Confronting the Climate Change Crisis

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Politicians and oil companies are jumping on the green bandwagon, but they have no solutions to a crisis that is rooted in capitalism

By Ian Angus

This month, we’ve been treated to the bizarre spectacle of George Bush and Stephen Harper each declaring their deep concern about “the serious challenge of global climate change.” The U.S. president and Canada’s prime minister, both long-time opponents of any action to limit greenhouse gases, now want us to believe that saving the environment has become a top priority of their governments.

Truly, the hypocrisy of capitalist politicians knows no bounds!

They and their corporate masters want to avoid action on climate change, and they have been doing just that for years. Their eagerness to clothe themselves in inappropriate green has everything to do with public relations — and nothing to do with saving the earth.

Denying Science

Knowledgeable scientists agree that climate change is real, and that the main cause is the use of fossil fuels, especially oil, gas, and coal. The earth today is significantly hotter than it was a few decades ago, and the rate of increase is accelerating. If we don’t stop it, by the end of this century the planet will be hotter than it has ever been since humans began walking the earth.

Left unchecked, this will have catastrophic impacts on human, animal, and plant life. Crop yields will drop drastically, leading to famine on a broad scale. Hundreds of millions of people will be displaced by droughts in some areas and by rising ocean levels in others. Malaria and cholera epidemics are likely. The impact will be greatest in Asia, Africa, and Latin America — on the peoples whose lives have already been ravaged by imperialism many times over.

But that hasn’t stopped corporations and politicians from claiming that they don’t have enough information to decide whether the problem exists, let alone what can to be done about it. Their denials have been supported by a bevy of climate change deniers who are frequently quoted in media reports on the subject.

A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that the apparently large network of deniers is in fact a handful of people who make themselves seem more numerous by working through more than 30 front-groups. ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded company, has been financial backer of all these groups — it paid them millions to “manufacture uncertainty” about climate change.

By no coincidence, ExxonMobil is the largest single corporate producer of greenhouse gases. If ExxonMobil was a country, it would be the sixth-largest source of emissions.

Meanwhile, other corporate and government agencies have been working hard to divert attention away from corporate polluters and onto individuals. They blame individuals for not cutting back, not driving less, not insulating their homes and not using low-power light bulbs. The Canadian government’s “One-Tonne Challenge” campaign, and the imposition of a “Congestion Charge” on automobile commuters in London, England, are cases in point: they both say individuals are to blame and should pay the cost of cleaning up the atmosphere.

Obviously conservation is important. But so long as the fossil fuel giants continue business as usual, individual efforts will have very little impact.

The Age of Greenwash

Denying climate change and blaming it on individuals have worked well until now, but such tactics are now losing effectiveness.

The scientific evidence for global warning gets more overpowering every day. On February 2, the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a major report on its causes. Journalists who have seen drafts of the report say that it confirms that most global warming since 1950 has been caused by man-made greenhouse gases, and warns that warming in the next 25 years will be twice as great as in the past century.

More generally, despite the confusion and misinformation, public concern about climate change is growing. Voters and customers want action: polls show that the environment has now passed heath care as the number one concern of Canadian voters.

That’s why George Bush and Stephen Harper are now demonstratively jumping on the green bandwagon and trying to grab the reins. That’s why Bush felt compelled to mention global warming in his State of the Union message.

Even ExxonMobil is on side: the company says it has stopped funding climate-change-denial front groups, and its executives are meeting with environmental groups to discuss proposals for regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Stephane Dion, recently chosen to lead Canada’s Liberal Party, is setting the pace for politicians. While he was Environment Minister, Dion did nothing to stop Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions from rising 30%. Now that he is leader of the Official Opposition, he says that he’ll make the environment his top priority if he wins the next federal election.

Dion’s real position on stopping greenhouse gas emissions was revealed in his response to expansion of the Alberta Tar Sands project. Extracting oil from tar sands generates two-and-a-half times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil production. The Alberta Tar Sands project is the largest single reason why Canada’s emissions have risen drastically since this country signed the Kyoto Accord. But when asked what he would do about it in May 2005, Dion shrugged: “There is no minister of the environment on earth who can stop this from going forward, because there is too much money in it.”

That’s the way it is in the age of greenwash — lots of talk about climate change, but no action that would interfere with the inalienable right of corporations to make money. Profits always come first, no matter how green the capitalist politicians claim to be.

