Copenhagen talks lay bare the class conflict at the heart of climate change

By Paul Lewis

The failed climate change talks in Copenhagen last week demonstrated how climate change has become a central aspect of the international class struggle.

By failing to agree binding terms to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the capitalist nations, led by the USA, have demonstrated that they are prepared to allow the avoidable suffering of hundreds of millions of Africans, Asians, Caribbeans and Latin Americans, rather than risk a challenge to its model of capitalist imperialism that has dominated humanity for over two centuries. As Muhammed Chowdhury, a lead negotiator of the G77 group of 132 developing countries, explained: “The hopes of millions of people from Fiji to Grenada, Bangladesh to Barbados, Sudan to Somalia have been buried. The summit failed to deliver beyond taking note of a watered-down Copenhagen accord reached by some 25 friends of the Danish chair, head of states and governments. They dictated the terms at the peril of the common masses.”1

This dynamic demonstrates one of the most basic propositions of Marxism – that a class can only take society forward if it represents not only its own narrow interests but also the wider interests of humanity as a whole. The bourgeoisie is incapable of this. Last week in Copenhagen we saw the inherent conflict between capital’s particular interests and those of the future development of human civilisation.

Bourgeois leaders are certainly no longer acting in ignorance of the true risks from global warming.2 Yet an understanding of the risks from climate change has utterly failed to be translated into actions to prevent dangerous global warming. The reasons are straightforward and entirely in keeping with 250 years of capitalist imperialism.

Even the most conservative climate models suggest that, on a ‘business as usual’ trajectory, it is probable that by the end of this century the Earth’s average temperature will rise four degrees higher than the pre-industrial average. This would leave vast swathes of land mass across every continent uninhabitable. Human civilisation will be thrown backwards catastrophically at best, and will cease to exist at worst.

After considerable pressure from the G77 group of poorer nations, last week’s Copenhagen accord recognised “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be [constrained] below two degrees Celsius”.

The UK’s Tyndall Centre estimates that to limit global warming to a two-degree rise would require the wealthy OECD nations to start cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, slash them to 60% lower than in 1990 by 2020, and become entirely carbon neutral by 2030.3

Yet the best that the President Obama has offered is a suggestion that the US would cut its emissions by 4% by 2020.4 The European Union went much further, but still nowhere near far enough, in offering a 20% cut. Neither pledges formed part of the formal Copenhagen accord, which contained only the vague recognition that “deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science”.

Obama’s focus on China’s unwillingness to agree a proposed method of monitoring emissions reductions was a transparent attempt to shift the blame for failure in Copenhagen away from the USA.

The reasons for this disparity between capital’s acceptance of climate science on the one hand, but opposition to action to avoid predicted outcomes on the other, are relatively straightforward.

First, while paying lip service to a target of restricting global warming to two degrees, Western nations (the US in particular) are gambling on the possibility that while anything above 2 degrees of global warming will condemn millions of people to suffering and loss of life in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South America, the variable impact of climate change around the globe may mean that northern hemisphere countries can survive relatively intact until average global temperatures rises exceed 3 or even 4 degrees.

Accepting a higher average temperature rise would buy a little time to find technological solutions that are less injurious to profit in the imperialist countries. It would also provide a window to exert greater pressure on newly industrialised nations to take on a bigger share of the burden of constraining future demand for fossil fuels.

This in itself is a huge gamble. Current climate science is unable to provide a definitive view of the likely consequences of global warming beyond two degrees, particularly because understanding of so-called ‘feedback loops’ which may precipitate runaway global warming, such as ocean acidification and permafrost melt, are poorly understood. The level or risk is severe.

Second, Western capital simply cannot countenance, and is in any case incapable of organising, the measures need to constrain emissions quickly enough to prevent two degrees of global warming, because it cannot escape the framework of defending its immediate class interests.

