Climate change and extreme energy (AWL conference October 2013)

Submitted by AWL on 11 February, 2015 - 12:19

1. The world has entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene – where human intervention can drastically affect the planet. This threatens important planetary boundaries: biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen, land use, freshwater, toxics, aerosols, ocean acidification and the ozone layer.
2. The metabolic rift between nature and society is the result of capitalist relations of production. The rational social production of nature requires conscious, collective control - or the ecosystem on which life depends will be altered irrevocably. Climate change
3. IPCC reports confirm that global temperatures have risen by nearly a degree over the last century and may increase by 2-6 ̊C in the next 100 years. They confirm that human activity is the principal cause of climate change, particularly fossil fuel burning in energy and transport, and agriculture.
4. A significant turning point was reached in May this year when the global carbon dioxide concentration briefly hit 400 parts per million. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased by a quarter in half a century and are accelerating. The planet is already heading away from the zone which has sustained life for countless millennia.
5. Floods, droughts, storms and heat-waves are already afflicting societies. Threats of disease, to food, settlements, industry, health and ecosystems have already been registered. These impacts will affect the migration of labour, create climate refugees and generally hit workers hardest.

Capital failure
6. Contemporary climate change politics has reached an impasse. None of the bourgeois fractions of advanced capitalism in energy, finance and industry, nor of their representatives at the head of states and multilateral institutions, has devised a significant plan to tackle climate change. Capital has failed to meet the climate challenge.
7. The efforts of bourgeois states to secure a global agreement failed at Copenhagen in 2009. Despite the promises, at present no deal to reduce emissions is close. The principal market mechanism – the European Union’s emissions trading scheme – has floundered. The net result so far has been the over-issue of free permits, the collapse of the carbon price, while generating billions of profits for fossil fuel giants.
8. Capitalism has so far found few technical fixes. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has not been perfected and rolled out. Nuclear technologies that burn waste products without high carbon emissions (including thorium) are technically possible but their development has stalled. There is some progress with wind technology, with 300,000 turbines worldwide and more jobs, although this is still not adequate. There is still insufficient investment to assist the spread of solar technologies and tidal power, which could provide renewable energy at low cost.

Extreme energy
9. Capitalism does not stand still. A new “golden age” of fossil fuels is emerging. There is a resurgence of oil and gas production, spurred by unconventional sources such as tar sands and hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking), with coal demand growing faster than renewables. If no action is taken by soon, much of the energy infrastructure will be locked in for decades. This ‘extreme energy’ scenario threatens to derail global efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.
10. The global “carbon budget” – how much oil, coal and gas could safely be burned and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees – is roughly 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by mid-century. However fossil fuel companies have perhaps five times the reserves of coal, oil and gas on their balance sheets and are allocating billions to developing more. The New York and London stock markets are becoming more carbon-intensive. This is the paradox of neo-liberal climate politics: either a carbon bubble leading to financial collapse, or continued profitable fossil fuel burning with dire climate consequences.

Fracking
11. Shale gas is extraction is now profitable because of advances in drilling and other technologies, in the context of higher oil prices. The principal reason to oppose fracking is that the process is at odds with efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
12. Gas-fired power stations emit 57% less carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour than coal-fired plants. However shale gas has higher production-related greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gas. Venting emits damaging ‘fugitive’ methane, perhaps making shale gas as polluting as coal.
13. Although the expansion of shale gas has coincided with falling emissions in the US, at least half of the reduction there is due to nuclear and renewables. Although shale gas has displaced some domestic coal burning, coal was exported and will result in emissions elsewhere. “Climate mitigation in one country” is not progress if it simply displaces the emissions.
14. There are other significant environmental impacts of fracking, including water pollution and high water consumption, seismic activity, noise and traffic. Socialists are rightly sympathetic to local communities facing these hazards, which are often imposed without democratic consultation.

Tar sands
15. Another form of extreme energy is the production of tar sands oil, particularly in places like Canada and Venezuela. The TransCanada Keystone XL oil pipeline, announced in 2008, is an addition to the larger Keystone pipeline system. If completed, it will provide a more direct route and will carry about twice the oil. The extraction of oil from tar sands has 12–17% higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional oil. Other concerns include the risks of a pipeline spill polluting air and critical water supplies, as well as impacts on ecosystems.
16. The dangers and possibilities of extreme energy for the labour movement are summed up by the US experience. Four US unions including the Teamsters signed agreements with TransCanada over the Keystone XL pipeline, reflecting an explicit business-labour partnership.
17. However most Canadian unions have opposed the pipeline from the beginning and more recently in the US, some transport, United Steelworkers and SEIU have opposed it. The biggest climate demonstrations yet in the US took place in February 2013, with 40,000 people protesting in front of the White House and more than a thousand arrested in opposition to the pipeline.

