The Congress, held in March, aimed to provide an update to the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC produced its last report in 2007. The Congress takes place in the run-up to the 15th United Nations Conference of Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP-15), also to be held in Copenhagen, in December.
During the Congress a report by the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre predicted the biggest danger to the Amazon rainforest was from global temperature rises, not logging. "It found that a 2C rise above pre-industrial levels, widely considered the best case global warming scenario and the target for ambitious international plans to curb emissions, would still see 20-40% of the Amazon die off within 100 years. A 3C rise would see 75% of the forest destroyed by drought over the following century, while a 4C rise would kill 85%." (‘Amazon could shrink by 85% due to climate change, scientists say', guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 11 March 2009).
The destruction of the rainforest could lead to a "positive feedback situation", a vicious circle in which the release of CO2 stored in the forests adds to the effects of climate change, further destroying rainforests. The Congress concluded that there was an increasing risk of abrupt and irreversible climatic shifts.
At the end of the conference the scientists gave their 6 key messages to politicians ahead of COP-15.
1. The worst case scenarios of climate change, projected by the IPCC, are being realised.
2. Modest changes to the climate can have big effects on the poor.
3. Action needs to be taken rapidly to avoid "dangerous climate change"
4. The negative effects of climate change will be felt unequally. The poorest, future generations and wildlife will be affected the most
5. Ways already exist to effectively counter climate change.
6. We need to remove barriers to change like subsidies, vested interests, weak institutions and ineffective governance.
Why the bourgeoisie isn't listening
What are the chances the politicians will listen and act on their recommendations? Given the enormity of the findings, can't the politicians put their differences aside for the good of humanity?
While we can applaud the efforts of scientists throughout the world to understand the climate and the man-made causes of climate change, there is one factor missing from the scientist's equations: the capitalist system itself.
The fundamental forces driving the capitalist system alienate man from nature. Capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of the proletariat; it is a system that requires expansion to survive and it is a system that, though global, cannot go beyond competing nation states in its organisation.
The fact that climate change will affect the poor more than the rich will not jolt the bourgeoisie into action. The bourgeoisie's contempt for the exploited is visible in the abject poverty of millions throughout the world. Attempts by the working class to defend and improve its conditions of existence have been frequently violently suppressed. Even the laws introduced to improve public health in the 19th century were spurred not by the condition of the working class, but by the realisation that the rich were vulnerable to the diseases caused by insanitary conditions in the cities.
The Congress concluded that methods already exist to counter climate change. However, the proposed green economic measures are described in purely capitalist terms: new green jobs in new green growth industries, cost savings from not having to deal with health problems and environmental destruction, etc. Maybe capitalism can survive in a sustainable way? Maybe exploitation of the working class can continue without destroying the environment? The green lobby serves this tasty carrot up for inspection by the world's leaders, but so far they have declined the offer. Fundamentally, maintaining the environment is a cost to the capitalist system like maintaining the health of the working population. It is a sum that is diverted from re-investment in capital. The US government were unimpressed in 2007 when the IPCC announced that efforts to counter climate change would ‘only' cost between 0.2 - 3.0% of annual GDP.
The state cannot protect the planet
One of the myths of the left and the green movement is that the failure to act on important environmental and social issues is caused by a weakening of the state apparatus. That a strengthening of international institutions governing greenhouse emissions would lead to a reversal of the catastrophic situation we now face. The truth about the state is that it operates to defend the bourgeoisie's overall national interests. When the governments of each country face each other over the negotiating table they face each other as imperialist rivals. This can be seen in the negotiations over greenhouse reductions. When Britain reduced its traditional industrial base at the end of the 20th century it was able to promise greater reductions on CO2 emissions than some of its major rivals. This was a typical ploy, not based on any serious concern for the state of the planet.
And when George Bush wouldn't sign any agreement on climate change that didn't include ‘developing nations', it was in defence of US imperialist interests.
The current negotiations leading up to COP-15 are no different. While the US points to the fact that China has greater CO2 emissions than any other country. China points to the west saying that it consumes most of the products that it produces. "‘As one of the developing countries, we are at the low end of the production line for the global economy. We produce products and these products are consumed by other countries... This share of emissions should be taken by the consumers, not the producers', said Li, who serves in China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission. He added that between 15% and 25% of all the country's global warming emissions resulted from manufacturing exports." (‘Consuming nations should pay for carbon dioxide emissions, not manufacturing countries, says China', guardian.co.uk, 17/3/9).
The same article points to the fact that European nations have tried to get around emissions targets by offsetting their pollution through carbon trading with ‘developing nations'. Promises the EU have made to give money to ‘developing countries' in order to help them introduce cleaner technologies have been put on hold until countries like China and India give greater commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even the way emissions are calculated is open to contestation.
No state can afford to be generous in a cut-throat global market, especially in the current economic crisis. The talks in Copenhagen in December are being held against the background of the biggest economic crisis in the history of capitalism. Reaching a deal that undermines economic recovery would be an offset too far.