Capitalism cannot solve the climate crisis

May 2016 Global justice

By BILL ONASCH

This year’s Earth Day, hosted by the UN, was staged to be all about climate change. The chosen venue came attached with some historical irony. The land for the New York City complex housing the United Nations Headquarters was donated by John D. Rockefeller. His father started him off as a director of Standard Oil—main ancestor of Exxon-Mobil—as well as U.S. Steel. He was also a director of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company at the time of the bloody Ludlow Massacre that slaughtered wives and children of striking coal miners.

Accompanied by brass bands, and many school children bused in for the occasion, representatives of 170 countries were on hand for a ceremonial signing of the accord adopted by the Paris Climate Summit last December. President Obama was in England celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, but Secretary of State Kerry, with a granddaughter on his lap, signed for the U.S. Al Gore, who had signed the first climate treaty in Kyoto in 1997—which President Clinton declined to submit to the Senate for ratification—was present and beaming. Among other VIPs was Leonardo DiCaprio.

So when can we expect all this pomp to change our circumstances? An AFP story explains that it won’t be at a galloping pace—more the speed of the creatures that the French like to turn into escargot:

“The next, and final, procedural phase will be ratification by individual governments. Countries which do not sign the document on Friday can do so in the year that follows. The agreement sets out broad lines of attack against climate change. It defines the goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below’ two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)—1.5C if possible. It does not prescribe deadlines or targets for curbing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions: these are described in further detail in non-binding pledges countries filed to shore up the pact.

“On current trends, scientists say, the world will warm by 4C over benchmark pre-Industrial Revolution levels—or 3C if countries live up to their pledges.”

A 4C world could not sustain human civilization as we know it; 3C would be only marginally less disastrous. It could take many centuries for the greenhouse layer to dissipate to pre-industrial levels. Even if the current non-binding pledges were met, we would be bequeathing unrelenting misery to future generations.

Since the dominant driving force of global warming is fossil fuels, the solution would seem obvious—commit to completely replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable, freely available energy sources like solar, wind, and tidal, as quickly as possible. That is in fact what nearly all climate scientists propose. There are credible estimates that an emergency crash program could accomplish this goal in 20-25 years.

But those who own the polluting global economy, and control most governments, reject such measures that mortally threaten their profits and rule. They will not agree to more than tactical tinkering. That’s why the non-binding goals are all over the map.

The U.S. largely relies on a temporary reduction in power-plant emissions due to conversion from coal to now cheaper fracked (and methane-spewing) natural gas. In fact, half of Obama’s pledge had already been accomplished when his plan was initially announced nearly two years ago. However, tiny Holland, home base of Royal Dutch Shell, has a wary eye on rising sea levels. They plan to ban all cars other than plug-in electrics by 2025—while Shell continues business as usual elsewhere.

Like pesky dandelions in the garden, nuclear power advocates, in the camp of General Electric, are again sprouting, fertilized by the lack of progress toward needed elimination of fossil fuels. In late April, Eduardo Porter wrote a New York Times article entitled, “Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Progress on Climate Change.” He says, “Ted Cruz’s argument that climate change is a hoax to justify a government takeover of the world is absurd. But Bernie Sanders’s argument that ‘toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit’ might also be damaging.”

He bolsters his attack on an alleged anti-science left with a Pew poll showing that a big majority of the American Association for the Advancement of Science favors more nuclear power.

Some scientists, of course—even the dean of climate scientists, Dr James E. Hansen—have in utter desperation shown conditional support for nuclear power as an emergency stop-gap measure due to inaction on replacing fossil fuels with safe, clean, renewable energy, available free of charge.

It is true that nuclear power plants produce negligible greenhouse emissions where they generate electricity. But their advocates ignore the vast amounts of emissions resulting just from mining, refining, and transporting their fuel. The fuel is not renewable—it depends on a dwindling supply of extractable uranium. They are anything but safe. Reactor accidents can be catastrophic. And there’s no known proven method for safe disposal of waste that can remain dangerous for centuries. These objections are not political bias—they are based on solid science.

Polluted hot spots

The oil and gas sectors continue to prolong their destructive pursuit of profits even while hailing the signing of agreements negotiated at the Paris COP21 summit last December. Hansen concisely characterized that deal as “bullshit.” But we don’t have to wave the white flag just yet.

There are credible estimates that an emergency crash program to completely replace fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy could be could be accomplished in 20-25 years.

