Thursday, March 18, 2021

Kyoto: fiddling while Rome burns (2005)

From the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The beginning of February saw the world’s top experts on climatic change descend on the Met Office’s HQ in Exeter for a meeting called by Tony Blair and in advance of the coming into force of the Kyoto Protocol two weeks later. They painted a picture of a world not unlike that portrayed in the film The Day After Tomorrow, where humans have destroyed their own planet through their disregard for the environment – melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, global warming, and drought.

Evidence was presented by Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, showing that the West Antarctic ice sheet is beginning to melt, threatening eventually to raise sea levels by 15ft. He reminded his audience that 90 per cent of the world’s people live near current sea levels.

Other scientists presented evidence that the world’s oceans are turning acidic, threatening marine life and there were many experts on hand ready to present their latest findings on the effects of global warming on ecosystems. Significantly, the number of scientific papers that have recorded changes in ecosystems due to global warming have increased from 14 to over a thousand in just five years.

Blair did not need to call a meeting in Exeter to find about the threat to the environment. Experts from every field have been flailing their arms around frantically for years trying to get governments to sit up and notice.

While Blair pursues policies aimed at securing Britain’s share of Iraq’s oil stores for the foreseeable future, we are warned by scientists that oil production will peak within 10 years; that half of the Earth’s available oil is estimated to by used by then, and that within another 20 years countries like China and India will have huge demands that will far outstrip supply. Consider the conflicts this will create.

Far worse than a shortage of oil is a shortage of water. We already know that 500 million people live in regions prone now to chronic drought. Scientists now warn us that within 20 years that figure is expected to increase fivefold to between 2.5 billion and 3.5 billion people. Already over 5 million people die – including 2 million children – from diseases caused by drinking contaminated water. Again, what desolation does this foreshadow for the human race?

In the oceans, almost 50 percent of fish stocks are fully exploited, 20 percent are over-exploited, and only 2 percent are recovering. On land, soil erosion and degradation mean that half a billion people live in countries whose arable land can no longer support their own crops. The natural habitats of many animal species are being lost on an alarming scale, which with the decline of bird species, plants, forests – on which, ultimately, the human race depends – signals a real crisis for biodiversity.

Leaky Treaty
Back in 1997, to head off some of these problems, governments met in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate a treaty according to which the industrialised countries each agreed a target to control emissions of six gases know to cause global warming.

The Kyoto protocol, for those countries which have ratified it, came into effect on 16t February this year, with Russia finally signing up after a EU bribe in order for the 55 percent quorum to be reached before the treaty could come into effect, but minus the support of the USA who, with only 5 percent of the world’s population produces 36 percent of carbon emissions. And the reason for US obstinacy? They simply felt that China and other developing countries, not facing the costs of cutting emissions, would gain a competitive edge on them.

The agreement, the first “legally binding” treaty on the environment, gives each of the industrialised and ratifying countries of the world their own limit to the greenhouse gas emissions they can pump into the atmosphere. It is envisaged that this will eventually lead to a situation in which the world produces no more greenhouse gasses than the environment can tolerate.

Will the Kyoto treaty stave off the unimaginable? Well, it would seem that not only are the treaty’s formal greenhouse gas emission reduction objectives wholly inadequate compared to what scientists say is actually necessary, the treaty’s corporate-friendly, market-based mechanisms to achieve these reductions appear counterproductive.

To start with, the treaty requires that Annex One countries (the industrialised countries), which have hitherto been the biggest polluters, reduce their greenhouse gas emissions on average to just 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012. However, even though a 60-80 percent reduction is said to be needed by 2050, no additional reduction goals or timetables are in place for beyond the year 2012.

Plenty of opportunity is provided by the treaty’s “flexible mechanisms” for the governments of richer countries to indulge in creative accounting. It is possible for governments, with a bit of nifty handwork, to claim cutbacks in their country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions although actual reductions may not have taken place. Furthermore, a country might even increase its emissions and still be credited with a reduction.

