The past seven months have seen the release of the Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international scientific body set up by the United Nations to provide the most comprehensive body of information and analysis about the process, risks, and impacts of climate change. The conclusions of the latest IPCC report are unequivocal: climate change is real; its effects will be disastrous; and nothing short of a revolution will do if we are to combat it.
A cartoon in a recent edition of The Economist (19th April 2014) summed up the real attitude of the ruling class towards the IPCC report and the question of climate change. The comic strip begins with a man wheeling a sickly patient into an addiction clinic – a wheelchair bound man who is, in fact, the Earth. “I think this fellow is on drugs”, declares the man to the doctor as he admits his friend – our anthropomorphised planet, who is kept in a stable condition by an intravenous drip feed of oil and gas.
The man continues: “Fortunately there’s a new report that says he can quit without major issues. It just requires all the world’s nations to assemble and agree to radically change the foundations of their economies in an orderly fashion over an extended period of time. I for one think this can be done.”
The carbon-addicted Earth speaks up: “Doctor,” he says, pointing to the man, “I think this fellow is on drugs.”
This seemingly cynical portrayal of the IPCC report reflects the deep pessimism and hopelessness of the politicians faced with the task of tackling the environmental crisis that is staring us in the face. They recognise the problem and the gravity of the situation. They understand the scale of the challenge and the changes required also. And yet, despite near universal agreement on the need for action, they stand still – paralysed into inactivity because of their servitude to the needs of capitalism, the seemingly omnipotent economic system that they pray to and bow down before.
Whilst The Economist’s cartoon may, therefore, seem cynical, it in facts represents the harsh reality of the situation. The climate scientists, producing study after study and report after report, are – as the cartoon depicts – not the clear-minded ones, but are high from their own propaganda. These learned ladies and gentlemen are, in fact, the most numb to the truth; a truth that is far more soberly expressed by the cold commentary of the bourgeois mouthpieces: to expect any solution to the problem of climate change under capitalism is the greatest delusion of them all.
It is increasingly clear that the task of abating climate change is not a scientific or technical question, but an economic and political one. The problem is systematic and intrinsic – it flows from the laws and logic of capitalism itself. But one cannot cure cancer with an aspirin. Only a revolution will suffice.
The process of climate change
The IPPC assessment report is in fact a trilogy of documents. The first part, released in September 2013, looked at the physical science behind climate change. The evidence was conclusive: according to IPCC scientists, climate change is definitely happening. Although there has been a recent flatlining in the world’s surface temperatures, scientists are adamant that this is merely a small blip in an otherwise accelerating process of atmospheric and oceanic warming.
Furthermore, there is increasing certainty amongst the academic community that the causes of climate change are anthropogenic – i.e. that the dominant influence on global warming is due to human activity, primarily in terms of the production and release of greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, as a result of energy generation, industry, deforestation, farming, and other factors.
The potential impacts are grave: large-scale and possibly irreversible changes in the planet’s physical systems, such as the oceans and ice-caps; an increasing frequency of extreme weather events, with more intense storms and heat-waves; rising sea levels (by up to half a metre) and the flooding of coastal cities, which have a projected population of 345 million by 2050; acidification of the oceans and the destruction of marine life; and the severe disruption of food supplies due to droughts, floods, and crop failures.
Promises previously made by governments in 2010 aim to keep global warming – measured by the rise in mean surface temperatures compared to pre-industrial levels – below 2°C. But this target is increasingly becoming a pipe dream. Half of the carbon dioxide that can be emitted in order to keep below to the 2°C target is already in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the generation of new emissions is accelerating, not slowing: between 2000 and 2010, global greenhouse gas emissions grew at a rate of 2.2% per year – almost twice as fast as in the previous 30 years – and the “carbon intensity” (the amount of CO2 produced per unit of energy consumed) has actually increased.
According to the IPCC report, therefore, it is estimated that we will likely reach a 2°C temperature rise by 2030, with a possible increase of between 3.7-4.8°C by the end of the century. In order to keep below a 2°C rise, greenhouse gas emissions would need to be cut by between 30-60% by 2050 and by 100% by 2100 – i.e. to cease adding any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And yet, current projections indicate that – in the absence of any change from “business as usual” – we will likely see an increase in emissions by 2030 of 10%.
