Last year a UN report on Climate Change sounded an urgent alarm. It stated that the average global temperature for 2015-2019 was the warmest of any equivalent period on record, at 1.1° C above pre-industrial times. The unprecedented heatwaves, record-breaking fires, tropical cyclones, floods and drought over the past 5 years meant that humanity was actually facing an emergency and that this emergency was man-made. The planet was warming at an accelerated pace primarily because of the production of greenhouse gases due to the burning of fossil fuels that simply could not be absorbed by the usual natural carbon capture systems, or sinks as they call them.
This is what this report says: "Despite extraordinary growth in renewable fuels over the past decade, the global energy system is still dominated by fossil fuel sources. The annual increase in global energy use is greater than the increase in renewable energy, meaning the fossil fuel use continues to grow. This growth needs to halt immediately. The net-zero emissions needed to stabilize the climate requires both an acceleration in use of non-carbon energy sources and a rapid decline in the global share of fossil fuels in the energy mix. This dual requirement illustrates the scale of the challenge."
The fact that global warming due to human activity could make the planet uninhabitable in the future has been known for at least 40 years. The first report into the so-called greenhouse effect (more on this later) was submitted to the UN in 1979. Today the geological period marked by damaging human-activity is being called the "Anthropocene" and it is proposed it starts with the explosion of the first atom bomb in 1945.
So yes, the scientific evidence of climate break-down, the extinction of animals, plants and insects let alone the starvation and migration of humans to escape the increasingly lethal consequences of global warming in their poverty-stricken countries all these are incontrovertible facts.
We know that the ice caps are melting fast, and that the world's glaciers are disappearing. Iceland has lost 12% of its glaciers already. And this means rising sea levels and the flooding of low-lying countries, islands and coastal plains. And because the delicate balance of the climate has been disrupted, floods are alternating with drought and both of these affect the ability of farmers to grow food, increasing the incidence of famine in the poor countries especially in Africa, India, Pakistan and Central Asia.
As for the oceans we all know about the large floating islands of plastic, but the higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are a cause of acidification of the sea. And it is this which has caused corals to die, threatening the Great Barrier Reef one of the wonders of the natural world and therefore breaking the marine food chain and putting all aquatic creatures at risk.
So the science of the issue is not really debatable, even if there are so-called "climate change deniers" out there. Much of this denial is actually orchestrated by those with vested interests the oil and chemical companies which are the biggest contributors to the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere .
So a more pertinent question which could be asked is why nothing has been done before to stop the destruction of the planet's environment? Why have politicians been turning a deliberate blind eye for decade upon decade? And what will happen next?
Playing an April fool joke
In Britain it was Extinction Rebellion or XR which has most recently raised the climate emergency and which is credited with making the government take note. But this didn't happen immediately. In fact back in April this year, it was impossible for anyone in Westminster to see past Brexit, even if there was this pink XR boat parked in Oxford Street with "tell the truth" written on it in black letters. So in the midst of the Brexit turmoil in fact on April Fool's Day, which was also 3 days after the first missed Brexit date of 29 March, 12 protesters appeared, near-naked with slogans written on their bodies, in the Commons Public Gallery during a debate which they guessed would have a lot of viewers. This was because MPs were debating so-called "indicative votes" in order to try to break the first major Brexit logjam (which of course, they didn't manage to do!).
That anyone could be concerned with anything other than Brexit that day was not obvious neither to MPs nor to the journalists covering the debate. So it took a while for the penny to drop and of course TV viewers were prevented from seeing anything thanks to the location of the cameras in the Chamber. The seemingly inappropriate laughter from MPs trying to give their speeches, was the only indication that anything was amiss. But the protesters, including a few who superglued their hands to the gallery's protective glass, were eventually ejected and that was that. However outside Westminster the April protests against climate change which XR had organised, attracted large crowds and a carnival atmosphere prevailed on the streets during a week of occupations of Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, and indeed the area around Parliament Square itself.
Raising the stakes in October
This October, XR staged another protest in London, this time for 4 weeks. People of all ages joined in, sticking themselves with superglue to furniture, doors, gates of chosen public places, as well as pavements outside them and even to roads, to cause traffic to halt. It caused significant disruption and ensured that the protesters got heard and arrested. And no doubt for XR, it was considered worth it even worth the negative publicity they received for blocking the path of ambulances or delaying commuters on their way to work, as happened at Canning Town station, when two protesters were hauled off the top of a tube train and would have been beaten up, if London Underground staff hadn't intervened to rescue them. XR apologised for the upset caused, but since it was for the greater good as far as they were concerned that is, saving humanity from future extinction it was considered a justifiable mistake.
