After All the Hot Air at Copenhagen, Global Warming is Set to Continue

Image - “Energy security” rather than combating climate change has been the spur

If a week is a long time in bourgeois politics then the interval between issues of a quarterly magazine is an eternity. The last edition of RP tackled the question of climate change as the Copenhagen summit got underway with all the media hype appropriate for an event whose success or otherwise, we were told, would determine the future of human life on this planet. Predictably enough, however, Copenhagen produced no binding international agreement and the whole pantomime only emphasised how far this capitalist world is from implementing an effective plan to achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. After waiting for states to submit their final emission ‘pledges’ by the end of January, a disillusioned Yvo de Boer, head of UN climate change negotiations for the past three and a half years, handed in his resignation. Writing in the Financial _Times_ just before Copenhagen, de Boer had claimed that “failure is not an option” and that:

“The solution will not only reduce emissions; it will provide the biggest opportunity since the industrial revolution to rebalance economic activity towards a more stable and equitable path for every nation. (1)

In reality though Copenhagen, like Kyoto before it, came nowhere near even a paper agreement to reduce emissions. The real wrangles were over how far each state would be prepared to limit the growth of emissions. Well, what the hell… While the northern hemisphere endured one of the longest and coldest winters in decades a steady drip of media stories about dodgy research methods and exaggerated claims of various climate research bodies has undermined public ‘confidence’ in the significance or even the existence of climate change. As we go to press Phil Jones, professor at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit which is a principal supplier of data to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is due to testify to a parliamentary committee over the e-mail ‘climate gate’ scandal.

He will do so against a background of embarrassing conceding of errors by the IPCC, notably the too short timescale for the predicted melting of Himalayan glaciers in its 2007 report, or the statement that 55% of the Netherlands is under sea level when the real figure is 26%. So far none of the exaggerations on the one hand or omission of evidence which doesn’t support the desired conclusion on the other seem to amount to much, although there is plenty of scope for questioning the objectivity of bourgeois science. The plain truth is that most of us are in no position to weigh up the evidence and evaluate the basis of the numerous climate change reports.

All we can do is note the consensus of scientific opinion.

The Problem of Climate Change

No serious scientist involved in climatology denies that average global temperatures have risen at an accelerated rate since the start of industrial capitalism. The vast majority accept that human activity — primarily burning fossil fuels — is the main cause, a consequence of the effect of propelling carbon dioxide and other noxious gases into the atmosphere.

It follows that if global output of socalled greenhouse gases continues to grow then the average temperature of the earth will also increase. The IPCC predicts that if nothing is done to reduce these emissions there will be a rise of between 1.5°C and 6°C during this century, although this is by no means the lowest estimate. A rise of 4°C or more would mean a world hotter than human beings had ever experienced. Plenty of models exist but no-one can foretell the exact consequences of such temperature increases. Predictions range from increasingly extreme weather patterns, such as serious flooding, droughts leading to crop failures and widespread drinking water shortages, hurricanes and so on to the disappearance of low-lying countries due to melting ice caps and rising sea levels, the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and associated animal and plant life. Hence the onus to reduce carbon emissions and thereby slow down global warming.


That is, unless it is already too late to do so. The consensus now is that global warming has to be contained to below 2°C in order to avoid the ‘tipping point’ when the whole process would become self-sustaining and out of the hands of human beings to control it.

Here the problem of climate change becomes more than a question of scientific probability, of one set of researchers persuading another of the validity of their research. Once the problem is accepted as a real one then it is up to humanity as a whole to find a solution. If only! Unfortunately the present world order is not in the control of ‘humanity as a whole’.

Despite the dire warnings from environmentalists of the consequences ‘we’ will face from global warming, the vast majority of human beings are in no position to substantially alter how capitalism pollutes the planet. The present world is an imperialist one of unequally competing states, all of them class divided, with the strongest of them reinforcing their economic power with military might and with the most powerful of all in control of the currency of international trade. It is completely utopian to expect that any agreement reached on climate change within the existing world order can “rebalance economic activity towards a more stable and equitable path for every nation”, as the outgoing UN climate change negotiator supposes.

The Capitalist Barrier

Despite the severity of the problem it is not, and cannot be, addressed head-on in terms of what is best for humanity.