If one is looking for causes for optimism, they will certainly not be found in this latest IPCC report.
Fiddling whilst Rome burns
This is the scale of the problem – a problem that, with the exception of a handful of oil-company-funded sceptics and deniers, is acknowledged by the scientific community and by politicians alike. But as the Financial Times (20th April 2014) gloomily comments in an article – entitled “Time to change the political climate” – imploring the global political class for more action:
The past five years have been a bad time for those fighting against climate change. Since the chaotic failure of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, political leaders have been focused on other issues while the world pumps carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate.
In other words, whilst Rome burns, the emperor has been found fiddling.
There is, according to the IPCC, still some hope, as the Financial Times notes in another article (13th April 2014), this time optimistically entitled “Still time to save the world”:
Disastrous effects of global warming can still be avoided, the world’s leading climate scientists say, but only by making a concerted international effort to cut carbon emissions through heavy investment in renewable and nuclear energy sources.
But why, after years of inaction, are we to expect anything different from our political leaders this time? As mentioned in the above extract from the FT, the previous international climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 was a spectacular failure, notable mainly for its distinct lack of any tangible agreement or outcome. The next big event is scheduled to take place in Paris in 2015. But now in 2014, five years on from Copenhagen and with one year to until the Paris summit, what can one really hope for? The world’s population, like the villagers in the famous fable of the boy who cried wolf, have rightly grown sceptical about the claims that emanate from the mouths of the political class – claims that are about as noxiously abundant as the gases spewing from the most polluting of vehicles and industries.
Conference after conference is called. Report after report is released. Politicians plan on making a plan. Yet, like a magician who tries to distract his audience with sleight of hand, despite all this movement and motion, nothing changes. And unlike the magician, the politicians have no ace up their sleeve; no rabbit to pull out of the hat. Instead, they are increasingly shown to be more like the Wizard of Oz – ordinary men and women, devoid of any real power, reliant simply on smoke and mirrors to project an image of might.
The costs of climate change
Let us imagine, for a moment, that international co-operation was somehow possible. What then would be the challenges for our now amiable leaders? What would be the costs of mitigation – of averting disaster?
All of the scientists agree that the longer we try to sweep the question of climate change under the carpet, the greater the costs of cleaning up the mess will be. But even with immediate action, the estimated costs of reducing emissions and averting the worst effects of climate change are beyond that which the capitalists – or the governments which represent them – are willing to spend.
For example, the IPCC estimates that an additional $147 billion will need to be invested every year between now and 2030 in renewable and non-fossil-fuel sources of electricity, such as solar, wind, and nuclear. In addition, the IPCC suggests further investment of $336bn per year in order to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, transport, and industry and thus reduce overall energy demands. And on top of this, the IPCC indicates that significant investment into the extremely costly and as yet unproven technology of “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) will likely be needed on a large scale to suck CO2 out of the air and hide it underground.
To put this all in context, the total global annual investment in all energy supply infrastructure is $1,200bn today. The extra spending required on renewables alone, therefore, means an increase of more than 10% in energy investment. This at a time when there is already talk of the lights going out in Britain and elsewhere due to a lack of investment in energy supply systems by the fat cat energy monopolies over the past period.
Furthermore, it should be noted that politicians are being asked to find the money for hundreds of billions in additional spending every year at a time when they can barely muster together the (supposedly one-off, strings attached) loan of $15bn required to stop the Ukrainian economy spiralling out of control.
It may well be cheaper to cut emissions now rather than later, but co-ordinated international action under capitalism is impossible, particularly so at a time of economic crisis. With no concerted effort up until now, why should we think there will suddenly be any co-ordinated action today?
When there are potential profits to be made – for example, through so-called free trade deals – capitalist nations may be willing to work together and share the loot. But when it is a case of the bill being presented for the costs of capitalism, suddenly nobody wants to pay and the capitalists are nowhere to be seen. At such points, it is ordinary men and women – the poorest in society – who are left holding the cheque.