Pollution Rights for Sale

In fact, there are major efforts under way to convince those who are concerned about climate that the solution is to increase the polluters’ profits.

Last year, the British government appointed leading economist Nicholas Stern to study the problem of climate change. His report identified the source of the problem:

“GHG emissions are an externality; in other words, our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

“Externality” is a term capitalist economists use when capitalist corporations don’t pay for the damage they cause. Pollution is the perfect example — individual corporations pollute, but society as a whole bears the cost. Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which supposedly ensures the best of all possible worlds, doesn’t work on externalities.

A naïve observer might conclude that this means we should stop relying on markets, but not Nicolas Stern, and not most policy makers. Their solution to market failure is — create more markets!

The most widely proposed “market solution” to climate change — the one that is enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol — is to set goals for emission reduction, and then put a monetary value on the right to pollute.

If a corporation decides it is too expensive to cut emissions, it can buy pollution credits from some other company, or it can fund green projects in the Third World. Ontario Hydro, for example, might keep using coal-fired power plants if it plants enough trees in India or Brazil.

George Monbiot has compared this to the medieval practice of selling indulgences. If you were rich and you committed murder or incest or whatever, the Church would sell you forgiveness for a fixed price per sin. You didn’t have to stop sinning — so long as you paid the price, the Church would guarantee your admission to heaven.

The emissions trading schemes are actually worse than that. It’s as though the Church just gave every sinner a stack of Get Out Of Hell Free cards — and those who don’t sin enough to use them all could then sell them to others who want to sin more.

Carbon Trading, a report published by Sweden’s Dag Hammerskold Foundation, shows not only that emissions trading doesn’t work, but that it actually makes things worse, by delaying practical action to reduce emissions by the biggest corporate offenders. What’s more, since there is no practical method of measuring the results of emissions trading, the entire process is subject to massive fraud. Emissions trading has produced huge windfalls for the polluters — it instantly increases their assets, and does little to reduce emissions.

Another “market-driven” approach proposes levying taxes levied on corporate greenhouse gas emissions. But if the “carbon taxes” are too low, they won’t stop emissions — and if they are high enough, corporations will shift their operations to countries that don’t interfere with business-as-usual. In any event, it is very unlikely that capitalist politicians will actually impose taxes that would force their corporate backers to make real changes.

As Australian writer Dick Nichols has pointed out, anyone who argues that markets can overcome climate change has to answer difficult questions:

“Embracing capitalism — no matter how green the vision put forward — saddles pro-market environmentalists with a difficult case for the defence. They have to explain exactly how a system that has consumed more resources and energy in the last 50 years than all previous human civilization can be made to stabilize and then reduce its rate of resource depletion and pollution emission. How can this monstrously wasteful, poisonous, and unequal economic system actually be made to introduce the technologies, consumption patterns and radical income redistribution, without which all talk of sustainability is a sick joke?” (Environment, Capitalism and Socialism)

No Capitalist Solution

Any reasonable person must eventually ask why capitalists and their governments seek to avoid effective action on climate change. Everyone, including capitalists and politicians, will be affected. Nicholas Stern estimates that the world economy will shrink by 20% if we don’t act. So why don’t the people in power do something?

The answer is that the problem is rooted in the very nature of capitalist society, which is made up of thousands of corporations, all competing for investment and for profits. There is no “social interest” in capitalism — only thousands of separate interests that compete with each other.

If a company decides to invest heavily in cutting emissions, its profits will go down. Investors will move their capital into more profitable investments. Eventually the green company will go out of business.

The fundamental law of capitalism is “Grow or Die.” Anarchic, unplanned growth isn’t an accident, or an externality, or a market failure. It is the nature of the beast.

Experts believe that stabilizing climate change will require a 70% or greater reduction in CO2 emissions in the next 20 to 30 years – and that will require a radical reduction in the use of fossil fuels. At least three major barriers militate against capitalism achieving that goal.

  • Changing from fossil fuels to other energy sources will require massive spending. In the near-term this will be non-profitable investment, in an economy that cannot function without profit.
  • The CO2 reductions must be global. Air and water don’t stop at borders. So long as capitalism remains the world’s dominant economic system, positive changes in individual countries will be undermined by countermoves in other countries seeking competitive advantage.
  • The change must be all-encompassing. Unlike previous anti-pollution campaigns that focused on single industries, or specific chemicals such as DDT, stopping greenhouse gases will require wrenching change to every part of the economy. Restructuring on such an enormous scale is almost certainly impossible in a capitalist framework — and any attempt to make it happen will meet intense resistance.

