Climate crisis, socialist solutions

February 4, 2009

Most Australians now realise that everyone — governments, industry, workers and consumers — must work to stop the rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce existing levels in the atmosphere.

They know that we need to act urgently before climate change becomes unstoppable. While different sections in our community have different priorities, the Socialist Alliance is confident in the power of people to work together to confront this challenge.

Can the existing economic and social system respond to this need for united and urgent solutions to climate change?

From recent experience, the answer has to be no.

Most capitalist responses to climate change rely on a combination of regulation (such as carbon taxes), market solutions (carbon trading and "feed-in tariffs") and more consumer choice, but leave the market economy fundamentally unchanged.

But even the best results achieved by these techniques (as in Germany) have only achieved emissions reductions of just over 1% a year, when climate science demands 5% annual cuts at the very least.

The cornerstone of any serious climate policy has to be democratic economic planning in the battle to save the environment.

The kind of changes that are urgently needed — massive investment in public transport and renewable energy sources, access to clean technology for poor nations, conversion of agriculture to sustainability and the eradication of the divide between the industrialised nations and underdeveloped nations — can only come through cutting into the power of corporations to profit at the expense of the environment.

Governments that rely on the support of the big corporate and mining lobbies will only act to make the changes needed when they are under massive pressure from a strong grassroots climate change movement.

Market forces chase dollars, not sustainability. Private industry will not willingly invest in renewable energy technologies on the scale required and join the fight to save our planet, without being made to do so.

Competition is fundamental to capitalism and forces corporations to maximise their profits at the expense of environmental concerns — or they face losing their market share to their competitors.

The anarchy of the "free market" means that a rational allocation of resources on the basis of environmental and social need is all but impossible.

Moreover, investment in sustainable industries is not as profitable as the "business as usual" path.

This is because real sustainability requires long-term, strategic investment, and will need to be a global effort. But projects that have an operational period of 30-50 years are generally less attractive for capitalists to invest in, as they do not provide short-term return (unless they are guaranteed monopoly control).

Public ownership of the energy and transport industries is the key to turning them in a sustainable direction, as part of a serious plan to cool our overheated planet.

We need to close the polluting industries: that won't happen if it's left to the market. We need to fast track the development of new, clean technology immediately: they won't be able to compete with the established energy providers in a monopolised market.

If an industry cannot or will not adapt to the need for new non-polluting technologies, it must be taken over by the state, made sustainable or closed down, with the workers affected retrained on full pay.

Carbon trading schemes with free and/or tradeable pollution rights entrench "business as usual" for the dirtiest industries.

The Kyoto "Clean Development Mechanism" is such a joke that even the Wall Street Journal admitted in March 2007 that emissions trading "would make money for some very large corporations, but don't believe for a minute that this charade would do much about global warming".

Overseas experience has shown that carbon trading has actually slowed the social and technological change needed to combat climate change by unnecessarily prolonging the world's dependence on oil, coal and gas.

Carbon trading has worked to impede the further development of alternative methods such as conventional regulation, public investment in energy alternatives, carbon taxes, and the removal of subsidies for fossil fuel extraction.

It can be argued that carbon taxes are simpler, more transparent, more effective, and less subject to manipulation than carbon trading.

Trading and taxing are theoretically equivalent. But in practice, trading conceals what is occurring a lot more easily than taxes.

But neither a carbon tax nor a rationing scheme nor any other pure market-based scheme will solve the problem. We urgently need regulation and non-market supplements as part of an overall plan for sustainability — developed, driven and overseen by working people, environmentalists, and the wider community.

[David White is the national environment coordinator of the Socialist Alliance.]

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