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Can capitalism solve the problem of global warming?
CLIMATE CHANGE caused by global warming could potentially have a catastrophic effect across huge swathes of the world. As it becomes increasingly clear that global warming is a reality, the response of the world's major capitalist powers is at best completely inadequate. PETE DICKENSON reviews The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery, which presents the scientific evidence for climate change and looks at some of the ideas being put forward as a solution.
This is a valuable new book on climate change and the environment because it explains in some detail the latest scientific developments, in a language that can be understood by non-scientists.
The author is eloquent in describing the serious threats posed by global warming and he writes in a lively, approachable manner. However, there should be a health warning to anyone who is thinking of reading this book, because the solutions put forward to tackle the crisis do not go beyond those previously proposed by the mainstream green/environmental movement.
The early part of the book puts climate into a historical perspective, going back to the first appearance of life on earth, and subsequently tracing the effects of human activity on the environment and climate change. This effectively shows that what is happening now is qualitatively different to previous climate changes in the history of the planet.
Three particular threats, that could have catastrophic consequences, are highlighted. The first is the possible breakdown of the Gulf Stream. As global ocean currents change and move as surface temperatures rise, there could be a new ice age in northern Europe.
The second is the destruction of the Amazonian rainforests. Rainforests are major absorbers of carbon dioxide and when they are destroyed, less carbon can be absorbed and therefore carbon concentrations in the atmosphere increase, which further raises temperatures, forming an upward spiral.
The third, and potentially the most serious long-term threat we face, is the release of methane from the seabed. Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and there is more of it stored at the bottom of the sea than the entire natural gas reserves of the planet. Part of what is keeping the methane in place is the relatively cold temperature at the depths at which it lies, but significant ocean temperature rises could release this gas into the atmosphere, causing rapid further global warming.
One proposed solution to global warming is to store carbon dioxide at the bottom of the sea. But Flannery points out that there are significant dangers involved in this, particularly if large quantities are accidentally released. This happened in central Africa in 1986, when 1,800 people were killed by the escape of carbon dioxide that was trapped at the bottom of a volcanic lake.
The author is generally sceptical about the possibilities of new technologies, such as using hydrogen cells, because they are not necessarily carbon neutral.
The severe effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster are well described, and the point made that the full extent of the devastation has been covered up. For instance in Belarus, which was in the direct line of the radio-active cloud that swept round the world, 25% of its GNP is still spent on mitigating the effects of radio-activity. The author, although opposing nuclear power as a solution to global warming, is slightly equivocal on this issue. In particular, he fails to highlight the problems linked to storing toxic nuclear waste over long periods of time.
There is at present no sustainable power source available as an alternative to the highly damaging release of greenhouse gases by aircraft at high altitude. However, Flannery makes the point that if aeroplanes were the only emitters of greenhouse gases then the resulting damage to the environment would be containable. In other words, all other power generation would have to be done by sustainable methods, such as wind, wave and solar power. However, to move to this state of affairs involves politics, as the author recognises, but the solutions he puts forward are far from convincing.
The Kyoto agreement, based on market trading methods, was meant to be a start in reducing greenhouse gases globally, although meeting its targets will hardly scratch the surface of the problem. However, even the largely cosmetic Kyoto targets will not be met by the deadline of 2012. There is no sign of any meaningful follow-up agreement, shattering the claims of Kyoto's apologists that it is just a first step in a process.
The problems with this international treaty are acknowledged in the book. In a rather despairing fashion, Flannery challenges its critics to come up with an alternative, to what most environmentalists think is the only show in town.
Other ideas put forward correspond to standard green/environmental takes on the issue. Setting up an international commission to police the environment, supporting green consumerism and promoting the 'contract and converge' principle.
To be fair, Flannery recognises that there would be serious difficulties for any international commission in stopping 'free riders'. He could have perhaps also added that the work of such an international commission will be particularly taxing since the main free rider is the USA, and the commission will require the services of its own inter-galactic army to impose its will! Leaving humour aside, the USA has made it absolutely clear that when the profits of its corporations are at stake it is not interested in 'multilateralism', except strictly on its own terms.
'Contract and converge' is also a highly problematical policy. It means that the rich 'north' (the northern hemisphere) will have to cut its consumption very significantly while at the same time the poor 'south' can converge upwards towards a sustainable mean level. Since the poor 'south' accounts for 80% of the world's population, it is highly doubtful that cuts in the 'north', at least those that did not involve going back to the stone age, would be sufficient to balance the equation.
It also ignores the question of China, which already has the second largest 'environmental footprint' after the US and will soon become the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases if present trends continue (which is admittedly by no means certain). What should China do, contract or converge? After all, it is still a poor country with a per-capita income of about $3 a day.
There are many good points in the book, in particular the explanation of quite complicated scientific ideas in understandable language. However, its main weakness, in common with virtually all other environmentalist writings, is a complete inability to look beyond a market-based economic system for solutions to the grave problems faced by the world.
The quest for profit and the resulting anarchy of the capitalist system make the long-term democratic planning that is needed for tackling environmental issues virtually impossible. International co-operation is also crucial because global warming is what is says: global.
In other words there are no solutions on a national basis, even if a miracle happened and Blair took decisive action to tackle greenhouse gases in Britain, it would make virtually no difference to global warming if other countries did not follow suit.
This is unlikely to happen because the costs of renewable energy are greater than for oil and gas, meaning that the profits to the capitalists will ultimately be lower and they will therefore not do it.
There is a danger though that the capitalists internationally will instead opt for nuclear power, because it coincidentally does not produce greenhouse gases. This is no solution because we will then face the dangers of another Chernobyl-type disaster and the problems of dealing with radioactive waste that that will remain dangerous for 100,000 years.
A democratic socialist society which will not be based on profit would be able to plan the rapid introduction of green renewable energy because the fight for profits between the imperialist countries that prevents international co-operation will be a thing of the past.
The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery (Allen Lane, 2006, £20)
Available from Socialist Books (see below)
In The Socialist 21 September 2006:
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