To completely clean up the environmental mess, we will require more than new fuels. Some messes will need decades of remediation—such as General Electric’s settlement obligation to keep dredging the Hudson River until it is completely free of the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) they routinely dumped from the now closed, UE-organized Hudson Falls plant.

Some newly revealed even more dangerous localized hot spots continue to pop up. An April 28 Wall Street Journal article begins, “About a mile from homes in Missouri’s St. Louis County lies a radioactive hot spot with contamination levels hundreds of times above federal safety guidelines. But there are no plans to clean it up. That is because the location, tainted with waste from atomic-weapons work done in local factories decades ago, has been deemed by the federal government to be effectively inaccessible and not a threat.”

But they quickly follow, “However, a group of private researchers funded by an environmental activist, including a former senior official of the Clinton administration’s Energy Department, is challenging those assurances. They say a recent sampling they did suggests contamination from the radioactive hot spot is entering a nearby stream, known as Coldwater Creek, and then traveling downstream into the yards of homes. The contamination involves thorium, a radioactive material that can increase a person’s risks for certain cancers if it gets inside the body, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.”

In the U.S. overall, we have an even bigger challenge. If we are to build an ecologically sustainable society providing a good standard of living for all, we have to halt and reverse the urban sprawl that has been the linchpin of post-World War II domestic ruling-class strategy. They have done a thorough job of integrating this scourge—socially and environmentally harmful in so many ways—into the American Dream of the vanishing “middle class.”

Convincing workers that we need to phase out suburbia and instead renovate, rebuild, and repopulate our collapsed urban cores—and reclaim the forests, wetlands, and farmland that used to surround and nourish our cities before being wrecked by irrational “development”—will not be an easy sell. Tougher yet will be winning them over to the fact that we can’t sustain each individual’s having their own personal car, truck, or SUV. Electric powered public transit in the cities, and plug-in electric vehicles in rural areas, will need to become our dominant forms of daily transportation.

A key role for labor

Trying to reason with the Establishment to do the right thing is a fool’s errand. Because of their vast reserves of wealth produced by our labor, they can live with some reforms they don’t like. But they know the steps needed to survive the climate crisis they have created put the future of their very system of rule by the rich at mortal risk.

On the other hand—with no illusions about the difficulties—I have confidence we can educate and organize the working-class majority to not just support but lead the struggle to satisfactorily resolve the greatest crisis humanity has yet faced. My optimism is two-fold. It is in the material interest of our class to do so, and only our class has the social and economic clout to defeat the climate-wrecking bosses and bankers.

There are already hopeful signs in the union movement. On a global scale, there is Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, with affiliates representing 4.6 million workers in 17 countries on every inhabited continent—nine of them in the United States. They have produced an excellent short YouTube animation, introducing workers to climate change—and what can be done about it—suitable for showing at union meetings or any gathering of workers.

The Labor Network for Sustainability is a U.S. affiliate of TUED that is developing educational programs for American unions and collaborates with other climate action movements like 350.org. And some major unions, such as the Amalgamated Transit Union, National Nurses United, and the Service Employees International Union, have for the past few years mobilized their members for actions against the Keystone XL pipeline, and participation in the 400,000-strong 2014 People’s Climate March in New York.

Victories of American social movements, such as civil rights, antiwar, and women’s rights have all been accompanied by visible protests in the form of mass demonstrations and/or mass civil disobedience. All of these were assisted by support from wings of organized labor. Building a broad climate action movement through such tactics is needed right now.

But the scope and urgency of the climate crisis—not to mention the other class issues flowing from globalization, wars of intervention, incarceration, deportation, austerity, and a host of other ills—requires us to simultaneously prepare to go beyond protest. We need to aim to take political power out of the hands of the ruling rich. We must replace the rule of greed, war, and pollution with a working-class government that can implement our plan to save our biosphere so that we can all “Make a Living on a Living Planet.”

But this is the Achilles Heel of the American labor and social movements. Every other industrialized republic has at least one mass working-class party—most of them established in the 19th century. Only in America has the ruling class been allowed to have a virtually uncontested monopoly of all things political through their control of the two major parties. The long track record of numerous attempts to capture one of these parties on behalf of our class proves it is every bit as doomed as winning over the master class itself through reasoned civil discourse.

Reviving the movement for a class-based labor party is a vital component of a Class & Climate program in the country with the biggest economy and biggest concentration of the super-rich.