Global warming: A history of capitalist failure

Ever since the initial warnings of global warming 70 years ago, the starkest feature is capitalism’s inability to act on this existential threat. The Environment: a history of the idea tracks this trail of systemic paralysis and inaction.


The threat to the environment due to an increase in global temperatures only began to receive significant publicity in the 1990s. The temperature rise was caused by the emission of greenhouse gases linked to the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, etc). When the alarm was sounded at the Earth summit in Rio in 1992, held under United Nations auspices, there followed decades of talking but no effective action. The evidence is now compelling that today’s extreme weather events, such as the recent devastating cyclones in southern Africa, are linked to climate change.

Reversing global warming will impose a far greater burden on society than if remedial action had been taken a quarter of a century ago. Even so, it is possible that the build-up of polluting gases was so significant by 1992 that only the more serious effects of global warming could have been avoided. Yet, half a century before Rio, evidence pointing to a looming threat linked to the greenhouse effect had already begun to emerge, and continued to build over the following 50 years. If this had been acted on, the potential disaster we now face could very likely have been avoided entirely.

A narrative history of the idea of the environment as a global phenomenon, the subject of this book, lays out the failure of capitalist governments for more than 50 years to take meaningful action over climate change in spite of the mounting evidence. Global warming has become by far the most serious environmental threat facing us. In the late 1980s, new advances in climate science allowed for a much more precise definition of the problem. The data gathered showed evidence of thousands of years of human interaction with the environment – based on the analysis of radioactive carbon in cores extracted from the Greenland ice sheet and carbon dioxide absorption by the oceans.

Borrowing from evolutionary theory, the conclusion was reached that climate change was characterised by ‘punctuated equilibria’ – periods of slow change mixed with revolutionary upheaval. Drastic shifts were what we could now expect with big increases in greenhouse gas emissions. These conclusions were reinforced by research on the 420,000-year-old ice core from the Vostok station in Antarctica in the 1990s. Professor Wallace Broecker of Columbia University, New York, was one of the first to draw attention to the fact that the climate was not changing gradually. He said in 1987: “We are playing Russian roulette with climate, hoping that the future will hold no unpleasant surprises”.

Ignoring early evidence

The authors of The Environment seem to make light of the subsequent lack of action: “Such changes [in the climate] are so profound that denial or at least downplaying the potential ramifications, is an understandable response”. Yet their own book contains evidence, predating Broecker’s research by up to 50 years, which pointed to the serious dangers linked to greenhouse gas emissions.

Guy Stewart Callendar presented a paper at the British Meteorological Society in 1938 showing that burning fossil fuels had already led to a rise in the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide and a quantifiable rise in global temperatures. His findings were nearly universally dismissed, except by a handful of scientists, notably meteorologist Carl-Gustav Rossby from Sweden and the Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass.

In 1956, Rossby said there was no doubt that an increase in carbon dioxide content would lead to a rise in mean global temperatures. Plass forecast the CO2 increase in the atmosphere up to the year 2000, quite accurately as it transpired. Their findings were not challenged or contradicted but no action was taken. There was little interest.

From the time in the 1960s when computers were first used to model climate, they predicted drastic increases in global temperatures due to CO2 emissions. Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1970 concluded that the consequences of global warming could be “widespread droughts, changes of the ocean level and so forth”. The year before, Charles Keeling, from the prestigious Scripps Institute in San Diego, California, produced the first clear empirical evidence. He warned that people living in 2000 will face the threat of climate change brought about by an ‘uncontrolled’ increase in atmospheric CO2 from fossil fuels.

This should have been the signal for capitalist (and Stalinist) governments to take meaningful action. Even though there were still significant uncertainties about the severity of the effects of global warming and the timing of its onset, the danger was clear enough to warrant action based on a precautionary approach. But it was nearly another 20 years – after a particularly hot summer in the USA, in 1988, when climate scientists testified before Congress that the greenhouse effect was already changing the climate – before global warming began slowly to be taken seriously by governments.

