After the Hague "Summit": Global Warming - The deadly threat of capitalist anarchy

The collapse of the talks at the Hague has brought the issue of global warming back into the headlines. Mick Brooks looks at the reasons for the collapse of the talks, the failures of the Kyoto agreement, the responsibility of capitalism in the destruction of the environment and the need for a socialist alternative.

The collapse of the talks at the Hague has brought the issue of global warming back into the headlines. And not before time. Even if John Prescott can't get his "pretty little head" round the detail, the reason the talks collapsed was because the American delegation had no intention of carrying out the promises they had made to curb noxious emissions at Kyoto in 1997. It is easy to blame the Yanks for global warming; easy because, though only a fortieth of the world's population, the USA is responsible for a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions. Easy - but wrong. 56% of Americans are prepared, if offered the choice, to pay more tax to protect the environment. 52% believe the environment is more important than economic growth. And 55% want the USA to sign up to an international deal.

So how come the clearly expressed wish of American voters doesn't get a look in on political decision-making? It's because, whatever the US Constitution says, the people is not sovereign. Big business is sovereign. They take the decisions. The political process in the States is dominated by business lobbies. The most important of these covers road building, the auto industry, road haulage and Big Oil.

When this article was being written, it was still not clear who would be the next President of the United States. But never mind. In reality the fossil fuel lobby will be President. That's easy to see in the case of George W Bush. There are even "Bush stocks" - shares in the dirty industries such as petroleum extraction and motor manufacturing - that go up every time his chance of getting the big job rises. Bush is a sort of American Nigel Thatcher - a man with no visible means of support who used his father's presidency to make connections and emerge a multimillionaire. The Republicans have traditionally been in the pay of the oil companies. George Bush Senior used his influence to write to the government of Kuwait on behalf of Chevron and make them an offer they couldn't refuse. Chevron repaid the favour with a $657,000 contribution to the Republican Party's funds. George W's victory was certainly bad news for caribou and Arctic foxes - he's committed to handing over the national park in Alaska (one of the world's last great wildernesses) to his pals for drilling. Who really backed Bush? It was not the voters but an unstoppable wall of money - nearly $0.5 billion in business donations. Like Chevron with dad, they regard the money as an investment, not a donation.

Would Gore have been any different? The Clinton-Gore administration has shown a slavish subordination to the interests of the fossil fuel lobby, and been prepared to wave two fingers at international agreements they've signed up to in their interests. And Gore also wants a piece. His family has a $0.5 million tucked away in one of the big oil company's shares. Mainstream politicians in the USA are in the pockets of the big corporations that are poisoning the planet.

Funny weather we've been having lately - in Britain the wettest autumn for 300 years. Obviously we can't all go waving our arms around saying the world's going to come to an end because it's been raining a lot. But wetter and stormier autumns in Britain could be a consequence of global warming. More significantly, accurate records have only been kept since 1860. Guess what? The six hottest years ever were in the 1990s, and the four other hottest years were in the 1980s.

The scientific consensus is that the earth is getting warmer. There are opposing views, but after all a lot of scientists are paid by the firms that make money from burning fossil fuels. They buy scientists just like they buy presidents. The opposition to controls tends to fall back on a second line of defence. That is that the earth goes through cycles of warming and cooling anyway. But most scientists believe that human activity is making a difference.

So what is global warming anyway? It just means the world's getting hotter. Why? The reason is emissions, of which the most important is carbon dioxide. This acts like greenhouse glass in letting heat in and stopping it from just evaporating. This occurs anyway through the rotting of vegetable matter, for instance. Without it life on earth could not exist. But the balance is an extremely delicate one. And it's already being upset. The fertile area of the Nile valley is shrinking every year as the land dries up.

What difference does warming make? Some say the globe could be one degrees Celsius hotter by the end of next century. The high estimates are six degrees Celsius in a hundred years' time. Neither sounds a big deal. What effects will temperature change have? The first consequence - and again it's already happening - is to melt part of the polar ice pack. This in turn will raise sea level - some say by 60cm. That doesn't sound much but it's enough to put most of Holland and Bangladesh under water. This is a shame since about 130 million people live in Bangladesh. In addition coastal cities on the eastern seaboard of America and all over Europe will be engulfed. Secondly it will cause ecological havoc as species migrate to more environmentally friendly zones. It should be emphasised that a temperature change of an average six degrees in a century is unprecedented in our knowledge of the world's history. As the reader will realise, some life forms such as trees don't have the quickest footwork. Yet they may be faced with the need to move over a thousand miles in 100 years. Usually they can only move as fast as the wind blows their seeds. They can take decades to take root and grow. Yet they are habitat to colonies of insects, butterflies, birds and the like that are completely dependent on them.

