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|Proletarian issue 5 (April 2005)
|Save humanity: the ticking time bomb of climate change
|If global warming continues unchecked, it will have disastrous effects for humanity, yet even faced with their own destruction, the imperialists are incapable of doing anything to prevent this catastrophe.
|What is global warming?
Put simply, global warming means that the temperature of the earth's atmosphere is increasing, leading to a change in established weather patterns across the planet. This in turn will lead to a change in the natural environment - the kind of plants and animals that can survive and where.
Climate change itself is not a new phenomenon. James Lovelock, a British scientist viewed by many as the father of the green movement, was the first to put forward the theory of the earth as a giant superorganism - a single living entity with integrated and self-regulating climate and chemical/biological systems. He called this organism Gaia.
As our universe has aged the sun has grown hotter, and is now 25 percent warmer than it was at its formation billions of years ago, yet the earth has managed to maintain conditions suitable for life to thrive. According to the theory of Gaia, this heating has made it increasingly difficult for the planet to keep itself cool, so that in the last 2.5m years, the earth has flipped between ice ages and warmer 'interglacial' periods, like the one we're living in today.
In terms of the earth's history, these changes are frequent and dramatic, but seen from the point of view of people, plants and animals, the shifts have happened quite slowly, so that wildlife has been able to gradually adapt to new conditions and migrate with the changing weather patterns. Of course, many species of plant and animal simply died out as their habitats disappeared.
At least once in the last few million years, southern England has looked like the Serengeti in East Africa, populated by lions, hippos and cheetahs, while at other times the whole of Britain has been an arctic wilderness. During the last major glacial period, the great ice sheet that covered Scandinavia and much of northern Europe stretched down to where north London now stands, while woolly mammoths roamed over the frozen North Sea. The Mediterranean has dried out as many as 10 times, periodically becoming a vast and uninhabitable desert bowl.
What causes climate change?
Historically, the main factors leading to climate change have been the shape of earth's orbit, which over time takes it nearer to or farther from the sun, combined with the way the earth tilts on its axis as it orbits, known as the 'wobble' of the earth.
Life on earth is made possible by energy from the sun's rays. About 30 percent of sunlight is scattered back into space by the outer atmosphere, but the rest reaches the earth's surface, which reflects it in the form of infrared radiation. Infrared rises slowly through the atmosphere and its eventual escape into space is delayed by greenhouse gasses such as water, carbon dioxide and methane, which act like a blanket around the earth, or like the glass roof of a greenhouse, keeping the planet around 30 degrees hotter than it otherwise would be.
In the last 150 years, however, a new factor has been added to this mix. The development of capitalism, first in Britain and then in western Europe and north America, led to the industrial revolution. As colonialism conquered new markets and new sources of raw materials, the increased demand for commodities created the basis for an unprecedented expansion of the productive forces. Individual labourers with their hand-held tools were replaced by machines in factories, making goods far more cheaply and efficiently and on an unimaginably larger scale. Of course, an immense amount of energy was required to fuel this huge increase in production.
In normal times, greenhouse gasses make up only about 1 percent of the atmosphere, but burning of fossil fuels for energy - coal, oil and natural gas - has sent ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. On top of this, methane and nitrous oxide produced by industrial farming and several long-lived industrial gasses that do not occur naturally are also being sent into the atmosphere. All this is happening at an unprecedented rate, leading to a thickening of the blanket, which in turn is leading to an increase in the earth's temperature. This is known as 'the greenhouse effect'.
Normally, CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by the action of plants, which absorb carbon and put oxygen back into the air. Oil, coal and gas reserves contain great concentrations of the world's carbon, since they were formed over millions of years from decomposed and compressed vegetation. The scale and speed at which this carbon is being unlocked by modern industry is creating carbon emissions that are simply too much for the world's forests to compensate for. Added to this, even more of the world's carbon is being unlocked through deforestation on a massive scale, further upsetting the planet's carbon cycle.
Carbon dioxide is responsible for over 60 percent of the 'enhanced greenhouse effect'. Analysis of ice cores in Antarctica reveals that for the last 400,000 years the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been stable, but with the onset of industrialisation, the levels have been increasing exponentially. On a graph depicting this increase, the line for the last 150 years is almost vertical. Atmospheric levels of carbon are currently rising by more than 10 percent every 20 years and this pace is accelerating.
