Archive for May, 2008

Marxism and climate change

May 4, 2008

Below is an article by SB. The views contained in the article are not necessarily the views of the Socialist Party. We publish it here in the spirit of democratic debate. Below SB’s article is a response by JL.

There has been an interesting debate in the pages of the Socialist recently on the issue of manmade CO2 emissions and the issue of ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’- whilst it is useful to discuss such issues, and how we as a Party orientate ourselves towards them, there is a danger that we may be coming to a confrontation unnecessarily over the debate. What is needed is to view the discussion from a rounded out Marxist perspective and to look at how, as Socialists, we can move the issues beyond what may be a largely meaningless, not to mention diversionary, discussion to some conclusions which may not be as divisive as the debate itself.

I recently found myself arguing with an ‘eco-warrior’ handing out leaflets produced by a private company part funded by the multinationals such as Shell & BP on the virtues of giant wind turbines – to be sited on a hilltop close to Tiverton, the man seemed genuine enough, indeed claimed to be a Socialist, but he failed to see the irony in his doing the dirty work of Capitalism promoting a ‘one size fits all’ solution to sustainable energy. It is no coincidence that recently Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington-based industry group said; “Shell and BP see wind as an increasingly important part of the energy industry. They are looking to continue to grow,” …. “They want to look for new opportunities, and wind is clearly in their sights.” In other words, they have invested in wind, and now wind is the one ‘sustainable’ they are pushing, even though wind alone is anything but sustainable. This goes to show that Capitalism is incapable of creating sustainable energy, it will always go for the easiest, cheapest option – at the expense of workers and the environment.

In Geological terms, the current period we exist in is an ‘Inter-glacial’ – in other words we are between Ice Ages, the whole period of recorded Human History – the past two thousand years or so – has been within this ‘Inter-Glacial’ phase – named the ‘Holocene’, it has largely been characterised by warming temperatures – with the exception of brief regressions in temperature known as ‘climate events’ – the most recent of which ended approx 300 years ago, from which we are still recovering – temperature wise. In any given ‘Inter-Glacial’ Geological period there arrives a ‘tipping point’, in other words a point beyond which the warming trend ends, and a cooling trend commences – this tipping point is characterised by a period of higher temperatures. In the last such period before our own known as the ‘Eemian’ interglacial began sometime between 130-140 thousand years ago with a warming phase of uncertain duration taking the planet out of an extreme glacial phase, into conditions generally warmer than those of today. Warming into the Eemian may have occurred in two major steps, similar to the most recent period of warming.

Whatever the contribution of manmade carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions may make towards this warming trend, it is going to happen anyway. It was happening before we commenced the industrial revolution, and it will continue even if we halt all further manmade emissions. What’s more, at some stage, whatever we do, the cycle will turn back on itself and a cooling trend will commence, probably within the next two to three thousand years.

We must also ask ourselves as Socialists what do doomsday prophesies achieve? Do we really think that we can win people to Socialism by telling them that the human race and Capitalist industrial development may already have destroyed the environment and therefore the future? Why would anyone bother with Socialism – or any other form of society – under those circumstances?

Rather as Marxists we should be pointing out that both safeguarding the environment for the future of Humanity and coping with the impacts of inevitable ‘climate change’ can only be effectively dealt with, and planned for, by a Socialist Society, organised on a global scale, which could address those issues and effect necessary change across the earth, seas and skies. A society which could ensure our future sustainability, utilising all our resources and technology effectively and efficiently for the benefit of the whole human race and the whole planet.

Response –

SB is correct that, under capitalism, there can be no solution to the environmental problems that we face. The massive corporations that rule the world economy are concerned first and foremost with maximising their own profits. Any moves towards environmentally friendly practices, such as investing in renewable energy, are purely because they either see a profit in those ventures themselves, or profit in appearing to be a company that cares about the environment. Only a democratically planned economy which invests massively in renewable sources of energy and plans sustainable production (of food and other goods) close to where it is needed will lead to a society that is sustainable in use of resources and pollution.

I don’t think that pointing out that the Earth is currently undergoing a warming, which will negatively impact on the lives of millions of people, is painting a picture of a doomsday scenario. Our role as socialists must be first and foremost to tell the unvarnished, warts and all truth to the working class. No serious scientist now claims that global warming is not happening and that human activities is not the main cause of it. Even supposed ‘sceptics’ such as the Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg accept that it is happening, though play down it’s potential impact. The impact though will be serious. Low-lying land will be flooded, and the area of land available for agriculture will shrink. All alternative theories as to why the planet is warming (which, on average, it undoubtedly is) have been discredited.

It is true that warming periods have occurred in the past, but not at the rate that the temperatures are rising now. It is also being increasingly accepted in the scientific community that humankind has been reponsible for planetary warming for many thousands of years before the industrial revolution, as a consequence of the rise of agriculture and consequent land use changes. We now have, as humans, considerable impact on the environment, and have disrupted long standing natural cycles. The fact is, that the dominance humankind has over the planet could actually lead, with correct planning (as a counterpoint to the extreme anarchy and disorganisation that is a feature of the capitalist system), the climate could be stabilised at conditions suitable for those living by the coast (around 10% of humans) and agriculture.

SB rightly points out the cynicism of capitalists and their representatives in Governments and the UN. Conversely, many in the environmental movement are incredibly naive, and act, as the ‘eco-warrior’ in Tiverton, as useful idiots or patsies for big business. We need to point out that it is very unlikely that the inefficent, profit-obsessed, anarchic and wasteful capitalist system will be able to solve the worlds environmental problems. A socialist society based on a democratically planned world economy will be able to tackle the huge tasks of dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and reducing pollution and deforestation. We must campaign for positive measures to be taken on the environment and link them to relevant and immediate issues, such as the price and availability of food, quality public transport and the need for public services to be local and convenient, rather than remote and inconvenient.

A positive socialist programme on the environment, highlighting the benefits of moving towards renewable sources of energy and a low carbon society, will serve as a contrast to those in the environmental movement who seek to impose an environmental puritanism on people, particularly less well-off people who won’t be able to afford to maintain their standard of living with extra ‘green’ taxes on everything, while the well-off continue to consume and travel as before.