Climate change: revolution not shopping to stop global warming

As delegates meet in Bali this week to discuss climate change, George Monbiot is at pains to defend himself from the charge of being a communist . A day later Jonathan Freedland , also writing in the Guardian, wonders whether the solution is to be found within capitalism or through a revolution against it. Helen Ward pleads guilty to the charge of being a communist, arguing for socialist planning rather than market solutions or capitalist rationing.

The latest science shows that the planet is heading for irreversible climate change if drastic action is not taken now. There needs to be an emergency plan to cut global carbon emissions by at least 85% by 2050, but the world leaders are well off that pace. Gordon Brown is “leading the way” with the Climate Change Bill and that only proposes a 60% cut in the UK!

The Bali conference is the start of a process of negotation for a post-Kyoto agreement. In stark contrast to the urgency of the task, the leaders are not even discussing an agreement, just a timetable for discussing an agreement. This leisurely pace fits well with their lack of commitment to take decisive action, and is even alarming sections of big business.

Last week bosses from 150 top companies including British Airways, Coca Cola, Shell, Nike, Tesco and Nestle called for much tougher carbon emission targets – at least 50% by 2050. Before you get duped by their new social conscience, they were keen to point out what was in it for them – “The shift to a low-carbon economy will create significant business opportunities.”

The UN, and in partiuclar the US, will not even aspire to this limited target, and this shows the problems climate change is posing for global capitalism.

The business leaders called for “a sufficiently ambitious, international and comprehensive, legally binding United Nations agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to provide business with the certainty it needs to scale up global investment in low-carbon technologies.”

In other words they want some kind of protection before they will start to invest – otherwise they know that in the short term such companies would be at a disadvantage, and make less money, than those who go for the shortsighted but profitable investment in existing technology. But they also know that if they ignore climate change they will be doomed in the end. As one boardroom chief lamented last week, “We mustn’t kill our customers.”

It is not new for sections of the bosses to call on the state to regulate them, to protect them from their immediate and destructive self-interest. Sometimes this happens, as is the case of the Factory Acts in the 19th century Britain or more limited environmental regulation today. But this particular problem requires global regulation, and unfortunately for the capitalists, regulation is primarily organised at the level of the nation state. Supranational bodies exist, but they are largley toothless and cumbersome. They are also, as evidenced by the UN’s pathetic Kyoto agreement, ineffectual as they are not binding and the big nations and corporations can ignore or subvert them.

Many environmentalists dismiss business claims as “greenwash”. It is true that it is mostly done to promote a green image and boost sales, but it would be naive to think that capitalists have no interest in tackling climate change. In the long run they do, and as scientific projections become more certain the attempts to use the market, combined with state regulation, will grow. Unfortunately their solutions will be based on market mechanisms which inevitably lead to increased inequalities as those with the money (or carbon credits) win out.

The alternative to the market is planning . Many liberals are now calling for emergency action in the form of strict rationing – a form of planning – and looking wistfully at the experience of the second world war when whole economies were requisitioned for the war effort. Madeleine Bunting , correctly complaining about the unsustainability of shopping, recalls “In the early 1940s, a dramatic drop in household consumption was achieved – not by relying on the good intentions of individuals (and their ability to act on that coffee-stained pamphlet), but by the government orchestrating a massive propaganda exercise combined with a rationing system and a luxury tax.”

Yes, the capitalist state can implement emergency plans. But at whose expense? Although rationing in the war did lead to a more equitable distribution of basics, it also led to a thriving black market benefiting the rich, and was based on a ruthless crushing of democracy and human rights, the banning of strikes and requisitioning of labour.

There is another model for planning, and that is socialism. Not bureaucratic Stalinist planning but democratic and based on the control of the working class. But George Monbiot is so scared of being called a communist he won’t contemplate that solution. It is interesting that liberals, however radical, would rather see a strengthened capitalist state implementing a centralised plan than trust to the working class. Freedland is right – the choice is now rely on the market or risk a revolution.

Read more from Helen Ward in Climate Change: a question of power , in Permanent Revolution 7 out now.

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