The root of climate change

July 9, 2015

The world's ecological problems have sent human society plunging into uncharted territory--but capitalism is incapable of finding the way out, writes Tyler Hansen.

IN HIS book Storms of my Grandchildren, leading climate scientist James Hansen writes that "continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but the survival of humanity itself and the timetable is shorter than we thought."

The effects of this are apparent all over the world. For example, California is facing its worst drought in 1,200 years. "Right now, the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs," warns NASA water scientist Jay Famiglietti. "And our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing."

Meanwhile, record levels of flooding in Texas and Oklahoma this spring have killed 23 people, while a heat wave that sent temperatures as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit has devastated South Asia--India's death toll is over 2,300, while more than 1,000 people have died in Pakistan.

In the Midwest and Northeast U.S., "February 2015 ranked as one of the coldest Februaries on record for many major cities," wrote Chris Dolce at "In Syracuse, New York, and Bangor, was...the coldest of any month since records began."

Socialists on the march for climate justice in New York City
Socialists on the march for climate justice in New York City (Ashley Smith | SW)

The cold winter prompted Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, speaking on the floor of the Senate, to foolishly attempt to disprove climate change because of...the existence of a snowball. "In case we have forgotten," Inhofe lectured, "because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, you know what this is? It's a snowball. And that's just from outside here. So it's very, very cold out."

As chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Inhofe ought to know that one of the effects of climate change in certain areas is extreme winters--which doesn't negate the fact that 2014 was, indeed, the warmest year on record. In fact, 13 of the 15 warmest years in history have all happened since 2000.

Africa has seen some of the worst effects of climate change. The Department for International Development (DfID) estimates that during the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya--more than half of them children under five.

Across the world in 2013, "22 million people were displaced by disasters brought on by natural hazard events," according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. The number of climate refugees is only expected to increase, possibly up to 200 million by 2050.

IT'S CLEAR that climate change is happening due to human activities, according to 97 percent of climate scientists around the world.

Curious about the other 3 percent? The mathematical physicist David Klein explains in Capitalism & Climate Change that climate-change deniers are supported by a corporate-backed minority of scientists who "have played disproportionately influential roles in the spread of confusion about global warming."

Some of them have also disputed the dangers of cigarette smoke and the hole in the ozone layer, which says something about their credibility.

But given that most political and business leaders acknowledge the existence of climate change, then why won't they do anything to stop it? To answer that question, we need understand that the root cause of climate change is the capitalist economic system.

Humanity is facing the consequences of what's known as the Lauderdale Paradox--the observation, dating back two centuries, that there is a tendency for public wealth to decrease as private riches increase. The theorist of the paradox, James Maitland (who had the title of Earl of Lauderdale), defines public wealth as "all that man desires, as useful or delightful to him." Private riches are defined as those same elements that make up public wealth, but that "exist in a degree of scarcity" and therefore can be hoarded.

Public wealth includes abundant goods like water, natural landscapes and even the air we breathe. Natural resources, when they are abundant, don't have value under capitalism because they can't be bought or sold. They only attain value from the capitalist point of view if they are transformed into an economic good through their use in production, or if they are made scarce and privatized.

The Lauderdale Paradox explains how natural resources deteriorate as a result of their transformation into private riches. While profits increase, clean air, freshwater, natural forests, thriving ecosystems, habitable climates, stored carbon and other necessary aspects of the natural environment that enable the continuation of the biosphere greatly deteriorate.

Because this is the consensus in economics, people have been led to believe that human society is wealthier today than ever before because gross domestic product statistics keep increasing the world over. By contrast, the Lauderdale Paradox shows how humanity is continually being robbed of many necessities and luxuries of life that were once public wealth.

THE LAUDERDALE Paradox is not some aberration, but is built into capitalism, which fundamentally rests on the exploitation of nature.

In Ecology Against Capitalism, Marxist sociologist John Bellamy Foster argues that capitalism is "a system of self-expanding value in which accumulation of economic surplus--rooted in exploitation and given the force of law by competition--must occur on an ever-larger scale." It's a contradictory system that requires infinite expansion in a finite world.

Because profit is the number one priority under capitalism, the natural environment is relegated to "a means to the paramount ends of profit-making and still more capital accumulation," in the words of the late economist Paul Sweezy.

These anti-human priorities are exemplified by the generally accepted idea that global average temperatures can rise by two degrees Celsius before the climate is irreparably altered. But as the Alliance of Small Island States on Climate Change (AOSIS) declared in 2009, a two degree temperature rise "is still unacceptable, because it exceeds safe thresholds necessary for the protection and survival of small islands."

In a 2013 article, James Hansen agreed, writing, "Aiming for the 2°C pathway would be foolhardy," and would have "disastrous consequences," especially for the world's poorest nations.

