Climate chaos: capitalism to blame
Written by Ben Curry via In Defence of Marxism on 9/4/2018
This summer has been one of freakish weather events the world over. No longer is climate change a thing of the future. From California to the Arctic Circle, exceptional temperatures are creating tinder box conditions. In Greece, 91 people were killed in a horrific blaze. In Japan at least 77 people have died and more than 30,000 have been admitted to hospital with heat stroke. 54 people have been killed by the heat in Quebec, Canada.
One swallow might not make a summer and one hot summer is not a sign of climate change. But today these conditions are so widespread and their recurrence so frequent, that they have become the new norm.
Wolves at the gate
Over recent years we have seen one record after another broken. Extreme weather events are becoming the rule, not the exception. Of the hottest 10 years recorded since 1880, no less than eight of them have occurred since 2008. The evidence is irrefutable.
So far, temperature changes have increased in proportion to the accumulated quantities of greenhouse gases that we have spewed into the atmosphere. However, this may be set to change.
Of the hottest 10 years recorded since 1880, eight have occurred since 2008 / Image: public domain
Currently the world is 1.1°C hotter than pre-industrial times. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have predicted that if efforts are made to reduce carbon emissions, reducing them rapidly to zero and negative emissions are implemented before the end of the century, temperature changes might be limited to 1.5°C.
On current projections, however, we are likely to smash through the modest 2°C target set by the Paris agreement. Indeed, we could be looking at anywhere from 3°C to 4°C of warming. And this is only a global average – in certain parts of the world, the impact of climate change will be even more dramatic.
But before that happens, we will hand the steering wheel over to Mother Earth.
Some of the latest research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences make new, more terrifying predictions: if we fail to limit temperature rises to 2°C, a tipping point will be reached. Permafrosts will begin melting, belching out vast quantities of CO₂ in the process. Temperatures will rise and further melting will occur. As arctic and antarctic temperatures rise, the disappearance of white snow and ice will cause the Earth’s albedo (i.e. its ability to reflect radiation) to drop, again feeding in to further heating and melting.
A vicious cycle will develop, sending temperatures soaring anywhere up to 5°C hotter than pre-industrial averages. Under such a scenario sea levels could rise by up to 197 feet. “This is not a case of crying wolf. The wolves are now in sight,” explained one of the researchers.
Some of the world’s most populous cities would be under water. Regions that are currently habitable will be rendered completely inhospitable. Rising sea levels will cause reserves of groundwater to be infiltrated by seawater, rendering them undrinkable. Droughts will cause regular crop failures. Sweltering heat waves will kill thousands. Devastating forest fires will become the norm. The landscape will be one of mass displacement, war over natural resources, and barbarism.
Bolt holes for the rich
Where is the alarm that one might expect from the ruling class and the establishment? Their mantra seems to be “keep calm and carry on”. UK environment minister, Michael Gove, wouldn’t call this a “climate catastrophe” – it’s more of a “climate opportunity”:
“One of the challenges – or opportunities, dare I say – of a changing climate,” Gove explains, “is that chalky soil of parts of England, combined with the weather we just had, means that English sparkling wine will have a bumper harvest this year.”
Wonderful! And just in time to celebrate Brexit!
The world might be going to hell in a handbasket, but we hope it warms the cockles of our readers’ hearts to learn that the rich will still be able to get hold of their fizzy wines. (Furthermore, without the Brussels “eurocrats” to worry about, they can probably even call this “Champagne”.)
But can we really blame the capitalist class for failing to show an appropriate level of concern? Certainly they won’t be the ones feeling the brunt of the impact.
Commenting on the growing demand for luxury “bolt holes” (i.e. luxury mansions located in nice, safe spots of the globe to which the rich can flee in an emergency) hedge-fund manager Michael Nock told the Guardian: “It’s in the back of everybody’s mind at the moment. If there are, shall we say, changes, where can we go?”
This particular capitalist has staked out his own little bolt hole in New Zealand. It isn’t obvious where the rest of us will be able to run to.
Taking from the poor and giving to the rich
The Economist, a reliable and serious mouthpiece for the liberal capitalists, has definitively thrown up its hands and given up. Commenting on the unseasonal hot weather this summer, the journal noted that “the world is losing the war against climate change”.
Each year wealth flows from rich to poor nations (capital investment, aid, loans etc.) and vice versa (interest on loans, repatriation of profits, etc.). The net direction of flow however is one of $2tn from the poor countries to the rich! / Image: public domain
And why exactly is the world losing the war against climate change?