XR had three clear demands which can be summed up as: the need, firstly, for government to tell the truth about the climate emergency; secondly, for it to act to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2025; and thirdly, for the government to set up a citizens' assembly.
And the chosen method for getting government to respond is so-called "non-violent civil disobedience". What XR explains, is that enough people must be arrested in order to overwhelm the system, so that the police and courts will push the politicians to do something. Which amounts to asking the police to be their go-between, in getting the message to the government. And their supporters are led to believe that if this happens, politicians will react to the climate emergency with the urgency required.
Achieving "critical mass"
As for how many people needed to be arrested for the so-called "critical mass" to be achieved for this government messaging service, apparently no one knew if it was 2,000 arrestees or 5,000. But the Met gave notice that it was well-prepared to receive XR's activists. It said it was, after all, "a large organisation with thorough contingency plans regarding cell capacity". The total arrested in October, at the end of their 4-weeks of civil disobedience was 1,828 with 164 charges laid by mid-November.
But far from provoking bans or injunctions, the opposite has resulted the top police officer of the land, Cressida Dick, said she was opposed to any proscription or ban in advance of XR protests. In fact the police have described XR's protests as "anarchism with a smile". As far as threats to the system go, it doesn't score very high, apparently. What is more, the High Court ruled in November not against XR, but against the Mayor Sadiq Khan's police ban on the group from holding protests in London!
Then on the 2 November, Johnson's government started sending out invitations to 30,000 people to participate in a "Citizen's Assembly on Climate Change" which would consider how carbon targets could be met by 2050. Rather than regarding this as a success, though, XR sees this as an attempt to smother their protest. After all, XR has demanded action by 2025 pointing out that meeting carbon targets by 2050 is too late and what is more, this Citizen's Assembly is not the kind it had in mind at all. A "real" citizen's assembly should be telling government what to do and not the other way round. So perhaps the wind is being taken out of the sails of XR's pink boat but perhaps not. Time will tell.
So who is XR?
So who and what are XR? Its success may be a flash in the pan, and yes, it's a group of middle class academics supported by mostly middle class people who can afford to take several weeks off work or studies for protesting... However it has found a resonance among a layer of youth, which may well end up following it down a blind alley. Which would be a shame.
XR was founded by Dr Gail Bradbrook who is a 47-year old former molecular biophysics researcher, her ex-partner Simon Bramwell, who is, apparently, a "bush craft instructor", and the organic farmer Roger Hallam, who did a PhD at King's University in civil disobedience yes, apparently that is possible... And some others. They've all formerly been part of other protest groups like the Occupy movement, or Earth First, etc. So these are not "active academics". They've dropped out of conventional careers for the sake of their activism.
XR explain that they went into action after the publication of the October 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which gave humanity just 12 years to stop "catastrophic climate change". XR claims that humanity has already entered the "6th mass extinction event" in human history. The following rather lyrical extract comes from their website:
"We have just this one flickering instant to hold the winds of worlds in our hands, to vouchsafe the future. This is what destiny feels like. We have to be greater than we have ever been, dedicated, selfless, self-sacrificial.
The third world war of profit versus life is already underway. Humanity itself is on the brink of the abyss: our potential extinction. We face a breakdown of all life, the tragedy of tragedies: the unhallowed horror."
Obtaining a "critical mass"
They stand for non-violent civil disobedience in the Gandhian sense. "We are asking people to find their courage and to collectively do what is necessary to bring about change." And they base this on the work of US social scientist Erica Chenoworth who, having studied "system change" in the 20th century has asserted that "No regime in the 20th century managed to stand against an uprising which had the active participation of up to 3.5% of the population"! It's all a matter of numbers, in other words, and form, rather than content.
In Britain, XR figures that "this would mean mobilising around 2 million people in order to oversee a rapid change in wealth distribution and power structures, preventing a rich elite from perpetuating a self-serving ideology."
So what change do they want to see, besides zero carbon? They say they want "a functioning democracy, where people have real agency in decision making. This would include devolution of power to the level closest to people and communities, with structures to facilitate decision making locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, where appropriate. An economy designed to maximise well-being for all people and minimise harm to each other, our fellow creatures and our home planet. We need policies and laws that achieve greater equality, localised production, reduced consumption, zero carbon emissions and zero waste... We can focus on symptoms of this toxic system, yet we also we take opportunities to point out that full system change is needed. "
And what do they mean by "system change"? XR identifies "pillars that keep the current neo-liberal system in place", these being " a debt- and interest-based, deregulated finance sector, a fake and decaying democracy and a media captured to the interests of exploitative rich people and corporations".
