Hothouse Earth

Capitalism, climate change, and the fate of humanity

Part one of a two-part article. Read part two here.

IT IS no exaggeration to say that the generation growing up today will be, in all likelihood, the last to know climate stability. Nor is it doom mongering to argue that if humanity continues on its present course, effecting only minor technological changes over the next ten to twenty years, civilization on anything like the current scale cannot be sustained.

A world economic system predicated on relentless expansion, devouring increasing amounts of raw materials and energy, has produced a whole series of environmental threats: species extinction, air and water pollution, genetically modified organisms, desertification, deforestation, soil depletion, and the increasing possibility of nuclear warfare, to name only a few.1 However, the most urgent and all-encompassing threat is global climate change. Among the problems scientists say climate change will bring: rising sea levels submerging island and coastal areas, crop failures, droughts and floods, more extreme and frequent hurricanes, as well as a 20 to 50 percent reduction in planetary species. Indeed, even the most recent scientific estimates seem to be underrating the pace of change.2 Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions rose faster between 2000 and 2004 than in the worst-case scenario reported by the United Nations (UN) in the middle of 2007.3 And despite all the rhetoric about implementing more benign and less-polluting energy technologies and the hype about the 1997 Kyoto Protocol—the summit of world leaders that made a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases—CO2 emissions rose faster in the first years of the twenty-first century (3.1 percent per year) than they did in the 1990s (1.1 percent).4 This means that even some of the more alarming predictions about the effects of climate change may actually be underestimates.

While there remain some unreconstructed climate change deniers, the overwhelming scientific consensus has become harder and harder to ignore, as have new and unusual weather patterns and warming trends. The once majestic polar bear, reduced to starvation due to dwindling Sea Ice in the Arctic, is only the latest forlorn poster child for the forthcoming global ecocide that human civilization is visiting upon the Earth. Over the past few years, major reports in Time magazine, the Economist, and the Nation have outlined the threats associated with climate change.5 Even the Pentagon has gotten in on the action; its 2003 report, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,”6 foresees a fortress America with walls erected against a rising tide of Latin-American migrants fleeing ecological disaster and stepped up policing of what it predicts will be a more war-prone world.

In a tactical shift—born of experience combating the environmental movement’s demands for government regulation in the 1970s and witnessing Philip Morris’s failed efforts to deny the negative health effects of tobacco—many corporations have switched from a policy of outright denial to one of convincing us that they, too, can be green. Several of the major corporations previously pumping enormous funds into organizations intent on denying climate change, such as the environmentally friendly sounding Global Climate Coalition,7 have largely—though not completely—switched their millions to campaigns designed to “greenwash” even the most polluting industries.

Millions of people around the world have seen Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and been shocked by the climate demons called forth by humanity’s reckless and relentless burning of fossil fuels. Yet trying to pick apart all the controversies swirling around this science-based yet highly political debate is complicated enough without having to put up with the shameless self-promotion of Al Gore as the latter-day reincarnation of Rachel Carson.8

This article will attempt to delineate the main contours of global warming and climate change, what the near- and longer-term future will potentially hold in store, and what can still be done to avert a calamitous and irreversible journey into global climate instability. Some prominent environmentalists, such as James Lovelock, author of The Gaia Hypothesis and The Revenge of Gaia, argue that it is already too late to make significant changes.9 Others believe there is still time to avoid planetary meltdown. However, we are at such a precipitous point, having done essentially nothing for so long, that swift, decisive action of a revolutionary nature is now required. This cannot mean replacing oil and coal with nuclear energy, which has its own potentially catastrophic environmental problems. Nor can we accept the Pentagon’s apocalyptic vision of fortress United Stated vsersus the rest of the world.

Solving the problem of global warming requires understanding the relationship between capitalism and the environment, examining the solutions on offer within the framework of the system, and determining whether those solutions are up to the task of preventing a runaway greenhouse effect. The world system of capitalism has been, and will continue to be, largely impotent in the face of climate change, not because there are evil, uneducated, backward individuals in power—though this is arguably true in many cases—but because capitalism’s own social relations prevent effective solutions from being realized. The blind, unplanned drive to accumulate that is the hallmark of capitalist production—the profit motive—has created the problem of climate change, not individuals’ profligate natures or overpopulation. Therefore, the system of economic production and distribution needs to be transformed or we will be living on a much less hospitable planet.

This is not a common approach to the question. Most efforts to combat global warming focus on individual responsibility, changing personal lifestyles, and consuming less. It is rarely acknowledged that capitalism might be the problem. Rather, two kinds of growth are blamed—either economic or population. Hence the conclusion: We can continue with a market-based system as long as there are “limits to growth” placed on national economies and populations. Some of these proposals involve curbing industrial growth; many of them, however, involve encouraging ordinary people—who are already facing cuts in their living standards—to tighten their belts or to spend time most of us don’t have to make a series of changes in our lifestyles.

Yet there is a big gap between the problems environmentalists describe and the solutions many of them propose. Gore’s movie is a case in point. After predicting planet-gone-wild climate gyrations from the continued unsustainable production of greenhouse gases (hereafter, GHG), Gore tells us to consume a bit less stuff, change our light bulbs, make sure our car tires are properly inflated, and bike to work. The gap between ends and means is so absurd as to be laughable, and it shifts the focus from corporate polluters to individuals. The problem, this article will argue, is not economic growth per se, but profit-driven, unplanned growth.

Furthermore, population growth is inversely related to economic development and reductions in poverty levels; the higher the standard of living, the lower the rate of population growth.10 An oft-repeated mantra is that the developing world cannot have the same standard of living as the developed if we are to make any progress in slowing down environmental degradation. This statement rests on the patently false assumption that everyone in the Global South has one standard of living (very low) and everyone in the North another (very high). The truth is that while absolute poverty is much more serious and widespread in the South, and consumer goods are much less widely available, each country is divided into rich and poor, parasites and workers. The real question is: Can there be an environmentally sustainable way for all  people to have a decent standard of living if we eradicate the profit motive and instead plan production and distribution using more environmentally benign technologies?