"By the end of this century, carbon levels will have tripled again, forcing changes in the earth's climate that we will be powerless to stop ... The industrial revolution transformed our lives, and now it turns out that it was transforming the planet as well." (Marcel Theroux in The End of the World As We Know It, C4, 8 January 2005)
What effect does global warming have?
Climate change doesn't just mean that the world gets a bit warmer. Even a small increase in temperature changes the way the world's weather system works, affecting such things as cloud cover, rainfall, wind patterns and the duration of seasons. For those living in cities, it is easy to forget the significance of weather and the seasons, but the production of all our food depends on rain and sun in the right proportions in the right locations and at the usual times of year.
Increasing temperatures mean an increase in the scale and number of extreme weather events - wider swings in what is considered 'normal' weather are already becoming pronounced and will continue.
Global warming can create a vicious cycle, whereby warming causes more warming. As the climate gets warmer, more groundwater evaporates into the air. Warm air can hold more water, which leads to heavier, stormier rains of the type that cause flooding and wash topsoil away. Dry regions are likely to lose still more moisture if the weather is hot, leading to an increase in droughts and desertification. Rainforests in particular are very difficult to replace, since in many cases the trees create their own rain rather than harnessing rain that is passing, and so when the trees are chopped down, they are soon replaced by desert.
The hole in the ozone is also exacerbated by global warming. This is because the blanket of CO2 is keeping heat inside the atmosphere that would otherwise have escaped into space via the stratosphere. This means that the stratosphere (the outer edge of the earth's atmosphere) is colder, causing ozone molecules to degrade faster.
The ozone layer protects life on earth from the harmful UV-B rays of the sun and the hole in the ozone (caused by use of CFCs on an industrial scale) affects the photosynthesis of plants and leads to the destruction of micro-organisms such as plankton, which in turn has dramatic consequences higher up the food chain.
Global warming is melting the ice packs in Alaska and Antarctica. These great sheets hold locked within them a just 1.7 percent of the earth's water (68.7 percent of all freshwater), but if all the glaciers on earth were to melt, the sea levels would rise by 70m! To put that into perspective, increased flooding and coastal erosion is already occurring in vulnerable spots around the world as a result of a sea level rise in the last century of between 10-20cm. The ice packs also affect the ocean currents and the earth's weather systems. Paradoxically, while much of the world gets hotter, the melting of the ice packs could lead to the climate in Britain becoming much colder if the warm Gulf Stream that gives us our mild and damp climate was diverted by oceanic changes.
Even small rises in the earth's temperature can have a significant effect. Since 1800, the average temperature of the earth's surface has risen by only 0.6 degrees C, yet already significant changes have taken place. By the year 2100 the earth's temperature could rise by a further 6 degrees C if emissions carry on increasing as they have done. Such a substantial rise could be catastrophic for humanity.
Some immediately obvious consequences of global warming for the world's people are:
- Extreme weather and erosion of topsoil by heavy rains is likely to lead to unstable or unsuitable crop-growing conditions in many places, seriously disrupting the world's food supplies.
- The poor and Indigenous people of the world, whose livelihoods are already precarious, will be disproportionately affected by crop failures and changes in the local habitat.
- Rising sea levels will lead to the disappearance of some of the world's largest cities.
- Massive numbers of refugees may end up competing for a significantly smaller total area of land.
- Rising sea levels will also lead to contamination of fresh water supplies.
- With climate change happening so quickly and with relatively little scope for plant and animal migration, much wildlife will simply disappear - polar bears, seals and many varieties of plant in the arctic are among those already suffering from the longer, hotter summers and diminishing ice cover.
- The hole in the ozone means an increased danger of skin cancer and corneal damage from UV-B in the short term. In the long term, life itself cannot survive on earth without the ozone layer.
While the world's poorest and most vulnerable people will suffer first, we in Britain can by no means imagine that all this is 'someone else's problem'. Our fates are bound together through the system of imperialism, whereby the high standard of living in the imperialist countries depends on food, raw materials and industrial production that takes place in the oppressed countries.
It is clear that the old green slogan 'save the planet' is at odds with reality. The planet has survived all sorts of upheavals and catastrophes - from the warm ages of the dinosaurs to the great ice ages. It is human beings and human civilisation that need saving from global warming, unless we utilise all the science and technology at our collective disposal to change our behaviour before it is too late.
What can we do about all this?
