Global warming profits before action

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In a world dominated by imperialism, the needs of the ruling class are not only always put before those of the mass of the people, but also before the needs of the environment. Any attempt to alleviate climate change or global warming by the G8 or the EU or any other amalgam of imperialist powers needs to be seen in this context. LOUIS BREHONY reports.

The theoretical basis for climate change can be explained with what is known as the greenhouse effect. When the energy from the sun reaches the earth, some of this energy is absorbed by the earth’s surface, some of it is reflected back towards space unchanged, and some is absorbed and then re-emitted as heat. In a greenhouse, the glass acts as an insulator preventing the absorbed energy from leaving so that it heats the greenhouse and its contents. Water-bearing objects (such as plants) absorb this heat and produce water vapour. Since water vapour also traps heat, the greenhouse becomes warmer still.

This explains global warming. Industrial capitalism has generated huge quantities of the warming gas carbon dioxide. Other gases rise in the atmosphere and serve as a glass-like barrier reducing the proportion of energy reflected back into space. In 200 years carbon dioxide concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased by 35% – one third of this in the last 40 years alone – and global average temperatures have risen by 0.6 degrees centigrade.

The greenhouse effect tells us that this sharp rise in the concentration of warming gases in the environment, added to heat absorption by water-based objects such as the polar ice-caps will make the average temperature rise uncontrollably. It has now been discovered that the rate of carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere has suddenly jumped without any simultaneous jump in carbon emissions. ‘A ‘feedback’ mechanism, where the effects of global warming start to speed up the process itself, could be kicking in much earlier than anticipated, with the potentially disastrous consequences of extra rapid climate change’.* This includes the accelerated release of methane, 23 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, from melting permafrost, causing further temperature rises. It is estimated that by the end of this century average temperatures will rise by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade.

By summer 2070 the Arctic ice cap may have disappeared: it has already shrunk by 15-20% in the past 30 years alone and the trend is speeding up. Local environment, Inuit and other communities will be seriously harmed, and natural energy sources will be harder to reach. By 2050 sea levels may rise by half a metre. This would mean that 20% of Bangladesh will disappear beneath the sea displacing 15 million people, mostly poor peasants; the fertile lands of Egypt’s Nile delta will be submerged leaving 7 million homeless and 12% of the country’s arable land under water; and 30 million will be displaced in eastern China with the destruction of its alluvial plains. Hurricanes and cyclones will become both more frequent and more severe. According to the UN, one billion people live under threat of severe flooding, and by 2050 this number will have doubled. Even developed nations will be threatened, particularly the Netherlands and the US’s Mississippi delta, although these countries can afford to spend large sums of money on sea defences.

Britain is also affected. The country was totally unprepared for the violent tropical storms and floods that hit southwest England in summer 2004 and the north in January 2005. In the most recent storms winds hit at over 124mph, virtually unheard of in this part of the world. As a result of this sharp turn towards catastrophic weather, insurance claims have doubled in last six years, forcing the British Association of Insurers to admit that ‘we are starting to feel the beginnings of climate change’ (spokesperson Dr Sebastian Catovsky on Sky News). A report by the British Meteorological Office suggests that large parts of Britain, including London Docklands, will soon be in peril.

The Kyoto protocol
The Kyoto Protocol aims at getting the richest capitalist countries to cut overall emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2008-12. It has to be ratified by countries accounting for 55% of developed nations’ greenhouse emissions to take effect. The protocol is completely inadequate. But even this conservative step is too much for the Bush administration which has refused to ratify it in order to help maintain US imperialism’s position as the world’s dominant economic power. The US is the world’s biggest polluter. Between 1980 and 2001, US carbon dioxide emissions increased an average of 0.9% per year. Russia recently approved the Protocol on 3 November 2004. Putin’s government is aiming to present Russia as a cleaner, friendlier capitalism in order to make and sustain new alliances as inter-imperialist rivalries develop.

Tony Blair recently became President of the imperialist G8 and is masquerading as the head of global capitalism’s efforts to tackle global warming. In an article in The Economist on 1 January he boasted of Britain’s supposedly progressive attitude towards pollution. He leapt to the defence of British Petroleum, one of the world’s biggest polluters. What he didn’t mention is the fact that ‘green’ Britain is actually set to miss one of its own, conservative, targets – the 20% cut in carbon dioxide levels that is supposed to be achieved by 2010. In response he sought a 3% increase in the amount of carbon dioxide Britain would be allowed to emit under European legislation and followed this up by a public threat to sue the European Commission if Britain did not get its way.

At the Davos World Economic Forum, Blair revealed the true limits of any attempt at climate control in an imperialist world when he warned that governments could not be expected to push through changes that would seriously damage their economic prospects. ‘If we put forward as a solution to climate change something that involves drastic cuts in growth or standards of living – it matters not how justified it is – it simply won’t be agreed to’, he said. This is the truth. Profit and unsustainable living standards come before action on the environment on imperialism’s agenda.

The annual Climate Change Convention takes place in February and the key question is supposed to be what concentration of carbon dioxide could be reached ‘without a dangerous rise in temperature’. The current EU estimate is twice the pre-industrial level. This it believes would lead to a maximum global temperature rise of 2 degrees centigrade. But this is still an enormous rise, and it reflects only the short-term effect. Sea levels will rise for 300 years even if carbon emissions ceased now. This is all in the name of profit. Only with the destruction of imperialism and the building of socialism, a society that values the needs of the majority rather than a small elite, can the environment be saved from man-made destruction.

* The Independent, 27 December 2004


FRFI 183 February / March 2005