A revolutionary response to the climate change crisis

``We need an emergency mobilisation of society, a five- or 10-year plan to achieve a drastic reorientation of our economy and use of energy. Anything else is simply not serious.''

April 3, 2008 -- Dave Holmes, a veteran leader of theAustralian Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), is one of the authors of the pamphlet Change the System Not The Climate (Resistance Books 2007) who will be participating in the Climate Change | Social Change Conference, April 11-13 in Sydney Australia. The other authors of the pamphlet, renowned Marxist John Bellamy Foster and Links editor Terry Townsend, are speakers at the conference.

Peter Boyle of the DSP spoke to Holmes about the key issues the conference needs to address.

Dave Holmes: The fundamental problem facing humanity today is catastrophic climate change brought on by runaway greenhouse gas emissions. The relatively narrow band of climatic conditions within which we can function has been destabilised. As average temperatures rise extreme weather events are increasing (cyclones, floods, heat waves and droughts) and ocean levels look like rising dramatically, potentially making refugees of hundreds of millions of people. The very survival of the human race has now been called into question.

Human societies have always impacted on their environment. But the source of our current crisis is quite specific: it is the operations of modern capitalism. The drive for profits by the giant corporations has been relentless and has been pursued in complete disregard of any impact on the environment.

The fundamental conditions under which we live — how we generate our power, how we get around, how our food is grown, etc. — are not decided by us but rather by the big corporations that control society’s means of production. Without the rule of corporate capital we could set in place radically different and ecologically sustainable arrangements.

For example, the cars which most of us use are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. But what choice do we really have? The favouring of private motor vehicles over public transport hasn’t come about because we are innately a society of petrol-heads but is a consequence of the deliberate policies of a succession of capitalist governments loyally protecting the interests of their big business masters. The auto industry and its associated sectors make up a very large part of each national capitalist economy.

Over the last year, many capitalist politicians and corporate CEOs have announced their conversion on the question of global warming and climate change? They claim to be united now on finding practical solutions to the problem. Can capitalism make a course correction to avert the global warming crisis?

Trying to stabilise the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere and then reduce it is a life-and-death challenge for humanity. We need to phase out fossil fuels and all the problems that go with them (carbon dioxide emissions and the fact that they will not last forever). But big business thinks it can make a few adjustments and carry on as usual. The changes required are simply too wrenching, too fundamentally in contradiction with huge economic interests, to be easily contemplated.

Many people are hoping that Australia's new federal Labor government, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is gong to seriously address climate change. But already Labor’s minister for climate change and water Penny Wong’s response to the Garnaut Report is showing that Labor is not up to the challenge.

For example, by any rational criterion Australia’s massive coal industry should be progressively phased out but instead Labor’s looking to throw money at so-called “clean coal” technology.

Meanwhile in NSW, the state Labor government is trying to privatise the electricity industry thereby abandoning public control of one of the industries that most urgently needs to be radically reformed to phase out coal power stations and replace them with renewable energy resources. The Rudd government has declared its support for this privatisation.

You’re criticising Labor for not seriously tackling global warming but what do socialists say should be done to address the crisis?

What is needed to cope with the crisis is a sharp change of direction. We need an emergency mobilisation of society, a five- or 10-year plan to achieve a drastic reorientation of our economy and use of energy. Anything else is simply not serious.

Some of the key elements in a serious response to the crisis are:

  • The entire power and energy sector should be put under public control and run as public utilities under democratic control. At the moment the private power operators (and the corporatised entities still under nominal state ownership) have a direct interest in making things worse! The more power they sell, the more profits they make. The more air conditioners that are bought, the more electricity is consumed and the more it helps their corporate bottom line.

    We need to break with the neo-liberal privatisation policies pursued by both Labor and the Coalition parties. Bring the whole power and energy sector under public control so that this key lever is in the hands of society. Then we can steer the ship where we want it to go.