The politicians all agree that we need to act, but none of them is willing to do so. No government is willing to ask big business to pay and risk damaging the profits of their nation’s capitalists. Rather than international co-operation, we instead see international competition, with each nation trying to pass environmental costs on elsewhere. Instead of allowing for global co-ordination and planning, environmental policies are instead used by governments, such as the USA, as protectionist measures to keep out low cost goods from China and elsewhere. Green policies, supposedly introduced to tackle climate change, are frequently, therefore, no more than another convenient weapon in the arsenal of the imperialist nations to protect profits back home.
All evidence up until now, meanwhile, shows the impossibility of finding a solution to the question of mitigation under capitalism. Attempts to commodify carbon and make a market out of it have thus far failed abysmally. The slow death of the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), the largest carbon market in the world, testifies to the inability of the invisible hand to solve the question of climate change: founded in 2005, the price of EU ETS carbon credits has collapsed after an initial oversupply – due to the pressure put on governments by big business not to place too low a limit on the supply of credits – and the subsequent collapse in demand following the onset of economic crisis in Europe.
The problem the political leaders face regarding mitigation is simple: you cannot control what you don’t own. The money needed to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency is there; the material, human, and monetary resources to avert climate change exist many times over. The problem is not a scientific or a technological one, but rather a question of ownership – a political question of “who pays?”
There is an enormous wealth sitting idly and wastefully in the bank accounts of big business worldwide: $2trn dollars in the USA; an estimated €2trn in Europe; and over £700bn in the UK. Such resources could be spent tomorrow on the technologies needed to mitigate against climate change. But such wealth is privately owned, held by a tight grip in the hands of a tiny elite, and is therefore beyond the touch of governments. No amount of moralising or scaremongering will persuade the capitalists to part with such wealth, for they are an instrumental part of an anarchic system that can see no further than the end of its own nose, and which, in the final analysis, is driven by no considerations other than the competition for markets and profits.
Urgency and alarm
Some within the IPCC and the scientific community hope that the latest report, with its dire warnings of the devastating impacts of climate change, will be enough to provide the required sense of urgency and shock an “apathetic” class of political leaders into action. But whilst the severity of the environmental crisis may be greater today than it was at the time of the last report, the severity of the economic crisis facing the political decision makers is even worse! The situation hasn’t exactly improved in favour of the disaster-averting optimists!
The inactivity of such leaders is not due to their apathy, but due to their inability to do anything whilst kept within the confines of capitalism. It is not an ignorance of the problem, a lack of desire, or an underestimation of the consequences that leads to a lack of action, but the anarchy of the market and the inherent irrationality of capitalism itself, which acts like a straightjacket on the political leaders of the world. The invisible hand holds them by the throat and puts a gun to their head, paralysing them with fear.
To get through the thick skulls of the pro-capitalist global political leaders, the IPCC tries to talk to them in one languages they understand more clearly – that of money. The latest report, therefore, tries to present the question of taking immediate action in terms of a cost-benefit analysis: the costs of averting drastic climate change compared to the costs of adapting to it.
In this respect, the numbers seem to speak for themselves. The IPCC estimates suggest that the overall economic impact of mitigation would be an annual reduction in global GDP growth of 0.06% until 2100, leaving a total global reduction in economic output of only around 3.4% compared to “business as usual”. By comparison, the costs of adapting to climate change are estimated by some to be in the region of 0.2-2% of GDP per year; other estimates suggest much higher, with costs of $70-100bn per year for developing countries alone. In either case, it would seem to be an open-and-shut case. Surely any sane politician or economist would invest now to avoid a more costly bill later?
Others within the IPCC, however, have caused a stir by declaring the latest report to be “alarmist”. In particular is the case of Professor Richard Tol of the University of Sussex, who had been a leading figure in writing the chapter on the economic impacts of climate change, but who later asked for his name to be taken off the report, claiming that the IPCC document was merely “repeating prophecies of doom.” Those remaining on the IPCC have criticised Professor Tol’s comments, defending the report’s tone and presentation, and accusing Tol of underplaying the risks of climate change.
