Climate change: Entering the danger zone
Capitalisms growth for growths sake is putting humanity at grave risk, argues Eddie Ford
Concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most important of the human-made ‘greenhouse gases’ contributing to global warming, appear to be reaching catastrophic levels. Published last week, the latest findings from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory strongly indicate that the average daily level of CO2 in the air has risen to above 400 parts per million, its highest level since the Pliocene period some 2.6 to 5.8 million years ago. A staggering thought.
The research data from Mauna Loa goes back 800,000 years to the age of the oldest fossilised air bubbles extracted from Dome C, an ice-bound summit in the high Antarctic. During this pre-industrial period, CO2 concentrations fluctuated between around 180ppm during the ice ages and 280ppm during interglacial warm periods. In other words, we have a massively accelerated pace of change in terms of natural history - there has never been anything like it (as far as we know). And the problem is literally getting worse by the day. Since the measurements started in the late 1950s, the rate of increase has picked up from about 0.7ppm per year to 2.1ppm per year during the last decade. Effectively meaning that CO2 in now rising 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended - a situation that is clearly unsustainable and threatens to totally wreck the planet’s ecological system, which is already severely damaged by capitalist exploitation and plunder.
Furthermore, the Nature Climate Change journal on March 12 published an extensive study outlining how more than half of common plant species and a third of animal species are likely to see their living space halved within seven decades on current CO2 emission trends.1 The species extinction rate is now the highest in 65 million years, with the prospect of cascading extinctions, as the last remnants of vital ecosystems are removed - bird species are dying out at 100 times more than the ‘benchmark’ or ‘natural’ rate. As for the output of greenhouse gases, the study warned, they are putting Earth on track for a 4°C temperature hike by 2100 - chiming with figures produced by the United Nations-established Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has projected increases in average global temperature of up to 5.8°C for the same period. The implications are calamitous. For example, experiments conducted at the International Rice Institute have led scientists to conclude that with each 1°C increase in temperature, rice, wheat and corn yields could drop 10%.
You could argue, if so inclined, that the newest statistics concerning CO2 concentrations are hardly surprising, given the sheer amount of coal being furiously burnt around the world right at this very moment. The biggest emitters, naturally, are the United States, China and India - all competing in the ‘dog eats dog’ global race. However, we have now entered a new danger zone - our natural environment is being radically altered.
Just think about it. The 400ppm figure is one that belongs to a different era in every sense of the term. As revealed by Mauna Loa and others, the last time we saw comparable levels of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 4.5 million years ago, when the world was warmer on average by 3-4°C than it is today and 8°C warmer at the poles. A time when the tundra in Siberia and Canada was covered in lush forests, savannah and lakes spread across the Sahara, and the Arctic was ice-free - and where the sea level was 20 to 40 metres higher than today, far above most of the world’s major cities.
Alarm bells should be ringing everywhere. In a way, we have created - or recreated - a prehistoric climate under modern industrial conditions: what a perverse achievement. Unless drastic action is taken in the very near future, preferably immediately, cities like London, New York and Tokyo are in danger of being drowned like something from a CGI-heavy science fiction movie. Enjoyable as fantasy, or moral fable, but not so as reality. If the advanced countries cannot prevent such a disaster, and there is no reason to think that they can, then what will happen to the poorer countries? An apocalyptic scenario. Bangladeshi peasants, for example, cannot move their farms a mile or so up the road - it is someone else’s land.
Humanity has never faced before such an environmental problem - to call it a monumental challenge almost sounds anodyne. Some effects of rapid climate change have already been witnessed, with extreme heat-waves and flooding now more likely. Recent wet and cold summer weather in Europe has been linked to changes in the high-level jet-stream winds, in turn linked to the rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic - which shrank to a new low in September. The evidence is surely conclusive that the strong growth of global CO2 emissions from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving the acceleration - to believe anything else is wilful ignorance at best.
In the blunt opinion of Ralph Keeling from the Scripps Institution, there is “no stopping” CO2 from reaching 400ppm - it is a “done deal”. But despite that he emphasises that what happens from here on is potentially “under our control” - something communists agree with wholeheartedly.