They go on to say that "our financial system is destined for another crisis bigger than the last. There is a global culture of conquering "others", of competition, of revenge and of terrorism."
This is possibly quite true. But why, and therefore, connected with that answer, what kind of system change is needed? In fact they propose a "regenerative culture", which, after a description of how people can care for themselves and others, ends by telling us "it's all about interpersonal relationships" and about avoiding a blame culture, because if we blame any one person or persons we just recreate the toxic culture we are already in....
At least they claim not to be so naive as to think that government will deliver change: so they write that: "We recognise that we can't look to government to solve the world's problems. It tends to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a very privileged few, and often does not have the interests of the majority of people and the natural world at heart."
But what is their answer, then? We "have to self-organise to meet our own needs, which in the context of Extinction Rebellion means that we are working to equalise power by disrupting the usual pillars of power that govern our lives. In so doing, our intention is to create access to the resources we need, such as democratic structures that ensure everyone has a voice and an influence, information that comes without the bias of the rich and powerful, decent healthcare, education, social care and housing, clean energy production, and protections in law to prevent ecocide." They argue that "in this way, power is decentralised, meaning that there is no need to ask for permission from a central group or authority."
So, no system change there but personal and group self-organising within the system. Maybe that is meant to then achieve some sort of critical mass which will cause the system's pillars to fall down? The trouble is there is nothing specific to indicate how they imagine change can occur.
Actually, there is a favourite cliche amongst today's climate activists, which is "speak truth to power" as if this is going to do the trick that nothing else has done so far!
The only way to achieve system change, is of course, to take over power. But nowhere in the diverse offerings of XR is there any question of this. And while there may be some reflection about "class" among the XR core (they would not call themselves "leaders"), they want "all" classes to feel comfortable in their movement and are a bit self-conscious about the fact that they are, and also appear to be, so middle class. But they do not acknowledge the fact that there are conflicting class interests in society. We are all the same apparently, except some of us are bad and some of us are good... But even so, nobody should be blamed...
Nature, society and capitalism
In fact there is indeed blame to be allocated. And it lies full square with the capitalist system which pervades the Earth and commands us to put the profits of a few above the interests of the vast majority!
The relationship between mankind and nature has always been central to Marxism. In fact, our understanding of society and its evolution is based on the idea that mankind is an integral part of nature and that society is the complex structure through which we interact with it.
If our aim, as revolutionary communists, is to overthrow capitalism it is, of course, because it is a system based on the exploitation of human labour. But it is also because of the irrational chaos it imposes on human society and, therefore, on nature.
One of the main characteristics of the human species is that it did not behave only as a predator of other species which existed in nature. Humans learnt how to transform nature in order to cater for their needs. They manufactured tools, tamed and farmed wild animals, grew plants, etc. The very long and slow development of agriculture allowed us to find a kind of equilibrium in this relationship with nature: we were able to use nature's resources to meet our needs well above survival level, although we still had no clear idea of nor concern for our long-term impact on the environment.
With the advent of capitalism, scientific and technological knowledge developed at an unprecedented speed and, with it, the scale on which mankind could act upon nature. Back in the 19th century, Marx and Engels foresaw the enormous productive potential that the then fledgling capitalist system, would eventually unleash. But they also highlighted the reasons why capitalism could not offer a viable future for mankind in particular the fact that capitalist competition makes it impossible for mankind to consciously design and build its own future. In fact, because of capitalism's chronic chaos, the considerable technological progress which has been made since its inception, has not even allowed humans to significantly improve their ability to control nature's evolution.
As early as 1876, Friedrich Engels underlined the short-termism which, under capitalism, is bound to undermine nature, as follows:
"Classical political economy, the social science of the bourgeoisie, in the main examines only social effects of human actions in the fields of production and exchange that are actually intended. This fully corresponds to the social organisation of which it is the theoretical expression. As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions.
"What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different..."
It only needs us to replace Engels' 19th century Spanish planters in Cuba with today's agribusiness companies in Brazil's Amazon forests, to realise that nothing has changed in the short-termism of capitalism. Or rather, that what has changed is the scale on which this short-termism affects nature and the fact that, today, our scientific knowledge allows us to measure the potentially catastrophic consequences of this short-termism.
The Marxist critique of the capitalist system involves demonstrating its incapacity to allow mankind to have any kind of conscious control over its future. One of the major contradictions of this system is the growing gap which exists between its increasingly powerful and sophisticated technical means, on the one hand, and, on the other, its increasing incapacity to control the long-term consequences of using these technical means.
