Ecology against Capitalism: Put the Heat on Governments

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We can deal with the challenge of climate change, argues Jonathan Neale.

Scientists are now agreed that the atmosphere is getting hotter, and getting hotter more quickly. Global warming is caused by 'greenhouse gases'. Right now one gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), accounts for more than 80 percent of warming.

Carbon is the basis of all life. The carbon from living things 200 to 300 million years ago has long since been turned into coal, gas and oil - 'fossil fuels'. As we burn them, we put carbon into the air. The carbon combines with oxygen to make carbon dioxide. CO2 allows heat from the sun to reach the earth's surface, but stops heat rising back. So the more CO2, the hotter the earth. Other greenhouse gases work in the same way.

The scientists are unsure how much the temperature will rise in the future. The agreed range of guesses goes from 1.4 degrees centigrade by 2100 to 5.8 degrees, although some are now suggesting 12 degrees is possible. No one is sure how severe the effects will be, but much of the polar ice will melt and oceans will rise. About all we can be sure of is that there will be more storms, floods, epidemics, drought, food shortages, and the loss of many coastal areas.

That's Plan A. Plan B has been revealed by studies of the Greenland ice sheets. There scientists have been able to drill down through the ice, taking out core samples. The ice is different in winter and summer, so the core provides annual records, just like tree rings. The ice also has little bubbles of old air trapped, and sprinkles of pollen. The scientists can tell what the climate was year by year, for 110,000 years, and how much carbon was in the air.

These records have told them three things. First, climate change is often very fast - with big shifts occurring in five to ten years. Second, climate changes in accordance with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Third, however, carbon has not started previous climate changes. The ice ages have a regular rhythm. These come from slight changes in the earth's orbit, which produce small changes in where sunlight reaches the earth. Then these small changes in the light quickly lead to large changes in the level of carbon in the air. And that makes it hotter or colder. There is clearly some kind of feedback mechanism. Once carbon starts increasing, that leads to further increases.

As to what that mechanism is, the scientists are so far only guessing. That it was there, and is still there waiting, is not a guess. Exactly when it will kick in is also quite unclear. It could be in 50 years, or 20, or yesterday.

Plan A will kill many tens or hundreds of millions, and Plan B will be much worse. For many species, it will be the end. But it is possible to imagine a world where humans could cope with the consequences of climate change. The poor would be evacuated in the helicopters of the rich. Refugees would be welcomed in neighbouring countries, given new houses and jobs, befriended. Everyone would share.

But we live in a world where much smaller disasters produce refugees, camps, racism, border controls, hunger, epidemics, endless boredom, broken families, ethnic cleansing and war.

The scientists are also agreed that we need to cut the level of carbon going into the air by 80 to 90 percent. The carbon already in the air is going to stay there for 100 years on average, so we can't put much more in. But the world's population will nearly double in 40 years, and hopefully the poor countries will industrialise. So we may need reductions of 95 percent per person.

This is possible.

The alternatives

Transport now accounts for about a third of carbon emissions, and the proportion is rising. The main problem, by far, is cars. Airplanes now account for only a small part. But their share is rising fast, and they put the carbon in the upper atmosphere, where it does most damage.

So we need to get rid of cars, and cut airplanes. That means public transport that works, that comes on time, and serves every road in every village, day and night. It means many more railways, which can use other energy than oil. And it means high-speed trains that can cross the US in a day and go from London to Delhi in three days - in other words, massive government investment in public transport.

Roughly another third of savings can come from insulation and efficiency. We need comprehensive insulation in all new buildings, and retrofits for all the old ones. Again this means massive public investment. Every time someone says that doing something about global warming will be expensive, remember that more money is for more work. Fighting climate change means profits may suffer. But it means working people will have more jobs.

On top of that, if the corporations concentrate on energy efficiency, not profits, they can quickly reduce energy usage in power generators, cables and all the parts of machines. They don't at the moment. Detroit car manufacturers, for instance, have halved the amount of energy they need to run a car over the last 20 years. They have used that to make SUVs.

