Global Warming: Three Barriers to a Capitalist Solution

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by Ian Angus

A recently posted comment goes straight to the heart of what this website is all about. “Rethinker” wrote:

I still find myself uncomfortable with assertions that only socialism can solve the problem of ecological crisis. I agree that capitalism requires constant growth, and that this is ultimately unsustainable ecologically. But does that necessarily imply that large corporations are incapable of reducing fossil fuel consumption? The world has by and large reduced its consumption of other commodities (CFCs, for instance, or to use an example from Canadian history, beaver pelts) so why is it impossible to suggest that reducing fossil fuel consumption is impossible in a capitalist economy? …

Isn’t there a middle path between dogmatic assertions of the socialist theory and reliance on the market as a mechanism? Isn’t there some way to have governments regulate – and it would need to be very heavy regulation – industries in order to get GHG emissions reduced, without requiring the workers to seize control of the means of production?

My view was stated in my very first post to this website:

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. (Confronting the Climate Change Crisis)

That view can be summed up in seven words: Ecosocialism or barbarism: There is no third way.

But it isn’t enough to assert that capitalism cannot do what is obviously necessary. We need to explain and prove it, in theory and in practice. Over time, Climate and Capitalism will publish contributions that deal with that question from many angles. The following article is part of this ongoing process.

The author, Daniel Tanuro, is a member of the Fourth International. This article is an excerpt from Le Diable Fait Les Casseroles, Mais Pas Les Couvercles, which originally appeared in the Belgian newspaper La Gauche. It was translated for Climate and Capitalism by Richard Fidler, and is posted here with Daniel Tanuro’s permission. A different translation of the entire piece, entitled The Devil Makes the Saucepans, But Not the Lids, was published in International Viewpoint, March 2007.

(Daniel Tanuro’s original article also includes a discussion of “Contraction And Convergence.” Readers who have been following that issue on this website may find his comments useful.)

Three Interlinked Difficulties

by Daniel Tanuro

Notwithstanding its logic of accumulation, can capitalism respond to the physical constraints that stabilisation of the climate will require in time to allow us to avoid human and ecological catastrophe? Unfortunately, given the level already reached by greenhouse gases and the inertia of the climate system, that seems highly improbable, if not impossible. In reality, catastrophe already looms as shown by a series of events whose interconnected nature is obvious. With the apparent acceleration of global warming, the question today is rather whether the system is capable of limiting the damage and stabilising the situation, and under what social conditions.

To give a concrete response to that, we need to take the measure of three interlinked difficulties: the scope of the changes needed within a very short time frame, the rigidity of the energy system, and the competition expressed in the relations between states (in particular North-South relations).

First difficulty: The combination of very strong imperatives and very short timescales.

The scope of the changes to be carried out in barely a few decades is dizzying: it amounts to “decarbonising” the economy almost completely. That involves doing without fossil fuels in general as sources of energy, but also oil in particular as raw material of the petrochemical industry (see box: “decarbonisation and energy decline”). Renewable sources can fill the gap, but not under all conditions. Not in the context of energy-devouring transportation, or in the production of a plethora of plastics, for example.

In any case, since they cost more than fossil fuels, and the timelines are short, the passage to renewables must absolutely be linked with a significant fall in the primary demand of the developed countries (of the order of 50%, and more in the more energy-voracious countries). This means a war on waste and an increase in energy efficiency. And not only in facilities, individual machinery and the behaviour of individuals, but also and above all in the global energy system, the overall determinant.

From a rational viewpoint, entire sectors of the economy would need to be eliminated outright because they are unnecessary if not harmful (weapons production, advertising and so on), whereas others would be rationalised to suppress the duplication of competition. That, capitalism cannot even envisage, it is so contrary to its logic.

But there is no escaping the fact that substantial changes will be necessary in areas as diverse as land development, transportation, agriculture, housing, recreational activities, tourism and so on. Indeed, to achieve them in time would necessitate a high degree of centralisation and democratic elaboration of a well thought through plan. None of these factors are easily compatible with neoliberal management of a mode of production driven by feverish competition, with the political exclusion of the masses as its corollary.

Second difficulty: the capitalist energy system is characterised by extreme rigidity and a strong centralisation.

These are the result not only of the lifetime of investments (30-40 years for an electric power station) but also and above all of the fact that powerful lobbies are attached to the goose that lays the golden eggs — and permanently create new needs which “justify” putting the goose in a position to lay more.

The annual worldwide sales of refined products in the oil industry are estimated at 2,000 billion euros per year, all products combined; total costs of prospecting, extraction and refining account for barely 500 billion. The difference between the two (1,500 billion euros per year!) constitutes the total profits, and above all superprofits in the form of economic rent derived from the private appropriation of the resource.