What is true in the sphere of economics with the on-going economic crises which characterise the "normal" operation of capitalism and, in the sphere of politics, with the endless series of wars which have devastated entire continents for well over a century, is also true in the sphere of our natural environment. The blind but frantic operation of the profit-driven, capitalist market economy is also bound to involve devastating consequences for the planet. And climate change is one of them.
The climate mechanisms
So, what determines the planet's climate?
At the most basic level, climate conditions are determined by how the Sun's radiation heats up the atmosphere, the oceans and the land. Of course, the areas which are closest to the equator get proportionally more heat than those which are located close to the North and South poles. However, the circulation of air in the atmosphere and of water in the oceans, allows the heat of the Sun to be partially redistributed to the whole planet, through a number of complex mechanisms in which the rotation of the Earth plays a vital role. It is primarily the combination of these mechanisms, which all interact with one another, which results in what we experience as the climate.
The phenomenon which is behind global warming is called the "greenhouse effect" because it operates a bit like the glass walls of a greenhouse, which capture the Sun's light and accumulate its heat, thereby keeping the inside of the greenhouse warm.
The Earth's atmosphere or, rather, the so-called "greenhouse gases" its contains play a role similar to the greenhouse glass wall, by preventing the heat of the Sun from being reflected back into outer space after having heated up the surface of the planet. They capture and accumulate this heat, thereby keeping the planet warmer.
These "greenhouse gases" only represent a very small proportion of the Earth's atmosphere. Nitrogen and oxygen, neither of which is a "greenhouse gas", make up 99% of this atmosphere, with the remaining 1% containing all "greenhouse gases". Among them, the most abundant, by very far, is water vapour, followed by carbon dioxide, methane (which is the main component of natural gas) and ozone which is a toxic form of oxygen found in the outer atmosphere which absorbs ultra violet light.
This "greenhouse effect" is important for other planets as well. For instance, the fact that the planet Venus is much closer to the Sun than the Earth, is not enough to explain why it is so hot, with an average surface temperature of 450° C. The main reason is that its atmosphere, which is mostly composed of carbon dioxide, is 90 times denser than that of the Earth. At the other extreme, the fact that the average surface temperature on planet Mars is - 53° C cannot be explained only by the fact that it is much further from the Sun than planet Earth. The atmosphere of Mars is also mostly composed of carbon dioxide. However, it is about 15,000 times less dense than the atmosphere of Venus meaning that Mars has a lot less carbon dioxide to store the Sun's heat, than Venus has.
Likewise, on planet Earth, the "greenhouse effect" is not, in and of itself, a problem for the environment quite the opposite, in fact. If it were not for this effect, average surface temperature on Earth would be - 18° C, instead of the present 15° C, making life rather difficult!
Climate change in the past
The Earth's long history has seen many changes in the factors which determine its climate. Some of these changes have been quite sudden meaning that in geological time they took a few million years at most, to complete and often went together with climatic changes. And sometimes they resulted in the sudden extinction of many animal and/or plant species. In fact there are five such massive extinction events which are known.
The most devastating was the Permian-Triassic extinction, which took place about 250 million years ago. At the time, 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species disappeared. Although these events are still not fully explained, it is thought that one of the factors involved was a rise in temperature, which reached 40° C on the ocean surface and 60° C on equatorial land.
50 million years later, there was another extinction event. After a period in which all continents had merged into a single one, they had broken up, once again and started drifting towards the equator. The climate became warm and damp again, with average temperature 3° to 4° C higher than today. It is estimated that 75% of marine species and 35% of other animal species disappeared during that period. But the lush vegetation produced by this climate change, paved the way for the fantastic development of the dinosaurs.
The dinosaur era lasted for around 135 million years. It was brought to an end, 65 million years ago, as a result of a combination of factors which seems to have included the collision of a meteorite with the Earth and a considerable increase in the planet's volcanic activity resulting in a sharp drop in surface temperature. The huge quantities of vegetation which were buried in the ground during this period were eventually to be transformed into fossil fuels. Meanwhile, an estimated 50% of all living species disappeared.
The Earth began to take its present geographical shape only 30 million years ago, after South America and Australia had drifted away from the Antarctic continent. It was at that time that the South pole's ice cap was formed. Then, 3 million years ago, the North Pole's ice floes covered the Arctic Ocean.
However, when trying to understand events which had taken place earlier, scientists faced a major problem a lack of hard, measurable evidence. Rocks hold a lot of information for a very long time, especially in the form of fossils, but it is difficult to find this information if it is randomly buried deep under the surface of the planet where it may not be very well preserved.
