Signposts on the road to disaster

Issue: 114

Martin Empson

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published in February 2007, paints a grim picture. The IPCC makes a number of predictions about likely temperature rises; of the six scenarios it considers the best estimate is for a global temperature rise of from 1.8 to 4.0 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Ocean expansion and glacial melting will lead to a rise in the sea level of about 43 centimetres,1 and rises of up to a metre cannot be ruled out if increased temperatures continue to melt ice sheets. Such changes will have a catastrophic effects on people—up to 200 million will face permanent displacement2—and on ecosystems.

The IPCC report followed Sir Nicolas Stern’s in‑depth review of the economic consequences of climate change published in October 2006. The Stern Review described the scientific evidence for climate change as ‘overwhelming’ and set out its probable impact:

Climate change will affect the basic elements of life for people around the world—access to water, food production, health, and the environment. Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms.3

For Stern this was not the most important impact—he argued that inaction would have huge economic costs, equivalent to ‘losing at least 5 percent of global GDP each year, now and forever’. Taking into account the wider impact of climate change, this figure could rise to 20 percent of global GDP. By contrast, the review argued, action to reduce the impact of climate change would be relatively cheap, amounting to just 1 percent of global GDP. Some have criticised Stern’s conclusions,4 but the review reflects a general consensus inside the ruling class that climate change is real, and will potentially have huge social and economic consequences. The IPCC report, based on the consensus of hundreds of scientists, might also have been expected to underplay the effects of climate change but even so its predictions are stark.

Unequal impacts

The greenhouse effect will trap extra energy within the planet’s atmosphere, and this will lead to more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns—including an increased number of hurricanes, floods and droughts. Areas that are currently agriculturally productive could suddenly becoming areas of drought and vice versa. Existing problems will be exacerbated—low lying areas that are already prone to flooding will face more frequent and severe floods. Without action, millions of square kilometres of coastal land will be permanently lost, farmland will be flooded and fresh water contaminated. Similarly, areas of the world that already experience drought could receive even less rainfall. These problems are in no way limited to the developing world but poorer areas of the planet will suffer disproportionately. Poorer countries are less likely to have flood defences or the infrastructure capable of dealing with extreme weather.

While poorer nations will feel the greatest impact, richer nations are by far the worst climate criminals—the US, with 5 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 30 percent of CO2 emissions since the start of the industrial era and 20 percent of current emissions of all greenhouse gases. The UK, with 1 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 6 percent of historic emissions and now contributes 2 percent to global emissions.5

If the poorest parts of the world will suffer disproportionately from climate change, it is also true that the poorest people within any given country will suffer more than the rich. Wealthy inhabitants of New Orleans could flee from the impact of Hurricane Katrina, while the poorest were left in the city with inadequate food, water and medical supplies. The heat wave that hit Europe in August 2003 led to at least 35,000 deaths;6 of the 15,000 people who died in France, half lived in old people’s homes, few of which have air-conditioning.7 Similarly, thousands die in the UK each winter from hypothermia. In both cases, those who can afford to cool or heat their homes are more likely to survive the increasingly extreme weather.

States across the world can be expected to follow the lead of the New Orleans police, who prevented refugees from fleeing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For instance, the flooding of a low‑lying country such as Bangladesh would create a huge numbers of refugees—and the Indian government is already constructing a 12 foot barrier, at a cost of £600 million, along the 2,500 mile border with Bangladesh, as well as increasing the number of border guards from 45,000 to 53,000. The Indian government uses the language of the ‘war on terror’ to try to justify the fence, claiming that terrorists may enter the country. But as one farmer quoted in the Times pointed out, ‘We’ll be fenced out of India. What if there’s an emergency and we have to go to the mainland? What if there’s no one at the gate to let us out? We’ll be completely cut off’.8

Climate change will exacerbate existing tensions within the world system. It will become a factor in imperialist conflict and in the class struggle. Exactly how this will happen is not yet clear but it is not just the Indian government that is making preparations. British strategic planners at the Ministry of Defence have already identified climate change as one of four ‘themes’ of strategic importance. As the former government advisor Josh Arnold-Forster points out, the 2003 defence White Paper argued that ‘environmental pressures and increased competition for limited natural resources may cause tensions and conflict—both within and between states’.9 Faced with this, military planners feel the UK’s armed forces cannot ‘meet a fundamentally different kind of challenge from the one with which they are equipped to deal with’—the logic of this is, of course, further arms investment and the creation of a more powerful military.

Similar thinking exists in the Pentagon. A report leaked to the Observer in February 2004 warned that ‘by 2020 “catastrophic” shortages of water and energy supply will become increasingly harder to overcome, plunging the planet into war’.10 Climate change and its implications for security are major preoccupations of the US military. Many military institutions are sponsoring a conference on ‘the national security implications of global climate change’ at the end of March this year and the US army runs a ‘cold regions research and engineering laboratory’ where research is directly aimed at ‘understanding climate processes…for predicting the impacts of climate change and extreme events on both terrestrial and battle space environments’.11 Having identified the potential social and economic consequences of climate change, governments are preparing to adapt their military forces to deal with so called ‘resource wars’ and movements of millions of refugees.

