The Socialist 21 September 2006 |
Join the Socialist
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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)