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Will Capitalism Survive Climate Change?

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Climate change is a looming crisis brought on by over-consumption, writes Walden Bello, in Focus81. Yet humanity’s response may be to bring about a better quality of life for all.

There is now a solid consensus in the scientific community that if global mean temperatures increase by more than 2.4 degrees Celsius in the 21st century, the change in the planet’s climate will be large-scale, irreversible and disastrous. Moreover, the window of opportunity for action that will make a difference is narrow – that is, the next 10 to 15 years.

Throughout the North, however, there is strong resistance to changing the systems of consumption and production that have created the problem in the first place and a preference for techno-fixes, such as “clean” coal, carbon sequestration and storage, industrial-scale biofuels, and nuclear energy.

Globally, transnational corporations and other private actors resist government-imposed measures such as mandatory caps, preferring to use market mechanisms like the buying and selling of carbon credits, which critics says simply amounts to a license for corporate polluters to keep on polluting.

In the South, there is little willingness on the part of Southern elites to depart from the high-growth, high consumption model inherited from the North and a self interested conviction that the North must first adjust and bear the brunt of adjustment before the South takes any serious step towards limiting its greenhouse gas emissions.

Contours of the Challenge
In the climate change discussions, the principle of common but differentiated responsibility is recognized by all parties, meaning that the global North must shoulder the brunt of the adjustment to the climate crisis since it is the one

“The central problem is in short: Capitalism.”

whose economic trajectory has brought it about. It is also recognized that the global response should not compromise the countries of the global South’s right to develop.

The devil, however, is in the detail. As Martin Khor of Third World Network has pointed out, the global reduction of 80 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, that many now recognize as a necessity, will have to translate into reductions of at least 150 to 200 per cent on the part of the global North if the two principles—common but differentiated responsibility and recognition of the right to develop of the countries of the South—are to be followed. But are the governments and people of the North prepared to make such commitments?

Psychologically and politically, it is doubtful that the North at this point has what it takes to meet the problem head-on. The prevailing assumption is that the affluent societies can take on commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but still grow and enjoy their high standards of living if they shift to nonfossil fuel energy sources. The subtext is: techno-fixes will make the transition relatively painless and—why not?—profitable, too.

There is, however, a growing realisation that many of these technologies are decades away from viable use and that, in the short and medium term, relying on a shift in energy dependence to non-fossil fuel alternatives will not be able to support current rates of economic growth. Also, the tradeoff for more cropland devoted to biofuel production is less land to grow food and greater food insecurity globally.

It is rapidly becoming clear that the dominant paradigm of economic growth is one of the most significant obstacles to a serious global effort to deal with climate change. But this destabilising, fundamentalist growth-consumption paradigm is itself more effect rather than cause.
The central problem is a mode of production whose main dynamic is the transformation of living nature into dead commodities, creating tremendous waste in the process. The driver of this process is consumption – or more appropriately over-consumption – and the motivation is profit or capital accumulation: Capitalism, in short.

It has been the generalisation of this mode of production in the North and its spread from the North to the South over the last 300 years that has caused the accelerated burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil and rapid deforestation, two of the key man-made processes behind global warming.

The South’s Dilemma
One way of viewing global warming is to see it as a key manifestation of the latest stage of a wrenching historical process: the privatisation of the global commons by capital. The climate crisis must thus be seen as the expropriation by the advanced capitalist societies of the ecological space of less developed or marginalized societies.

This leads us to the dilemma of the South: Before the full extent of the ecological destabilisation brought about by capitalism, it was expected that the South would simply follow the “stages of growth” of the North. Now it is impossible to do so without bringing about ecological Armageddon. Already, China is on track to overtake the US as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, yet the elite of China as well as those of India and other rapidly developing countries intent on reproducing American consumption driven capitalism.

Thus, for the South, the implications of an effective global response to global warming include not just the inclusion of some countries in a regime of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, although this is critical: In the current round of climate negotiations, for instance, China, can no longer opt out of a mandatory regime on the ground that it is a developing country.

These steps should be seen as the initial steps in a broader, global reorientation of the paradigm for achieving economic well-being. While the adjustment will need to be much, much greater and faster in the North, the adjustment for the South will essentially be the same: a break with the high-growth, high-consumption model in favour of another model of achieving the common welfare.

In contrast to the Northern elites’ strategy of trying to decouple growth from energy use, a progressive comprehensive climate strategy in both the North and the South must be to reduce growth and energy use while raising the quality of life of the broad masses of people. Among other things, this will mean placing economic justice and equality at the centre of the new paradigm.

The transition must be one not only from a fossil-fuel based economy but also from an over consumption-driven economy. The end goal must be adoption of a low-consumption, low-growth, high-equity development model that results in an improvement in people’s welfare, a better quality of life for all, and greater democratic control of production. It is unlikely that the elites of the North and the South will agree to such a comprehensive response. Growth will be sacrosanct, as will the system of global capitalism.

Yet, confronted with the Apocalypse, humanity cannot self-destruct. It may be a difficult road, but we can be sure that the vast majority will not commit social and ecological suicide to enable the minority to preserve their privileges. However it is achieved, a thorough reorganisation of production, consumption, and distribution will be the end result of humanity’s response to the climate emergency and the broader environmental crisis.

Threat and Opportunity
In this regard, climate change is both a threat and an opportunity to bring about the long postponed social and economic reforms that had been derailed or sabotaged in previous eras by elites seeking to preserve or increase their privileges. The difference is that today the very existence of humanity and the planet depend on the institutionalisation of economic systems based not on feudal rent extraction or class exploitation but on justice and equality.



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