Basics of global warming science
It is important to state from the outset that without global warming the Earth would not have been able to evolve complex life—it would be far too cold. The atmosphere acts as a blanket that keeps the Earth at an average temperature of 150C (590F). Without this insulating layer, heat from the sun would simply bounce off the surface of the Earth and immediately re-radiate to space. This atmospheric insulating blanket wrapped around the Earth regulates global temperature and makes life possible. In the current context, however, an increase in average global temperatures is being caused by an increase in atmospheric concentrations of one gas in particular: carbon dioxide. Though water and natural gas (methane) also contribute, CO2 is the most significant because of its longevity in the atmosphere. Methane is twenty times more powerful as a GHG but has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime. Carbon dioxide is the gas that animals breathe out as a waste product of respiration and plants absorb in order to grow. It exists as a very small percentage of the air—0.03 percent. However, when it comes to absorbing infrared radiation (heat energy) reflected from the surface of the Earth and preventing it from escaping back out to space, this particular molecule is so effective that even small percentage changes in atmospheric concentration have large effects.11 What is commonly known as the Greenhouse Effect is CO2 performing the same function as the glass of a greenhouse by trapping heat inside the atmosphere. While some of the causes of the Ozone Hole are similar—chemicals known as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) destroy ozone molecules (O3) in the upper atmosphere and are also partially responsible for trapping heat—the hole in the ozone is unrelated to global climate change.

Carbon dioxide is generated whenever a substance containing the element carbon is burned. Eighty percent of the energy generated on the planet—mostly for the production of electricity—and virtually all of the fuel used for land, air, or sea transportation (98 percent) depend on the burning of one or another of three types of carbon-containing substances: coal, oil, or natural gas—collectively known as fossil fuels. The other 17 percent of our energy is generated from nuclear power, with the remainder, 3 to 4 percent, coming from renewable sources, mostly in the form of hydroelectric dams. Transportation accounts for just over 25 percent of global energy demand. Industrial processes count for a third of energy consumption.12 Much of the world’s poor depend for their heating, lighting, and cooking on wood, another carbon-containing compound.

Evidence for global warming
To the extent that a debate around global warming existed amongst scientists, that debate has now definitively closed. The evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible. The most recent summary report for policy makers by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in November 2007, begins thus:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.13

The report goes on to document that eleven of the last twelve years (1995 to 2006) have been among the top twelve warmest since records began in 1850. From 1961 to 1990, sea levels rose 1.8 mm/year while since 1993 that rate has increased to 3.1 mm/year. Satellite data going back to 1978 show annual Arctic sea ice has decreased by 2.7 percent per decade (and three times that percentage in the summer months). In the chilling language of a scientific paper, the IPCC goes on to document other changes: It is “very likely” (90 to 95 percent certain) that, over the last fifty years, cold days, cold nights, and frosts have become less frequent, with the converse true for hot days and nights. It is “likely” (66 to 90 percent certain) that heat waves have become more frequent and that the intensity of tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic has increased since 1970. Average northern hemisphere temperatures are “very likely” higher than any other fifty-year period in the last 500 years and “likely” higher than any period in the last 1,300 years. All of these alterations in climate are leading to other changes: in spring run-off from glaciers, earlier springs, and shifts in migratory patterns and ranges to higher latitudes or altitudes for plants and animals. Because the planet is an interconnected whole, climate change impacts sea life as the oceans warm and become more acidic (CO2 is an acidic compound), leads to an increase in forest fires and agricultural and other pests, and precipitates changes to the geographical spread of disease vectors such as malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

This report is the fourth compiled by more than 2,000 of the foremost scientists investigating climate change; the first was published in 1990. Each study has been more definitive than the last. These reports have been criticized in the past because they are produced by consensus and have to be supported by all the governments that have signed on. This means that they can hardly be taken as the wild-eyed musings of some fringe scientists with an ideological anticapitalist grudge, nor can they be simply dismissed as the work of a group of self-serving people on the lookout for more research funding.

Some argue that warming patterns are not due primarily to anthropogenic (human) sources, but are the result of natural changes in the orbit of the Earth and the cycles of the sun. It is true that, in the 4.5 billion years that the Earth has been around, the Earth’s climate has gone through some extremely dramatic climatic changes. In fact, the climate stability of the last 18,000 years, enabling the prediction of annual weather patterns and a shift to farming concomitant with the rise of civilization since the last ice age, is more of an anomaly than the norm.14 However—and  the IPCC report is quite definitive on this—left to nature, the sum of solar and volcanic activity over the last fifty years would “likely” have produced cooling. So the warming that has occurred can only be laid at the door of GHG emissions that result from human activity.

Since 1750, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have grown from 280 parts per million (ppm) to today’s level of 379 ppm, with an increase of 70 percent occurring between 1970 and 2004, precisely mirroring the vast global economic expansion during those years. CO2 and CH4 (methane) concentrations in the atmosphere are now higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.15 In the last 250 years 1,100 billion tons of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere through industrial processes, mostly the burning of fossil fuels. Half of these emissions occurred after the mid-1970s.16

How bad can it get?
Scientists predict that global GHG emissions will continue to increase over the next few decades by 25 to 90 percent. The range of possibilities depends on the extent to which governments adopt “lower carbon” programs. They project a warming of 0.20C/decade for various scenarios and state that even if emissions had been stabilized at 2000 levels at the time of the report (which they were not), a warming of 0.10C/decade would still occur. The report goes on to say:

