Editorial: Climate Change and Capitalism

Since the industrial revolution there has been a significant rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and its oceans, and scientists generally agree that the main contributor has been the burning of fossil fuels that generates CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Not everyone is convinced that this is the case, and there are many who make it their business to deny it. Nevertheless, world governments and other global institutions have taken the issue of climate change sufficiently seriously to come together and attempt to find ways of tackling it.

The major milestones, so far, have been the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992, a non-binding agreement to stabilise the levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, and the signing of the Kyoto protocol in June 1997 which committed the developed countries to binding targets in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a 5.2 percent reduction from 1990 emission levels by the year 2010.

Yet there is little to show for these efforts. According to Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than in 1990. The United States government, looking after its oil and coal interests, refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Canada, one of the original signatories, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, primarily to avoid possible financial penalties due to its failure to meet its agreed emission targets, mainly because of the extraction processes of its lucrative tar sands industry in Alberta. A clause within the Kyoto Protocol allows countries to meet their emission targets by purchasing quotas from other countries.

The main obstacle to reducing global warming is capitalism, where production is geared to profit, and production costs have to be kept to a minimum. Measures to curb emissions may increase the latter and place firms at a competitive disadvantage. Also, in many cases, it is more cost effective to import materials from abroad, which requires the burning of fossil fuel in transporting them. Nation states and trading blocs also seek to compete with each other on the best possible terms, and in some cases endeavour to protect their profitable extractive industries. Naomi Klein also noted that in the same period that these international summits were taking place, moves were made to expand world trade through the establishment of global bodies, such as the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which would encourage higher levels of fossil fuel consumption.

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference is due to take place this December and will attempt to set up a new binding agreement to control global warming. Judging from the record of previous summits, the prospects do not look too promising. Attempts to tackle climate change in the context of a world market economy will, at best, achieve only limited results. In socialism, where production can be rationally organised according to human need, we’ll have the best chance of successfully curtailing global warming.

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