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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 October 2008

Climate change calamities: Socialist planning needed

Climat change demo December 2005, photo Paul Mattsson

Climat change demo December 2005, photo Paul Mattsson

The "methane time bomb" has ignited, the Independent newspaper recently declared. The arctic permafrost is melting and releasing a greenhouse gas twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide, which threatens to rapidly heat up the planet, causing crop failures, worse hurricanes and typhoons, and flooding on a scale unknown to human civilisation.
These weather patterns and their consequences will affect everyone on the planet, but the poorest people will be hit much more severely than the rich.
To stop the worst effects of global warming, PETE MASON argues that urgent action is necessary, which will only be taken with sufficient speed and scope as part of a socialist plan.

For the first time in human history, this summer the arctic polar icecap became an island. Last year the polar ice shrank to a record low, and clear water came within a short distance of the North Pole. Although climate change sceptics took heart that the ice loss this year did not quite exceed the record losses of last year, clear evidence of an even greater threat has now been discovered.

The exposed waters of the arctic have heated up and begun to release methane gas previously trapped by permafrost. This will accelerate the melting of Greenland's ice sheet, which, fully melted, would raise sea levels by eight metres. If sea levels rise just one metre, the worldwide consequences will be immense.

In London, at its highest tides, the North Sea would overtop the Thames Barrier, flooding parts of east and central London, including the houses of parliament.

Feedback effect

The amount of methane stored beneath the arctic "is calculated to be greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves", the Independent reported (23.9.08). A feedback effect has begun which could raise the earth's temperature in just a few short years. Such rapid change has been detected in ice cores, as Iain Stewart demonstrated this month on the BBC 2 programme Earth, The Climate Wars.

Veteran climate change scientist James Hansen has argued that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 parts per million (ppm) "and it may be less." Yet carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already 385ppm and rising. He concludes that "the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than 2C (3.6F) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation" (Guardian, 23.6.08).

Unusual weather

Global warming is already affecting the planet in horrendous ways. Drought, floods and cyclones linked to unusual weather are occurring more frequently or with greater destructive power. In addition, the turn to biofuels by the leading capitalist nations has been a significant factor, ActionAid reports, in putting 760 million people at risk of hunger.

The UK government's blueprint - which will probably never see the light of day - envisages turning an area the size of Essex over to growing crops for biofuels.

Yet the issue of global warming is interwoven with politics, the empty promises and paralysis which currently characterise capitalist governments. Hansen warns that while the changes needed to preserve the planet are clear, these changes "have been blocked by special interests, focused on short-term profits, who hold sway in Washington and other capitals."

The fossil fuel energy companies have been blocking the fight against global warming, Hansen warns.

He calls on the bosses of these companies to be put on trial for "high crimes against humanity". While many people would applaud this suggestion, the most important action the government could take is to nationalise the fossil energy companies and confiscate their profits, so that their vast resources and wealth can be immediately directed - as part of a democratically agreed plan - to rapidly bring about the changes required to reduce global warming and at the same time to eliminate the 'fuel poverty' that exists.

After all, if $700 billion can be spent in the USA to free banks from the bad debts they ran up, which led to the credit crunch, and the multi-trillion dollar mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could be nationalised, surely nationalising the oil and top related industries (such as electricity, gas, water, transport and construction) in order to save the planet, is entirely justified.

A plan could then be drawn up to rapidly halt carbon emissions and focus on methods of extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.


Minimal government aims

Wind turbines, photo Paul Mattsson

Wind turbines, photo Paul Mattsson

The UK government's consultation paper on climate change, published in June, plans 7,000 wind turbines. Yet current plans for airport expansion "will cancel all the [carbon emission] savings the government proposes, twice over" (George Monbiot, Guardian, 21.6.08).

The government's aims are minimal: "One in four homes to have solar heating" - and this is to be achieved through "incentives", in other words, the home owner has to fork out. Government incentives already exist but they still leave solar power too expensive for most pockets. What is required is direct government action to convert all homes, indeed all property, into micro-generation units, the generation of heat or electricity at local level by renewables such as solar power.