Whilst we do not know the motivations or complete thought processes behind Professor Tol’s criticisms of the latest IPCC report, it can be said that he does raise some important and valid points. For example, in writing for the Financial Times (31st March 2014), Tol pointed out that the total loss of global economic output due to climate change – with an annual drop in GDP of between 0.2-2% - would be mean that, “half a century of climate change is about as bad as losing one year of economic growth.”
In comparison, Tol notes that, “Since the start of the crisis in the eurozone, the income of the average Greek has fallen more than 20 per cent. Climate change is not, then, the biggest problem facing humankind.”
Figures elsewhere indicate the same thing: in Britain, it is estimated that the total loss of output due to the economic crisis is approaching 500% of GDP. In other words, the crisis of capitalism will mean that the UK has lost the equivalent of five years’ worth of economic output – a far greater damage than that predicted by climate change. The equivalent figures for Greece and Spain, where the crisis was – and is – significantly deeper, are likely to be even worse.
These comparative figures serve to illustrate that scientists and policy advisors can try to talk to politicians in the language of money, but that does not mean that these politicians will – or can – listen. Why should we think that any of these big-business-supporting leaders will care about the costs of climate change, whilst they happily preside over the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism – a crisis that is causing greater misery than even the most pessimistic predictions make regarding climate change?
How can we expect these ladies and gentlemen to be persuaded by figures about the impacts of environmental crises, when these very same men and women are responsible for the most brutal assault on living standards the world has seen in decades in the form of the austerity programmes being implemented across Europe, the UK, and the USA?
The environmental and economic interconnectivity
Professor Tol elaborates further, however, in noting that the future impacts of climate change are not exceptional in their extremity. Millions today already suffer from the very same impacts of flooding, drought, famine, and disease that the IPPC predict in future scenarios of global warming. Although not critical of the capitalist system, Tol notes that the impacts of climate change will fall hardest on the poorest, not simply because they live in hotter, more flood prone areas, but precisely because they are poor. The Sussex University professor explains:
“To protect London against the rising sea, the Thames Barrier will need to be replaced. This is expensive but it will be done. Bangladesh is also vulnerable to a rise in the sea level; it has a hard time coping even with current floods. However, it is about as poor as another low-lying, densely populated country was a century and a half ago when it started its first big flood-safety programme – the Netherlands. It did so because it had a strong government capable of decisive action. As long as that is lacking in Bangladesh, the country will be vulnerable to climate change. But its core problem is political.
“Malaria is another example. It was once endemic in Europe and North America. But clouds of pesticide killed the mosquitoes, and draining of inland wetlands reduced their habitat. Today malaria is confined to poor countries. Climate change will make the disease worse. Economic growth will make it go away.
“In the worst case, climate change could cut crop yields in Africa in half. Yet yields would increase tenfold – in the same climate, on the same soil – if subsistence farmers started using crops and techniques pioneered on experimental farms. Climate change may be a big issue in Africa. But it is not nearly as important as lack of tenure, poor roads, roving warlords and so on.” (our emphasis)
Whilst Professor Tol does not blame capitalism for the problem of poverty, nor for the problem of climate change, he does highlight an important and relevant point: that one cannot divorce the question of the environment from that of the wider political, economic and social conditions and forces at play in the world. Climate change is a severe problem facing us and our planet and its effects on the lives of the world’s poorest will clearly be extreme; but the problem of climate change is one that results from the anarchic and contradictory nature of capitalism and its competitive drive for profits, and the dire impacts of climate change are exacerbated by this same irrationality of our current economic system.
The problem, therefore, is not simply one of climate change, but of a global economic system and set of social relations that already consigns billions – even in times of “boom” – into a daily life of poverty and starvation, not because there is too little, but because there is too much, as Marx and Engels comment in the Communist Manifesto:
In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.
