Capitalism can’t halt climate change

March 21, 2019
Students 4 Climate in Brisbane. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Three days before 150,000 students organised the biggest national school walkout in Australian history to demand politicians act on climate change, Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) deputy governor Guy Debelle sounded a warning about the drastic effects of climate change on the economy.

When students and an RBA governor agree on the urgent need to stop the devastating impact of climate change on society and the planet, you know the movement is starting to bite.

But while the RBA views the climate threat from the perspective of the interests of big capital, students see it as a threat to their very future.

It is a threat to both, but, perversely, profits can still be made from climate catastrophes.

In his speech to the Centre for Policy Development on March 12, Debelle underscored that climate change is real and dangerous. He said there needs to be a new assessment about “our assumptions about the severity and longevity of the climatic events”.

“What if droughts are more frequent, or cyclones happen more often?” Debelle asked.

He noted the volatility of climate change and said the current drought had already reduced farm income by about 6% and total GDP by about 0.15%. Droughts and cyclones are becoming “deeper, longer and more damaging over time”, he said, and climate change has become a “serious challenge”.

Former energy industry boss and ex-chair of the Australian Coal Association Ian Dunlop added his support to this view, saying on March 14 that “Human induced climate change is happening faster than officially acknowledged”.

“Even as a former oil, gas and coal industry executive, I find it incomprehensible that proposals for new fossil fuel projects proliferate, encouraged by government and opposition alike,” he said.

“These projects are crimes against humanity ... [This crisis] requires emergency action, akin to wartime: the suspension of political and corporate 'business as usual,' to do whatever it takes.”

This is quite a departure from the standard line coming from such quarters.

What does this really mean? The capitalist class is split on how to deal with climate change.

One section, whose profits are particularly threatened by the impact of climate change — banks, insurance companies and agribusiness — is becoming concerned about their future.

Another section — the fossil fuel industry — is aware of the impact of climate change but is fighting to delay the inevitable transition to renewable energy.

The rabble of climate deniers — politicians and right-wing shock-jocks — have been bought as ideological defenders of the carbon producers' status quo.

In between, as arbiters of the overall interests of the capitalist class, lie institutions such as the RBA, which are vainly trying to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.

Capitalism, which prioritises profits, is risking the survival of humanity and the planet. Irrespective of individual capitalists' attitudes to the science, the same system cannot resolve the climate crisis.

While a more enlightened sector is taking some measures to ameliorate some of the worst impacts, the law of private profit overriding all other considerations cannot be overcome.

As Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin succinctly put it: “The last capitalist will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”.

Many students at the strike on March 15 carried signs saying “System change, not climate change”. They get it.

Just because climate change poses a threat to capitalists does not mean that they will have a change of heart. Sections of capital will say they can transform but they can never change enough to do what's needed to halt and reverse climate change.

That is because of capitalism’s structured social and ecological irrationality.

This is why, regardless of what the science tells us we should do, fossil fuels are still being burnt and sustainable energy systems still have to be fought for.

Green Left Weekly is committed to helping this fight for our lives. We report on climate justice movements across Australia and the world, and we are a proud supporter of the School Strike 4 Climate movement.

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