To this colossal power should be added that of the industries linked to oil. Cars, chemicals, petrochemicals, aeronautics, shipbuilding and so on: all of these branches are dependent on the continued expansion of the world market, and thus of material consumption and exchanges. In this situation even rapid development of investment in wind and solar technologies (where economic rents are hard to envisage) can only delay the solution. Generally under the control of huge groups like Shell, BP, and so on, the renewables sector is used mainly at this time to complement fossil fuels, not replace them.

The explosion in air transport and individual automobile use, and the consumer habits flowing from them, are a marvellous illustration of how this logic of the sorcerer’s apprentice is legitimised through the needs it creates, dragging us ever more quickly into the wall while obscuring our vision of reality.

Third difficulty: competition as expressed in relations between states.

CO2 produced at any point of the globe contributes to global warming. Given this global character of the menace, the response needs to be thought through, planned and structured globally, with the priority on co-operation in the interests of all within a long term perspective. The central goal must be to produce a united response to the key question: how are resources to be shared to combine a drastic and rapid reduction of emissions globally with the right to development of the countries of the South, where the vast majority of the human race lives?

Indeed, in spite of the efforts deployed by numerous scientists, domination and competition systematically prevail over collaboration, and the hoarding of resources (including by means of war) over their sharing.

The attitude of the main imperialist protagonists (USA, European Union, Japan) in the climate negotiations is clearly determined by the interests of their businesses and the geo-strategic objectives of the various bourgeoisies on the world market, in particular on the energy market. The same applies to Russia, to each member state of the European Union taken separately, and to the major developing countries (not to mention the oil monarchies!).

The interminable difficulties, the slowness and setbacks of the climate negotiations are thus an expression of the contradiction, insoluble under capitalism, between the increasingly globalized character of the economy and the maintenance of rival nation states (or combinations of states) entirely devoted to the defence of the interests of their bourgeoisie, some of which dominate others.

This imbroglio, in which the fate of the victims of climate change carries no weight, could have irreversible consequences. For example, if the conflict of interests between the imperialist powers and the dominant classes of the major developing countries were to result in a prolonged stalemate in negotiations on the sequel to Kyoto. Or if the future US administration, against all expectations, was to prolong the Bush line for several more years.

The capitalist Moloch won’t fold its arms

From all this, it should not be concluded that the capitalist Moloch will remain with arms folded in the face of a phenomenon which, while it primarily affects the exploited, also presents the threat of a massive devalorisation of capital and rising instability.

But its struggle against climate change for fourteen years has been conducted at the pace dictated by capital — too slowly — and on neoliberal terms, which increase social inequalities, North-South tensions, as well as the appropriation and pillage of natural resources. Despite some positive features, Kyoto is clearly too little and too late. Not only is the goal of a 5.2% reduction in emissions of the developed countries very minimal, and not to be realised until 2012, but the “flexible mechanisms” included in the protocol have negative social and environmental consequences.

The negotiations on the post-2012 period are unlikely to alter the situation. As soon as Bush has left the White House, the EU and USA will probably turn toward compromise. This corresponds to the increasingly pressing demands of numerous multinationals which, convinced that some measures are inevitable, want a unified and stable regulatory framework at the global level as soon as possible. But this rapprochement of climate competitors and allies may well accentuate the neoliberal character of the Protocol, reduce its relative regulatory impact (quotas, dates, sanctions in case of non-compliance) and put other, positive aspects under pressure.


