What’s wrong, and what can be done

Issue: 119

Paul McGarr

Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming: Change the World (Bookmarks, 2008), £11.99

There are already many excellent books on climate change. Indeed, it seems like almost every environmental commentator either has written or is in the process of producing one. Not all are good, but many are excellent. A few of my personal recommendations would be George Monbiot’s Heat, Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers Run Dry and The Rough Guide to Climate Change.

What distinguishes the different books is not usually the description of potential catastrophe facing the world, which they all contain, though the way they present this certainly varies according to the author’s particular approach. Instead different perspectives usually emerge more sharply when the discussion turns to the key questions—what can be done to stop climate disaster, and, once that has been settled, how can this be achieved?

And so it is with Jonathan Neale’s new book. What informs it, gives it its strength and sharply distinguishes it from all others is Jonathan’s politics. The heartbeat of the book is the perspective of a committed socialist activist and revolutionary, who sees the world as fundamentally shaped by class. Jonathan has played an active role in the great global resistance movements of the past decade and is at the heart of efforts to build a new global movement to resist climate change. He writes, “This book is part of that movement”, and, in my opinion, anyone who is or wants to be part of that movement should read it.

Before getting to the politics of climate change Jonathan does give a very useful overview of the scale of the problem. He points out that the climate has constantly changed during the Earth’s history and will do so in the future. The debate today, however, is about abrupt or relatively sudden climate change provoked by human actions, principally, of course, the rising atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

The global climate is a complex, dynamic system (what scientists call non-linear) in which an accumulation of small quantitative changes can, at some “tipping point”, produce sudden and large qualitative changes. Jonathan, following most serious commentators, argues that the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will very likely bring the global climate to such a tipping point in a few decades unless something drastic is done.

In a useful section of the book Jonathan quickly deals with two key arguments. First, he nails the lie that poor people are the problem—that it is the hope of people in countries such as India and China to escape from poverty and improve their living standards that is the issue. As Jonathan points out, there is no reason why economic growth that benefits people in these countries has to follow the blueprint of the US. It is possible to have economic development and rising living standards without this necessarily leading to the runaway growth of fossil fuel dependent energy use.

Second, Jonathan deals head-on with the mistaken argument that sacrifice by ordinary people is a necessary part of the answer to the threat of abrupt climate change. He explicitly rejects analyses that lump together all those in the richer industrialised countries as a homogenous “we”. Instead he argues that an analysis of how we can build a movement on climate change must start from class, and this applies with just as much force to countries such as China and India, which are equally riven by class division.

His central argument is that “climate justice must also mean a global movement to lift all the world out of poverty…this cannot be done by a movement that focuses of what people will lose to save the climate”. He insists, “At root climate activists face a choice. We can look to the ruling class, the wealthy and the powerful for the solution. Or we can look to ordinary people.”

The core of Jonathan’s book is, then, a detailed examination of the key factors driving greenhouse gas emissions and of possible solutions. He sets himself one important limitation to his argument: “I restrict myself to what we can do now with the technology we already have, rather than a discussion of solutions that may one day be possible with enough research and investment.” He rightly insists, “We already have the technology to stop global warming.” The real issue is the political will to implement the solutions that are within our grasp.

Jonathan sums up at the outset some central elements in his argument. One is that putting the required technologies into effect will require massive government intervention. Another is that market solutions of the kind favoured by most of the political establishment simply will not work. And he also argues that the fashionable avenue of personal consumer choices cannot solve the problem.

For those who say governments cannot act in the way he argues is needed, Jonathan gives a very useful and informative account of what happened in the US economy during the Second World War. Back then the state’s War Industries Board directed what was produced and how in great detail, and imposed petrol rationing across the country. In a few months the whole US economy was transformed. If that could be done to win a war, why can’t something similar be done to save the planet?

In separate chapters Jonathan goes on to look at key areas such as electricity generation, buildings, transport and industry. In each he argues for solutions based on what is currently possible but also with an eye on how to build real struggles. He concludes each section by suggesting immediate concrete demands to fight for.

Much of the detail in these sections shares common ground with the best literature on climate change. For instance, Jonathan explains why renewable and clean energy such as wind, solar and (perhaps most promising of all) concentrated solar power transported from sunny areas of the world on high voltage direct current cables, could easily meet the world’s electricity needs. The section on transport clearly puts forward the argument for car-free cities and a massive expansion of public transport.

Jonathan is right about the aim of car-free cities and that we should fight for this. But I think he could have perhaps spent more time dealing with measures that could immediately begin to reduce car use. He could have developed a little more the point that dealing with transport problems in cities also demands action on how housing, workplaces, education and much else are structured.

