The growing threat of climate change and a socialist programme for the environment

As protests and demonstrations take place around the world this week-end, to tell the representatives at the Paris COP21 Summit to save the planet, we re-publish an article by Pete Dickenson, carried in the Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales.

The forthcoming climate summit in Paris meets as evidence continues to grow of the threat of global warming, caused by the emissions of greenhouse gases. These are produced by the burning of the fossil fuels; oil, coal and gas. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, but far more deadly is methane, which has not so far dramatically increased.

The fifteen warmest years in history have occurred since 1998, 2014 being the hottest, with 2015 looking set to break that record. The main scientific body that monitors climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose most recent assessment reports gave more proof of the looming danger.

The IPCC is predicting heatwaves in southern Europe, droughts in Australia, sea level rises, acidification of oceans and shifts of weather systems and rainfall patterns.

A significant change from the previous assessment report in 2007 is that sea levels are now predicted to rise by 1 metre by 2100, almost double the previous estimate. Other scientific studies put the sea rise at 2 metres. Either way, the result will be disastrous for hundreds of millions of inhabitants of low lying coastal regions, such as in Bangladesh.

Sea level rise

The IPCC says the sea level rise is partly linked to the speed of the melting arctic ice cap, which is unprecedented for at least the past 1,450 years and sea ice could disappear in summer by 2050. Even more worrying is the prediction that 80% of the permafrost in the polar regions could have melted by then.

Huge quantities of the deadly greenhouse gas methane are trapped in permafrost and will be released as it melts, which could create a so-called tipping point, beyond which warming could become uncontrollable.

This outcome is not included in the assessment report because of timing uncertainties, as the IPCC sees them, but the potential danger is real nevertheless.

The main cause of the changes in climate is the rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 400 parts per million, that is linked to human action (ie capitalism). The IPCC is now 95% certain that this is the case, up from 90% in the previous assessment report. To avoid the worst effects of global warming, the carbon concentration must be kept to below 450 parts per million, climate science is saying. On present trends this level will be reached in 25 years, and the IPCC sees little chance of it being avoided.

Since 1998 there has been an apparent leveling off in global temperatures and this is reflected in the assessment report. The predictions of a temperature increase have been slightly reduced at the bottom end, to 1.5 Celsius minimum rise, from 2 Celsius in the previous report.

This is welcome, but does it change the overall picture of climate change danger? Not at all, according to the IPCC climate scientists. The general trends are clear and unequivocal. In fact, although measured atmospheric surface temperatures may have temporarily stopped rising, deep ocean temperature rise never ceased.

Basing themselves on recent improved understanding of deep ocean behaviour, some climate scientists have claimed that the temperature measurements that have been taken up until now may prove to have been an underestimate.


There have also always been other factors that determine global temperatures, such as solar activity and the prevalence of volcanoes, whose ash blocks heat from the sun. These can temporarily hide the effect of greenhouse gas emissions.

There could now be signs that the temperature leveling off is unfortunately ending, if indeed it ever happened. Regardless of this, 2014 was the warmest year ever and 2015 looks set to surpass it. The predicted return of El Nino, the Pacific Ocean warm current that was linked to very rapid warming in the 1990s, has occurred. Despite the caution of the IPCC, the mortal danger of global warming remains and urgent, decisive action is needed to tackle it.

The main industrial powers began talking about the danger of global warming more than 25 years ago in the run up to the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio. Since then greenhouse gas emissions have continued to balloon, not prevented by halfhearted, failed initiatives, such as the Kyoto treaty.

At the root of the problem is the capitalist profit system, in particular the rivalry between the main imperialist powers which has prevented any meaningful international agreement.

The Stern report on climate change, initiated by the last Labour government, but never implemented, said that 1% of economic output would need to be spent over 40 years to tackle global warming.

Further, Stern pointed out that this was a tiny amount compared to the potential cost of climate change if nothing meaningful was done.

This cut no ice though with the ruling classes of the world, who have shown time and again that any action that threatens short term profits, even to a limited extent, is unacceptable.

Despite the likely claims of a breakthrough by the organisers, the Paris summit will not provide any answers to the environmental threat faced by the world. Countries have been asked to come up with pledges of future cuts in emissions, but any pledge will be voluntary, their extent and time scale for implementation being completely up to each country.

The technology exists to switch from polluting sources of energy to renewables, such as wind, wave and solar power. No scientific breakthrough is needed, just a political programme to rapidly switch over to green energy, which must address the reasons previous attempts have failed.

The capitalists will fight ferociously against such a programme, because it threatens their profits, but workers need not fear its effects on employment. Research sponsored by a group of trade unions has shown that one million jobs could be created with such an approach.


Since competitive markets degrade the environment, a green programme can only be made a reality by nationalising the main industries that dominate our economy.

Also, since climate change is global, ultimately a programme of public ownership must include at least the 147 multinational firms whose networks control 40% of the world economy.

This requires a new way of organising production and society. Democratic planning is not only a viable alternative to the ’hidden hand’ of the capitalist market system, it has huge inherent advantages for saving energy. For example, it would avoid duplication of resources, planned obsolescence and the energy-wasteful booms and slumps inherent in capitalism.

A priority in a socialist programme for the environment must be the nationalisation of the energy and transport industries. This will lay the basis for a switch to renewables and the expansion of public transport.

Another crucial aspect in the move to a carbon neutral world will be to decrease the energy use needed in the production of all manufactured goods, services and housing.

The 400,000 strong demonstration in New York in September 2014, the biggest ever on a green issue, shows the potential to mobilise a movement on the environment.

One reason for this is that it is clear that the capitalists have virtually given up on serious measures to address global warming.

To the very limited extent that the ruling classes are still looking for answers, some are turning to nuclear power. But nuclear power is far from being a green alternative to fossil fuels, the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan was just the latest incident showing the dangers of this technology.

Potentially even more frightening than nuclear is the increasing interest by capitalist opinion formers in ’geo-engineering’. An example of this is seeding the atmosphere to recreate the effects of a volcanic eruption.

It’s long been known that volcanic ash reduces global temperatures, but the effects of simulating this are largely unknown. One scientific study has found that it could result in famine and drought.

’Present trends’

The latest report by the IPCC says that on ’present trends’ it will not be possible to prevent the global temperature rising by more than 2 Celsius, above which it could spiral out of control.

This is a historic indictment of capitalism and also indicates the urgency of taking decisive measures, so that ’present trends’ are broken.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader has put socialist ideas back on the agenda. His and John McDonnell’s promise of more interventionism is welcome if it produces real steps forward to address climate change. The more intervention there is, the more likely it will be to have an effect.

But John’s vision of a very gradual, step by step, approach to transforming society fails to recognise the urgency for radical action to tackle global warming. Ultimately, piecemeal measures within the framework of capitalism will run up against the logic of the system, where profit comes first.

A rapid, root and branch transformation of society on socialist lines is what is needed to tackle the environmental threat facing us.

The Socialist Party calls for:

  • Rapid conversion to the use of renewable energy sources: wind, wave and solar power. In Britain, off-shore wind farms should be given priority, in order to minimise impact on local communities
  • A big expansion of public transport facilities, with fare subsides; to encourage quick switches from private transportation
  • Development of the rail system, so that short and medium haul air travel can be reduced and then replaced
  • Conversion of the car industry to renewable sources of power. Electric and hydrogen powered vehicles are on the market now, but need to be affordable and an infrastructure has to be constructed so their use is possible
  • A massive programme of energy saving measures implemented, including new homes to be made carbon neutral
  • Step up research on green energy, for example on how to make long distance energy transmission more efficient
  • Public ownership of the energy generating and transport industries; and the top banks and companies that dominate the economy
  • A democratic socialist plan of production based on the interests of the overwhelming majority of people, and in a way that safeguards the environment.

Committee for a workers' International publications


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