Science: Climate change – Can we save the planet?

There is new evidence that the threat from global warming is increasing. (Global warming is the rise in the Earth’s temperature due to high concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas).

A speaker from the British Antarctic Survey told a conference hosted by the Met Office in Exeter this February that the massive West Antarctic ice sheet may be in danger of disintegrating, raising sea levels world-wide by 4.9m (16 ft), if it disappears completely. The conference heard that, as global temperatures rise to 3C above pre-industrial levels over the next 70 years, the threats facing us multiply rapidly.

Based on current greenhouse gas outputs and projections of emissions in the immediate future, this size of increase is now inevitable. Even if polluting gases were cut now by the 60% needed for sustainability it would probably take 70 years, possibly longer, before a reduction in average temperatures was seen.

At present the average global surface temperature is 0.7C above the level before the industrial revolution began in 1750. This is set to rise to 1C above the pre-industrial level in the next 25 years, leading to water shortage problems and a decline in food production in poor countries.

In the middle of the 21st century, warming effects will be more pronounced as the Earth’s temperature rises to 2C above the 1750 level. By then there will be substantial losses of arctic sea ice and Mediterranean regions will be hit by more forest fires and insect pests. Plant and animal species will also be threatened with extinction.

This will be particularly serious if, as predicted, China’s broad-leaved forests are affected, since forests like these absorb CO2 and so reduce global warming effects. Also, the 2C rise could happen before 2050 because the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that will eventually lead to this temperature rise will be reached only 10 years from now, or possibly sooner. Predictions of how quickly temperatures will rise after this are uncertain.

Much more serious consequences will be suffered when the 3C increase is reached probably sometime before 2070. Irreversible damage to the Amazonian rainforests, leading to their collapse, could occur and there will be a rapid increase in populations exposed to hunger. Up to 5.5 billion people will be living in regions with large losses of crop production.

If temperatures keep rising after 2070, there will be dangers of catastrophic events happening, such as the complete melting of polar ice. This would lead to huge increases in sea levels or the disappearance of the Gulf Stream, paradoxically possibly causing another ice age in north west Europe.

’Unprecedented’ rise

Some environmental scientists see even these dire predictions as conservative and foresee ’worst case’ temperature rises of up to 11C by 2050 according to a recent report in the Nature science journal. Professor Bob Spicer of the Open University is quoted as saying that such a surface temperature would be unprecedented in Earth’s history.

An 11C temperature rise is based on current predictions of what CO2 levels will be, but these could be underestimated due to the so-called ’feedback effect’, partly caused by a rise in sea temperatures. Normally, the oceans absorb carbon dioxide and so help to reduce its level in the atmosphere, alleviating the problems of global warming.

But as sea temperatures rise through global warming, their ability to take in CO2 is reduced and eventually reversed, leading to the oceans becoming net emitters of the gas. So from helping to solve the problem, the seas could begin to amplify it. Worryingly, new evidence was given at the Exeter conference that a similar effect could happen with the soil, giving a further twist to the downward spiral.

Most capitalist leaders now recognise that global warming is a serious threat in the medium term that needs to be addressed. The main exception to this is Bush, who represents the interests of the big US oil and gas companies, and as such refuses to take part in any action to try to reduce emissions.

The programme the other leaders have is based on the Kyoto treaty signed in 1997 which has a target to reduce global warming gases by 4.8% of their 1990 levels by 2012.

This target is very modest since most experts think that a 60% reduction is needed, and many environmental activists put the figure much higher.

A close examination of the Kyoto treaty’s provisions shows that even its very modest aim to reduce emissions by 4.8% is bogus. The baseline date for the target was deliberately set at 1990, which was before the collapse of the economies of Eastern Europe led to a halving of their greenhouse gas output, meaning that huge cuts had taken place in advance to help reach the ’target’.

The treaty is supposed to operate through the trading of pollution permits that over-target firms buy from those under-target. In practice, firms in the leading capitalist countries will be largely buying permits from Eastern Europe because it has spare capacity due to its economic collapse 15 years ago. This largely cosmetic deal was put together to try to persuade the USA to take part, but it failed completely.

