Fossil Fuel, Climate and Anti-Capitalism

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This article was originally published, in a slightly different form, by Europe solidaire sans frontiers in French and in a somewhat different English translation from the one below.

It is also scheduled for publication in the UK magazine Socialist Outlook.

by Daniel Tanuro

Tobacco causes cancer, so what would we say to a doctor who, discovering a lung tumour in a patient, prescribed cigarettes? We would call him a charlatan, or an assassin. Harm is not cured by harm, but by attacking it.The same logic applies to the battle for the climate. The Stern Review describes climate change as “the largest and broadest market failure ever seen,” and “a defeat for the market without precedent.” [1] To believe that a phenomenon resulting from the market can be combated by the extension of the market is absurd. But this is what Stern proposes.The European Commission and all the governments follow in his footsteps: more market, more growth, more globalisation. In fact we must take the opposite path: less market, more public spending; less competition, more collaboration; less free enterprise, more planning; less globalisation, more local production. A system based on fulfilling real human needs will not need to produce ever more goods.

‘The largest and broadest market failure ever seen’

Why is the market economy responsible for global warming? Stern does not answer this question. He cannot do so because the answer lies in the very foundations of capitalism, not in one or another minor imperfection.

The market economy is responsible for global warming because it is based on competition and accumulation. Decisions on production are not taken in relation to human needs or ecology, but on the basis of profit. Useless or harmful things are made solely to satisfy the greed of shareholders. Costly publicity campaigns are used to sell the products. Blind competition leads to overproduction, with many products being discarded. Objects are created for rapid consumption, or to consume too much energy. Things are made in poor countries, then transported to the rich.

In short, waste of resources is inherent in the market economy. It is anchored in an irrepressible force that pushes each owner of capital to replace workers with machines, so as to cash in on a “technological superprofit (or rent).” The system’s tendency to compensate for the decline in the rate of profit – which results from the multiplication of machines – leads not only by an exploitation of work, but also to (over) production of goods, conquest of new markets and invention of new needs.

But that is not all. The most important cause of global warming is the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). But the use of fossil fuels is itself the result of the logic of profit. It has been known since 1839 that natural light interacts with certain materials to generate electricity (the “photovoltaic effect”). If scientific research had been primarily oriented towards the exploitation of solar energy, the atmosphere today would not be saturated with carbon.

Why was this path not taken? Because the capitalist energy system, already in place, was based on private ownership of resources and extreme centralisation of energy production. Photovoltaic energy did not fit well in that system, because. no one can own solar rays, which are unlimited and diffuse. On the other hand corporations can own the finite stocks of coal, oil and gas — and accumulate superprofits as well as profits.

Superprofits at the heart of the capitalist energy system

Oil, coal, gas and wood all incorporate accumulated solar energy in a form that can be stockpiled and transported. Beginning in the 14th century in Europe, the newly born bourgeoisie and the aristocracy appropriated the forests, which had previously been shared for the common good. Ever since, wood has been a commodity and the control of energy resources a decisive factor in class domination. If we consider this both from the point of view of energy and of society, we can say that the monopoly of the ownership of the land allowed the landlord class to sell — at no cost to themselves — solar energy in the form of wood, gaining not only an average profit, but also superprofits in the form of income from the land.

This tendency was reinforced with the appearance of the industrial bourgeoisie, who replaced the solar energy of wood with fossil solar energy — first coal, then oil and gas. A brief look back at the history of energy technologies, is enough to show that the centralisation of capital, the monopoly of resources and the centralisation of power accompanied the shift from wood to coal, then from coal to electricity power stations, thence to nuclear power stations. Each time maintaining the precious energy superprofits.

Consider the case of oil. The sale of refined petroleum products brings in about 2000 million Euros a year. The costs is barely €500 million. The profit and oil income – €1500 million a year on a world scale – is pocketed by a small number of multinationals and (except for Venezuela) by the superrich in power in the countries of production. [2] Oil is their goose that lays the golden eggs. They want her to continue laying for as long as possible.

This desire is shared by the sectors that depend on oil: cars, naval construction, aeronautics, petrochemicals… all sectors that have a formidable power and political influence. This is why scientists who warned against the danger of global warming were unheard for more than thirty years. This is why the money in the energy research and development budgets for renewables in the member states of the International Energy Agency (IEA) has decreased since the first oil crisis (7.7% from 1986-2002 compared to 8.4% from 1974-1986!). This is why nuclear fission –not renewables – has carved out the lion’s share of these budgets (47.3%), followed by conversion technologies of fossil fuels. [3]
Why? To maintain profits, superprofits, political power and social control flowing from centralised energy. It’s a vain search to look for any other answer.

