The disaster known as Hurricane Sandy should have come as no surprise. Every possible warning sign had preceded it.
For years, international conferences had been held at which scientists laid out the effects of global warming on the climate. What were once considered extraordinary weather events — torrential rains, severe droughts, more frequent and intense tornadoes and hurricanes — had become the new norm.
Yet, a week after the hurricane’s first blast, millions in wide areas of the U.S. are still without power. Besides those killed by the winds and the huge surge of ocean water Sandy drove onshore, more continue to die due to lack of heat, access to medications, medical care and transportation, and from other causes related to nonfunctioning infrastructure.
How did we get to this perilous position?
From the first major climate change conference in Kyoto in 1998 to the U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio in June 2012, the U.S. government, in particular, with the connivance of other imperialist powers, has intervened to undermine and make ineffectual the many attempts by world climate scientists to get international agreement on plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
Over this period of a decade and a half, many disasters related to global warming have wreaked havoc in the U.S., from Hurricane Katrina to floods and drought in the West and Midwest, tornadoes in the South and a sizzling heat wave that forced workers in Detroit’s auto plants to work in 113 degrees Fahrenheit this summer.
Around the world, there have been deadly floods in Pakistan, drought followed by floods in Africa, and the highest summer temperatures ever recorded in Russia, leading to widespread fires. The Caribbean islands have been hit again and again by deadly hurricanes. China and Korea have been repeatedly battered by deadly storms. And island nations face being submerged as ocean levels rise.
Workers World has reported over the years on these events. These articles have now been compiled into an online book called “Unnatural Disasters,” which is accessible in pdf form at workers.org. A printed book will soon be out.
In brief, these articles describe how government policy, particularly in the U.S., has been dictated by the highly profitable and powerful energy companies, whose clout is linked to the big banks and the Pentagon.
The goals of the Kyoto Accords were modest: reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the 1990 level by the year 2007. President Bill Clinton had signed the accords, but Congress never ratified them. Then in March 2001, newly inaugurated President George W. Bush announced he opposed regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and also threw his support behind drilling for oil in the fragile wildlife preserves of arctic Alaska.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said in an op-ed column in the New York Times of March 18, 2001: “It’s payback time, and every industry and trade association is busily cashing in.” The oil giants own many of the coal companies and the utilities that burn coal to produce power, emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide in the process.
The public was being deliberately confused about global warming by innocent-sounding groups, sponsored by the energy companies, with names like The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, Global Climate Coalition and the Greening Earth Society. TASSC had started as a front for Philip Morris. Its “scientists” went from disputing the dangers of tobacco to denying climate change.
While the oil and coal companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars broadcasting these lies, real scientists like James Hansen of NASA, whose satellites every day were showing the shrinking glaciers and polar ice caps, could barely get a hearing for their urgent warnings about what was to come.
When denial of climate change could no longer work, the polluting industries changed their strategy. New “nongovernmenal organizations” were formed to push the idea that the “free market” would solve the problem. Many ventures were launched, and fortunes made, through schemes like “cap and trade,” which established a market for the right to pollute.
Britain’s first Special Representative on Climate Change, John Ashton, summed up the approach of these groups: “Climate change needs to be seen not as an economic threat, but an economic opportunity.” (Reuters, June 24, 2006)
Like a red thread running through all our articles on this monumental problem is the critique of capitalism as the ultimate cause of the planetary disaster known as global warming. It is not technology, but the class interests that technology serves that determine whether humanity’s impact on the planet will be sustainable or not. And with capitalism’s evolution into global imperialism, the problems it creates impact most severely on the pillaged nations of the global South.
Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, wrote in 1876: “Let us not … flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory it takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.”
Engels wrote this during the early, tempestuous growth of industrial capital in Europe and the U.S., when huge fortunes were made exploiting labor in the mines, the steel mills and the newly electrified factories.
Today Marxism is an indispensable tool to understanding why capitalism is headed toward a train wreck and what must replace it. As protesters at the 2011 conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa, demanded: “Climate change? Social change!”