Record carbon pollution reinforces capitalism’s redundancy as a force for human progress

Demonstration for action on climate change - Philippines

By Paul Lewis

There can be few more compelling pieces of evidence of capitalism’s redundancy as a vehicle for human progress than the news that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose above four hundred parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history last week.

Scientists have been warning for decades that if carbon levels grow further to reach 450ppm then humanity will be locked into devastating climatic change. For thousands of years of human development prior to the industrial revolution atmospheric carbon had been stable at 280ppm.

Not only has capitalism failed to respond to this challenge – the milestone barely merited news coverage, let alone an emergency gathering of world leaders – but some of its most powerful organs, namely the government of the USA and the fossil fuel industries, have worked tirelessly for two decades to block international progress to cut carbon emissions.

Most famously George W. Bush not only refused to ratify the Kyoto Climate Treaty but actively sought to prevent widespread understanding of the risk from climate change, taking aide Frank Lutz’s advice that “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore we need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty the primary issue in the debate.”

Thus, while a mere 24 out of 14,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers between 1991 and 2012 rejected global warming, the capitalist media deftly created a sense of real uncertainty and debate.

Meanwhile, far from reducing the rate at which lethal carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere, concentrations continued to accelerate from an average annual increase of 0.7ppm in the 1950s to 2.1ppm in the last 10 years.

President Obama made some early efforts to legislate on climate change, but was thwarted by a Republican dominated Congress. Then, until the Hurricane Sandy devastated New York, he bowed to the pressure and went silent on the issue.

It is not hard to understand why. The top one hundred coal companies plus the top one hundred gas and oil companies listed on the world’s stock exchanges had a total value of $4.6 trillion as of December 2012. In the last year alone they spent $70m opposing climate action in the US.

It is a course that they are compelled to take by the very nature of shareholder capitalism. Scientists calculate that we can only ‘safely’ burn somewhere between a fifth and a third of proven fossil fuel reserves if we are to avoid 450ppm and catastrophic climate change. The proportions get even smaller if we include the vast reserves of shale gas, tar sands and oil in hostile places like the Arctic, which fossil fuel companies are now desperate to exploit.

Put another way, if carbon laws were brought into being that prevented the burning of fossil fuels beyond ‘safe’ levels then around forty per cent of BP’s reserves would become redundant overnight, along with a hefty chunk of its share price.

So the short-term interests of the tiny minority that own stakes in fossil fuel and related industries have been put above the long-term interests of everyone.

New hopes are being pinned on the next major international climate talks in Paris in 2015, but in reality the inexorable illogic of capitalism means there is no realistic prospect of imperialist nations diverging from this catastrophic course. Like the self-defeating Easter Islanders, who consigned their civilisation to extinction through the vanity of destroying life-supporting forests in order to build great monuments to tribal power, the capitalists are in a race to see who gets to cut down the last tree.

Fortunately, pathways forward are being demonstrated in parts of the so-called ‘developing world’, particularly from some left and socialist governments in Latin America. Ecuador, for example, has offered not to exploit its oil and gas reserves in return for payment to offset rich nations’ carbon emissions.

Across the globe, enterprising individuals, communities and, indeed, businesses are demonstrating that the technologies and other solutions that could deliver higher standards of living in a low carbon world already exist.

But these efforts risk being too little, too late. As Fidel Castro commented, “[t]he most important political battle of human history is being fought at this very moment; a battle not only for justice but for human survival.”

While atmospheric carbon levels above 450ppm – equivalent to a two degree rise in average surface temperatures beyond the pre-industrial average – has been widely accepted as a tipping point, it is not a cut-off point beyond which there is no point fighting to curb emissions. Each incremental rise in greenhouse gases is likely to cause devastation for further millions of people.

As in all the other pivotal moments of human history of the last century, capitalism has shown itself incapable of being able to take forward humanity as a whole.

The window of opportunity to prevent runaway global warming is now so tight (a decade or less even on the most optimistic estimates) that there is not time for a global socialist revolution to provide a solution. But humanity – all classes – is increasingly reliant on left and socialist nations and currents to provide the leadership that drags capitalism kicking and screaming away from sowing the seeds of all our destruction.