Despite the evident dangers of runaway global warming, sections of the rightwing media are still attacking climate science - regarding it as some sort of green-Marxist conspiracy to undermine ‘civilisation’ (ie, capitalism) and send us hurtling back to the stone age. One of the worst offenders, or buffoons, is the ‘anti-wind farm activist’ - how sad is that? - James Delingpole, who regularly blogs for The Daily Telegraph and other wretched publications. Displaying his reasonable and moderate nature in a Telegraph blog post, dated January 25 2012, Delingpole objected to Friends of the Earth’s charitable status on the grounds that it is “quite clearly a viciously misanthropic, anti-capitalist political organisation funded by deep-green ecoloons who, given half the chance, would have us all living in Maoist peasant collectives while they busily bombed our economy back to the dark ages”. Bettering himself still in a May 2012 article for The Australian (‘Wind farm scam a huge cover-up’), he described climate science as a “junk-science boondoggle”2 and suggested that the advocates of wind farms were like paedophiles.3
Not to be outdone, naturally, is Peter Ferrara - a former White House staff member under Ronald Reagan and prominent analyst for the free-market think-tank, the Heartland Institute. The latter ran a notorious billboard campaign last year claiming that if you believed in global warming then you were in the same camp as the “neo-Luddite”, Ted Kacynski (aka the Unabomber4). Rising to the occasion again, Ferrara used a recent column in the online edition of Forbes magazine to express the view that climate science is akin to “Lysenkoism”5 - an utterly crazy inversion of the truth. If anything, Lysenko’s quack pseudo-science - rejecting Mendelian genetics in favour of a lightly warmed-over Lamarckism - had a lot in common with the irrational anti-climate science sceptics.
But people like Delingpole and Ferrara want to construct an alternative universe where there is no such thing as human-created climate change and where the captains of industry - the masters of the universe - rule unchallenged for eternity.
Slightly more down to earth, though no less obnoxious for that, there is the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the UK. Established by Lord Nigel Lawson, the Conservative ex-chancellor, the foundation was officially launched with a November 2009 article in The Times accusing climate scientists of “manipulating” records of global temperature and “refusing external” scrutiny of their raw data. Complete garbage, of course, just like the call for an “open and reasoned debate” about domestic and international climate change policies. Total hypocrisy, considering that the identity of the donors to the foundation is shrouded in secrecy - we only know that it received over £1 million from these mysterious benefactors. When interviewed by BBC Radio 4 last October, Lord Lawson stated that he relied on friends who “tend to be richer than the average person” and “much more intelligent than the average person”. Now that really sounds like a man dedicated to democratic openness and the ruthless pursuit of disinterested science.
Capitalism, in reality, is a system uniquely designed not to cope with the ecological crisis that is so obviously gripping the planet. Given its very nature, predicated on production for production’s sake - not on the basis of satisfying rational human need - it is constantly throwing more fuel on the fire. Contrary to a relatively widespread view, capitalism is not the result of countless individual actions taken by ‘bad’ or ‘greedy’ people. Instead it is a form of uncontrolled human relation based on the self-expansion of exchange-value, and this inner dynamic imposes itself on its personifications - ie, the capitalists, who ultimately are slaves to capital just as we in the working class are.
Yes, obviously, other past social-economic systems damaged various aspects of the environment - deforestation under the Romans and so on. But capitalism does it on a vaster and more terrifying scale. It is a destructive and wasteful mode of production, which seeks only to make profit - anywhere, anyhow and by any means necessary. Left to itself, capitalism will ‘industrialise’ to the point of self-destruction, making the air unbreathable and the rivers dead with toxic sludge. Conversely, it will effectively leave underdeveloped whole areas of the globe, where it calculates no profit can reasonably be made.
It should be pointed out that Marxism is ecological to its very core. Karl Marx fought to overcome the “metabolic rift” between humanity and nature, between town and country, which itself was a reflection - and product - of capitalist class rule over the workers, of dead labour over living labour. Any Marxist who is not an environmentalist - not fighting for a genuinely sustainable planet - is clearly not a Marxist.
In that spirit, we communists criticise those on the left who peddle the notion that there is a ‘left’ Keynesian solution for present society - ‘green’ jobs, ‘green’ growth, etc. No, it is still capitalism based on growth for the sake of growth. Still the absolute primacy of the profit motive. In short, a reformed capitalism cannot save the planet - so capitalism must go.
2. A term implying that a project is a useless waste of both time and money, but is continuing due to extraneous policy and political motivations.
3. Unsurprisingly, the Australian Press Council received a number of complaints about the article.