Sea level rise under warming is inevitable. Thermal expansion would continue for many centuries after GHG concentrations have stabilized, for any of the stabilization assessed, causing an eventual sea level rise much larger than projected for the 21st century. The eventual contributions from Greenland ice sheet loss could be several meters, and larger than from thermal expansion, should warming in excess of 1.9 to 4.6°C above pre-industrial levels be sustained over many centuries. The long time scales of thermal expansion and ice sheet response to warming imply that stabilization of GHG concentrations at or above present levels would not stabilize sea level for many centuries.17

In other words, regardless of what we do now, the world is locked into a warming of between 1.5° and 2°C by 2050, a date that is within the lifetime of 70 percent of the people currently living on the planet. We can no longer avoid increasing CO2 concentrations, nor can we prevent the CO2 already in the atmosphere from setting in motion much slower changes, such as thermal expansion of the oceans, which will continue for hundreds of years. However, if we continue on our present path of increasing rather than reducing emissions of GHGs, primarily CO2, a much larger temperature increase is the almost certain outcome. If we go above a 20C average temperature rise—which will absolutely happen without radical economic and social changes in the next decade—future scenarios for the environmental consequences become increasingly apocalyptic. They are outlined very clearly in Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees—Our Future on a Hotter Planet, a book that takes its data only from peer-reviewed scientific journals.18 The increase of average global temperatures is a trend, not an absolute. This means two things: first, that there is no relentless march to higher temperatures every year (some temporary cooling is predicted for the next twenty years or so), and second, that not everywhere on the planet will experience heating equally. Some areas, such as the Arctic, are predicted to be worst affected, and could see a rise of 60C even if the rest of the planet only sees 2°C; other regions will see increased rainfall and floods rather than drought.

Now that we are already at a CO2 concentration of almost 400 ppm, what is urgently required is that we stay within the range of 450 to 550 ppm and limit warming to 20C. Once we go above 550 ppm (and many scientists argue for staying below a critical threshold of 450 ppm), much historical evidence, as well as recent research, points to an unstoppable increase in global temperatures that would eventually make human civilization virtually untenable across large swathes of the planet.19 As this will occur simultaneously with the decline of traditional energy resources, the potential for warfare between nuclear armed states is terrifyingly real.

If 3 degrees of warming is indeed a planetary “critical threshold,” then once we have passed it, we head inexorably for 4 degrees of warming, then five and six. What would a world 5 to 6 degrees warmer look like? A glance back millions of years, to when crocodiles flourished in what is now Canada, gives us some idea. The Amazon will have disappeared and turned into a desert. The collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice shelf will produce sea-level rises of 25 meters, inundating coastal cities and placing large areas of land far underwater. Coral reefs will be dead from ocean acidification. Fish stocks will plunge due to acidity and decreased dissolved oxygen as oceans warm. Searing heat, the extreme violence of “hypercanes” caused by warmer oceans, and flash floods will make growing crops impossible across large areas of formally fertile continents. Indeed, southern Europe, the southern U.S. and Central America, along with Central Asia and Africa and the whole of Australia will become desert. Humans will be constrained to “zones of habitability” near the poles to escape the twin extremes of drought and flood.

All of these changes will occur far too rapidly to allow for adaptation on the part of upwards of 90 percent of plant and animal species, which will cease to exist. The level of mass extinction will rival the climate-change-induced Permian-Triassic (P-T) mass extinction of 251 million years ago, which saw planetary life hanging by a thread; it took 50 million years for the Earth to return to its pre P-T level of biodiversity. Human population will drop by the billions even as mass migrations and civilizational breakdown become continuous features of life for those that survive. More worrisome still—if that’s possible—is that, while in the past such “rapid” climate swings occurred over thousands of years, continuing on our present course could produce a similar swing in a matter of decades.20

Proposed mitigating solutions
Governments and scientists were concerned enough about global warming in 1989—almost two decades ago—to set up the IPCC. Since that time, very little has been accomplished. To date, the most serious international attempt to do something to reduce GHG emissions was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which evolved out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This agreement, hailed at the time as an historic breakthrough in limiting the growth of GHGs, committed the industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of six different GHGs below the levels emitted in 1990 by between 0 to 8 percent averaged over the years 2008 to 2012. The Kyoto Protocol did not go into effect officially until February 16, 2005, because until the Russian Federation ratified it on November 4, 2004, it did not have enough signatories; notably, both the U.S. and Australia refused to sign on. By that time, the U.S. Senate had already voted 95 to 0 not to ratify anything that committed the U.S. to any kind of emissions targets that might negatively impact its economic development. Bill Clinton never even sent the measure to Congress to seek ratification. Indeed, the person leading the U.S. delegation to the talks and responsible for much of the watering down of the agreement—for example, cutting the 15 percent reductions by 2010 asked for by the EU to an average of 5.2 percent by 2012—was none other than Al Gore, presumably before he found his true environmental calling.

The deal hammered out in Kyoto was not only unenforceable without the U.S.—the world’s biggest polluter, responsible for 25 percent of global CO2 emissions—signing on, but from a practical perspective pointless. Ironically, it was Al Gore who demanded (and got) the loophole that allowed rich countries to avoid reducing GHG emissions at home by buying them from so-called “under-polluting” countries—thus creating “emissions trading,” an activity that has grown into a multibillion dollar market, but has done nothing to reduce GHG emissions.

