by Nick Wright
Climate catastrophe cannot be averted without a planned approach. And a planned approach means necessarily impeding the drive to super-profits, says NICK WRIGHT writing in the Morning Star
COP26 in Glasgow is notionally where world leaders rub shoulders with climate change activists, scientists, experts and the media.
That is the illusion. If Joe Biden and Boris Johnson were to follow a few bevies with a late-night trip on Glasgow’s Subway they might get an earful from locals annoyed that conference participants get an integrated pass to the disparate bits of Glasgow’s partly privatised transport network while Glaswegians have to juggle with different and expensive ticketing systems.
This is a telling example of inefficiencies that the anarchy of the capitalist market system imposes. Biden’s gas-guzzling 100-vehicle convoy is as much a symbolic representation of the global disparities which underlie the discussions at Cop26 as it is of prevailing class distinctions.
In anticipation of the Glasgow gathering, the big beasts of the bourgeoisie met in private conclave last week at the G20 conference in Rome.
Climate change was formally at the top of the agenda while measures to recover from capitalism’s current economic crisis jostled with concerns about Covid-19 and possible pandemics of the future.
Outside the heavily policed perimeter, climate activists mingled with busloads of striking GKN workers from Florence and union members from disputes at Whirlpool, Alitalia, FedEx and TextPrint.
Trade unionists from Italy’s trade union confederations marched together in a united bloc in solidarity with the traditionally left-wing CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labour) whose headquarters were attacked by fascist squadristi the previous week.
What is distinctive about Italy’s political culture is the easy exchange between climate change activists and the left and working-class and labour movement figures.
There is energy and innovation enough coupled with a hard-headed realism about the relative effectiveness of tactics.
There is something to be learnt in Britain about the necessity of tactics that do not disrupt the path to winning decisive mass support for progressive policies.
Our labour movement needs to get a lot closer to the environmental movement, and climate activists — who generally do not have a deep engagement with organised labour — need to understand that direct action at the point of production or mass action that sanctions the bosses and the polluters has a special efficacy.
Our fellow citizens are not the enemy and we must not make climate activism their enemy.
Travelling back from Italy through France over the G20 weekend it was noticeable how much investment in renewables is evident.
The huge wheat fields of central France are draped with chains of windmills. The French state plans to lift renewables from just under 20 per cent at present to 32 per cent by 2030. Nuclear currently provides 70 per cent and over this balance France and Germany are at loggerheads.
There are very wide differences of policy in the EU, with paralysis evident in the discussion to set CO2 reduction targets.
The European (Union) Council kicked detailed discussion to the late October environment ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg.
The more industrially developed, export-orientated producer nations of northern Europe, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark — the ones that benefit most from the eurozone straitjacket — are hindering measures to smooth energy transition.
Paris wants nuclear to figure, Germany favours gas and its deal with Russia for supplies through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline are at the centre of a strategic difference in Nato.
Spain, acting as a stalking horse for the southern European states, favours collective action to buy and stockpile energy supplies while a winter crisis threatens with many states lacking adequate reserves.
Thus even the EU, which by any account is the supra-state mechanism with the greatest pretensions to collective action, is paralysed by policy clashes which have their origin in the priority assigned to profit.
Britain is no longer constrained by European Union treaty obligations but is ruled by a Tory administration that is no more intent on the collective ownership of energy than, now, is Labour.
Ed Miliband, who raised our hopes for public ownership, has now backtracked on Keir Starmer’s manifestly mendacious promise to maintain Jeremy Corbyn’s progressive policy and now suggests that public ownership is just a holding mechanism while failing energy firms are prepared again for the market.
But it is the disorganising operation of the capitalist market that is at the root of the energy crisis and rising consumer energy prices.
This set against the whole history of energy production as an episode in the degradation of our planet.
For Britain the year 1830 was a turning point.
The peoples of Italy, France, Poland, Switzerland and Belgium carried through revolutions which, while they mostly resulted in compromises with various royal dynasties, presaged the more profound and republican revolutions of 1848.
The United States enacted its Removals Act which, by empowering its president to “negotiate” with the leaders of the country’s First Nations to be expelled from their territories, allowed the fast-developing capitalist state to pioneer its prototypical programme of mass slaughter.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland replaced one German king (George IV) with another (William IV).
