Capitalism's Climate Crisis

We are at a decisive crossroads in history: the most serious global financial crisis since the Great Depression is converging with one of the potentially worst environmental crises ever to face humanity. Scientists have been warning of the effects of climate change for decades. However, due to a deliberate, concerted effort by right-wing ideologues and the fossil fuel companies’ bought and paid for “scientists,” a small but very well-funded and vocal minority has succeeded in placing a question of doubt in the minds of many Americans as to whether or not climate change is caused by humans, or if it even exists at all.

Even with increasingly dire warnings from the vast majority of the scientific community, the issue of global warming continues to be pushed to the back burner. Most Americans are naturally more concerned with what are perceived as more immediate issues such as high unemployment, the economic crisis, government corruption, etc. In other words, capitalism’s environmental problem has been overshadowed by capitalism’s other problems.

In a widely read recent article in Rolling Stone, one of the world’s leading environmentalists, Bill McKibben, lays out the dire state of affairs our world is facing with some very simple math.

The first number in McKibben’s math is two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). A global temperature increase of two degrees is generally considered by the scientific community to be the absolute maximum threshold that humanity can handle. What does a two degree increase mean? Melting polar ice, which would raise the sea levels, resulting in major flooding; increased heat waves much like the one that hit the U.S. in July of this year; more extreme weather events, such as larger storms and hurricanes.

The two degrees threshold was most recently acknowledged at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, which, like most other climate summits, was largely toothless and limited to voluntary action, which usually means inaction. Some scientists, such as NASA scientist James Hansen, widely considered the world’s top climatologist, believe two degrees is too much. Hansen has called two degrees a “prescription for long-term disaster.”

meltingiceSo far, the world temperature has risen just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, already nearly halfway to the two degree threshold. The damage we’ve seen already is astounding. Nearly one-third of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has melted, the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic, and July 2012 was the 329th consecutive month in which the temperature of the globe exceeded the 20th century average.

McKibben’s second number is 565 gigatons. This is the estimated maximum amount of carbon dioxide generally agreed upon by scientists that can be released in the atmosphere while still keeping the earth’s global temperature rise under two degrees. The number was generated by a sophisticated computer model and is currently being confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Most studies show that carbon emissions will grow at roughly three percent per year, which gives us about 16 years until we hit the 565 gigaton mark. Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist said, “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.” (About 11 degrees Fahrenheit.)

McKibben’s last number is probably the most worrying, and most indicative of the inherent way that capitalism operates: 2,795 gigatons. This is the amount of carbon contained within the coal, oil, and gas reserves of the giant energy companies—the amount of carbon that is already “spoken for” by massive corporations like BP, Russia’s largest company Gazprom, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, among many others.

This is roughly five times higher than the 565 gigaton threshold highlighted earlier. Although this carbon is still in the ground, all of it is already figured into the fossil fuel companies’ and countries’ balance sheets. Investors are speculating on it, nations are budgeting for it, and companies are already borrowing money against it. These proven reserves give the energy companies a major proportion of their value. Major restrictions placed on their reserves would cause their value to plummet. $27 trillion is the estimated amount these oil, gas, and coal reserves are thought to be worth.

President Obama and the Democrats have proven completely incapable of offering any alternatives, as is displayed by the example of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, which is being opened for more coal extraction; exploratory drilling in the Arctic that was just recently approved by the Obama administration; the fracking boom currently overwhelming western North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and other states; and other other offshore and domestic drilling.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently traveled to Norway, and acknowledged the “sobering” effects global warming has had on the receding polar ice she saw there. She then proceeded to discuss the best way to extract the estimated $9 trillion worth of oil and minerals that are now becoming accessible due to the very same ice melt!

McKibben offers some solutions, but none of them are very likely to be very effective, and certainly not within the limits of capitalism. In the article, he did not hesitate to call past climate summits and the upcoming November Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention in Qatar “charades.” However, what these summits have really done, which was not pointed out by McKibben, is expose the utter inability of the ruling class to provide any truly concrete or effective solutions. In short, the capitalists and their organizations cannot and will not provide a real way out of this crisis.

One suggestion McKibben offers is a direct tax on carbon. One of his arguments is that coal and oil companies, unlike most other companies, are allowed to dump their number one waste product, carbon dioxide, for free. His argument is that placing a direct tax on the carbon would result in much higher prices at the pump, encouraging consumers to buy and use much less gas. In addition, a “fee-and-dividend” scheme could be implemented—where the taxes on the energy companies would be divided up into dividend payments for consumers to ease the burden of higher prices at the pumps. But even McKibben acknowledges the unlikelihood of the ruling class imposing this type of system on itself when he says “It’s not clear, of course, that the power of the fossil-fuel industry can be broken.” Never mind that this would represent a regressive tax that would place the burden of the crisis on those least able to pay.

McKibben says, “The paths we have tried to tackle global warming have so far produced only gradual, halting shifts. A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies.” He goes on to say that the fossil fuel industry is “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

Ultimately, McKibben’s last hope seems to fall back on the emergence of a mass movement—a movement sparked by “moral outrage” at the precipitous situation that humanity finds itself in. The connection he seems to fail to make is that the only mass movement that can resolve this situation is a mass working class movement based on the unions, fighting for a labor party and for socialism. That is, a societal transformation where the working masses take control of the government and of the key sectors of the economy, including those that have gotten us into this mess in the first place. The solution is not to be found in austerity at the expense of the working class, but in the full employment economy of socialism.

It is therefore true that Big Oil is one of the working class’s greatest enemies. But more than the petrochemical companies as such, the true enemy of humanity is capitalism. This system has not and will not be able to resolve this ever-devolving and deepening crisis.

As the WIL has always explained, the main economic levers of society—the “commanding heights”—must be placed under democratic public ownership and control. The energy, mining, chemical, and natural resource industries, in addition to  banking, insurance, and finance must be run in the interest of the public. The ruling class, left to operate these industries themselves, will simply do so in the relentless pursuit of as much profit as possible—no matter the ultimate costs to humanity. Only when the working class has control over these sectors can we begin to truly plan and begin the necessary transition from oil and gas for transportation and energy to alternative forms of energy, i.e., non-carbon emitting sources. By placing the most important elements of the economy under the control of many instead of the few, we would take away the ability for a small number of rich individuals to make profits at the expense of the working majority and of the earth itself.

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