A certain amount of climate change is already unavoidable. Carbon emissions pumped into the atmosphere by the imperialist countries over the last 150 years have initiated changes that now have their own momentum. "The changes that have already taken place will continue to affect the world's natural systems for hundreds of years even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and atmospheric levels stop rising." ('The greenhouse effect and the carbon cycle', www.unfccc.int)
The question in this case is of preparation and adaptation. We need to investigate and implement methods of farming that do not add to global warming, and we need to start to change which crops we plant where and find strategies for food production that can stand up to more extreme weather patterns.
We need to build sea defences and relocate populations that are at risk of losing their homes and fields to flooding by rising seas and rivers. Thirteen out of the world's 15 largest cities are situated on coastal plains and many others are beside major rivers. Hundreds of millions of people will be affected as sea levels rise, especially given the added frequency and intensity of storm surges.
The Thames flood barrier, for example, was built 20 years ago to cope with extraordinary flooding events in the estuary - usually a combination of spring tides and surges in the North Sea. In the first seven years after it was built, the barrier was closed five times, but during the single month of January 2003 it had to be lowered 18 times and scientists believe it won't be long before the barrier becomes inadequate to the task of keeping rising tides and storm surges out of the capital. Similarly, significant areas of England already have a greatly increased risk of flooding every year and many areas could disappear altogether if the sea level rises carry on as predicted.
The worst of the predicted changes, however, such as large-scale melting of the polar ice caps, can still be avoided, but only if we stop pumping out greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. If we are really serious about halting the juggernaught of climate change, we need to take mass action on a global scale.
We should be putting all our resources into developing and setting up alternative and renewable sources of energy that don't create carbon emissions, such as wind, solar, tide, hydroelectric, clean coal etc. In the immediate short term, we also need to take some painful decisions about the way we live. How much of our energy is really needed? How much is wasted? How could we economise? We need to find a better system of transportation for people than cars, which are individual, wasteful and extremely carbon intensive.
If we want to halt carbon emissions immediately, it is clear that the energy we could get from today's wind, wave, solar and hydro technology would not be enough to meet the current demand from households and industry for power. Clean coal and sequestration (taking the CO2 out of industrial chimneys before it reaches the atmosphere and disposing of it in depleted oil and gas chambers underground) are two alternatives that have been put forward and clean coal in particular may play a positive role in the future, but the technology has yet to be developed, never mind being put into practice on a large scale.
There is a significant environmental lobby that regards nuclear power as the only option currently available that could deliver power on a mass scale without adding to the global greenhouse. Of course, this option requires a move away from the traditional environmentalist tenet that everything to do with nuclear technology is inherently evil. The possibility of nuclear accidents is also extremely worrying, especially given the fact that under capitalism, those running power stations for profit are unlikely to be as careful as they should be over safety precautions. Quite the reverse: power companies are all too likely to be active in fighting health and safety legislation that eats into their profits margins.
James Lovelock is one of the environmental lobby putting forward the argument for a short-term nuclear solution. He points out that the number of people likely to be killed by nuclear accidents, although significant in itself, is tiny compared to the billions ultimately at risk if we don't take immediate action to stop carbon emissions. His predictions are dire:
"If the CO2 rises to somewhere above 400ppm [parts per million], which is quite close to what it is now, then change becomes irreversible: the whole place warms up so much that big ice sheets like in Greenland and perhaps western Antarctica will melt and change the face of the earth - and probably take civilisation with it … I feel a great sense of urgency. We have only 30 years at most to stop doing what we're doing …
"The worst case scenario is that we cross the threshold sometime in the next decade or so and then global change becomes irreversible … The sea level is going to rise anywhere between 7m and 14m and this will take out nearly all the major cities of the world. There will be refugee problems on a scale that we've never seen before. The total death toll could reach a billion. It's the biggest disaster that's ever confronted our species."
"There are all sorts of nice ideas, which would be fine if we had 50 or 100 years - sequestering the CO2 as it comes out of the chimneys; building tidal schemes; using wind power properly in the places where it would be suitable … but we don't have time. The only energy scheme that I know of that is immediately or almost immediately available and could provide large amounts of energy quickly without doing anything to the greenhouse is nuclear."
