Global warming: Drive to profit pollutes the planet

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For more than 30 years scientists have warned of the dangers of global warming from the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The recent Stern report on the impact of climate change shows an economist, supported by the British government, putting a price on it. Tony Blair, convinced by the overwhelming evidence, thought that the consequences of ‘business as usual’ would be literally “disastrous”.

We are already living with the consequences of global warming and are now officially being told of the prospects of more floods (with the displacement of up to 100 million people), more droughts, more famines, more extreme weather conditions, in particular with more devastating storms, rising sea levels (with hundreds of millions of people displaced), changes in food production conditions, declining crop yields, more heat waves (with their impact on the vulnerable and on agricultural production) and, among many other things, the loss of up to 40% of species in the ecosystem.

Stern warns that doing nothing “could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th Century”. He therefore proposes that for carbon emissions to be stabilised in the next 20 years, and then drop between 1% and 3% after that, which would be a ‘manageable’ level. It would cost 1% of world GDP, but would avoid the cost of 20% GDP that would be needed if action was postponed. (A leaked United Nations report suggests that 5% would be more realistic than 1%).

The usual solutions

The measures proposed by Stern and the government are familiar. There should be a campaign against further deforestation. Industry has to widen the search for more efficient low carbon technologies, cleaner energy sources, non-fossil fuels. Carbon trading can be developed to ration emissions, or at least make them more costly. There’s the prospect of taxes on air and car transport. There’s a need to reduce consumer demand for heavily polluting goods and services. Gordon Brown has taken on Al Gore as an adviser. And, er, that’s about it.

It’s obvious that the propaganda which makes us all individually responsible will also be cranked up a notch. We are constantly being told that we have to change our behaviour. We’re supposed to turn down the thermostat, turn off the lights, not leave the TV on standby, recycle everything, plant a tree, buy local, leave the car at home and ride a bike.

There are many criticisms of the measures that are proposed. Leftists blame the US for not taking global warming seriously, and for holding out for the prospect of a miraculous new technology. They criticise countries like Australia or the US for not even signing up to Kyoto. George Monbiot thinks that governments will take action if they’re lobbied forcefully enough. The SWP blames neo-liberalism and wants the re-nationalisation of the transport industries and state reorganisation of the energy industries. Many critics say that no plan can work because countries like China and India won’t sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment.

This last point has the beginning of an insight. But it doesn’t involve just those two economies but every national economy in the world.

Capitalism means competition

CBI head Richard Lambert had the cheek to say “Provided we act with sufficient speed, we will not have to make a choice between averting climate change and promoting growth and investment.” Gordon Brown said his priorities are “growth, full employment and environmental care.” Yet these gentlemen would be the first to admit that competition is at the very heart of the drive to growth in capitalism.

Capitalism’s functioning, the way it survives and its central goal lie in accumulation. “Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie…” as Marx put it in Capital (vol. 1, chap. XXIV). And the drive for profits, the drive of each national capital to defend its interests, does not mean that each country patiently awaits the verdict of the market but uses every means, including the military option of war, to push itself forward in the capitalist world. It’s competition, not co-operation, that marks out the capitalist mode of production.

Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace pointed out that 1% of GDP is “the same amount of money we spend on global advertising” as if there was some easy substitution to be made. He admits that emissions have actually gone up under Labour, but then suggests, “there are so many things the government could do”. Where everything that an individual capitalist enterprise does is determined by the need to keep costs down and get revenues up, the actions of the capitalist state are determined by the needs of the capitalist ruling class. And, for all its talk about the disasters that loom from the worsening environmental system, no government is going to put serious restraints on the process of accumulating capital. Yes, expense on advertising is wasteful, and so are the even greater resources devoted to military production, but they have both become fundamental to the world of capitalist competition.

You don’t need a science degree to see that capitalism, throughout its history, has been polluting the natural environment without any concern for the consequences. Stern mentions world wars and economic slump in the same breath as the ecological catastrophe that faces us all. The cause is the same: a bankrupt capitalist system that, having fulfilled its historic mission of creating a world economy, now threatens the very continuation of life on earth. Different computer projections have predicted average global temperatures to rise by anything from 1.4 °C to 5.8 °C by 2100. What they’ve not taken into account is the question of society, the relations between social classes.

The continuation of capitalist rule holds out only the prospect of profound cataclysm, through war, through environmental degradation, or a deadly combination of both. Against this only the struggle of the working class holds out any hope, as it’s the only force in society that can overthrow capitalism and has the potential for establishing a society based on human needs, with solidarity rather than ruthless rivalry at its heart. 3/11/6