5/12 Climate crisis : Marijke Colle

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The global climate crisis continues and worsens.
What are the basic natural mechanisms and ‘human made’ causes of this crisis ?
Why do we say that the capitalist mode of production is the fundamental cause of this crisis?
What are the current phenomena which can be linked to the warming of the planet?
The climate crisis puts into question the productivist characteristics of capitalism.
Can capitalism find a solution to global warming through new technologies and new profits in the sector of green capitalism?
What is the situation concerning global negotiations on climate change after Copenhagen?
What are the plans of the EU, of the USA and of the large ‘emerging’ economies like China, India and South Africa?
How do we fight against climate change and for global justice?
What should be the role of the workers movement, of the farmers, of indigenous peoples in the fight for Climate Justice?
How does the fight against climate change alter our socialist project and our strategies?

Detailed outline

  • Climate change is an established fact

20th Century: + 0,6°C and +10-20 cm sea levels rise Most glaciers are shrinking Violent cyclones in the Northern Atlantic ocean Floods and strong monsoon rains in South Asia : Pakistan ( 2010,2011), Thailand (Bangkok 2011), Philippines (2011) Droughts and forest fires : Russia 2010, Australia 2010,2011

The physical cause: Increase in concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane CH4 This increase happened very fast and is due to human activities

  • A brutal change, irreversible at the human time scale

Three types of activity are responsible:
1.deforestation, transformation of meadows in cropland, draining of wetlands, wrong agricultural practices (chemical fertilizers rich in nitrogen)
– today deforestation remains “alarmingly high” according to the latest FAO report
2.the burning of fossil fuels (carbon cycle)
3.emission of gases unknown in nature ( chlorofluorocarbons , CFC’s)
The emitted quantities are two times bigger than the natural absorption capacity

- the effects will not disappear, even if we stop emitting now, the greenhouse gases remain present for 1000 years in the atmosphere - the risk of an acceleration is real and probably underestimated (polar ice , methane in the frozen soil of the north and in the oceans)

Hoping for the depletion of the oil reserves is not an option

  • Is the cause “human activities”?

No!! The cause is the capitalist industrial revolution
The capitalist logic of productivist accumulation in the imperialist centre of the world

Industrial revolution : based on coal
- possibilities for renewable energy were put aside : photovoltaic cells were discovered in 1939, passive solar systems were installed at the beginning of the 20th Century
- the choice in favour of the internal combustion engine, based on the burning of oil, the mass production of cars the decline of river transport and trains replaced by lorries and airplanes - the development of nuclear energy first for bombs and then for “civil” use instead of a priority in research and development of renewable energy and energy efficiency


“The key role of oil as an abundant and cheap liquid fuel with a high energy content,
allowed the control by more and more concentrated and centralised capitals of this sector.
They could in this way occupy a strategic position at the economic and the political level.
Together with the coal industry, the electricity companies and the big actors who depend on oil (car production, ship building, aeronautics, petrochemical industries) the oil companies have prevented the use of renewable energy resources, alternative technology and alternative distribution systems. At the same time, overproduction of energy was stimulated by limits on energy efficiency at the level of the energy system as well as at the level of the products.

  • The responsibility of “real existing” socialism

Bureaucratic degeneration: waste, materiel incentives for directors, potential creativity is smothered, the absence of democracy to express the real needs of the masses, a will to imitate capitalism in its productive choices, technologies and consumption; surreal and polluting agricultural projects, the Aral sea, Chernobyl etc…
Before the fall of the Berlin wall, emissions per inhabitant per year of CO2 were:
Czechoslovakia: 20,7
GDR : 22
USA: 18,9
Canada: 16,2
Australia: 15

  • Catastrophic consequences

Droughts and floods:
+1°C - +5°C: droughts in (sub)tropical regions
+2°C: costal zones flooded
+3°C: loss of ca 30% of humid coastal zones
Less agricultural yields:
+1°C: loss of productivity in tropical zones
+3,5°C: loss of productivity for all cereals in all climates
Health systems:
Malnutrition, diarrhoea, maralria, heath waves, air pollution, asthma
Biodiversity and capacity to adaptation by ecosystems
From +2,5°C : 15% - 45% of terrestrial ecosystems are emitting more CO2 than absorbing it
From +3,5°C (compared with pre-industrial period):
100 – 150 million people victim of floods in coastal regions
Famine = 600 million
Malaria = 300 million
Lack of water = 3,5 billion people

