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Climate change - Capitalism can't cope

Representatives of all the world's capitalist states meeting in Buenos Aires in November failed to agree on any effective action to cut back the emission of greenhouse gases—because the required measures would have undermined the competitiveness of some to the advantage of others. Capitalism simply does not provide a framework for the rational solution of the probl,em of threatened climate change.

On a long-term geological scale, climatic fluctuations have always occurred with cycles of cold (glacial) and warm (interglacial) periods. In the shorter term, fluctuations often occur on a regional basis and last only decades. For example, the south side of the Sahara has been experiencing drought since the 1960s causing Lake Chad to shrink from 23,500 to only 2,000 square kilometres.

The human cost of such climatic fluctuations is considerable. In the USA in the 1930s continuous high temperatures and low rainfall led to depleted vegetation cover, dust storms and a greatly reduced harvest which left many people hungry and destitute. Like most disasters, however, the human cost need not have been so great, the profit system playing its part. An increase in wheat prices in the 1920s and a rise in agricultural technology had led to short-sighted, profit-led agriculture which left topsoil exposed and made such a disaster all the more likely. Also, like all food "shortages", it was not a lack of food (US stocks being easily enough to feed all in need) that people suffered from but a lack of money to pay for it.

The 20th century has seen a general warming, attributed by most to the greenhouse effect, which if it continues, would make such disasters, or at least extreme weather events, more commonplace. The century has seen across-the-globe average surface temperatures rise by between 0.3 percent and 0.6 percent, with the 1980s and 1990s being considerably the warmest on record. However, any changes in the vastly more important natural factors—solar activity, volcanic activity, natural carbon dioxide levels—would contribute to climate change more dramatically than would greenhouse gases.

There is still some uncertainty about what is causing global warming:

"The spasmodic character of the observed warming . . . , is difficult to explain and it will be many years before any clear signal of greenhouse global warming emerges . . . Opponents of the theory of the enhanced greenhouse effect point to the fact that at least half of the warming that has taken place over the last hundred years occurred before two-thirds of the enhancement of the major greenhouse gases took place" (Andrew Goudie, Future of Climate, p.23).

Nonetheless, the profit motive, mainly through cause the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels and deforestation since the industrial revolution and particularly in the late 20th century, has led to an increase in greenhouse gases and so to the real possibility of an increase in global temperature.

A massive global increase in carbon dioxide emissions has occurred from 1,620 million tons in 1950 to 6,056 million tons in 1995, with the US the main contributor but with China fast catching up with a rise of 13 percent between 1990 and 1994. As well as carbon dioxide greenhouse gases include nitrous oxide and methane (now 2.5 times its natural level) which are produced by certain types of agriculture (paddy cultivation and cattle ranching for example), waste disposal and fossil fuel burning. Human-made CFCs, a greenhouse gas, have also been released into the atmosphere with the added result of ozone layer destruction.

Such increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, it seems increasingly likely, will result in increased atmospheric heat retention which will in turn result in an increased average global surface temperature.

On the other hand, another impact of industrial output comes from sulphate aerosols from burnt fossil fuels which could reduce temperature by reflecting solar radiation and modifying clouds. As a worse-case scenario, nuclear war, apart from killing instant millions, could result in a massive global temperature drop below freezing, effectively making the planet uninhabitable.

Global warming, however, appears to be here now, and a very pressing issue it is too with figures for 1998 showing record global temperatures for every month, with increases above previous levels being between 0.1°C and 0.2°C. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) projects a global increase in surface temperature of between 1°C and 3.5°C by the year 2100.

The impact of such a warming would be particularly important for coastal systems, with more erosion, increased salinity of water supplies, changes in tidal ranges and deposition, and increased coastal flooding. Sea levels could rise as much as 0.5 metres over the next 100 years with potentially disastrous consequences in low lying, heavily populated regions such as Bangladesh. Extreme weather could become more severe and tropical diseases such as malaria could move North and South. According to the IPCC 1996 report, "coastal ecosystems are particularly at risk, including salt water marshes, mangrove ecosystems, coastal wetlands, coral reefs, coral atolls, and river deltas".

Ineffectual responses

Possible responses would most obviously be to cut down the vast production of greenhouse gases and to establish an effective response to the most likely effects of climate change.

The two major attempts made by world governments to respond to this issue have been ineffectual in the extreme. As one would expect, this was due to the impact that any effective response would have on profits and "international competitiveness". These two attempts were the proposed European Union carbon tax and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), both of which aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The EU discussed the adoption of a carbon tax but did not adopt it because of the fear that if other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries did not adopt similar policies, the international competitiveness of EU members, or at least of particular industries within it, would be affected.

The FCCC, consisting of 166 governments signing mostly non-binding agreements, was established in 1992 at the Rio summit with the aim of reducing greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Despite the agreement of all governments in the FCCC, few have done anything meaningful to meet the targets that were set. With production costs set to rise if the FCCC were applied, business lobbies were established to prevent any changes from being adopted. In the USA, for example, the Global Climate Convention was set up in 1989 with the task of representing the interests of the fossil fuel-based industries.

In such a situation, as the failure of the FCCC Conference in Buenos Aires in November confirming it is as near to impossible to achieve any action to reduce future emissions, let alone to produce any framework for combating any rise in temperatures.

Attempts to halt the massive output of greenhouse gases in the hope of preventing a possible global warming have resulted in negligible success, mainly due to capitalism's higher priority—profit. Judging by capitalism's lack of response to human need in the face of other vast human tragedies that could easily have been solved without the restraints of the profit system, it seems highly unlikely that flooding or the other consequences of warming would be dealt with in anything other way than as a panic effort at providing vastly inadequate aid after the event.

The issue of climate change is just one of a vast range of problems which capitalism is hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with. Human and environmental needs come a poor second whenever the needs of capital dictate. The history of sincere but failed attempts to correct a system which cannot meet needs leads to the conclusion that a new social system should be tried. A system without money and the profit motive in which the interests and needs of all are paramount. In such a system the challenge of the human impact on the environment can be seriously addressed for the first time. People, and not money, will control their lives and the direction of social progress.

COLIN SKELLY