The normality under capitalism is for a situation whereby millions already die of hunger and preventable disease go hungry, not because there isn’t enough food or medicine, but because there isn’t enough money in the pockets of those affected. Capitalism does not care about social needs, but only about private profits. The money in your wallet, not the materials needs of food, clothing and shelter, is the only the demand that capitalism knows of.
How often do we hear about the millions who died of hunger under the so-called Communist regimes of Stalin or Mao? Such crimes, as we are frequently reminded, are the “inevitable” result of socialist “ideology”. And yet how often do these same critics gloss over the millions more who die every year under capitalism for equally “ideological” reasons – because of the ideology of capitalism and the insistence on profit above all else.
In reality, neither the deaths in the past under Stalinism nor those today under capitalism are simply because of “ideology”. The nature and development of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and Maoist China were not due merely to the individual personalities of Stalin or Mao, but for the same material reasons: because of the attempts to build socialism in an economically undeveloped and isolated country. Similarly, the horrors of capitalism today are not merely the result of ideology, i.e. not simply because of the greed of the bankers and bosses, but because of the internal laws and logic of capitalism itself, which demands profits at all costs in a race to the bottom.
There is, therefore, no such thing as a purely “natural” disaster. Extreme weather events, floods, and droughts of course will lead to many deaths, as will the future impacts of climate change. But far fewer would die from such accidental events, and from the daily scourge of hunger and disease, if only our economic system was one based around fulfilling society’s needs, rather than lining the pockets of the rich.
The irrationality of capitalism
The IPCC scientists, and many others beside, are good people who clearly feel passionately about the dangers of climate change. But in hoping that they can simply persuade political leaders through the presentation of empirical evidence and through “rational debate” is naive in the extreme, and merely sows illusions in how to tackle the imminent threat posed by the environmental crises we face.
The point must be emphasised: solving the problem of climate change is not a technological or scientific question. As Marx remarked in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”
Today the material conditions to solve the problem of climate change – and of hunger, homelessness, and disease – exist many times over. We have the technologies needed to drastically reduce our emissions and our energy demands. The issue is that to deploy the technologies on the scale and with the integration required would mean taking the major monopolies out of private hands and putting them under a democratic plan of production. The problem, therefore, is not technical, but political; not a problem of nature, but of economic ownership and distribution. In short, a revolutionary transformation of society is necessary.
Climate scientists consistently call for a “rational debate” on the subject of climate change. But the terms of the debate are dictated by the interests of those involved, and it can be clearly seen that those who currently hold the real power in society support a system that is entirely irrational in every way. It is this – the adherence to a senile social and economic system, not the ignorance or stubbornness of those involved – that prevents a rational debate.
We, as Marxists, are for the a socialist plan of production – for a plan involving the democratic and public ownership of the banks, infrastructure, and industry – to solve the environmental issues facing humanity and our planet. Such a plan, enacted on an international scale, could quickly and dramatically reduce emissions and the human impact on the environment by taking over the vast wealth sitting idly currently in society and using this to invest in a massive integrated programme of improving the energy efficiency of building, transport, and industry, whilst pouring scientific and industrial resources into the construction and future development of renewable energies. Hunger and disease could be virtually eliminated overnight, whilst defences could be quickly built to protect against flooding and other extreme weather events. And with control over our own lives finally obtained, the creative energies in society would be unleashed to develop new techniques and technologies in the fields of food, medicine, and energy.
Under capitalism, in the case of both environmental and economic crises, it is always the poorest who pay. The rich, meanwhile, will live happily and obliviously on beaches and in air conditioned mansions and shopping malls. In other words, in the final analysis, the capitalists cannot be persuaded by morally persuasive arguments or by facts and figures when it comes to the damage their system inflicts upon our planet, for these wealthy ladies and gentlemen already live on another planet altogether, far removed from the conditions experienced by the vast majority in society.
Only with the socialist transformation of society, in Britain and internationally, can we put an end to the misery of capitalism and the barbarism that the future holds under this decrepit economic system. Only by placing the means of production and the wealth in society under the democratic and public control of society can we expect to solve the problem of climate change and begin to build a society in which people and the planet exist in harmony. This revolutionary idea is the only rational option.