December 13, 2015

Capital and the Problem of Global Warming

T Jayaraman

WHAT holds up an agreement among all nations to deal adequately with the problem of global warming? The scientific evidence is clear that the more humanity emits greenhouse gases the more the globe will warm up with the increase in temperatures being roughly proportional to the total emissions that take place over a given period. It is evident that to keep the rise in global average temperatures below 2 deg C (or 1.5 deg C, as some countries, especially small island states would want it), there must be a fair and equitable sharing of the allowed quantity of emissions in the future among all nations. The exact amount of emissions that may be thus emitted globally may be left to scientists to determine. Of course this number varies depending how sure we want to be that we will not cross the temperature limit (2 or 1.5 deg), so that is a decision that nations would have to agree on. One should of course ensure that the sections of global society most likely to incur damage due to climate change or that have difficulties in adapting to global warming should not suffer, and the best way to do it is to keep the total future emissions to a reasonably low level, without damaging the prospects of improving the well-being for the majority of the world's poor. This is because, until such time as further technological developments take place, the use of coal and other fossil fuels remains a necessity, especially for industrial purposes. But having said this, which is widely known, one may ask what gives rise to this widespread inability to act on recognised scientific information especially among the developed nations, information that is the product of the science done by and large by their own scientists. What is often not recognised is that the answer must be sought more fundamentally in the way capital in the developed countries shapes and determines, and even dictates overtly when necessary, the policies of the State. In the entire climate change debate, the explicit role of capital, or the implicit manner in which States strive to ensure that the interests of capital are safeguarded has not been adequately emphasised. While a significant section of global public opinion, especially among environmentalists, is reduced to hand-wringing at the lack of progress in dealing with global warming, they have as yet to see the role of capital in this state of affairs. FUNDAMENTAL INCAPACITY OF CAPITALISM The first point is that capitalism has a fundamental incapacity when it comes to dealing with problems like global warming, that are problems of global collective action. As a rule, capital resists regulation, even though to tame the intrinsic anarchy of capitalist production arising from competition, that is fundamental to capitalism and the capitalist system in general, regulation by the State is a necessity. Particularly in the case of the environment, capitalists have been even more resistant to regulation, though in a number of cases it has had to come to terms with its unavoidability. This is partly of course as a consequence of the struggle of the population at large against environmental destruction which harms social well-being, which capitalism has also had to take account of, alongside its own self-interest. Nevertheless, particularly in the neo-liberal era, any hint of planning or regulation draws the most visceral reaction from the capitalist class. Thus there is a always a sharp contradiction under capitalism between the recognition of the need to regulate the behaviour of individual capitalists through the aegis of the State, alongside constant calls at different periods of time for the withdrawal of the State from its regulatory functions. This is strikingly evident, especially with the developed countries, in the case of climate change. There is no desire among a majority of nation-states for a strict imposition of limits on emissions, to protect human society, within which industrial and other activities would have to be carried out. While in the initial years after the UNFCCC was signed, such an agreement with strict limits seemed a possibility, the preferred process now is that of each country being free to announce its own plan of reducing emissions, without worrying whether they will add up to an adequate effort to protect the planet. There is no doubt a conflict of interest between capital from the advanced countries and capital from the developing countries. But it is quite clear that even the section of global capitalism from developing countries, particularly from India, Brazil and South Africa, do not want such limits either, notwithstanding their protestations of equity when developed nations do not do their share. It is typical of capitalism's mode of thinking to present this acute absence of co-operative action, when in fact co-operation is rationally required, as freedom and a “democratic” way whereby there is no “imposition” and all nations need do only what they can. This of course is small comfort to those sections of the world's population who need to see urgent action because of their extreme vulnerability to the effects of global warming. But many of the governments of such vulnerable nations, especially the smaller or economically weaker ones, because of their inability to stand up to metropolitan capital are reduced to pleading for money for adaptation, money that is emerging only as a negligible trickle when much larger sums are in fact