Global warming: looking beyond Kyoto

October 20, 2006

Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth has helped focus attention on the threat posed by fossil-fuel driven climate change. Gore's film was met with a predictable barrage of criticism by right-wing pundits. For example Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt wrote in a September 13 article that the "former US vice-president's ludicrous scaremongering contains exaggerations, half-truths and falsehoods".

However Bolt and his ilk are increasingly isolated. Over the last decade, the framework of the debate on climate change has shifted, with so-called "greenhouse sceptics" increasingly rare.

A GlobeScan opinion poll of people in 30 countries conducted between October 2005 and January 2006 found that a large majority believe that global warming is a serious problem. A Lowy Institute poll released on October 4 found that climate change is seen as one of the top three threats to Australia's vital interests in the next 10 years.

In 1997, PM John Howard said, "There is ... quite a bit of debate about the science, so far as greenhouse effects are concerned, and it's not all one way. It is not all — how should one put it — the apocalyptic view of the world and of life." But on the October 15 60 Minutes Howard talked about living in "an age where we're worried about global warming" (of course he was arguing that climate change is a case for Australia developing nuclear power "because it's clean and it doesn't emit greenhouse gases").

Although it's good news that the terrain of the "debate" has decisively shifted from whether global warming is happening and is a problem to the question of solutions (even if in Howard's case it's a non-solution like nuclear power), the bad news is that in the meantime more evidence has emerged that paints a terrifying picture of the scope, speed and impact of climate change.

Of major concern to climate scientists are findings that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than expected. According to a September 26 Bulletin article by Tim Flannery, although the Arctic ice cap has been melting at a rate of 8% per decade since the 1970s, resulting in thinning of the sheet and a loss of one quarter of its surface, during the summer of 2005 the melting accelerated, resulting in the loss of 300,000 square kilometres of ice.

The results of the monitoring of winter ice are no more heartening. According to Gretchen-Cook Anderson of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Arctic winter ice has been retreating at a rate of 1.5% per decade since 1979. However, over the last two years the ice has retreated by 6% each winter — 40 times faster than in previous years. Flannery speculated that this could be as a result of the Arctic Ocean passing "an important thermal point and ... retaining the warmth it gains from the 24-hour summer sun", which could trigger the collapse of the Arctic food chain and destabilise the Earth's heat balance.

Possibly the gravest warning so far about global warming's speed was given by NASA scientist James Hansen at the Climate Change Research Conference in California on September 13. Hansen said that the world has "at the most" a decade in which to stem climate change, warning that a "business as usual" approach would raise global temperatures by 2-3°C, producing a "different planet".

Melting icecaps will raise sea levels by between 10 and 25 metres forcing millions to seek refuge, increasingly violent weather patterns will cause major destruction and as the land dries up bushfires will be more frequent.

A 2°C rise in temperature will raise sea levels, inundating low-lying countries in the Asia Pacific region and create up to 150 million refugees by 2070, a CSIRO report released in October predicted.

But the challenge posed by global warming has been met primarily with criminal inaction from the governments of the two highest per capita greenhouse gas polluters — Australia and the US. Both countries have refused to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, citing as "unfair" the fact that Third World nations are not bound to reduce greenhouse emissions and possible economic damage caused by the agreement.

Instead of promoting green technologies like solar, wind and hydro power, the Howard government is pushing "clean coal" — an attempt to rehabilitate a polluting industry on the basis of unproven technology — and nuclear power — low in greenhouse efficiency and high in environmental and human impact (though with wonderful profit margins thanks to the massive government subsidies needed to make it viable) — as solutions to climate change.

Forcing climate renegades like the Howard and Bush governments to sign on to Kyoto has been a natural and useful focus of these movements. However the severity of the threat posed by climate change means that on its own Kyoto isn't enough.

According to New Scientist, the treaty's range of loopholes and scams will mean that even if the industrialised countries achieve Kyoto's reduction of 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012 on paper, the real-world reduction will be more likely to be 1.5%.

A September 21 British Guardian article by George Monbiot argued that atmospheric carbon concentrations need to be stabilised at the current level in order to avoid a 2°C temperature rise that will send the Earth's climate spiralling out of control. This would mean that the industrialised nations would need to cut emissions by 90% by 2030.

