Action on climate change – an urgent priority for socialists

Graphic by mattlemmon
Chart shows the correlation between Atmospheric Carbon Concentration (in Parts Per Million) and Average Surface Temperature

By Paula Lewis

The most important political battle of human history is being fought at this very moment, a battle not only for justice but also for human survival

Fidel Castro Ruz, December 2009 talking about climate change

Fighting for the measures necessary to avert catastrophic climate change needs to be at the centre of socialist thinking and action.

The stark reality is that unless transformative action is taken within this generation run-away global warming threatens to wipe out any gains in standards of living that could conceivably be made elsewhere in the class struggle for many generations to come.

The scale of the planetary emergency

There is clear scientific evidence that critical eco-systems upon which human civilisation depend are at the brink of being irreversibly exhausted or polluted. The most immediate crisis is that rising levels of Green House Gases (GHG) in the atmosphere are rapidly pushing the Earth beyond the narrow range of climatic conditions that makes human life possible.

The Earth’s surface has warmed by about 0.8°C since around 1900. There is scientific consensus that if warming increases beyond two degrees above the pre-industrial average a ‘tipping point’ will be reached beyond which the warming process will become unstoppable and it will rapidly become impossible to sustain global human civilisation.

This is based on calculations that a two degree rise in overall global temperatures would see temperatures in some regions such as the arctic rise much further and could trigger runaway climate change whereby natural ‘carbon sinks’ such as permafrost and the Amazon Rainforest start to release greenhouse gas emissions.

The political consensus is that two degrees of warming can only be avoided if levels of Green House Gases in the atmosphere are constrained below 450 parts per million (ppm). Some leading climate scientists argue that the real limit is closer to 350 ppm. We are currently at 375 ppm and emissions have increased by 40 per cent since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997.

According to the highly conservative consultancy, PWC, if current rates of carbon emissions continue at least six degrees of warming is probable by the end of the century.

Climate change is already having a massive impact across the world. For example, the devastating floods and landslides that hit Venezuela in 2010 and China in 2011, the recent Hurricane Sandy that destroyed a fifth of Cuba’s annual coffee crop and caused billions of dollars damage to the US economy, or the persistent mid-west droughts that are a major cause of rising global food prices.

The political balance of forces

Imperialism’s historic responsibility for climate change is clear. As Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez put it in his speech to the Copenhagen climate conference: ‘The richest 500 million people, that’s to say seven per cent of the entire world population, are responsible for 50 per cent of the polluting emissions, while the poorest 50 per cent is responsible for only seven per cent of the polluting emissions.’

The bourgeoisie is divided on the issue – between sections that vigorously resist taking the necessary action to prevent catastrophic climate change (eg the US Republican Party, Tory right-wing, and fossil fuel industries); and those that recognise the problem but are incapable of taking the scale of action needed (US Democratic Party, British Labour Party, a growing number of business leaders).

In the imperialist countries, since the 2008 financial crash political focus on climate change has declined in almost inverse proportion to the global understanding of the threat.

For example, in Britain Cameron’s carefully cultivated green image is now openly undermined by Osborne’s championing of gas and opposition to renewable energy.

Climate change was entirely absent from the US Presidential election until Hurricane Sandy and the intervention by the independent Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, in declaring that he would back Obama because of Romney’s capitulation to the Republican right-wing on global warming.

The international climate change talks agreed that the West will make almost no further emissions reductions between now and 2020, with any significant emissions cuts put off to the next decade – entirely too late. Promised finance from the west to the global south has so far not materialised.

In contrast, it is the socialist and left leaderships in Latin America that are leading international efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change.

In the run up to the last set of international climate talks Venezuela and Bolivia united the global south, including the ALBA nations, the African Union and the G77 group of 130 nations, in an alliance calling for emissions reductions that would stabilise world temperatures at an increase of no more than 1.5 degrees, and for the West to pay for the crisis it created by contributing 1.5 per cent of their GDP to the South to pay for clean technology development.

China is also increasingly showing leadership in relation to its own domestic actions. Speaking to the Communist Party’s 18th Congress, President Hu Jintao delivered his strongest call yet for greater environmental protection. China needs a ‘drastic reduction’ in its consumption of energy, water and land, and will introduce new caps for energy and water use in an effort to conserve resources.

The Chinese Finance Ministry announced that it plans to spend US $27bn this year alone on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and emission reduction projects.

What action is needed globally

Due to the length of time that GHG emissions remain in the atmosphere, decisions taken in the next decade are likely to determine whether or not it is possible to avert global warming on a scale that would devastate the whole of humanity.

