Thursday 3 April 2008

A revolutionary response to climate crisis

DAVE HOLMES is one of the authors of the pamphlet Change the System Not The Climate (Resistance Books 2007) who will be participating in the upcoming Climate Change Social Change Conference in Australia organised by Green Left Weekly. The other authors of the pamphlet, John Bellamy Foster and Terry Townsend, are speakers at the conference. Holmes is a veteran leader in the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency in the Australian Socialist Alliance.

PETER BOYLE spoke to him about the key issues the conference needs to address.  

Dave Holmes: The fundamental problem facing humanity today is catastrophic climate change brought on by runaway greenhouse gas emissions. The relatively narrow band of climatic conditions within which we can function has been destabilised. As average temperatures rise extreme weather events are increasing (cyclones, floods, heat waves and droughts) and ocean levels look like rising dramatically, potentially making refugees of hundreds of millions of people. The very survival of the human race has now been called into question.

Human societies have always impacted on their environment. But the source of our current crisis is quite specific: it is the operations of modern capitalism. The drive for profits by the giant corporations has been relentless and has been pursued in complete disregard of any impact on the environment. The fundamental conditions under which we live (how we generate our power, how we get around, how our food is grown, etc.) are not decided by us but rather by the big corporations that control society's means of production. Without the rule of corporate capital we could set in place radically different and ecologically sustainable arrangements. For example, the cars which most of us use are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. But what choice do we really have? The favouring of private motor vehicles over public transport hasn't come about because we are innately a society of petrol-heads but is a consequence of the deliberate policies of a succession of capitalist governments loyally protecting the interests of their big business masters. The auto industry and its associated sectors make up a very large part of each national capitalist economy.

Over the last year, many capitalist politicians and corporate CEOs have announced their conversion on the question of global warming and climate change. They claim to be united now on finding practical solutions to the problem. Can capitalism make a course correction to avert the global warming crisis? Trying to stabilise the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere and then reduce it is a life-and-death challenge for humanity. We need to phase out fossil fuels and all the problems that go with them (carbon dioxide emissions and the fact that they will not last forever). But big business thinks it can make a few adjustments and carry on as usual. The changes required are simply too wrenching, too fundamentally in contradiction with huge economic interests, to be easily contemplated.

Many people are hoping that the new Rudd Labor government is gong to seriously address climate change. But already Labor's minister for climate change and water Penny Wong's response to the Garnaut Report is showing that Labor is not up to the challenge. For example, by any rational criterion Australia's massive coal industry should be progressively phased out, but instead Labor is looking to throw money at so-called "clean coal" technology. Meanwhile in NSW, the state Labor government is trying to privatize the electricity industry, thereby abandoning public control of one of the industries that most urgently needs to be radically reformed to phase out coal power stations and replace them with renewable energy resources. The Rudd government has declared its support for this privatization.  

You're criticising Labor for not seriously tackling global warming but what do socialists say should be done to address the crisis?

What is needed to cope with the crisis is a sharp change of direction. We need an emergency mobilisation of society, a five- or 10-year plan to achieve a drastic reorientation of our economy and use of energy. Anything else is simply not serious. Some of the key elements in a serious response to the crisis are:

1) The entire power and energy sector should be put under public control and run as public utilities under democratic control. At the moment the private power operators (and the corporatised entities still under nominal state ownership) have a direct interest in making things worse! The more power they sell, the more profits they make. The more air conditioners that are bought, the more electricity is consumed and the more it helps their corporate bottom line. We need to break with the neo-liberal privatisation policies pursued by both Labor and the Coalition paarties. Bring the whole power and energy sector under public control so that this key lever is in the hands of society. Then we can steer the ship where we want it to go.

2) We are endlessly told that we need more and more power and hence more and more power stations. What about getting serious about energy conservation - really serious? Then we might be able to begin phasing out coal-fired power stations, the main source of our greenhouse gas emissions. For example, what if the only light bulbs permitted were the low-power high-efficiency ones, all other ones being taken off the market? Furthermore, what if they were distributed free to households by the state-owned power company? Think of how much power could be saved. What if a similar approach were applied to household refrigerators? After all, what is a few hundred million or even a few billion dollars if it could achieve the closing down of several big coal-fired power stations? What if gas-powered cogeneration were far more widely encouraged? The efficiency of the big coal-fired power stations is very low (about 30%). With cogeneration the low-grade "waste" heat is used, thereby boosting overall efficiency to far higher levels (around 70-80%). This means siting the plants, not far away in the coalfields, but much closer to home where the output is actually used. Of course, this would be a transitional form of power generation since it still uses fossil fuels, but it would greatly assist in reducing our dependence on coal and helping make big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Under the national plan each sector of industry and each firm should be set hard annual targets for energy efficiency. Consistent failure of an enterprise to achieve the goals set should result in their nationalisation and reorganisation. Energy use by offices and homes could be slashed by setting strict new energy standards for new construction and embarking on a vast program to retrofit the existing stock of buildings. The scope for energy efficiency measures is enormous. Very significant gains could be achieved relatively easily - provided there is the political will.

3) We need a big switch to renewable energy. There is a wealth of technological possibilities. But so far the politicians are only keen on the oxymoronic notion of "clean coal". There are some Labor figures who even dream of introducing nuclear power - once loudly mooted by previous Howard Liberal-National government. Nuclear power is no solution to anything (except the corporations' thirst for ever more profits and hang the consequences for the rest of us). Apart from all the safety and waste disposal issues, nuclear plants actually require very big energy inputs for their construction.

4) Cars and trucks are a major source of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. We need to achieve a drastic substitution of public transport for cars and rail freight for trucks. All metropolitan public transport systems should be firmly in public hands and it should be made free. We should stop all expenditure on roads (except for essential maintenance) and put the funds into covering the big cities with dense integrated networks of trains, trams and buses which run frequently and at all times. Only then will it be possible to radically reduce the use of cars in cities and towns.

5) We also need to nationalise the freight industry (road and rail) to bring about a big reduction in the use of trucks for moving goods. Real planning for the sort of economic shifts that are needed cannot be done if the key economic levers remain in the hands of the profit-crazed corporations.

6) Big business should be forced to pay realistic prices for the power it uses. This will focus their minds on the task at hand.These are the sort of socialist solutions that are presented, and supported with convincing arguments and evidence, in the Socialist Alliance's Climate Change Charter.

How are we going to get there?
If our society were simply an egalitarian collection of people, we could have a big society-wide discussion, work out a plan to meet the crisis of climate change and begin collectively trying to implement it.

But under capitalism this is impossible. Society is sharply divided between a handful of capitalists who own the economy (the mines, the factories, the supermarkets, the banks, the media, etc.) and the great working-class majority, who are forced to work for them in order to live. Nothing can be done which seriously hurts the interests of the ruling rich. Governments claim to be governing on behalf of everybody but in reality they represent only the capitalists. So a democratic social plan ­which is exactly what we need ­ is ruled out under this system.

Instead, as we approach absolute disaster the capitalists are screaming ever louder for "carbon trading" whereby the notorious "hidden hand" of the market is supposed to achieve the desired outcome. But this simply will not work.

We reject the idea that everything can be left up to the market through various economic mechanisms, incentives and disincentives. The normal operations of the so-called "free market" have brought us to where we are now. We need less of it, not more. At most, market mechanisms can play a minor role. Energy waste and inefficiency by big business should be penalised, but the main levers for change should be enforceable targets, direct control and regulation coupled with the sorts of radical measures I've outlined.

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