Industrialised countries who find they have in fact made reductions in greenhouse gas emissions below that required of them  are moreover  entitled to sell on their spare polluter credits to those countries either unable or unwilling to adhere to their own set reduction targets. This arrangement – to sell the right to pollute – also became the privilege of corporations in January when European carbon markets became operational.

Emission measurements are by and large taken from a starting date of 1990, and the targets for each country must be reached by the period 2008-12. Former state capitalist countries (i.e. the former Soviet Union) , referred to in Kyoto jargon as “countries in transition”, were allowed to chose a different date since, after the collapse of the Kremlin’s empire, a lot of heavy industry closed, resulting in a 40 per cent fall in emissions. This means that countries such as Russia and Ukraine will be in a position to sell other Annex One countries the right to increase their greenhouse gas emissions by that figure.

There are numerous accountancy tricks that help countries reach their Kyoto commitments, without them actually reducing their very own emissions. For instance, corporations investing in new technology will be able to palm their decrepit technology off onto poor countries, to whom such technology is an advance on what they currently have, and again demand emission credits. And of course, there is further logic to this - with such outdated technology, factories in poorer countries are hardly going to steal a competitive edge on their western counterparts.

Greenhouse gasses are suddenly commodities to be bought and sold on the world market, a market in which the underdeveloped countries are duped by the richer ones and their corporate elites. And when the time comes for underdeveloped countries to make reductions they will find themselves in a fix, unable to afford the technology needed to curb their own rampant pollution.

What happens after 2012?
Kyoto is hardly going to save the planet as it stands. For one thing it was only ever foreseen as a first step to curb global warming and to be replaced after 2012 with tougher legislation. But even in seven years time there will be trouble.  At last year’s climate summit in Buenos Aires, China and India could be found joining the US, the major villain of Kyoto, in an attempt to scupper any post-2012 agreements.

Interestingly, and as The Christian Science Monitor recently noted, by 2012 coal-fired plants in those three same countries will be emitting 2.5 billion tonnes of  CO2 annually, five times the cuts ordered by the Kyoto protocol. Add to this projections from the International Energy Agency that there will be a 60 per cent rise in global energy within 25 years, the bulk of this coming from carbon-emitting fuels and you begin to wonder just what lies ahead.

Currently, global CO2 levels are the highest they have been for 20 million years. Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change predicts that by the year 2100 temperatures will have risen by anything up to 5.8 degrees centigrade.

Kyoto looks nothing more than some environmental monopoly board on which governments can buy and sell and trade the air we breathe.

Ironically, whilst the world’s governments will heed calls for such an early warning system that can warn of natural disaster which we have no control over – such as one warning of tsunamis in the Indian ocean – they are somewhat deaf when it comes to those blaring in our ears, the early warning systems scientists have been shouting about for decades: acid rain, soil erosion, poisonous seas, melting glaciers, a hole in the ozone layer, etc.

And it’s not as if these are new problems - the world has known about them for so long that the facts seem hackneyed. The point is, these early warning systems are ringing non-stop. Capitalism’s problems are hitting the human race with the force of many tsunamis a day, killing millions, and more, threatening global disaster. Yet governments believe the problem can be traded away, camouflaged by a creative accounting that ‘mother nature’ won’t notice.

And the simple truth is that we place our trust in governments to solve environmental problems within the context of capitalism at our peril. They serve to administer the present system on behalf of a minority for whom environmental protection is an obstacle to profit, to whom any means is legitimate in the pursuit of that profit.

