Climate change: the eco-socialist solution

Issue 

The following article is from the soon-to-be published, updated What Resistance Stands For manifesto. Resistance branches around the country will be launching this exciting new document, and selling it at Walk Against Warming rallies on December 12.

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On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 NASA probe, having flown more than 6 billion kilometres, turned around and photographed our solar system. Against the vastness of space, a pale blue dot could just be seen: Earth.

"Look again at that dot", wrote astronomer Carl Sagan. "That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives."

"The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate … Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand."

But our species, for all our intelligence, may be extinct far sooner than we once expected, and by our own hand.

Humanity has changed the face of the Earth, exhausting the soil, felling the forests, damming and draining the rivers, annihilating our fellow species and altering the very chemistry of our air and oceans. Nuclear war may be the only nightmare comparable to the holocaust that our economic practices bring us closer to day by day.

Our species is not marching blindly towards the abyss; our eyes are wide open. We know we live in a closed system, yet excel at turning natural "resources" into "waste" to be dumped. We know that our species depends upon a complex web of other species for our own survival, yet seem determined to sever even the last slender thread of life.

"At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature, but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst", wrote 19th century socialist Frederick Engels.

Yet today, a deep rift between the world's economy and ecology exists.

The capitalist economy is based upon the principle of private ownership of the Earth, of competition between its owners, with profit as the prize. Failure to make a profit from one economic cycle makes it harder to compete in the next one, and ultimately leads to a loss of ownership to more ruthless competitors.

The intersection between economics and ecology is found where labour is applied to nature to "create" all the wealth of our society — or more accurately, where we convert the wealth of nature for our own uses. Under capitalism, this connection between nature and human society is governed by the pursuit of short-term and short-sighted profit, rather than for meeting human needs. The end result will ultimately be fatal.

The profit system led the British Empire to annex and mine tiny islands and atolls around the world to fertilise the over-exploited farmlands of Europe. It led the Spanish Empire to replace the mountainside forests of Cuba with coffee plantations, only to see the soil wash away in the rain after only a few harvests.

It is this system that keeps our society addicted to fossil fuels today.

Having an economic system detached from its ecological base is profoundly stupid, but the vested interests that profit from it are not. They have successfully convinced many people that capitalism is the "natural" economic system of our species.

However, at some point — and soon — we need to recognise that capitalism has, in fact, alienated our species from nature. Otherwise, our own ignorance will be our downfall

It happens to be an emergency!

Climate change is the greatest threat to ever face humanity. Although it is true that the Earth's climate varies naturally, mainly due to changing levels of solar radiation, the changes we are seeing today are primarily caused by human activity.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 to 390 parts per million in the past 200 years. The primary cause of this change has been the burning of fossil fuels since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and particularly over the past 40 years.

This increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has already led to an average warming of 0.75° Celsius over the past century, which does not correspond to solar variation. Current concentrations of greenhouse gases mean a further 0.9°C of warming is in the pipeline, even if we stop all emissions today.

Scientists' fear is that this linear warming could trigger non-linear feedback loops — points of no return. Already, methane, a greenhouse gas far more powerful than carbon dioxide, is bubbling up from warmed Scandanavian coastlines and melting Siberian permafrost.

If feedback loops like this become self-sustaining, even 1°C of warming could result in a further 6°C or 8°C.

The climate is now changing rapidly. It's getting hotter, the ice caps are melting, the oceans are rising, bushfires are bigger and crops are failing. Hundreds of millions of lives are now at risk.

We are now likely to leave the relatively stable climate that saw the birth of modern civilisation. We are now embarking towards a new climate that our species (and many other species) have never known. "We are climbing rapidly out of [humankind's] safe zone into new territory, and we have no idea if we can live in it", said climate scientist Robert Corell in 2007.

Even if humanity can avoid total extinction, the human costs are beyond comprehension.

What happens if the Himalayan glaciers continue to melt, leaving 2 billion people in India, China and Pakistan without sufficient water to live in the summer?

What happens when Bangladesh is covered by rising sea levels and 200 million people become refugees?

What happens when changing temperatures and droughts mean Australia is no longer able to feed its people?

This is the true cost of climate change; to be measured in terms far more valuable than dollars and euros.

Scientists have known for at least two decades that this is a real threat, but emissions have continued to rise. Meanwhile, inaction characterises business and governments. We should not be surprised.

Despite their slick marketing, businesses continue to profit from an economic system for which the costs are paid by the environment, not themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current rush to drill for oil under the melting Arctic ice cap.

In this, as with all the destructive pursuits of business, capitalist governments are complicit.

For a safe climate

Achieving a safe climate means reducing carbon dioxide to levels we know will not trigger self-sustaining feedback effects. Scientists have growing confidence that this concentration is about 300 parts per million — or near pre-industrial levels.

We are already at 390 parts per million, and adding more each year. For a safe climate, we need to cut net emissions almost totally within the next decade.