Profits threatened

Blair promises to make global warming a key issue in the G8, the club of the leading capitalist countries plus Russia, which he is chairing at the moment.

However, the British government has just decided to cut the UK’s 2012 target for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 20% to 12% of 1990 levels. This was done after the bosses’ organisation, the CBI, lobbied the government intensively. They said it would hit the profits of its member firms.

Also Britain has just been ranked as one of the most environmentally unfriendly countries in the world, coming 66th out of 146 nations in an audit by the Environmental Sustainability Index.

Beyond exposing his usual hypocritical double-speak, Blair’s retreat has a deeper significance. It shows that, for him, big business’ needs come first. If profits are threatened, dealing with a probable future environmental catastrophe is pushed down the agenda.

The USA refused to join Kyoto for similar reasons. Since America produces 25% of global greenhouse gases, its corporations have by far the most to lose if a ’make the polluter pay’ system is introduced. Even though the treaty was largely cosmetic, Bush (and Clinton earlier) saw it as the thin end of the wedge and so shunned it.

The US abstention will also make the Kyoto permit trading system largely ineffective because America’s participation is crucial, as it is by far the largest potential buyer of permits in the market.

Even if a viable alternative to Kyoto were put on the agenda, the costs involved would threaten company profits and prevent any serious attempts to implement it – this is the lesson from Britain and the USA.

International capitalist rivalry compounds the problem because the most powerful country, the USA, has the most to lose and will be in the forefront of attempts to block any meaningful action on global warming.

Another factor blocking progress is that the anarchy of the market system makes it impossible to plan even a few years ahead, whereas any genuine programme for sustainability must be planned over decades.

The main capitalist countries’ dilemma is that they need to introduce a viable programme to cut global warming but aren’t willing to pay for it, particularly if any one country stands to lose significantly more than a rival. Of course they will all lose if there is an environmental catastrophe but this is a secondary consideration in the short-term logic of their profit-driven system.

As a way out of their impasse the main industrial powers, some more openly than others, increasingly turn to nuclear power. The advantages they see are that nuclear energy, by coincidence, does not produce greenhouse gases and the technology is cheap compared to the investment required in renewable energy such as wind, wave and solar power.

However expanding nuclear power would produce more and more toxic nuclear waste, for which no safe storage method has been devised. It would increase the chances of another Chernobyl-type disaster.

The socialist alternative

Under the capitalist ’free market’ system, the environment’s future is unsustainable, whether due to global warming or proliferating toxic nuclear waste. The market’s increasingly obvious failure makes people ask: what is the socialist approach to tackling the environmental crisis?

Although the Soviet Union’s collapse and the degradation of the environment in Eastern Europe during much of the Soviet period appeared to discredit the ideas of planning as an alternative to capitalism, the planned use of resources will be the essential tool in tackling global warming and other threats.

Such a planned economy, if democratically controlled, is an alternative both to capitalism and to the perversion of socialism practised in the former Soviet Union.

A social system based on democratic planning would have enormous inherent advantages in saving energy. It would for example avoid the duplication of resources, planned obsolescence and destruction of plant and machinery in slumps, experienced in the capitalist system.

Removing these features will have a significant impact in increasing the efficiency of energy usage and so reducing pollution. However, the biggest advantage of a socialist society where production is driven by need not profit, will be the ability to tackle threats using democratic planning, compared to the inevitable environmental degradation linked to the anarchy of capitalist production.

Renewable energy

A socialist plan for the environment would have at its centre a long-term programme of investment in renewable energy sources, leading to the progressive replacement of oil-, gas- and coal-fired and nuclear power stations. Workers in these industries would need to be retrained and re-skilled for the different technologies involved in wind, wave and solar power generation.

Also, research and development in new techniques for energy generation would be massively stepped up. So would work to improve the capability and efficiency of presently available renewable energy technologies such as hydrogen cells. The additional experts needed to do this could be assigned from the arms industry, a sector that could be rapidly run down.

