By Martin Thomas
The world has the technology to slow global warming. Because of entrenched capitalist interests, that technology is used only minimally.
The capitalist drive for profit means using the cheapest energy sources on the market now, pushing sales of “gas-guzzling” vehicles, and taking freight on road rather than rail, without regard for the long-term consequences.
Capitalist governments can impose regulations on individual corporations in the interests of capital as a whole. But they do it slowly and hesitantly when the regulation conflicts with such huge interests as the big oil and car companies.
The USA epitomises that. It produces about a third of all the world’s human-produced greenhouse gas output, with about five per cent of the world’s population.
It introduced fuel economy regulations for cars after the oil price “shocks” of the 1970s. The big car companies got round them by producing SUVs (“sports utility vehicles”, four-wheel drives) which were not covered by the regulations (because they were classed as vans, not cars). With oil prices a bit lower, the US government did not extend the regulations. SUVs now account for 50% of all new cars sold in the USA. Transport accounts for about a third of all human greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Because of the rise of SUVs, urban sprawl, and lack of public transport, US cities like Los Angeles or Houston consume nearly 1500 or 2000 kg of oil per person per year for transport — with proportionate greenhouse gases and pollution — while Paris or London consume less than 300 kg per person and Singapore less than 100kg.
The USA has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, endorsed by almost every government in the world other than Australia, and due to come into effect on 16 February.
But capitalist Britain and Europe are not blameless victims of the hyper-capitalist USA. Serious measures to deal with global warming will have to go a lot further than the Kyoto deal. And British and European governments are not going further.
In January, a report on “Meeting the Climate Challenge” was published by three think-tanks — one US, one Australian, and one British — with the endorsement of Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN’s climate-change panel. It is a “moderate”, cautious, consensus document.
It finds that global temperatures have risen 0.8ºC since the Industrial Revolution as a result of human activity, and urges governments to adopt “a long-term objective of preventing [the rise becoming] more than 2ºC. Beyond the 2ºC level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly”.
Some further global warming is now unavoidable — because of delayed effects from greenhouse-gas increases which have already happened, and further greenhouse-gas increases which are already in train even with the most drastic rejigging of technology. The US National Research Council, for example, estimates a probable warming of a further 1.4 to 5.8ºC — a total of 2.2 to 6.6ºC — by the year 2100. The global temperature increase is near-certain to come close to 2ºC whatever is done, and very unlikely to be less than 2ºC without drastic measures.
Another report which came out three days later reinforced the message. Results from testing a big computer model of the global climate showed that plausible increases in greenhouse gases could increase global temperatures by as much as 11ºC.
But the think-tanks’ report said: “Many of the technologies we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — technologies that use energy more efficiently and generate it from renewable resources — already exist. They are here, they are affordable...”
Only they are not used, or used only on a small scale.
A world where industry was democratically controlled and geared to human need — that is, a socialist world — would see it as obvious common sense to develop and use those technologies on a large scale. In a capitalist world, that common sense is sidelined and overridden by the forces of competition between big corporations, and competition between states to be the most attractive production sites for those corporations.
Over a hundred years ago, Marxists were warning that the alternatives for humanity were “socialism or barbarism”. By “barbarism”, they meant horrors like the World Wars, or fascism, or the great slump of the 1930s — and they were right.
Today, the dilemma is more brutal: socialism or ecological catastrophe.
What is global warming?
Most of the heat which reaches the Earth from the Sun is scattered away from it or reflected back. The proportion that is kept is increased by denser gases in the atmosphere which act a bit like the glass walls of a greenhouse. Without that “greenhouse effect” the Earth would freeze. In general the effect is benign, from a human point of view.
But since the Industrial Revolution, human activity has put more “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). Carbon dioxide was 379 parts per million of the atmosphere in March 2004, compared to 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution.
The increased carbon dioxide increases the greenhouse effect and increases global temperatures — by about 0.8ºC on average so far.
Why is that a worry?
An increase of 2ºC or 3ºC in global temperatures surely would not even be very noticeable, and even 11ºC would just mean more uncomfortably hot days?
Human life, agriculture, and construction have developed on Earth within fairly steady average climate conditions. That involves a series of delicate, often hidden, balances which can be upset by temperature rises due to global warming.
For a start, sea levels will rise as ice caps melt. Over the last 100 years, the global sea level has risen by about 10 to 25 cm. With global warming, it will rise further. Many of the world’s biggest cities, and most of one heavily-populated country, Bangladesh, could find themselves below sea level.
The change in temperature could ruin great swathes of agriculture. Most scientists reckon that the increase in temperature will also increase the frequency and size of storms (most storms happen in hot climates).
Even more worrying are the possible “accelerator” effects.
What “accelerator” effects?
An increase in greenhouse gases produces some effects which automatically limit that increase. For example, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere generally helps plants grow (because plants get carbon by converting that carbon dioxide into oxygen, through photosynthesis), and thus helps those plants limit the increase in carbon dioxide.
