2000s >> 2007 >> no-1231-march-2007

Who caused global warming?

“Global warming is caused by mankind, is here to stay and is getting worse, leading scientists have concluded”.

So the Times (3 February) summarised the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued at the beginning of February. As the IPCC is made up of hundreds of scientists from all over the world, specialists in the field, its findings are fairly authoritative.

However, blaming “mankind” in general for causing the problem is misleading since this suggests that people have deliberately chosen to engage in the activities that have led and are still leading to global warming. Whereas this is not the case. Most humans performing these are just carrying out the orders of those organising them while these latter are in turn constrained to act in the way they do by the economic laws of the capitalist system that currently dominates the world.

Capitalism is the impersonal process of the accumulation of capital out of the surplus value produced by the wageworking class and involves competition to transform this surplus value into money by selling the products in which it is embodied. This battle is won by those enterprises that can sell their products at the lowest price due to their employment of more productive methods. This investment in new productive methods depends on making enough profits (converting enough surplus value into money). So, capitalism is the pursuit of profits to accumulate as more capital. Such “growth” is built into it and cannot be stopped. If ever it was, the whole system would seize up and there’d by massive worldwide unemployment.

The IPCC report “best estimate” for each of the six scenarios.

It is capitalism that has forced some humans to organise and order other humans to burn fossil fuels, cut down tropical forests, etc because this is cheaper and more competitive than the alternatives. So, the real conclusion of the IPCC report is that, to the extent that it is “anthropogenic” (as they put in scientific language) rather than caused by solar radiation, volcanic activity or some other force outside human control, “global warming is caused by capitalism”.

Six storylines

The IPPC report (Summary for Policymakers at www.ipcc.ch/SPM2feb07.pdf) offers six scenarios, or “storylines”, of what could happen by the year 2100. All of them assume the continuation of capitalism. Given this assumption, however, four of the scenarios can be dismissed as unrealistic in that they are incompatible with the way capitalism works. Two of them are those favoured by Greens and assume, respectively, that “the underlying theme is self-reliance and preservation of local identities” (which the report labels A2) or that “the emphasis is on local solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability” (B2); both imply a slower rate of capital accumulation than hitherto (and also a slower decline in the rate of population growth). A third (B1) assumes a “rapid change in economic structures toward a service and information economy, with reductions in material intensity and the introduction of clean and resource efficient technologies. The emphasis is on global solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability, including improved equity”. But this just isn’t going to happen under capitalism and would require the establishment of a world socialist system to be applied.

The fourth unrealistic scenario (A1T) envisages “a future world of very rapid economic growth, global population that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, and the rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies” but where the technological emphasis is on “non-fossil energy sources”. What’s unrealistic about this is not the first part – which is likely, if not so “rapid” as assumed (see later) – but the second, i.e.,the early abandoning of the use of fossil fuels to generate energy. Fossil fuels are currently cheaper than the alternatives, and will be for a while, and so will continue to be used for as long as this is the case. The two remaining scenarios share the assumption of the fourth about economic growth and the introduction of new technologies but assume that the technological emphasis will be “fossil intensive” (A1F1) (the present situation) or “a balance across all [energy] sources” (A1B). The latter seems the more likely, if only because as fossil fuels become rarer their price will rise relatively to non-fossilsources so making the latter relatively cheaper.

The IPCC report gives a “best estimate” for the likely rise in world surface temperature by 2100 compared with the 1980-1999 average for each of the six scenarios (see Table). As can be seen, the best in terms of lowest temperature rise is B1 (1.8 degrees Centigrade). The worst is A1F1 (4 degrees Centigrade). The one that an understanding of the way capitalism works suggests is the most likely (A1B) gives a rise of 2.8 degrees Centigrade. It is interesting to note that the two localist, Green scenarios come out badly at 3.4 and 2.4 degrees Centigrade respectively. “Think globally, act locally” doesn’t seem such a good idea after all.

A 2.8 degrees Centigrade rise in average temperature is going to cause many problems – melting ice-caps, rising sea-levels, droughts, migrations – which capitalism, because it is divided politically into competing states, will be unable to tackle rationally; in fact, in some cases they are likely to lead to wars. These problems could only be tackled successfully within the framework of a world socialist system where there would no longer be armed states or frontiers but a global administration able to take effective global action.

Saved by a slump?

Ironically, the only thing that may save the world from the problems that a 2.8 degrees Centigrade rise would cause is that the economic growth and technological innovation will not be as rapid as the IPCC report assumes. Economic growth (the accumulation of capital) is the general trend of capitalism – in fact that’s what it’s all been about – but, although the long-term trend is upward, the graph of this growth is by no means a steady, continuous line. Due to the uncontrolled and uncontrollable, anarchic nature of capitalist production, the accumulation of capital proceeds by fits and starts so that the graph is rather a series of peaks and troughs with each succeeding peak normally higher than the previous one.

The assumption that there will be no world economic slump or prolonged period of stagnation between now and 2100 is quite unrealistic. Given capitalism, something like this is bound to happen during this period, so that the use of fossil fuels won’t be as rapid as this IPCC’s scenario assumes. So, perhaps, global temperatures won’t rise so much either. But the fact that the accumulation of capital won’t be as rapid as assumed is hardly a reason for retaining capitalism and would not be offered as one by its supporters.

What is required to stabilise the rise in temperature is a worldwide political and social revolution to end capitalism and put “mankind” in full charge of its interaction with the rest of nature (production). Which can only be done on the basis of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources becoming the common heritage of all Humanity.


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