Archive article from The Socialist Issue 323
How Capitalism Puts Our Planet At Risk
THIS YEAR'S hot summer in Britain, bringing with it the threat of a winter drought, has directed some new media attention onto the most serious environmental danger facing the planet, global warming.
PETE DICKENSON looks at this problem and shows what solutions socialism can offer.
ALL THE evidence suggests that global warming is caused overwhelmingly by burning fossil fuels such as oil. Despite the looming threat of worldwide catastrophe, the occupation of Iraq shows that the US government is determined to control the world's oil in order to secure it as a long-term source of energy.
Not for the first time, US President George W Bush has made it absolutely clear that the profits of the big corporations, particularly oil companies like ExxonMobil, come first.
Global warming is an important issue for socialists and anti-capitalists, not only for the obvious reason that we have a long-term interest in the future of the planet, but because the poor are hit hardest by its effects.
Also democratic socialist planning, although never mentioned in the mainstream eco-debate, is the answer to the environmental destruction wreaked by the capitalist market system.
What is global warming?
GLOBAL WARMING is the rise in the surface temperature of the earth, which started at the beginning of the industrial revolution 200 years ago but has accelerated rapidly in the past 15 years. It is caused by a build-up of gases in the earth's atmosphere, creating an insulating effect that leads to a temperature increase.
These so-called greenhouse gases, the most important being carbon dioxide, are themselves mainly the result of burning fossil fuels, such as coal and oil.
Evidence is mounting up that the situation is rapidly getting worse, for instance, 2003 is set to be the hottest year on record, while 1998 and 2002 come in second and third. The Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica collapsed recently, sending 3,250 square kilometres (about twice the area of Greater London) of ice crashing into the ocean, dramatic evidence of the doubling of the global ice melt rate since 1988.
Why is it a problem?
AS ICE melts in the polar regions the level of the oceans will rise, threatening the inhabitants of low-lying countries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,000 climate experts, say that sea levels could rise by one metre (three feet) this century.
This would devastate the lives of tens of millions in Bangladesh and Egypt who live in the Ganges and Nile river flood plains - many Pacific islands would disappear completely. Further into the future, the IPCC predicts that sea levels will rise by four metres (12 feet) a situation that will threaten large areas of the planet, including Western Europe.
Also, global warming is affecting air pressure, leading to extreme rainfall and storms in some regions and drought and expansion of deserts in others. One expert has warned that: "Human-induced global warming, then, could possibly start a chain reaction of events that could lead to the extinction of civilisation or even humanity. This is a remote possibility, but it exists".
Aren't you exaggerating the dangers?
THERE IS still a small minority of scientists who contest the majority view put forward by the IPCC. The first and smallest faction of 'deniers' say that temperatures aren't rising at all, citing satellite evidence to back their claim, the next group assert that there is no proven link between global warming and greenhouse gases.
They say that the rise in surface temperature is a result of natural changes in climate that have occurred throughout the planet's history and nothing preventative can therefore be done. The final group admit there has been a rise in temperature due to human activity, but downplay the problems it will cause.
There is no room here to take up the scientific debate, but it is significant that the self-interested oil companies, particularly ExxonMobil, are in the forefront of sponsoring research attacking the mainstream scientific position, that supports the idea that greenhouse gases are the problem.
Also, the IPCC predictions quoted above are conservative and were based on evidence collected before the latest surge in surface temperature occurred. It is true that proving with 100% certainty that greenhouse gases cause global warming is difficult, but with so much at stake it is sensible to adopt a precautionary approach and assume that they do.
Can new technology provide an answer to global warming?
GOVERNMENTS HAVE been trying for decades to find a technical 'fix' for the energy question, made more urgent now by the threat of global warming, but there is nothing that appears viable in the short or medium term.
Using hydrogen as a source of energy has had a lot of publicity recently because hydrogen cells have the potential to provide 'clean' power for cars and aeroplanes, thereby removing a big source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Hydrogen, unfortunately, does not occur naturally and has to be manufactured, a process that requires energy, which if the energy comes from oil generates more greenhouse gases. Therefore, although hydrogen cells have good potential, the process can become self-defeating, like jogging to McDonald's to keep fit.