For instance, in most major cities in Britain government policy on schools directly contributes to car use. The myth of “parental choice” leads to the madness of school “league tables” and the transportation of children away from their local area to schools all over the city. Scrapping so-called “parental choice” and requiring young people to attend their local school, and organising safe walking and cycling routes to get there, would end the chaos of the “school run” and have a major impact on car use in our cities.

The expansion of giant out of town supermarkets makes shopping essentially dependent on cars. Action on this—either banning such developments and insisting shops be located where people can walk or banning cars from such developments and instead ensuring free, reliable means of getting people there and back—could also have an immediate and major impact on car use. Similar arguments apply to workplaces and commuting.

Winning the war on climate change does not just mean the choice of cars or public transport (though it does mean that). It is also about battling to reshape cities to both improve people’s quality of life and reduce carbon emissions.

Having looked at solutions that will work, Jonathan turns to those that will not, but which are advocated by many. In a convincing summary he shows why biofuels, favoured by some of the world’s most powerful governments, are not part of the solution. He also explains why proposed solutions relying on hydrogen fuelled transport are unproven, as are solutions based on removing carbon from power station emissions and storing it, for example, in depleted oil reservoirs under the seabed. Jonathan also sketches out why nuclear power is not the answer.

Another major section of the book sets out the reasons why the rich and powerful will not act to deal with the threat of climate disaster. This gives an excellent overview of the rise of neoliberalism as the key ideology of global capitalism and how this is a response to the crisis of profitability that has dogged the system for the past few decades. Jonathan discusses the central role of the carbon corporations—the oil, gas, car and steel corporations—in global capitalism and how they shape government policy. He takes us through a very informative case study of how the US car corporations turned to producing SUVs, which illustrates how reluctant these carbon corporations are to embrace fundamental change.

Jonathan also deals with the road to the 1997 Kyoto climate agreement and explains the limitations of that deal. And he also explains why all the various market-based emissions trading schemes simply will not solve the problem of climate change.

He puts an important argument about the personal lifestyle and consumer choice solutions that are increasingly pushed as the answer to climate change in the media. Such solutions are “at the wrong end of the pipe”. Action to deal with climate change must be directed towards the source of the problem, not aimed at mitigating its effects. Changing how society produces energy, organises transport, constructs buildings and develops cities is the key—and this requires large-scale government action and regulation, not individual lifestyle choices.

A key focus in the book is that understanding and dealing with the threat of climate disaster require a wider understanding of capitalism. For those who, having read Jonathan’s account, want to go deeper into this debate and to examine the specifically Marxist explanation of these connections, I would suggest the writings of John Bellamy Foster as a good place to begin.

Jonathan goes on to give a very good overview of the rise of global resistance to neoliberalism and then to war over the past decade, an overview that is especially useful as it is written by someone who has played an important role in many of the mobilisations. It is out of these movements that he sees the hope for building a global movement that can simultaneously fight for action on climate change and to lift people across the world out of poverty.

Before drawing his argument to a conclusion Jonathan gives two case studies of how climate change interacts with a host of other social and political factors to shape real human disasters. One of these is a brilliant discussion of the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and what has happened since. This is the clearest and best account I have read of this disaster, and Jonathan writes with a sure touch as he guides the reader through the story. This section alone would be worth getting the book for.

The second case study Jonathan uses is that of the Darfur region of Sudan. This, at least to me, was less successful. Jonathan admits the story is horrendously complicated, and it is. Though this may betray my own ignorance, I must confess that I found this section over-long, the detail a little bewildering and that I was still left confused at the end.

Jonathan ends his book with a call and a debate. The call is for “a mass climate movement”, on the model of the global resistance to neoliberalism and war. I feel there is an important discussion to be had as to whether such a movement, focused specifically around the climate, can be built. Or will such a movement be principally made up of struggles and mobilisations around more specific issues that are linked to climate change but also draw in other social issues? The massive 2007 Mexican tortilla protests, which were linked to the push for biofuels by the US and the impact on food prices, show how such struggles could emerge.

The final discussion Jonathan initiates considers whether the fight to stave off climate disaster is “like the fight for the welfare state”, one which can be won, at least to a degree, within the existing system, or if it is more “like the French Revolution”, requiring a willingness to pose a revolutionary challenge to the system if we are to win it.

As Jonathan argues, it may be possible to mobilise enough pressure from below to force action by those at the top of the system in time, but we simply do not know if this will work. We do know that, first, a willingness to pose a revolutionary challenge to capitalism is often the best way to mobilise to win changes from the system and, second, that, were such a revolutionary challenge to succeed, it would certainly stave off climate disaster.