Environment: The problem is capitalism
Capitalism is driving the climate change crisis and cannot solve it, says Simon Wells
The United Nations-endorsed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its working group report on climate change on September 30. The scientists tell us that they are 95% confident that global warming is caused by human-made pollution. Thomas Stocker, co-chairman of the IPCC, said: “Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time.” Indeed, it “threatens our planet, our only home”.
This is the fifth such report since 1990. A lot of the material in it is not new - in fact some of the articles it cites are from journals published up to five years ago. But what is does is firm up its estimates of ‘climate sensitivity’: that is, how much temperature rises can be attributed to increases in carbon dioxide.
The headline statements from the report are:
- Warming of the climate system is unequivocal and since the 1950s many of the observed changes are unprecedented.
- Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.
- Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide.
- The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia.
- The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.
- Human influence on the climate system is clear.1
The report does not say anything about the melting of the permafrost, or acidification of the oceans, although two more reports will be released in 2014 addressing climate-change adaptation and mitigation.
In response bourgeois politicians came out with the usual ‘something must be done’ reaction. US secretary of state John Kerry said: “If this isn’t an alarm bell, then I don’t know what one is. If ever there were an issue that demanded greater cooperation, partnership and committed diplomacy, this is it.” EU climate chief Connie Hedegaard said: “If your doctor was 95% sure you had a serious disease, you would immediately start looking for the cure ... Why should we take bigger risks when it’s the health of our planet at stake?”
However, the report comes at a time when there has been little movement towards a political agreement on climate change - international talks have ground to a halt. The next top-level governmental meeting is due in Warsaw in November, with the aim of developing a framework for an agreement on global CO2 emissions by 2015. It may be too little, too late.
The impacts of climate change include droughts, floods, changes in agricultural yields and production, the compromising of food security and health through malnutrition, the spread of infectious diseases, food poisoning, changing migration patterns, infrastructure damage and species extinction. In short, it is those with the least means to mitigate the effects of climate change that are most likely to suffer.
However, for the climate sceptics all this is of no concern. In anticipation of the report, the Daily Mail headlined with “And now it’s global cooling! Return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 29% in a year” (September 8) and The Daily Telegraph with “Global warming? No, actually we’re cooling, claim scientists” (September 8).
Three weeks later, the same paper invited former chancellor Nigel Lawson to give his reaction to the report in an article under the headline, “Climate change: this is not science - it’s mumbo jumbo”, in which he called the IPCC “a politically motivated pressure group that brings the good name of science into disrepute” (September 28). Lawson, of course, is chair of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a charity that persistently pours scorn on the science of climate change, but is quoted widely in the Mail and the Express as well as the Telegraph.
It is, of course, a peculiar sort of “politically motivated pressure group” - consisting of 209 lead authors, 50 review editors and more than 600 contributing authors from 39 countries - that is sponsored by just about the entire international bourgeois establishment.
Climate sceptics have also seized on the ‘missing heat’ - the rate of warming over the past decade or so has been less than climate scientists predicted, given the continued increase in carbon emissions. However, the mystery of the missing heat is easily solved - it is to be found in the oceans: according to one study, 30% of ocean warming over the past decade has occurred below 700 metres, which is unprecedented over at least the past half century.2 The IPCC report also estimates that over 90% of carbon dioxide is absorbed into the oceans.
The international bourgeoisie may be prepared to organise the studies, but it is not exactly rushing to take action. In Britain, the Tories even refused to set a 2030 decarbonisation target for the power sector in the Energy Bill and they give tax breaks for oil and shale gas development.
David Cameron promised he would lead the “greenest government ever” under the slogan, “Vote blue, go green”, but now has an environment secretary who does not believe anything untoward is happening. Owen Paterson told a fringe meeting at the Tory conference: “We should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.”
The real problem for bourgeois politicians was expressed by chancellor George Osborne in 2011 when he said: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”. Interviewed by The Times prior to this year’s conference, he said: “I want to provide for the country the cheapest energy possible, consistent with having it reliable, in other words as a steady supply, and consistent with us playing our part in an international effort to tackle climate change ... But I don’t want us to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world. I certainly think we shouldn’t be further ahead of our partners in Europe.”
In response to Osborne’s last budget Green MP Caroline Lucas argued for “Plan G” - a billion-pound investment in a ‘green economy’. And in her response to the IPCC report she argued for a “rapid transition to renewables and a clean, secure, jobs-rich, low-carbon economy.”3 This is echoed by much of the revolutionary left, which, together with umbrella groups like the Campaign Against Climate Change, demand “One million climate jobs”. The problem with both this and Lucas’s proposal is that they are offering what are in effect national ‘solutions’ to an international problem.
If there is one thing that should set revolutionaries apart from bourgeois politicians of all stripes, it is surely internationalism. An international collective effort is required to solve the climate crisis, but the bourgeoisie is incapable of mounting it.
Capitalism is the problem. When the IPCC talks about pre-industrial levels, that means the levels that existed prior to the development of large-scale capitalist production. It is obvious: capitalism is driven by its need to make a profit, to expand its capital. That means constantly expanding production, irrespective of genuine human need. For individual capitalist producers it is a zero-sum game. If they do not expand they go out of business. That is why George Osborne has got a better grip on reality than Caroline Lucas when it comes to the possibility of applying remedies under the current order.
No capitalist state is going to give up a competitive advantage. The capitalist solution will be to individualise the problem by forcing the working class to cut back on energy usage - for example, by investing in the latest green gadget. As with the banking bailout, it will be the millions, not the millionaires, who will be expected to get the system out of a hole.
We are the majority, and it is only our class that can solve the problem of climate change. Only our class can create a world based on production for need, not for profit. Until we build a working class movement on a European and global scale, emissions of carbon dioxide will continue to increase and the possibility of catastrophic climate change will become ever more acute.