  • The people is the Global South will suffer most

During the period 2000-2004: 262 million victims of climate linked catastrophes ( nearly three times more than between 1980 and 1984) One person in 19 from developing countries and 1 person in 1500 (79 times less) in OECD (=developed) countries

The objectives of the new millennium will not be reached - More and more food insecurity - Increased dependency of agribusiness

  • Workers and poor people

Katrina: the terrible lesson inside the USA
75% of the people in the flooded neighbourhoods are black
Strong cuts in the budget for maintenance of the dykes starting in 2003
The reconstruction is used to expel the poor from the city forever

  • Extreme urgency

According to the IPCC: If currant tendencies continue : between +1,1°C and +6,4°C in comparison with 1990 The observed rise in temperature agrees with the top of the predictions/projections We risk being confronted with a rise of +4,5°C in comparison with the end of the 18th Century. A change of living conditions compared to what separates us from the latest glaciations 20.0000 years ago but at an incredible speeds of 250 years. The EU objective was a maximum rise of +2°C but the objective should be lower because de dangerous threshold is now estimated to be at a warming of +1,7°C. The temperature has already increased by +0,7°C since the pre-industrial period and an increase of +0,6°C is already in the pipeline.

Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for a long time ( 150 years for CO2) In order to stabilize the temperature we need to do more than to stabilize emissions, we have to reduce emissions. The IPCC report from 2007 estimated that a stabilisation of CO2 concentration at the level of 350-400 ppm is necessary and this implies: - reduce emissions by 50-80% in 2050 - start the decline of emissions in 2015

The developed countries are responsible for more than 70% of the climate change as they have burnt fossil fuels since 200 years. In order to reduce emissions by 80-95% in 2050 we need a reduction of 25-40% in 2020. The dependant countries should reduce emissions starting from 2020 (2050 for Africa) This means, that abandoning nearly completely the use of fossil fuels in less than a century of time is necessary. This means a profound social-economic mutation of society.

  • A critique of the IPCC figures conservative estimations
  • Strategies and priorities

We need a structural strategy for change, the only valid strategy is reduction of emissions at the source! - protection of existing forests is a way of avoiding further strong climate change but a mature forest is not a carbon sink ( it is neutral) and from a certain threshold, forests become net emitters of carbon; extending the forested surface has its limits - the capture and sequestration of carbon and thus talk about “white coal” is a blind alley

  • Lower energy consumption in absolute terms and transition towards renewables

The two levers are : replacing oil by renewables AND reduction of the consumption of energy

Solar energy: 7 to 10 times global, worldwide consumption Total decarbonisation without nuclear energy is possible without negative social effects. The transition towards renewables implies the building of a new international decentralised energy system which is diverse, efficient and based only on the solar potential ( panels, passive, wind, wave …)

Additional emissions linked to this transition imply an obligatory draconian reduction of consumption in the energy devouring countries.

  • Energy consumption and social progress

An inhabitant of the USA uses double the amount of oil equivalents as someone living in Switzerland! The potential for reduction of energy consumption is ignored on purpose because capitalism is a society in favour of wasting things: overproduction and overconsumption, useless and dangerous products, the separate production of heat and electricity, overdevelopment of transportation, delocalisation, the frenzy of material consumption by the rich (yachts!) , compensation of social unhappiness by compulsive consumption, …

Divide energy consumption by two in Europe and in Japan, by a factor four in the USA is technically feasible. It is purely about a political choice. We cannot

  • The people in the Global South and clean technologies

We cannot save the climate anymore without the participation of the South Especially the new fast growing economies We need a change by 15% -30% from “business as usual” How? Protection of the forests and higher efficiency Mitigation and adaptation

The fundamental right to social and economic development needs the putting in place of clean technologies in order for those countries to avoid the economical structures based on fossil fuels.

