By Martin Thomas
The Blair government has latched on to a big report about global warming published by Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank and now an adviser to Gordon Brown.
It says it will push for a new global agreement on controlling greenhouse gas emissions, from 2008, to replace the ineffective Kyoto deal.
This is better than the approach of the US and Australian governments, who have refused even the Kyoto deal. They plead that global warming isn’t as bad as is made out, and that it is better to focus on coping with its effects than trying to stop it.
But is the Blair government’s new move enough? All the evidence says no.
In 1997 the Labour Government set itself a 13 year target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2010 to 20% below 1990 levels. In 2006 emissions are now the highest they have been since 1997. They are only five per cent below 1990 levels, excluding international aviation and shipping, and probably higher including those factors.
It is one thing to make a speech or a statement about climate change designed to make a government look good for a few months. It is quite another to do what needs to be done over years and decades, and do it against entrenched, powerful obstacles.
In September the Royal Society, Britain’s foremost scientific association, did something it had never done before in its hundreds of years of activity: it wrote to a corporation formally protesting about its evil influence on public debate of a scientific issue.
The letter accused the giant oil multinational Exxon of funding publications and reports which “misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence”. Other multinationals, such as the tobacco firm Philip Morris, have done the same thing.
Global warming will not be fixed unless we have governments willing to confront and take on the big capitalist corporations. The Blair government will not do that.
It is true that no-one knows exactly how global warming will develop. It is pretty certain that human activity has increased the discharge of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere, and thus increased average temperatures on the Earth’s surface. This global warming produces numerous “feedback” effects — some negative (such as when warming reduces carbon dioxide emissions, and thus reduces itself), and some positive (when warming increases carbon dioxide emissions, and thus increases itself). The best scientific estimates are that the positive “feedback” outweighs the negative.
A recent report, for example, warns that just another one degree Celsius of global warming could trigger a spiral of further warming by melting permafrost in cold regions of the Northern Hemisphere and thus releasing vast amounts of methane (another “greenhouse gas”) trapped in that permafrost.
As the Stern report indicates, “huge disruption to African economies in particular [would follow] as drought hits food production; up to a billion people losing water supplies as mountain glaciers disappear; hundreds of millions losing their homes and land to sea level rise; and potentially big increases in damage from hurricanes...”
Human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases come 24% from burning coal, oil and gas to produce electricity; 14% from fossil-fuels for transport; 14% from fossil-fuels for industry; and 14% from the use of fossil fuels to heat buildings. Agriculture contributes 14% to the emissions, and changes in land use, which mainly means chopping down forests, 18%.
Reducing emissions quickly and drastically means confronting entrenched interests.
Some environmentalists look to small-scale, “do-it-yourself”, “keep it local” remedies. A recent book by George Monbiot, an environmentalist himself, Heat: How To Stop The Planet Burning, shows that such remedies would be at best ineffective.
“What is the point of cycling into town when the rest of the world is thundering past in monster trucks? By refusing to own a car, I have simply given up my road space to someone who drives a hungrier model than I would have bought. Why pay for double-glazing when the supermarkets are heating the pavement with the hot air blowers above their doors?”
Economic activity has to be reoriented on a large scale, not bit by bit. But, as Monbiot also writes, the reorientation is not humanly or economically impossible. The problem is political. “When the US entered the Second World War it turned the economy around on a sixpence. Carmakers began producing aircraft and missiles within a year, and amphibious vehicles in 90 days, from a standing start”.
Solar power and wind power cannot replace fossil fuels by themselves. But there are many measures which, combined, could vastly cut fossil-fuel use. Many, even aside from nuclear power (which Monbiot, on balance, rejects: we wouldn’t necessarily reject it).
Internal combustion engines are extremely inefficient, converting only 20% of the energy in their fuel into driving power for vehicles. Replacing all petrol-engine cars with hydrogen fuel cells looks like the best medium-term prospect.
Improving public transport, and redesigning city development to reduce long commutes and drives to out-of-town superstores, would make a big contribution.
According to Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University (Science vol.305), “simply heating, cooling, and lighting buildings in the right way, or widely applying known technologies that can double the average fuel efficiency of cars, could open the way to dramatic cuts in oil use... Increased use of wind generators and photovoltaic arrays [solar panels], both directly to supply electricity to the grid and indirectly to make hydrogen fuel for cars, would do the same”.
Such measures cannot be implemented, or not sufficiently, without taking industry out of the hands of profiteers like the Exxon bosses, and putting it under democratic social control — which means working-class control.
Necessary measures which will inconvenience lots of people — and there will be some — will not be pushed through unless they go together with a drive for social equality, so that people can be convinced that “global warming” is not just a device to make some put up with difficulties and others (eg alternative-energy developers) win big profits.
Capitalism — the rule of private profit — is by its very nature short-sighted and irresponsible, putting individual greed above social foresight. The working class must organise to take industry out of the hands of the profiteers!