Water temperature changes could further accelerate the destruction of fish stocks. Coral reefs, for instance, are tremendously sensitive to small changes in temperature changes. The Maldives reef was "bleached" (destroyed as a habitat for marine life) by a few days' freak conditions. And coral, though covering only about 5% of the sea bottom, is home to a fifth of the world's fish.

Global warming will produce desert conditions in desperately poor countries such as Nigeria, as tropical forest dies out and rain just runs off the parched earth. Desertification will cause crop yields to fall. And we can expect more cyclones and freak weather conditions and - rainy autumns in Britain.

What did the nations sign up to in Kyoto in 1997? They agreed to hold carbon emissions 5% below the 1990 level. The Hague summit was about how to achieve that agreed goal. Most serious commentators agree that a slight cut will not do anything about global warming. They say a 60-80% reduction is required - a dramatic change in our whole way of life.

But what has happened since Kyoto? US emissions have gone up by 1.3% a year. The American authorities argued at the Hague that this was because their economy was growing so strongly. And US growth was powering the whole world economy ahead. Is there really a trade-off between growth and the environment? That is the way the issue is posed by bourgeois economics. That is the form in which the questionnaire was posed to American citizens, as we quoted in our opening paragraph. If so, socialists have a problem. We are surely in favour of the fastest possible growth at least in the less developed countries to raise billions of the world's citizens out of poverty. The scare-mongers and some Greens then try to frighten us with the spectre of China having American levels of car ownership and carbon emissions.

These are false choices. Growth is not necessarily dirty. The American economy has gone ahead on the basis of a boom in information technology, as we have pointed out many times in our material. The output of traditional smokestack industries has declined as more and more conventional manufactures are imported. The IT sector uses silicon as a basic input - a commodity that is relatively abundant.

So why is pollution increasing all the time in the United States? It's because of the lobbying power of the fossil fuel industries. Petrol prices are low, so people drive gas guzzlers that do 13 miles per gallon. Electricity generation is cheap. So houses are built without adequate insulation. While the inhabitants stroll around in T-shirts, heat just pours out through the roof. Let nobody tell you capitalism is an efficient system. The decisive sectors of US capitalism actually have a vested interest in America not running in a fuel-efficient way. In fact the more that is wasted, the more money they make. Oil, which formed in a geological time of about 300 million years, is being shipped out and burned like there's no tomorrow. What will happen to future generations? Who cares about them goes the old joke the Economist is fond of quoting? What have they ever done for us?

Growth is not the problem. Capitalism is the problem. Why? Capitalists take decisions which are the only possible ones for them in order to maximise their profits short term. The wider long-term interest simply does not exist for them. Let's say they produce widgets. In producing widgets they also produce smoke. They get paid for the widgets because they're useful to someone. Smoke is no use to anyone. They don't have to pay for the costs of the smoke. But someone has to pay. We pay. Everyone pays. Capitalism is an unplanned system. That means that nobody looks at the environment and what we're doing to it. Nobody knows how fast we're using up resources, and whether there are alternatives.

Here's an early "green" critic of capitalism - Frederick Engels - "…the animal merely uses is environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serves its 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 place 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 dreaming that by removing along with the forests, the collecting centres and reservoirs and 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 so doing 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 flash, blood and brain belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery over 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." (Engels, The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man)

What are we to make of the argument that we can leave future generations to sort out our mess? Though the word "sustainability" (leaving the planet as you found it) is of recent coinage, the core concept is to be found in the founding classics of Marxism.

"From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all the simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias (good heads of the household)." (Marx, Capital, vol. 3)

Aren't there market solutions to the problem of global warming? Bourgeois economists assure us that their system can't bring the world to the brink of destruction. There must be market forces dragging us back towards "equilibrium". Actually, no. The Hague summit was intended to firm up ways to achieve the targets laid down at Kyoto. The main mechanism to achieve that goal is emissions trading, a form of market mechanism. And, as the Financial Times tells us, it's all a gigantic fudge. As we have explained, the American delegation came to the Hague to do the bidding of the fossil fuel lobby. They began by arguing that the major cause of carbon dioxide emissions was irritable bowel syndrome among the world's cattle population! They actually suggested to the other nations that the solution was to run round with Milk of Magnesia or the like dosing up the cows. Not surprisingly, the other delegations thought they were having a laugh.

