Saturday, December 21, 2019

Climate Change and the Limits of Capitalism

The idea of a Green New Deal’s main goal is a 100 percent carbon-free economy by 2050, to be achieved by gradually substituting green energy sources (solar, wind, thermal) for oil, gas, and coal, a project that could mean restructuring of the U.S. (and global) economy. Huge areas of the natural habitat would be restored, from tree-planting to river protections, water renovation, and massive recycling campaigns. Most crucially, a vigorous Green New Deal – said by many to require wartime-level resource and labor mobilization – would demand a broader, revitalized public infrastructure. While initially costing several trillion dollars (estimates vary widely), the program would eventually generate new sources of economic growth, jobs, social programs, and environmental renewal – all worth celebrating.

Green New Deal proponents have promoted these initiatives as a political imperative as time frame for reversing the ecological crisis is narrowing rapidly. Such a reform scenario can never  reverse the path toward ecological disaster. It is simply a greener variant of green capitalism where the familiar capitalist pursuit of profits, growth, and expropriation of the natural habitat might be restricted with some regulation but not ended. The Green New Deal is oblivious to the reality that ecological sustainability must clash with the logic which drives capitalism. Sustainability is inconceivable without tranformative changes in our system of production, distribution and consumption. Corporations are not accountable to society. They are responsible to shareholders seeking the highest returns on their investment. No business will commit commercial suicide in order to “save the planet”. Humanity has no choice but to seek a post-capitalist society if it is to survive.

The concept of “net zero” carbon emissions, for example, might actually help industry pollute, because one of the commonest ways to reach for it is through “carbon offsets.” This means that if a corporation is responsible for a ton of carbon dioxide emissions – which is bad – but at the same time it funds a project which “captures” (or “sequesters”) a ton of carbon – which is good – then the “net emissions” come to zero, as one is subtracted from, or “offset” against, the other. If the numbers could be accurately calculated (though that’s impossible and offsets invariably exaggerate the amount of greenhouse gases absorbed or reduced), then the corporation could pollute as much as it liked because it would be funding someone else to do the equivalent “anti-polluting,” and clean up its waste.

The only reliable way currently known to “capture” significant carbon at a reasonable cost is to plant trees. But many offset projects sow fast-growing tree crops like eucalyptus and acacia, to make money. This actually increases rather than reduces carbon: Existing vegetation has to be cleared and the new plantations are more liable to fires, which spew out vast amounts of pollution. Many such crops will take decades before they start absorbing much carbon. Equally damaging plantations, like oil palm and rubber which take over people’s lands and destroy biodiversity, are passed off as environmentally friendly because the UN also defines them as “forest.” Countries such as Madagascar and Indonesia claim to be increasing forest cover when they’re actually clearing existing vegetation to sow these new plantations, claiming such destruction is good for the environment.

Another approach to offsetting is to get someone to agree not to cut timber which would otherwise be felled. This is supposed to avoid future emissions –though it’s important to note that it doesn’t actually reduce existing carbon at all. It’s known in the jargon as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) and the “+” stands for the conservation of existing forests. Hundreds of such projects have been around for many years but with very scant results. One problem is that undertakings not to log are agreed by those who don’t have the power, or perhaps even the intention, to stop it, and trees not felled one year can still be cut the next. Trying to bind communities into contracts lasting for generations is effectively impossible.

Overall, there are many reasons why offsetting is rarely what it pretends, and critics disparagingly call it, “payment to pollute.” One study shows that almost all such projects – an astonishing 85% – simply fail. Nevertheless, in spite of the problems, offsetting remains a multi-billion dollar industry, with lots of people capturing a lot of money for themselves rather than sequestering any significant atmospheric carbon.

Reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – the thing needed to slow global warming – is a very different thing from supposedly reducing “net” emissions, but it would be a much more drastic step. It would entail cutting energy consumption, curtailing industrial growth, decreasing military activity –one of the biggest polluters of all but rarely mentioned. Genuinely reducing emissions would mean changing the direction of an capitalist society with its continual growth and expansion. The Green New Deal is largely about job creation in new and supposedly “green” technologies alternative, “clean” energy sources, such as solar and wind – the “renewables” – but there’s a problem with them too: Production of the batteries they currently need to store their energy wreaks yet more environmental damage. Climate chaos is being made by the same people who now seek to turn climate activism into yet more profits!

The truth is that the capitalist class might indeed want to reduce climate change but it is still desperate for growth. It wants to continue “business as usual” while appearing as green as it can. Contracting industry would be good for the climate but it would make many people poorer, that would include some who are already poor. Industrialisation has long focused on stripping everyone they can of any self-sufficiency they or their forebears once had. They do this by appropriating communal areas, stealing land, and forcing the now landless population into wagr-labour for industry or big agriculture. This is how the industrial revolution was created, and it’s still going on. We need to reclaim the planet from capitalism’s ideology of perpetual growth which brings so much pollution and suffering. We must be to stop destroying those who now produce little or no pollution and who live largely self-sufficiently, by hunting, herding, or growing their own food. They are not only tribal and indigenous people, but many small farmers. We must stop governments and corporations taking their land. Mankind has evolved and survived – so far – only because of our adaptability. We have created vast and precious human diversity.

Abridged and greatly adapted from here


Anonymous said...

I for one wish your self-imposed exile had been as long as Napoleon's. Although his wasn't self-imposed of course. Again and again back to this dreary subject. Climate change is a myth. All based on prediction. And who made you official spokesman for the SP? Pathetic letters to the weekly worker.You don't even accept class-struggle.

ajohnstone said...

I never sign my letters to Weekly Worker as SPGB. It is its editor who adds that. But I do hold a Party committee position so I could be justified signing off with it, if I so wished.

If you feel I do not reflect the Party's case, you are free to submit your own letter to Weekly Worker explaining it. That has happened before.

But some do not share your distain and consider the latest letter worthy of re-publishing

As for your views on climate change being a myth, then even the evidence of your own eyes is not sufficient to convince you. Nor do I believe climate change denial to be the Party's official position on the topic.

Yup, when the doctor diagnoses cancer, that too is a prediction..that existing cancer cells
will replicate and spread. The doctor also predicts with appropriate treatment the progress of the cancer can be slowed down or even cured.

As for not accepting the existence of the class struggle, as an ex-trade union activist and as a worker, I have experienced that struggle first-hand.
What you may be getting confused about is the idea that people can acquire socialist consciousness from other social struggles that go on and not necessary the employer/employee conflict. But you may well dispute that if there is no climate crisis, then capital accumulation and the profit motive has no culpability and so criticism of it can't lead to a socialist conclusion.

Matthew Culbert said...

Come out from behind your anonymous shield.

Alan's thoughtful posts to the WW are always shared with comrades.

Robin said...

I agree with Matt. I dont always agree with Alan but I too always find his comments thoughtful and engaging and to say that his letters to the Weekly Worker are pathetic is disgraceful. Is Anonymous even a member of the SPGB? He or she should come out from behind his or her anonymity and let us know