Luckily, however, most of the polar ice caps have been around for the past 3 million years and ice is very good at preserving just about anything. As a result, they constitute a repository of well-preserved data which can allow us to understand what happened during this whole period.
By analysing thousands of samples taken from these ice caps, scientists were able to retrace in some detail the history of the planet's climate. In particular they were able to measure the evolution of the surface temperature over time, as well as the evolution of the concentration of carbon dioxide and methane in the air. They found a striking correlation between the temperature curve and that of greenhouse gas concentration. They also found that these factors all followed parallel cyclical patterns which came back more or less every 100,000 years.
They came to the conclusion that over the past 3 million years, there was a succession of cycles, involving cold periods known as "ice ages" which lasted on average a hundred thousand years, separated by warmer periods, lasting ten to twenty thousand years, when the planet's average surface temperature reached a peak, which was 7 to 8° C higher than the norm. This cyclical pattern was determined by factors which were linked to the way the Earth orbits around the Sun and how, in particular, it is affected by the gravitational pull of other large planets in the solar system. But this pattern also coincided with the cyclical behaviour of greenhouse gases, whose concentration increased along with surface temperature.
The emergence and evolution of mankind took place in the shadow of the cyclical behaviour of the planet's climate, which played an important role in shaping its development and its movements. At the peak of the last "ice age", 20,000 years ago, the Arctic ice cap went as far south as today's London and New York. Sea levels were 400 ft lower and the Bering Strait, which, today, separates Russia from the US, could be crossed on foot. It was probably at this point that Homo Sapiens spread from Asia into the American continent. Then, 18,000 years ago the climate began to slowly warm up, allowing fundamental transformations in mankind's way of life. So much so, that thanks to the warmer climate and the development of rivers and the rain that came with it, agriculture first emerged in the Middle East and, with it, the first civilisations.
So, the Earth's natural climatic cycles have always been an integral part of mankind's history. What has changed today is that more or less everyone agrees, except the most bigoted climate change deniers, that human activity has become a decisive factor in transforming climate conditions. But, as we shall see, the real question is not whether human activity affects the climate which it obviously does but why and how it affects the climate. And the answer to this question has everything to do with the way society is organised i.e. the capitalist system.
Capitalism's climate record
Today, we know that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it has ever been over the past 700,000 years. Average ground temperature is 0.85° C higher than in 1880. Both factors have been increasing even faster over the past two decades.
Overall, fossil energy which produces greenhouse gas represents 80% of the energy used worldwide. Conversely, 5O% of the greenhouse gases produced worldwide come from industry and 25% from agriculture and forestry. Transport accounts for 15%. Around half of these gas emissions are rapidly absorbed by vegetation and oceans, but the rest remains in the atmosphere.
The most visible consequence of global warming is the melting of ice which is taking place on every continent. In the northern hemisphere, the surface which is covered by ice is now 10% smaller than it was 40 years ago. The Arctic ice floes have shrunk by up to 20% over the past 20 years. Near the South Pole, huge icebergs, sometimes reaching a hundred miles in length, are now free and drifting towards Australia. The fact that less land is covered in ice or snow increases the amount of sun light which is absorbed by the planet, thereby amplifying even more the global warming effect.
During the course of the 20th century, the water level in the oceans has risen by 6.7 inches. But it is now estimated to be rising at double this rate. This is due mainly to two factors: as the water temperature increases, water increases in volume; meanwhile, the melting of terrestrial glaciers releases huge quantities of water into the oceans.
Another consequence of global warming is the increasing number of extreme climate events such as very high temperatures especially at night, abnormally high rainfall, etc. Scientists also believe that cyclones may be becoming more powerful and lasting longer.
Global warming also has a visible impact on animals and plants. In European wine-growing countries, the time when grapes are ready to be harvested has moved forward by two weeks over the past 50 years. In Canada, small animals such as squirrels, raccoons and porcupines, have been moving to the north by 4 miles every ten years. Everywhere, many species, especially insects, are disappearing because they are unable to adapt quickly enough to the climatic changes they face.
But, above all, human beings are threatened by climate change. According to the International Organisation for Migration, climate change could force between 200 million and one billion people to seek refuge elsewhere. Given the brutality with which the rich countries have tried to stop refugees so far, this means that far worse humanitarian catastrophes are in store. And, in this respect, the real issue is not so much the climate, but above everything else, the incapacity of this society to organise social life in a rational and human way, so as to anticipate this kind of problem.