How does emissions trading work, and does it? Since the Kyoto benchmark date of 1990, Britain has done quite well in curbing carbon dioxide emissions. The reason is nothing to do with an environmentally friendly government policy. It is because the Tories took a political decision (and one that cost us all plenty) to close down most of the remaining pits in the early 1990s. As a result we no longer burn coal to generate electricity. Likewise the Germans have reduced their carbon waste. Again this is not conscious policy. On the contrary , it is a result of policy mistake. As a result of the way German reunification was organised, East German industry was destroyed. The smokestacks burned a toxic local brown coal, the only fuel available to the Stalinist leadership. So carbon dioxide emissions are down in Germany too. Good news? Not really. Because the European Union as a whole gets allocated an "acceptable" quota level of carbon dioxide emissions under the Kyoto accord, Britain and Germany can let Greece, Portugal and Ireland pump out more carbon dioxide. Of course there is no acceptable price for emissions. There is no price we can put on the survival of human life on earth. But that was the American delegation's argument. Because Stalinist industry in Russia and Eastern Europe has been devastated, why can't they swap some of their "entitlements" with the USA? Market solutions are no solution, because market forces are the problem.

But traditionally there has been a power able to stand up to the excesses of unfettered capitalism in the interests of the system as a whole. That power is the state. Why don't we just make rules stopping excess pollution? The first problem is that global warming is a problem for all of us, and we don't have a world government. And the USA, the main rogue state, is the world's only superpower. Secondly the American government, as we have explained, has been captured by the fossil fuel lobby.

The American delegation at the Hague came up with ridiculous proposals designed to make a farce of the whole summit. They claim that building nuclear power stations in China and India should win them brownie points for clean technology. Tell that to the people of Chernobyl! They argue that preserving forests should be awarded points, since they act as "sinks" soaking up carbon dioxide emissions. The operation of forests in the global warming process is not well understood by science. The general opinion is that the sink idea is another scam from the American delegation. The main point remains. Carbon dioxide emissions need to be cut as soon as possible.

A final capitalist solution is the "polluter pays" principle, accepted in words by even the Thatcher administration. The only trouble is it isn't true. The idea is that if someone is making a mess you charge them for the cost by imposing a tax. Because of international competition, some burning of carbon, in the form of aviation fuel, is tax free. But even when national governments have the power to levy taxes, that doesn't mean the polluters pick up the bill. The petrol protests in Britain and other countries showed that consumers are squeezed and consumers pay when tax on petrol goes up. Big Oil passes on tax increases as price rises while their profits stay the same.

The fact is that carbon dioxide emissions are out of our control. Why should that be a surprise when the operation of the economy as a whole is out of our control? It's possible that all this stuff about global warming is exaggerated, though the odds are that it's right. The point is that we just don't know and that's scary enough. People are right to be worried, because the capitalists who take the important decisions are squandering our inheritance. Isn't it incredible that we don't know what the oil reserves left in the world are? It may seem to future generations that capitalism had a big party and wasted resources that had taken hundreds of millions of years to form in a couple of centuries. When capitalist commentators talk about known oil, gas or coal reserves for instance, they mean reserves at a price. If the price of oil doubles, we suddenly have more reserves - because it's suddenly worth drilling in more difficult places. An oil price rise causes geologists to scour the globe in search of new fields. This is the madness of capitalism. Surely one of the first things a world socialist government will do is to carry out an environmental stock-take - working out exactly what resources are available to us, how fast we are using them up, and what alternatives exist.

It is another myth built into the basic premises of bourgeois economics that growth entails using up resources, so we have to choose how fast we can go. First we have no choice under capitalism how fast growth may be. Secondly there are plenty of "free lunches" out there, resources that renew themselves automatically. For instance half of Denmark's electricity will be generated by turbines stationed in the North Sea by 2010. Once installed, this provides the possibility for free electricity forever in principle. There are other projects, some far from reality at present. Everyone agrees that nuclear fusion (as opposed to the nuclear fission used at present) is safe and could provide for most of our energy needs in the future. Fusion after all is the principle whereby the sun has kept the earth warm and made life possible here for billions of years. But not much work in making it practicable. And why not? Because that would threaten the livelihood of all those capitalist corporations that make a living out of despoiling fossil fuels. Fossil fuel burning should be phased out entirely over a period of decades. Obviously millions of people's livelihoods are bound up with making cars or with using electricity generated from burning coal, oil or gas. A vast plan needs to be drawn up to explore the alternatives for production and jobs. But there is plenty to be done in the shorter term. The technology already exists to make coal-burning power stations swallow their own smoke. The problem is cost, not technical viability. In the same way about a third of Britain's carbon is burned in road transport. Yet traffic on the roads has gone up by a third over the past few months. And why? Because of the virtual collapse of the railway network since privatisation. Of course people have no choice but to get their cars out. Give them a decent public transport system and we can drastically cut road traffic and carbon pollution. We could also redirect freight on to a renationalised railway system.

Global warming is a problem that needs a global solution. That solution is world socialism. Achieving a planned society in harmony with external nature we depend upon requires a steady unremitting struggle against the capitalist polluters who threaten to make the planet uninhabitable.