Workers Vanguard No. 965
24 September 2010
Production for Profit: Anarchy and Plunder
Capitalism and Global Warming
For Socialist Revolution!
For an Internationally Planned Economy!
The Earth as a whole is without question heating up. According to figures released in July by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, global land and ocean surface temperatures in June were the highest since monitoring began in 1880—the 304th consecutive month above the 20th-century average—while Arctic sea ice melted at a record-breaking pace. Undoubtedly, the heat can be attributed in good part to periodic and natural changes in ocean temperatures and surface air pressure. But there is some other factor at work behind the overall warming trend. A vast majority of climate scientists worldwide, including not only the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but the national scientific academies of the U.S. and most other countries, identifies that factor as anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases.
In league with liberal environmentalists, reformist groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have seized on “climate change” to beg the major capitalist powers to join hands in cutting back heat-trapping gases—a goal that significant sections of the ruling capitalist classes have laid claim to. Thus the ISO, Greenpeace et al. put great stock in the climate talks that took place last December in Copenhagen under the sponsorship of the UN, which is, simply, a den of imperialist thieves and their victims.
A new “international climate justice movement” was proclaimed after tens of thousands flocked to the Danish capital, in the main to demand that the world powers agree to curb greenhouse gas emissions and give financial support to Third World countries. The protests included a 100,000-strong demonstration in the middle of the two-week summit, during which heavily armed police squads arrested some 1,000 people. Soon after, thousands of observer delegates, including from such mainstream groups as Greenpeace, were locked out of the conference on its final days.
What some had dubbed “Hopenhagen” ended without reaching its stated goals of renewing the emissions-reduction commitments made by industrialized countries that signed on to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (which the U.S. never ratified) and setting emissions targets for all other countries. This was a predictable outcome. For one thing, the world’s capitalist classes are divided internally over this issue. More fundamentally, each capitalist government is charged with protecting its own “national interests.” The handful of imperialist countries that dominate the world market are in competition with each other for spheres of exploitation around the world, and have already carried out two devastating world wars in their insatiable drive for profit.
Significant emissions shifts would almost certainly mean substantial economic costs, which few capitalist governments want to incur, especially in the face of a global economic slowdown. The main human activity contributing to the release of heat-trapping gases is also the main activity turning the wheels of the modern economy: the combustion of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal. Given the importance of cheap energy sources, imperialist competition for fossil fuels, especially oil, has played a part in sparking numerous military conflagrations in the last century. Countries with a hand on the oil spigot or access to ample coal reserves have a vested material interest in maintaining the status quo.
The example of the United States, the world’s largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, is illustrative. Giant American companies like ExxonMobil are central to the global oil cartel, while the core European Union (EU) powers of Germany and France cannot make the same claim. Hence an increase in the world market price of oil not only enriches a dominant sector of corporate America but also increases the energy costs of rival French and German capitalists. For years, the U.S. clashed with the EU over carrying out the Kyoto Protocol, because the nominal emissions caps included in the accord would have affected the U.S. most directly.
Whatever their differences with each other, the imperialists, led by the U.S., have joined together in recent climate talks to pressure China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state, largely in order to throttle its growing industrial strength. After winning EU backing to shift the burden of emissions-reduction agreements onto the more backward countries, the U.S. refused to support any deal at Copenhagen that did not include stringent monitoring of China’s emissions. Behind such maneuvers lies the imperialists’ strategic goal of smashing the Chinese workers state and once again subjecting the country to untrammeled capitalist exploitation. Against the environmentalists and fake socialists who join in the China-bashing, we stand for the unconditional military defense of China against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution.
For Marxists, addressing the human-derived aspect of global warming is fundamentally not a technical but a social problem. Marxism is opposed to environmentalist ideology, which accepts the inviolability of capitalist class rule, in which production is profit-driven and society’s wealth is monopolized by a tiny bourgeois ruling class. We fight for a society that will provide more, not less, for the working people and the impoverished masses of the world. Our goal is to eliminate material scarcity and qualitatively advance the living standards of all. To this end, we fight for socialist revolutions in the capitalist countries to expropriate the bourgeoisie and for proletarian political revolutions in China and the other bureaucratically deformed workers states, laying the basis for the construction of a planned, collectivized world economy. With production liberated from the profit motive, humans’ creative powers will be unleashed to build a society in which poverty, malnutrition, inequality and oppression are things of the past.