The future in store
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was set up by the UN in 1988 in order to draw conclusions from the piles of reports produced by scientists worldwide on climate change. Of course, its conclusions can only be taken with a huge pinch of salt, since, for instance, it claims to discuss the economic impact of climate change without even taking into account the context of an on-going economic crisis, which the UN's own economic experts (including those working for the IPCC) had not predicted, when it broke out in 2008!
In any case, in all the scenarios envisaged by the IPCC, its experts predict that the average surface temperature on the planet will increase by anything between 0.3° C and 4.8° C by 2100 on top of the temperature increase which has already taken place since 1880. According to some of the IPCC's scenarios, whole regions could be flooded by rising sea levels like Holland, many of the Pacific islands, most large estuaries, but also many of the world's largest cities, including Mumbai, Kolkota, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, etc. A country like Bangladesh could be quite simply wiped out, due to the combined effect of higher sea levels and melting glaciers in the Himalayas. In fact, half of mankind lives within 40 miles of a sea coast. So the consequences are easy to figure out.
Global warming also threatens water supplies in entire regions. For instance, in a large part of South America and central and eastern Asia, high-altitude glaciers provide the populations with drinking water during the dry season. Should these glaciers melt, even only partially, new sources of water will have to be found, in countries which are mostly very poor. To put the situation in a nutshell, it could be said that the consequences of climate change will be felt primarily through its impact on water: in the form of drought, flooding, ice melting, rising water levels, thirst.
In fact, the list of potential casualties of the present episode of climate change is endless. According to some scientists, the Gulf Stream may be affected, which would, in turn, significantly transform the climate in Western Europe. Global warming could change the geographical distribution of some insects and spread the diseases they normally carry which so far occur mostly in the poor countries. Others predict the imminent disappearance of many animal and plant species. All these predicted consequences are based on reasonable observations, even though most cannot be proven until they actually start happening by which time it will be too late to do anything to prevent them. So, the scientists who are issuing these warnings are right to do it.
Three decades of hot air
Of course, today, every politician worth this name makes a point of posing as a champion of the fight against climate change. There are exceptions of course. Like Trump who still insisted not so long ago on sticking to his long-held idea that global warming was fake news invented by the Chinese. But Trump is Trump.
The fact is that since the issues of greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change were raised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the governments of the industrialised countries have done nothing about it. In 1997, 38 countries pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average 5.2% compared to their 1990 level. This was the Kyoto protocol. But it took until 2004 for a new document to be ratified, after another series of summits, in order to cover the period 2005-2012. In the end, however, neither the USA nor Australia signed this document, even though, between them, these two countries were responsible for one third of the world's total emissions! Thereafter, both Russia and Canada withdrew their signatures. As to China, it was not even involved in this process.
Yet, in practice, the Kyoto protocol only provided for the allocation by each participating state of carbon dioxide emission quotas (or carbon credits, as they are called) to its own industries. In Europe, carbon credits allowing their holders to produce 2.2bn tonnes of carbon dioxide were shared out between 11,000 industrial companies. This system did not involve much risk for the companies since, in case they overshot their quotas, the fine was initially set at around £30/tonne and then, at £75/tonne from 2007. Even then, this was assuming the penalties were actually enforced.
In fact, the mechanisms included in the Kyoto protocols did not impose any significant constraints on the big multinationals which produced the bulk of the world's greenhouse emissions. These companies could even transfer their carbon credits i.e. their licence to pollute between countries, to their subsidiaries. In fact, carbon credits could also be bought and sold on a special market. Speculators became involved, causing the price of carbon credits to collapse and making it very cheap for companies to pollute. In addition, a UN-sponsored system called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was introduced in order, allegedly, to help poor countries to reduce their carbon emissions. This system allowed polluting multinationals to earn carbon credits provided they could prove that they had invested in an emission-cutting project in a poor country.
The whole idea behind this monumental nonsense was that fines and compulsory regulations were not business-friendly enough and that this could easily be replaced by the self-regulation of this carbon credit market and its CDM appendix. Except that there was never any serious control exercised on the carbon dioxide produced by the holders of carbon credits, nor on the CDM project itself. So this whole machinery became just a money-spinner for the speculators involved and a green cover for the companies and governments which were involved in it.
To all intents and purposes, everyone has long stopped abiding by the Kyoto protocol. In any case, it is supposed to expire in 2020. It should be replaced with the so-called "Paris agreement" which was adopted in 2015 and has been signed since then by 187 countries although, of course, Trump took the US out of it almost immediately after his election.
