Review: 'An Inconvenient Truth' - the capitalist system can't halt the course of environmental destruction

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‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is a film about the impending disaster facing planet Earth because of global warming and the dreadful consequences for humanity if nothing is done to reverse the current course. Global warming results from the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, like coal and gasoline/petrol. Global average temperatures are predicted to rise by anything from 1.4 °C to 5.8 °C over the period 1990 to 2100.

The evidence

The film tells us that of the 21 hottest years ever recorded, 20 have come in the last 25 years and the hottest of all was 2005. We see photographs of various mountains and mountain ranges from all around the world and see how the extensive snows and glaciers that previously covered their peaks have drastically diminished. In the Himalayas, for example, this means reduced irrigation for those who inhabit the lower plains with a serious threat to their livelihoods. We then see pictures of the polar ice caps and are told how the ice functions in reflecting the sun’s heat, but as the ice caps reduce in size and more ocean becomes visible, it absorbs heat and this accelerates the melting process (the ice cover on the Artic Ocean is melting away at 9% per year).

And as the ice caps melt, the more the oceans are rising and more places become submerged by water. Some populations on Indian Ocean islands are already having to evacuate. And we were told that in the not too distant future, assuming nothing is done, cities like San Francisco and Shanghai, regions like Florida and southern India and countries like Holland and Bangladesh, because they lie close to sea level, could be under water.

The film also refers to how the warmer atmosphere has been the key factor in extreme weather, of which there are numerous examples in recent years.  (There have been many more unnatural rainfalls and freak floods across China, India and Central Europe). One of the worse examples was the floods in Mumbai in 2005 which saw 37 inches  of rain in 24 hours, killing 1000 people.

There have been extremes of hot and cold, like the extremely hot summer across Europe in 2003 that killed thousands of elderly people. In 2005 fires burned out of control in Portugal and Spain due to the exceptionally dry conditions. There has been an exceptionally cold winter across Russia.

Then there have been many highly destructive hurricanes and tornados in the Caribbean region, and typhoons in the Far East (Hurricane Mitch wreaked destruction on Guatemala City in 1998). 12 months ago Hurricane Katrina devastated Florida but instead of burning itself out as it moved off shore, it entered the Caribbean and sucked in the rising heat, re-charging its power before it set of in the direction of New Orleans.

The film also shows global warming’s effects in central Africa. Lake Chad, that sits between two war-torn places, Niger and Darfur, has shrivelled up to about a fifth of its previous size, which can only further worsen the wretched living conditions of those who depended on its waters.

The animal kingdom is suffering too with more species disappearing as their habitats come under attack or disappear. We were also told of the damaging affect of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide on the oceans and their creatures living there (carbon dioxide dissolves in the sea to form carbonic acid). We were shown pictures of the devastating effects this is having on the coral reefs.

The warmer temperatures are also leading to an increase in tropical diseases, as disease carriers like mosquitoes are surviving more easily in the warmer conditions. And certain parasitic insects that winter frosts would have previously wiped out are destroying forested areas.

And to make the scenario even more frightening still, the film explains that global warming could affect the movement of the oceans, and the important circulation of heat and cold carried by the ocean currents to and fro across the globe. For example, a massive release of water from the melting of the Artic ice-cap could seriously interfere with Gulf Stream that brings the heat from the equatorial belt to the northern hemisphere. This could eventually lead to parts of Europe and America freezing over.

And we are told that despite the fact that some people claim there is dispute among scientists about the scientific evidence, this is untrue. There is broadly a 100% acceptance among scientists about these statistics and these predictions.

The presenter

Al Gore spent two terms as US Vice-President and, after narrowly failing to win the presidency, has transformed himself into an eco-warrior. The format of the film has him lecturing students somewhere in the US with a large screen on which he projects his photographs, graphics and computer animations to illustrate his prognosis.  However, the film has a parallel theme. This is the story of Al Gore, the Man. We see him growing up, are told of how a serious car accident nearly killed his young son and made him see how precious life is. We are told of how he was instrumental in raising environmental issues inside the Clinton Administration, and are encouraged to believe that if he had won the presidency over that nasty warmonger, George W, we would all be able to rest more comfortably in our beds.