  • The challenges for the South

Mitigation and adaptation have now become a necessity! - adaptation: infrastructure (dykes, water collecting basins,…) - more measures in case of catastrophes (Pakistan 2010)

The management of resources such as water, agriculture, land, forest management, public health,… The developed countires have a major responsibility: they must pay for the costs of adaptation in the developing countries Estimates : 86 billion $ per year starting in 2015

Importance of the fight against poverty and reduction of social inequality

  • Population and climate

Six billion : divide emission by half and arrive at 0,5 tons per year Nine billion : divide emissions by four to arrive at 0,25 tons per year

Global figures are deceptive: USA : 5% of world population and 25% of emissions Developed countries : 8 to 20 times more emissions per person and per year than developing countries The rising population numbers have contributed much less to global warming than the rise in consumption in the rich countries. If the population of the dominated countries had remained at the level of 1950 but with a level of consumption equal to that of the rich countries, then global warming would have been much stronger! If emissions in the rich countries had been limited to those of the poor countries, then global warming would have been much smaller.

This proves that the thesis of neo-Malthusianism is wrong.

  • The capitalist lobbies

Thirty years were lost in the fight against climate change! First warnings: 1957 Observatory in Mauna Loa (Hawaii) : 1958 First UN conference in Geneva : 1979 IPCC founded : 1988 First IPCC report : 1990 First symbolic step: Earth Summit Rio de Janeiro 1992 and principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and the wish to cut emissions Kyoto Treaty : 1997 becomes compulsory (binding)

Capitalist lobbies : sectors in the USA linked to fossil fuels have corrupted scientists and won hegemony amongst US politicians under Bush. Obama is aware of climate change but does not act and the Republican Party is now overwhelmingly climate sceptical ( also: religion, creationist, anti-abortion, …sect-like behaviour against science).

Another examples: the lobby of asbestos, the dangers were known since 1900 and the cigarette lobby, the dangers were known since the 1950’s …

  • Carbon trade, social and climate injustice

Kyoto (1997) a critique:
industrialised countries must cut emissions by 5,2% ( in comparison with 1990) in the period going from 2008 to 2012 This is totally insufficient: - in relation to the IPCC proposals ( between 25% and 40% in 2020 and between 80% and 95% by 2050!) - structural cuts in emissions are put at the same level as absorption of carbon by forest … - air and maritime transport are not taken into account (2% of total emissions) Emission quota a less binding through the following mecanisms: - mechanism of clean development (CDM) - joint implementation (JI) - emission trading system (EMT)

Through EMT, companies who reduce their emissions beyond the given objectives, can sell emission rights of the corresponding tons of carbon! The CDM and Joint Implementation allow developed countries to exchange efforts for lowering emissions in the rich countries for investments which will allow for lower emissions in the future in the South (and East).


They pretend to save the climate through the mechanisms of the capitalist market (a market for carbon trade where emission rights and credits are exchanged) No effort for structural decrease of emissions! More than 50% of the CDM do not correspond to any reduction in emissions. The objectives to cap emissions are established following the profitability imperatives of the groups. The largest polluters are even making money by closing old factories and are not obliged to invest in clean technologies.

Privatisation and commodification of carbon emission rights , the appropriation of carbon absorbing ecosystems constitute a capitalist control of the terrestrial carbon cycle and thus a potential global privatisation of the biosphere which regulates the whole cycle.

In defence of Kyoto: - first regulation - figures for cuts of emissions and a calendar - sanctions - nuclear energy is not mentioned as a CDM

  • Inter capitalist competition and global ecological constraints

Europe and Japan: are under more pressure to become independent of oil, are looking for competitive advantage : carbon market, the market for green technologies, nuclear energy market (but Fukushima!) Obama’s plans: see reading material

Dominant classes in emerging economies: China, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, (India), their national bourgeoisies are claiming their rights to development en put (rightly so) the blame for global warming on the developed world. But their position becomes untenable in view of the fears amongst their population and the pressure from imperialism.

  • Even more liberal capitalist policies

Position of the G8 : reduction by 50% in 2050 (IPCC: 85%) no mention of the objective of 80-95% for the industrialised world not of the intermediate goal of 20-40% by 2020.