The Paris agreement is meant to implement the recommendations of the IPCC: a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 together with a 30% cut in fossil energy consumption. The aim is to ensure that the average surface temperature of the planet does not increase by more than 2° C. However right from the beginning this agreement was a farce: each signatory was invited to define its own targets and there was no enforcement mechanism.
As a cherry on their cake, the rich countries managed to get special concessions: the products which they imported from another country would not count towards their greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, in October this year, the ONS admitted that Britain had become the biggest net importer of carbon dioxide emissions per capita among the G7 richest countries! This makes Britain a very green country according to the Paris agreement, but also a major parasite of other countries' pollution!
That being said, of course, the withdrawal of the US, the world's biggest climate change offender by very far, means that the Paris agreement is no longer even a tokenistic framework, but just a ghost.
Private profit versus progress
Behind the cynical farce of the international show-business on climate change, the real obstacle is, of course, the determination of the big multinationals to defend their profits, at all costs. While the governments and their politicians make green speeches and green pledges, they do not make the real policy decisions.
Take BP, the world's 5th largest oil company, for instance. Its latest energy report, published earlier this year, says that "Renewable Energy will be the World's Main Power Source by 2040". No less. But what will be the main power source for BP until then? Well, according to this report, BP plans to increase its gas and oil production by 16% by 2025 which probably means that, come 2040, renewable energy will certainly not be the main power source for BP.
BP's attitude is quite typical of the policy of the two dozen or so multinational companies which dominate the oil and energy market worldwide. They are all in favour of whatever gives them a good commercial image and they'll set aside an item entitled "Green Talk" in their advertising and PR budgets. But what they will do in the real world will only be what gives them the best return on capital. And, for the time being, renewable energies are just not profitable enough.
So, they might get into renewable energy at some point in the future, but only if they can make big enough profits out of it or if there are enough state subsidies on offer to make it worth their while but otherwise they'll stick to any dirty energy, as long as it is profitable.
And even when they do get into renewable energy, what will ever guarantee that they do not not undermine the environment in some other way? Think of the big car manufacturers who've been competing for years against each other and pretending that their cars were somehow greener than those of their competitors. And what do we learn? That they've paid highly-skilled engineers to design sophisticated methods to falsify the results of their exhaust tests! And although the first to be caught red-handed was Volkswagen, others have followed since!
So, yes, the private ownership of the means of production and its corollary, the profit motive have long been an obstacle to the progress of mankind. Alternative energy sources which could be used without undermining the planet, not just in terms of greenhouse emissions but in every other respect too, do exist. But either using them is unprofitable from a capitalist point of view, or else they are still at a point where they require extensive research work, into which no private capitalist will take the risk of investing.
So, this leaves the fight against climate change with only one option: to get rid of the private ownership of the means of production, so as to unleash mankind's capacity for progress.
There are no individual solutions
Taking their cue from Tesco's "every little helps", many campaigns against global warming argue that it's up to everyone to do his or her "bit" and that the future of the planet is in the hands of each one of us.
To say that everyone should be informed about the state of the planet and should feel directly concerned by its future is simply to state the obvious. But it is quite another thing to do what these campaigns often do, which is to consider that everyone, whether workers, directors or shareholders, has the same responsibility when it comes to environmental issues because, in reality, this is just another way of exonerating the capitalists from their responsibility and concealing the fact that the real problem lies not in the behaviour of each individual, but in the way the system works.
Consumers, for instance, have no influence whatsoever on the choices made by industries which are entirely controlled by private capitalists. Only the capitalists have the means to choose the energy they sell, the price they demand and the technologies they use. In the same way, ordinary people cannot really choose their means of transportation, unless adequate, affordable public transport systems are made available to them, everywhere where they might be needed. And who will make such a choice? Will it be a "green government", which will soon find that its finances are in hock to big private banks and that it has no choice but to toe the line set by these banks' directors? Or will it be a society which will have freed itself from the straitjacket of private capital in order to devote its resources to being able to cater for the needs of all?
The cost of capitalist chaos
The main source of greenhouse gas emissions is the permanent waste of energy and resources caused by the way the production and distribution of goods is organised under capitalism. There are additional causes of waste and pollution, like the permanent competition between rival industrial groups producing and selling similar products or the capitalist system's total inability to measure let alone to predict the real needs of the population.
So, for instance, each large company organises its production and the division of labour between its different plants according to its particular needs at a particular time. This organisation is not conceived as a function of what is most economical from a social or ecological point of view, but in order to minimise production costs as much as possible. If this means that some parts have to travel several times across the Channel, as was the case at one point for the BMW mini, so be it! The very idea that it might be more rational, from a social point of view, to organise production so as to eliminate unnecessary transport, even if it is more costly, is just not part of the education of a capitalist manager.