To the extent that the signatories have attempted to comply with Kyoto, what are the results? While Britain has achieved some measurable decreases in emissions, these never approached the 12.5 percent below 1990 levels that they set for themselves and were almost all due to switching from burning coal to burning natural gas. All fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide when they burn, but not all fuels are equally polluting. Natural gas has lower carbon content and so emits significantly less CO2 per unit of energy generated, while coal emits the most. However, in order to meet a developing energy crisis, Gordon Brown, prime minister of Britain, is set to authorize the building of eight new coal-fired power plants—the first such plants to be built in thirty years. According to James Hansen, a leading and early advocate of the need to halt climate change and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, building these plants will completely invalidate any commitment given by the UK at the recent climate talks in Bali or any hope that it will meet its emissions targets.21

To the extent that Europe has been able to reduce its GHG emissions to 1990 levels, it was helped enormously by the catastrophic economic collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. By setting the date at 1990, when the Soviet Union and other East European countries were pouring out emissions from outdated and ramshackle power stations and factories with no environmental constraints whatsoever, Europe managed to take the ecological high ground and look environmentally committed by not doing anything other than sitting back and watching the economies of Eastern Europe implode. While EU governments are generally more committed than the U.S. or Australia to the regulation of emissions, due principally to a stronger environmental movement and the presence of significant Green parties, no one should think that this is anything other than a calculated position that allows them to place the blame for global warming on the intransigence of the United States.

Meanwhile, the U.S., which has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, increased its GHG emissions by a cumulative 17 percent throughout the 1990s under the environmental stewardship of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. As a result of these increases, were the U.S. to make any attempt at fulfilling the pledge it reneged on at Kyoto to 7 percent cuts from 1990 levels—itself totally inadequate in terms of addressing the scale of the problem—this would mean making 20 percent cuts to 2000 levels by 2012, a mere four years from now.22 Given that no one from either party in this year’s election cycle is even mentioning global warming as a priority, it is hard to believe that the incoming president will take any action to significantly cut U.S. contributions to GHGs. This is not surprising, given the substantial sums that industry polluters give to both parties, as reported by George Monbiot:

Since 1990, the energy and natural resources sector—mostly coal, oil, gas, logging and agribusiness—has given $418m to federal politicians in the U.S. Transport companies have given $355m…. [T]he undiscriminating nature of this munificence [is bipartisan]. The big polluters favor the Republicans, but most of them also fund Democrats. During the 2000 presidential campaign, oil and gas companies lavished money on Bush, but they also gave Gore $142,000, while transport companies gave him $347,000.23

Since Australia’s decision to accept the Kyoto Protocol at the end of 2007, things have only gotten worse. The latest IPCC report was meant to inform governments meeting in Bali at the end of 2007 for another round of climate talks and to lead to some agreement that would supersede Kyoto. While there was much huffing and puffing about the stubbornness of the U.S., and then the hailing of the eventual eleventh hour agreement as, once again, “historic,” the Bali document doesn’t commit anyone to targets or dates. According to Nelson Muffuh, a Christian Aid senior climate change policy analyst, “We were expecting a road map, and we’ve got one… But it lacks signposts and there is no agreed destination.”24 Bali is, therefore, a worse compromise than Kyoto. What it does do is extend the market in carbon trading, which, as noted above, has done nothing but line the pockets of a large variety of carbon traders, banks and, incredibly—or predictably—large polluters.

So far, government efforts to curb carbon emissions have done nothing but allow countries to claim that they are doing something meaningful when they are not. The purpose of detailing the wretched efforts taken by politicians so far is to highlight an essential point: namely, that while many global leaders, and indeed CEOs of major corporations, including oil and car companies, profess a knowledge of global warming and its likely effects and a seemingly genuine and heartfelt desire to do something meaningful about it, nothing is actually being done—as emissions continue to climb. In November 2006, scientists working on the Global Carbon Project announced that emissions were rising four times faster than a decade ago. To quote Mark Lynas: “In other words, all of our efforts—of carbon trading, switching off lights, the Kyoto Protocol and so on—have had a discernible effect so far: less than zero.”25

Fixes within the system: carbon trading, lifestyle changes, technological fixes, and recycling
The international proposals to tackle climate change that get the most discussion all revolve around allowing the market to alter patterns of production and consumption. These so-called market-based solutions, such as carbon trading or carbon taxes, fit neatly with the needs of those who run the world economy—the corporations and their paid enablers in government. But politicians aren’t the only ones seduced by the free market mantra, which decries state intervention and extols the self-healing powers of the market; the idea that the market is the best arbiter of change is accepted by many people—both within and outside the green movement—who are genuinely concerned with reducing the impact of humans on the environment.

With this argument for market-based solutions comes a call for individuals to change their lifestyles because “we” consume too much. Many environmentalists seek modification of consumer choices through taxation and the production of “carbon neutral” products while exhorting people to voluntarily change their consumption patterns: fly less, recycle, buy compact fluorescent bulbs and fair-trade goods, invest in “ethical” companies, turn down thermostats in winter, use fans in summer rather than air conditioning, make your next car a hybrid, and so on.

Some of these recommendations are certainly laudable. The real question, however, is whether market-based solutions or changes to personal consumption will measurably and effectively reduce emissions and energy consumption—and the answer is a definitive no, as is shown by the following review of the proposed solutions and their effects.

Cap and trade schemes
Under the “cap and trade” system or Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)—the first phase of which has been in place in the EU since January 2005—a maximum or cap is placed on the amount of carbon that companies in participating countries are allowed to produce annually. If individual companies exceed their quota, they can buy carbon credits from other companies, including those outside the EU, in order to carry on with their own business. The idea is to create a market in carbon trading that will serve as an incentive for companies to reduce their carbon emissions or be forced to pay other companies and so incur additional production costs.

Capitalism has only two uses for the “environment”; it is either a source of raw materials or a sink. Resources—such as oil, coal, metals, etc.—are extracted from the environment and waste products are dumped back in. Capitalists define as waste any by-products they can’t reuse or sell and therefore must dump. Since each capitalist firm, in its competition for market share, attempts to drive down costs and maximize profits, there is a built-in tendency to exclude from expense anything that falls outside the immediate process of production, which leads to capitalists’ insistence on dumping for free.