European commission : energy/climate package becomes more and more symbolic 20-20-20 efficiency, renewables, reduction

Employers lobby : free emission rights for those sectors confronting international competition!! Delocalisation of reductions through CDM (about 70% of reductions could be transferred to the South)

Obama : employers put maximum pressure in the name of competition. They try hard to delay any reduction of emissions until 2029 Alternative mix : “clean” coal, agro fuels, nuclear energy and efficiency of appliances, carbon sinks, maximum development of global carbon market and maximal delocalisation of cuts in emissions

Delocalisation of reductions : a centre piece in imperialist policies! - export of agro fuels produced in the third world - carbon credits : buying and conservation of forests, planting of trees, export of renewable technologies

The reduction of emissions depends only on the imperatives for profit The objective of increasing the part of renewables replaces the aim of a global decrease of greenhouse gas emissions

  • Ecological and social consequences

-revival of nuclear energy (BUT FUKUSHIMA!) : but it needs the construction of one nuclear plan each week during 50 years to answer to the existing energy demand; dangers; depletion of uranium; low efficiency of the technology ( boil water with nuclear fission to produce electricity to boil water!) - the disaster of agro fuels: against the fundamental right to have food, hunger and four wheel drives, use of enormous quantities of land , pesticides, chemical fertilizer, biodiversity, importance of the fight put forward by Via Campesina -scandal of research on extreme oil resources ( tar sands, oil under the arctic sea,…) -capture and sequestration of carbon a dead end -production of GMO’s, allergies, …

The capitalist answer implies also renewed attacks against workers, farmers, the poor, women, indigenous communities.

-higher energy prices : impact on purchasing power (cost of transport, of consumption goods, of food) -for the capitalists : they defend their profits under higher energy prices by attacking wages, social protection systems and employment

In the dominated countries, the capitalist climate policies gives a new impetus to the separation between producers and their traditional means of production – land in the first place – with rural exodus, transformation into workers (on agro fuel plantations, on oil fields,…) or migration towards les favourable zones or conversion in the tourist industry. It means an overall degradation of autonomy and of living conditions – for women in particular because of their central role in food production –and for the indigenous communities and their rights.


  • Necessity of building relationship of forces at the social level

-building a united and coordinated global movement -the aim: impose on the governments to follow the conclusions of the IPCC -build teams of activists on the topic in different social movements -build a network of resistance -actions worldwide on a common platform -build committees in defence of the climate -build united fronts for the climate

  • Climate and social justice

-build a left wing current inside the movement -defend the necessity for a combined fight for climate and social justice -bring together the trade-union left, ecologists, anti globalisation activists, feminists, the left of those against growth, members of the radical left, critical scientists, … -importance of the fight against climate change in social movements : fight for Peace, against poverty, for the right to development and social protection, women’s struggles, fight for jobs, for access to the land, to water and natural resources; fight against globalisation and liberalisation of agriculture, fight for asylum rights, for the indigenous communities, against privatisations.

  • Central responsibility of the trade-union left

The trade union bureaucracies agree with the productivism and the search for profit of capitalists. They also agree with the dominant policies against climate change: public help for “green” companies, “ecological taxes”, CDM, JI, … This can lead to a situation in which the trade union movement, especially in the rich countries, becomes co responsible for climate catastrophes and their repercussions for the poor in the poor countries.

The left currents in the trade unions must take on this challenge: the fight against climate change must be a central theme in changing the orientation of the workers organisations.

This fight is difficult: the first aim is not to develop new products and new markets for green technologies – it is not a fight for economic recovery. On the contrary it must consist of a fight for less energy consumption, the suppression of useless and dangerous products, and the reconversion of the workers in these sectors.

This obstacle illustrates how wages workers are bound to the capitalist mode of production because they depend on it in their daily life.

The trade union left must acquire a broader vision on the redistribution of wealth and on the way wealth is produced, this means the basis of this mode of production. The demand of a radical shortening of working time ( per day, per week, in life) with additional employment; importance of worker’s control on work rhythms and on the production process …


Reading materials