And then there are the absolute aberrations which result from private capitalist competition and the fact that it prevents any kind of coordination in the circulation of goods for instance, the absurd situation whereby, a few years back, Holland used to export 350,000 tonnes of chicken meat to Germany every year, while Germany exported 100,000 tonnes of the same chicken meat to Holland during the same year! And this is all the more absurd, when most of this transport is done by trucks, for reasons of cost.
For the same reason of cost, but also because of the generalisation of just-in-time production in the big factories, road transport has replaced rail transport. Factories and supermarkets no longer keep large stocks. A constant flow of trucks is available to bring the parts to assemble and the goods to put on the shelves. To all intents and purposes the stocks are now kept on the roads, in the trucks that carry them to the point of use. Never mind if this means an intensive use of road transport, which is notoriously more polluting than rail transport. For the capitalists of the big companies, this is a win-win operation: since road infrastructure is mostly state-funded, transport by trucks is cheap and it is much more flexible than transport by train anyway. As to the cost in greenhouse gases, this is not the private companies' problem.
Does this means that all transport of goods should be ended and that production should be progressively "re-localised"? Of course not. The existence of an international division of labour in production was one of the major advances brought about by capitalism. It would make no sense to give up using some minerals because they are not available locally or to do without some sophisticated piece of engineering just because it is only produced in one single factory and it would be a step backwards. What should be put into question is not this international division of labour, but the absence of overall coordination and planning in the sphere of production as well as in the sphere of distribution, which is the direct consequence of the competition between rival companies under capitalism.
Communism to ensure a future for mankind
That the present global warming is a serious threat to mankind is beyond doubt. And this is true regardless of the fact that there are still many questions for scientists to answer and that the Earth has already experienced episodes of climate change, which were probably more important in scale than this one. It is just as much beyond doubt that the present capitalist organisation of society cannot allow mankind to consciously face up to this threat.
The truth is that we already have all sorts of possible answers to the consequences that global warming may have according to the scientists. After all, in the past, human society has managed to establish viable settlements more or less everywhere on the planet, including in the middle of desert regions as well as in polar regions. It will find other solutions to the problems with which it is confronted.
That being said, dealing with the causes as well as with the consequences of global warming, is primarily a social problem. For instance, we can be sure that the first victims of this global warming will be the poorest populations quite simply because today's society is already forcing them to live in the most uninhabitable regions of the world.
The scientific knowledge it already has should enable mankind to pre-empt the events caused by global warming. If the mathematical models used to simulate this process tell us that there is a risk of a one-metre rise in sea levels before the end of the century, it would be possible to work out ways of addressing this situation and to start right now to take the necessary measures to protect those who will be under threat. It would be possible to rehouse them in new towns built in one of the many more hospitable areas which are still virtually empty, even in a temperate country like Britain.
Being concerned by the future of the planet and even by the threat of extinction hanging over polar bears, is legitimate. But leaving their fate to society as it is i.e., to the capitalist market is just as ludicrously short-sighted as it would be to entrust the market with the fate of the poor population of Bangladesh, which will inevitably come under threat if the sea level begins to rise. Indeed, the capitalist market is only interested by the fate of those who have money or who can help the capitalists to produce fat profits.
To deal with the problems which it is now facing, whether it is the future of the planet and the threat of climate change, or the more immediate threat of yet another financial crisis, or even yet another war breaking out in some poor regions of the world, mankind urgently needs a different type of social organisation a communist society, free of the straitjacket of capitalist property and able, as a result, to devote all its material and human resources to cater for the needs of all its members. Indeed, only in such a society, will it be possible to operate the economy according to a rational plan, pooling together all the resources available worldwide and taking into account the real present and future need of all.
Conversely, what is happening today with the issue of climate change and the total irresponsibility of capitalism that it highlights, shows that we do not have much of a choice. The time to change the world is now, because capitalism has reached such a level of decay that it is not even capable of understanding that it is sawing off the branch on which it is sitting let alone capable of doing something about it.
Some of XR's banners proclaimed their support for "System Change". Well, to those who are really concerned with the future of mankind to the point of wanting the system to change, we can only say: there is a way forward, by choosing the side of the working class against its capitalist exploiters. The working class is the only force in society which has an interest in getting rid of the irresponsibility which capitalism imposes on us, because it is the only class which has an unequivocal interest in freeing society from the private ownership of the means of production. So we say: join the working class to build a communist society, capable of passing on to the future generations a human society, freed from the threat of ecological and social catastrophe.