Generally speaking, a major factor holding back a technological breakthrough is that it is much more profitable to pump oil from the desert than to risk the huge investments needed to develop alternatives.
What about nuclear power?
THE MOUNTING evidence about the threat of global warming and the reluctance or inability of governments or firms to develop profitable alternatives to fossil fuels, has led many capitalist politicians, including Bush, to re-promote nuclear power.
This is because, coincidentally, nuclear energy does not generate greenhouse gasses. It would be wrong though to assume the nuclear option does not pose a serious environmental threat, albeit different to global warming.
The radioactive waste produced by nuclear power generation will be toxic for 100,000 years and a completely safe way of storing this deadly material has still not been found. In addition is the possibility of another Chernobyl-type nuclear disaster.
Will capitalist market methods solve the problem?
ON A technical level the solution is simple, that is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by about 60%. Most capitalist political leaders, except Bush, accept the 60% figure, but will the policies they are putting forward to reach this target be effective?
All the governments that support the aim of cutting greenhouse gases put forward a capitalist market approach, based on so-called permit trading. This is a system where a limit is agreed on greenhouse gas emissions and firms in countries above the limit buy a 'permit to pollute' from those countries below it.
The idea is that the 'polluter pays' and therefore the system introduces an incentive to reduce harmful emissions. One of the many loopholes is that it would be geographically and time limited, so that, for example, the price of a permit bought by a firm in Europe would not reflect the cost of flood damage in Bangladesh 20 years from now, caused by the European firm's harmful emissions ie the polluter isn't paying the full price at all.
Another issue is that permit trading must be planned and consistently implemented over decades to have a chance of working. This is because global warming is a long-term process, it took hundreds of years to develop and will probably take a century to fix, requiring setting targets and planning for many decades into the future.
The unpredictability of the capitalist system means, however, that it is impossible for governments to plan anything more than a few months in advance, never mind decades.
These limitations undermine the idea of permit trading, but a yet more serious problem has been shown by the experience of the Kyoto treaty.
This permit-trading agreement had the aim of reducing greenhouse gases by 5% over their levels in 1990, an extremely modest target, nowhere near the 60% required. (This target would not in fact represent any cut at all from present levels, since pollution in Eastern Europe had already fallen sharply after the Kyoto treaty cut-off date of 1990, due to economic collapse).
Because the US is by far the biggest environmental culprit and therefore has the most to lose from any 'make the polluter pay' scheme, Bush refused to take part in Kyoto, even though it was cosmetic, as it would have set a precedent threatening American firms' vital interests, ie profits.
Since the USA accounts for 25% of all greenhouse gases its boycott of Kyoto undermines the whole system and at the same time reveals the fatal flaw in 'market environmentalism', that is the lack of international co-operation.
Capitalist governments have consistently shown that they will give priority to increasing the profits of the big corporations they represent over everything else, including averting environmental disaster.
The imperialist countries or blocks, such as the USA, EU or Japan, are continually fighting each other for a bigger share of new and existing markets and to protect what they see as their vital interests. This rivalry will prevent the co-operation needed to solve global warming.
What is the socialist alternative?
A SOCIALIST approach based on international democratic planning would be able to tackle the threat posed by global warming. In such a society, not only would people's immediate needs come before profit, but so also would their long-term interests in preserving the environment.
A socialist system would have enormous advantages over capitalism in saving energy and therefore reducing greenhouse gas outputs. For instance, it would avoid the waste of planned obsolescence and of the destruction of factories, plant and machinery in slumps and their rebuilding in booms, dictated by market forces.
The main advantage to the environment of a socialist society though would be its ability to plan and implement, consistently over a long period, the measures needed to reduce and then completely eliminate greenhouse gases.
This would involve putting in the investment needed to switch to renewable energy sources, such as wind, wave and solar power and to develop new technologies such as hydrogen cells, which could play an important role.
At the same time, resources would be put into massively expanding and improving public transport, in order to permit a more sustainable life-style.
As global warming is a global problem, for planning to work effectively it will have to be international, something that will only be possible when the present day conflict between capitalist states is replaced by socialist co-operation.