“One reason is soaring energy demand, especially in developing Asia.” (The Economist, 2 Aug 2018)
We can only marvel at the powers of perception possessed by the editors of the Economist. Demand is soaring and that’s why we are digging fossil fuels out of the ground.
For these apologists of capitalism, CO₂ emissions, a heating planet, the annihilation of coral reefs and mass extinctions are but “externalities” to the market and there’s nothing we can do about it.
The article continues:
“Western countries grew wealthy on a carbon-heavy diet of industrial development. They must honour their commitment in the Paris agreement to help poorer places both adapt to a warmer Earth and also abate future emissions without sacrificing the growth needed to leave poverty behind.”
The measures being referred to in the Paris agreement resolved to transfer a sum of $100bn a year from rich countries to developing countries to help them switch to green energy sources.
There is one rather large fly in the ointment however. There is an annual transfer of wealth across the globe – but it certainly is not going from the rich to the poor nations.
Each year wealth flows from rich to poor nations (capital investment, aid, loans etc.) and vice versa (interest on loans, repatriation of profits, etc.). The net direction of flow however is one of $2tn from the poor countries to the rich!
In other words the world’s poorest countries are being kept in a state of under-development – or, more accurately, of lopsided development – in the interest of profit extraction.
The result is that the poorest people in the world’s poorest countries will not have the infrastructure necessary to mitigate against the unfolding cataclysm. There is nothing that capitalism can do to prevent a catastrophe unfolding.
To cite but one example: every year millions of the poorest people in Bangladesh are placed at risk from floods as Himalayan melt-water and heavy monsoons increasingly inundate the Ganges delta.
And yet we see in the Netherlands, which sits on the delta of another mighty river, how these effects could be mitigated. With a system of dikes and canals, waters are safely directed to the sea whilst urban planning allows floodplains to be kept clear. It is in the unplanned slums proliferating around cities like Dhaka that millions of lives are placed in danger.
Meanwhile, upward of 1.1bn people worldwide lack sufficient access to air conditioning, overwhelmingly in the urban slums of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Capitalism’s free energy conundrum
As the ladies and gentlemen in the air conditioned offices of the Economist have shown, pointing to the problem isn’t difficult. But rack their brains as they might, the spokespersons of capitalism cannot find a solution for a simple reason:
“[Green] energy has a dirty secret. The more it is deployed, the more it lowers the price of power from any source. That makes it hard to manage the transition to a carbon-free future, during which many generating technologies, clean and dirty, need to remain profitable if the lights are to stay on.” (The Economist, 25 Feb 2017)
Here we have it from the horse’s mouth. The problem with capitalism is that once green energy sources begin producing cheaply and in abundance – markets become glutted: we stand face to face with a classic crisis of overproduction.
“[Green] energy has a dirty secret. The more it is deployed, the more it lowers the price of power from any source. That makes it hard to manage the transition to a carbon-free future, during which many generating technologies, clean and dirty, need to remain profitable if the lights are to stay on.” / Image: The Economist
In recent years solar energy has seen a renaissance that has kindled hopes in some quarters that this might be the silver bullet the world is looking for. Between 2012 and 2016 the installation of solar-panels rose a whopping 350 percent in the United States as costs plummeted.
But despite there being a long way to go, with solar energy only representing 2 percent of world energy production, even now America’s biggest solar panel producers are in the grip of an existential crisis caused by overproduction. This crisis is exemplary in demonstrating how the laws of capitalism hinder the introduction of new technologies:
“Juergen Stein, SolarWorld’s boss in America, points to a ‘circle of death’ in the industry, with global overcapacity forcing down prices, which compels firms to produce more to gain the benefits of scale, which further lowers prices.” (The Economist, 17 Aug 2017)
The result is a crisis that threatens to close down and destroy the very factories that produce cheap solar panels, which represent at least a first step towards solving the problem of climate change.
Ironically these very same bosses are now turning to Trump – the advocate of “beautiful, clean coal” – for protection! Protectionist measures, as we shall show, are no solution. Subsidies to green energy suppliers are equally unable to solve the crisis. Rather they simply lead to markets becoming even more glutted, thus driving the sector even further into crisis!
The bankruptcy of the market
So far, so bad. Having fallen at the first hurdle, there are other bigger hurdles that capitalism cannot even dream of surmounting. Almost all of the IPCC’s models that involve sufficient mitigation of climate change to prevent a 2°C temperature rise require negative emissions: in other words, that we suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.
