Not in capital's interest

Knowing the price of every commodity without knowing the worth of life's essentials is the essence of capitalism, writes Jim Moody

If the failure of the national leaders attending the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15)[1] was insufficient to show that capitalism cannot mend its ways in despoiling the environment, last month their minions trooped over to Cancún to reiterate this fact at COP16. As well as president Barack Obama, the high-profile US team at Copenhagen had also included secretary of state Hillary Clinton. In contrast the low-key US delegation to Mexico was headed by Jonathan Pershing, deputy special envoy for climate change at the department of state. This downgrading of representation was perhaps reflected in the lack of concrete agreement reached in Cancún.

Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solón, broke with diplomatic protocol when he outlined why his country’s delegation had not voted for the accord at the end of the proceedings. (Technically, since unanimity is necessary under UN rules, this means that the accord is void.) In an article published soon after, he said: “The text replaces binding mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with voluntary pledges that are wholly insufficient. These pledges contradict the stated goal of capping the rise in temperature at 2ºC, instead guiding us to 4ºC or more. The text is full of loopholes for polluters, opportunities for expanding carbon markets and similar mechanisms ... that reduce the obligation of developed countries to act.” He went on to declare: “The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that, in order to have a 50% chance of keeping the rise in temperature below 1.5ºC, emissions must peak by 2015. The attempt in Cancún to delay critical decisions until next year could have catastrophic consequences.”[2]

Cancún is supposedly going to lead to greater transparency concerning emissions, forestry investments that are no better than the bribery of poor countries’ elites, a World Bank-run green climate fund and as yet undefined transfers of technology for renewable energy. Plus the pious hope that somehow there will emerge an overarching strategy to produce legally binding protocols. But the real story of Cancún was that its delegations were prepared to prioritise the rights of capital over protecting the environment from anthropogenic climate change. And there is no way around the fact that non-binding commitments (aka voluntary ‘pledges’) to reduce emissions by 15% by 2020 will fail to stabilise temperatures at a level that can avoid catastrophic changes.

Indebted African states are being wooed via the blandishments of the UN scheme for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (UN-REDD),[3] accruing benefits to their elites. After all, there are plenty of examples of bribery that show it works well for the leading capitalist polluting states. Indeed, EU climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard met secretly with Jonathan Pershing on February 11 last year to cook up just such a suborning stew. As exposed by Wikileaks, the cable reports that she “suggested the AOSIS [Alliance of Small Island States] countries ‘could be our best allies’, given their need for financing.” She was mostly concerned that $30 billion already designated ‘climate’ aid from 2010 to 2012 came in the form of loan guarantees rather than grants (ie, not good enough bribery). Also, the cable noted, “Hedegaard said she does not have high expectations for COP 16 in Mexico and that we must avoid the expectations that it will resolve all of the unanswered problems from Copenhagen.”[4] Further cables suggest that Hedegaard and the US delegation were instrumental in cobbling together the final, rushed accord that almost all Cancún participants accepted.

Setting a notional 2ºC limit rise in atmospheric mean temperatures is considered inadequate by some senior climate scientists - the point is to curb carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in order to tackle global warming concretely. After three decades advising US governments, professor James Hansen began issuing public calls to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere from the current 390 parts per million (ppm) to below 350ppm. He was recently quoted as saying that, “Two degrees Celsius is guaranteed disaster.”[5] Cancún chose the 2ºC aspirational limit in preference to the harder 350ppm figure. In a paper published on his Columbia University website, Hansen and others have suggested the possibility that reduced Arctic sea ice is affecting weather patterns and produced the cold air that Europe just experienced in November and December: “Because Hudson Bay (and Baffin Bay, west of Greenland) are at significantly lower latitudes than most of the Arctic Ocean, global warming may cause them to remain ice-free into early winter after the Arctic Ocean has become frozen.”[6]