Action on the ozone layer

Since then, climate scientists have been trying to force the leaders of the big polluting powers to do something significant about the problem. Most put their faith in the plethora of national and international scientific bodies that emerged, most notably the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), formed in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation. Many saw the relatively successful Montreal protocol as a model for the international cooperation needed to tackle climate change.

The Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed in 1987 – subsequently becoming the first UN treaty to be ratified by all its members – agreed on regulations to limit the production of CFCs. These are chemicals released mainly by aerosol spray cans that were creating holes in the upper atmosphere. This was removing the protection provided by ozone to block harmful solar radiation that causes skin cancer.

However, Montreal was not a model to address global warming because there were decisive differences between eliminating CO2 and CFCs from the atmosphere. Firstly, the scale of the problem was entirely different. The cost of eliminating a chemical from a single production process, when substitutes were readily available, was insignificant compared to, potentially, having to replace almost all of the world’s energy generating capacity.

Secondly, because the cost of CFC replacements was relatively small and, crucially, the DuPont corporation was set to dominate the replacement market, the US (the main CFC polluter) signed up to the treaty. All members of the UN then ratified it, made possible because poor countries were compensated for the cost of implementation. Montreal was effective in cutting CFC emissions by 77% between 1988 and 1994.

The attitude of US imperialism – decisive then as now – to cutting greenhouse gas emissions was entirely different. It flatly refused to engage even in token and ineffectual international efforts to limit global temperature rises. As well as the far greater costs involved, the authors of The Environment begin to point to some of the underlying reasons: “… it has remained the case that most of the implementation of environmental policy takes place through the medium of nation states, while international action requires the collective assent of national governments”. Further: “Countries persisted in seeing their own interests as divergent”.

The book suggests that this divergence is because of a dividing line between those governments that focus on economic growth and those that prioritise the environment. This misses the point that the real issue for governments is profit, in particular for the corporations they represent – those based in their nation states – not economic growth per se. Growth for capitalists is seen as the means to achieve profit, and there have never been any countries where the environment was given priority over it.

Blaming the poor

As well as documenting the history of thinking on climate change, the book highlights other environmental controversies, some going back more than 200 years. One such issue is the ‘limits to growth’ controversy. It intensified after the second world war but was linked historically to the idea of an unsustainable rise of population originally put forward at the end of the 18th century by Thomas Malthus.

In 1972, MIT academics produced a very influential report, Limits to Growth, at the centre of which were assumptions taken from Malthus. Malthus claimed that there was a supra-historical law determining that population would rise exponentially, whereas food production could only increase linearly. This would lead to recurrent famines and starvation, necessary to re-establish equilibrium.

The authors of The Environment produce some interesting context on Malthus. His 1798 publication, An Essay on the Principle of Population, was a response to the ideas of Nicolas de Condorcet, a supporter of the French revolution that began in 1789. De Condorcet claimed that sweeping away the ancien regime and implementing new policies for education and support for the poor would provide the possibility of wealth for all. The laudable but utopian ideas of de Condorcet were supported in Britain by political philosopher William Godwin, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and father of novelist Mary Shelley.

Later, Karl Marx called Malthus’s idea a libel on the human race because it blamed the poor for their poverty. Marx attacked the theory it was based on, a refutation that has been borne out by history. It is true that mass starvation and famines still occur today, but these are not due to an inability of the planet to produce enough food to sustain its population. Rather, they are due to the depredation of the capitalist system – in particular, imperialist rivalry and wars, exploitation and inherent corruption.

Free-market futility

The neo-Malthusian ideas promoted by many of the most influential thinkers on the environment in the post-war period – and today – allowed right-wing, free-market economists like Robert Solow in the 1960s to pose briefly as optimistic champions of progressive thinking, in contrast to those they painted as misanthropic, environmental doomsters. Of course, some environmental academics had and have reactionary views, but many also pointed to the way capitalism was degrading the environment. This was the main reason they were attacked by neoliberal economists.