No one knows how to make it profitable to suck greenhouse gases out of the environment – and as such it will not happen! / Image: fair use
This is not as sci-fi as it sounds. We are all familiar with many of the lo-tech solutions: reorganising farming on rational lines, or massive reforestation for instance. Some of the more hi-tech solutions (such as “enhanced weathering”) remain prohibitively expensive and would require large amounts of investment to enter the running as plausible alternatives.
But whilst creating a market for green technology is proving to be no mean feat, the question of negative emissions must forever remain a pipe dream under capitalism.
The capitalist class are perfectly aware of this too.
“Though renewable energy could profitably generate a fair share of the world’s electricity, nobody knows how to get rich simply by removing greenhouse gases.” (The Economist, 16 Nov 2017)
Is this not the whole problem in a nutshell? No one knows how to make it profitable to suck greenhouse gases out of the environment – and as such it will not happen!
The nation state
It is clear that private property and the profit motive represent sufficient barriers. But capitalism presents another: the restrictions and limits of the nation state.
One obvious solution to Europe’s energy needs that has already been mooted – and for which the technology already exists – would be to cover uninhabitable regions in the Sahara desert (for example) with solar panels and redirect that energy around the globe on the basis of needs.
Far from being a free market, nation states everywhere subsidise their own fossil fuel companies for the simple reason of gaining an advantage over their competitors in the pursuit of markets / Image: public domain
For reasons far removed from decarbonisation, the German capitalists actually began taking steps to implement such a scenario in the early 2000s.
In 2004, the so-called regime installed by the so-called “Orange Revolution” brought Ukraine into conflict with Russia. In subsequent years there were a number of occasions in which Russia threatened to turn off the gas supply to Ukraine, threatening the energy security of European capitalism.
In response the Desertec initiative was established, attracting interest from major capitalist concerns such as E.ON, Deutsche Bank and others. However, the whole thing fell apart. Why? The not-insignificant obstacle posed by a project having to straddle multiple nation states.
On the one hand, the whole thing would have had to pass across the Strait of Gibraltar and onward, through the decrepit energy infrastructure of the Spanish state. In the context of austerity and cuts, there was no question of this being upgraded to accept high voltage DC energy from North Africa. On the contrary, austerity had caused infrastructure investment to completely dry up. Meanwhile, in the interests of protecting the domestic fossil fuel capitalists, Spain has allowed its budding wind energy sector to fall into disrepair.
Then came the Arab Spring and the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa that European capitalism had been dealing with looked a lot less secure. The project was mothballed.
In the past couple of years the world has begun hurtling towards protectionism, with Donald Trump the arch-representative of this trend. As capitalism traverses this unprecedented crisis, globalisation is being undermined, and even the meager and hollow promises of the Paris agreement are being jettisoned as the tendrils of international capital retract into home markets and nation states leap to protect “their” businesses against all comers.
Any attempt to invest in green energy comes up against the domestic interests of 'our' capitalists. Far from being a free market, nation states everywhere subsidise their own fossil fuel companies for the simple reason of gaining an advantage over their competitors in the pursuit of markets. These subsidies amount to $600bn a year worldwide.
The socialist answer
What then is the answer?
The threats posed by climate change constitute a worldwide emergency that requires an emergency response. All the 'hot air' of international summits are only designed to give the impression that something is being done. But the upholders of capitalism cannot make any inroads in the struggle against climate change precisely because they uphold this system of anarchy that causes it.
The development of science, technique and industry has brought us to the cusp of an era where we as human beings can develop to our full in the fullest harmony with our natural environment. And yet under capitalism human economic relations themselves rise up like an anarchic 'invisible hand', condemning billions to suffering and guiding our whole species towards a precipice.
The measures that need to be taken are easily enumerated. There must be international coordination towards the planned phasing out of fossil fuels and the implementation of green energies (the technologies for which already exist). Negative emissions programmes must be established and coordinated on a world scale. Farming must be rationalised and planned, with a move away from monoculture and towards reforestation.
None of this is possible until the giant monopolies that currently control the world economy are themselves brought under our control and made to serve our interests.
However, you cannot control what you don’t own. Recent findings have shownthat less than one hundred companies are responsible for 70 percent of industrial emissions. Meanwhile just 500 companies are responsible for 70 percent of deforestation; a tiny number of agribusiness are responsible for the lion’s share of this. We must take over these banks, insurance companies, agribusiness giants and other monopolies and bring them under a worldwide democratic plan of production.
Humanity must break out of the dual straightjacket of private property and the nation state that constrains its development. The utter failure of the capitalist system and the global nature of the crisis mean that there is only one solution: a worldwide socialist revolution.