When you consider the future of the planet you are faced with two choices. You can continue to support the defenders of capitalism – they come in many disguises – and acquiesce in the destruction of the natural global environment or stand in their way by joining the struggle for socialism and the destruction of a system that will nonchalantly prioritises profit over not only human well-being but the world we live in. But, hey, don’t wait until your living room is a foot deep in water to make up your mind. Think hard and now. Capitalism, and with it the worsening of every environmental problem we cite, or socialism, a world social system that places control of the Earth in the hands of  a global majority who will tend to it with respect and without the barriers profit places in the path of production?
John Bissett

Monkey Business (2005)

Book Review from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard 

What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People and Their Genes’, by Jonathan Marks. (University of California Press. Paperback)

Marks’s answer to the finding that humans share 98 percent of so of their DNA with chimps is that it doesn’t mean much more than we already knew and certainly not what some read into it. It confirms that millions of year ago (7 million is the generally accepted estimate) humans and chimps had a common ancestor. More generally, since all life-forms are built up of DNA, it confirms Darwin’s view that all those that exist and have existed on Earth evolved from a single original form. On the other hand, it does not mean that humans are 98 percent chimpanzee (any more than the fact that we share 35 percent of our DNA with daffodils means that we are 35 percent daffodil) and that therefore the study of chimpanzee behaviour is relevant to the study of human behaviour. As Marks puts it succinctly, “you can’t get at human nature from chimpanzees. They’re not human.” We are not naked apes, but clothed humans; which makes all the difference.

Marks goes for those who think that genes are the most important factor in human behaviour (the Social Darwinists and the eugenicists in the past and the behavioural geneticists, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists today), making the simple, but often ignored, point that we don’t actually know how any gene works. We know that genes produce proteins for the cells that constitute the body but not yet how this translates into a person’s physical attributes let alone (if it does) into any mental traits. What we know at the moment is that certain defects in certain genes result in certain abnormal conditions (such as cystic fibrosis), but not how a non-defective gene produces a normal condition.

This is why, Marks insists, when someone makes a claim to have discovered a gene for something, for instance homosexuality, they can’t just point to statistical correlations or even similar brain structures, they would need to produce a verifiable and verified causal explanation of precisely how the gene in question translates into the particular behaviour pattern. As he puts it, “what is widespread is not necessarily innate” and “genetic conclusions require genetic data”:
  “The fact that something is consistently observed does not imply that it has a genetic cause. We know that. If you want to argue about science and about genetics, you need controlled data and genetic data.”
He warns modern geneticists about the dangers of making claims that go well beyond the existing (genetic) evidence, by pointing to the dominant view amongst geneticists in the 1920s which was racist and justified the forced sterilisation of “mental defectives” (not just in Nazi Germany but in America and even in Sweden). They were wrong and the practical consequences were disastrous. Seeing that we don’t yet know how normal genes translate into physical attributes, modern geneticists should, he suggests, show a little more humility before propagating their speculations about human behaviour being genetically determined as if it were an established scientific fact.

Marks is also good on the myth of race. “Race”, he says, “turns out to be an optical illusion”:
  “[W]e can, of course, make comparisons between groups of people and study their differences. The problem is invariably what meaning to assign to those differences. If we know that there are gradients, not boundaries; that human variation is patterned locally, not transcontinentally; that the extremes are not the purest representatives of anything, but simply the most divergent; that populations are invariably mixed with their neighbors, and in the last half-millennium with people from far away; and that clustering populations into larger units is a cultural act that values some differences as important and submerges others – then race evaporates as a natural unit.”
We have to record, however, that in the last five of the book’s twelve chapters Marks embraces some strange positions, such as defending the right of a North American Indian tribe to veto research on a 9,000-year old skeleton found on their former tribal territory as this conflicted with their “spiritual” values (much as the Mediaeval Church had “spiritual” reasons for frowning on the dissection of human bodies).  Similarly, he defends the refusal of certain indigenous people in other parts of the world to have their DNA recorded. Here, if it true, they may have a legitimate point about it being patented and used by others to make money, but this is a distortion due to the existence of capitalism. In principle, there is nothing wrong with recording the DNA of peoples who have been relatively isolated from the rest of humanity.
Adam Buick