How can we combat global warming?
By BILL ONASCH
The following oral report was given to the Socialist Action National Convention, held in Minneapolis in August.
The once most prominent global-warming denier in the scientific world, Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller, recently wrote in The New York Times, “Call me a converted skeptic. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”
This convert is surely considered an apostate by the billionaire Koch brothers, who had pumped big bucks into Muller’s research team in the expectation that it would give some shred of credibility to the dismissal of the most serious challenge yet to humanity’s future.
Muller went on to tell readers of The Times, “As carbon dioxide emissions increase, the temperature should continue to rise. I expect the rate of warming to proceed at a steady pace, about one and a half degrees (centigrade) over land in the next 50 years, less if the oceans are included. But if China continues its rapid economic growth (it has averaged 10 percent per year over the last 20 years) and its vast use of coal (it typically adds one new gigawatt per month), then that same warming could take place in less than 20 years.”
The 50-year figure is close to the conservative consensus projections of UN bodies—which are dismal enough. The 20-year variant would mean calamity not just for our great-grandchildren but for most of you in this room. In fact, over this past summer most of us got a sneak preview of the earliest stages of what will only, with some ups and downs, get worse. In another Times piece the other day, a group of scientists said, “there can be little doubt that what was once thought to be a future threat is suddenly, catastrophically upon us.”
I first heard a nutshell explanation of global warming in 1988 at the Fourth International Cadre School in Amsterdam. It came from a French comrade who is a climate scientist and was one of the presenters at a session on the environment and environmental movements. This view was new and disturbing to me and to nearly all of my classmates. It would be another several years before climate science attracted much public attention. But the French comrade emphasized the political implications. Among the points he made:
• The environmental mass movement launched in the late 1960s won some important victories around air and water pollution. These forms of environmental damage can be relatively quickly reversed through engineering and regulation without being a deal breaker for the ruling class.
• The greenhouse effect, however, will take centuries to dissipate. The only solution to global warming is rapid reduction—and ultimate elimination—of burning fossil fuels. This solution is a deal breaker for the ruling class.
Science gives us not only dire warnings but hopeful options of clean, renewable, safe, and largely free energy sources—solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro, etc.—that can replace our dependence on fossil fuels. Combined with sensible conservation, and reduction in wasteful consumption promoted by capitalist marketing, restructuring our economies around these alternative fuels can give us a shot at stopping climate change short of irreversible disaster.
But fossil fuels are the underpinning of the most important profit centers of global capitalism and will not be surrendered without a fight to the finish—without regard of the fate of future generations. Even those few in the ruling class who appreciate the depth and urgency of the climate crisis, and who would like to do something about it—such as Al Gore—don’t have a clue about what to do. They remain committed to market measures, such as cap-and-trade, and carbon offsets that are at best ineffective, often simply fraud.
Still others cynically peddle bogus alternative fuels such as burning food and—even after Fukushima—nuclear power, which, of course, is not clean, not safe, not renewable. Nukes have their own set of deadly, long-term environmental dangers. And we should look more closely at the new fracking exploitation of previously unprofitable gas and shale oil deposits, which has disastrous environmental consequences that science is only beginning to fully understand.
No, there are no market solutions. It will take a centralized, democratically planned economy to restructure not only our energy and transportation but also to reverse disastrous urban sprawl—reclaiming forests, wetlands, and farmland destroyed by irrational “development.”
Since the crisis is global, so must be the solutions. At the various UN-sponsored climate gatherings there is usually a sharp division between camps that are described as rich, emerging, and poor. We eco-socialists, of course, are not going to join those who tell the emerging and underdeveloped countries, “Sorry, you guys are too late. You must remain poor while we save the planet.” Such an approach is not only morally reprehensible, not only a rejection of international solidarity that for us is the prime directive—it would also doom in advance the needed international cooperation to resolve the climate crisis.
The presently rich countries need to assist the world’s poor to improve their lot—not by replicating our rulers’ history of pillage and plunder of nature but through ecologically sound development. This not only includes saving once great but now endangered forests, and other threatened natural resources. It above all means providing the technology and material support to assist the poor majority to make great leaps in uneven and combined development. They can make rapid progress through introducing the most advanced renewable energy available wherever the sun shines and winds blow. And they can feed and clothe themselves by restoring sustainable organic agriculture geared first to their needs rather than export commodities.
We’re talking about developing a global division of labor on a basis of equality that can guarantee a quality life for every human being. In other words, we are talking about socialism. Only socialism can save humanity from our biggest threat yet. Conversely, there can be no socialism if we fail to stop climate change short of climate disaster.
Eco-socialism is not a movement of petty-bourgeois tree-huggers. It is a global current that includes a Marxist most of us regard highly, Fidel Castro, Marxist theoreticians around Monthly Review, and the Fourth International. Our British comrades in Socialist Resistance have made climate change a central area of their work in the trade unions. Eco-socialism is a working-class current through and through. It has also established important alliances with peasants and indigenous peoples.
We have to start from a reality that in this country class-consciousness is at an historic low. Many workers buy in to the bosses’ argument that environmentalism kills jobs. A majority of the union bureaucracy echoes this ruling-class lie. Even those “progressive” union officials who are allied with Pale Green groups such as the Sierra Club in the Blue Green Alliance remain dedicated to partnership with the employers who are wrecking our biosphere—as well as our jobs and living standards.
The Labor Party project [Labor Party Advocates was formed in 1996 with some official trade-union support; its main organizer was Oil Workers (OCAW) leader Tony Mazzocchi, who died in 2002] rejected the counter-position of jobs and the environment. It also reaffirmed the principle of Just Transition. That is, when jobs are eliminated for the benefit of society as a whole, society must assume responsibility for retraining affected workers for needed new jobs and to guarantee their living standards until they are placed in suitable new employment. But the steady decline of the Labor Party as it lost material support from unions made it increasingly difficult for us to use that opening to reach out to workers.
Two years ago, several Socialist Action members and sympathizers in trade unions signed on to a statement distributed at the 2010 Labor Notes Conference outlining a program for simultaneously tackling the climate and jobs crises. The action proposals in this initiative called for the kind of far-reaching and long-lasting projects that science tells us we must do to save a sustainable planet for future generations. It would not only put everybody to work now; these projects will endure longer than the building of the Egyptian pyramids or the erection of the medieval cathedrals.
This approach meets all the essential definitions of a transitional program. Its goals are eminently just and reasonable; the material and human resources necessary are clearly available; but, at the same time, this program will encounter such fierce resistance by the ruling class that it will require the working class to take political power to assure implementation.
Just as we don’t counter-pose jobs versus the environment, neither do we see the central question of climate change conflicting with other areas of work that a rounded revolutionary party must also pursue such as around war, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. On the contrary, eco-socialism can help us intelligently link these struggles. This convention will better prepare our incoming national leadership, and comrades involved in trade-union and environmental work, for the decisive battle to save a planet fit for the socialist future.
Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action