Nuclear
18. The urgency of the need to replace fossil-fuel electricity generation makes blanket opposition to nuclear power wrong. The development of solar, wind, tidal, etc. power is an urgent necessity; and so is the redesign of cities and buildings and transport to reduce energy use; but the scale of the task of replacing fossil fuels demands that governments pursue all these changes simultaneously.
19. Nuclear power will be an essential part of any concerted social effort to control carbon emissions and global warming, at least in the next few decades, because it provides baseload power (i.e. power that is available at all hours) and can have facilities constructed in a very wide variety of places. It operates when and where the sun is not shining, the wind is not blowing, the tides are not flowing, etc. It is now, after over 50 years, an established and well-tested technology. Maybe, in time, technologies will be developed which enable sufficient electricity generation from renewables alone (for example, maybe in future we know how to build grids which enable the transmission of power over vast distances with little energy loss). But they do not exist now, and to replace fossil fuels as the baseload form of electricity generation is urgent now.
20. "Pro-nuclear" is not the right word for our stance. Rather, we are not absolutely anti-nuclear. We do not rule out the development of nuclear power technology, just as we do not flatly oppose the development of most other technologies, even under capitalism; instead, we contest the social conditions of the development of the technology (workers' and democratic control, public ownership, health and safety monitoring, workers' rights, etc.)
21. Properly deployed, nuclear fission is a low-carbon substitute for coal as a centralised form of baseload generation. Compared weight-by-weight, uranium 235 delivers a million times more energy than coal: even on the basis of a full life-cycle analysis, nuclear uses much less land than solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind. Biomass uses more than a thousand times the land area of nuclear power.
22. None of this implies being blasé about the problems accompanying nuclear power. It does imply that we should not be blasé about: - the much greater problems accompanying a failure to switch quickly from reliance on fossil fuels for baseload power; - the safety and environmental risks - much less publicised, but often not smaller - which accompany other forms of power. (Solar power, for example, generates a far greater bulk of toxic waste than nuclear power); - the technical difficulties (in the short term, impossibility) of replacing fossil-fuel power fully by solar, wind, tidal, etc.; or - the difficulties (in the short term impossibility, at least in the decades when we hope to see the rest of the world's population levelled up to the standards of comfort and access to technology which even the most frugal of us enjoy in Britain) of dealing with the carbon-emissions problem simply by energy-economy measures.
23. One objection to nuclear is safety. There are problems, but the record of the last 50 years is one of safety and environmental problems very small compared to those of fossil-fuel power. The comparison holds even counting in Chernobyl and Fukushima, though of course we, and for that matter even capitalist governments, will demand of all future nuclear power development that it avoid the safety flaws shown there. Nuclear power stations do not explode. Several times now nuclear installations have been destroyed by bombing, and without catastrophe. The vast majority of studies have found no link between nuclear power stations and cancer incidence in the local populations of nearly a dozen countries from France to Sweden. After Chernobyl, exhaustive studies of affected populations, firefighters and ‘liquidators’ who later cleaned up the site, yield an estimated death toll of less than 50. Several thousand children did suffer from thyroid cancer as a result of radioactive iodine doses received after Chernobyl, but only 15 of the estimated 4,000 cases have proved fatal. Chernobyl was a disaster, but not a disaster that puts nuclear power in a different league from other technologies. Probably more people die and get ill every week, in China alone, as a by-product of fossil-fuel power, than have died or got ill from nuclear power over the whole life of the technology. Much greater numbers have died or got ill from accidents or environmental knock-on effects with hydroelectric power. We do not reject hydroelectric power or solar power out of hand, and we should not reject nuclear power out of hand.
24. Another objection to nuclear concerns waste disposal. Once spent fuel rods are removed from the reactor core, they are stored in cooling ponds until their radiation levels decline sufficiently for them to be stored in dry steel casks. The level of radioactivity emitted declines by a thousand times in 40-50 years. In the longer term, geological disposal of waste that cannot be recycled or otherwise put to good use is an engineering challenge, but one that can be solved even with today's technology. The vast majority of waste will in just a few hundred years be no more radioactive than the natural uranium ore that it was originally derived from. A concerted development of nuclear power opens the possibility of developing thorium reactors on a large scale: they can use most of what is currently nuclear waste as fuel and convert it into relatively harmless materials.
25. The objections to nuclear are important, but they are not decisive in the face of the increased threat of dangerous climate change and other planetary boundaries. In the absence of viable alternatives to nuclear in the present and near future and given the limits of energy efficiency - the argument that nuclear power must be part of any effective social effort to control carbon emissions and global warming is convincing.

