Socialist Worker

Jonathan Neale: ‘We must change the system to stop climate change’

The fight to save the planet has thrown up questions over what measures are needed to stop abrupt climate change, the alternatives to carbon emitting fuels and how we could reorganise society. Jonathan Neale spoke to Socialist Worker about his forthcom

Issue No. 2103

How serious is aviation in terms of climate change? Why is New Labour so committed to expanding it?

Aviation is not the most important thing – currently it accounts for 12 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from transport. Cars matter more – contributing 45 percent.

But aviation matters because planes emit carbon dioxide directly into the upper atmosphere, which has more effect, and air travel is the fastest growing source of emissions.

The media tend to portray the problem in terms of ordinary people taking holidays and airlines offering cheap flights.

But Gordon Brown is committed to Heathrow expansion because he wants to promote London as a global financial centre. He is desperate to keep businessmen and women flying into Heathrow.

The danger is that New Labour can falsely pose as supporting ordinary people by arguing for airport expansion on the grounds of defending people’s right to take holidays.

Air travel needs to be cut, but not in ways that would increase inequality and mean only the rich could afford to fly. Short haul flights could be cut by investing in rail while long haul flights should be rationed equally.

In your book you talk about

Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. Katrina seems to point to a problem – the inability or unwillingness of governments to prepare for the effects of climate change.

Hurricane Katrina showed what climate change can mean in the richer countries. Katrina could have happened without climate change, but global warming will mean more Katrinas in the future.

Katrina wasn’t unexpected. Everyone knew that there was a problem because of the sinking of the land and rising sea levels.

Scientists at Louisiana State University had drawn up plans for flood defences and measures to replenish silt in the wetlands that led to land drying out, compacting and sinking in the first place.

The estimated cost of the measures needed was $14 billion – the cost of six weeks of the Iraq war. The government refused to spend the money.

When Katrina hit, the mayor and governor didn’t evacuate people. They were under pressure from the hotel industry – which would have lost millions of dollars if people were evacuated.

Neoliberal policies meant that basic measures that should have been taken to protect people from the storm weren’t taken.

George Bush’s main concern in the days after Katrina was to hide the fact that the government knew something was coming and did nothing. A wave of racism in the US media tried to blame the victims.

Recent cyclones in Burma and Bangladesh give another taste of what’s coming. After Burma people should be saying we need better flood and storm defences. But everyone looks at the immediate refugee problem rather than the long-term problem.

The influence of business is a block to fighting climate change. Couldn’t this shift if companies can make profit from things like renewable energy?

You can think, rich people own the world so why would they destroy it? It’s possible that abrupt climate change could be stopped without transforming the system. But it’s unlikely.

Out of the ten biggest corporations in the world, six are oil companies and three are car companies. Serious action over climate change would mean their death.

Oil companies are not just powerful because they have money. They are locked into a set of social and political relationships, such as control over trade routes, links with politicians, distribution networks. The car industry is the same.

There is a division in business. Some corporations see money to be made out of fighting climate change. But for the most powerful corporations, action on climate change would threaten their profits.

Renewable energy has the potential to be a major growth area. But it is more expensive in the short term – plants need to be set up and initial investment needs to be made.

The oil and car industries already have their plants and factories in place. To make the switch would make them redundant and mean starting from scratch. We can’t rely on the profit motive to solve the problem.

Your book makes a strong argument for government investment and regulation of business. What are the barriers to this?

The threat from climate change is so large that a big programme of public works and government investment is needed. But this comes up against the ideology of neoliberalism – the idea that private is good and public is bad.

Government investment and regulation to fight climate change would challenge this ideology. It means that many governments try to take action through market instruments, such as carbon trading, instead.

If people saw that governments could intervene in the market to save the planet, they would start asking questions. Why can’t governments do the same in the health service? Business doesn’t want people asking those questions.

Climate change is a global problem and needs a global solution. But governments and corporations work on the basis of competition not co-operation. Dealing with climate change means dealing with that.

What do we need to do to stop climate change?

We have the technology right now to stop abrupt climate change. We need to cover our planet with wind farms and solar panels, and initiate a programme of massive public works.

All new houses could be built with solar panels in the roofs, which the government could pay for.

Stopping climate change is no small task. But action by ordinary people has led to huge changes in the past – from ending colonialism and slavery to developing the welfare state in Britain.

To stop climate change we’re told ordinary people will have to sacrifice. But the key is to shift to using different resources, not less. If we think that we can’t change how we do things then we’ll conclude that we have to sacrifice.

The real problem is that people don’t feel they can change how things are done. The best response I think is to look at the Second World War. All major countries shifted what their economies did because of the war effort.

Now we have to change the economy in the same way – but to save as many lives as possible rather than to kill as many people as possible.

It shows what is possible if the political will is there. What we have now is a lack of political will.

Governments will not take the measures needed to stop climate change unless we build a mass movement that forces them to. This is not just about the environmental movement.

It’s a matter of building all the movements for a better world, including the anti-war movement and the anti-globalisation movement.

We face a choice. We can rely on the rich and powerful to solve the problem from the top. Or we can look to the mass of ordinary people across the planet to force change and run society in a different way.

Ordinary people have changed the world before – they can do it again.

Stop Global Warming – Change The World! by Jonathan Neale will be published by Bookmarks in July. For more information phone 020 7637 1848 »

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