A Red Flag feature looking at the links between capitalism and environmental destruction, the Australian media’s woeful record in failing to explain the science of climate change, and practical solutions to make a zero-emissions economy.

Capitalism and climate crisis, by Kate Jeffreys

IT’S 16 OCTOBER, and Sydney is hidden under ash and smoke. The sun is barely visible behind a deep orange haze. Greens MP Adam Bandt links to a frightening image of a Sydney waterfront dwarfed by a cloud of ominous smoke, tweeting: “Why Tony Abbott’s plan means more bushfires for Australia & more pics like this of Sydney”.

Bandt’s comment incurred the wrath of Abbott and other conservatives, who accused him of “politicising” the bushfires. But whether we like it or not, the regular loss of lives, homes and livelihoods to Australian bushfires is political. It stems directly from a system that rules for and rewards the biggest polluters, while underfunding fire services and leaving Australians in vulnerable areas without protection.

While Abbott claimed that the fires were simply “a function of life in Australia”, Australian climate scientists responded.

Carbon pollution and its heat-trapping properties are like “putting the weather on steroids”, said John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute. “It’s not just warmer weather, it’s wilder weather.”

Studies of the impact of climate change on Australian bushfires are nothing new. A CSIRO report from 2005 found that, relative to 1990, the number of extreme fire danger days in south-eastern Australia could increase by 25-65 percent by 2020.

The scale of the crisis

Around the world, disasters like these are likely to happen more and more often as the globe warms and our climate changes. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is linked to more frequent extreme climate events. Since the 1950s, we’ve had more hot days and heat waves, fewer cold nights and more intense and frequent heavy rainfall events. Some of these weather events lead to flooding, droughts, fires or hurricanes.

The major cause is an economic system that, relying almost entirely on burning fossil fuels for energy, has released hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The September release of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) should end the so-called “debate” about climate science. Warming of the climate system is “unequivocal”, it says. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are at their highest in at least 800,000 years. Due to emissions from burning fossil fuels and changes in land use, carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40 percent since the pre-industrial period.

For the first time, the IPCC now defines an upper limit – one trillion tonnes – on the amount of carbon that can be released, starting from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, before damaging and irreversible changes will occur. We’ve already burned through just over half a trillion tonnes of carbon, and if business proceeds as usual, we’ll exceed the one trillion tonne limit in a matter of decades.

Professor David Karoly of Melbourne University, a key contributor to the 2007 IPCC report, says that unless we take dramatic action, global surface temperatures could increase by 5 to 7 degrees Celsius (relative to pre-industrial levels) by 2100. Greenhouse gas emissions must fall to zero by 2080, says Professor Karoly, to have even a 75 percent chance of avoiding a 2 degree rise in temperature.

Global temperature increases threaten whole ecosystems. Plant, bird and insect populations change locations, seeking higher and colder ground, becoming more fragmented and in more danger of extinction in the process.

Some parts of the damage can be latent, or hidden from view. The IPCC is highly confident that the world’s oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the heat accumulated in the climate system between 1971 and 2013. Receding ice sheets and diminishing glaciers contribute to rising sea levels, and to the possible catastrophic destruction of communities in coastal and island areas.

While the IPCC predicts that ocean warming will continue into the future, the peoples of low-lying Pacific nations already fear for their homes and communities. Christopher J. Loeak, president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, wrote in September:

“We are increasingly panicked by recent scientific reports suggesting that the world is currently heading for a three to six foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century. If such predictions are accurate, my country will be lost forever.”

As oceans absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, their waters become more acidic, and their oxygen levels deplete. “Biotic and Human Vulnerability to Projected Changes in Ocean Biogeochemistry over the 21st Century”, a study funded by the University of Hawaii and published in October, concluded that the changes could “cascade through marine habitats and organisms”, putting at risk hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people, many of whom depend on ocean produce for their livelihoods and food sources.

As always, the poorest people of any community – whether in developing or developed countries – bear the brunt of these unnatural disasters.

Who is to blame?