When the workers of the world rule, energy will be generated and used in the most rational, efficient and safe manner possible, including by developing new energy sources. We do not rule out in advance the use of fossil fuels or any other energy source—nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind, etc. Simply to promote modernization and all-round development in the Third World, where today billions are locked in desperate poverty, would almost certainly involve far greater energy production on a global scale.
It is futile to attempt to deal with climate-related problems within the boundaries of the anarchic, nationally based capitalist system. The climate is the outcome of interactions among the atmosphere, the oceans, the ice sheets, living organisms and the soils, sediments and rocks, which all affect, to a greater or lesser extent, the movement of heat around the surface of the Earth. The best prospect for positively influencing something as dynamic, large and complex as the climate system is to undertake coordinated global action based on the latest science and technology.
With the world economy reorganized on a socialist basis, a plan on a scale unimaginable under capitalism for minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impacts of warming could be worked out and implemented. If necessary, a concerted effort could be undertaken to retool entire industries and transform their operations, whether in energy production and distribution, transportation, construction, manufacturing or agriculture.
Crucially, increasing abundance also will eliminate the material factors—and backward social values, such as those expounded by religions—that fuel population growth. As we will develop in Part Two of this article, a socialist reorganization of society would lay the basis for a prolonged, mild population shrinkage, helping to ensure that there are enough resources for the well-being of all.
Climate Science and Global Warming
The climate of the Earth naturally undergoes constant change, driven by periodic shifts in the Earth’s orbital motions and axial tilt as well as variations in sunlight intensity and volcanic activity. Analysis of ice and ocean sediment cores has shown periods of prolonged ice ages and interglacial periods over the past few million years. The interglacials include times when the world was warmer than today and cold-intolerant reptiles lived above the Arctic Circle. The geological record indicates that the transition from the last ice age, which peaked 20,000 years ago, to the warmth of today was no gentle change but rather the wildest of roller-coaster rides. The beginning and end of some climate spikes took place over mere decades.
Outside of the “climate skeptics” (including those in the pay of Big Oil), it is widely accepted that human activities are also influencing the climate. The 2007 report of the IPCC, arguably the world’s most authoritative climate body, concludes: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.” The report adds: “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations.” Written and reviewed by thousands of scientists worldwide, this report draws on the latest scientific and technical data and represents a broad consensus within the scientific community.
“Anthropogenic greenhouse gases” impact the climate by enhancing what is called by inaccurate analogy the atmospheric “greenhouse effect.” As mathematical physicist Jean Baptiste Fourier first described in the 1820s, energy in the form of light from the sun mostly passes through the atmosphere to reach the surface of the Earth and heats it, but heat cannot so easily escape back into space. The air absorbs a significant fraction of the total infrared radiation (what Fourier called “dark heat”) emitted by the Earth, and some of this thermal energy is radiated back down to the surface, helping it to stay warm. The surface of an Earth-like planet with no atmosphere would be on average roughly 59°F (33°C) colder than the Earth actually is, and the contrast in temperature between night and day and between summer and winter would be very large, as suggested by the case of the Moon.
However, not all gases in the atmosphere are equal in keeping the Earth warm. The most abundant atmospheric constituents, diatomic nitrogen and oxygen, are almost transparent to infrared radiation, which is strongly absorbed by molecules of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. Outside of water vapor, carbon dioxide is the most abundant of these “greenhouse gases,” presently constituting about 390 parts per million (ppm) by volume and amounting to a total mass of roughly 3,000 metric gigatons (three trillion tons). This concentration has risen significantly in a relatively short time from a level of 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution, as determined by ice-core measurements. Carbon dioxide is presently accumulating at a rate of over two ppm per year.
Humans through a variety of activities contribute significantly to the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases. Burning fossil fuels and wood releases carbon dioxide; livestock, oil production and coal mining add methane; agricultural processes and the production of nitric acid contribute nitrous oxide. Other practices, such as logging, also play a role because forests absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it. But the spotlight has fallen on fossil fuel combustion, which accounts for the vast majority of carbon dioxide emitted annually through human activity. While the oceans, topsoil and land vegetation absorb about half of these emissions, the rest accumulate in the atmosphere, where they are available to strengthen the greenhouse effect.
The possible consequences of global warming evoked by a number of scientists are extremely serious. But the workings of the climate system are still only partly understood, so nobody can say that any projection is certain to happen. There is a chance that the impact of human-induced warming will not be as bad as predicted by the IPCC and others, but there also is a chance that the outcome will be worse. The range of possibilities finds its reflection in the scientific community, with a small minority criticizing the 2007 IPCC report as overstated and others disapproving of its “conservatism.”