In fact, we then have to move below zero net emissions: to draw down more carbon dioxide than we produce. This is the only way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

With any luck this may require only planting new forests and increasing soil carbon. But the longer carbon emissions increase, the harder this will be.

At the very least we need to rapidly replace coal-fired power stations with renewable energy, fossil-fuelled cars with public transport, and old buildings and energy-intensive appliances with efficient alternatives.

Agriculture will need to become localised and do without the petrol-based fertilisers and pesticides now used.

Destructive or wasteful industries and products will need to change or be scaled back.

This radical and rapid transformation towards a sustainable economy needs to be governed by an understanding of the natural science of our world. Therefore, it needs to be the work of informed, intelligent and liberated human beings.

The inhuman and crude tool of the privately owned, profit-seeking corporation is inherently incapable of the task. Democratic control over the economy is an idea whose time has come. The Earth itself demands it.

Capitalist 'solutions'

Capitalist governments around the world have now acknowledged that climate change is real, conceding in words if not in action to the power of popular demand. But their "solutions" remain little more than smoke and mirrors.

They argue for the capture of carbon from coal-fired power stations, despite the fact that the technology will not be ready for decades, if ever. But they need some excuse to expand the coal industry and even a lie will do.

They argue for new nuclear power stations, despite the fact that they are still too dangerous, too expensive and take far too long to build. Most politicians are well informed of these facts, but still advocate nuclear power to try to justify expanding the uranium export industry while neglecting wind and solar power.

In their obsession to protect the profit system, big business and governments now say the way to end climate-changing pollution is to give businesses the right to pollute through "carbon trading" laws.

Carbon trading was originally proposed by the United States government as a way to stall direct regulation of greenhouse gas emissions (as is now done effectively with dioxins and chlorofluorocarbons).

Despite many examples of the flaws of carbon trading in practice, and its inbuilt inability to encourage the needed transition to renewable energy, politicians are wedded to the concept.

Carbon trading also has an evil twin: "carbon offsets". Carbon offsets are based on the idea that the carbon emitted in one place is cancelled out by the absorption of carbon in another place. "Offsetting" companies have sprung up to claim offsets for new coal-fired power stations.

If only it were that simple.

We need to radically reduce emissions in the industrialised countries, as well as create carbon sinks that draw down existing carbon from the atmosphere. One cannot offset the other. Both are necessary. We need to draw down more carbon than we are emitting to cool the planet.

Politicians in highly polluting countries like Australia have found carbon offsets useful for pretending to cut emissions. The problem with this is immediately clear when you realise that every other highly polluting country is planning to do, or doing, the same.

Even before considering how unfair it is to expect mainly poor countries to offset the emissions of the rich, it's simply impossible to offset that much pollution.

Businesses have responded to the emergency of climate change in the same way as they do to most crises: as a marketing opportunity. "Greenwashing" is big business.

The big oil companies spend big on glossy magazine advertisements about renewable energy, while keeping their funding of renewable energy itself as low as possible. Of course, they aren't called oil companies anymore, but "energy" companies.

Almost every product now touts itself as "environmentally friendly", but with friends like these, who needs enemies? The Amazon is disappearing almost as fast as stocks of bluefin tuna. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to skyrocket and water tables are bottoming out. Despite its new "environmentally friendly" image, business remains business-as-usual.

Change the system

Climate change reminds us, in a phrase attributed to Lao Tzu, that "if you don't change direction you may end up where you are heading". The road of capitalism is now lined with horrors and we must find a new direction home. After a long absence, sustainability must be restored to the relationship between society and nature.

The environmental crises of today have not been caused by humanity overstepping some simplistic notion of the Earth's "carrying capacity". Ecosystems are fundamentally relationships between their organisms and their mediums. Any reduction of these complex and cyclical associations to a catch-all mathematical formula is the opposite of ecology.

Capitalism's real ecological crime is in treating ecosystems in such a way, for the purpose of maximising theft from nature. The true carrying capacity of an ecosystem is determined by its ability to reproduce itself. Through creating monocultures, not only of crops or factory farms, but also of people as consumers, capitalism destroys this cyclical dynamic of ecosystems.

In its place, capitalism creates a linear chain of production. It exhausts its farmland to provide grain for the feedlots of factory-farmed cattle. It exhausts its mines to provide the nutrients lost in grain production. It concentrates consumption in urban areas where the nutrients cannot return to the countryside, resulting in further destruction as rivers, seas and streets fill with waste.

Why does this linear chain of isolated monocultures predominate under capitalism? Simply, it is the most efficient way to maximise short-term profit.

A monoculture cannot reproduce itself and so is always beyond its carrying capacity. A linear production chain is always destined for collapse. This is why capitalism — not overpopulation or over-consumption — is the fundamental cause of environmental degradation today.

Our pale blue dot is suddenly looking too small for both our species and our social system. Hope lies in us making the right choice between them.