Significant resources will need to be deployed to clear up the mess inherited from capitalism. In particular, workers in the nuclear industries will have their hands full in organising decommissioning of nuclear plant and devising safe ways to store or neutralise toxic waste.

Environmentally-friendly consumption habits can be promoted by giving subsidies to key areas such as public transport and the use of re-cycleable materials. In general eco-taxes, which hit the poorest hardest, should not be used unless directed at certain items of energy-intensive luxury consumption.

To implement this programme an integrated environmental plan would be needed that can be effective only if the energy industries are nationalised under democratic workers’ control and management. The investment in research and development required for ecological transformation can also only be effective if it is part of an integrated plan. It needs to be linked to other aspects such as energy production and consumer subsidies.

The planning process itself would involve allocating resources of labour and materials for the production of goods and services for the benefit of society as a whole, including the environment, rather than to make profits for the capitalists.

Planning would not primarily be a technical question – its success would depend on creating bodies through which the working class can democratically control production from the workplace upwards. The most important part will be the conscious control by working people, on a day-to-day basis, of the decisions that shape their lives.

Planning would operate at three levels: nationally and internationally; at industry or sectoral level and at individual workplaces. Planning at the national and international level will be a crucial area for environmental sustainability.

Here planning would involve the direct allocation of resources to fulfil improvements that have been democratically determined in all countries, and agreed internationally. That would be impossible under capitalism due to bitter rivalry between the main imperialist countries.

The planning bodies would organise the progressive replacement of fossil fuel energy sources with renewables and the elimination of non-recycleable materials. This programme would be phased in consistently over several decades, allowing a progressive transformation to a sustainable society.

Democratic planning

Critics of this socialist programme may say that the Soviet Union’s failure showed that planning doesn’t work. True, by the time of its collapse 15 years ago the Soviet Union was a byword for ecological devastation. Massive regions of central Asia were made deserts by unsustainable intensive agriculture.

The Aral Sea – one of the world’s biggest inland water sources – had virtually ceased to exist. Toxic air and water pollution reached such extremes that whole areas were uninhabitable. The picture was completed by the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

Doesn’t this horrific scenario prove that ’actual existing socialism’ was a disaster? The first point is that the Soviet Union could not be called socialist in any way, apart from in its early years.

Real socialism must be based on both a planned economy and active democratic bodies controlling all aspects of society. These would include harmonising the needs of producers, consumers and the environment (under capitalism there will always be antagonism between them).

Democratic bodies are needed as the essential mechanism that will decide how to allocate resources efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way. Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian revolution of 1917, described the Soviet Union as a ’bureaucratically deformed workers’ state’.

He explained that although capitalism had been overthrown, and technically society belonged to the working class, it was actually in the grip of bureaucrats who had destroyed all vestiges of democracy and ruled to preserve their own interests.

Lessons of USSR

The Soviet Union was the world’s first workers’ state and at its beginning was a beacon for all the planet’s poor and downtrodden. However, its democratic ideals were eradicated after a few years because Russia was devastated by the First World War and after that by the intervention by the main imperialist powers and subsequent war to overthrow the revolution.

In these circumstances of total impoverishment, the priority for the vast majority of the population was the struggle to survive. Such a situation inevitably cut across popular participation in the running of the economy and society, and created the conditions for a bureaucratic elite to develop.

These bureaucrats established, despite a heroic battle against them by Trotsky, a totalitarian society run in their own interests. Like their capitalist counterparts, the new rulers had no reason to consider the effect of industrialisation on the environment – their focus was purely on enriching themselves.

When socialism is established in the future it is extremely unlikely that such a degeneration would happen again, because the situation in Russia was so overwhelmingly unfavourable due to a unique combination of circumstances.

It is much more likely that a future socialist society will begin from a standard of living much closer to the advanced capitalist countries. Also the lessons of the Soviet Union have been learnt, which will lead to increased vigilance to prevent any vestige of bureaucratic degeneration developing.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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April 2005