In fact it has taken decades for the capitalist powers to begin to tackle the issue. The US has been particularly slow to respond until carbon trading got off the ground and converted the question into one of profit and loss for business and once it dawned on political leaders that with oil supplies due to run out new sources of ‘green energy’ could be the answer to the question of ‘energy security’. Not only did the US refuse to ratify the Kyoto protocol on the grounds that it would damage the United States economy, at the time of the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 the Bush administration was gearing up for the invasion of Iraq in order to secure its hold over world oil supplies. Now the prospect of climate change affecting agriculture has brought the question of ‘food security’ which, like ‘energy security’, is now being tackled under the banner of counteracting global warming. The International Rice Institute and other scientific institutes looking at the effects of global warming on world food production have estimated that a 1°C increase in global temperature threatens a 10 percent drop in rice, wheat and other major grain yields. But in a world shored up by imperialism, food or energy ‘security’ for the most powerful states is bought or otherwise secured at the expense of the wellbeing of workers and small producers in the weakest states.

Even the terms of the problem are being redefined to make it manageable for capitalism, whether or not the future of humanity is put in jeopardy.

The present UK government, for example, produced an energy policy based on recommendations by the Stern Report. In order to keep the cost of the proposed measures within politically acceptable boundaries (one per cent of GDP), Stern based his recommendations round a carbon emissions target of 550 parts per million, in keeping with a temperature rise of up to 3°C — i.e. well beyond the 2°C ‘tipping point’ that the ‘international community’ is supposed to be aiming to avoid. How a single state can plan to solve a problem which knows no boundaries and affects the whole earth is difficult to fathom but this remains essentially the situation in the aftermath of Copenhagen. — Or rather there is the pretence that every state is contributing its necessary quota to an overall target. In fact the UK’s energy policy broadly follows the EU’s official aim of cutting greenhouse gases by 20% from 1990 levels at the same time as raising the portion of energy derived from ‘renewable’ sources by 2020. This policy itself was adopted by an EU summit in March 2007, following the energy crisis on the European mainland during the 2006 gas war between Russia and Ukraine.

Again, ‘energy security’ rather than combating climate change has been the spur.

So, has Copenhagen ameliorated the outlook for global warming? The short answer is, ‘No’. Before the summit got underway the World Resources Institute issued a press statement indicating that by 2020:

“… the proposals currently on the table (such as EU ETS, the proposed Waxman-Markey Bill in the US, and other reduction commitments put forward by other states) … will only take us halfway to the required 17 Gt abatement, which will leave us on track to a global temperature increase of at least 3°C. Such an increase would c e r t a i n l y carry catastrophic consequences for the world’s economy. (2)

And afterwards, nothing had changed.

According to a recent report, even if the most optimistic post-Copenhagen reduction pledges (offered in January this year), are implemented there will be an estimated 5 gigatonnes (Gt) emissions overshoot of the targeted 44 Gt limit by 2020. The experts now generally assume this would contain “greenhouse gases to 450 parts per million in the atmosphere, yielding roughly a 40-60% chance of limiting global warming to 2°C above preindustrial levels”.(3) Or, to put it another way, instead of possibly managing to contain global warming to an average 2°C, there is likely to be at least a 3°C increase above pre-industrial levels — “which risks severe levels of climate damage” (ibid). And this is the very best scenario that anyone can draw after Copenhagen.

Credit to Polluters

Yet, apart from seriously concerned environmentalists, the capitalist class as a whole does not appear to be too perturbed by the outcome of a summit which was too critical to fail. Individual states, or groupings of states are pushing ahead with their own policies which include substantial subsidies for ‘clean energy’. The biggest disappointment was for the big energy companies. They were looking for a clear international framework, backed up by legal powers, which would give them ‘certainty to plan investments’, as the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell put it. (4) This uncertainty is reflected in the carbon credit markets, based on the EU’s carbon trading scheme where limits are set on the amount of emissions, and the rights to emit carbon are distributed according to a company’s existing propensity to pollute to comply with this limit. These permits to pollute are themselves tradable in the same way as any other financial asset. Companies who find ways to reduce their emissions, or who do not produce any, sell their remaining rights to pollute to other polluters. The low level of industrial production over the last two years of the capitalist crisis has already reduced the cost of carbon credits (as well as slowing down emissions) but in the aftermath of Copenhagen the price of a carbon permit under the EU’s cap and trade scheme dropped by 15% to €20. This is bad news, not just for the markets, but for any environmentalists who have set store by such schemes which depend on carbon prices being high enough to encourage industrialists to install cleaner technologies.

