From the January 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
The international conference on global warming broke down with no agreement
Last month the International Conference on global warming held at The Hague broke down. Predictably, there was no agreement. Instead, it finished with a slanging match between some of the delegates over who was to blame. After all-night talks a bleary-eyed John Prescott suggested that the delegate from France, Dominique Voynet, had been unable to keep up with the detailed arguments, whilst she in return suggested that Prescott was an "unreconstructed male chauvinist". There seems to be a tradition of abuse at these events. In 1993, a similar conference in London broke up with the Norwegian delegate calling the British Minister for the Environment, John Gummer, a "drittsekk" ("shitbag"). No less depressing than the thought of a serious world problem out of control is the fact that it is in the hands of such politicians. The truth is that from the beginning, the Conference at The Hague, like all such conferences, was incompetent to deal with the problem.
For some time the quality of the science behind the idea of global warming, climatic change and the part played by human activity, has had its critics but the evidence is mounting. To quote the Economist of 18 November, "Now, however, the science has become clearer and most new evidence confirms that global warming should be taken seriously. The forthcoming report by the UN's Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of the world's top climate scientists (including prominent dissenters), concludes that man's actions have "contributed substantially to the observed warming over the last 50 years."
This confirms many earlier warnings. For example, in 1984, a report from the National Science Foundation, Washington, Global Energy Futures and CO2, Induced Climate Change said "Accurate records of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere kept over the past 34 years show that concentrations have increased (8 percent) from 315 parts per million in 1958 to 340 parts per million in 1982." Since 1982, hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases have been further released into the atmosphere.
The anger of the Norwegian delegate at the 1993 London Conference was provoked by the British government having reneged on its promise to reduce carbon emissions. This was seen to result in extensive destruction of the soils, forests, and lakes of Scandinavia, caused by acid rain. Aquatic life in 17,000 lakes in south-west Sweden had been wiped out or seriously damaged. In the 1980s the British government had come under pressure to reduce the carbon emissions from its power stations by 30 percent. This would have included the fitting of flue gas desulphurisation equipment to power stations which were throwing up millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide. It refused to go ahead because the 30 percent reduction would have cost £l billion. At the time, the British Government was struggling to get out of a deep slump in which there were almost 4 million unemployed. It was not in a position to add £1 billion pounds to its energy costs.
This underlines the basic cause of pollution and global warming and the reasons why International Conferences on the subject tend to break up in failure and recrimination or, subsequently, why governments find it difficult to carry out the commitments they have given.
Who's going to bear the burden?
On the face of it the problems of pollution, global warming and climate change may appear to be technical problems. But this is wrong. Although the Hague Conference was attended by hundreds of technical experts, the important arguments about what can or what cannot be done were about money and costs. The arguments were about the strategies of the various states who were at the Conference to defend their economic interests. A blatant example of this was reported in the Economist: " . . . the big oil producing countries are, in a flight of fancy, demanding compensation for the harm they will suffer from lost oil sales; they are trying to block the Kyoto process as a conspiracy to damage their economies".
The Kyoto accord of 1997 was an agreement amongst the developed nations to cut the release of greenhouse gases by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008/12. Since then, most countries have increased their pollutants and in America these have soared. The parties to the Kyoto accord also ". . . agreed that cutting emissions might be so expensive that the treaty should allow countries innovative, flexible approaches to reduce compliance costs".
In practice, being "innovative" and "flexible" has resulted in a series of complex proposals which appear to be more designed to confuse the issues and avoid commitments rather then fulfil them. For example, America, Australia, Canada and Japan, all of which are now increasing their greenhouse gases, have proposed they be allowed to plant vast amounts of trees in the developing world and count the carbon dioxide absorbed against their own emissions. This was seen as evasive and was described as "a con-trick". It was mainly this sort of recrimination that brought the conference at The Hague to an end when it was meant to monitor progress and up-date the targets set at Kyoto. One consequence is that the "Kyoto Accord" is in ruins.
The various conferences on pollution have failed to make any significant progress and it could be said that they are mere forums for empty rhetoric, intended to put a public relations gloss on government actions which in reality are making the problems worse. It would be difficult to argue against this. However, the fact that these are international discussions does recognise one important thing. They accept that the problems are global, and that global consensus is required for action on a global scale. What dooms them to failure is the fact that they take place in a world that is divided into rival capitalist states which are in economic competition with each other. This makes global consensus impossible and rules out effective global action. The pressures to keep down costs and protect profits means that the technology for reducing pollution is either ignored or applied in a minimal token way.
Need for global framework
Even where the science may not be complete a precautionary principle should apply. It is reckless to gamble with an existing balance of natural systems on which all life depends. The basic cause of pollution is the capitalist system. The problem is out of control because the economic constraints of the system prevent the problems being solved. A sane society would simply consider the technical options available. Then, following democratic decisions on the actions to be taken would do what was necessary to achieve the solutions. This rational procedure is impossible in the mad world of capitalism. The plain fact is, before we can work within natural systems in a non-destructive way we must first create a society in which we can all co-operate with each other.
The problems of world pollution are technical, economic and political but the important question that emerges is this: how do we establish a society in which all people are able to co-operate to provide a good life for each other whilst looking after our shared home in space? The freedom to do this can only be achieved through the relationships of socialism. Every person has the ability to co-operate with others and every person has a vital interest in creating the new world in which co-operation can flourish. Leaving the problems to capitalist politicians and their conferences such as the fiasco at The Hague can only be a recipe for disaster.
With the end of the market system, people in socialism would enjoy great advantages in solving the problems of pollution and environmental degradation. There would be no difficulty in establishing a World Energy Organisation that would be able to assess the problems from a global point of view without the barriers of national divisions. It would be able to recommend technical solutions arising from all the natural advantages of the planet and its use as a single productive unit. Socialism would also be able to save on resources by eventually reducing production levels.
End of competition
By concentrating its labour resources economically on the real needs of people socialism would be able to stop vast numbers of wasteful and destructive jobs that are only necessary in a profit system. With the end of economic competition, socialism would not be bound to use the least costly methods of production, many of which are destructive of the environment. Whilst a fall in capitalist production because of recession creates chaos and immense problems of misery and social dislocation, communities in socialism would eventually be able to bring about a fall in production without any such problems. A further article will examine these options more closely.