Not only is the market responsible for the climate mess, but also it does everything possible to block the measures necessary to clean it up. When such measures are unavoidable, the market tries to diminish them, or to deform them so much that they barely merit the phrase “the first step in the right direction.” Look at the Kyoto Protocol: it is so full of “flexible mechanisms” that at best it will reduce the global emissions of the industrialised countries by 1.7% by 2012, [4] when the real need is for a worldwide reduction of 70% by 2050.

The alternative is anti-capitalist and solar

To reduce global emissions by 70% between now and 2050! Is this possible in such a short time? Yes! It will be difficult, but for the most part the climate can still be saved. Solar radiation totals 8000 times the world’s present energy consumption. Existing technologies would allow us to use a thousandth of that: eight times humanity’s actual need. Scientific research will build on this potential in the years ahead — if we give scientists the means to do so.

Certainly economies will have to be made, waste will have to be abolished — this concerns each of us, our habits, etc. But we are not condemned to choose between the climate and wellbeing, or between the climate and the development of the countries of the South, or between the climate and heaps of radioactive waste that will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years! A global plan, democratically developed and answering humanity’s needs would allow us to face the danger. There is an alternative, anticapitalist and … solar.

In the end capitalism will have to do something to stabilise the situation, must leave behind the logic of Kyoto’s “small steps.” The moment of this decision is fast approaching, under the onslaught of the media. But the market will “save” the climate in its own way, just as it destroys it: on the back of the workers and the oppressed. Its function is profit not need.

This will happen in two stages. First, the system will wait as long as possible, so that rescuing of the climate becomes an income generating activity, so that the market for clean technologies (and nuclear ones) is ripe — too bad for those who are already suffering from climate change but do not represent a solvent financial market.

Then, when the rescue of what remains of our climate becomes an income for shareholders, we will be made to pay for the financing and for the dismantling of social protection — too bad for those who do not have the means to help themselves.

The Stern Review is clear in this respect. The best way to save the climate involves doing everything possible to limit temperature increases to less than 2°C from a baseline of 1780. Concretely, this means that emissions can peak in ten years then decline by 5% a year.

Stern estimates the cost of this scenario to be $1200 billion a year …. and finds it too expensive. So he argues for another solution: peak emission in 20 years, then a reduction of between 1% and 3% a year. This will cost much less — but it also means that there is a greater than 50% chance that the average temperature will rise more than 2°C.

This is the capitalist answer for “saving” the climate! Between now and 2080, 200 million people will have to flee the rising oceans. Global warming will add three billion men, women and children to the ranks of those who suffer already from lack of water.

$1200 billion could prevent these catastrophes — but capitalism finds it too expensive! (Bear in mind that military budgets swallow up $1037 billion every year, and oil superprofits are even higher.) [5]

In its race for profits and superprofits, capitalism has developed an energy system based on fossil fuels and the exploitation of human labour. As a result we are today in a energy and environmental cul de sac, at a global level. There is only one way to escape without a bloodbath or an ecological disaster: break with the logic of the market, declare energy a common good. Turn away from the sorcerer’s apprentice technologies that respond to the needs of capitalist accumulation, not to the needs of the inhabitants of this planet.

The left must put forward this program when it participates in united mobilisations against climate change.

1. Report drawn up by Sir Nicholas Stern at the request of the British Government, October 2006.
2. Jean-Marie Chevalier, Les grandes batailles de l’energie, Gallimard, 2004.
3. AIE 2004.
4. European Environment Agency, report No.8/2005, Page 9.
5. Figures 2004 from SIPRI, Stockholm.


  • While I agree with most of the arguments and the problem this post highlights, it’s sorely lacking in details of the solution the writer proposes to clean this mess. Just asking us to “break with the logic of the market, declare energy a common good” is not helpful. I don’t think that the world is ready to accept a program “put forward by the left.” How will this be done and where?On more practical terms, if we introduce carbon tax all across the world, the same “all-evil” market can become a great tool in combating climate change. A carbon tax (adjusted with removal of payroll taxes by an equivalent amount) can take care of most of the issues highlighted here. Energy will become something to conserve, fossil fuels unfeasible and renewables attractive. All thanks to the market.

  • GOSTILOThe argument that the market has all the answers to economic decisions have been debated for decades. In environmental terms, the market does not have provisions for the environment. The workings of demand and supply are not directly subjected to the concept of environmental justice. Infact, environmental issues are considered as externalities in these market related models. And so in my opinion, leaving environmental conservation to the market will only worsen the already devasted environment. If the market was capable of taking care of the environment, it would have done so long before now.