The report predicts rising sea levels and coastal flooding as the result of melting polar ice sheets and thermal expansion of the oceans. It projects climate shifts that would cause populated areas to become arid or inundated and would bring about the extinction of many marine and terrestrial species. Already the number of “very dry areas” on the planet has more than doubled since the 1970s to about 30 percent of the total landmass. Reduction of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets similar to past interglacial reductions would cause the sea level to rise ten or more meters, enough to submerge dozens of great world cities, from New York to Shanghai.
Significant warming over decades could also trigger mechanisms that would qualitatively alter the climate. The complete thawing of the Arctic permafrost could unlock gigatons of stored carbon, most of it in the form of methane, a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. An even more remote but far-reaching possibility would be the release of the colossal amounts of methane now enclosed in water-ice crystals (structures known as clathrates) found in the depths of the Arctic and other oceans.
Paradoxically, the warming of the atmosphere might also plunge much of the Northern Hemisphere into a deep freeze. If a sufficient flow of freshwater from melting ice were dumped into the North Atlantic, the vast ocean conveyor known as the Gulf Stream would collapse. Originating in the Gulf of Mexico, this powerful current drags warm water northward and is responsible for heating West Europe, Canada and the Northeast U.S.
A raft of findings since 2007 has refined and altered the IPCC’s predictions—and shown the uncertainties involved with climate modeling. In one case, the latest research by MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel, earlier one of the leading proponents of a link between global warming and much stronger and more frequent hurricanes, now calls into question that conclusion. Earlier this year, the IPCC acknowledged a series of scientific blunders and retracted the dramatic warning in its 2007 report that most Himalayan glaciers would be melted by 2035. Scientific rigor is further put at risk by climate researchers who refuse to publish the computer code for their models, a practice that came to light during the University of East Anglia “Climategate” e-mail scandal engineered by right-wingers.
Even the most sophisticated models grossly oversimplify physical processes like the complex dynamics of water vapor. More fundamentally, the accompanying projections presuppose a static social reality. The predictions in the 2007 IPCC report are based on different “storylines” of growth and development. But any number of events could radically alter the story. A Scientific American (January 2010) article titled “Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering” concludes that in a conflict between, say, India and Pakistan, 100 nuclear bombs dropped on cities and industrial areas would produce enough smoke to blot out the sun and cripple global agriculture. This scenario pales in comparison to the threat posed by the massive nuclear arsenal in the hands of the U.S. imperialists. Just one Ohio-class American submarine can launch up to 192 independently targetable thermonuclear warheads.
The Ravages of Imperialism
Whatever the timetable and actual consequences of global warming, one thing is certain: in a world dominated by imperialist capitalism, the human toll—whether measured in famine, dislocation or disease—would overwhelmingly be borne by working people and the poor. The world’s least developed countries, with woeful infrastructure and with the fewest resources available to adapt to new conditions, would be especially hard hit. The real culprit is not climate change as such but rather the world capitalist system, which imposes inhuman conditions on the semicolonial countries and deprives their population of the most elementary provisions, and not only for times of calamity.
Modern imperialism, marked by the export of capital, developed at the end of the 19th century, as the boundaries of the nation-state proved too narrow and confining to satisfy the capitalists’ demand for new markets and sources of cheap labor. With blood and iron, the advanced countries essentially carved up the world into competing spheres of exploitation, a process described by V.I. Lenin in his classic work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). The imperialist powers embarked on a series of colonial conquests and wars, culminating in World Wars I and II, as each capitalist ruling class sought to further its interests at the expense of its rivals.
Along with exploiting the working class at home, the capitalist classes of North America, Europe and Japan exploit and oppress the downtrodden masses in Asia, Africa and Latin America, arresting the all-round social and economic development of the vast majority of humanity. Environmentalists cite more than four decades of drought and erratic rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel region, which extends from the Atlantic Ocean to Sudan, as proof positive of the high price of climate change. Rapid desertification in the Sahel, where the population largely consists of pastoral nomads and peasant farmers, has exacerbated competition for land resources among the region’s myriad ethnic groups. But the pushing of the Sahel deeper into poverty, starvation and misery is at bottom a manmade phenomenon—a byproduct of imperialist subjugation.
