrowded tubes, trains and buses. But for many there is no escape from the use of the inefficient and polluting private motor car as the primary means of transport, especially where public transport is priced out of easy reach or is simply non-existent. Now airport taxes may increase to include mandatory carbon offsetting. This affects most of all those taking holidays or trips as a break from the daily grind experienced by workers.

Providing solutions was outside working group I's remit: the IPCC leaves that to individual countries. It must be abundantly clear that this is unworkable. There can be no national, country-by-country solution, still less individual solutions along the lines of 'if we all do our bit'. Ultimately, there can be no solution under the world system of capital, whose drive for constant expansion obliges it to raise production and sell more and more commodities. Humanity needs a worldwide solution nonetheless.

In the last analysis there is no escape from this impending environmental catastrophe within the strictures of the capitalist system. This means developing a working class strategy that ensures these crucial questions are at the centre of a revolutionary minimum programme for extreme democracy and the supersession of that system.

We can begin by demanding free public transport: charges to taxation mean the cost has to be borne by the ruling class. Travel by airship or dirigible and transporting heavy goods by canal and sea barge need to be investigated seriously. Safe, segregated areas that cyclists and pedestrians can use in city and countryside must become a priority. Power generation has to be weaned off using fossil fuels, putting resources into developing nuclear fusion, solar energy, wind and wave power. Energy forms beyond wasteful and polluting carbon sources need to be researched and realistic engineering models developed.

Real resources have not been put into developing alternatives because profit from current, fossil fuel-based technologies have so far been sacrosanct. Reversible barriers can use the power of the tides for electricity generation (viz in the Bristol Channel, which could also protect against predicted environmental damage there and higher up the Severn). Internal combustion engines are capable of being replaced with electric and hydrogen ones.

Most of all, the working class needs to organise itself, for itself. What we do about climate change is a prime example of how organising in a Communist Party will be part of the liberation of humanity. There is no future for humanity in face of the dire circumstances of environmental catastrophe, except the end of capital's domain. 'Socialism or catastrophe' never had a truer ring.