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Can we save the planet?
Capitalism threatens catastrophe
THERE IS new evidence that the threat from global warming is increasing. (Global warming is the rise in the Earth's temperature due to high concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas).
A speaker from the British Antarctic Survey told a conference hosted by the Met Office in Exeter this February that the massive West Antarctic ice sheet may be in danger of disintegrating, raising sea levels world-wide by 4.9m (16 ft), if it disappears completely. The conference heard that, as global temperatures rise to 3C above pre-industrial levels over the next 70 years, the threats facing us multiply rapidly.
Based on current greenhouse gas outputs and projections of emissions in the immediate future, this size of increase is now inevitable. Even if polluting gases were cut now by the 60% needed for sustainability it would probably take 70 years, possibly longer, before a reduction in average temperatures was seen.
At present the average global surface temperature is 0.7C above the level before the industrial revolution began in 1750. This is set to rise to 1C above the pre-industrial level in the next 25 years, leading to water shortage problems and a decline in food production in poor countries.
In the middle of the 21st century, warming effects will be more pronounced as the Earth's temperature rises to 2C above the 1750 level. By then there will be substantial losses of arctic sea ice and Mediterranean regions will be hit by more forest fires and insect pests. Plant and animal species will also be threatened with extinction.
This will be particularly serious if, as predicted, China's broad-leaved forests are affected, since forests like these absorb CO2 and so reduce global warming effects. Also, the 2C rise could happen before 2050 because the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that will eventually lead to this temperature rise will be reached only 10 years from now, or possibly sooner. Predictions of how quickly temperatures will rise after this are uncertain.
Much more serious consequences will be suffered when the 3C increase is reached probably sometime before 2070. Irreversible damage to the Amazonian rainforests, leading to their collapse, could occur and there will be a rapid increase in populations exposed to hunger. Up to 5.5 billion people will be living in regions with large losses of crop production.
If temperatures keep rising after 2070, there will be dangers of catastrophic events happening, such as the complete melting of polar ice. This would lead to huge increases in sea levels or the disappearance of the Gulf Stream, paradoxically possibly causing another ice age in north west Europe.
SOME ENVIRONMENTAL scientists see even these dire predictions as conservative and foresee 'worst case' temperature rises of up to 11C by 2050 according to a recent report in the Nature science journal. Professor Bob Spicer of the Open University is quoted as saying that such a surface temperature would be unprecedented in Earth's history.
An 11C temperature rise is based on current predictions of what CO2 levels will be, but these could be underestimated due to the so-called 'feedback effect', partly caused by a rise in sea temperatures. Normally, the oceans absorb carbon dioxide and so help to reduce its level in the atmosphere, alleviating the problems of global warming.
But as sea temperatures rise through global warming, their ability to take in CO2 is reduced and eventually reversed, leading to the oceans becoming net emitters of the gas. So from helping to solve the problem, the seas could begin to amplify it. Worryingly, new evidence was given at the Exeter conference that a similar effect could happen with the soil, giving a further twist to the downward spiral.
Most capitalist leaders now recognise that global warming is a serious threat in the medium term that needs to be addressed. The main exception to this is Bush, who represents the interests of the big US oil and gas companies, and as such refuses to take part in any action to try to reduce emissions.
The programme the other leaders have is based on the Kyoto treaty signed in 1997 which has a target to reduce global warming gases by 4.8% of their 1990 levels by 2012.
This target is very modest since most experts think that a 60% reduction is needed, and many environmental activists put the figure much higher.
A close examination of the Kyoto treaty's provisions shows that even its very modest aim to reduce emissions by 4.8% is bogus. The baseline date for the target was deliberately set at 1990, which was before the collapse of the economies of Eastern Europe led to a halving of their greenhouse gas output, meaning that huge cuts had taken place in advance to help reach the 'target'.
The treaty is supposed to operate through the trading of pollution permits that over-target firms buy from those under-target. In practice, firms in the leading capitalist countries will be largely buying permits from Eastern Europe because it has spare capacity due to its economic collapse 15 years ago. This largely cosmetic deal was put together to try to persuade the USA to take part, but it failed completely.
BLAIR PROMISES to make global warming a key issue in the G8, the club of the leading capitalist countries plus Russia, which he is chairing at the moment.
However, the British government has just decided to cut the UK's 2012 target for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 20% to 12% of 1990 levels. This was done after the bosses' organisation, the CBI, lobbied the government intensively. They said it would hit the profits of its member firms.
Also Britain has just been ranked as one of the most environmentally unfriendly countries in the world, coming 66th out of 146 nations in an audit by the Environmental Sustainability Index.
Beyond exposing his usual hypocritical double-speak, Blair's retreat has a deeper significance. It shows that, for him, big business' needs come first. If profits are threatened, dealing with a probable future environmental catastrophe is pushed down the agenda.
The USA refused to join Kyoto for similar reasons. Since America produces 25% of global greenhouse gases, its corporations have by far the most to lose if a 'make the polluter pay' system is introduced. Even though the treaty was largely cosmetic, Bush (and Clinton earlier) saw it as the thin end of the wedge and so shunned it.
The US abstention will also make the Kyoto permit trading system largely ineffective because America's participation is crucial, as it is by far the largest potential buyer of permits in the market.
Even if a viable alternative to Kyoto were put on the agenda, the costs involved would threaten company profits and prevent any serious attempts to implement it - this is the lesson from Britain and the USA.
International capitalist rivalry compounds the problem because the most powerful country, the USA, has the most to lose and will be in the forefront of attempts to block any meaningful action on global warming.
Another factor blocking progress is that the anarchy of the market system makes it impossible to plan even a few years ahead, whereas any genuine programme for sustainability must be planned over decades.
The main capitalist countries' dilemma is that they need to introduce a viable programme to cut global warming but aren't willing to pay for it, particularly if any one country stands to lose significantly more than a rival. Of course they will all lose if there is an environmental catastrophe but this is a secondary consideration in the short-term logic of their profit-driven system.
As a way out of their impasse the main industrial powers, some more openly than others, increasingly turn to nuclear power. The advantages they see are that nuclear energy, by coincidence, does not produce greenhouse gases and the technology is cheap compared to the investment required in renewable energy such as wind, wave and solar power.
However expanding nuclear power would produce more and more toxic nuclear waste, for which no safe storage method has been devised. It would increase the chances of another Chernobyl-type disaster.
In The Socialist 2 April 2005: