Climate change - An answer to Brian Baker

Mick Brooks questions the method applied in the four-part article by Brian Baker published this week. Brian Baker's article does not proceed from a Marxist framework. It tries to show that human activity has no part in climate change. Environmental problems such as climate change are inevitable under capitalism and that what is required is a world socialist plan that takes account of all the costs and benefits of human economic activity.

I was surprised to see the recent discussion document (Global warming: a Socialist Perspective - Part One by Brian J. Baker) published on marxist.com. I have been following the website for years, and know that you have run articles since 2000, acknowledging that climate change is happening and that human agency in the form of greenhouse gas emissions is a contributory factor. You have never differentiated yourself from that viewpoint in the articles you have published.

The articles generally follow the following formula. (I know this since I have written several of them.) They assert that there is a growing scientific consensus that human agency is a factor in climate change. They neither attempt to prove the consensus is correct nor to disprove. They leave science to the scientists.

They then apply Marxist analysis to the problem as they see it. They criticise capitalist ‘solutions' such as emissions trading. They are careful to critique the idea that industrialisation as such is responsible (this is a Malthusian position) and point the finger at capitalist industrialisation.

The basic problem is conceived to be that capitalism is unplanned and that it is a system based on profit. Since pollution is a cost born by society and not by the polluting firm (and emissions are a form of pollution), firms take no account of the cost imposed on society by their pollution. There is no doubt in my mind that this was Marx and Engels' position.

The conclusion is that environmental problems such as climate change are inevitable under capitalism and that what is required is a world socialist plan that takes account of all the costs and benefits of human economic activity. This template deals quite well with related environmental problems, such as resource depletion, the reduction and elimination of biodiversity and more localised pollution problems.

This approach also chimes in well with the views of a broad layer of young people who have become very concerned about environmental issues, and rightly so. These people show their concern not because they are dupes of the capitalist establishment, but because they are suspicious of the role of big business - as they are right to be. Why separate marxist.com from the concerns of these people by publishing this smug and, as far as I can see, inadequately argued document?

The article you have published does not proceed from a Marxist framework. It tries to show that human activity has no part in climate change. The writer argues as a scientist arguing with other scientists. Actually we are not told how much of an expert in the detailed research area of climatology the writer is. Scientific qualifications are no guarantee the author is right, of course. But the article is basically about the science, rather than the politics of the science. As such Brian's qualifications in climatology, or otherwise, are surely relevant.

At least in the form shown in Part I published on the website, the diagrams and graphs are not adequately sourced to prove the assertions in the article. They remain assertions. Certainly a scientist who supports the consensus view could produce graphs and charts that show the opposite. I seem to remember the Stern Report had lots of graphs, all very well sourced in the appendices. How is the Marxist who is not a specialist scientist supposed to assess the different positions? Marxist.com is surely produced mainly for the benefit of people who are interested in Marxism, but who in most cases are not scientists.

The writer uses the expression ‘global warming' in preference to ‘climate change.' He uses the fact that the consensus scientists accept and argue that some parts of the globe could get cooler as evidence that those who argue that human agency is a factor are wrong. But that is why those who accept the role of human agency (the majority of scientists) have stopped using the term ‘global warming' in favour of climate change in recent years. Nobody is arguing the whole planet will warm at a uniform rate. He is attacking a straw man.

More generally climate, and climate change, is a complex system. That makes it very difficult to ‘tick off' how important human activity is in the overall process, as it is not linear. Brian seems to accept that climate changes, but that human activity is not a factor. To my mind Brian does not, and cannot, prove it. The introduction asserts that "the idea that the climate should always remain the same is an absurd one, to begin with." Indeed it is. But it is so absurd (everybody's heard of ice ages) that I know of nobody who argues that point of view.

The introduction also cites the case of the ‘big bang.' At present the scientific consensus is that the ‘big bang' happened. In the book by Alan Woods and Ted Grant ‘Reason in Revolt' this majority view is argued against. But the case is quite different. Woods and Grant are explaining that the origin of the universe is not a question that can be solved by scientists. It is at bottom an issue that requires a philosophical understanding. Marxism has a clear worked-out philosophical position, whereas most working scientists do not. The authors of ‘Reason in Revolt' try to apply Marxism to the issues raised by the theory of the big bang and show they are barking up the wrong tree, not to prove the scientists wrong in detail. As far as I can see there are no basic philosophical issues involved behind the debate among scientists on climate change.

Back to the politics. Brian has great fun showing that many of the consensus scientists are insincere. This is good slapstick, but irrelevant to the argument. The political allusions he does make are a little wild. He seems to argue that we are confronted with a modern Malthusianism designed to keep the working class down. He states that "the political aspect of the ecohondria movement was based on traditional anti-working class motives." And again, "Primarily the "climate change" debate is about the politics of governance or, put less bluntly, a further method of keeping the working class in its place." This is conspiracy theory, not Marxist class analysis. He claims that green arguments were used prominently as propaganda by Thatcher to close the pits and smash the miners. This is not my recollection.

Arguments about the funding of scientific research, about the ‘malign effects of the green lobby' are fine, but utterly irrelevant to the argument of human agency's impact on climate change. Why on earth should the capitalist establishment have been won over to the current majority view? How is this view in their interests? Brian only has a conspiracy for answer. In fact the reason many of us are sympathetic to the consensus view is that we know many of the ‘climate change deniers' have been paid to tell lies by the oil lobby, an influential section of the capitalist class, in exactly the same way that in the past the tobacco lobby paid scientists to deny the connection between smoking and cancer. The majority of scientists who accept human agency as a factor in climate change may be wrong; they have not been bought.

At times Brian does seem to conflate industrialisation with capitalism, as when he asserts, "So what is it that unites such disparate class interests? A common understanding that industrialisation has destroyed the planet?" He does not seem to accept that under capitalism, industrialisation follows a different trajectory from that of socialist growth. Even if we accept that human action is not a factor in climate change, everyone who lives near a coal-fired power station knows that capitalism pumps out pollution because it is indifferent to the health of the workers and local residents. These costs, real costs, are simply not costs that count for polluting capitalists.

To move to a more recent historical perspective; there are reasons why human agency may be having a more profound impact on the planet. There are more of us now and each of us is producing more. According to Angus Maddison (‘Dynamic forces in capitalist development'), "Since 1820 [to 1995] the total product of the advanced capitalist group [of countries] has increased seventyfold, population nearly fivefold, and per capital product fourteen fold." Surely this increased economic activity is likely to give human behaviour more of an impact upon the environment than it did in the stone age.

Brian seems to be preoccupied with criticising Malthus' view that growing human populations press on finite resources, pollute and in other ways provide limits to growth. He correctly sees that Malthus did not realise that increasing productivity meant that a rising population of humans could all enjoy a better standard of living. But he then inverts the argument, as though endless growth and the ‘human victories over nature' were unproblematic.

The Marxist view is that human interaction with nature takes place through the medium of the mode of production. Capitalism, as an unplanned mode of production may well produce unforeseen effects upon the environment. This would include climate change. This was Engels' view in ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man'.

"In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.

"Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature - but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

"And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. ...This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order."