According to one estimate carbon credits would have to trade at around €60 for there to be enough investment in clean energy to achieve the official emission targets.

The whole situation demands a centralised, considered global solution.

Instead it is a capitalist mess where each state is going its own way and implementing short term options: subsidising dubious new technologies on the one hand; resorting to the building of nuclear power plants on the other. (Obama, for example, has included a demand for $54bn of loan guarantees for 10 new nuclear plants in the 2011 budget.) Whatever happens, the cost to the working class, already paying for the financial bail-out, is going to be large. In the UK, Ofgem, the energy regulator has already estimated that the average household fuel bill will have risen 60 per cent by 2016. (5)

Another estimate, this time of the global cost of limiting greenhouse gas emissions made by the International Energy Agency, is $10,000bn, with every year of delay adding a further $500bn.

This sort of sum is almost on a par with the cost of the financial bail-out over the last two years, a bail-out which has almost brought capitalism to its knees.

It implies enormous social costs and collapse of workers’ living standards to war time levels. In this scenario the response to global warming will be determined by the class struggle. And the focus of the struggle will have to be how to get rid of capitalism.

A New World?

The idea that capitalism can be ‘environmentally friendly’ is a nonsense.

Capital has never done anything else but rampage over the planet, robbing the earth’s natural resources without a thought for the consequences. Even without global warming the degradation of the environment in the capitalist epoch, from water pollution to plastic waste islands the size of Texas, from poisoned seas and rivers to the over 80,000 chemicals it has brought into existence, has limited the quality and scope of life on the planet. Alternative energy itself is no panacea. Many of the so-called clean energy innovations bring with them new ways of polluting and degrading the environment, not to mention increasing the suffering of human beings. (Take for instance the race (mainly in China) to extract rare earth minerals by powerful and abhorrent solvents, which poison the local areas as well as the workforce.) There is a glaring need for a new world order: a global community without national borders where production can be planned directly to meet human needs and can take account of environmental consequences of alternative courses of action; a community without the intermediary of money and commodity production, where economics becomes a question of social allocation of time, particularly working time, and no longer a question of what is immediately financially profitable or not.

This is far from the vision of those who for one reason or another see the environmental struggle as the heart of an ‘anti-capitalist’ struggle. For many there is simply disillusion with the notion of class struggle and the prospect that this can lead to revolutionary change.

Yet capitalism remains, by definition, a system dependant on generating profit, the source of which is the surplus labour workers are obliged to yield to capital over and above the wages they receive. It is this system which has to be abolished and only the concerted force of an internationally unified and politically conscious working class will have the power to do so. The Achilles heel of many self-styled anti-capitalists is to confuse the path to socialism or communism with a mish mash of reformism (for example Attac’s call for a universal tax on financial transactions) and the self-styled ‘antiimperialism’ (read anti-Americanism) and state capitalism of populists and demagogues of the likes of Evo Morales in Bolivia or Chavez in Venezuela.

No matter that Bolivia, for example, remains one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the most inequitable land distribution systems, despite the president’s avowed defence of the rural poor and his heading of the so-called Movement Towards Socialism Party. But then Morales and Chavez have cocked a snook at US and international capital by nationalising their energy and oil industries. None of this has anything remotely to do with bringing down capitalism, much less preparing the political basis for a genuine anti-capitalist movement. We agree that a new world is possible — and necessary. Perpetually campaigning to reform this or that aspect of capitalism is not the way forward. The only way to halt capitalist ‘business as usual’ and save the planet for humanity is by world working class revolution.

The spark for that will come from the politically conscious minority who have organised to campaign in the only revolutionary way possible: amongst the working class for the communist political programme.

E. Rayner

(1) ‘Failure is Not an Option’, in FT supplement on the Copenhagen Summit, 2009-12-03.

(2) Jonathon Lash at a press briefing for the World Resources Institute prior to Copenhagen.

(3) ‘Taking Stock – The Emission Levels Implied by the Pledges to the Copenhagen Accord’, published by Project Catalyst, February 2010. See .

(4) Peter Voser, quoted in a Financial Times special report on Clean _Energy_, 2010-01-18.

(5) Ed Crooks, ‘The Power Bill Arrives’, _Financial Times 2010-02-0_3.

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.