Solow claimed that when the market system came up against a problem, such as a lack of resources, a price signal would be given and would prompt a change of behaviour, in particular by stimulating innovation. At the height of the post-war boom, this theory gained some credibility, but reality soon caught up. The deep economic crises of the 1970s began the process of undermining any progressive credentials capitalism and its theorists may have earned temporarily.

In addition, as environmental problems became increasingly global, the failure of the free-market approach to address them became clear even to many who supported the system. This led to the growth of environmental economics that tried to incorporate environmental goods or ‘bads’ into the market, by creating price disincentives to pollute. A result was the cap-and-trade mechanism of the Kyoto treaty on global warming in the 1990s, which totally failed to achieve its objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and exposed the futility of a market approach.

In fact, emissions rocketed during the operation of the treaty, which lapsed in 2012. They were only temporarily checked by the great recession of 2008-2009. This should have been the final nail in the coffin of market attempts to face up to climate change. Instead, however, it led to the adoption of an even more ineffectual project, the Paris agreement of 2015.

A human problem?

Another issue is the sharp debate – usefully summarised by the authors – that began in 2000 when the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen declared that “we are not in the Holocene anymore, we are in the Anthropocene”. The Holocene is the geological epoch of the past 11,700 years, coinciding with the emergence of agricultural societies, that left evidence including fossils primarily in lakebed, floodplain and cave deposits. There is also evidence of significant tectonic plate movement in the early Holocene due to glaciers melting at the end of the Ice Age.

The Anthropocene is proposed as an epoch of humans, where our actions drive change globally. For example, human influence can be found in measurements taken in the oceans, the atmosphere, in biodata, radiation and elsewhere. But there is no evidence, nor could there be yet, of geological changes. This led to controversy.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy, the body of geologists that defines the Earth’s ages, has so far refused to recognise the new term without geological evidence, claiming there is a political tail wagging the scientific dog. Opponents of the Anthropocene also point to the difficulty its supporters have in defining when it began – proposals range from the Neolithic period to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945.

The profound climatic changes that are now inevitable – although the worst effects of global warming could still be avoided – will most probably result in observable geological changes. Nonetheless, they are unlikely to emerge for a long time, maybe centuries. In the opinion of this reviewer, to define the Anthropocene as a new epoch before there is any geological evidence would be a mistake.

It would degrade the scientific method, which still has an objective materialist basis even though it is shaped and warped by capitalism. It would pander to the post-modernist misconception that there is no such thing as scientific truth, just competing narratives. Moreover, it could feed the scepticism among many workers about the objectivity of science because it is used to cheat them, as in attempts by governments to make them pay for the cost of addressing climate change.

Nevertheless, some argue that the Anthropocene is a useful metaphor to describe and understand the present epoch – that humans are driving the current degradation of the environment. Such a view is also problematic. Climate change is often described as anthropogenic, meaning that global warming is driven by human activity. But this is not the case.

It is a tiny minority of people who are doing this: national capitalist classes, particularly those of the major powers. Unfortunately, there is sometimes no alternative to using the word anthropogenic. To adopt Anthropocene, however, even as a metaphor, would reinforce the perception that we are all to blame for environmental degeneration and would further obscure who the real culprits are.

Although most of the historical arguments and clashes on environmental issues are usefully covered in The Environment, and many relevant questions are posed, there is a reluctance by the authors to propose any solutions. There is also surprisingly little coverage of the manifest failure of all attempts to reverse global warming. The culpability of capitalism and imperialism is very occasionally flagged up but is never developed. There is no mention of any change of the social system as an answer.

The only mention of socialism is in the context of Stalinism. So a reader will have to look elsewhere to find a case outlined for a democratic socialist planned economy as a way to tackle environmental problems. The book is useful, though, in setting out the evidence that the refusal of capitalist governments for more than 50 years to take action on climate change has created the present crisis.

The Environment: a history of the idea
Paul Warde, Libby Robin, Sverker Sorlin
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019, £22


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