Climate change is driven by capitalism. John Bellamy Foster, a renowned Marxist writer, describes the dynamic in his 2002 anthology, Ecology Against Capitalism. Capitalism is expansionist, he explains; capitalist economies are geared, first and foremost, to economic growth.

The chaotic nature of the capitalist market, seeking short term returns for any investment, makes the system incapable of considering the longer time frames needed to protect the environment from global warming.

In an economy based on ruthless competition, any energy company that decided to take a longer view of social needs would be instantly outcompeted by its rivals. That’s true of national economies also. Export industries competing in the world market are interested in lowering production costs as much as possible. The cheapest, rather than the cleanest, electricity generation wins out in such calculations.

A report from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) in September revealed that just 50 corporations produce 73 percent of the carbon emissions of the world’s largest 500 companies. The energy sector alone accounts for 28.3 percent of these emissions. Since 2009, the emissions of the 10 biggest emitters in the energy sector have increased by 53 percent.

So much for all the PR from companies such as US energy giant Chevron about “finding newer, cleaner ways to power the world”. Working people, students and the poor have no say over how these companies operate. We didn’t vote for the heads of Exxon Mobil, Shell or BP, and we don’t have a say over their decisions.

How should we organise?

Major green groups have supported attempts to introduce market-based solutions to carbon emissions and climate change. The carbon tax was widely hailed as a victory for the environment movement. However, in February the Melbourne newspaper Herald Sun reported on a study that found that “Australia’s highly emitting brown coal generators will reap $2.3 billion to $5.4 billion in windfall profits from carbon price compensation” – all while passing on their costs from the carbon price to consumers.

Similarly, the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) – the cornerstone of European climate policy – has failed to achieve its objectives. Carbon Trade Watch, in a presentation for the European Society for Ecological Economics, notes: “The first two phases of the EU ETS (2005-2007, 2008-2012) resulted in modest emissions reductions and considerable windfall profits for polluters.

“As permits were allocated for free according to historical emissions, energy intensive industries were able to sell their excess of permits, while electricity producers, which faced relatively tighter caps, passed on their ‘opportunity costs’ to consumers. Prices of emissions permits and credits have been consistently low and decreasing.”

As Bellamy Foster argues in Ecology Against Capitalism, the limitations of the system mean that we have to look outside it for solutions.

This is something that mainstream green groups have failed to do. In a controversial interview, activist and author Naomi Klein raised hackles with her statement that mainstream green groups’ failure to acknowledge the political implications of market-based climate change strategies has been “more damaging” to the movement than right wing climate change denialists.

“It has steered us in directions that have yielded very poor results”, she explained. “If we look at the track record of Kyoto, of the UN Clean Development Mechanism, the European Union’s emissions trading scheme – we now have close to a decade that we can measure these schemes against, and it’s disastrous.” Emissions are up, she continues, and the EU ETS is widely disparaged for fraud and corruption.

In 2002, John Bellamy Foster wrote, “We need to create through our struggles a global society that elevates the status of nature and community above that of the accumulation of capital; equality and justice above individual greed; and democracy above the market.

“A new accord with nature is needed … Countless people around the world are already engaged in this struggle and many millions more will join them. Nothing less than the fate of the earth as we know it is at stake.”

His words are more urgent today than ever before.


Media’s disgraceful record on climate reporting, by Diane Fieldes

“MODERN JOURNALISM risks irrelevance if it loses its hunger for the facts”, lamented Weekend Australian columnist Nick Cater at the beginning of November.

His lengthy article had only one comment on climate change, but it seemed like a good one: “What passes for journalism these days shows no respect for the facts. It is particularly apparent in the reporting of issues like climate change, where the evidence simply doesn’t matter anymore.”

Was this a rare moment of clarity from the Murdoch press? No, the complaint was from the former head of the ABC, Maurice Newman, a major climate change denier, that there’s too much science and not enough of his weird opinions being reported.