  • We are endlessly told that we need more and more power and hence more and more power stations. What about getting serious about energy conservation — really serious? Then we might be able to begin phasing out coal-fired power stations, the main source of our greenhouse gas emissions.

    For example, what if the only light bulbs permitted were the low-power high efficiency ones, all other ones being taken off the market? Furthermore, what if they were distributed free to households by the state-owned power company? Think of how much power could be saved. What if a similar approach were applied to household refrigerators? After all, what is a few hundred million or even a few billion dollars if it could achieve the closing down of several big coal-fired power stations?

    What if gas-powered co-generation were far more widely encouraged? The efficiency of the big coal-fired power stations is very low (about 30%). With co-generation the low-grade “waste” heat is used, thereby boosting overall efficiency to far higher levels (around 70-80%). This means siting the plants, not far away in the coalfields, but much closer to home where the output is actually used. Of course, this would be a transitional form of power generation since it still uses fossil fuels but it would greatly assist in reducing our dependence on coal and helping make big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

    Under the national plan each sector of industry and each firm should be set hard annual targets for energy efficiency. Consistent failure of an enterprise to achieve the goals set should result in their nationalisation and reorganisation.

    Energy use by offices and homes could be slashed by setting strict new energy standards for new construction and embarking on a vast program to retrofit the existing stock of buildings.

    The scope for energy efficiency measures is enormous. Very significant gains could be achieved relatively easily — provided there is the political will.

  • We need a big switch to renewable energy. There is a wealth of technological possibilities. But so far the politicians are only keen on the oxymoronic notion of “clean coal”. There are some Labor figures who even dream of introducing nuclear power — once loudly mooted by previous Howard Liberal-National government. Nuclear power is no solution to anything (except the corporations’ thirst for ever more profits and hang the consequences for the rest of us). Apart from all the safety and waste disposal issues, nuclear plants actually require very big energy inputs for their construction.
  • Cars and trucks are a major source of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. We need to achieve a drastic substitution of public transport for cars and rail freight for trucks. All metropolitan public transport systems should be firmly in public hands and it should be made free. We should stop all expenditure on roads (except for essential maintenance) and put the funds into covering the big cities with dense integrated networks of trains, trams and buses which run frequently and at all times. Only then will it be possible to radically reduce the use of cars in cities and towns.
  • We also need to nationalise the freight industry (road and rail) to bring about a big reduction in the use of trucks for moving goods. Real planning for the sort of economic shifts that are needed cannot be done if the key economic levers remain in the hands of the profit-crazed corporations.
  • Big business should be forced to pay realistic prices for the power it uses. This will focus their minds on the task at hand.

These are the sort of socialist solutions that are presented, and supported with convincing arguments and evidence, in the Socialist Alliance’s Climate Change Charter.

How are we going to get there?

If our society were simply an egalitarian collection of people, we could have a big society-wide discussion, work out a plan to meet the crisis of climate change and begin collectively trying to implement it.

But under capitalism this is impossible. Society is sharply divided between a handful of capitalists who own the economy (the mines, the factories, the supermarkets, the banks, the media, etc.) and the great working-class majority, who are forced to work for them in order to live. Nothing can be done which seriously hurts the interests of the ruling rich. Governments claim to be governing on behalf of everybody but in reality they represent only the capitalists. So a democratic social plan – which is exactly what we need – is ruled out under this system.

Instead, as we approach absolute disaster the capitalists are screaming ever louder for “carbon trading” whereby the notorious “hidden hand” of the market is supposed to achieve the desired outcome. But this simply will not work.

We reject the idea that everything can be left up to the market through various economic mechanisms, incentives and disincentives. The normal operations of the so-called “free market” have brought us to where we are now. We need less of it, not more. At most, market mechanisms can play a minor role. Energy waste and inefficiency by big business should be penalised but the main levers for change should be enforceable targets, direct control and regulation coupled with the sorts of radical measures I’ve outlined.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 04/04/2008 - 18:16


“Climate change is both a threat and an opportunity to bring about the long postponed social and economic reforms that had been derailed or sabotaged in previous era”

By Walden Bello

There is now a solid consensus in the scientific community that if the change in global mean temperature in the 21st century exceeds 2.4 degrees Celsius, changes in the planet’s climate will be large-scale, irreversible and disastrous. Moreover, the window of opportunity for action that will make a difference is narrow – that is, the next 10 to 15 years.

