Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Too little, too late

Too little, too late

That’s the most that will ever be done under capitalism about the problems that global warming may bring. It’s simply that the way the capitalist system works rules out the effective action at world level that is needed to begin tackling the problem. It even encourages economic activities that contribute to it.

Capitalism is based on production being controlled by profit-seeking enterprises which, supported by governments, compete on the market to buy resources and sell products. This competitive pursuit of profits is the essence of capitalism. It’s what capitalism is all about and what prevents any effective action to deal with climate change.

Fossil fuels

Nobody can deny that global warming is taking place. Nor that, if it continues unchecked, it would have disastrous consequences - such as rising sea-levels and increased desertification - through its effects on the climates of the different parts of the world. There can only be argument over what is causing it. Most scientists in the field take the view that it has mainly been caused by the increase in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere largely as a result of the burning of the fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas.

If this is the case, then one part of any solution has to be cut back on burning these fuels. But this is not happening. In fact, on a world scale, it’s increasing. This is because this is currently the cheapest way of generating the energy to drive industry - and the logic of capitalism compels the profit-seeking enterprises that control production to use the cheapest methods. If they don’t, their competitors will.

There are other sources of energy, in particular hydroelectricity and nuclear power, and the various countries into which the world is divided rely to different degrees on burning fossil fuels. Which means that they would each be affected differently by having to reduce reliance on them. It is this that has prevented, is preventing and will prevent any effective international action to check the burning of coal, oil and gas. The 1997 Kyoto Treaty, which sought rather half-heartedly to do this, was not signed by the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide (the United States) and deliberately excluded the second biggest (China).

These two states - whose rivalry is likely to mark the 21st century - will never agree to limit their burning of fossil fuels and put their enterprises at a competitive disadvantage with regard to enterprises operating from other states less dependent on them. No government of either country could afford to agree to this. And nobody can force them to.

Market forces

There are those who, recognising that governments will never agree to do anything effective, argue that market forces will eventually bring about a decline in burning fossil fuels. Oil is supposed to be running out. As it does market forces will bring about a rise in its price and to alternative methods of generating energy - such as wind power, solar energy and other non-polluting, renewable sources - becoming relatively cheaper. Capitalist enterprises will therefore switch to these other sources. That’s the theory and maybe in the long run it might work. But the long run could be a long time, by when it would be, as we said, too little too late.

But there are arguments about whether oil really is running out and, as its price rises, so it will become profitable to exploit less easily extracted and previously unprofitable sources, such as the oil under the deep sea. Already the states surrounding the Artic Sea are manoeuvring to be in a good position to exploit the oil underneath it. The same applies to coal, of which everyone agrees there’s enough to last for many centuries. New mines are already being opened in China.

So, within the framework of capitalism, intergovernmental co-operation and leaving it to market forces will both prove to be ineffective. Are we then doomed to suffer the consequences of global warming? Is there then no solution?

The right framework

There will be a solution and, given the right framework, humanity will find it. We already know that any solution will have to involve finding replacement sources of energy to burning of fossil fuels. What is needed is a framework which will allow rather than impede the implementation of this and the other measures. The capitalist system does not, and cannot, provide such a framework. It must go before anything lasting and effective can be done.

What is the alternative framework? First, the competitive struggle for profits as the basis for production must be ended. This requires that the Earth’s natural and industrial resources become the common heritage of all humanity. On this basis, and on this basis alone, can an effective programme to deal with the problem be drawn up and implemented, because production would then be geared to serving human interests and no longer to make a profit for competing enterprises.

There will be those who say that we haven’t the time to wait for the coming into being of this, in their view, unlikely or long-distant framework, and that we must therefore do something now. In this age of apathy and cynicism when any large-scale change is dismissed, this may seem a plausible argument but it begs the question. It assumes that a solution can be implemented within capitalism. But if it can’t (as we maintain), then concentrating on something now rather than on changing the basis of society and production will be a waste of valuable time while the situation gets worse.

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