Green economists have long argued that the environmental cost of waste should be included in the overall expense for any given product and noted early on the market’s inability to properly take account of “externalities” like production-generated pollution. Carbon trading represents an attempt by economists and governments committed to economic expansion to respond to these criticisms by “internalizing” environmental costs or bringing them into the market. According to their logic, assigning a price to some measurable form of pollution (carbon dioxide in this case) creates market incentives for companies to move capital investment into less-polluting (in this case, less carbon-intensive) technologies—in other words, carbon trading turns what was previously regarded as a useless and potentially hazardous by-product into a valuable commodity to be bought and sold like any other.

There are a number of problems with this approach. One of the most obvious is the impossibility of putting a price on clean air, drinkable water, and a stable climate. Another is that there is currently no way to prevent companies who are made to pay to pollute (“the polluter pays” principle) from simply passing the extra costs on to the consumer at the same time that they are merely passing the problem from one capitalist or industry to another. Another major problem is that some very large and significant economic actors—airlines and cement and aluminum manufacturers, for example—are exempted from participating in the scheme.

But the most significant problem of all is that carbon trading hasn’t worked. The “cap” set by the EU was well above any requirement by companies and certainly well above any level that would do anything about climate change. At one point, this led to a fall in the price of carbon emissions (traded per ton) to less than a dollar—hence producing no incentive to anyone to make any kind of switch. When the price rose, companies simply put off applying for carbon credits and used their stored bank (unlike vacation days carbon credits carry over year to year) to continue to pollute. Or, according to one report, they resorted to the tried-and-true capitalist response known as cheating.26

A Financial Times investigation outlined succinctly the problems with Europe’s carbon trading program. It found:

  • Widespread instances of people and organizations buying worthless credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions.
  • Industrial companies profiting from doing very little—or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains from which they have already benefited substantially.
  • Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.
  • A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.
  • Companies and individuals being charged over the odds for the private purchase of European Union ­carbon permits that have plummeted in value because they do not result in emissions cuts.27

As a result, there has been no net reduction in EU carbon emissions and the ETS scheme is thoroughly ­discredited:

Europe’s big polluters pumped more climate-changing gases into the atmosphere in 2006 than during the previous year, according to figures that show the EU’s carbon trading system failing to deliver curbs. Critics said the data underlined the gap between the rhetoric of European leaders, who have promised to cut C02 emissions by one-fifth by 2020, and the reality of delivering reductions.28

Even the architects of ETS realize it has been an exercise in futility, but promise a new and improved “Phase 2.” However, power corporations, those responsible for producing most emissions in the first place, are expected to benefit from the latest incarnation of the scheme, to the tune of $6 billion dollars.29 Indeed, according to Faisal Islam, Phase 2 allows many permits to be handed out for free, and power corporations have made an extra $100 billion dollars in “windfall profits.” This is because they have passed on to consumers all increases in cost through emissions charges, thereby recouping all losses to profitability. Having been given free polluting permits that they can then sell, some of the biggest polluters end up being rewarded twice:

“A ton of carbon saved above Beijing is the same as a ton saved above Birmingham” is the free market mantra, but free permits have, in essence, been a rather expensive bribe to get power companies to participate in the scheme. It’s an entire field of juicy carrots, with little threat of a stick.30

The failure of the carbon-trading scheme could be put down to accident or incompetence—maybe the politicians and think tanks that dreamt up this plan just didn’t think it through in enough detail, and the next version will be more effective. But this really lets them and capitalism off the hook. The ETS charade is the predictable outcome of an economic system that relies on fossil fuels for energy and has the profit motive as its prime directive. This explains why U.S.-based corporations, having studied the results of the European experiment, have suddenly become very enthusiastic about cap and trade schemes, lobbying hard to ensure that any plan considered allows at least some portion of the permits to be given away rather than auctioned. Unless politicians are prepared to challenge this dynamic with meaningful regulations and laws—and there is no evidence that they are—any new cap and trade scheme will be as useless in procuring its stated aims as the previous one. Indeed, despite the failure of the first carbon trading system, the EU’s updated version is their only major regulatory policy initiative directed at emissions reduction. Admittedly, there are some improvements, such as a larger share of auctions and the addition of previously exempt industries. However, the airline industry has already vowed to fight “all the way” against their inclusion.31

Meanwhile, corporations have found new and creative ways of dumping costs onto consumers. In the near future, people should expect to hear more about, and pay, so-called Green Taxes, yet another subsidy to the corporations; we pay for them to upgrade their technology and make it less polluting while they continue to make huge profits.

Ideologically, there is something very significant going on. Carbon trading supports the concept that it’s okay to keep polluting by creating, of all things, a market in pollution. Trading pollution and earning pollution credits for carbon offsetting in order to reduce CO2 emissions has been well satirized by the Website cheatneutral.com:

When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere. Cheatneutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and NOT cheat. This neutralizes the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience…When you use Cheatneutral, we’ll email you a Cheatneutral Offset Certificate, so you can prove to your loved one that your playing away has been successfully offset. Then you and your partner are both happy, a broken heart is mended, and you can feel good about yourself again, all thanks to Cheatneutral.32

Ultimately, these market schemes fail because they are based on an untenable contradiction: the idea that the cause of global warming—the unplanned and unfettered capitalist market—can also be its solution.

Reducing personal consumption
If market-driven mechanisms are by far and away the least effective method for fighting climate change, blaming ordinary people for consuming too much runs a close second. We are constantly told that there are just too many people and that if we are going to save the planet, each of us needs to reduce consumption and live a more frugal life.

