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Can we stop global warming?

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Climate change is a growing threat to our survival. Andrew Stone argues that the solution is not a world away, but another world
Issue 1928

NEW LABOUR has discovered an ingenious method for dealing with climate change—increasing the amount of greenhouse gases Britain can produce.

By a happy coincidence, this is exactly what big business was lobbying for. The only minor drawback with this approach is that our environment will continue to go to hell in a handcart.

To see why, we don’t need a crystal ball—just a sober assessment of the damage already taking place. In the 20th century, the earth’s average surface temperature rose by 0.6 degrees centigrade.

Not overly worrying, you might think. But the climate is a delicate thing. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, that seemingly small rise meant that the number of people affected by climate disasters went from 740 million in the 1970s to two billion in the 1990s.

Such threats are many and diverse. They include more flooding and landslides as sea levels rise. The increase in heat-related deaths, such as the estimated 35,000 people killed in Europe during last summer’s heatwave, is another example.

But a hotter world is also a more unpredictable world. A world with more energy pinging around our climate like a manic pinball machine. A world where long established weather patterns are disrupted, and the social systems built around them are thrown into chaos.

So in the Sahel region of Africa average rainfall has fallen by a quarter in the last 30 years. The Tuareg people in Niger, whose society has been nomadic for millennia, have been forced to establish “fixation points” in order to survive.

And regions dependent on the monsoon for paddy cultivation are living in fear that our brave new world will send the rains elsewhere.

Other parts of the world have suffered from a supercharged El Nino cycle, which powered devastating hurricanes in the Americas.

More heat will also mean the spread of water-borne diseases such as malaria. Diarrhoea, which kills nearly two million children per year already, will become even more devastating. This is just a taste of what we can expect in the coming years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a temperature rise of 5.8 degrees centigrade in the next century if we take a “business as usual” approach.

There was a similarly rapid climate shift of 6 degrees centigrade some 250 million years ago. It’s known as the Permian Extinction. Between 90 and 95 percent of the earth’s species were wiped out.

Then volcanoes were the major cause. This time round industry’s tendency to burn fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas is the culprit. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, are a third above pre-industrial amounts and rising fast.

A generation after discovering this peril, our governments are still putting short term profit over the future of life on earth. In 1992 they finally decided that something needed to be done.

Five years later they launched the Kyoto treaty, which said what they would do, which wasn’t very much. This year, after seven years of haggling, Russia put pen to paper and Kyoto came into force.

Kyoto committed the industrialised countries to an average 5.2 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by the end of this decade.

This compares to the 60-80 percent reduction that the IPCC reckons is necessary by 2050. This would prevent a rise of over 2 degrees centigrade.

“Sure, it’s not enough,” our governments admitted. “But be pragmatic,” they said. “We’ll get the principle accepted and move on from there.”

Infamously the US—responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—never accepted the principle.

Republican and Democratic senators alike lined up to condemn it long before George W Bush entered the White House. The US now produces 15 percent more carbon dioxide than in 1990.

But the signatories have done little better. Britain’s emissions are creeping up, and only four countries in the EU are on track to achieve their modest targets.

Japan, rather than reduce its emissions by the required 6 percent, has allowed them to rise by 11 percent. India’s emissions are thought to have increased by half.

What can explain such criminal negligence? Capitalism, in short. If that sounds crude, consider how many industries have a stake in the status quo.

How many produce waste they don’t want to pay for, who use oil because it’s cheapest, who transport goods halfway around the world to find the most lucrative market?

Consider the fact that petrol-derived plastics are everywhere. Think about how difficult it is to get a car, a CD or a computer repaired. Repairs just aren’t as profitable as replacements. Not unless you value the planet’s future above the bottom line.

So we have a fight on our hands. The problem is not our politicians’ ignorance. The science is well known and well proven. The problem is the treadmill of capitalist production. This is a treadmill they daren’t get off.

So we will need to force their hands. We will need to propose some radical alternatives and fight to get them implemented. Here are a few personal suggestions for steps that need to be taken.

  • Take the power generators back into public ownership. They have made obscene profits since they were privatised by the Tories. Meanwhile they continue to use the very fossil fuels that are driving us towards destruction.

    We pay for this through our bills, but also through our taxes. Global fossil fuel subsidies are about $235 billion per year. Renewable energy—such as wind, wave, tidal and solar power—receives a shameful 7 percent of energy research.

    Yet Britain has the greatest potential for wind farms in the European Union and wave power intensity around our coasts is among the highest in the world.

    Currently renewable energy only accounts for 3 percent of Britain’s electricity generation. Nationalisation could enable a rapid escalation of research into renewables using funds currently grabbed by the fossil fuel industry.

  • Invest in council housing. The lack of affordable local housing is relentlessly increasing the time people spend commuting to work (the average Londoner spends almost two hours per day).

    Widely available council housing, much of which could be renovated from existing stock or from vacant private property, could drastically reduce this problem.

    Insulation, as well as solar panels and where appropriate small wind turbines, could be installed using the billions of pounds currently spent to prop up the nuclear industry (in 2002 this amounted to some £7 billion).

    Free energy saving light bulbs could be provided, and appliances checked and upgraded for energy efficiency. This could create thousands of skilled jobs.

    This could be part of much greater planning in society to provide schools, jobs and housing locally to prevent wasteful car journeys.

  • Transform public transport. Transferring freight back to rail and canals would be a good start. Providing reliable and safe public transport—controlled by transport workers and passengers rather than corporate fat controllers—would greatly reduce the need for cars, which are significantly more polluting.

  • Cut air travel. Air travel is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. It is also ignored by the Kyoto treaty. Our taxes subsidise the industry to the tune of roughly £6 billion through tax breaks.

    Much of this travel is businessmen and women jetting around the world to meetings.

    The air industry should be forced to pay tax on jet fuel and to make all possible energy efficiencies. Its profits should be subject to a further green tax.

  • Regulate big business. The government should demand strict targets for sustainable production and energy use. Companies should pay a levy on waste that forces them to make products suitable for repair and recycling.

    Companies should be forced to introduce technologies to reduce pollution.

    In agriculture, drastic reductions in chemical fertilisers are needed: they produce nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 200 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Trade policy should embargo all products derived from unsustainable deforestation and logging, the cause of 20 percent of greenhouse gases.

    All of these proposals challenge the neo-liberal dogma so dear to the heart of New Labour. They focus on what we can do in Britain, but they will need the grassroots internationalism of the anti-war movement to be effective.

    None are in and of themselves revolutionary, but then neither is the fight for decent pay and conditions. But involving people in such campaigns is the vital starting point for the discussion about how we create a radically different world. Climate change means we have no time to lose.

    If you would like to make some suggestions about what steps could be taken to stop climate change please e-mail us at [email protected] or write to

    PO Box 82, London E3 3LH.

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