There may be self-limiting effects we do not yet know about it, because the measured increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in average temperatures is somewhat less than would be expected from calculations of the amount of extra carbon dioxide produced by human industry.
But there are also self-accelerating effects, some of which could become “runaway” effects, pushing the rate of increase much higher.
- Ice, being white, reflects the radiation from the Sun back out into space. When ice melts, that reflection diminishes, and more of the heat from the Sun stays on Earth. The melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic — which has already begun — will thus accelerate global warming.
- It will do that another way, too, by releasing methane (another “greenhouse gas”) frozen into the ice.
- Plants not only absorb carbon dioxide, but also release it when they die and rot, or are burned. In fact, the global flows of carbon into and out of the atmosphere comprise two huge ones (into plants and back out again, and into the sea and back out again), both of which roughly balance, with human industrial production of carbon dioxide being a small flow by comparison but crucial in the balance.
If climate change due to global warming kills large areas of rainforest — in the Amazon, for example, as many scientists fear — then it could turn the world’s plants into large net contributors of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
- When the seas warm up, more water vapour escapes from them into the atmosphere. And water vapour is also a greenhouse gas. The exact mechanics of this process depend on how (at what height, etc.) clouds are formed. But there is at the very least a serious danger that the effects of global warming on the seas could be self-accelerating.
- The circulation of water around the oceans, through things like the Gulf Stream, increases their absorption of carbon dioxide. Some scientists reckon this circulation may be seriously disrupted by global warming. The disruption would, paradoxically, make Britain and north-west Europe cooler, but increase global warming overall.
What can be done about it?
The USA and Australia have much higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions per head than other rich and industrialised countries — three or more times as high as France or Spain or Sweden. Why? Not because France or Spain or Sweden have resigned themselves to low-tech dimness, but in large part because they are less car-dominated societies.
Iceland has a project of converting its whole economy so it can run without using any fossil fuels at all — and thus, without emitting any carbon dioxide at all from industry and transport — within twenty years. Its vehicles, and heating for its buildings, will run on hydrogen fuel cells, and the hydrogen will be extracted using water (hydroelectric) power.
Iceland can go that far only because it has many rivers with strong flows. But many things can be done elsewhere.
Internal combustion engines are extremely inefficient, converting only 20% of the energy in their fuel into driving power for vehicles. Short of replacing all petrol-engine cars with hydrogen fuel cells — which is a longer-term possibility — there are many technologies already known which would at least double their efficiency.
Improving public transport, and redesigning city development to reduce long commutes, would also make a big contribution.
Renewable energy sources such as wind, sun (solar panels), wave, and hydroelectric, supply only nine per cent of the world’s total at present. They could supply much more.
According to Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University (Science vol.305 p.968), “simply heating, cooling, and lighting buildings in the right way, or widely applying known technologies that can double the average fuel efficiency of cars, could open the way to dramatic cuts in oil use... Increased use of wind generators and photovoltaic arrays [solar panels], both directly to supply electricity to the grid and indirectly to make hydrogen fuel for cars, would do the same. Adopting just a few of these could stabilise levels of global greenhouse gases by 2050”.
But don’t some scientists say that all the talk about global warming is alarmist?
Very few now deny the basic picture. The main “sceptical” argument now is that so much is unknown about the future course and results of global warming, and the Kyoto Protocol is so inadequate to deal with the worse possibilities, that it is wasteful to take action now. Better to plough ahead with full-speed economic development, which may well produce the new technologies which can cope with the bad effects if they come in future decades.
Warming-sceptic groups like the Scientific Alliance mention projects such as supplying clean water to more people, or combatting AIDS, as better ways of spending the money which anti-warming measures would cost. They do not actually campaign for such measures, though.
One warming-sceptic group, organised by Swedish writer Bjorn Lomborg, came up with the conclusion that it would be better to spend money on promoting free trade than on anti-warming measures! That reflects the general drift of most of the warming-sceptics: linked to oil companies and right-wing think-tanks, they preach unlimited confidence in the virtues of unfettered capitalist development.
But wouldn’t anti-warming measures really be very expensive?
Most of the basic anti-warming measures would not be. One measure of it is that Lomborg’s case for not spending money on anti-warming measures was derived from looking at alternative ways of spending just $50 billion.
$50 billion is a lot, but it is a small amount in the world economy — less than half the cost to the USA so far of the Iraq war, for example, and much, much less than the amount dissipated in luxury spending by the world’s ultra-rich. The world has the resources for anti-warming measures, and clean water, and combatting AIDS, if we stop those resources being siphoned off by capitalism and militarism.
In a broader view, many of the anti-warming measures are not “costly” at all, but positive even apart from their impact on global warming. They would reduce other forms of pollution, and enable a slower and more rational use of the world’s finite resources of fossil fuels.