Only an economy that is organized for human needs, not profit, has any chance of slowing climate change and reversing the damage that’s already been done. Only democratic socialist planning can overcome the problems caused by capitalist anarchy.

Fighting for Change

But that doesn’t mean we should wait for socialism to challenge the polluters. On the contrary, we can and must fight for change today — it’s possible to win important gains, and building a movement to stop climate change can be an important part of building a movement for socialism.

A radical movement against climate change can be built around demands such as these:

  • Establish and enforce rapid mandatory reductions in CO2 emissions: real reductions, not phony trading plans.
  • Make the corporations that produce greenhouse gases pay the full cost of cutting emissions.
  • End all subsidies to fossil fuel producers.
  • Redirect the billions now being spent on wars and debt into public transit, into retrofitting homes and offices for energy efficiency, and into renewable energy projects.

Corporations and conservative union leaders (including one-time radical Buzz Hargrove of the Canadian Auto Workers union) play on the fear of job losses to convince workers to oppose action to protect the environment. All calls for restructuring industry must be coupled with opposition to layoffs. Workers must have access to retraining and relocation at the corporation’s expense, at full union pay.

The movement must pay particular attention on the needs of the Third World. As ecology activist Tom Athanasiou has written, we must “spare the South from any compulsion to make an impossible choice between climate protection on the one hand and ‘development’ on the other.” The people of the Third World have suffered centuries of poverty while their countries were plundered to enrich the imperialist powers. Now they are the hardest hit victims of climate change. They are angered, and rightly so, by any suggestion that they should now be forced to forego economic growth in order to solve a problem that was created by their exploiters in the North.

An effective climate change program will support the battles in the Third World against imperialist domination and distortion of their economies. It will oppose the export of polluting industries to the global south, support campaigns for land reform and to redirect agriculture to meet local needs, not export to the north. We must demand that our governments offer every possible form of practical assistance to assist Third World countries to find and implement developmental programs that are consistent with world environmental requirements.

The example of Cuba, a poor country with limited resources, shows what can be done. The World Wildlife Fund recently identified Cuba as the only country in the world that meets the requirements of sustainable development. Cuba achieved that while its economy was growing more than twice as fast as the Latin American average, so the problem isn’t growth — it is capitalist growth.

Humanity’s Choice

In 1918, in the midst of the most horrible war that the world had ever seen, the great German socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the choice facing the world was “Socialism or Barbarism.”

As we know, socialism did not triumph in the 20th Century. Instead we had a century of wars and genocide — the very barbarism that Rosa Luxemburg feared.

Today we face that choice in a new and even more horrible form. Prominent U.S. environmentalist Ross Gelbspan poses the issue in stark terms:

“A major discontinuity is inevitable. The collective life we have lived as a species for thousands of years will not continue long into the future. We will either see the fabric of civilization unravel under the onslaught of an increasingly unstable climate — or else we will use the construction of a new global energy infrastructure to begin to forge a new set of global relationships.” (Boiling Point, p. 17)

Gelbspan, like many environmentalists, pins his hopes on persuading capitalism’s decision makers that ending climate change is a “moral imperative.” Past experience, and an understanding of the imperatives of capitalism, show that to be a vain hope.

Instead, echoing Marx and Engels and Luxemburg, we must say that humanity’s choice in the 21st Century is EcoSocialism or Barbarism.

There is no third way.