The government paper endorses building off-shore wind farms. George Monbiot - who has unfortunately recently capitulated to the government's drive for nuclear power - points out that studies from the German government and the centre for Alternative Technology have shown how "reliable renewable electricity" could supply "80% or even all of our electricity without any loss in the continuity of power supplies".

Coal and gas fired power stations produce vast amounts of greenhouse gases. The Drax power station in North Yorkshire produces more pollution than "103 small unindustrialised nations", according to The Times (Power station's dirty secret, 17.5.06). However, since power generated by the sun and wind is essentially free, no capitalist energy company is going to show genuine interest (hypocrisy apart) since it will lose its profits.

1000 nuclear power stations: a frightening prospect, photo Paul Mattsson

1000 nuclear power stations: a frightening prospect, photo Paul Mattsson

The UK government is pursuing the nuclear power option. Prime minister Gordon Brown said: "the world is going to have to build 1,000 nuclear power stations", a frightening prospect (Guardian, 21.6.08).

Socialists must oppose nuclear power - it is extremely dangerous, creates the most toxic waste known to humankind, and relies on dwindling supplies of uranium.


A socialist alternative

Climate change demo December 2007, photo Paul Mattsson

Climate change demo December 2007, photo Paul Mattsson

The United Nations has failed to bring about change over the years since the 1997 Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emmisions. "Global institutions like the World Bank, the UN and the World Trade Organisation... are far too weighted towards the views and interests of powerful countries", commented Oxfam's head of research, Duncan Green (The age of scarcity, Guardian, 21.6.08).

Duncan Green calls for the reform of these institutions, but they need to be abolished. In their place, socialists argue for international cooperation, not between representatives of big business, but between genuine socialist states run democratically by workers.

In passing, Green makes the point that "the depth of technological transformation required" to combat global warming "is comparable only to the industrial conversion of the US and European countries to arms production during wartime." The only impediment to such measures is political. The wartime mobilisations of the US and the UK in 1939-45 had a large element of a 'plan of production', and demonstrate how easy it would be for a socialist government, based on a democratically agreed plan of production along with public ownership and control of the major corporations, to rapidly transform the country.

Collaboration

In the UK, nationalised arms, aerospace, car and other industries could be brought into collaboration for rapid production of the necessary wind turbines, cabling, solar panels, and so forth. In collaboration with local communities, councils could convert all houses into efficient, solar power generating units, both of heat and electricity.

According to one study, in 1939-45 the UK organised its society for 'total war' with greater efficiency and intensity than any other nation except the Soviet Union. This included the construction of 132,000 aircraft. The production of thousands of wind turbines for use on industrial estates and off-shore wind farms, of solar panels for use on homes, warehouses and shopping precincts, and of other renewables, would be a simple task compared, for instance, to today's manufacture of highly sophisticated aircraft. In 2007, Britain topped the world's list of arms exporters (Guardian 28.6.08). So it is not lacking in industrial capacity.

With a nationalised oil industry, the vast experience of the North Sea oil company workers would come in useful to a socialist government in the construction of the comparatively simple off-shore wind farms (just beyond sight from the shore).

Within a few years perhaps every power station in the country could be closed down, replaced by wind-power and micro-generation, and every car, bus and truck production line converted to produce electric or other zero carbon emission vehicles. The vehicle industries' workers would be involved in the development and deployment of zero emission technologies.

A comparison with wartime production shows that the production and commissioning of the 7,000-plus wind turbines and other facilities the government paper envisages by the year 2020 could be achieved within a much shorter time-scale if the country was mobilised to combat global warming, and far more could be achieved.

A socialist plan of production could swiftly move Britain into an entirely carbon-neutral state, and beyond that, to a carbon deficit, whereby the carbon naturally extracted from the atmosphere by oceans and forests is not replaced, so that it diminishes.

Socialist societies worldwide could build on the considerable knowledge of climate patterns already developed by scientists, and could regulate the amount of carbon in the atmosphere sufficiently to stop and reverse global warming.

The possibilities are enormous. For instance, towering 'artificial trees', according to some scientists, could extract a thousand times more carbon dioxide from the air than living trees do. James Hansen wrote: "Special interests have blocked the transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil fuel companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, just as tobacco companies discredited the link between smoking and cancer.

