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Can global warming be stopped?
"AN ABRUPT climate change scenario could potentially destabilise the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war... Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves. Less fortunate nations, especially those with ancient enmities with their neighbours, may initiate in struggles for access to food, clean water, or energy."
A radical environmentalist perhaps? The outline for a Hollywood film? No, this was part of an appraisal of global warming's possible impact for the US military. Is this our future, JIM HENSMAN asks, or can the dire effects of climate change be avoided?
TODAY, THERE is wide agreement that global warming, caused by emission of greenhouse gases, is the greatest single threat to humanity's future. And time is running out. Even Tony Blair belatedly accepts that "we have... only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points."
Global warming itself is only one of many issues related to resources, natural habitats and the environment that show that current policies are not sustainable and threaten global catastrophe.
It's not just a threat in the future. A 2003 World Health Organisation report claims at least 150,000 people are dying now from its effects, especially because of the increase in malaria and other diseases. The estimated worldwide cost of disasters is up in real terms from $40 billion in 1980 to $114.5 billion in 2004 - with increasing evidence that this is also linked to climate change.
How can these threats be dealt with? Can market forces, perhaps with some assistance from governments and backed up by international treaties, solve the problem? Can green politics, as advocated by groups like the Green Party, achieve what's needed? Or is more fundamental change necessary?
The global warming threat is so serious that some business and public initiatives were recently announced. British Petroleum has formed an alternative energy business which plans to invest $8 billion over ten years. In total $38 billion was invested in renewables in 2005, up 25% in a year. Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's California administration has introduced a law to limit CO2 emissions.
Any steps forward in fighting climate change must be welcome. But can they deliver what's required? Look at how previous initiatives, particularly those linked to the Kyoto Agreement which aimed to limit emissions, have fared. This was first negotiated in 1997 and came into force in February 2005.
Despite the hype given to the Agreement, its expected effect on actually tackling climate change would only be minimal. US scientist Jerry Mahlman, remarked, "it might take another 30 Kyotos" to deal with global warming. Despite its very modest intentions, the US refused to ratify the Agreement, because of its possible effect on big business.
Countries which did sign were often not much better. Britain cut the meagre target agreed for emissions reductions under pressure from industry. Since Blair's New Labour government came to power, carbon emissions have actually increased.
The key mechanism introduced to implement the Kyoto Agreement in the European Union was a complicated Emissions Trading Scheme. This has had little effect on carbon emissions and energy efficiency. Meanwhile big utilities, oil companies, banks and others have been able to make a tidy profit of around £1 billion.
An Oxford academic who studied the scheme, Adam Bumpus, concluded, "This regulation is ultimately there to facilitate the markets - it's not about making cheap reductions, it's about making a lot of money." This illustrates the fundamental constraints on such schemes under the existing capitalist system.
Companies are in the business of making profits. Environmental and climate change considerations are fine - as long as they don't interfere with this over-riding objective. Usually, the environmental costs of big business policies are met by us, leaving them laughing all the way to the bank.
Thus in 2005, BP made £11 billion profit. But their cost to the environment, according to the Treasury, was £29 billion! Governments for their part, at the end of the day, serve big business interests, including the large energy interests. This is particularly blatant in the US, where Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, all have oil industry connections.
However, especially with the wholesale privatisation of industries and services in Britain and elsewhere, and the acceptance of capitalism by parties like New Labour and its counterparts, this is just as applicable elsewhere.
How would the Green movement tackle global warming? The movement encompasses many strands of opinion, but certain themes recur in many campaigns. One view effectively considers the main solution as cutting consumption.
Certainly, many items of consumption use resources wastefully. However, given that the 20% of the world's population living in the developed countries consume over 80% of its goods, on a world scale this would be incompatible with providing an acceptable living standard for all.
Furthermore, on its own, this effectively blames global warming and overuse of resources on ordinary people in the developed countries. This is neither a correct nor a viable basis to build a movement to combat climate change.
Another common theme emphasises changing life-styles and consumer buying habits. Many of these ideas should be supported, but the key question is how they can be achieved and whether, on their own, they are sufficient.
Consumer-led movements can have an important impact, especially on particular campaign issues such as Fair Trade. However, their overall effect is very limited. A survey showed that while 83% of UK consumers intend to act ethically on a regular basis, and 72% would be willing to pay more for energy efficient products, only 18% of people in practice act ethically even occasionally.
Fewer than 5% of consumers show consistent ethical and green purchasing behaviours. As Joel Makower, co-author of the Green Consumer Guide, says: "The gap between green consciousness and green consumerism is huge."
Why is this? The underlying reason is that the power of profit and big business can, in the longer term, always hold sway through control of production, distribution, the retail trade and advertising. This is compounded by poverty and low pay, which gives many people little real choice in what they can afford.
When people see how the system operates, they are understandably critical about the whole issue. Take domestic waste - because of the shortage of landfill sites, councils are planning to charge extra for waste - with government support. Some have already put microchips in bins in readiness for this.
Yet, about 78,000 tonnes of junk mail reach landfill sites each year. This March, the Royal Mail disciplined a postman for telling people how to stop receiving it. The company recently announced it will remove existing restrictions on junk mail deliveries. The more junk mail, the more profit they make!
Similarly 17 million tonnes of food a year goes into landfill from the food industry - four million tonnes of this edible and within its sell-by date - even though an estimated four million people in Britain cannot afford a healthy diet.
WHEN GREEN theoreticians deal with the production side of the equation, there are many strands of thinking, but again some recurring themes. The key proposals of Green Alternatives to Globalisation by Caroline Lucas and Mike Woodin, are for localisation of production and finance using penalties and incentives on companies, green taxes and tariffs, and major revisions to trade agreements.