This is not some aberration for the Australian media. A new analysis of articles in Australia’s major newspapers has found that a third rejected or cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific findings about climate change. The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s Sceptical Climate report also found that right wing columnist Andrew Bolt is a clear leader in this field, devoting 49 percent of his words in the survey period to rejecting climate science.

This media bias is not only out of step with the scientific consensus but also out of step with popular opinion. Professor Joseph Reser’s recent large survey of 7,500 people found some 83 percent of Australians accept that climate change is happening and that human activity plays a role in it.

In Sceptical Climate, Wendy Bacon points out that the decision to promote Bolt and other right wing luminaries is driven from the top: “Andrew Bolt is the dominant voice on climate science by a long way, although I wouldn’t personalise it on him because it’s the editors and corporate managers who give him the space in the newspaper.”

The media feel no need for evidence or proof. In this regard, climate change denial is hardly unique. For decades after the scientific verdicts were in, the media continued to report that asbestos was safe to work and live with, and that smoking really didn’t cause lung cancer.

As Sceptical Climate points out, eventually investigative journalists “turned their attention to identifying how economic interests were influencing those denying the link”.

The same is true of climate change. Distorting or just denying evidence of the way capitalism destroys human lives and the planet performs a useful function for the system as a whole: absolving it of blame.


Doing our bit? By Emma Norton

MOST PEOPLE want to do something to stop climate change and reduce environmental pollution. Business and government are more than happy to give us advice on how.

From water-wise advertisements that tell us to cut down our five minute showers to two minutes, to energy companies charging extra for “green power”, there is no shortage of helpful tips on how individuals can help save the environment.

There are problems with this strategy for change.

First, as consumers of gas and electricity in the home, we only use a fraction of the energy pie. Industry, on the other hand, consumes a whopping 74 percent of the total.

Second, we don’t have any control over how power is produced. If asked whether all energy should be produced using renewable sources, a majority would probably answer “yes”. In fact, a poll published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011 revealed: “86 percent want Australia to be powered entirely by renewable energy somewhere down the track.”

Yet the business owners, and the governments that serve them, prefer cheap coal. So that’s what we get stuck with.

In WA, one of the driest states in the country, the Water Corporation airs regular advertisements encouraging people to save water in the home. The same is not expected of the mining industry, which uses 18 percent of the state’s water for useful services such as washing yellowcake uranium or coating piles of iron ore to stop them blowing away.

Along with the fairly negligible effect that reductions in our own energy or water consumption have, there is the nagging question of how “free” we are to do these things anyway. Most people have to work to survive, and with the government’s insufficient funding of public transport, most people need a car to get to and from work.

Here there are limits to the power of the individual, as the auto industry makes all of its affordable cars run on petrol. So in one of the largest areas of personal energy consumption, individuals are boxed in by industry and government, making our “choice” illusory.

There are real solutions to climate change. Researchers at Beyond Zero Emissions say it is possible to convert Australia’s energy production to 100 percent renewable at a cost of $37 billion per year over ten years.

But the primacy of profits over human lives means that companies and the government won’t do this without a fight. No amount of personal sacrifice will convince them otherwise.

It is useful for these polluting industrialists and their friends in parliament if we each feel personally responsible to “do our bit”, instead of collectively forcing them to do theirs.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed that "Researchers at Beyond Zero Emissions say it is possible to convert Australia’s energy production to 100 percent renewable in 10 years at a cost of less than $28 billion". The actual estimate, corrected above, is $37 billion per year over ten years.]

What needs to be done, by Mick Armstrong

NEITHER SIDE of politics is serious about doing anything to prevent disastrous climate change because they are obsessed with defending the profits of their mates in big business.

The carbon tax introduced by Labor and the Greens actually sent things backwards by discrediting in popular consciousness the idea of tackling climate change. And Abbott’s “direct action” policy is a farce.

The Liberals are not even prepared to commit enough funds to meet the pathetically inadequate bipartisan target of a 5 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. Even worse, the government is adding to the problem by refusing to fund rail and other public transport projects while pouring billions of dollars into road projects.

