Human-caused global warming and climate change have been known about for decades but we are now entering a crucial period, after which the consequences of our actions, or lack thereof, could have ramifications that go well into the 2100s and beyond.
The outcome of the COP28 climate negotiations in Dubai is celebrated as a triumph by some participants. However, it is certain that the gaggle of capitalist leaders, each interested primarily in looking after the profits of their bosses at home, have not come up with an agreement which adequately deals with the scale of the crisis quickly enough.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), produces annual reports which give an increasingly bleak outlook based on current world trajectories in relation to a myriad of factors. The most significant worry increasingly being realised: “Every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards.”
Human activity has already caused a 1.1oC increase in global temperatures from 1850-1900 levels. Up to 3.6 billion people live in regions or situations that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. For millions – mostly working-class and poor people, victims of forest fires, floods, droughts and other extreme weather events – climate change is already catastrophic.
Climate change-driven desertification of agricultural land, for example, has awful consequences for the food supply to millions. The Economist magazine projects that spiralling food prices will push hundreds of millions into food poverty with an estimated 1.6 billion people already unable to get enough to eat.
Together with anger over government inaction in responding to extreme weather events and in taking proactive measures to combat climate change, and anger over other aspects of cost-of-living crises, rising food prices or shortages can fuel upheavals. It was a major feature contributing to the upheavals of the Arab Spring in 2011, for example.
The effects of climate change will, together with all aspects of the capitalist crisis, lead to increasing numbers to looking for an alternative.
How far off track?
Just 1 of 42 indicators that the world is set to limit global temperature rises to 2oC is on track, according to the World Resources Institute – the share of electric cars on the road.
This is in part because the upscaling of electric vehicle manufacturing has become more profitable – the primary driver for capitalist investment. However, this in itself is problematic as it has prompted a global race among superpowers to secure the rare earth elements and metals like cobalt, lithium and manganese required for their manufacture to corner market share.
This is resulting in increased mining, which is adding to the carbon intensity of industry, paradoxically further worsening global warming. Moreover, without a comparable shift in global infrastructure to green energy production, the shift to electric vehicles alone will not be anywhere near enough to stop the rise of, let alone reverse, carbon emissions.
According to figures produced by the World Resources Institute, low-carbon energy production has reached parity with fossil fuels. However, to limit global temperature rises to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, low-carbon energy production needs to be in a ratio of 7:1 by 2030.
Of the other 41 metrics, which include things like the reversal of rainforest, mangrove and peatland degradation and destruction, phasing out coal, decarbonising steel production and a whole host of others, more than half are way off track and some indicators are even going in the wrong direction.
One example, is of fossil-fuel subsidies surging to a record $7 trillion, in large part driven by huge amounts of government spending to limit the effects of the cost-of-living crisis brought about by higher fuel and energy costs in the aftermath of the Ukraine war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, leading a major global energy producer, and facing an international arrest warrant for his invasion of Ukraine, visited UAE at the same time as the COP conference but didn’t step foot inside. This does not signify the level of international collaboration needed to solve climate change, a global issue!
Despite the existence of global markets and corporations, capitalism was formed and continues to be based on nation-states – each representing the dominant interests of its ruling capitalist classes and competing for access to resources and markets. War is the sharpest expression of this inherent conflict. The world is also increasingly beset by trade wars.
No nation-state wants to make commitments which undermine its own capitalists’ profits. The US, the biggest single contributor to climate change, had consistently refused to sign up for several landmark climate targets such as the Kyoto Protocol. Trump pulled the US commitment to the Paris Climate Agreements, rendering them largely ineffectual.
US capitalism does not want to chain itself to targets that would hinder its ability to face up to rising competition from China. China, with much less weight but which is growing, increasingly rivals declining US capitalism and has also been slow to make sweeping commitments that would have curtailed its huge economic expansion. Another big polluter and growing, India, has pledged to become carbon-neutral, but not until 2070. COP28 is being held in oil-rich UAE, with COP president Sultan Al Jaber reportedly claiming there is no science to suggest phasing out fossil fuels is the only way to achieve the change outlined in the Paris Agreement. Currently, the IPCC’s greatest hope lies not in the rolling out of policies which it recognises is happening far too slowly, but instead in the eruption of a supervolcano which would give 1-3 years’ breathing space as the release of sulphur from volcanic plumes into the atmosphere would have a cooling effect on the planet, delaying the onset of runaway global warming.
Britain’s climate course off the rails
Here in Britain, we’ve seen no bucking of world trends, with the Conservatives ditching a plethora of green policies and commitments over the last 13 years in government.
