To save the planet, fight for a red world

Capitalism is showing itself to be totally incapable of cutting back on carbon emissions, writes Eddie Ford

With less than a week to the Copenhagen conference on climate change - and the Kyoto Protocol due to expire in 2012 - a new report by climate experts at PricewaterhouseCoopers has starkly declared that “the world” is already coming close to using up the “carbon budget” set for the period between 2000 and 2050. More precisely, the carbon ‘debt’ in 2008 was equivalent to the joint annual total of both the United States and China - the two biggest carbon emitters on the planet.

The report’s calculations are based upon what is needed to limit temperature rises to 2ºC, the climate threshold defined as “dangerous” by the European Union. Therefore, to get back on track and avert a general slide into possible environmental and ecological catastrophe, there has to be a dramatic reduction in the “carbon intensity” of the global economy. Speaking concretely, this means global emissions need to peak by 2015 and fall back to 2009 levels by the end of the next decade. Or as PwC’s Leon Johnson puts it, “We now need to decarbonise at a rate of 3.5% a year” - which amounts to “four times more than we have managed at the global level since 2000”.1

So, with this study - and many, many others - ringing in their ears, the world’s leaders will arrive at the United Nations organised Copenhagen conference on December 7 determined to do ... not very much, in reality. Though, luckily for those going to Copenhagen, they will get to enjoy listening to Prince Charles - that well known scientific expert on all things environmental - addressing the opening ceremony. While not engaging in any of the formal negotiations or talks, the purpose of his speech - or so it is claimed - is to help set the tone for the event as a whole.

The original goal of the Copenhagen conference was to secure wide support for substantial binding targets to slash emissions in half by 2050 - particularly with regard to China, the world’s current worst offender when it comes to carbon pollution. Thus, as part of the pre-conference haggling, China set itself the target of nearly halving the ratio of pollution to GDP over the next decade - that is, to curb the rate of emission as the economy grows rather than an actual cut. As for the gas-guzzling addicts of the US, Barack Obama has been touting proposal to reduce US emissions - the world’s biggest per capita emitter of overall greenhouse gases - by a relatively impressive sounding 83% by 2050, starting with a 17% cut by 2020: then a 30% reduction by 2025, followed by 42% come 2030.

However, this flurry of target-setting all appears to have been hot air - talk big, do little. Hence within the US, the Kerry-Boxer bill - which would establish a carbon cap and set specific renewable energy generation targets - is languishing in the Senate and will in all likelihood be postponed until at least the spring - if it gets passed at all - as inevitably it is meeting stiff resistance from the various vested interests and lobby groups determined to defend the very profitable status quo (just as with healthcare reform).

In turn, unsurprisingly - and with a fair degree of logic - China has stated that the US needs to put its own house in order before it starts righteously lecturing others on the vital importance of action on climate change. According to Qin Gang, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, the US should “shoulder its historic responsibilities and obligations suitable to its national development level” - and, furthermore, that to call upon (or expect) a developing country like China to actually reduce its own carbon output would be unreasonable and “unfair”.2 Additionally, China insists that any emissions targets should be purely voluntary, as they presently are under the Kyoto Protocol - which, of course, the US administration under George Bush ‘ratified’ without actually signing.

Given such a climate of mutual suspicion and fractious - if not downright combustible - internal domestic politicking, Obama has openly ruled out the possibility of securing any meaningful commitments at Copenhagen. Instead, he hopes to cobble together a “two-stage process” that would delay any sort of legal or binding ‘post-Kyoto’ treaty until at least next year. This process involves the US president supporting a Danish plan that seeks to locate areas of broad political agreement and any contentious or problematic decisions on emissions targets, financing and technology transfer. In other words, fudge it.

To this end, the Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen - the host and chair of the Copenhagen climate talks - jetted to Singapore on November 15 in order to pitch the delaying plan to the 19 leaders attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Once there, he urged them to “focus on what is possible and not let ourselves be distracted by what is not possible” - making the case that Copenhagen “should finally mandate continued legal negotiations and set a deadline for their conclusion” (my emphasis). Naturally, such an arrangement would provide a breathing space for Obama, who must surely hope that by then the US Senate would have passed some form of carbon-capping legislation (17%?) - thus allowing his administration to bring a 2020 target and various financial pledges to the table at the next UN climate meeting due for mid-2010 in either Mexico or Germany. It should be noted that in their final declaration the APEC leaders deleted all references to emission reduction targets or goals.