Any of these measures could play a positive part in certain circumstances, but how is this going to be achieved on the scale required within the economic and political confines of the present system?
Over 150 years ago, Karl Marx criticised French anarchist philosopher Proudhon's programme of small producers coming together to create an alternative to capitalism. Marx saw it as a utopian attempt to wind back the clock of history. Ironically these ideas are recurring in a world where 350 billionaires own more wealth than 2.5 billion people!
This failure to grasp these economic and political realities is best seen when Green parties try to work within the system. When Germany's Greens were part of a ruling coalition with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005, they not only drifted to the right on general issues but also backed down on Green issues, such as pollution, the shutdown of nuclear power stations and transportation of nuclear materials.
This was not due to personal failings among the movement's leaders, but to the fundamental limitations of an economic system based on profit which they failed to challenge.
It is impossible under capitalism to change at the pace and on the scale required to tackle global warming. That is because of the economic and political vested interests that have been built up over time and which seek to protect their profits through maintaining the status quo.
The total investment in renewable energy annually now is substantial - but still only comparable in size to the investment planned for a single oil and gas development - the Sakhalin fields in Russia. Renewable energy is often said to be 'too expensive' to compete with fossil fuels. One factor this fails to take into account is the massive subsidy for fossil fuels, estimated at $235 billion per year by the New Economics Foundation think tank.
The nuclear energy industry first became a powerful economic and political force because of the link with nuclear weapons. This led to a massive 60% of all energy research worldwide being spent on nuclear energy over recent decades, ten times that on renewables.
This influence could be seen recently in Blair's tragic decision to support commissioning a new generation of nuclear power stations, despite the huge safety risks and massive future costs of decommissioning and waste disposal.
Where renewable technologies are developed, vested interests will try to destroy them if they interfere with their profits. A recent documentary Who killed the Electric Car? shows this dramatically. Smog control legislation in California forced major motor manufacturers to produce electric cars in the 1990s, but they then found a loophole in the legislation and systematically wrecked the industry, going to incredible lengths to recall and physically destroy any vehicles to remove them from public consciousness.
The Green movement has two choices. It can try to work through existing mainstream political parties and structures and within the capitalist system, but only at the price of accepting the constraints this imposes and effectively abandoning its environmental principles.
The alternative is to turn towards other mass movements which are involved in a variety of struggles - in trade unions and the community for defence of living standards, jobs and services, against the war in Iraq etc.
But for these movements to work together and be co-ordinated requires a programme that shows how these issues relate to each other. It also needs a mass political movement that can unify and combine the different struggles. This is why the Green movement must be part of the campaign to build new mass workers' parties.
Mass co-ordinated struggles on environmental issues can secure important victories. However, unless the underlying economic and political system is also tackled, the threat posed by climate change cannot be dealt with. What's more, if measures to tackle climate change have been so inadequate in the recent relatively favourable economic climate, what can be expected in the period of uncertainty and downturn that even staunchly pro-capitalist commentators are predicting?
This movement must also be an internationalist one. Currently 21% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the US. Second is China, with 15% of emissions. By 2025, US emissions are expected to grow by over a third, and China's expected to double. According to the Washington Post: "In terms of GDP, India and Africa together are expected to lose ten times more from climate change than the US, and 20 times more than China. So... the two nations most responsible for the problem have the least incentive to solve it".
Despite globalisation, the world's ruling elites have the basis of their wealth and power in their own nation state. They will defend "their" interests at the expense of the rest of the world and claim that pro-environmental policies would ruin their competitiveness internationally.
We must counterpose to this an internationalist programme that sees a common interest for the people of the world and the need for a global plan of production with an environmental focus.
WHAT DIFFERENCE could a global, socialist democratically planned economy and society based on human need rather than private profit make? The basis for combating global warming exists today, even using current technologies. Even ignoring environmental advantages, wind energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels in many circumstances.
Even ten years ago, a BP Solar study of solar energy concluded that if the scale of production was scaled up sufficiently, it would be competitive with other energy generation methods. On a small scale, there are examples such as Woking council who were able to reduce carbon emissions by 77% over a ten-year period, the kind of reductions necessary to make a real impact on climate change.
The Chinese city of Dongtan will have zero carbon emissions and cut energy use by two-thirds compared to cities of comparable size. The theoretical potential to improve energy efficiency is huge. Most heating, power and transport operate at less than 10% theoretical efficiency - for car transport in terms of the passengers moved only at 1%.
George Monbiot's recent book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning describes ambitious policies, including a massive shift to public transport, offshore wind farms and solar energy piped from the Sahara that he believes could achieve a 90% cut in carbon emissions by 2030. Unfortunately, he fails to explain how this could be achieved politically.
A socialist economy could shift energy generation to renewable sources over a comparatively short time, retraining and redeploying the existing workforce in the process. The US Global Development and Environment Institute estimates that the cost of climate change by the end of the century could be more than $20 trillion per year - a $3 trillion per year investment now to avert climate change would be repaid many times.
This kind of investment is inconceivable under capitalism with its short-term profit motivation. A socialist society, however, could unleash the massive resources wasted under capitalism towards solving climate change. World military expenditure is $1 trillion annually. Advertising and marketing related spending, totals $800 billion a year. The Iraq war is now expected to cost between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in total.
The urgent task is to build a mass international movement now that fights for a sustainable planet, but also links it to other social and political struggles and to a programme to transform society on socialist lines.
In The Socialist 2 November 2006:
International socialist news and analysis
Marxist analysis: history
The Socialist Interview