Hot stuff: coming to terms with nature

Issue: 114

Martin Empson

A review of Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), Coming to Terms with Nature: Socialist Register 2007 (Merlin Press, 2006), £14.95

In the past few months many articles and books have discussed the disaster facing humanity as a result of climate change. Most writers explain the roots of the problem and the horrific consequences, but few offer serious strategies for limiting further global warming. One exception is the latest edition of the annual journal Socialist Register. It contains a series of explicitly socialist attempts to grapple with the issues of climate change and the environment.

On the surface, it appears there is a simple solution to climate change—a drastic reduction in the emission of the greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels. The vast majority of commentators agree on this, but there is heated debate over how this can be achieved. The solutions proffered range from calling upon individuals to change their behaviour—installing low energy light bulbs, for instance—to calls for a switch to renewable forms of energy. But few writers have been able to explain how these changes can be made on the scale required.

Socialists have a distinct approach to this question. Elmar Altvater’s essay on ‘Fossil Capitalism’ in this volume explains that capitalism has developed with fossil fuels (initially coal, but more recently oil) at its heart, so the problem is rooted within capitalism. We can only begin to address the problem of climate change if we understand this historic fact. If we start from the priorities of capitalism we can see why mainstream politicians have failed to seriously reduce emissions, and why the victims of climate change have mostly come from the poorest sections of society.

Tony Blair’s government claims it is committed to renewables forming a significant part of British energy generation. But in their essay on ‘The politics of Renewable Energy in the UK’, Barbara Harriss‑White and Elibor Harriss point out that ‘the UK’s CO2 emissions have risen at least 5.5 percent above 1997 outputs, when Labour came to power’. Despite government rhetoric, only 2.7 percent of electricity is generated by renewables in the UK, compared to 20 percent in Denmark, 26 percent in Finland or 46 percent in Sweden. The Department for International Development also has a commitment to renewable energy, yet its £3.6 million in research funding on this question is dwarfed by its investments in fossil fuel projects.

Capitalism is a barrier to reducing emissions, not simply because of the system’s historic reliance on fossil fuels, but also because of its reliance on market forces. Carbon trading has been enshrined as the key mechanism to reduce emissions, leading to a worldview in which one former World Bank chief economist could describe Africa as ‘under-polluted’. Two essays look in detail at why these market strategies have failed. In one Neil Smith points out that a ‘corporate polluter buying [carbon] credits contributes…to continued pollution’ as there is nothing forcing the company to stop polluting. If you take the ‘right to pollute’ to its logical conclusion, nature itself becomes a commodity. US companies can buy and sell wetland credits—the draining of one set of wetlands for building is deemed to be balanced by the protection of a second area. This commodification of environmental resources gets taken to ridiculous extremes: the company International Paper breeds endangered woodpeckers on land it owns and trades ‘woodpecker’ credits for $100,000.

In the second essay on this theme Achim Brunnengräber looks at the infamous Kyoto treaty. The problem with the treaty was not simply that the targets it set for curbing emissions were extremely modest, or that the US failed to sign it (though both are lamentable). More worryingly, Kyoto created the impression that something was being done to solve the climate crisis while striving to maintain the status quo: ‘The fossil form of capitalism is legitimised and stabilised in spite of its tendency to crises because the Kyoto process has made it seem possible to find what looked like answers to the crisis.’

In fact, Kyoto looks like an absolute failure. The protocols committed industrial nations to an average 5.2 percent cut in emissions on 1990 levels by the year 2012. One study forecasts that the CO2 emissions of the OECD nations will instead increase by 53 percent by 2025. In the developing world emissions will increase threefold.

Two essays examine the role of the developing world. The first looks at agriculture and the environment in Africa, the second at the causes and consequences of China’s environmental crisis. For some commentators, China’s rapid industrialisation is the reason nothing can be done to stop climate change on a global level. Seven out of ten of the world’s most polluted cities are in China and its ‘habitable and usable land has been halved over the last 50 years’. (China is not unique in this regard—America’s farmland is decreasing by two million acres every year due to ‘erosion, soil salinisation, and flooding or soil saturation as a result of intensive agriculture’.)

The authors conclude that to prevent China continuing down a path of environmental self-destruction ‘it is necessary to fundamentally transform the entire existing social and economic structure’. This recipe for planetary salvation is echoed elsewhere in the volume. Altvater concludes his piece on fossil capitalism, ‘A society based on renewable instead of fossil energy sources must develop adequate technologies and above all social forms beyond capitalism. The relation of society to nature cannot remain the same when the fuel driving capitalist dynamics is running out.’

Whether there ‘is a strong case to be made that capitalism will survive’ because of its historic ability to adapt to new situations, with new technologies, raw materials or energy resources, as one essayist argues, is a debate that socialists will continue to engage in. But the majority of essays in this informative collection serve to prove that capitalism is the greatest threat to the planet’s wellbeing, and the greatest barrier to attempts to save it.