David Cameron’s ending of solar subsidies and energy efficiency schemes was only the tip of the iceberg as he did away with what he referred to as “green crap”. Despite the stark warnings of academics and climate activists, Rishi Sunak recently rolled back on the pledge to ban petrol and diesel car production to 2035, with a further delay in the phasing out of fossil fuel boilers and a moving of the target of reaching net zero by 2050 down the list of UK priorities.
Similarly, when he was mayor of London, Boris Johnson’s introduction of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, which has been subsequently expanded under Labour’s Sadiq Khan, has seen what is effectively a regressive tax with the poorest and least able to afford to replace their non-compliant cars hit the hardest. Meanwhile, the biggest polluters, including the manufacturers of non-compliant cars, have been let completely off the hook.
Labour under Keir Starmer has been quick to jettison what was, in the grand scheme of things, a relatively modest set of green policies set out by Jeremy Corbyn. Determined to try to show Labour’s reliability as a safe pair of hands for capitalism, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves announced back in June that Labour would be delaying its plans for an annual fund of £28 billion for green investment and jobs until the middle of the next parliament.
It was recently leaked by sources close to Starmer that the plan was to scrap the green investment fund completely, although Labour is now claiming this is one pledge they won’t renege on. For them, appearing fiscally responsible in the aftermath of a series of disastrous Tory-led governments is a higher priority than addressing the looming climate crisis.
A socialist programme
According to science, there is still time to not only limit but avoid absolute climate catastrophe. At the 2023 Climate in Action conference, it was universally agreed among the scientific advisors that not only harm reduction but even reversal of damage done was possible if only the political will was there.
The window is very quickly tightening and with each passing year that we veer wildly off track, the challenge becomes steeper. But it remains surmountable.
What is needed, and is increasingly being sought out, is a systemic alternative. Capitalism continues to demonstrate that it is incapable of bringing about change with the speed and scale needed, for the necessary planning and coordination. That is only possible with the socialist transformation of society internationally.
Last year, British Petroleum alone made £23 billion in profit. If the commanding heights of the economy, including big oil and big energy, were brought under democratic public ownership, with no compensation to the fat-cat owners, resources and investment could be planned to end reliance on fossil fuels.
Likewise, a mass programme of eco-friendly council house buildings, built with the highest energy efficiency ratings and fitted with heat pumps, would not only begin to address the housing crisis but would begin to tackle the one-third of emissions produced from buildings, which come primarily from space heating and cooking. The rental income coming into local authority coffers instead of the pockets of big landlords could then provide revenue for councils to roll out an environmentally friendly retrofitting scheme for heat pumps and other green alternatives.
Ultimately, with profits being the main driving factor in capitalist economies, coupled with the geopolitical rivalries which are ratcheting up, capitalism offers no way forward in the face of the escalating climate catastrophe which is unfolding. With a socialist plan of production organised under the democratic control and management of workers, we could strip away the unnecessary duplication, wastefulness and overproduction which currently exists under capitalism.
With the nationalisation of railways and buses and an overhaul of services to ensure they are fully electrified and run on renewable energy, high-quality, reliable, safe and free public transport could be provided.
Combining this with the expansion of services, which have been whittled away due to austerity and cost-cutting by privatisers, would massively aid in cutting down on the need to use petrol and diesel cars, without resorting to punishing and regressive carbon taxes.
With an end to fossil fuel industry subsidies, and by investing in green jobs, we could see a reduction in carbon intensity to sectors like the steel industry which, nationalised under working-class control, could ensure the protection of jobs and, where necessary, the transferring of skills to producing other socially useful products and technology that can aid in the pursuit of environmental sustainability.
The desire for fundamental change is being increasingly expressed with the demands for system change that have increasingly become a feature of climate strikes and demonstrations in the recent period. The encroaching climate catastrophe can be averted, but it is dependent on winning support for the socialist programme needed.
Is nuclear needed?
Climate change can be averted without needing to resort to the building of new nuclear reactors. Some have begun revisiting the question of nuclear as a so-called renewable option due to nuclear reactors not producing CO2 or other greenhouse gases.
However, leaving aside the risk of another incident like Three Mile Island, Chornobyl or Fukushima, which have all had environmental impacts over decades, nuclear technology has a whole host of other problems. They are slow and expensive to build with Hinckley Point C in Somerset, England, predicted to be over ten years over schedule, costing over an estimated £25 billion once it is built. It will equally be expensive and will take a long time to fully decommission once it has reached the end of its life cycle.
The other major problem with nuclear fission technology is that spent reactor fuel remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years, and the only viable solution has been to store and bury it and leave it to decay away.