Global Warming Shows Capitalism’s Bankruptcy

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For six years the Bush administration doggedly refused to acknowledge growing scientific evidence about the dangers of global warming and climate change. Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and at NASA complained that administration political appointees, with no scientific background or expertise, edited their research reports and findings to downplay the dangers of climate change and serve the propaganda needs of corporate interests allied to the government. The administration, with its ties to know-nothing Christian fundamentalists, seemed like it was turning its back on modern science – President Bush even seeming to join in the fundamentalist call for teaching “intelligent design” along with evolution in high school biology classrooms. By contrast of course, Al Gore, the man who won the popular vote in 2000, but lost the presidency in the electoral college, has become a self-styled champion of the environment through his Oscar-winning “Inconvenient Truth” theatrical documentary film, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. (There is of course a certain irony to Gore’s environmental glow in this regard since it was the Clinton administration, in which he was a key player, that refused to endorse the Kyoto Accords in the late 1990s because they had negative economic consequences for the U.S.)

In any case, the publication of the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IIPC) forced the administration to change course. The tactic of denying the existence of plausible scientific evidence is no longer viable. It is now clear that the scientific community is near-unanimous: the ‘debate’ on whether global warming is caused by ‘human activity’ is now over. There is now overwhelming evidence that climate change is being driven by greenhouse gases produced by factories, power stations, transport, and other sectors of the economy. Global temperatures could rise by as much as 6 degrees by the end of the century, with almost incalculable results: melting of the polar ice-caps, vast floods, droughts, famines, and a frightening possibility of ‘feedback’ mechanisms which could lead to an unstoppable spiral of catastrophe. A follow up IPCC report in April demonstrated that we are already seeing the impact of global warming on weather patterns even on the immediate level, and warned that nearly 30 percent of earth’s species faced the threat of extinction due to the climate changes associated with global warming. (A number of scientists involved in drafting this report complained that diplomatic negotiation actually watered this report down because of pressure from Saudi Arabia and China.)

Suddenly Pres. Bush pronounced his acceptance that global warming exists, that it is caused by “man,” and that something has to be done about. The president, who for six years slashed environmental standards and protections at the behest of the oil industry, now champions the development of alternative fuels and an end to the American addiction to oil. Of course this didn’t stop the administration from arguing before the Supreme Court against a law suit that would compel the EPA to take action against greenhouse gas pollutants, which had it steadfastly refused to do for the past six years.

So now the scientists and even President Bush agree on who’s to blame: mankind. In one sense, of course, this is true. These changes are not brought about by changes in solar radiation or other cosmic phenomena, but by the actions of human beings. It is human beings who build factories and power stations, fly planes and burn down rain-forests.

But this is an observation, not an explanation. The teams of scientists who are trained to analyze and interpret the natural world have no corresponding theory for explaining why mankind’s economic activity operates the way it does, with so little regard for its effects on the natural environment. And as a result they are capable only of identifying the existence of the problem, not of locating its causes and mapping out a solution.

For example: a great deal of attention is paid to the technologies used to generate power and to produce and transport goods. It is recognized that these technologies are unacceptably profligate in the production of greenhouse gases and that new technologies must be found. Power should be produced by wind and tide instead of coal. Cars should be powered by electricity or hydrogen instead of oil. And while the more short-sighted representatives of the energy industry continue to give big hand-outs to the dwindling band of scientists prepared to argue against the conclusions of the IPCC, more and more spokesmen for business express the confident hope that the search for new technologies will generate new markets and so allow them to preserve and even increase their profit margins.

No doubt, any solution to the gigantic environmental problems facing humanity will involve fundamental changes at the level of technology. But the problems, at root, are not to be found in technology itself. They are to be found in the very structure of present day society, in the basic motivation of economic activity. Present day society is not just ‘industrial society.’ It is a capitalist society, a system where for the first time in human history all production is driven by the competitive hunt for profit. It is this motivation which forces the system to grow and grow and keep on growing regardless of the human and ecological consequences. It is structurally incapable of producing for human need, of adjusting production to what is humanly and ecologically viable. For capitalism that would signify the end of accumulation – suicide, in other words. And since, to grow faster than your rivals, you must cut production costs as much as possible, you need to invest in the type of technology that does the job as quickly and as cheaply as possible, regardless of the damaging consequences for the generations of the future.

By the same token, as a system irredeemably divided into competing national units, it is equally incapable of acting in a truly cooperative way at the global level. On the contrary: the more national capitals are faced by economic difficulties and diminishing resources, the more they will be obliged to retreat behind their national barricades and look for military solutions to their problems. Well-meaning commentators may lament the fact that, instead of pouring resources into saving the planet, the world’s leading powers (and, proportionally, all other states) are pouring them into developing the weapons of war. From a human point of view this is indeed absurd and tragic, but it makes sense from the point of view of the ‘nation’, of the capitalist state.

The problem of the environment is indeed a problem for mankind – for the very survival of the human species. But it cannot be solved by the very institutions whose function is to guard and maintain the present social system. The dire consequences of global warming lead some well meaning militants to grasp at the false hope that capitalist society can actually do something about salvaging the environment .But capitalism is totally incapable of doing “good” by its very nature. The highly touted Kyoto Treaty which world governments hold out as the solution would only bring greenhouse pollution back to levels equivalent to what they were in the early nineties – still a disastrous level of pollution. Now capitalism, which caused and aggravated the problem in the first place, will take advantage of public concern to reap extortionate profits in developing new technologies, which will still leave the world in disastrous conditions.

To truly solve the problem of global warming, to make sure that technology serves the social needs of humanity and not the profit drive of corporations, requires a revolutionary transformation of society. It is yet one more reason why the fate of humanity lies in the hands of the working class and its ability to rise to the challenge of it historic task to destroy capitalist society.

Internationalism, 04/15/07.

(Based on an article that originally appeared in World Revolution 301)

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