As the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change demonstrated, the economic cost of taking action to prevent runaway global warming will be significantly lower than the cost of allowing it to develop. However, significant investment – at a rate of at least two per cent of global GDP (currently US $1.3 trillion) per year for the next two decades is now unavoidable.

Critical elements of the required global response include:

• The rapid cessation of the use of coal and a moratorium on opening up new reserves of fossil fuels, including shale oil and gas

• A near complete shift to renewable energy sources for the generation of heat and power (including in transportation)

• Major re-forestation, particularly of rain forests

• A reallocation of resources from the imperialist nations to the global south to invest in infrastructure that will adapt the most vulnerable countries to inevitable climate change

UN research shows a green economic transition has begun but is not fast enough. Despite the recession, investment in clean energy reached a record US $180-200bn in 2010, up from $162bn in 2009.

Significantly, much of this is coming from non-imperialist countries such as Brazil, China and India which have recognised the threat and are mobilising investment to tackle emissions far faster than many developed economies.

What action is needed in Britain

Britain introduced the world’s first long term climate targets in the 2008 Climate Change Act committing the country to a reduction of at least 34 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and at least 80 per cent by 2050 relative to 1990 levels.

This would require a shift from predominantly coal, gas and oil powered electricity, heating and transport systems to much more efficient systems largely powered by renewables. The electricity system is the cheapest and quickest first step to decarbonise the economy.

A third of Britain’s electricity system is old and needs to be replaced within the decade which offers a real opportunity to shift to clean energy. The government is introducing an Energy Bill with new subsidies to stimulate the £200 billion investment needed to replace and modernise the system.

But contrary to their own party policy, the Lib Dems have been unwilling to extract from the Tories agreement to decarbonise the electricity system by 2030. The Bill is therefore likely to promote a new ‘dash for gas’ – which would breach the carbon targets – instead of renewables.

Labour, which introduced the Climate Change Act and existing subsidies for renewables, supports the decarbonisation of the electricity system and opposes too much gas.

There is also strong industrial, investor, commercial and civil society support for decarbonisation because a dash for gas would leave the whole economy exposed to rising and increasingly volatile international gas prices.

Improvements to this Bill are still possible and should be fought for.

Socialism and the planetary emergency

It is clearly in the interests of all classes to prevent catastrophic climate change, as it would mean the end of human civilisation across most, if not all, of the planet. But, while some sections of the bourgeoisie are prepared to take some action, their short or medium term sectional interests limit the extent of this. The irrationality of the profit based capitalist system means it is locked on a suicidal path.

Only the working class, therefore, is capable of providing the leadership and hegemonic positions necessary to deliver solutions that will prevent catastrophic climate change and not compromise on this. This also means fighting for the burden of this to be born by the class most able to pay.

As outlined, it is no surprise that it is the countries fighting for socialism, which have the most advanced positions on climate change. They now consistently make the struggle for climate justice a central part of the global anti-imperialist struggle.

Fighting climate change is not a diversion from the class struggle. On the contrary, unless the working class leads the fight for measures against climate change, the necessary action will not be taken. And any investment that is made to mitigate catastrophe will likely be diverted from investment needed to raise the living standards of the working class globally.

That is why it is crucial to publicise and support to the climate agenda of the countries fighting for socialism in Latin America and to take up the struggle in Britain to raise consciousness of the issues in new layers of the working class.

Ten climate science facts

1. The first decade of this century was the warmest decade on the instrumental record.

2. In the past 100 years the Earth has warmed by about 0.75°C and the speed at which it is warming is increasing. As a result, the UK spring has begun arriving about 10 days earlier than it did in the 1970s.

3. Arctic sea ice is melting and the September summer minimum extent has shrunk by about 10 per cent every 10 years since the late 1970s.

4. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere have increased by 38 per cent, to 387ppm, since pre-industrial times.

5. Global sea levels have risen by about 17cm since 1900 as a result of melting ice and warming oceans. This is threatening low-lying countries such as Bangladesh. The global sea level could rise by up to 59cm this century, which in Europe alone would affect more than 20 million people.

6. Severe droughts are now twice as common as they were in 1970 and this is affecting the ability of various crops to grow.

7. Changes in solar radiation could not have caused the rapid warming we have seen in the past fifty years. Since the Industrial Revolution, the effect of additional greenhouse gases on the climate has been about 10 times the effect of changes in the Sun’s output.

8. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow, we are already locked into a global temperature rise of at least 1.4°C (since 1750).

9. The 2003 heat wave in western Europe, which caused 35,000 deaths (2,000 in the UK), is already twice as likely to happen again. At this rate, those heat wave temperatures will become a standard for Europe by the 2040s – and be considered cool by the 2060s.

10. Scientists believe around 20 per cent of species will become extinct with two degrees of warming.