And this was the last year that our country remained in harmony with nature.
Eight years later Benjamin Disraeli warned the ruling class that industrial development was not a problem-free process and predicted more than a century of inter-imperialist conflict when he told the House of Commons that “the continent will not suffer England to be the workshop of the world.”
From 1830 onwards Britain’s carbon emissions grew year on year, as Britain’s capitalist economy transformed the natural world, the human environment and the class structure.
Britain’s head start in the Industrial Revolution makes it the world’s first — and for many decades, its greatest, polluter — but it was soon challenged in the degradation stakes by Germany and the United States.
The Cop26 meeting in Glasgow — a city which has seen the destruction of its shipbuilding, engineering and manufacturing economy in the space of two generations — is where we see a grand display of hypocrisy from our government that is easily echoed by other leaders.
The technical language and expert terminology deployed in the highly specialised world of climate change science is, in the political domain, mobilised to obscure the fundamental truth that this present moment of climate change crisis is conditioned by centuries of colonial exploitation in which much of the world provided the raw materials for the major capitalist nations.
Slave labour and coal extraction are the foundation of much British capitalist wealth and power.
Nominally, at least since the 1992 Rio summit, the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” supposedly reflects the historical account in which present-day economic progress means developing countries bear less responsibility than the major emitters whose history means that they should bear the greatest responsibility to decarbonise their economies.
The initial progress made by Britain in reducing its carbon emissions to 8.1 metric tons of CO2 per person — something on which successive governments place great emphasis — reflects in large part the dismantling of the manufacturing basis of the economy and the sharp reduction in coal production.
The human and material costs of this process — the annihilation of jobs, the dissipation of an enormous reservoir of skills — is the basis of our country’s escalating social crisis and the foundation of the class-based regional disparities in life expectancy, employment, health and education.
The growth of a “casino economy” based on speculation around property and asset prices provides no substitute for the decades of destruction in which working-class communities throughout the country have seen the production basis of their local economies vanish, the life chances of their children compromised and the social crisis deepen.
The notion that through this process the “traditional” working class has “vanished” — seized upon by social democracy to justify its embrace of neoliberalism — that its potential as the agency for profound change is no longer viable because capitalist production has restructured the economies of the developed capitalist world underlies the political thinking which accepts the immutability of the capitalist order.
Whether this is expressed as the empty triumphalism which masks the uncertainty of those unnerved by the 2008 financial crisis or the latter-day Labour figures who see the slaughter of socialist “sacred cows” as the path to political office, the reality is that the working class has not vanished.
It has relocated to emergent nations, most notably China, whose economy is now transitioning from its “workshop of the world” role to a more technologically advanced model, orientated more to satisfying domestic demand that has grown as its millions have been lifted in a generation or two from poverty to a reasonable standard of living.
The Chinese people, whose per capita emissions rank 38th in the world — at 6.4 metric tons of CO2 — are presented as the villains of the piece.
But the US has the world’s highest per capita emissions at 17.6 metric tons of CO2, closely followed by Canada, Australia, and then the manufacturing centres of capitalist South Korea, Japan and Germany.
The question that remains unanswered from Cop26, and which is naturally unaddressed at the G20, is how the ambitious mid-term targets so easily entered into by today’s politicians can be achieved without a planned approach backed by effective regulatory mechanisms when this would impede the drive to super-profits?
The era of socialist construction which drove the Soviet Union’s survival strategy carried an inevitable, if necessary, environmental cost.
It is the socialist elements in China’s economic strategy that allow for its planned approach to carbon offsetting, electrification and environmental protection.
Lenin linked Soviet power with electrification — it was true then and even truer today.
We can calibrate with scientific precision the rate at which global warming will precipitate the unstoppable degradation of the ecosystems which sustain the natural world and human existence.
It is easier to imagine the destruction of the planet than envisage the voluntary surrender of the economic and political power possessed by the capitalist class.
Writing as the Industrial Revolution gave environmental degradation its initial impetus, in 1844, Marx wrote that “we have to grasp the intrinsic connection between private property, greed, the separation of labour, capital and landed property; the connection of exchange and competition, of value and the devaluation of man, of monopoly and competition, etc — the connection between this whole estrangement and the money system.”
In today’s conditions we have to grasp the notion that saving the planet necessarily entails ending the capitalist system.