Capitalism is killing the planet — but we can stop it

July 1, 2016
In 2009 2500 people encircled Canberra's Parliament House to protest the Rudd government's carbon reduction targets. Photo: Clim

A growing number of local councils and universities are divesting from financial institutions that invest in fossil fuel extraction. This is a great credit to climate change campaigners around the country. It points the way forward towards the even greater shift in investment priorities that we will need to make if we are to stop catastrophic runaway global warming.

During the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, the discussion about stopping global warming was largely distracted by debate around the form of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The line that "only a market mechanism" was capable of reining in emissions was repeated so many times in the wake of the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review that it became an article of faith for many.

While the efficacy of an ETS was never subjected to proper scrutiny, the fact that Tony Abbott was implacably hostile to it seemed proof enough that it must be a good idea.

But Abbott was playing his own game. He was determined to prevent any concession to the possibility of restraining the mega-profits of the fossil fuel mafia and keen to pitch himself as the saviour of working people who would be hurt by business trying to palm off the cost of a carbon tax and happy to feed climate change denialism.

However, for any left-leaning person concerned about the environment, the assumptions around the ETS were counter-intuitive. How was it that only a "market mechanism" — that is to say capitalism — through its inherent dynamic of externalising costs onto society and the environment and its need for endless growth, after having caused global warming was now going to stop it?

No one would ever say, "Look at the US, only a market mechanism can deliver affordable health care for all." So why imagine that through a system of carbon trading capitalism's wholesale destruction of the natural environment could be meaningfully slowed?

Even the proponents of the ETS conceded that a carbon price hypothetically high enough to drive a sufficiently large and rapid shift away from fossil fuels could not work. Furthermore, where it is cheaper to buy offsets than cut emissions, that is exactly what businesses will do. The unhappy experience of carbon trading in Europe, complete with widespread rorts, is not widely known in the Australian environment movement — but it should be.

The ETS offered the comforting illusion that it might be possible to stop global warming without disrupting the logic of capitalism. But it was just an illusion.

The nationalisation of the big four banks under democratic public ownership is absolutely necessary for the transformation we need. This would make it possible to divest from fossil fuels and create a pool of investment to sustain a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy in the time frame required. Australia and all the world's other industrialised countries need to become net zero emissions economies and societies as soon as possible.

The Australian government took executive control of strategic sectors of the economy during World War II. Capitalists were required to shift production to suit the war effort. In 1947, during post war reconstruction the Chifley Labor government tried — and failed — to nationalise the banks so it could exercise control over the supply of money and credit. Today global warming represents an even greater existential threat to humanity than German fascism or Japanese militarism.

However, this time round the enemy is as much Australian capitalists as those over the horizon. The big fossil fuel companies will not passively accept the transformation to a carbon free economy, not even if a government is elected with a clear mandate to do so. The frantic reaction of the mining companies to the mining tax first proposed by Kevin Rudd is proof of that.

Mobilising to save our future will require an epic social struggle of a sort never seen before in this country.

The complete inability of capitalism to stop global warming is laid bare in Naomi Klein's acclaimed book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. It has really progressed the debate. The building blocks for the transformation we need are to be found in spreading the divestment campaign, strengthening the blockades against new coal mines and unconventional gas, and in the parliament of the streets. Go and build them now.

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