So public transport, insulation and efficiency can reduce the amount of fuel we use. At the same time, we need to change the fuels. Greenpeace estimates there is enough wind to power the world four times over. Solar technology is less developed, and tidal power even less so. All these sources of power have their problems, and they are stronger in certain seasons, on certain days, in certain places, at certain times of day. We will just have to adapt our economies to that.

Finally, it will not be enough just to change the rich countries. We need massive aid programmes so the poor countries can retool in the same way as the rich.

The problem

When you put the solutions like that, it can seem overwhelming. But that is what we have to do. And you can see right away why Bush, and Blair and Chirac for that matter, have a problem. First, the oil and car corporations are a central power in every industrial economy. But even more threatening, all the solutions that provide massive savings involve regulation of the market and massive government spending. The neocons, the economic liberals and New Labour have spent 25 years fighting for the market and against government intervention. But if we can do those things for the climate, people will say, why can't we do them for other human needs?

So real solutions are too threatening to be considered. This does not mean Blair and company are insincere about wanting to do something. But it means they look for market solutions. This is the basis of the Kyoto treaty, which has been signed by all the major industrial powers except the US. Kyoto promises small cuts in carbon, and works through the market. That means it will be nothing like good enough. But there is a reason George Bush refuses to sign it. Kyoto is the thin end of the wedge. So the first step in getting 95 percent cuts is forcing Bush to sign Kyoto and then the governments to sign a stronger treaty.

The only way to do that is a massive international campaign. We need mass international demonstrations like over the war, but bigger. Building on that, we will need local campaigns, local actions, civil disobedience, general strikes, new political parties, and more.

This is not what we have at the moment. Right now the largest demonstration over climate change in Britain was 2,000 people, and the largest one anywhere was 5,000 in Delhi. The gap between the issue and the mobilisation beggars belief. Of course the scale of the problem is so great there could eventually be mass demonstrations and general strikes over climate change. It is all a question of timing. Will it be before or after it is obviously too late?

The Campaign Against Climate Change in Britain has been pushing for international demonstrations. (I am part of the campaign, but this article is very much a personal view, and most people in the campaign would disagree with some of it.) The Climate Crisis Coalition in the US is organising a demonstration in Montreal on 3 December this year, when the UN has its annual climate meetings in Montreal. A demo on the same day in Britain is already supported by the Green Party, People and Planet, Globalise Resistance, Friends of the Earth, and Southwest Unison. We are also networking to build demonstrations in other countries, and we have the support of the social movements assembly at the World Social Forum. The call for our demonstration is on the web at, and it would be good if any organisation you are in could sign it there.

Of course, international demonstrations this December will be relatively small. But 5,000 people is a lot better than none. In most countries a demonstration of 100 would be a start. The point is to establish that we will fight on this one, not just lobby. Once we start demonstrating, we can start building. And we are going for international demonstrations because it is an international issue, and we think that will make marches in each country bigger.

Scientists and environmentalists have done an enormous job in alerting all of us to the problem. Demonstrations are not, by and large, their traditional way of working. But faced with the enormity of the problem as they see it, this is beginning to change. They cannot do it alone, however. Global warming is not only an environmental issue. It is also a social issue, an economic problem, a union matter and a political challenge. To tackle it we will need all hands to the pumps.

To build the really wide coalition we need, we can't start by getting consensus on either the scale of the problem or the solutions. Any real movement will include many people who emphasise individual lifestyle solutions, or accept that the market is here to stay. It will include people who want George Bush to sign Kyoto and people who reject Kyoto out of hand as useless, people who hate cars and people who buy hybrids. For the moment, we can argue about the solutions. Those arguments will only be real, and produce real answers, once we have built a movement that can imagine forcing them through.

All this may seem like too much to hope for. So we start now, small, and try to grow. Two things are on our side. One is bad - the evidence of warming is clear enough that people are beginning to feel it and see it, and that evidence will get worse. One is good - everyone is talking about it, at home, at work, at family gatherings. Right now it's almost all throwaway remarks and nervous laughs, and a feeling that we can't do anything.

We can, and we must.

Jonathan Neale's most recent book is What's Wrong with America? (Vision £10.95). His email is

Paul McGarr has written a longer article on climate change for the new issue of International Socialism (phone 020 7538 3308 to order.)