"It's not so much an alternative; it's a bandage. It's a therapy; radiation therapy, if you like. We're in a hell of a mess and the only way out is to use nuclear power … People have got to realise: nuclear accidents will happen, but they're trivial compared with what's going to happen. It's like comparing a few car accidents with a war. [Accidents, leukaemias, cancers are] trivial compared with the dangers that we face from the global greenhouse, and I don't see any simple answer to providing power without aggravating the greenhouse except by nuclear. Look at it as the medicine: it's got a slight side-effect, but you have to take it." (Interviewed by Marcel Theroux in The End Of The World As We Know It, C4, 8 January 2005)
Lovelock is backed up by the Royal Society, who recently urged the government to build more nuclear power stations in order to move Britain away from its reliance on fossil fuels. Greenpeace, on the other hand, insist that government support for renewables could transform them into a viable option.
Of course, the problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste has still not been satisfactorily addressed by adherents of the nuclear approach. Nor is it entirely clear whether nuclear is seen as the best option by them simply because it is the only instantly available option under capitalism, where alternatives would simply require too much coordination and resourcing. Either way, in order to make a proper analysis, it is clear that nuclear power is an option that needs to be looked at carefully. We certainly cannot assume that nuclear power is necessarily unacceptable, even if, under the influence of the pacifist lobby who equate all nuclear power with nuclear bombs, the left in this country has tended to take this position.
Meanwhile, a significant section of the green lobby has taken the catastrophe of global warming as proof that large-scale industry is inherently wrong and that the solution is a return to a small-scale, subsistence level of existence where people don't demand energy they can't produce from manpower, wind, sun or water on a local level.
What stops any of these solutions being implemented?
There is one major obstacle to finding out the best solution or combination of solutions from all the options listed above and implementing it as quickly as possible. The problem is that to act so quickly and on such a large and coordinated scale requires planning and the ability to control and direct the economy in line with the needs of people. In a word, it requires socialism.
One does not have to be an expert to see that imperialism is totally incapable of tackling the environmental task now facing humanity. It was in the 1950s that scientists first noticed the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and put forward the theory of climate change, yet the imperialists continued (and some continue to this day) to rubbish the science until the proof became overwhelming. As a consequence, we have lost all the advantage that would have come from acting quickly as soon as the problem was identified.
Despite decades of warnings and expert analysis; despite much empty talk by imperialist politicians; despite years of negotiations that resulted first in the Rio accords (an agreement that something or other must definitely be done) to the Kyoto protocol (an agreement about a few specific things that might soon start to be done) imperialism, far from dealing with the problem it has created, has continued to make it worse every day. Meanwhile, the USA, which is responsible for a massive 25 percent of all carbon emissions, has certainly not led the way in trying to tackle the issue. It is in fact the biggest obstacle in the way of halting climate change. Modest though Kyoto's objectives are, they will be rendered virtually meaningless by the US's refusal to take part, while the US ruling class, instead of spending its dollars on funding research into solutions, is actually engaged in the criminal activity of paying for 'science' that denies the very existence of the problem.
To the average bystander, this inability to act is inexplicable. Perhaps it's a question of explaining the facts to those that run the big corporations? Perhaps they haven't really understood the dangers? Or, if they do know all about global warming but aren't bothered enough to take action, perhaps the problem isn't really that big after all? Perhaps the green lobby is just blowing the whole thing out of proportion?
This way of looking at things is based on the assumption that the people running the world's corporations have free reign to make sensible decisions based on rational judgement. But this is not the case. Imperialism as a system has its own inherent logic and every manufacturer is bound by the iron laws of the market, which dictate their actions and banish all other logic.
New technology under capitalism is not an end in itself. Capitalists do not introduce advanced production techniques in order to spare human labour and shorten the working day, but only in so far as they can make a profit from the increased productivity and intensified exploitation of the workforce. Equally, the bourgeoisie are not about to invest in advancing new technology just because it will have some long term benefit for humanity. Saving the planet tomorrow is no compensation for going out of business today, and the ruthless law of competition means that capitalists not only have to make a profit, but must constantly strive to make the maximum profit or be driven out of business by their more cut-throat rivals. As an individual, this or that member of the bourgeoisie might be perfectly convinced of the need to act now to preserve humanity from catastrophe, but as the owner of a capitalist enterprise, s/he can only be guided by the bottom line, and maximum profits come from minimising outlay.
To this general inability of the capitalist class to act, must be added the specific situation in the world today, whereby some of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world have a direct interest in opposing any kind of concerted effort to halt carbon emissions. These are the oil giants, the armaments and car monopolies, whose products run on oil, and the big financiers, which have a powerful stake in all three.