Jobs and fuel bills
26. Many of the arguments around extreme energy have been pitched towards workers, with promises of jobs, lower fuel bills and energy security. David Cameron has said 75- 150,000 fracking jobs are possible, while Cuadrilla has promised to create 50,000 jobs across the UK. However Cornell Labor Institute research found that the Barnett Shale in Texas had created only 3,200 construction and energy jobs over ten years, while the Marcellus Shale had created no more than 10,000 new jobs.
27. Similarly, grand promises have been made about lower fuel bills, in the context of over 5 million people in the UK mired in fuel poverty (spending a tenth of their income on fuel bills). However because gas prices are segmented, and Britain an even more “liberalised” market than Europe, it is unlikely that gas consumers would see much, if any, benefit in terms of reduced gas and electricity bills. Energy analysts mostly believe fuel prices will go up in the coming decades.

The labour movement
28. So far UK trade unions have not done much about extreme energy. The TUC Congress 2012 passed a motion opposing it. Some unions have supported an international campaign for “energy democracy”, which promotes a sharper critique of fossil fuel firms, while promoting public ownership and democratic control over energy.
29. Organised labour cannot present itself as a progressive social movement while siding with extreme energy corporations against those in the communities jeopardised by dirty energy development. Unions cannot afford to alienate climate justice activists who share our broad social objectives and have been actively engaged in the battles to protect workers’ rights and collective bargaining.
30. Beyond supporting direct action protests against fracking, tar sands and other fossil fuel expansion, socialists have significant arguments and strategies to offer. First, privately owned energy firms and bourgeois-state corporations run according to market imperatives continue to invest in fossil fuels at the expense of less polluting sources such as renewables and nuclear. Taking ownership and control of these capitalist energy giants is necessary, so that climate change can be mitigated to the extent necessary and in the time left.
31. Second, private ownership and control of energy makes democratic oversight and accountability much harder. This is true at various scales, from getting a global agreement between states to tackle climate change, to government policies (like the Tory tax-breaks for shale), all the way down to local people who find firms fracking without their say-so. Socialists need to advocate maximum democratic control and planning. The basic answer for workers in extreme energy industries is conversion, paid for by the employers and the state.
32. We advocate and fight for a big programme of research and investment to expand renewable energy generation. We advocate and fight for a comprehensive programme of measures to redesign living spaces, industry, transport, etc to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions while protecting and improving living standards. This includes fighting for a shorter working week and longer holidays.
33. What is needed in this situation is a working class-based climate movement. Socialists should articulate a critique of the systemic causes of climate change and the inherent limits of capital’s approach. We orientate to the labour movement, aimed at mobilising workers who are the immediate victims of exploitation and environmental degradation and so have a direct material interest in campaigning around climate change.
34. The organised labour movement has immense social, economic and political power to deploy against capital. This means transforming the existing trade union movement, sloughing off the pedestrian, pro-capitalist partnership approach and mobilising union reps for climate action. It means championing efforts like the Vestas occupation in 2009, in which workers’ direct action became a magnet for solidarity. It includes support for the Campaign against Climate Change’s “One Million Climate Jobs” campaign.
35. A working class movement will have to challenge capital’s ownership and control of the means of production, which in the hands of the bourgeoisie are simultaneously the means of climate destruction. Social ownership and workers’ control of the major energy firms (as well as the big banks that finance big energy) is a burning necessity to get to grips with climate change. Climate-related employment is also the direct answer to the economy mired in economic stagnation.
36. There is huge scope for forming alliances between the labour movement and climate activists. This includes support for and struggle alongside with anti-fracking and anti-tar sands campaigns, which are taking on the extreme energy agenda. Climate campaigning cannot be a desirable add-on for the left. Either it is an integral part of the struggle for socialism, or we face a future of climactic barbarism.
37. The broadly anti-capitalist climate movement, which reached its height around the 2006-2009 climate camps, has revived somewhat around opposition to extreme energy and fossil fuel expansion. We should get involved in its activities wherever possible, argue for a consistently working-class political focus, and look for opportunities to connect the movement to organised labour.
38. The AWL was highly active in the broadly anti-capitalist climate ferment of 2006-10, including the Climate Camp movement, both in our own name and as part of Workers' Climate Action. We played a central role in a number of attempts to generate links and discussion with workers in environmentally damaging industry and transport, and the central role in sparking the 2009 Vestas wind turbine workers' occupation on the Isle of Wight. During that time, we also did quite a bit of work developing our Marxist ecological theory.
39. AWL comrades should educate themselves in our recent tradition on climate change. AWL branches and fractions should seek to hold public meetings to propagate those ideas and attract new comrades to our ranks. AWL comrades should intervene in international, national and local ecological campaigns and work alongside climate activists.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.