Two opposing views on climate change

Nov. 10 — Haiyan, a disastrous Class 5 super-typhoon, just roared across the Philippines with winds believed to have set new records for this type of storm. It was so destructive that, as of this writing, authorities there have not been able to provide even an estimate of the carnage.

While scientists cannot say that this particular storm was caused by global warming, they can assert with confidence that warming temperatures, especially of sea water, set the stage for storms of greater intensity and frequency.

The menace of climate change and global warming is accelerating at a greater rate than was once anticipated. While early studies focused on what would be the impact of a 2-degrees Celsius rise in the average global temperature by the end of this century, scientists are now saying that a more likely scenario is a rise of from 4 to 6 degrees.

To put this into perspective, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in early October released a report calling for a “carbon budget” that would limit both greenhouse gas emissions (GGEs) and the clearing of forests. The goal they propose is to limit the amount of carbon released worldwide since the beginning of the industrial revolution to a trillion tons — which is double what is already in the atmosphere. Scientists say that would keep the temperature rise this century to about 3.6 degrees Celsius and avoid the most dangerous effects of global warming.

However, there are still 3 trillion tons of carbon fuel in the ground, and energy companies are hellbent on exploiting as much of it as they can recover. Obviously, the stage is set for an enormous struggle against these corporate mega-monsters.

Sabotage of global agreements

There have been so many scientific conferences on the subject of global warming since the 1980s that its cause — the release of GGEs created by human activity — is no longer in question except by the most die-hard reactionaries.

Attempts to get international agreements that would set limits on GGEs have failed miserably, with Washington being the greatest obstacle. President George W. Bush refused to sign the very limited Kyoto Accords in 2001 while at the same time opening the fragile wilderness areas of Alaska to oil drilling. And it was the first Obama administration that blew up the Copenhagen summit in 2009, rejecting any limitations on GGEs.

The U.S. government — heeding the banks and energy companies that dominate economic and political life here, no matter which party occupies the White House — has recommitted itself to fossil fuels by waging unending wars for oil and profits in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and North Africa. It has also allowed energy companies to despoil large areas of the United States through fracking for natural gas.

The big question that remains unanswered by scientists and governments alike is, what can be done about it? Increasingly, the foot soldiers of the environmental movement have put the blame on capitalism gone wild in pursuit of profits. But there is a move by prominent personalities to counter this by proposing “answers” that keep the movement firmly tethered to the profit system.

Perhaps the most prominent spokesperson for this is Al Gore — Bill Clinton’s vice president, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in 2000, and heir to an oil fortune (Occidental Petroleum).

Gore became celebrated for addressing climate change in the documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth,” which led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Gore’s prescription for reducing GGEs is not a new one. He is for a carbon tax, as are others like James Hansen, who early exposed global warming while he was head scientist of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration.

Pushing market ‘solutions’

This approach attempts to get the government to turn the capitalist market into the mechanism for phasing out carbon fuels and replacing them with renewables. It argues that if a carbon tax were enacted, investors would have an incentive to put their money into the development of renewables, as fossil fuels would become more expensive and therefore less competitive.

Of course, the tax would ultimately have to be paid out of the pockets of the consumers — for gasoline, oil and natural gas, electricity, etc. Who but the working class — including the growing numbers of unemployed — would be most hurt by this, since it involves more expensive transportation, heat and light for their homes at a time when wages and social programs are shrinking?

Those promoting a carbon tax say it would be offset by some sort of rebate that would protect consumers from bearing the main burden. But all of this would have to get the approval of the two-party capitalist political structure before being enacted. Is it cynical to think that the outcome would be similar to the way poor people in many states are now being denied subsidies under health care reform?

Resorting to this dubious prescription as the answer to the biggest physical problem facing humanity is admitting that earlier appeals to capitalist governments and to the financial and industrial powers-that-be have failed to achieve anything but toothless statements of concern. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as glaciers and sea ice melt, increasing the prospect of rising sea levels.

The carbon tax scheme comes after the collapse in Europe of an earlier market-based approach: cap and trade. Companies were issued vouchers according to a quota on how much they were allowed to pollute. Companies that cut their GGEs could sell some of their vouchers in a special market, where they supposedly would be bought by other businesses that had exceeded their own quotas. But the markets trading these vouchers came apart when the current economic crisis took hold. Production overall dropped, along with pollution, and the vouchers became nearly worthless.

None of these schemes addresses the fundamental problem under capitalism, which is the private ownership of what has become a vast, global web of production engaging billions of workers.

