A revolutionary response to the climate change crisis


Dave Holmes is a veteran leader of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency in the Socialist Alliance. He co-wrote the pamphlet Change the System Not the Climate (Resistance Books, 2007) and will be participating in the upcoming Climate Change — Social Change Conference. Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle spoke to him about the key issues the conference needs to address.

@question = Over the last year, many politicians and corporate CEO's have announced their conversion on the question of global warming, and claim to be united in finding solutions to the problem. Can capitalism make a course correction to avert the global warming crisis?

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

The fundamental way we live — how we generate our power, get around, grow our food — is not decided by us but by the big corporations. Without the rule of corporate capital we could set in place radically different, ecologically sustainable arrangements.

For example, the cars most of us use are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. But what choice do we really have? We don't favour private cars over public transport because we are a society of petrol-heads; it's a consequence of the deliberate policies of capitalist governments protecting the interests of their big-business masters. The auto industry and its associated sectors make up a very large part of many national capitalist economies and oppose moves to improve public transport-.

Trying to stabilise — and indeed reduce — the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere 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 fundamentally in contradiction with huge economic interests to be easily contemplated.

Many people are hoping that the new Labor government of PM Kevin Rudd is going to seriously address climate change. But already climate change minister Penny Wong's response to the Garnaut report is showing that Labor is not up to the challenge.

By any rational criteria Australia's massive coal industry should be progressively phased out, but instead the government is looking to throw money at so-called "clean coal" technology.

Meanwhile in New South Wales, 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 supports this privatisation.

@question = You're criticising Labor for not seriously tackling global warming but what do socialists say should be done?

What is needed 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 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, democratic control and run as public utilities. Currently, 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.

We need to break with the neo-liberal privatisation policies pursued by both major 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 power and hence more power stations. What about getting serious about energy conservation? Then we might be able to begin phasing out coal-fired power stations, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, what if the only light bulbs permitted were the low power, high efficiency ones? 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 gas-powered cogeneration were far more widely encouraged? The efficiency of the big coal-fired power stations is only about 30%. With cogeneration the low-grade "waste" heat is used, thereby boosting overall efficiency to around 70-80%. This means basing 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 both reducing our dependence on coal and helping make big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Each sector of industry and each firm should be set hard annual targets for energy efficiency. Consistent failure 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 existing 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 the previous Howard Liberal-National Coalition government. Nuclear power is no solution to anything (except the corporations' thirst for ever more profits). 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 should be 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.

•Big businesses should be forced to pay realistic prices for the power they use. This will focus their minds on the task at hand.

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

@question = 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 climate crisis and collectively implement it.

But under capitalism this is impossible. Society is sharply divided between a handful of capitalists who own the economy (mines, factories, supermarkets, media) and the great working-class majority, who are forced to work for them in order to live. Nothing which seriously hurts the interests of the ruling rich will be allowed. 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.


IN CONVERSATION WITH BRUCE PASCOE: The Climate Emergency & Indigenous Land Practice


Zoom panel featuring Bunurong man Bruce Pascoe, award-winning Australian writer and editor, author of Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

Also featuring agroecologist Alan Broughton, filmmaker & Rural Fire Service volunteer Robynne Murphy and City of Moreland councillor Sue Bolton.

For more information call (02) 8070 9341 or 0403 517 266. Hosted by Green Left.