Out of the total land area in Africa, only a fraction is currently arable. The irrigation projects, drainage of swamps and cleaning of disease-infested areas that would be required to develop Africa’s agricultural potential are unthinkable as long as the continent is squeezed in the vise of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Africa is caught in the blind alley, inherited from colonialism, of concentrating its agriculture on tropical cash crops for sale on the world market to pay off usurious debt—accrued in large part to pay for massive quantities of food imports. The devastation of the African continent was greatly exacerbated by the destruction in 1991-92 of the Soviet degenerated workers state, removing the main counterweight to U.S. imperialism and cutting off a key source of aid for various Third World regimes.
As long as capitalism remains, it will continue to reproduce mass hunger and other scourges, such as epidemics of preventable disease resulting from the lack of sewers, clean water and other basic social infrastructure. Even if human-induced warming were somehow arrested under capitalism, imperialist depredation would continue unabated. Among other things, this renders billions of people vulnerable to “natural” climate change, variations in local weather patterns, “extreme weather events” like hurricanes, and other natural disasters. The January earthquake in Haiti is a case in point. The death toll of some 250,000 people was a product of over a century of imperialist oppression that left the desperately poor country totally exposed to the quake’s impact, as shoddily built structures in Port-au-Prince simply collapsed. Today, some 1.5 million Haitians are still living in makeshift tents.
The struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the decaying capitalist order is a matter of human survival. One small indication of the advantages of a collectivized economy over the capitalist system of production for profit is the success the Cuban deformed workers state has had in protecting its population from devastating hurricanes. In 2008, four hurricanes battered Haiti, killing some 800 people. Two of those storms also passed over Cuba, claiming a total of four lives. Despite the bureaucratic mismanagement of the economy and the country’s relative poverty, deepened by over four decades of U.S. economic embargo, Cuba is well known for its efficient evacuation of citizens in the face of such disasters. The government provides early forecasting, educates and mobilizes the population and has arrangements in place for shelters, transport, food and medical backup.
Profiteering and Protectionism
Although many green radicals would describe themselves as anti-capitalist, all varieties of environmentalism are an expression of bourgeois ideology, offering fixes predicated on scarcity and class-divided society. Many environmentalists back market-driven “solutions” to global warming favored by capitalist governments the world over. The centerpiece is the “cap and trade” system that now covers the EU economies. Under this scheme, a generous limit is set on the amount of greenhouse gases firms can emit (the “cap”). Those that emit more than the cap must buy credits from others that emit less than they were allocated (the “trade”). At the end of the day, it is the working class that pays for this setup, in the first instance by way of higher energy and fuel costs, as it would also if a carbon tax were levied to make its “price” reflect its “social cost.”
Alternately, companies can avoid cutting their own emissions by investing in “offsets”—projects elsewhere, often in poor countries, that purport to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. One such project supplies poor rural families in India with human-powered treadle pumps for irrigating farmland, while another encourages Kenyans to use dung-powered generators. Tree-planting projects in Guatemala, Ecuador and Uganda have disrupted local water supplies, resulted in the eviction of thousands of villagers from their land and cheated them out of promised payments for upkeep of the trees. Western environmentalists might “offset” their liberal guilt over their comfortable lives by pushing such programs. But in the Third World, the end result is the reinforcement of mass impoverishment.
Cap-and-trade has become a new arena of capitalist profiteering. Some chemical companies, such as DuPont, have ramped up production of a particular refrigerant in order to make a bundle of “offset” money by incinerating the waste by-product HFC-23, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Carbon trading also promises a massive new speculators’ playground for venture capitalists and investment banks, not unlike the one in mortgage-based securities that precipitated the implosion of the global economy. More than $130 billion changed hands in the global carbon market in 2009.
Environmentalism also goes hand in hand with national chauvinism, as seen, for example, in its embrace of trade protectionism. If the major players had come to terms at Copenhagen, a likely result would have been renewed protectionism. As Michael Levi noted in Foreign Affairs (September-October 2009): “The world has few useful options for enforcing commitments to slash emissions short of punitive trade sanctions or similarly unpalatable penalties.” Indeed, environmental regulations have long served as a cover for tariffs, a practice ensconced in the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Historically, protectionism has fueled retaliatory trade wars, which have a way of turning into shooting wars.