Not only does Kyoto not go anywhere near mandating the kind of greenhouse emission cutbacks that are needed, it also relies upon carbon-trading schemes that have proven ineffective in curbing emissions.

One of the first major tests of Kyoto's carbon trading has been the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme, which has been an almost total failure. The ETS is a carbon-trading market that includes all 25 EU member-states. Earlier this year the ETS market crashed as a result of member EU governments setting lax national emission targets, meaning that high-polluting industries could continue with business as usual and had no need to buy carbon credits.

By May 2006 the market price of permits had dropped to 10 euros per tonne, down 20 euros from April. In another indication of the ease with which corporate interests undermine "market mechanisms", on June 28 Germany announced that it would exempt its coal industry from any Kyoto requirements.

Some of the harshest criticisms of Kyoto are of its "Clean Development Mechanism". CDM allows First World countries to avoid reducing their emissions by investing in projects in the Third World that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The amount of GHGs that are theoretically reduced by the projects are transferred into credits that First World countries can buy to allow their companies to continue a pollution-as-usual approach.

Participants at the first anti-carbon-trading conference, held in South Africa in October 2004, issued a statement declaring: "As representatives of people's movements and independent organisations, we reject the claim that carbon trading will halt the climate crisis. This crisis has been caused more than anything else by the mining of fossil fuels and the release of their carbon to the oceans, air, soil and living things. This excessive burning of fossil fuels is now jeopardising Earth's ability to maintain a liveable climate ...

"Carbon trading will not contribute to achieving this protection of the Earth's climate. It is a false solution which entrenches and magnifies social inequalities ... 'giving carbon a price' will not prove to be any more effective, democratic, or conducive to human welfare, than giving genes, forests, biodiversity or clean rivers a price. We reaffirm that drastic reductions in emissions from fossil fuel use are a pre-requisite if we are to avert the climate crisis."

However the kind of "drastic reductions" in fossil-fuel emissions that are required have barely even registered on the policy agendas of governments like Australia's.

The degree to which the Howard government and the Bush regime in the US have shifted rhetoric on climate change reflects the cracks in the political and corporate elite over climate change. Those who now see global warming as a threat to the stability of capitalist economies, and, therefore, a threat to corporate profit, reflect an increasing body of elite opinion (as, indeed, is reflected by Gore).

But the kind of changes that are urgently needed — severe restrictions on greenhouse emissions, massive investment in public transport and renewable energy sources, access to clean technology for poor nations, and the eradication of the First World/Third World divide — will mean cutting into the "right" of corporations to profit at the expense of the environment. Governments that rule on behalf of the corporate rich, like Howard's, will only take these steps — which are needed now — under pressure from a strong, grassroots environment movements.

However the global warming crisis also raises questions about the sustainability of the capitalist economic system. The economic competition that is so fundamental to capitalism drives corporations to maximise their profits no matter what damage is done to the environment or face ruination at the hands of competitors, and the anarchy of the so-called "free market" renders impossible a rational allocation of resources on the basis of social need.

Renowned socialist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster explained in the October 2005 Monthly Review: "The main response of the ruling capitalist class when confronted with the growing environmental challenge is to 'fiddle while Rome burns.' To the extent that it has a strategy, it is to rely on revolutionizing the forces of production, i.e., on technical change, while keeping the existing system of social relations intact ...

"In stark contrast, many environmentalists now believe that technological revolution alone will be insufficient to solve the problem and that a more far-reaching social revolution aimed at transforming the present mode of production is required."

Foster argued that environmental sustainability was achievable only through radical social change: "The creation of an ecological civilization requires a social revolution ... It must put the provision of basic human needs — clean air, unpolluted water, safe food, adequate sanitation, social transport, and universal health care and education, all of which require a sustainable relation to the earth — ahead of all other needs and wants."

"Such a revolutionary turn in human affairs may seem improbable But the continuation of the present capitalist system for any length of time will prove impossible — if human civilization and the web of life as we know it are to be sustained."

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