Leading bourgeois economist Nick Stern was correct to call climate change the greatest ever example of ‘market failure’. There is no prospect of a pure market correction.

An economic system based on the principle that competing self-interests will result in optimum outcomes for society will not be able to respond in time to prevent catastrophic climate change. It remains in the immediate self-interest of core elements of the capitalist economy, such as the oil, gas, coal, car and cement industries, to protect their huge investment in the future productive capacity of these high greenhouse-gas emitting sectors. It is the highly organised lobbying and disinformation from these sectors that has been responsible for the world’s slowness in responding to climate change.5

While there is profit to be made in a shift to renewable energy in the long term, it is not in the interests of these capitalist actors to achieve such a shift with the rapidity that is required to prevent catastrophic climate change, and so they will continue to oppose it, or attempt to slow its progress.

Tackling climate change requires maximising the efficient use of natural resources and a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

The most rational response, from the point of view of humanity as a whole, would require a high degree of collective planning to immediately channel investment into retrofitting existing infrastructure to make it more energy efficient, and to rapidly developing renewable energy generation capacity.

Investment is also needed to improve resilience to the impacts of already-inevitable global warming. Because it is the world’s poorest who are being hit first and hardest by climate change, there will need to be a big shift of resources from industrialised nations to the global south.

This is anathema to the imperialist capitalist economic model, a core element of which has been the extraction of resources from the global south to fund luxury consumption by the Western bourgeoisie and to pacify its own working class. This is demonstrated in the paucity of the only real concession extracted by the G77 nations in Copenhagen – the (non-specific, non-binding) commitment that richer nations will provide $10 billion of aid for the next three years, rising to $100bn by 2020.

The historical responsibility of the imperialist powers is clear. As the Guardian recently reported, since 1900 the US has contributed 314,772m metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, while European countries such as Germany (73,625) and the UK (55,163) cast a shadow over under-developed nations such as India (25,054), Brazil (9,136) and Indonesia (6,167). China, with one quarter of the world’s population, is on 89,243.6 Obviously by 1900 many of the Western countries had already industrialised.

Current figures on emissions per capita reveal a similar responsibility of the West with the average American responsible for 19.8 tonnes and the average Chinese citizen clocking in at 4.6 tonnes.7 As Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez put it in his speech to the Copenhagen conference:

“The richest 500 million people, that’s to say 7 percent of the entire world population, are responsible for 50 percent of the polluting emissions, while the poorest 50 percent is responsible for only 7 percent of the polluting emissions. The United States has nearly 300 million inhabitants. China has 5 times the population of the United States. The United States consumes over 20 million oil barrels per day; China only consumes 5.6 million oil barrels per day; we can not demand from the United States the same we demand from China.”

It is clear that redistribution from the 1% of humanity that controls 40% of global wealth should pay for the measures needed to minimise catastrophic climate change. That is precisely what capital wishes to avoid.

The bourgeoisie long ago ceased to be a force for human progress. In contrast, Marx’s understanding that the proletariat can only achieve its class goals by liberating not merely itself, but humanity as a whole, has never been more relevant.

Environmentalism has not previously been a priority in most socialist circles. But the battle to prevent catastrophic climate change is now indelibly a central part of the class struggle. Indeed it has to be if large sections of humanity are not to be thrown irreversibly backwards.



2 There do, of course, remain significant sections of the bourgeoisie which do deny climate change or oppose taking measures to counteract it. In the UK see, for example, almost any edition of The Spectator.
3 It should be noted that the Tyndall Centre’s estimates are considerably more severe than those of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, which operates on the basis of lowest common denominator consensus.
4 As a public relations ploy, Obama pledged a “17%” cut, a figure arrived at by using 2006 as a base year, rather than the 1990 base used under the Kyoto Protocol and in the Tyndall Centre’s calculation.
5 For detailed accounts of the oil and car industries’ successful attempts to prevent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions see Carbon Wars or Peak Oil by Jeremy Leggett [].