The Copenhagen conference on 7-18 December will be a disappointment on a gargantuan scale. Whatever agreement is reached next week, it will not turn the tide in time to significantly reduce emissions.
Research into the physical science has reinforced the urgency of action on climate change. A group of leading scientists, heavily involved in climate research through the official IPCC process, has published The Copenhagen Diagnosis, an updated synthesis of the latest findings. The scientists argued there is acceleration of melting of ice-sheets, glaciers and ice-caps in the Arctic, Greenland and elsewhere and rapid Arctic sea-ice decline. They say that sea-level predictions have been underestimated and need to be revised: by 2100, global sea-level is likely to rise at least twice as much as projected by the IPCC just two years ago.
Several vulnerable elements in the climate system, such as continental ice-sheets, the Amazon rainforest and the West African monsoon “could be pushed towards abrupt or irreversible change if warming continues in a business-as-usual way throughout this century”.
Recent global temperatures demonstrate that warming continues and is human-induced. Over the past 25 years temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.19°C per decade. The reason for continued warming is surging greenhouse gas emissions. Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were nearly 40% higher than those in 1990.
The report concludes that “the turning point must come soon”. If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2 °C above pre-industrial values, “global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly”. To stabilise climate, a very low carbon society with per capita emissions under 1 metric ton CO2 is necessary by 2050.
Barack Obama has announced that the US could agree to cut emissions by a modest 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 pending congressional approval — but this is only 4% below 1990 levels. Given its responsibility both historically and at present for emissions the US should be singled out for criticism. This is far too little, too late from the world’s hegemonic power.
China has announced it would set a “binding goal” to cut CO2 per unit of GDP (known as “carbon intensity”) by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020.
Much of the left and NGOs involved in climate chnage issues are soft on China out of misplaced “third worldism”. China is now the largest world emitter and irrespective of who buy the goods its pumps out, unless China also makes the transition to a low carbon economy in the next generation, efforts elsewhere in the world will become increasingly irrelevant. Socialists should not pull our punches in criticising the totalitarian ruling class that runs China for its own, market-driven ends — exploiting millions of workers and peasants in the process.
Getting an international agreement on climate change, as with world trade or anything else, is fatally impeded by capitalist competition.
All of the fractions of capital are united by their rapacious hunger for profit, but like a band of thieves they fall out over the spoils. Climate change is just the latest terrain in which these battles are being fought out.
International agreements are also likely to fail because the bourgeois system consists of competitive states, with different capacities and different interests — and subject to different pressures from the particular ruling capitalist classes that they represent. Sometimes institutional arrangements can push these forces together — but as trade talks have shown, these are still limited and weighed in favour of the most powerful. And there is no global architecture for enforcing climate laws, however strongly worded. The bourgeoisie cannot represent the general, universal interest on climate change because its “executive committees” are themselves riven with conflicts and divisions.
The capitalist governments propose some measures — but all are governed by neoliberalism.
The commodification of atmosphere, the enclosure of the biosphere, and the imposition of a market for carbon, are the central mechanisms proposed by the masters of the universe to tackle climate change. It is clear what this means: make the transition to a low carbon economy profitable for capital, while making the working class pay for it.
The European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme will make some capitalists £50 billion richer by 2012 according to official estimates. Some capitalists have used the permits to help themselves through the economic downturn, rather than switch to less polluting technologies, as the market was supposed to signal.
A report by the Global Humanitarian Forum this year estimated that climate change is already killing over 300,000 people a year across the globe, with over 2.8 billion people living in areas of the world prone to floods, storms, droughts and sea level rise. These effects will only grow in the coming decades.
In the UK, the recent floods in Cumbria indicate the effects here and now of climate change. On top of this, the government’s Low Carbon Transition Plan states that energy bills will go up by at least £125 a year, every year — that is by at least 10%, so the private energy firms can restructure for climate change. That’s on top of the average 16% per year rises in fuel bills in each of the last four years, brought on fluctuations in the fossil fuel prices – driven at least four million people in the UK into fuel poverty (i.e. people who spend at least 10% of their income to keep warm).
The same capitalists and their servants who caused the climate crisis are launching an attack on working-class living standards in order to pay for the mess they created.
Working class people are doubly affected by global warming — by the physical impacts of droughts and floods, storms and heatwaves — and by the neoliberal climate politics of their rulers. But this means that working class people have a direct material interest in tackling climate change, to avoid being its principal victim.
And workers are the largest and most powerful social force, increasing bound together by globalisation into interdependent circuits of production and exchange. The working class has the power to stop the system in its tracks and to create a new, collective, democratic political economy that combines meeting human needs with climate protection.
Some of the answers to CO2 reduction — such as a cheap integrated public transport system — wil make instant sense to most workers. Others — such as green energy under workers’ control and the workers’ reconversion plan — need to be discussed and debated in the labour and ecology movements. But such issues are magnified in their importance as we live through economic crisis.
Why should steel plants close down when we need wind turbines and tidal power stations? Why do car plants close when they could be converted to producing recycling technologies?
A working class-based climate movement, binding together the best of the organised labour movement with the new layer of ecological activists is an immediate necessity. Socialists should throw ourselves into the demonstrations, discussions and actions over the coming weeks to help make that movement a living reality.
"Climate scepticism", science and politics
The hacking of e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) shows that climate scepticism is not dead. It also shows that scientists are fallible and not beyond reproach. However the issue is not primarily a matter of science — which is already widely established — but rather of politics.
Much of the early literature on climate change neglected to spell out the deeper social and political issues: once the science was proven, the politics would automatically follow. This “scientism” approach still characterises many NGOs and green campaigners. However it is not possible to read off adequate politics directly from “the science”. This is because of the nature of science, and the need for climate politics to examine the drives behind emissions, understand the social impacts of climate change and the political decisions taken to combat it.
Climate scientist Mike Hulme rejects the traditional, “positivist” view of science in his book, Why we disagree about climate change. His view of science is one where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. He is thus a realist on the IPCC, which is not a self-governing body of independent scientists, but rather a hybrid or “boundary” organisation between government and scientists.
Although the hypothesis of human-caused climate change is now well supported by evidence from direct observation, past evidence and complex computer models, there is no sense in which uncertainties are completely eliminated. Instead, Hulme argues that “science — especially climate change science — is most useful to society when it finds good ways of recognising, managing and communicating uncertainty”. Some of this uncertainty “originates from an incomplete understanding of how the physical climate works”, while other sources “emerge from the innate unpredictability of large, complex and chaotic systems such as the global atmosphere and ocean”. A third category of uncertainty “originates as a consequence of humans being part of the future being predicted”.
Hulme states that there are three limits to science that must be recognised. First, “scientific knowledge about climate change will always be incomplete, and it will always be uncertain. Science always speaks with a conditional voice, or at least good science always does”. Second, “we must recognise that beyond such ‘normal’ scientific uncertainty, knowledge as a public commodity will always have been shaped to some degree by the processes by which it emerges into the social world and through which it subsequently circulates”. Most importantly, “the separation of knowledge about climate change from the politics of climate change — a process that has been described as ‘purification’ — is no longer possible, even if it ever was. The more widely this is recognised the better”.
This is a far more adequate basis on which to approach climate science. We do not fear the truth or indeed uncertainty. We can defeat the sceptics. But what we really need to do is defeat the powerful political forces of capital that stand behind them — as well as the other bourgeois forces that accept the climate science but want to deal with it by neoliberal free market policies.