And, of course, the Copenhagen omens look even less prepossessing following the very recent tumultuous events in Australia, which saw the opposition party - the very conservative Liberal Party - boot out its incumbent leader, Malcolm Turnball, and (narrowly) elect a replacement, the even more reactionary Tony ‘mad monk’ Abbott. Upon seizing the Liberal throne, Abbott immediately vowed to scupper the current climate change proposals championed by Labour prime minister Kevin Rudd, which had been backed by Turnball. This saw Abbott moving to defer a vote on whether Australia should establish a carbon trading system, which would see it placing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

Abbott’s wrecking action - apart from plunging the Liberal Party into a protracted and bitter civil war - could well trigger a general election, given the prominence of the putative ‘anti-emissions’ bill in Australian political life. His views on climate change, and environmentalism in general, are not too hard to discern. He has called Rudd a “toxic bore” for his pro-environmentalist noises, described those who advocate a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as acting in the spirit of the “Salem witch-hunts” towards their critics, and informed a local newspaper that the notion of climate change was “absolute crap”.3

So Copenhagen is dead before it is born. Do communists welcome its effective demise, or agree with Tony Abbott that the idea of climate change is “absolute crap”? Most definitely not. Reactionaries like Abbott aside, potentially disastrous climate change is now an almost universally recognised danger amongst scientists. Indeed, in all probability the entire global climate system is on a knife’s edge. Only the wilfully blind or venally self-interested can maintain otherwise.

Of course, in some way the term ‘climate change’ is a misnomer. There has always been climate change - or relatively sudden and dramatic, even violent, alterations to the weather systems and their patterns. Even without a single human being on the planet. That is to say, there is nothing unusual about ‘climate change’ per se. It has never ceased, is ongoing and must therefore be regarded as inevitable - in that sense, it must be considered natural. Therefore fanciful notions of fixing in place the climate as it is now, or returning it to a pre-industrial revolution ideal through some kind of human exodus or miraculous technological-scientific invention or discovery, are both misplaced and utterly doomed to fail. Communists should not be afraid to boldly say so.

But this in no way disguises the fact that it is the historically specific world capitalist system, with its own concrete laws of motion and development, that is wreaking environmental and ecological devastation upon the planet - not an abstract and supposedly rapacious humanity torn from any real and living historical context, as implied by the misanthropic ‘deep’ Greens and eco-theocrats. Let alone individual ‘greed’ or overconsumption. Rather the finger of blame must be pointed directly at capitalism and the exploitative nature of class relations and society - for capital affords nature no value, except as an ‘asset’ to be stripped and ripped away. True manna from heaven.

Capitalism as a social system is inherently destructive and therefore incapable of ‘saving the planet’. There are no technological quick fixes. The much talked about, even lauded, ‘green taxes’ will not work, as no market solutions can substantially reverse the growth of CO2 emissions and pollution in general. That is because capitalism is an exploitative metabolism that is driven to endlessly grow and fight to overcome all barriers to such blind growth. Social spending is regarded as at best a grudging necessity and at worst criminally wasteful. Profit is the beginning and end of the system and virtually every government in the world today is committed to serving that end, including ‘communist’ China. In short, capitalism is a mode of destructive reproduction - environmentally harmful by its very nature because it generates constant growth for its own sake, not according to any rational or democratic plan.

A long time ago, Thomas Münzer, the Anabaptist leader of the German peasant revolution, pinpointed in his pamphlet against Luther the root cause of the advancing social evil in quite tangible terms, diagnosing it as the cult of universal saleability and alienation. He concluded his discourse by saying how intolerable it was “that every creature should be transformed into property: the fishes in the water, the birds of the air, the plants of the earth”.4 As we now know, this was a powerful and far-sighted identification of what was to unfold over the course of the next three centuries.

Genuine sustainable development cannot come about without the removal of the paralysing constraints of the adversarial and ‘dog eat dog’ capitalist system, with its permanent “war of all against all” (Thomas Hobbes). To be a consistent environmentalist - as opposed to a faddist or utopian - one must be a consistent anti-capitalist. We in the CPGB reject the tinkering espoused by the likes of George Monbiot, who fantasies about a ‘cuddly’ scaled-down capitalism that somehow negates its own nature and, by the equitable use of ‘carbon credits’ and suchlike, begins to roll back the decades of ecological degradation.

No, the environmental question, immediately and unavoidably, raises the question of substantive equality and the fight for socialism. For sustainability means really being in control of the vital social, economic and cultural processes, through which human beings not merely survive, but can and should also find fulfilment - in accordance with the designs which they set themselves, instead of being at the mercy of unpredictable natural forces and what the Hungarian-born Marxist, István Mészáros, terms the “quasi-natural socio-economic determinations” generated by capitalism.5

Unlike many of our Green friends, Marxists are unashamedly optimistic - not in some fatuous, Panglossian way or brainless, Soviet-type bureaucratic manner, but simply in the sense that we communists adamantly believe that humanity, through the revolutionary agency of the working class, can make a world fit to live in. Though this will certainly not be the message we hear emanating from Copenhagen, to save the planet we need a communist world - a red world. Representing the global victory of democracy, communism alone allows humanity the chance to heal the metabolic rift with nature caused by the existence of class society.