Market failures

Socialists trying to identify the source of the environmental catastrophe we face seem, at first glance, to find an unlikely ally in Sir Nicolas Stern. After all, his review concluded, ‘Climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen’,12 which might point towards radical criticisms of the system that has both created and ignored the problem. But Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, is not one to criticise the market system. While his review appeared to blame the market for the situation we face, in fact the opposite was true. Stern was actually criticising the lack of market mechanisms to deal with the problem—all his solutions are market‑orientated.13

Stern believes that emission trading—where the right to emit greenhouse gases can be traded on the open market—will generate ‘tens of billions of dollars each year’ and encourage the transition to lower carbon economies. He argues that it is ‘decisions by private investors that will, over time, drive emissions down’. For Stern the solution to climate change is the same free‑market that caused the problem in the first place. The concluding paragraph of the summary of his review set out his neoliberal agenda:

Above all, reducing the risks of climate change requires collective action. It requires cooperation between countries, through international -frameworks that support the achievement of shared goals. It requires a partnership between the public and private sector, working with civil society and with individuals.14

Both the Stern Review and the IPCC report were met with hyperbole from politicians. Tony Blair described Stern as the ‘most important report on the future ever published by this government’; environment minister David Miliband said the IPCC report was ‘another nail in the coffin of the climate change deniers and represents the most authoritative picture to date, showing that the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’.15 However, government rhetoric has not been matched by the kind of urgent action required. Ministers have been quick to claim that little can be done without action from India and China, and government policies continue to make the situation worse. Since Labour’s election in 1997, the UK’s CO2 emissions have risen by 5.5 percent and ‘rose by 2.5 percent over 1997 levels in the first six months of 2005 alone’. Renewable sources account for just 2.7 percent of energy generation and investment in research in renewable technologies is woefully inadequate—only 2.5 percent of the nuclear subsidy, for instance.16 George Monbiot’s magnificent book Heat sets out the scale of the task the world faces as well as both radical and practical solutions.17 Monbiot argues that global carbon emissions must be cut by 60 percent by 2030. The UK must make a 90 percent reduction because of its disporportionate share of emissions.18 Contrast this with the Kyoto Protocol, which committed the industrialised nations that signed to a 5.2 percent reduction by 2012.

Monbiot argues that the kind of cuts he proposes are possible without reducing living standards; he writes that his aim in Heat was to show that a 90 percent cut was ‘compatible with industrial civilisation’.19 But such a cut would require fundamental change—changes to our transport system (fewer cars and lorries, more coaches and trains), better housing with vastly improved insulation and energy use, massive government investment in renewable energy generation and huge improvements in energy efficiency. It is difficult to imagine politicians such as Tony Blair or Gordon Brown implementing the far‑reaching changes Monbiot suggests and, despite Tory leader David Cameron’s rhetoric on the issue, it is impossible to imagine a future Tory government renationalising the railways, investing massively in public transport and housing, or funding renewable energies.

The mainstream political parties are locked into the logic of the market—they cannot turn their rhetoric on the environment into policies that can prevent the destruction of the planet.20 Instead, these policies will have to be fought for, and won, by those most at risk from the consequences of climate change. The coming temperature rises will force millions of people around the world to challenge the status quo. Those fleeing the effects of climate change will not automatically conclude that we need to radically change society.

But the shock and anger sparked when George Bush ignored the population of drowning New Orleans show that there is potential for mass action in the face of even bigger disasters to come. There is also another factor—the economic and social changes needed to stop further climate change match very closely the needs of millions of workers across the world who are involved in existing struggles. Campaigns against the war in Iraq, for decent public transport, against the expansion of nuclear power or for better homes, all contain within them the germ of the solution to the problem of climate change—the fundamental transformation of society.


1: ‘IPCC Report, Summary for Policymakers’, p13.

2: ‘Impacts of Climate Change on Growth and Development Part II’, p20, the Stern Review

3: ‘Summary of Conclusions’, p1, the Stern Review.

4: See, for example, Charles Moore, ‘What’s Black And White And Green All Over? Another Dodgy Dossier’, the Telegraph, 27 January 2007.

5: ‘Climate Data: Insights and Observations’, the Pew Centre (2004), quoted in Robert Henson, Rough Guide to Climate Change (2006).

6: Shaoni Bhattacharya, ‘European Heatwave Caused 35,000 Deaths’, New Scientist, 10 October 2003.

7: Robert Henson, as above, p48.

8: Raekha Prasad, ‘India Builds A 2,500‑Mile Barrier To Rival The Great Wall Of China’, the Times, 28 December 2005.

9: Josh Arnold‑Forster, ‘A Matter Of Security’, New Statesman, 29 January 2007.

10: Mark Townsend and Paul Harris, ‘Now The Pentagon Tells Bush: Climate Change Will Destroy Us’, the Observer, 22 February 2004.

11: US Army Corps Engineers,‑hottopics.html

12: ‘Summary of Conclusions’, p3, the Stern Review, as above.

13: Jacob Middleton, ‘Is the market a solution?’, letter in Socialist Worker, 11 November 2006.

14: ‘Summary of Conclusions’, p4, the Stern Review, as above.

15: Defra press release, Debate on Climate Change Science is Over—International Political Agreement now Urgently Needed, 2 February 2007.

16: Barbara Harriss‑White and Elinor Harriss, ‘Unsustainable Capitalism and Renewable Energy’, in Socialist Register 2007, pp77‑79. See ‘Book Reviews’ in this journal for my review of Socialist Register 2007, which contained a collection of articles on climate change.

17: George Monbiot, Heat: how to Stop the Planet Burning (London, 2006).

18: As above, p16.

19: As above, p xii.

20: For a short, readable introduction setting out why capitalism is inexorably linked to environmental destruction, see John Bellamy Foster, ‘The Ecology of Destruction’, in Monthly Review, volume 58, number 9 (Feburary 2007).