required. Since capital has a fundamental problem in dealing with collective action issues especially at the global level, any attempt at resolving such issues is messy and complicated, with different sections of capital expressing contradictory views on what needs to be done. But there are clear criteria for capital of the terms under which any attempt at resolving such issues should be undertaken. CURBING PROFITS IS ANATHEMA TO CAPITAL One of these criteria is that capital needs to be assured that whatever be the means of solving an environmental problem, such means will not affect, or at least not seriously, the fundamental imperative for profit-making. Curbing or limiting profits by increasing costs without any corresponding adjustment elsewhere is anathema to capital. In general, even a state of urgency is not sufficient to persuade capital to lower its profits. The long history of capital in sectors such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals has shown that the common interest of society as a whole will take a back seat until that particular section of capitalists are prepared to or are forced to stop production of hazardous substances. In many ways, the reluctance of developed countries to take urgent action to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions amounts to precisely the reluctance of their capitalists to forego the potential profits from the large amounts of capital invested in innumerable sectors that depend on the use of fossil fuels, or the drastic devaluing of capital in such sectors, while making new and heavy investments in other methods of production. While a growing section is now beginning to seriously consider how fossil fuel use may be drastically reduced, another section is quite reluctant to take any immediate action, with the latter still appearing to have the upper hand. A section of environmentally minded idealogues of capital seek to move the climate change agenda forward by threatening that capital in fossil-fuel dependent sectors of productive activity will be devalued, becoming “stranded assets,” and urging rapid downsizing of the investment in such sectors. Clearly the strategy is to spur climate change action by “scaring” investment out of fossil-fuel based activity. But the response of important actors in finance such as the World Bank, insurance and re-insurance multinationals and so on, has been in the first instance to promise to curb fresh investment in the developing countries, where cheap access to fossil fuel based energy is actually necessary in the short-term, without any significant effort to do anything similar in the developed countries. The section of capital from developing countries though is not to be found wanting compared to their metropolitan brethren. Hence their love of the Kyoto Protocol, under which developed countries had specific emission reduction commitments (though small) and the developing nations had no limits at all. Even now, when it is clear that even developing nations must also find new pathways of industrial development, they still hanker for a global agreement that will leave them without any burdens at all. This is especially reflected in the attitude of the Indian State in the climate negotiations. While eloquently, and justifiably, arguing against the developed nations, it refuses to ease the negotiations by spelling out clearly to what extent it will contribute in the future in specific ways and what these more specific commitments could be. Another section of environmentally minded experts seek to reassure capital that moving out of fossil fuel based production, even if it devalues capital in some existing sectors, and investing new methods of production will itself be a stimulus, that it will provide a new arena for more profits and continuing growth, especially in an era of recession where it is proving difficult to even moderately accelerate growth in the developed world. Thus the language of “green economy” and “co-benefits”, where the latter refers to the idea that the attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would have other positive outcomes that provide an extra incentive to invest in reducing emissions, has to come to acquire an important place in the climate change debate. But it remains to be seen if capitalists are to be so easily persuaded. The current state of affairs, especially if we go by the widespread presence of “climate deniers” in the developed countries, suggest that there is still a long way to go before they buy into such arguments. FUTILITY OF MARKET MECHANISMS The second fundamental criteria for capital to deal with the problem of global warming on its own terms is the assurance that any solution will be through the market. In the early days of action to protect the environment and deal with environmental pollution, it seemed that imposing limits directly, with increased costs and decline in profits was the only solution. But these methods, now disparagingly referred to as “command and control”, have been superseded by attempts to solve environmental problems through market mechanisms, such as pollution trading. After all, in the logic of capital, if the value of commodities is set not by need but by exchange, why should this not apply to the value of the environment itself? In capital's view, if this logic can apply to essential human needs and well-being as in the case of medicines or food, why can this not be extended to the environment as well? It of course does not matter to capital