But small islands and poor nations are written off with the same logic that the former Obama administration official Lawrence Summers once infamously used when he was the World Bank's chief economist and argued that it would be good to dump toxic waste in the least developed countries.

Noting that many economics textbooks refer to natural resources as "free gifts of nature," John Bellamy Foster writes that capitalism "cannot function under conditions that require accounting for the reproduction of nature, which may include timescales of a hundred years or more, not to mention maintaining the particular, integrated natural cycles that help sustain living conditions."

Marx made a similar point in his Grundrisse, where he describes capital as "the endless and limitless drive to go beyond its limiting barriers." Capitalists must see all limits of nature as barriers to be surmounted in order to stay competitive and profitable. Any capitalist who decided to sacrifice short-term profits for nature's long-term regenerative needs would be at a disadvantage compared to their competitors.

Thus, climate change, along with other environmental destruction, is the result of capitalism's very DNA--the unending competition to expand capital.

THE RULING class spends more energy denying and profiting from climate change than fighting it.

Between 2003 and 2010, 91 climate denier organizations collectively took in an annual average of $900 million, according to a study by environmental sociologist Robert J. Brulle. Only $64 million a year was traceable--the rest of the money came from unknown sources.

Then there are the "nuisance lawsuits" funded by deep-pocketed energy interests that take climate scientists away from their vital research for long periods of time.

In a Popular Science article, Tom Clynes reported on the relentless personal attacks on climate scientists, including threats against the family of an MIT researcher and the appalling case of Australian climatologists who relocated "after climate-change skeptics unleashed a barrage of vandalism, noose brandishing and threats of sexual attacks on the scientists' children."

Earlier this year, the oil billionaire Harold Hamm tried to force the University of Oklahoma to fire some of its professors after their research found connections between the rising number of earthquakes in the state and the fracking activities of Hamm's company.

Then there are capitalists who acknowledge climate change, but claim the solution is embracing the godly powers of the free market. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein tells the story of Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Group.

In 2007, Branson came up with the Virgin Earth Challenge, which will award $25 million to the scientist(s) who comes up with an invention that will remove 1 billion tons of CO2 per year for 10 years, without creating "other significant direct or indirect environmental or social damage that would be likely to negate the climate benefit." The best part, according to Branson, is that "we can carry on living our lives in a pretty normal way."

Similarly, Bill Gates dismisses current renewable energy technologies as uneconomical and has repeatedly called on governments, according to Klein, "to massively increase spending on research and development with the goal of uncovering 'energy miracles.'"

These are example of what Foster, in Ecological Rift, calls "dematerializing economic production." Branson and Gates, representing the ruling class, essentially believe technology is magical and can create a "weightless society" that produces without using up natural resources. In reality, however, everything humans produce comes from nature.

TECHNOLOGY MUST certainly be a part of any solution to climate change, but under capitalism, technological solutions are only directed at the further conquest of nature--any efficiency increases are often counteracted by increased economic growth.

In fact, from the perspective of the Lauderdale Paradox, Foster argues that climate change is actually a "blessing in disguise" for capitalism--at least to a point. Carl Menger, one of the founders of neoclassical economics, explained in Principles of Economics why this is: "a long continued diminution of abundantly available (non-economic) goods" is desired, as this makes them scarce, which makes the goods more valuable for exchange.

Under capitalism, climate change is the greatest business opportunity of this century. Klein goes through ways in which climate change is profitable, from increased demand for disaster cleanup and weaponry to actually commodifying the volatile weather through "weather futures."

Capitalism is thus not just the cause of climate change and incapable of solving it, but the system actually benefits from the scarcity that results from it. The solution of the ruling class isn't to eliminate climate change, but to control it through technology and use it to expand capital.

Even if climate change could be stopped under capitalism--which it can't--there are countless other crises and forms of environmental destruction. The natural environment would still be freely exploited and used as garbage, because profit still comes first.

A group of scientists, including James Hansen and led by Johan Rockström, has come up with nine planetary boundaries--each one crossed "increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state."

Climate change is just one of the four boundaries that the scientists believe have already been crossed--the others are "loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, [and] altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen)."

In other words, climate change is only the beginning of the world's ecological problems. Humanity is in uncharted territory, and it's clear that capitalism is incapable of navigating out of it.

There is a contradiction between the needs of capitalism and those of the biosphere, whose limits are treated as mere obstacles. In the words of Foster, "There is only one possible solution to this contradiction: an ecological and social revolution that will rid us of the narrow profit system and replace it with a sustainable and just society."

It is also essential to fight for reforms under capitalism. Doing so will further radicalize a new generation of activists and move class struggle towards an anti-capitalist perspective, as it becomes more and more clear that capitalism is the problem.

Just as important, however, is the fact that even a revolution may not be enough if climate change has gotten too far along. We need to buy time. While abundance is the enemy of capitalism, scarcity is that of socialism. Abundance is needed for the realization of a sustainable and just society.

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