Throughout the North, however, there is strong resistance to changing the systems of consumption and production that have created the problem in the first place and a preference for ”techno-fixes,” such as ”clean” coal, carbon sequestration and storage, industrial-scale biofuels, and nuclear energy.

Globally, transnational corporations and other private actors resist government-imposed measures such as mandatory caps, preferring to use market mechanisms like the buying and selling of ”carbon credits,” which critics say simply amounts to a licence for corporate polluters to keep on polluting.

In the South, there is little willingness on the part of the southern elite to depart from the high-growth, high-consumption model inherited from the North, and a self-interested conviction that the North must first adjust and bear the brunt of adjustment before the South takes any serious step towards limiting its greenhouse gas emissions.

Contours of the Challenge

In the climate change discussions, the principle of ”common but differentiated responsibility” is recognized by all parties, meaning that the global North must shoulder the brunt of the adjustment to the climate crisis since it is the one whose economic trajectory has brought it about.

It is also recognized that the global response should not compromise the right to develop of the countries of the global South.

The devil, however, is in the details. As Martin Khor of Third World Network has pointed out, the global reduction of 80% in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050 that many now recognize as necessary, will have to translate into reductions of at least 150-200% on the part of the global North if the two principles – ”common but differentiated responsibility” and recognition of the right to development of the countries of the South — are to be followed.

But are the governments and people of the North prepared to make such commitments?

Psychologically and politically, it is doubtful that the North at this point has what it takes to meet the problem head-on.

The prevailing assumption is that the affluent societies can take on commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but still grow and enjoy their high standards of living if they shift to non-fossil fuel energy sources.

Moreover, how the mandatory cuts agreed multilaterally by governments get implemented within the country must be market-based, that is, on the trading of emission permits.

The subtext is: techno-fixes and the carbon market will make the transition relatively painless and (why not?) profitable, too.

There is, however, a growing realization that many of these technologies are decades away from viable use and that, in the short and medium term, relying on a shift in energy dependence to non-fossil fuel alternatives will not be able to support current rates of economic growth.

Also, it is increasingly evident that the trade-off for more crop land being devoted to biofuel production is less land to grow food and greater food insecurity globally.

It is rapidly becoming clear that the dominant paradigm of economic growth is one of the most significant obstacles to a serious global effort to deal with climate change.

But this destabilizing, fundamentalist growth-consumption paradigm is itself more effect rather than cause.

The central problem, it is becoming increasingly clear, is a mode of production whose main dynamic is the transformation of living nature into dead commodities, creating tremendous waste in the process.

The driver of this process is consumption – or more appropriately overconsumption – and the motivation is profit or capital accumulation: capitalism, in short.

It has been the generalization of this mode of production in the North and its spread from the North to the South over the last 300 years that has caused the accelerated burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil and rapid deforestation, two of the key man-made processes behind global warming.

The South’s Dilemma

One way of viewing global warning is to see it as a key manifestation of the latest stage of a wrenching historical process: the privatization of the global commons by capital. The climate crisis must thus be seen as the expropriation by the advanced capitalist societies of the ecological space of less developed or marginalized societies.

This leads us to the dilemma of the South: before the full extent of the ecological destabilization brought about by capitalism, it was expected that the South would simply follow the ‘’stages of growth” of the North.

Now it is impossible to do so without bringing about ecological Armageddon. Already, China is on track to overtake the US as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and yet the elite of China as well as those of India and other rapidly developing countries are intent on reproducing the American-type overconsumption-driven capitalism.

