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Too much hot air

A week may be a long time in politics, but it seems that ten years is not enough for capitalism to take action against climate change. Since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol little substantial has been done to address the problem.

It is almost universally agreed that global warming is brought about by an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. These gases trap heat and so lead to a rise in the planet’s temperature. The consequences are varied and not fully predictable, but might include water shortages, a fall in crop yields, rise in sea levels and the wiping out of many species.

It’s not yet too late to do something about it. Some degree of further global warming is already guaranteed by existing and near-future amounts of the greenhouse gases, but if a reduction in their emission is achieved then warming can be controlled and its worst effects avoided. George Monbiot’s book Heat is an extended attempt to show that carbon emissions in Britain could be cut by 90 percent. Various methods are described, such as the introduction of a micro-generation system, the use of gas-fired power stations, and an end to flying.

Monbiot argues that the climate change denial industry has managed to delay effective action. This industry is a mixed bag of lobby groups and websites, many of which receive funding from ExxonMobil, a giant corporation which makes most of its profits from oil and therefore stands to lose out if global warming is tackled seriously. Philip Morris, the tobacco company, was among the first to fund the denial industry.

Clearly companies whose business involves the production of greenhouse gases are going to fight tooth and nail against moves to constrain them. Capitalists in general will take a similar line if they feel attempts to combat global warming will reduce their profits. Governments, which — after all — represent capitalist interests will jump in on their side. All talk of global or governmental responses to climate change has to take these harsh realities into account.

In his book The Weather Makers Tim Flannery writes:

“The transition to a carbon-free economy is eminently achievable because we have all the technology we need to do so. It is only a lack of understanding and the pessimism and confusion generated by special interest groups that is stopping us from going forward.”

Flannery claims that international action to prevent damage to the atmosphere is possible and has indeed occurred in the past. In 1987 the Montreal Protocol successfully limited the emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These destroy the ozone layer, which blocks lethal ultra-violet radiation reaching the earth. Once the dangers inherent in CFCs were realised, production of them was phased out, and now the ozone layer is recovering.

The problem is that the parallels between the Montreal Protocol and the Kyoto Protocol, which is intended to reduce carbon emissions, are not close enough. CFCs were used in spraycans, some cleaning agents, and so on, and consequently they were nowhere near as important or central to capitalist production as the generation of power and energy, which are basically where greenhouse gases are output. It’s not just a matter of the ‘special interest groups’ to which Flannery refers, but of the drastic disruption to capitalist industry — and hence to profits — that would be involved. Even though the Kyoto-envisaged reductions are nowhere near what is really needed, even these milk-and-water provisions are unlikely to be adopted.

So it isn’t primarily confusion and lack of understanding that militate against capitalism taking serious steps to limit global warming. It’s the central role of the profit motive. And that’s why it will take a socialist society before these and other environmental problems can be tackled — and humanity live in true harmony with our home planet.