that markets will not always work as they are supposed to or that the idea that markets provided the best means of achieving a harmonious economic order is more often than not illusory. Hence carbon taxes and carbon trading are on the top of their agenda in how to deal with global warming, even if various attempts at both across the world have so far shown little success in limiting emissions in a serious way. Where emissions have been limited, it has often been the case that other economic factors, such as a shift in the economic structure from the decline of manufacturing and the growth of finance and services have played an important role. In the case of Eastern Europe and Russia, emissions have gone down simply because of the collapse of their economies in the post-socialist era. Most recently, there is suspicion that the current stabilisation of emissions in the developed world is a consequence of recessionary trends in their economies rather than meaningful action. Technology under capitalism and capital's attitude to technology are an intrinsic part of the fundamental irrationality of the capitalist mode of production. On the one hand, the development of technology is a necessary consequence of competition among different capitalists and also part of the strategy of recovery from the periodic crises of this mode of production. On the other hand, individual capitalists or sections of capitalists do not invest in new technologies unless forced to do so, due to more immediate imperatives. Thus under capitalism, the development of science and technology, or more generally the development of productive forces, alone do not guarantee that rational solutions to society's problems will emerge. Nevertheless, technology is also the rallying cry of the capitalist class when forced to confront problems that are clearly due to social or economic origins. And so it is, in the case of global warming as well. As a consequence, we have the somewhat bizarre situation of the world's largest renewable energy projects coming up in the developing world, with the resulting higher costs of energy, and large numbers of whose poor already pay dearly for energy. But a part of the developed world in part is going in reverse gear with respect to the promotion of renewable energy as in Australia and Britain or generally neglecting it as in the United States. The number of statements from industry, especially from the heads of major global corporations, provide a clear and striking illustration of our argument. For instance, a statement from leading CEOs, sponsored by the World Economic Forum, covering some 78 companies, and accounting for, as they proudly proclaim, “$2.1 trillion dollars in revenue in 2014”, while promising to help save the world, demands as the primary goal the setting of a carbon price, either explicitly or implicitly. The global alliance for energy research led by Bill Gates and others promises tremendous new investment in energy research. What it implicitly endorses is the idea that an attempt to cut emissions right away is not part of the story, but has to await better technologies for emissions reduction, when it will become more feasible, read profitable, for capital to do so. But in a recent interview to The Atlantic magazine, he also acknowledges the truth. Investment in energy research does not take place because there aren't sufficient returns on investment for the private sector. And that the private sector is inept at managing the risks of innovation and that the State is a better agent. And so on. And yet, the solution is, just as his foundation has done in the case of essential pharmaceuticals, to fund the technology development required through the individual initiative of various high-wealth individuals so that industry can profitably utilise those technologies. The crux of the problem with capital in the context of global warming is not that capital is wedded to fossil fuels per se, as some leading lights in the global Left, like Naomi Klein believe. On the contrary it is the fundamental irrationality of the capitalist system, that while science and technology, the product of social labour, uncovers the problems and can even find the necessary technological solutions, the rational means of utilizing these discoveries is blocked precisely because the inviolability of the appropriation of profit by a few from production must be guaranteed for the benefits of this knowledge to be utilised. It would be erroneous to argue that capital will not seek any solution to the problem of global warming at all. But on the other hand, in seeking to do so while ensuring its own self-preservation, the danger is real that it will exacerbate the extent of damage to the world and expose it to greater danger than the rational capacities of human society alone warrant. Much of the global environmentalist movement, though in its early days had a clear anti-capitalist stance, has now withdrawn into a “pragmatic” mode where a critique of the role of capital in the making of environmental problems and blocking the means of their rational solution has been pushed aside. Scientific environmentalism as opposed to the utopian variety, must bring back the role of capitalism to the centre of the environmental question. The significance of global warming question for the broader Left across the world lies in the renewed assertion of its fundamental opposition to capital, and a renewed opportunity to mobilise against the order that it imposes on humanity.