Thus, for the South, the implications of an effective global response to global warming include not just the inclusion of some countries in a regime of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, although this is critical: in the current round of climate negotiations, for instance, China, can no longer opt out of a mandatory regime on the grounds that it is a developing country.

Nor can the challenge to most of the other developing countries be limited to that of getting the North to transfer technology to mitigate global warming and provide funds to assist them in adapting to it, as many of them appeared to think during the Bali negotiations.

These steps are important, but they should be seen as but the initial steps in a broader, global reorientation of the paradigm for achieving economic well-being.

While the adjustment will need to be much, much greater and faster in the North, the adjustment for the South will essentially be the same: a break with the high-growth, high-consumption model in favour of another model of achieving the common welfare.

In contrast to the Northern elite’s strategy of trying to decouple growth from energy use, a progressive comprehensive climate strategy in both the North and the South must be to reduce growth and energy use while raising the quality of life of the broad masses of people.

Among other things, this will mean placing economic justice and equality at the centre of the new paradigm.

The transition must be one not only from a fossil-fuel based economy but also from an overconsumption-driven economy.

The end-goal must be adoption of a low-consumption, low-growth, high-equity development model that results in an improvement in people’s welfare, a better quality of life for all, and greater democratic control of production.

It is unlikely that the elite of the North and the South will agree to such a comprehensive response. The farthest they are likely to go is for techno-fixes and a market-based cap-and-trade system. Growth will be sacrosanct, as will the system of global capitalism.

Yet, confronted with the Apocalypse, humanity cannot self-destruct.

It may be a difficult road, but we can be sure that the vast majority will not commit social and ecological suicide to enable the minority to preserve their privileges.

However it is achieved, a thorough reorganization of production, consumption and distribution will be the end result of humanity’s response to the climate emergency and the broader environmental crisis.

Threat and Opportunity

In this regard, climate change is both a threat and an opportunity to bring about the long postponed social and economic reforms that had been derailed or sabotaged in previous eras by the elite seeking to preserve or increase their privileges.

The difference is that today the very existence of humanity and the planet depend on the institutionalization of economic systems based not on feudal rent extraction or capital accumulation or class exploitation, but on justice and equality.

The question is often asked these days if humanity will be able to get its act together to formulate an effective response to climate change. Though there is no certainty in a world filled with contingency, I am hopeful that it will.

In the social and economic system that will be collectively crafted, I anticipate that there will be room for the market.

However, the more interesting question is: will it have room for capitalism? Will capitalism as a system of production, consumption and distribution survive the challenge of coming up with an effective solution to the climate crisis?

Walden Bello is senior analyst of Focus on the Global South and professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines. This article was first published in the Bangkok Post March 29, 2008

April 1, 2008

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 04/08/2008 - 22:04


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ConfrontingPublished by Climate and Capitalism

Confronting the Climate Change Crisis: An Ecosocialist Perspective
By Ian Angus. (PDF: 1 MB)
Ten articles that were published in Climate & Capitalism, Canadian Dimension, or Socialist Voice during 2007. Plus four articles by Bolivian and Cuban leaders on the need for radical action to stop global warming.

Other Publishers

These links are to files are located on other websites - reports, books and pamphlets that we have found useful or informative. We try to keep these links current, but we can’t guarantee that the documents will remain online: please let us know if any of these links no longer work. Suggestions for additions are always welcome.

Fidel Castro on Global Warming, Biofuels and World Hunger
(PDF: 264 Kb) Socialist Voice

Climate Charter
(PDF: 384 Kb) Socialist Alliance (Australia)

Change the System, Not the Climate
(HTML) Democratic Socialist Perspective

Environment, Capitalism and Socialism
(HTML) Democratic Socialist Perspective

Savage Capitalism: The Ecosocialist Alternative
(PDF: 106 Kb) Socialist Resistance

Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power
(PDF: 6 Mb) Larry Lohman, The Corner House

The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for Your Climate Sins
(PDF: 600 Kb) Carbon Trade Watch


Also useful is Marc Brodine's The Dialectics of Climate Change