Loss of sea ice in the Arctic due to global warming has, seemingly contradictorily, had the effect of sending extremely cold air into northern Europe, leaving parts of north Canada warmer in winter. “The extreme warmth in north-east Canada is undoubtedly related to the fact that Hudson Bay was practically ice-free. In the past, including the GISS base period 1951-1980, Hudson Bay was largely ice-covered in November. The contrast of temperatures at coastal stations in years with and without sea ice cover on the neighbouring water body is useful for illustrating the dramatic effect of sea ice on surface air temperature. Sea ice insulates the atmosphere from ocean water warmth, allowing surface air to achieve temperatures much lower than that of the ocean. It is for this reason that some of the largest positive temperature anomalies on the planet occur in the Arctic Ocean, as sea ice area has decreased in recent years.”[7]

A recent study by geophysicists Vladimir Petoukhov, Vladimir A Semenov and AM Obukhov shows that abnormal decreases in sea ice concentration has unexpected repercussions: “Our simulations ... demonstrate that lower-troposphere heating over the seas in the eastern Arctic caused by the sea ice reduction may result in strong anticyclonic anomaly over the Polar Ocean and anomalous easterly advection over northern continents. This causes a continental-scale winter cooling reaching -1.5°C, with more than three times increased probability of cold winter extremes over large areas, including Europe. Our results imply that several recent severe winters do not conflict the global warming picture, but rather supplement it ...”[8]

Should Greenland’s ice disappear, as will happen if current trends continue, sea levels worldwide would rise by around seven metres, inundating large areas of seaboard land. This would, for example, place much of the shore of the Thames Estuary and parts of the Sussex and Kent coast under water and massively increase the size of the Wash. In fact, the current sea level rise has been accelerating due to global warming from a mean rate of 1.8mm per year over the last century up to 3.1mm (satellite measurement 1993-2003). Were Antarctic ice to melt together with all Arctic ice, then the sea level rise would amount to 10 times the rise caused by the melting of Greenland’s ice alone.

Even on a national level, within the UK, the Con-Dem coalition is doing its bit against the environment by planning to privatise all or most of the 635,000 acres of woodland currently held by the Forestry Commission in England. Scotland’s and Wales’s devolved authorities will no doubt be encouraged to do likewise. In verbal evidence to a House of Lords select committee, Jim Paice, minister of state for agriculture and food, stated baldly the coalition government’s position that “we wish to proceed with ... very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it”.[9] The main bidders already lining up to take these woods off the government’s hands are, unsurprisingly, logging companies. It would be bizarre in the extreme, not to say against shareholders’ interests (paramount under company law), were these companies not to realise these assets. And the most straightforward way to do that will be to turn trees into timber. What else are they going to do? It is not as if planning requirements stand in their way: the Localism Bill going through parliament will dismantle planning structures and procedures that hamper capitalist profit-seeking.

It is capital’s burning, unremitting drive to create surplus value that underlies the production of greenhouse gases. It also results in a tendency to pollute the air, soil and water - the elements of our world regarded as a ‘free gift’ and without cost to its grubby balance sheets. Knowing the price of every commodity without knowing the worth of life’s essentials is the essence of capitalism. Its depredation of the earth and our environment will not be brought to an end by attempts to tame its excesses: capital’s excesses are what keep it in business.

The proletariat is the only class that has no interest in the destruction the planet; the only class whose interest lies in the emancipation of all humanity and thus the defence of the world it inhabits.


  1. ‘Copenhagen sets disastrous CO2 targets’ Weekly Worker December 10 2009.
  2. ‘Why Bolivia stood alone in opposing the Cancún climate agreement’ The Guardian December 21 2010.
  3. United Nations collaborative programme on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries: www.un-redd.org
  5. ‘The only way to save our planet?’ The Independent January 4.
  6. J Hansen, R Ruedy, M Sato, K Lo, ‘Global temperature and Europe’s frigid air’: www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2010/20101211_TemperatureAndEurope.pdf
  7. Climate Progress December 12 2010: climateprogress.org/2010/12/12/nasa-explains-how-europe-can-be-so-cold-amidst-the-hottest-november-and-hottest-year-on-record
  8. V Petoukhov, VA Semenov, AM Obukhov, ‘A link between reduced Barents-Kara sea ice and cold winter extremes over northern continents’ Journal of Geophysical Research Vol 115.
  9. House of Lords select committee on the European Union, agriculture, fisheries and environment sub-committee November 24 2010: www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/eu-sub-com-d/forestry/ucEUD241110ev1.pdf