Last year, the president of the European Commission threatened to slap tariffs on goods from the U.S. and other non-Kyoto Protocol nations to protect European business. Buried within a House version of a cap-and-trade bill drawn up by the Democrats is a provision for imposing duties against imports from countries that have not limited emissions as of 2020. The U.S. steel industry is already calling for sanctions against Chinese steelmakers if Beijing doesn’t commit to carbon limits. Following suit, the chauvinist, anti-Communist United Steelworkers union bureaucracy has filed a case charging China with violating WTO rules by subsidizing exports of solar panels, wind turbines and other “clean energy” equipment. Promoting the lie that workers in each country are bound to their exploiters by common “national interests,” protectionism is poison to international working-class solidarity.
Protectionism directed against Brazilian sugar cane ethanol importers and others is also a component part of the Obama administration’s plan for U.S. “energy independence.” As Obama has made clear by describing U.S. reliance on Near Eastern oil as its Achilles heel, “energy independence” is a rallying cry for improving U.S. imperialism’s capacity to pursue its global military and economic ambitions through diversifying and strengthening control of energy sources.
It is no accident that groups like Greenpeace echo the call for “energy independence.” The main political organizations of the environmentalists, the Green parties, are small-time capitalist parties hostile to the proletariat. In the U.S., the Greens act as a liberal pressure group on the Democratic Party, home to such environmental evangelists as Al Gore, who as Bill Clinton’s vice president helped carry out starvation sanctions against Iraqis and the bombing of Serbia. In Germany, the Green Party was part of a capitalist coalition government with the Social Democratic Party from 1998 to 2005. During this time, German environmentalists commingled with the far right, whose anti-immigrant racism was echoed by the Greens in the name of combating overpopulation. Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer deployed the German military outside of its borders—for the first time since Hitler’s Third Reich—to participate in U.S.-led wars against Serbia and Afghanistan.
The Rise of Green Capitalism
Environmentalism is not in the least antagonistic to production for private profit. A New York Times (21 April) article under the headline “At 40, Earth Day Is Now Big Business” commented: “So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins ‘to challenge corporate and government leaders.’ Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.”
There is more “green” rhetoric than ever emanating from corporate boardrooms. Reflecting competing interests in the American bourgeoisie, in 2009 a legion of big-name companies quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in protest over its policy of outright denial of global warming. Several major companies have opted to go “carbon neutral,” such as Internet giant Google, which prides itself on building energy-efficient data centers and investing in corporate solar installations and wind farms.
The former CEO of British Petroleum (BP), Lord Browne, helped set the fashion in the mid 1990s by restyling gains in efficiency as emissions cuts and trumpeting them in press releases. At a time when his counterparts in the U.S. were pouring millions into the coffers of the “Global Climate Coalition,” one of the most outspoken industry groups battling reductions in emissions, Browne anticipated a cornucopia of subsidies and tax breaks flowing from the emerging Western consensus to treat carbon emissions as a problem. He renamed his company “Beyond Petroleum” and adopted a new “environmentally conscious” logo as he went about transforming BP from a regional producer of petroleum into a global oil enterprise that also dabbled in “alternative” energy. All the while, BP was slashing costs by using cheap construction materials and cutting back on safety mechanisms on oil rigs, setting the stage for numerous “accidents” such as the blowout in April that took the lives of eleven workers and dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (see “Gulf Coast Disaster: Capitalist Profit Drive Kills,” WV No. 961, 2 July).
While liberal environmentalists and the ISO reformists wag their fingers at BP for “greenwashing” its fossil fuel operations, Browne has, in fact, been something of a trendsetter for the “go green” movement. Media attention surrounding an energy consumption calculator placed on BP’s Web site in 2005 helped popularize the notion of reducing individual “carbon footprints.” The following year, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth instructed people to abandon allegedly wasteful lifestyles by consuming less, using less hot water, changing incandescent light bulbs to CFLs at home and properly inflating their car tires. The London Economist (31 May 2007), a mouthpiece of finance capital, wryly observed, “Individual economic choices are not going to make a blind bit of difference to the future of the planet. Nobody is going to save a polar bear by turning off the lights.” Gore’s lectures about cutting consumption certainly haven’t stopped him from enjoying the luxury of his Nashville mansion or his private jet.
“Doing more with less” is hardly an option for unemployed workers in the industrial wasteland of Detroit or the teeming masses housed in the enormous slums of Calcutta. Companies going “carbon neutral” will not improve conditions for workers on assembly lines, where the bosses threaten life and limb by speeding up production to extract the utmost profit. The use of “alternative” energy will not diminish the concentration of pollution in poor and working-class neighborhoods. The corporations producing energy will, however, be raking in the money.
[TO BE CONTINUED]