"Methods are sophisticated, including funding to help shape school textbook discussions of global warming" (www.worldwatch.org/node/5798).

Hansen is a courageous and valuable defender of the science of global warming. But it is necessary to go beyond exposure of what is happening, to actively build the forces of socialism, as the only means of ending environmental destruction completely.


Food price rises and the crisis of food production

Biofuels demo in Beckton, photo Paul Mattsson

Biofuels demo in Beckton, photo Paul Mattsson

In the UK, the cost of bread and butter has now risen by 43% compared to last year. Food price rises, and famine in parts of the globe, are partly a consequence of global warming. Wheat crops in Australia are again threatened by drought, and that drought is now widely recognised as being caused by climate change. May 2008 was the driest May on record for Australia. "The reality is that many of our southern New South Wales croppers face the dire prospect of total crop failure unless decent rain comes in the next week", said a state minister (Bloomberg, 20.9.08).

Even without the effects of global warming, 24,000 people die each day of hunger or hunger related diseases, according to the United Nations. This is entirely avoidable. As one commentator noted after the Haiti food riots, during the last 30 years the US and the International Monetary Fund "destroyed Haitian rice farmers to create a major market for the heavily subsidised rice from US farmers... Thirty years ago, Haiti raised nearly all the rice it needed" (Bill Quigley, The US role in Haiti's food riots). The huge multinational food companies have long prevented food production for local consumption in the poorest countries of the world, in order to boost their own company profits.

Now, world hunger is rising rapidly as food prices rocket, with climate change and crop production for biofuels being factors in this. Before their recent droughts the USA and Australia together were exporting almost as much wheat as the rest of the ten major wheat exporting countries put together, according to United Nations figures. So when Australia's production more than halved last year and the USA turned a significant amount of food production over to the production of biofuels, shortages threatened and food prices began to rise. By the start of this year prices rose dramatically, accelerated by speculators and encouraged by further news of production shortfalls around the world, in part due to drought or flooding, and in part due to infrastructure failures.

Problems of drought exist across the globe, from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran in the Middle East, to Sudan and Ethiopia in Africa, and Spain and Cyprus in Europe. During summer this year, Spain and Cyprus were at times importing water by super-tanker. 4.6 million Ethiopians need food urgently because of drought. And in Texas, USA, the Chicago Tribune reports "crops are withering" and quotes the state climatologist: "The extremes in drought conditions that Texas has experienced over the past few years are record-setting, larger than anything in the climate record going back 113 years" (30.6.08).

Food production rose dramatically in the USA as it conquered world food markets; only now to turn partly to the production of biofuels. The poorest in the US suffer as well as those elsewhere in the world: "We're looking at a summer without food... I haven't seen people this scared" said Jessica Bartholow of the California Association of Food Banks. Food banks serve about 5 million people a month in California who otherwise would miss a meal, but they are closing down because of high food prices (Bloomberg, 23.6.08).

Restoring food production disrupted by climate change requires the ending of this 'free market' madness, including ending financial speculation in food. This means the nationalisation of the big food companies, the fertiliser companies, and related chemical industries. It requires proper democratic planning of food production worldwide.

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In The Socialist 2 October 2008:


Socialist Party editorial

Market madness!


Credit crunch

Bradford & Bingley: We need real nationalisation

The bishop and the 'bank robbers'

Russia: economic crisis looms

What is short-selling and will the ban have any effect?

Short-sellers back Tories

Another nail in New Labour's coffin


Socialist Students

Student debt soaring

Lots of new recruits for Socialist Students


Global Warming

Climate change calamities: Socialist planning needed

Cuts and privatisation threaten new floods


Socialist Party workplace news

Local government pay dispute in Scotland: solid support for strike

Unison goes to arbitration - a strategy or surrender?

Union calls ballot over health pay

Unions must fight to defend Ford jobs

Lincoln - fight council cuts plan

Workplace news in brief


Socialist Party campaigns

Jean Charles de Menezes


Comment

Conditions in China


Socialist Party review

Liberty by Glyn Maxwell at Shakespeare's Globe


 

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