The driving force of capitalist production is private profit. Each corporate entity has a responsibility not to society as a whole but to the bottom line: producing profits for its owners and shareholders.

Whatever damage its operations may be doing to humanity or to the environment are not its “business.” In order to improve its image, it may make concessions when under enormous public pressure to clean up this or that, as BP and other companies were forced to do after the disastrous Gulf oil spill. But its owners will never accept taking a real loss. They are in the business of making money, not friends, and will try to make the problem go away with a public relations blitz rather than any real overhaul of their operations.

The only conclusion that can be had from this is that the environmental movement must become consciously and militantly anti-capitalist. But that is not enough.

Technology itself is not the problem

There is a strong trend toward anarchism in the movement. Many see the answer as moving backward toward simpler ways of living and producing. This nostalgia for a presumably better past forgets that in addition to what was produced by small farmers and artisans — many of whom had to toil around the clock just to survive — early capitalist societies grew rich on the superexploitation of enslaved and/or colonized peoples.

Modern technology has penetrated everywhere in the world because it is more efficient, is labor saving and offers economies of scale. It is not the technology itself that is to blame for the current crisis. It should become the vehicle to a shorter workweek and an easier life for all. But the technology today is shaped and warped to serve the interests of a superrich owning class, rather than the needs of the people.

In relation to the environmental crisis, are there any concrete examples to show that modern technology can be developed on a large scale to counter global warming?

Yes, very definitely. Most people here don’t even know it, but China is making tremendous gains in reducing carbon emissions by investing large sums in alternative energy and improvements to its electrical grid. Instead, all we hear about is China’s big air quality problem, which indeed is quite severe.

Much is made of the fact that in recent years China’s annual GGEs exceeded those of the U.S. for the first time. Does this show that China isn’t doing as much as the U.S. to mitigate climate change? Not at all.

First of all, China has the world’s largest population. It also has become “the factory of the world” as many companies have moved their manufacturing to China. But on a per capita basis, the U.S. was the seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in both 2000 and 2005. China, by contrast, was in 99th place in 2000 and 72nd place in 2005. So while its emissions per person rose as its industry grew, it still was way, way down the list as compared to the U.S. (Figures from the World Resources Institute.)

In addition, the facts and figures show that China, which so recently was a terribly poor country, is now number one in the world in its commitment of vast resources to developing sustainable energy.

An article posted Sept. 24 by Michael Davidson of sums up China’s achievements:

“China’s deployment of renewable electricity generation — starting with hydropower, then wind, and now biomass and solar — is massive. China leads the world in installed renewable energy capacity (both including and excluding hydro) and has sustained annual wind additions in excess of 10 gigawatts (10 GW) for four straight years. Half of the hydropower installed worldwide last year was in China. And solar and biomass-fired electricity are expected to grow ten-fold over the period 2010-2020. Most striking amidst all these impressive accomplishments has been the Chinese government’s seemingly unwavering financial support for renewable energy generators even as other countries scale back or restructure similar support programs. …

“Investment in renewable energy has risen steadily in China over the last decade, with the wind and solar sectors hitting a record $68 billion in 2012, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. These sums — together with massive state-led investments in hydropower — have translated into a surge of renewable energy capacity. … Renewables now provide more than a quarter of China’s electricity generating capacity.”

Capitalist market relations certainly exist in China, but they do not control the backbone of the economy. The ability to carry out these massive state-supported plans in response to global warming comes ultimately from the socialist restructuring of Chinese society, made possible by its decades-long revolution.

That revolution mobilized the workers and peasants to defeat the landlords and capitalists and set up their own state structure — the same state that is now investing so heavily in renewables. That’s what makes China so different from India, for example, another huge country, but one where the old ruling class was never uprooted.

Socialist revolution may seem a distant prospect in the United States. Of course it is extremely important that the environmental movement make demands on the capitalist government now — for things like expanding environmental protection and spending the people’s tax moneys on improving public transportation, the electric grid, the aging power stations, etc., which could provide millions of jobs while reducing fossil fuel consumption.

But this is just as much an uphill battle as changing the system itself. What’s important is not to have a shred of confidence in the capitalist class or its government to solve this monumental problem.

We are headed into turbulent times, and the working class must be told the truth about this system. Some concessions may be wrung out of it by the militant, organized struggle of the workers and oppressed, but it is a system that is at war with the masses of people and the environment. It must be destroyed and the wealth — both natural and human-created — liberated for the good of humanity and all life on our unique planet.