True, big agribusinesses like Monsanto have no desire to change their ways either, but say, for the sake of argument, they could make equal profits with greener farming methods and that the technology required cost them nothing - the business of producing food would go on. Continuing to burn fossil fuels, on the other hand, is one thing that all the scientists are agreed we must no longer do. What do BP and Shell care that alternative methods of creating power are perfectly possible? A world without oil will be a world without oil monopolies, and a world without cars will be a world without General Motors, Toyota or Volkswagen.
Meanwhile, the UN, along with various international bodies and environmental pressure groups, are so totally cowed by the apparent invincibility of capitalism that they dare not even raise the question of the organisation of society. As a result, they are relegated to standing on the sidelines, wringing their hands and begging the monopolies to please be nicer, as if reason has any part to play in capitalist economics, or trying to persuade them that green policies might be profitable.
The green lobby, dominated by the middle class and petty bourgeois of the imperialist countries, is thoroughly infected with bourgeois prejudice. From lecturing the working classes about not buying organic food, using hairspray and failing to recycle enough to blaming exploited countries for industrialising, the green movement is as arrogant and lecturing towards the innocent victims of imperialism as it is servile before the criminal perpetrators. The ruling class is adept at blaming the victims in society for the problems it itself has created (hence racist scapegoating of asylum seekers covers the failings of the capitalist system to provide decent housing, jobs, education and healthcare etc), but we will be no nearer solving the problems of global warming if we follow this line.
Being thoroughly petty bourgeois in its philosophy, the green movement naturally enough tries to find some way out of the crisis through individual action. Just as the hippies in the 60s preached individual evolution as opposed to social revolution, the green of today tell us that each of us individually must learn to make the 'right' choices. But a problem on this scale needs collective action and a collective solution, and 'consumer choice' is a myth preached by the privileged few. In reality, the vast masses of the world do not have any choice about how the food they eat or the energy they consume is produced. As the world's wealth is 'relocated' into the pockets of a tiny handful of finance capitalists, it is all most people on the planet can do to make ends meet, and while imperialism is in charge the kind of education required even to make people aware of the problems is not about to be delivered to people even in the richest countries.
The hard truth is that if we are serious about saving humanity from cataclysmic climate change, we need to redouble our efforts to organise the working class to smash imperialism. Only socialism will be able to organise production and direct scientific and technological research on a society-wide basis in order that the problems facing us can be overcome.
For proof, we need look no further than the Soviet Union during the second world war. Preparation and planning made it possible for the USSR to literally pick up whole factory towns that were in the Nazi invaders' path and relocate them far away from the front. Similarly, by bending all the technical resources of the country and encouraging the ingenuity of its people, the Soviet Union was able in two short years to perfect its previously inadequate tanks and weaponry and so was able to outclass and outgun the Nazis, whose war machinery had til then been feared as widely as the US's is today.
There is no such thing as 'nice' capitalism and there is no 'golden age' of small-scale capitalism that we could somehow go back to that will solve all our problems. Small-scale capitalism inevitably leads right back to monopoly capitalism; to imperialism. Capitalism has unlocked the productive capacity of humankind and brought within our reach the technical possibility of every person on the planet living a decent life. To realise this potential, however, these productive forces must be brought under the conscious control of the working class and used, not to make profits, but to satisfy human needs; not to enrich the barons of finance capital but to enrich the whole of humanity. It should also be noted that while socialism will expand the productive forces in order to do away with poverty and satisfy the needs of the people, it will at the same time instantly do away with much of the obscenely wasteful production that takes place under capitalism, where goods are produced and never sold and goods produced and sold that are never needed! Consumption will cease to be an end in itself and the earth's resources valued and respected, since on them depends not only our present but also our future.
Imperialism has proved itself incapable of addressing even so vital a problem as the one that now stands before us, and so it stands helpless at the gates of its own destruction. Under socialism, on the other hand, as soon as human need becomes the motive force for production, it will be not only possible but absolutely necessary to combine the long term needs of the people with the satisfaction of their short term wants. If culture changes are required in order that we don't waste materials and energy on pointless activity, such culture changes will surely be effected.
Save humanity - overthrow imperialism!
You've got to be red to be green!
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
The Environment Agency
UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) info on climate change http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/climatechange/
BBC weather centre info on climate change
Channel 4 microsite on UK Weather 2080
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