In actuality, the vast majority of people on Earth, including those in the developed countries, can hardly be said to live profligate lives of plenty, gaily sloshing their way through as many products, services, and homes as they can fit into their well-heeled, seventy-plus years of carefree living—although here in the U.S. we are constantly encouraged to strive for this “ideal.” Since capitalism’s survival depends upon the endless expansion of markets for capital and consumer goods, we are inundated with the ideology of consumerism; democracy is equated with the freedom to buy, and every possible opportunity is taken to ensure that this message gets hammered home. When how you dress or which car or color cell phone you have represents the extent of your freedom in a society supposedly defined by freedom, it is no surprise that many people conform to this notion. But for most Americans, these “lifestyle choices” are very limited; we get to decide which brands of clothing to buy, whether we want our electronics to break right away or be rendered useless by “upgrades,” and what car we can afford that will reliably get us to work. We don’t get to choose how things are produced or whether the cities we live in provide reliable public transportation; in fact, the poor quality of the public transportation system in the U.S. forces millions to use cars even if they don’t want to.

But if we step outside the bounds of capitalist logic, just for a moment, the reality is there are plenty of things that the system forces us to do that could be eliminated, allowing us to devote more resources to actually having a high standard of living. There is no technological barrier that prevents older model computers, photocopiers or cell phones—all of which fall into the massively expanding category of often highly toxic “e-waste”—from being upgraded rather than thrown away and replaced with new models. The fact that all items are deliberately designed not to last, something known as “planned obsolescence,” and that updates are almost never backwards compatible, ensures that every one to five years it becomes necessary to purchase a new piece of electronic equipment whether you want to or not. More broadly, one should ask: what constitutes a good quality of life? A rational answer would surely include: adequate and nourishing food, access to high quality housing, efficient and accessible public transport, clean air and water, lots of green space, aesthetically pleasing architecture and urban planning, and most importantly, the free time to enjoy all of this and engage in leisure and cultural activities. How could this far higher standard of living be achieved in an environmentally friendly way? How about the elimination of planned obsolescence? Or building houses that use thermal heating and cooling, shifting resources to public transport, building free public swimming pools in place of parking lots? We could try the rapid conversion of energy production to renewable sources, better agricultural planning with a move away from vast fields of monocultures, and taking all forests into public hands to ensure the elimination of clear-cutting and the success of reforestation projects. These are just some of the things that could be done that are entirely practical. They require, however, not individual but social solutions as well as a great deal of planning—the kind of planning that could only be based on a completely different economic logic of development.

The throwaway society: The rise of garbage
The idea that we live in a “throwaway” society is designed to shift the blame for garbage and waste onto ordinary people—as if we are the ones who woke up one day and decided that having disposable everything is really right on, that single-serving products are the way to go, and that we just have to satisfy this innate, burning desire of ours to toss out anything we come into contact with as swiftly as humanly possible. It is part of the same ideological onslaught intended to make ordinary people, rather than the system of industrial capitalism, responsible for environmental degradation. However, waste and destruction are essential adjuncts to the success of capitalism. We did not create a world where it’s cheaper to throw away a broken appliance than buy a new one; only the vested interests of an irrational economic system could do that.

Contrary to popular belief, recycling or separation of garbage is not the outgrowth of a recent concern for the environment; in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all garbage was separated out for reuse. However, as the gulf between town and country has grown, and the types and nature of garbage have changed, the ideological assault on reuse has increased. With the discovery of plastics and the explosion of the plastics industry over the last sixty years, there has been a push by corporations and their trade organizations to gradually and systematically eradicate reuse and actively promote disposable everything, as this maximizes profits and ensures future markets. Here is Richardson Wright, editor of House and Garden, writing in 1930 and quoted in Heather Rogers’ excellent book, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage:

Saving and thrift would be the worst sort of citizenship today…. To maintain prosperity we must keep the machines working, for when machines are functioning men can labor and earn wages. The good citizen does not repair the old; he buys anew. The shoes that crack are to be thrown away. Don’t patch them. When the car gets crotchety, haul it to the town dump…to maintain prosperity we must keep those machines going. Always we must be prepared to consume their enormous production.33

Over the past several years we have been told that the only way to avoid recession is to keep buying and consuming. There is a profound problem of language. The only sense in which a corporation understands the word “waste” is when there is a loss of labor time or an unnecessary expenditure that cuts into profits. In the 1950s, a Fairchild executive stated that, “It is wasteful to make any component more durable than its weakest link, and ideally a product should fall apart all at once.”34 This concept of waste produces the need to engineer consumers for all of the new products—in addition to engineering the products themselves—and this need is met ideologically through huge advertising and marketing budgets. Industry took to this concept with gusto. As early as 1960, the Wall Street Journal reported car manufacturers were building cars “so that they’ll get to the junk pile faster…today almost as soon as new cars hit the street they need replacement parts for all the gadgets they are loaded with.”35 And this is before the advent of the “all new” models that auto companies unveil every year. A marketing consultant spelled out in 1955 capitalism’s need for constant market expansion through consumption:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.36

Marx noted that there is a built-in contradiction in capitalism in this regard: “The workers are important as buyers of commodities,” he noted. “But as sellers of their commodity—labor-power—capitalist society has the tendency to restrict them to their minimum price.”37 Capitalists want their own workers to accept the lowest possible wages in order to boost their profits, whereas they want workers employed by other capitalists to be able to spend more.

As capitalism has increased people’s alienation and feeling of powerlessness, omnipresent and relentless corporate propaganda represents “shopping” as a compelling leisure activity through which humans are expected to achieve a sense of life-satisfaction and fulfillment. So the fault for so much waste lies not with people who mindlessly throw things away, but with the cast-iron requirement of the system to produce as much waste as possible as it simultaneously produces consumers. The switch to the ubiquitous plastic drink bottle was made not because it was more efficient in terms of resource use or because of consumer demand or resistance to returning empties, but because it’s far more profitable to keep producing plastic containers than reusing glass ones. Glass containers have to be collected, cleaned, and refilled. This means devoting space in stores to storage, paying pick-up costs, and having separate bottling plants nearer to cities.