In order to have any hope of combating, let alone reversing, climate change, we have to break the power of the giant corporations that profit from it. The problem with both market-based mechanisms, such as the carbon tax or emissions trading schemes, and Abbott’s “direct action” approach is not just that they are too little too late. They actually reward the big polluters and a sordid array of speculators and money market operators.

The very oil, electricity, coal and car companies that created the problem are being handed billions of dollars in subsidies – which just strengthens their capacity to resist the decisive changes needed. Meanwhile the mass of workers and the poor, who are in no way responsible for the problem, are forced to pay higher taxes and power bills and drive ever greater distances to work and to access basic services.

No successful mass movement to save the environment is conceivable on this basis of demanding sacrifices from the mass of the population to prop up the profits of the likes of Exxon, Shell, BHP, Twiggy Forrest and Gina Rinehart.

The most effective and cheapest way to start to turn the situation around would be to re-nationalise the electricity, gas, rail, tram, bus and water companies without any compensation to the parasites who made a fortune out of the privatisation of these essential public services.

That would lay the basis for a concerted effort to shift power generation away from fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency, massively expand public transport and plan our cities to serve human needs.

Under private ownership, the power generation companies will sharply shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, tidal and thermal power only if they receive massive subsidies. Even then they will drag their feet and demand more and more compensation from taxpayers to decommission heavily polluting plants.

Furthermore, the big business owners of these key utilities have a vested interest in promoting excessive electricity, gas and water consumption in order to boost their profits. If we are to have any hope of utilising our energy resources in an efficient and environmentally sustainable way, they must be operated on the basis of what best meets the needs of the mass of the population, not on the current basis of the maximisation of profits.

The measures needed to respond to climate change are consistently portrayed by the media, politicians of all stripes and the conservative wing of the environment movement as being a cost that everyone has to pay. But a series of basic environmentally sustainable measures, provided they were taken out of the control of big business interests, would substantially improve the quality of workers’ lives and significantly cut the cost of living.

For example a serious effort to promote energy efficiency in households, better building design, more insulation, more solar panels, water recycling and so on, would slash household electricity and water bills. A massive expansion of affordable, fast and reliable public transport would slash petrol bills and dramatically reduce the amount of time people have to spend stuck in interminable traffic jams driving to work.

A major expansion of well-designed, energy-efficient public housing in the inner and medium distance suburbs of all the major cities and in regional centres would slash house prices, cut electricity and transport bills and ease the urban sprawl.

A major upgrading, redesign and sensible relocation of schools, hospitals, childcare centres, retirement homes and other vital infrastructural projects would further reduce power consumption, cut travel times and provide better and more efficient services.

There are innumerable other projects, such as high speed trains between the major cities, which would markedly reduce carbon pollution and improve people’s lives, that would be prioritised if market forces and the pursuit of profit were not society’s key decision-making criteria.

In response to the inevitable cry of “Where is the money going to come from?”, a key area where we could immediately save billions of dollars is expenditure on the military. Imperialist war, as well as costing millions of lives, is incredibly environmentally destructive; the armed forces are one of the largest users of fossil fuels. Billions more could be saved by ending the persecution of refugees.

Finally, we need to fight for essential reforms such as better public transport and the greater use of renewable energy. But as long as capitalism continues to rule the planet it is going to be an uphill battle to achieve the decisive changes that are necessary.

Even if we forced the government to re-nationalise the electricity industry, as long as the rest of the economy remains under corporate control, the public service bureaucrats who ran the state owned electricity sector would be under constant pressure to prioritise the interests of their key corporate customers, such as the aluminium companies, over the interests of the mass of the population and the environment.

That’s why it is not sufficient simply to re-nationalise the key utilities, like electricity and public transport – they need to be brought under the social ownership of the workers in the industry and the mass of people who depend on those services.

Only in a democratically planned society, which has put an end to the chaos and destruction wrought by the capitalist market, can we hope to meet the threat of catastrophic climate change and provide the essential social needs of the mass of humanity.