Why Capitalism Can’t Fix Global Warming

A hundred thousand bats fell from the sky when a heat wave struck Australia. In the opposite hemisphere, a polar vortex drove temperatures across the United States to record lows. Last year, a few days before the COP 19 negotiations, a supercharged Typhoon Haiyan killed 6,000 people in the Philippines with thousands still missing. Even as greenhouse gas (GHG) levels near a point of no return where climate disasters will become more frequent and reach even more catastrophic levels, the countries that are responsible do nothing and refuse to take responsibility. Around the world, corporations market green capitalism as the solution. Many in the environmental movement reluctantly agree with methods to reduce GHG through use of the market. Yet, capitalism cannot fix global warming because global warming is not a policy problem; rather, it is a direct consequence of capitalism’s fundamental driving forces.

Climate colonialism
Ever since industrialization in the 19th century, people have been producing more greenhouse gases then can be absorbed. Thus, GHG has been accumulating in the atmosphere. Climate scientists have set 2 degree Celsius as the maximum temperature increase that would allow human civilization to exist. For the poorest countries to also survive would require a maximum 1 degree Celsius increase. We are at 0.8 degree Celsius. To achieve a no more than 1 degree Celsius increase requires that we stabilize the atmosphere at 350 ppm. What this means is that the world’s carbon budget for how much GHG can be emitted into the atmosphere annually is very limited. It is from this scientific premise that we get the notion of climate colonialism. Imperial powers have developed by consuming not only the carbon budget allotted to them but also that of the rest of the world. In effect, they have “colonized” the portion of the atmosphere that belonged to the rest of the world. Thus, developed countries not only have a responsibility for making the largest cuts in GHG emissions, but they also have the responsibility of transfering a portion of their wealth in the form of technology and financial transfers as a form of reparations to developing countries for colonizing the atmosphere.

Technology won’t solve the problem
From government policy to corporate boardrooms to the mainstream media, technology is touted as the magic bullet that will defeat global warming. Yet, technology alone can’t solve the problem. This is because more important than technological innovation is its application. John Bellamy Foster, in his book “Ecological Revolution,” explains the Jevons Paradox: greater energy efficiency in the 1800s in England didn’t result in the conservation of coal; paradoxically, it resulted in its accelerated consumption: Greater efficiency had made coal cheaper thus driving up overall consumption. Likewise, greater energy efficiency alone does not necessarily lead to less consumption of energy. Greater car mileage means that driving a given distance has become cheaper. Within the market’s cost-benefit analysis, the cheaper cost of driving may mean people drive rather than take public transportation. Unless structural changes are implemented such as low cost public transportation alongside greater energy efficiency, greater efficiency does not to lead to less consumption. Secondly, the effectiveness of green technology is limited by accessibility. In the current global economic order with ever strengthening patent rights through free trade agreements (such as the Korea-US FTA), the World Trade organization, and regional trading blocs such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, green technology is being further pulled out of the reach of poor countries forcing them to either take the same polluting path of industrialization or to remain in poverty. For technology to be effective in fixing global warming, technology needs to be embedded in a system that meets the needs of society as a whole, not one where they are held hostage for the greed and profit of a few.

Carbon markets can’t solve the problem
Carbon markets are touted as a flexible solution that avoids the rigidities of direct regulation. In theory, it rewards those that decrease their greenhouse gas emissions and allows flexibility for polluters. The two most basic components of carbon trading are cap and trade. First, the level of GHG a country can produce is capped at a maximum. In order to reach this goal each country parcels out this budget of pollution to its producers in the form of permits. Let’s say there are two producers A and B. They are both given permits to pollute 100 tons of GHG a year. Producer A through the adoption of greater energy efficiency only pollutes 80 tons of a GHG a year; producer B pollutes the same as before at 120 tons of GHG a year. Then under carbon trading, producer A would be able to trade its permits of 20 tons of GHG a year to producer B in exchange for money. The problem with this premise is that even if it worked, nothing stops the polluting behavior from still negatively affecting surrounding communities. In the documentary “The Carbon Connection,” pollution from oil companies is killing a community in Scotland. Yet, these companies are able to do so because they have purchased carbon credits from the planting of eucalyptus trees in Brazil. In Brazil, rural communities are being displaced from their lands to make room for these eucalyptus tree plantations. Rather than fixing the problem and reducing emissions, the carbon markets allow companies to shift responsibility to another part of the world. Ultimately, the polluters and its cottage industry benefit, while the masses of people suffer.

Yet, carbon markets in even this twisted scenario do not lead to actual decrease of greenhouse gas emissions. First, carbon markets place the regulation of GHG into the same financial markets fraught with speculation, greed, and corruption that have created mass suffering through its economic and food crises. One of the greatest proponents, and likely beneficiaries, of carbon trading is Goldman Sachs who had not only created fake securities, but had also defrauded their own customers during the subprime mortgage bubble. These would be the people in charge of brokering these carbon trade deals. Only this time they are not only gonna crash the market, they are gonna crash the planet.

Besides placing the fate of our planet in the hands of greedy, corrupt, lying speculators who seek to maximize profits at whatever cost, the carbon market itself is fundamentally flawed. This is because it ties regulation to the price of carbon credits. When carbon credits are cheap, polluting is cheap; conservation from an economic point of view is pointless. The world experienced this when the Kyoto Protocol was approved for its second round with a weak cap (i.e. feeble emissions reductions targets) and the price of carbon credits in Europe collapsed making it cheap to pollute and pointless to conserve. The way to fix global warming is simple: reducing pollution through regulation and more effective use of resources to meet people’s needs.

Profit driven production is the fundamental problem
Under our current system, production only happens when profits can be made. As Richard Smith in “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?” makes clear, under capitalism employment is linked to production and production is linked to profits. If a profit can’t be made, then production will cease, and jobs will be lost. If a profit can be made – regardless of whether the product aggravates global warming or not – then production will expand and jobs will be created. Thus, in an economy based in the market system the well-being of the majority of people is held in the hands of a few capitalists. If we extrapolate, this means that the well being of society is tied to GDP growth (i.e. the sum aggregate of profits within a country). Yet, infinite growth within a finite planet is not possible. What then is the solution? The solution is to make production more effective and efficient and center it not on profits but on people’s needs. This would mean that we would only use up our natural resources – including our limited atmosphere – on products that meet people’s needs and are built in a durable and efficient manner. Disposable products would be eliminated, public transportation infrastructure would be greatly expanded and individual car usage limited. Food production and consumption would be localized decreasing food miles and increasing food quality. Workers from sectors that are shut down by the government would be rechanneled and retrained to fix appliances or to upgrade technology products. In this type of sustainable society, production would not be able to be in the hands of a few to increase their profits; production would need to belong to the people, and it would need to be used to meet their needs through planning and participatory democracy.

Ecological Revolution!
Capitalism and imperialism aren’t just destroying our planet; they are also starving, oppressing, and killing most of its inhabitants. Let’s snap out of it! Capitalism is killing us. Now is the time to stand up, fight back, and dismantle it, for the sake of our planet, our children, and our humanity.

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