He tells us the US is the number one polluter and has refused to implement the Kyoto agreement on reducing /trading carbon emissions (though some north eastern states and California have now unilaterally agreed to implement Kyoto).

The Bushes are hand in glove with the oil industry and the Bush Administration even had an official in charge of environmental issues who doctored reports until he was forced to resign (Gore’s  ‘Inconvenient Truth’ refers to these distortions of the facts by the Bush Administration and the oil industry).

Considering he was at the heart of the US government in the latter half of the 1990s, when the issue was neglected just as much by the US government as it is now[1], it’s not surprising that Al Gore doesn’t make a big issue of the need for state intervention to deal with the problem. In fact, we see a lot of him travelling around the lecture theatres of the world spreading the news, and quite pathetically he declares that the only way he knows of getting this message across is by going

from city to city, from person to person, from family to family” as if the salvation of the planet is can only be solved at the individual level. Logically, the film ends with a farcical shopping list of things to do to make our lives more eco-friendly.

Like the rest of the Environmental lobby, like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, all this film does is use the horrors of global warming in order to increase our feeling of impotence in the face of impending disaster and to make us believe there is an alternative under capitalism.  The real message from the Green Lobby is that we can spread the propaganda and pressure the governments and parliaments into taking a rational course of action, in other words, “trust in bourgeois democracy”.

Can state intervention solve the problem?

Contrary to the view of Jonathan Porritt that capitalism can solve the crisis of global warming, the reality is quite the opposite.

The Kyoto Agreement set emission targets for each country but they have been largely been ignored. Meanwhile “The G8 communiqué on climate change at the end of the Gleneagles Summit… was a significant and long-awaited expression of political agreement… of the consequent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions… (but) the conclusions were based on the false assumptions that the necessary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from human activity in affluent countries around the world can largely be achieved through the more efficient use of fossil fuels and increased research, development and investment in technology, particularly in renewable energy. In practice, this cannot be sufficient either on scale or in the timescale required.. The only action now open to government is to slow the pace of damaging change. Yet the scale of preventative action it is actually taking is pathetically inadequate”(‘Your planet and how to save it’ in The Independent 19/9/05).

Capitalism may have various global institutions within which the competitor nation states participate, but it is an illusion to believe they express a capacity for cooperation and rational decision-making at the international level. In fact, their decisions only replicate the power relations between the participants. The fundamental relations of capitalism are those of competition and the market and with the permanent economic crisis and imperialist wars, there can be no accommodation reached for offsetting environmental destruction.   In the ravenous search for profits, the irrational flood of goods and services and people around the globe, and the competition between nation states in the search to squeeze out profits, means the degradation of the environment will only continue.  Capitalism only produces for maximum profit and the ferocious competition between companies and nation states demands that each one expands to the maximum or goes under, gobbling up whatever natural resources feed the hunt for profit. The solution of the environmental crisis lies in the abolition of production for profit and the introduction of production for need, but this cannot happen without the global overthrow of the capitalist system.

Capitalism is clearly the problem, not the solution. The scientific and technical tools are there to enable us to develop a precise understanding of the present predicament of global warming and its causes.  Marxism provides us with the framework for understanding where the problem lies at the social level.  But the practical implications of the marxist method can only be realised by them taking root inside the working class. Workers can have no illusions in capitalism being able to find a way out from its current course. It’s only by becoming conscious of capitalism’s total bankruptcy and of its own capacity to free humanity from this nightmare that there can be hope for the future.

Duffy, 2/12/06.

[1] According to the Independent, cited in Courrier International 15,6,06, the Clinton administration “authorised the dumping of dioxin into the oceans and presided over the biggest process of deforestation in the history of the USA”.

General and theoretical questions: