The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Global Warming:
Politics and Profit

Jul 25, 2007

On February 2, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international network of climate scientists, set up under the auspices of the United Nations in 1988, issued its fourth assessment report. It concluded, first of all, that global warming is “unequivocal.” As evidence it pointed out that 12 of the hottest years of the last 150 occurred since 1990, that ocean temperatures are rising, while glaciers, snow cover, the polar ice caps and permafrost have been decreasing in both hemispheres at accelerating rates, and sea levels are also rising.

The report also stated that scientists are “very sure” that the main driver of this warming is human activity. In other words, burning fossil fuels – such as coal, wood, oil and gas – produces carbon dioxide and other gases. In the atmosphere, these gases act like a greenhouse trapping heat from the sun that has been reflected from the earth back into the atmosphere. As industrial economies have developed, ever larger amounts of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere, trapping more heat, leading to an accelerating rate of global warming.

The IPCC also spells out some of the consequences of global warming for humans and nature. They say there will be mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people fleeing from the flooding of low-lying coastal regions around the world and from the spreading deserts, especially in Africa and Central Asia. They say that storms will become stronger. They say that the absorption of increasing amounts of carbon dioxide by the oceans are making them more acidic, leading to the destruction of coral reefs, atolls and certain sea life. They say deadly heat waves and wildfires will become more prevalent. And they predict waves of mass extinctions of plants and animals.

Of course, big questions remain about the speed and the extent of these impending changes. However, if scientific predictions are even half-way fulfilled, the stakes are extremely high. The IPCC called on governments to take wide-ranging measures to promptly and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Born-Again Environmentalists

The Bush administration embraced the report. “The United States takes this issue seriously,” said Bush at the end of May. With few exceptions, almost the entire U.S. political establishment at the federal and state levels vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases were pollutants to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Several state governments, led by California, passed laws to limit greenhouse gas emissions, with many more states on the way. Meanwhile in Congress, Democrats and Republicans joined hands and introduced no fewer than five bills with the stated goal of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This stance marks a substantial “change in course,” or, as the Wall Street Journal called it, “evolution,” in Bush & Co.’s thinking.

For over 30 years, the same U.S. political establishment had refused to recognize global warming as a problem of any significance, despite the fact that the U.S. government’s own scientists had repeatedly issued one warning after the other. In 1977, the National Academy of Sciences, the federal government’s official scientific advisory board, warned of “highly adverse consequences” to the earth’s climate if emissions from fossil fuels were not reduced. Eleven years later, in 1988 when the U.S. was in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave and drought, one of the pioneers of global warming research, Joseph Hanson of NASA, testified before the U.S. Senate: “The greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now.

Yet through three presidential administrations, Bush I, Clinton-Gore, and Bush II, Republicans and Democrats claimed that mandating any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would hurt the economy, jobs, business, etc. This was the reason officials gave for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol of December 1997, the international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even though the U.S. is by far the biggest polluter, accounting for close to one-quarter of all greenhouse gases in the world. The Clinton administration did sign the Kyoto Protocol. But then Clinton refused to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification. And in 2001, Bush declared Kyoto was “dead” for the U.S.

Gore, and to a lesser extent Clinton, called themselves “environmentalists.” But when they were in office, they did nothing to stop U.S. industries from spewing out greenhouse gases and other pollutants. In August 1998, when Al Gore was vice president, he summarily refused to recommend that the Clinton administration mount a fight in the U.S. Congress to reduce emissions from electric utilities, which account for nearly 40% of U.S. greenhouse gases. Similarly, Clinton repeatedly signed into law Republican-sponsored riders to appropriation bills that barred the promulgation of new auto fuel-efficiency standards.

At the same time, U.S. companies in oil, auto, coal and electric utilities plus the National Association of Manufacturers financed right-wing think tanks and other front organizations in order to ridicule and demonize global warming, while their industries continued to spew out as much greenhouse gas as was most profitable, not to speak of all the other kinds of pollution they produce with impunity.

Yet today, we see Bush and the rest of them rushing forward as born-again environmentalists, just itching to “take on” global warming.

In no way does this mean that they are ready to interfere with the continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions. The caps first enacted on the state level are practically meaningless. In California, for example, the bill that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law last September puts off the requirement to reduce emissions of pollutants until 2020. Even then, the reduction is not enough – even if all the states enacted similar laws to stop the build-up of greenhouse gases.

On top of that, Schwarzenegger did what politicians always do with such regulations of industry. When his chairman of the state Air Resource Board imposed an immediate cut in emissions from the operators of aging diesel construction equipment – a major source of greenhouse gases, not to speak of other forms of noxious pollution that kill an estimated 1,100 people in the state every year – the construction industry raised hell because they didn’t want to spend the money on new equipment. Schwarzenegger fired his own official and rescinded his own regulations.

The bills now in Congress to institute caps on greenhouse gas emissions are no better. Under these bills, the government would set a cap or limit to the amount of greenhouse emissions allowed. Companies that exceed their limits would be able to buy “carbon credits” from companies that had reduced their emissions below their limits. Financial markets would be set up for companies to buy and sell “carbon credits.” Under capitalism, everything is for sale, including the right to pollute!

This kind of system was set up by the countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, and it started functioning in Europe and Japan in 2005. Of course, the entire system is rotten to the core. First of all, the caps, or limits to pollution, are set at a very high level, since the different governments are looking out to protect the profits of their own capitalists. Second, there is no effective regulation and enforcement of these caps. So companies wind up doing what they want anyway. Third, the entire market for trading carbon credits is crooked and rife with corruption. The staid Financial Times published a series of exposés, starting April 25, entitled, “Carbon Trading Plagued by Massive Fraud,” describing some of the schemes.

Greenhouse gas emissions continue to mount, while the capitalists make more money in what the Financial Times calls a “green gold rush” – which is exactly why so many big U.S. companies are literally chomping at the bit to get something similar going in the U.S.

In fact, the U.S. politicians’ conversion to “save the earth” is nothing but a smokescreen to hand over still more taxpayer and consumer money to some of the biggest companies on earth.

The Smokescreen

Any big company that claims to have a way to fight global warming stands a good chance of being handed a lot of hard-earned taxpayer money.

Some of the biggest winners so far are Archer Daniels Midland and VeraSun, the big producers of biofuel, mainly ethanol, which is made out of corn. The federal government showers 51 cents in tax credits for every gallon of ethanol that these companies produce. This comes on top of billions of dollars in crop subsidies and often state subsidies as well. Turning enormous quantities of former food crops into fuel has the added advantage of pushing up food prices in general, a source of further profit for these monster companies.

Big surprise – the claim that biofuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions turns out to be just plain bunk. It takes a lot of fossil fuel to grow, fertilize and harvest the crops, and then to distill and transport the biofuels. A well-known study by David Pimentel of Cornell University and Tad Patzek of the University of California at Berkeley actually found that it costs 29% more energy to produce ethanol than what ethanol itself produces.

And, wouldn’t you know it, some of the biggest polluters are also standing in line to claim billions of dollars for “saving the earth.”

Two of the super-major oil companies, Shell and BP, and the gargantuan industrial and financial conglomerate, GE, have positioned themselves to benefit from wind and solar power. They manufacture and service the equipment, operate wind and solar farms and provide financing. For that, they receive federal tax credits, taking nearly four billion dollars per year for wind power alone over the last two years, a sum which is expected to mushroom with the expansion of the business. These companies are basically generating tax credits and little else. No one has shown seriously that either wind or solar power is efficient at producing electricity on a mass basis.

The nuclear power industry has actually managed to land subsidies and tax breaks covering every facet of their operations. These include subsidies for designing new reactors, construction tax credits, insurance against production delays and loan guarantees for production costs. Certainly, nuclear power can produce a lot of electricity without producing any greenhouse gases. But it also produces a lot of deadly radioactivity lasting thousands of years. And producing more dangerous radioactivity is hardly a reasonable alternative to greenhouse gases.

Of course, if those operating the nuclear power plants had a decent safety track record, it would be one thing. But of course they don’t. One company knowingly built a nuclear power plant on an earthquake fault in San Onofre, California. Despite years of protest, the government did nothing about it. Moreover, the fact that the government grants the nuclear power industry a ceiling on liability charges in case of an accident proves that these companies intend to continue a method of operation that can only lead to more “accidents.”

These examples are just the highlights of what the federal government has been doing, doling out to big business in the name of fighting global warming, while ignoring what business does. There are a lot more in the pipeline.

It is shocking enough that these companies are exploiting the fears around global warming to increase their own profits. But what these companies do continues to exacerbate a situation they created. For example, the coal and electric power industries have announced plans to build 150 new coal-fired power plants. Coal produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other fuel, twice as much as oil, for example. For many years, few if any coal-fired power plants had been built. A couple years ago, President Bush granted these companies a waiver to bring some of their old, worst-polluting power plants out of mothballs and put them back on line. If these companies begin to add more coal-fired plants, it would mean an increase in greenhouse gas emissions on an enormous scale.

One thing is sure. The government will do whatever these companies want. It will pay for an untested technology that is supposed to lower emissions, and then protect the companies if it results in an ecological disaster, or sign off on these companies’ right to spew even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And, it goes without saying, it will give them more subsidies and other forms of aid.

Capitalism: The Scourge of the Environment

Of course, this is nothing new. It is what capitalism has always done. From their beginnings, the capitalists have plundered and destroyed their way across the planet. They stripped the rain forests, turned vast regions into waste lands, destroyed a lot of the wildlife of the lands and seas – all in order to exploit the natural resources, with their mines, wells, or plantations. Behind all this destruction is the drive for profit by these companies.

The growth of industry and population are blamed for the growing environmental destruction, as if wanton destructiveness is just part of the human condition. In fact, people have always interacted with the environment, and therefore changed it. But under capitalism, economic activity has been characterized by brutal competition between different companies to maximize their profits. From the capitalists’ insatiable greed to amass ever more profits come not only wars, economic crises, the cavernous gap between rich and poor, but also unimaginable waste, destructive to humans and the environment.

In one industry after another, several competing companies duplicate entire systems of production and distribution in order to try to grab more market share from each other. In a hot industry like cell phones, gigantic companies like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all have competing networks, their cell phone towers and relays in the same places, while none of the systems are compatible with each other, and every couple of years people are supposed to throw away their old phones in order to buy new ones, adding to the vast pollution of the environment. Competing airlines vie for control of a market by monopolizing an airport, called the hub-and- spoke system, which means that all their flights then have to go through that particular airport, multiplying takeoffs and landings, distances and times. The enormous waste in fuel results in a lot more greenhouse gases.

Thus, an ever greater waste of energy and resources feeds global warming and environmental destruction.

Of course, it is the working class and poor who suffer the worst consequences of this damage. In this country, the government builds schools on former toxic waste dumps; working class neighborhoods are built right next to oil refineries and chemical plants, which regularly belch out their poisons. And when disaster hits, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the authorities leave the poor, the old and the sick to fend for themselves. When the government offers a helping hand, it is usually to help the corporations at the further expense of the victims. For example, FEMA knowingly put thousands of Katrina refugees in trailers with dangerous levels of formaldehyde and didn’t do anything about it, because they didn’t want the government to stop paying the trailer companies hundreds of millions of dollars. And while the government hands out huge sums to rebuild the business and tourist districts of New Orleans, it has left the survivors of that hurricane right where they were in 2005. Hundreds of thousands of people remain refugees, camped out in the rubble of old neighborhoods that have not been rebuilt, or scattered throughout the region, no money, no home, no prospects... and many are still in those formaldehyde-filled trailers.

This is nothing compared to what these same companies and their government have done and are still doing to the majority of people on the planet, who live in countries under the thumb of the big imperialist powers. In a tiny country like Haiti, for example, which has historically been dominated by the U.S., there has been so much environmental devastation by big corporate plantations that formerly bled the island, that thousands died when tropical storm Jean hit in 2004. It was not even a hurricane. Yet the main cities were buried under mud for weeks afterwards. And, of course, there are the tens of millions of peoples in Central Asia and Africa, whose environments have long been stripped by big companies, and who are now fleeing the infertile land and spreading deserts.

If the earth’s atmosphere continues to warm, as scientists warn, the poorest people will suffer the harshest consequences. They will pay, as they have always paid, for the insane workings of a profit-driven social system.

Confronting the Problem

There are plenty of things that could be done to greatly reduce the greenhouse emissions that are behind global warming. It just won’t be done in a capitalist society, where the drive for profit rules.

A society intent on eliminating emissions would make sure the most modern and up-to-date technology was used in industry and the production of energy. The capitalists are doing the exact opposite. Much of the industrial infrastructure in this country is old and polluting. The number one emitter of greenhouse gases are the coal-fired electric generating plants. Most of these plants were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and they have not been upgraded since. The same is true of oil refineries, built decades ago, and not properly maintained. The 70-year-old BP oil refinery in Texas City, Texas – which blew up in 2005 and killed 14 workers while injuring hundreds more – had received repeated warnings about potentially dangerous conditions. Neither BP nor the government did anything to stop the flow of oil – and profits.

Speaking about recent accidents at oil refineries, Carolyn Merritt, chairwoman of the federal Chemical Safety Board told the New York Times at the end of July: “The overwhelming preponderance is that if you have inadequate engineering and equipment, poor process safety management, and poor staffing, you’re set up for a catastrophe.” This summer’s rash of “accidents,” many of which created enormous pollution, show how much that describes the whole industry. She went on to add, “There is no enforcement.”

These companies are literally dripping with profits. Yet they run their plants and equipment into the ground because older plants have paid back their construction costs many times over and are thus much more profitable.

It’s obvious when we see all the “planned obsolescence” and duplication of services that industry could be made more efficient simply by reducing this waste. Yet this isn’t touched because companies are competing for more profits.

To reduce emissions, a society run in the interests of the population would try to use mass transit, the most efficient means of transportation. After all, more than 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions in this country are produced by individual cars and trucks. Instead, going back more than half a century, companies like GM and the oil companies bought up relatively extensive mass transit and interurban systems and dismantled them in cities around the country, with Detroit and Los Angeles the most notable examples. Many families today have several cars, just so everyone can go to work and school. On top of that, the auto and oil companies pushed ever bigger cars, trucks and SUV’s, which use even more energy and create more emissions. At the same time, government and business allowed central cities to decay, pushing ever more people to live in suburban sprawl. This benefitted the biggest companies: auto, oil, construction, road builders, and mortgage companies, insurance, real estate, as well.

To find better answers for dealing with global warming there needs to be a lot of scientific research and development. Yet, over the last quarter of a century, the government budget for energy research and development for not just alternative energy, but all energy, was cut by more than half, to three billion dollars. Compare that to military research, increased to 75 billion dollars, and pharmaceutical research, which nearly quadrupled to 28 billion dollars – for the benefit of the big military contractors and pharmaceutical companies. But big energy and transportation interests have little interest in new technologies and advances that could possibly reduce the value of their current investments – or cost them a lot of new investment.

No, the most efficient way to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases would be first of all to get rid of the underlying cause, the capitalist structure of society, which produces, inevitably, waste and the destruction of the environment.

This doesn’t even take into account the preparations a society organized in the interests of the population would make, faced with the consequences of global warming that scientists warn about.

No one can expect such actions from the current, capitalist-run society. This society doesn’t even take the most fundamental measures to ensure people’s safety on a day-to-day basis. In 2005, tens of thousands of people in Asia and Africa were drowned in a tsunami – simply because the Indian Ocean did not have a detection and warning system in areas that are often hit by such catastrophes. In this country, the force of Hurricane Katrina could have been mitigated if the wetlands and barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico had not been destroyed by the wanton industrial and commercial development by oil, gas and shipping companies. And obviously New Orleans itself would not have been flooded if a proper levee system had been built and maintained. Yet today, industrial and commercial development continues to erode the natural wetlands, while the levees have still not been fully repaired, much less improved, leaving the city open to further devastation if it is hit by another big hurricane. The fact that the authorities in the richest country with the most resources don’t take fundamental measures in New Orleans, at a time when the spotlight is still on it, illustrates how much they operate with impunity.

That’s why, in the end, the main problem of global warming is not one of technology or population, but power and politics, who leads society, what class. The capitalists have proven how unwilling and even unable they are to deal with what their own scientists say is a critical problem. On the contrary, they use the crisis, once more to put forward their own agenda, that is, to make more profits for themselves, at the expense of all of humanity and the environment. It is sheer madness.

To get beyond this madness, we need a different kind of society altogether.

Only a society built by the working class, organized around meeting the needs of all humanity, that is, socialism and communism, can tackle the enormous problems created by the capitalist system, including global warming. This is not to say that all the problems would be automatically solved or that new ones won’t be created. But at least, we would have an infinitely more rational and efficient means to deal with them.

For such a society to be built, the working class has to rise to its historic role, take power and lead the transformation of society.