From Socialist Voice, January 29, 2007



  • Paul York wrote:”Historical materialism in combination with prescriptive technology is deeply problematic, just as the unlimited economic growth of capitalism and prescriptive technology is deeply problematic for the same reason — it emphasizes production at all costs. Those costs include the welfare of human beings and the natural world. The better type of technology is decentralized, simple and holistic and within the control of workers. This type of technology (largely pre-industrial, but could include new inventions such as solar technology) tends to be more environmentally friendly, simpler and provides local solutions — the very emphasis of the bioregional movement. It is holistic technology that promises to revolutionize society and bring it into a sustainable green future by placing the “means of [energy] production” in the hands of consumers, effectively liberating them from the tyrrany of centralized energy-producers working in concert with captialist governements.In large part I do not agree with this. The idea that we have to go to any ‘pre-industrial’ form of technology is a prescription for enduring poverty. Even with the caveat he uses “…but could include new inventions…” doesn’t cut it.The great thing about fossil fuel is, as the bumper sticker says, it “saved the world from renewables for the last 140 years”. What this means is obvious: that those who use ‘renewables’: charcoal, wood, cattle-dung is a prescription for backwardness, early death and ignorance.So the solution had ought to be very high tech, something that increases productivity, not something that sends us back to pre-19th century levels. At the end of the day, commodity production based on a socialist economy is the ‘goal’, the production of ‘things’, needed for creating wealth (in communist terms). Poverty is BAD and wealth is GOOD. If we don’t agree on this, then the Marxist and socialist perspectives of super-abundance goes out the window.None of this need be wasteful, expensive or destructive. It should be beneficial to the environment, equalize living standards (upward!) and expand human horizons limitlessly.Secondly, why does Paul suggest that “decentralized” is better? This flows, I think, from an infatuation with cottage-industry and garden style farming methods, a kind of counter-culture infatuation with “all things small”. It is as religious in method as those that are wedded to the idea of “…emphasizes production at all costs”. Both are wrong, and equally so. We must have centralization where we need it (such as in urban areas) and decentralization where it makes the most sense. Each paradigm has be explored in it own context for what is best for society and the environment.David

  • A correction to the last comment, which had syntax errors (thank you Ian for pointing this out and encouraging further discussion):Simone Weil makes the point that you can have a Communist society with dehumanizing production-oriented factories if it is driven by a production-oriented ideology such as historical materialism. She was looking at the Soviet model when she wrote Oppression and Liberty, her seminal critique of Marxism. She wrote this treatise as a committed socialist dissatisfied with what she perceived as an emphasis within Marx’s work (and its practical applications) on production at the expense of “thought” (the ability to think and act freely within the workplace), which she equated with liberty.And an additional comment:To a great extent, a certain type of socialism compliments the anti-technology movement (through bio-regionalism, which is communitarian and decentralized); I do not disagree with a socialist perspective but wish to suggest that we need to include an strong critique of centralized technology in addition to that perspective, especially in light of the emphasis on nuclear technology and re-sequestration by the Bush Administration. They are acting as though high-end technology (which caused the problem) will solve it. As for Marxism, the effect of Marx’s thought (in practice through production-oriented factories) is virtually indistinguishable from capitalism as it affects workers and the environment. By “Marx’s thought” I mean his emphasis on historical materialism and its strong emphasis on production goals. In practice, this was translated into faked production quotas under Stalin. Of course, Stalinism must not be confused with Marxism, but my point is that there is an element in Marxism which lends itself to environmental abuse, and this needs to be analyzed. Marx’s later though must be distinguished from his earlier thought, which emphasized the welfare of the workers, the environment, and did not focus on production goals as did the later work. Here I am paraphrasing Simone Weil’s _Oppression and Liberty_ (1934). Historical materialism in combination with prescriptive technology is deeply problematic, just as the unlimited economic growth of capitalism and prescriptive technology is deeply problematic for the same reason — it emphasizes production at all costs. Those costs include the welfare of human beings and the natural world. The better type of technology is decentralized, simple and holistic and within the control of workers. This type of technology (largely pre-industrial, but could include new inventions such as solar technology) tends to be more environmentally friendly, simpler and provides local solutions — the very emphasis of the bioregional movement. It is holistic technology that promises to revolutionize society and bring it into a sustainable green future by placing the “means of [energy] production” in the hands of consumers, effectively liberating them from the tyrrany of centralized energy-producers working in concert with captialist governements.

  • Ian, this is a great article. It really sums up the problem. The one point of difference is the solution: modern captialism has causeed this problem through a combination of the ideology of unlimited economic growth AND high carbon-emitting technologies. Cuba does not emit a high amount of CO2 per capita because most people there use sustainable decentralized intermediary technologies to survive. This is not an original argument: several critics of massive, centralized technologies such as Ursula Franklin and Jaques Ellul make the same point. Simone Weil makes the point that you can have a Communist society with dehumizing production-oriented factories — and we could, polluting factories. The solution is whatever system can best give people power over technology, which excludes cars, massive factories, computers – mass-produced highly technical things which are production-oriented and wasteful.

  • It’s not true that there is no capitalist solution to climate change. While I agree that Carbon Trading has a lot of drawbacks and isn’t implemented in the spirit of the concept, another solution – carbon tax can be a much better, more comprehensive and easier to implement alternative to a cap and trade scheme. Please read more about carbon tax before rejecting it outright.