  • I am very glad that you have responded and begun a more detailed discussion of this question, which I think is one that ecosocialists absolutely must address. I find the ‘Barriers’ article from Tanuro to be quite well-argued, and I recognize that it contains some very important points that anyone would be wise to consider. Yet I find that I am still not quite convinced of what appears to be the implied conclusion. I hope that it is appropriate for me to take some space here to explain the reasons for disagreeing.Perhaps it is most helpful if I set out what I see as the point of contention. When I read arguments to the effect that capitalism will always present barriers to the solution of some problem, I take from them the implication that instead of trying to solve that problem within capitalism, we should work to overthrow capital and establish a socialist economy first, and then we should find it easy to solve the problem. If I am assuming too much here, point words in people’s mouths, then perhaps there isn’t that much to argue over. But I do find that a dangerous line of argument, especially when the problem that confronts us is as urgent as the problem of global warming. My position is that socialists should try to do whatever is most likely to work to stop the problem of global warming, and that isn’t necessarily always to wait until after the revolution to get the problem under control. Socialists have been trying to put an end to capitalist relations of production for quite some time now, and capital has survived despite repeated predictions of its inability to deal with crisis after crisis. My fear is that by insisting that capitalism must be transcended before anything can be done about global warming will mean that our energies will not be put to good use, as it is unlikely that enough other people will be willing to listen to arguments about capitalism being the problem, and our arguments will be ignored and the planet will continue to get hotter. We would be better off working with those, and there does seem to be more and more of them, who want to limit capital’s power to destroy the planet, rather than alienate them with rigid principles that criticise them for their assumptions about economics.Of course, this only makes sense if we can also believe that something meaningful can be done about global warming within the confines of capitalism. I think a good argument can be made that this is not completely out of the question.I do recognize the strength of the analysis of capitalism and the reasons why it will always make it more difficult to deal with these kinds of problem. However, saying that there are reasons why an economic system isn’t likely to solve a problem is not the same thing as saying that it can’t ever deal with the problem. What is needed here is to consider the three ‘barriers’ (from the first post on this blog) one at a time and see if they are insurmountable or just regular old barriers of the surmountable kind.First is the fact that dealing with global warming will require massive spending of a sort that won’t be near-term profitable. This is to some extent true, but is it really the case that this can never be done because capitalists are in charge? Our analysis needs to remember that we don’t have any kind of pure capitalist economy as described in the pages of Marx’s Capital. We have a state-regulated economy, and although the state is by and large controlled by capital, there are many instances from history of the state spending money on solving collective problems, for a variety of reasons. Here in Canada, the state spends something like a third of its expenditures on health care, not just because it is short-term profitable to do so. Another really good example is the massive military spending that governments of the capitalist countries engaged in to defend themselves during WWII. I think these precedents are good reason to suggest that in fact capitalism (through the state) is capable of engaging in massive spending to solve collective problems even when it isn’t in the short-term interest of every part of the capitalist class to pay the taxes necessary. Also it must be recognized that there will be lots of profits to be made building mass transit vehicles, windmills, solar power arrays, and retrofitting homes. It is primarily the fossil fuel industry that stands to lose profits from attempts to solve the problem of global warming, and there is no reason why they can’t be induced to shift their investment into different kinds of activity.Secondly, the problem is global and national economies are competing against each other. This is a big problem, but again there is precedent in solving it. Not only that, but there are only a few economies (US, Europe, Japan, maybe China) that are so dominant as to be able to influence the activity of the rest of the world, so as long as we can get these economies on side, the rest of the world can be bullied into going along with the plan. CFCs were eliminated, and I am aware that oil plays a much more central role in industrial economies, but if capitalists can collectively recognize their interests on a national scale, as I argued in the last paragraph, then they should be able to do so on a global scale. Again, in WWII, this problem was solved. The US took its time taking up arms against the Nazis, but overall we didn’t have the freerider problem happening with all the Allies just waiting for each other to stop Hitler. A similar dynamic might be possible this time around too.Third, the restructuring of our economy will need to be all-encompassing, for sure. Right down to the level of individual consumer choices. Capitalism isn’t the kind of thing we expect to be able to do that, but I think some care needs to be taken here. After WWII, the economic structure was transformed massively from one oriented towards laissez faire liberalism towards a Keynesian welfare state – perhaps not as much in the US as in some other countries, but still the changes involved in allowing workers legal rights to collectively bargain and massively increasing state spending on social goods was not a small one. And then, of course, over the course of the 80s and 90s, that was all reversed and the economy has reverted to laissez-faire, this time with an international dimension based on free trade agreements. Why can’t we argue for a similar transformation of capitalism towards a more ecologically sustainable version?Tanuro’s discussion actually provides three slightly different barriers, and I should deal with them in a further post. But let also make three more general points.First, what is really needed in this kind of debate is not just generalizations about what is in the interest of capital and what it isn’t, but some discussion of the basic structure of capitalism as a set of production relations and what they imply for ecology. Is there something about the private control of the means of production, or the commodification of labour power, that can be logically extended to demonstrate that capitalism must continue to consume fossil fuels at current rates? I believe that such an analysis would reveal that capitalism is a radically adaptive system – it has survived many a serious threat in the last 100 years – and so there is reason to think that it could be forced to adapt to more sustainable practices.Secondly, the metaphor of a war on waste, or a state of emergency, seem to me to be really very helpful. Only that kind of phrasing of the question, I believe, is likely to get the ruling class to act on to solve the problem that all of us face. We are facing a threat more serious than any military threat and we need to mobilize all of society’s resources in a centrally controlled effort to stop it! That kind of appeal is the only thing that has worked in the past.And lastly, I hope that no one will take my arguments here to be a defence of capital and its right to pollute in any way shape or form. I am a socialist and hope to help eliminate capitalism some day, but fear that global warming needs to be, and can be dealt with first. So I hope no on
    e will respond by telling me that markets in carbon offsets aren’t effective, etc – I am not arguing for market-based solutions. Stopping global warming might be possible within capitalism, but if so, it will require a strong state that can stand up to capital, tax it, regulate it, and otherwise restrict its capacity to profit. In other words, it will require us to argue for the kinds of things that socialists support anyway. With some effective political work, we might be able to further both aims. Hopefully, once all other options are exhausted, and it becomes obvious that state direction of a large sector of the economy is absolutely necessary for solving the problem, it might be possible to convince more and more social democrats and left-liberals that in fact capitalism will always be a problem, and we can come out of this crisis having weakened or even mortally wounded capital. But that isn’t the same thing as waiting for the revolution to happen first.rethinker