Packaging is another case in point. Thirty percent of municipal waste is packaging and 40 percent of that packaging is plastic. Plastics take from two hundred to  one thousand years to degrade. The Pacific Ocean is now six times more abundant in plastic than it is in zooplankton.38 But packaging is important to capitalism. It is part of convincing us that we have choices in the products we buy, as if each different brand were not in many cases identical aside from the packaging and the brand loyalty that packaging seeks to secure.

Yet there has never been a popular movement demanding more packaging—quite the opposite. Corporations resist reductions in packaging—even when it might save them money (packaging costs can often be greater than the cost of the item itself)—because packaging persuades consumers to buy their product rather than someone else’s. In any case, the cost of packaging can just be passed on to those that buy the product. Effectively, we pay three times for this senseless waste that is so profitable for corporations. First we pay for the packaging itself because the cost is included in the price of the item. Then we pay to dispose of the packaging through garbage collection costs. Finally, we pay through the degradation to the environment caused by the energy required for extraction of the raw material for plastics (oil), the water and energy used to refine the oil into plastics, and the conditions of plastic disposal, usually in a landfill, usually after a single use.

The rise of recycling
Again, contrary to what we are told, recycling is the least effective remedy for what is called “consumer” waste but should more properly be called production waste. When the logic of disposability and waste began to be challenged in the late 1960s, it was done most effectively by mass movements calling not for market reforms but government regulation. These protests were carried out in the face of corporate resistance to “interference in the market.” It was President Nixon, with a proven track record of causing colossal environmental destruction in Southeast Asia, who enacted by far the most effective environmental legislation in U.S. history. In 1970, prior to the first Earth Day, when 20 million Americans poured into the streets to protest environmental degradation by corporations, Nixon was forced to include in his State of the Union address a section devoted to pacifying the burgeoning ecology movement. As people had questioned some fundamental assumptions about America and fought to change them—from its right to legally treat African Americans as second-class citizens, to pursuing imperial wars overseas, to the oppression of women and gays—so people began to generalize further and question corporate America’s right to pollute. Here is Nixon the environmentalist in his 1970 State of the Union address: “The 1970’s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and our living environment. It is literally now or never.”39

The highly successful movements that actively organized for and won massive societal changes on questions of race, the Vietnam War, and government spying also demanded institutional change be extended to place limitations on the untrammeled freedom of corporations to pollute. The collectively organized power of ordinary Americans proved irresistible. During Nixon’s presidency, the Clean Air Act and the Resource Recovery Act were made law, and the Environmental Protection Agency was created with a mandate to “prevent or eliminate damage to the environment.” In 1972 came the Clean Water Act, and in 1976 the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Corporations looked on with horror as their freedom to make money was restricted. Their reaction and counterattack was swift. Similar to corporate greenwashing today, corporations in the 1970s co-opted sections of the movement and came up with their own strategy for resisting further governmental regulation: recycling. The creation of the “litterbug” and the concept of “litter” as the root of all evil was a quite deliberate part of the strategy by industry to move the debate from further regulation by government to self-regulation by individuals. The corporate-funded yet benign sounding Keep America Beautiful (KAB) organization pushed for single-use products and limits to any environmental restrictions on manufacturing. In a phrase now familiar from the gun lobby in relation to firearms, the American Can Corporation insisted that “packages don’t litter, people do.”

Corporate polluters, by turning the spotlight on individuals, weakened the drive toward state regulation. All we need to do is educate individuals to put their trash in the proper receptacle, not attack the need for so much trash in the first place. The solution, therefore, is to be found not in a reduction in waste through conservation or reuse but by the strong encouragement of recycling and personal responsibility. Today, being exposed as a serial non-recycler is likely to get you the same sort of dirty look as lighting up a cigarette next to a pregnant woman. Yet, for every ton of household discards—and remember, many of these discards are conditioned by the structure of the capitalist market—there are 70 tons of industrial debris created from mining, agriculture, manufacturing, and petrochemicals.40 Of course, recycling is better than doing nothing, and I am not arguing that we should just toss things away willy-nilly or ignore garbage cans. However, we should not ignore the fact that this focus on recycling serves a strong ideological purpose. In addition, it does absolutely nothing to reduce the core of the problem—needless production for the sake of profit; indeed, it sanctifies it.

Furthermore, in the U.S., most of what anyone sorts and places to be recycled ends up in a landfill. As of 2000, 50 percent of all paper, 75 percent of all glass containers, and half of all aluminum beverage cans went into landfills; only 5 percent of plastics are recycled.41 The reason is simple and has nothing to do with people who for the most part are eager to recycle when given the opportunity. The profit margin for Waste Management, Inc., one of the three largest waste management companies in the United States, is ten times greater for landfills than it is for recycling.

While it is sometimes admitted that capitalism may have some flaws as a system, it is also unfailingly asserted that capitalism represents the height of efficiency. There is only one sense in which this is true. Capitalism has a single goal: accumulation for the sake of accumulation. Anything that reduces costs and boosts profits is good. This is what gives capitalism its extreme dynamism—corporations in constant competition as they vie with one another, constantly revolutionizing the means of production in the service of profit. Efficiency under capitalism does not mean anything other than this. As outlined above, the amount of waste under capitalism is gigantic. There is the obvious waste of military expenditure—the U.S. military is the world’s single biggest consumer of energy. While this is still “only” 1 percent of U.S. energy consumption, it is equivalent to the total energy used by Nigeria—a country with a population of 140 million.42 Advertising budgets, $1 trillion worldwide, are designed to convince us that two identical products are in fact different and that one of them will change our lives forever. Marketing budgets make sure we keep buying from that certain company and establish “brand loyalty.” Then there’s the obscene luxury spending of the stratospherically rich. And all of these are on top of the enormous waste in the production process itself through overproduction, the making of useless things like packaging, and inbuilt obsolescence.

