No technical solutions

Simon Wells reports on the G8's less than serious attempts to tackle climate change

President Bush torpedoed the emerging global consensus on tackling carbon emissions and climate change last week. In front of a blue background and the slogan 'US global leadership campaign' he announced from his Washington bunker a "new [technological] international climate change framework". It did not meet with the overwhelming approval of the leaders of the other Group of Eight countries meeting for their annual summit in Germany on June 6-8.

The previous week a leaked draft proposal on climate change to be debated at the G8 meeting showed that the US had wanted to strike out language such as, "We underline that tackling climate change is an imperative, not a choice. We firmly agree that resolute and concerted international action is urgently needed in order to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and sustain our common basis of living." Instead Bush talks of goals and voluntary energy-efficiency measures, not targets or caps on carbon dioxide emissions, which he fears would harm the US economy. What he is also avoiding is responsibility for his actions. His global goal is to agree a deal in 2008, just before the end of his second term in office.

Among the 15 countries responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, which Bush wants onside, are China and India. They, like the US, have rejected binding targets. Pradipto Ghosh, India's environment minister, has objected: "Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is likely to have significant adverse impacts on GDP growth of developing countries, including India."

The response of most environmentalists to Bush's proposed framework has been to label it a negative stalling tactic, Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, commented: "This is a deliberate and carefully crafted attempt to derail any prospect of a climate change agreement in Germany next week."

Bush proposes 'clean' energy technology, 'clean' coal technology, solar and wind energy, 'clean, safe' nuclear power, the use of hybrid and 'clean' diesel vehicles, biodiesel fuel, ethanol production, plug-in hybrid vehicles and advanced hydrogen-powered vehicles that emit pure water instead of exhaust fumes. Apparently such technologies will revolutionise a country that Bush said in his 2006 state of the union message is "addicted to oil".

To facilitate the new technological revolution, Bush wants to eliminate tariffs on 'clean energy' technologies, giving the US a head start in exporting 'clean' coal, nuclear technology and a list of environmental goods and services to developing countries, whose economies would, of course, be further 'liberalised'. Running parallel to this is a marketised approach to climate change involving carbon taxes, energy prices, state regulation, carbon emission certificates and grants to universities for research and development. Individual consumers in a commodified market will be made to feel responsible for climate change and will themselves help drive further technological innovation. And, more importantly, an expansion of the productive forces.

For the capitalist, what this boils down to is the economic cost of doing nothing - the key message of the Stern report. And there is a rush for companies to put their marketing machines into overdrive and prove to consumers their environment credentials, showing off their triple bottom lines and closed loop cycles - The Independent recently listed the top 10 'green' companies in relation to procurement, water waste minimisation, methane capture, low-carbon power generation and zero-effluent factories (June 1).

One that is always lauded by the greens is Ray Anderson's carpet tile company, Interface. Championed as environmentally sustainable, Anderson had what he called "a revelation about what industry is doing to our planet". Mind you, there are certain business advantages: "It's so compelling. Our costs are down, not up. Our products are the best they have ever been. Our people are motivated by a shared higher purpose - esprit de corps to die for. And the good will in the marketplace - it's just been astonishing."

There you have it: a capitalist dream. A sustainable company and a great place to work - it is almost as if the capitalists have started their own environmental movement.

"Supplying clean energy and cutting carbon emissions are both technologically feasible and economically possible." Such change "can also provide employment and significantly improve the welfare of ordinary people." That, however, is not a Confederation of British Industry press release, but a comment on tackling the climate crisis from Alison Smith in Socialist Worker (June 2). From the Respect website on 'Tackling environmental crisis' we have more of the same. Respect demands: "Significant and sustained investment in development of renewable energy sources for implementation both in the UK and in the developing world, with free transfer for renewable energy technology."

Comrade Smith and others on the left argue for those same technological solutions, combined with investment schemes and direct regulation of production, energy, manufacturing, transportation, forests, oceans and raw materials. They want to rewind the clock back to the first half of the 20th century when technological utopianism appeared on the immediate post-war landscape. This was before uncontrolled large-scale industry laid waste pristine environments in the search for surplus value. They then succumb to the 'small is beautiful' thesis of small-scale, 'non-invasive' technologies, which do not even begin to overcome the antagonisms of capitalist production.

What this harks back to is Keynesianism, nationalisation, state control and old Labour. In reality this programme says that the forces of production move history - an economistic perspective that puts the cart before the horse, in terms of substituting technology for the class struggle. It means the continued division of labour and the subjugation of the working class, and the abandonment of any attempt to resolve what Marx called the metabolic rift between human society and nature.

We certainly need the best technologies that scientists can develop, not a retreat to a time when humanity trod lightly on earth. However, there are no technical solutions to climate change, which is driven by capital's insatiable drive to expand and realise ever more surplus value. Only the working class has the necessary potential, talents, resources and creativity not only to resolve the climate crisis, but to make both nature and technology the servants of humanity.