Only massive changes in the way products are designed and made, what they are made from, and the uses to which they are put can reduce capitalism’s tendency toward wasteful energy and raw material usage. Making real changes in the production of waste—just like making meaningful lifestyle choices available to ordinary people—will require government regulation and planning that is not driven by the profit motive; it will not be achieved through individual efforts to use less, or reduce one’s carbon footprint, or think more deeply about Mother Earth. The government needs to be pushed into making these changes in the same way it was pushed in the 1970s—through millions of people collectively and actively fighting for change.

Read part two of this article in Issue 64


  1. For more details on where the earth is on a host of environmental and social problems see Science magazine’s annual “State of the Planet” (Washington DC, Island Press).
  2. David Adams, “Predictions overtaken by events,” Guardian, October 23, 2007.
  3. Hilary Osborne, “CO2 emissions rise outpaces worst-case scenario,” Guardian, May 22, 2007.
  4. “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report; Summary for Policy Makers. An Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/sy....
  5. “Global warming special issue,” Time, July 2007; Economist, “The heat is on: a special report on climate change,” September 9–15, 2006;  “Special issue: surviving the climate crisis: what must be done?” The Nation, May 7, 2007.
  6. Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, “An abrupt climate change scenario and its implications for United States national security,” Pentagon Report, October 2003.
  7. The GCC was set up in 1997, operated until 2002, and was extremely successful in getting the media to present global warming as a debate around which there was no scientific consensus. It included such environmentally benign multinationals as Exxon, Shell, Texaco, Ford, General Motors, and the American Petroleum Institute.
  8. Rachel Carson inspired the modern environmental movement and influenced a generation of activists with the release of Silent Spring (Mariner Books, 2002) in 1962. The book details the indiscriminate use of pesticides and their effect on the natural environment. Its central thesis is that pesticides (such as DDT) were developed with the profit motive as the first priority, human health a distant second, and the effects on the general environment entirely overlooked. As a predictable result, the book garnered a relentless assault from the chemical industry, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a campaign seeking to portray Carson as an overwrought, “bird and bunny loving,” misinformed woman dabbling in science and overstepping the boundaries of her gender. While the book led to congressional hearings, the eventual banning of DDT (but not its export overseas), and the creation of the EPA, pesticide use has skyrocketed in the forty-five years since its publication. For more on Rachel Carson’s legacy and radical politics, see Sarah Grey, “In Defense of Rachel Carson,” ISR 57, January–February 2008.
  9. James Lovelock, The Gaia Hypothesis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) and The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (New York: Basic Books, 2007). Lovelock, incidentally, has been seduced by the Dark Side, and is now a strong advocate of nuclear power. See his Web site: www. ecolo.org/lovelock/lovebioen.htm.
  10. It is also the case that the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) regularly reports that food production outstrips population growth. Given that most hunger is caused not by shortages but the inability of the poor to afford food, and that much agricultural land lies fallow or is swallowed up by unplanned development, there is no doubt that properly planned agriculture could feed even more people. See Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset, and Luis Esparza, World Hunger: Twelve Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1998).
  11. Every molecule has different wavelengths at which it will absorb or reflect energy. Among others, this fact is the basis upon which we know the composition of our sun and the stars.
  12. Robert L. Evans, Fuel Our Future: An Introduction to Sustainable Energy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 46.
  13. “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis.”
  14. Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007); Brian Fagan, The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (New York: Basic Books, 2007).
  15. “Climate Change” 2007.
  16. Joseph Romm, Hell and High Water: Global Warming—the Solution and the Politics—and What We Should Do (New York: HarperCollins Books, 2007), 21.
  17. “Climate Change 2007.”
  18. Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007).
  19. See Lynas, Six Degrees, for details.
  20. See Lynas, Six Degrees, chapters 5 and 6 for details. Also Minqi Li, “Climate change, limits to growth, and the imperative for socialism,” in Monthly Review 60, #3 (July–August 2008).
  21. Steve Connor, “Britain’s carbon strategy ‘up in smoke,’” Independent, December 17, 2007.
  22. Evans, Fueling Our Future, 33.
  23. George Monbiot, “We’ve been suckered again by the US; so far the Bali deal is worse than Kyoto,” Guardian, December 17, 2007.
  24. “Deal agreed in Bali climate talks,” Guardian, Dec 15, 2007.
  25. Lynas, Six Degrees, 264.
  26. Nick Davies, “Power firms accused of emissions trade cheating,” Guardian, December 7, 2007. According to a report by International Rivers and cited in the Guardian article, the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism “allows organizations in richer countries to emit extra greenhouse gases by paying for carbon credits to fund schemes in poorer countries that cut emissions”—when, in fact, many of these projects do not appear to be contributing to a lowering of emissions.
  27. Fiona Harvey and Stephen Fidler, “Industry caught in carbon ‘smokescreen,’” Financial Times, April 25, 2007.
  28. Stephen Castle, “EU carbon trading scheme failing to curb emissions from big polluters,” Guardian, April 3, 2007.
  29. Danny Forston, “Power firms to pocket 6bn from carbon ‘handouts’ in new emissions regime,” Independent, January 2, 2008.
  30. Faisal Islam, “CO2nering the market,” Ecologist, June 2008.
  31. Dan Milmo, “We’ll fight you all the way, airlines warn EU over carbon trading plans,” Guardian, November 19, 2007.
  32. Quoted in Gareth Dale, “On the menu or at the table: corporations and climate change,” International Socialism Journal  116 Autumn 2007.
  33. Heather Rogers, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New York: The New Press, 2005), 97.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid., 123.
  36. Ibid., 114.
  37. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 2 (New York: Penguin, 1992), 391.
  38. Rogers, Gone Tomorrow, 6.
  39. Ibid., 132.
  40. Ibid., 4.
  41. Ibid., 158.
  42. Sohbet Karbuz, U.S. Military Energy Consumption—Facts and Figures, www.energybulletin.net/node/29925.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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