no answers from copenhagen climate summit

by Mark Ellingsen

Climate change rose to the top of the news agenda during the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, only to be displaced by the cold weather spell now being experienced in the British Isles. No doubt climate sceptics will be pointing to this as proof that global warming is a myth, despite the fact that globally the last decade was the warmest since 1850. Furthermore, the upward trend is unmistakeable.

The consequences will have a significant adverse impact on human well-being and the ecology of the planet, which will be exacerbated by social, political and economic inequality. By 2050, increasing areas of the planet will be affected by drought, and water availability will decrease in those areas dependent on melt water from the major mountain ranges which includes one sixth of the world’s population. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate that between 20-30% of plant and animal species will be in danger of extinction if the global temperature exceeds 1.5°C and 2.0°C. Given that the lowest best estimate is a rise of 1.8°C by 2100 this now seems inevitable. While the IPCC predict that there may be some possibility that crop yields may increase in higher latitudes at this temperature range, it is likely to decrease in lower latitudes which will exacerbate food shortages in these regions.

Furthermore the increasing acidification of the oceans due to absorption of carbon dioxide is likely to exacerbate problems with the use of the oceans as part of the human food supply. It is also expected that coastal and low lying areas will be at increased risk of permanent flooding. However, it is worth noting that the IPCC has been criticised for its conservatism in both its estimates of the likely scenarios for climate change as well as its impacts. For example, Arctic sea ice is melting faster than the IPCC model predicts.

It was in this context that world leaders met in Copenhagen for the summit. It is widely recognised that the lack of an agreement at the Copenhagen Summit on legally binding commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (measured in equivalent carbon dioxide CO2e) was at very least a disappointment and for many a disaster which threatens the sustainability of life on the planet. Much has been written about the reasons for the failure to come to a binding agreement and in particular on the role of the West in attempting to maintain its economic dominance and the role of China and India in trying to ensure that they would continue along the path of economic growth.

However, while it is understandable that geopolitical rivalry may make it difficult to come to an agreement, what is truly remarkable is the lack of will to guarantee the medium to long term reproduction of the global economy, let alone the well-being of humanity and the sustainability of the planetary ecosystem. Surely this can only be attributed to the pressure which world leaders are under to maintain economic growth in the short term in the hope of maintaining economic and political stability. Secondly, there is a lot of confusion within ruling class circles and orthodox economists about the best way to deal with climate change while at the same time not disrupting the global economy, a task which may prove impossible. That world ‘leaders’ may still come up with some legally binding and verifiable measures is still possible but alarmingly there is every possibility that they will fail to do so.

A political response by the global working class to the impending upheaval and possible catastrophe in the longer term is practically non-existent. To some extent this reflects the current low-level of independent working class engagement in politics but it is also a reflection of the fact that the left is finding it difficult to translate the effects of climate change into meaningful politics which resonates with working people. Of course, the most immediate response will come from those who will be imminently affected by the changes, for example, those living in South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Vietnam) and most notably in parts of China, particularly around the industrial region of Guangdong. But the changes will also have a notable effect in California and Australia with both being susceptible to prolonged droughts. Workers and other classes in these regions, such as the peasantry, are likely to be at the forefront of any struggle against the threat to both their lives and their livelihood from these changes. One way to build awareness amongst workers less immediately affected by these changes is to build solidarity campaigns with those in struggle for more just solutions to effects of climate change. Environmental justice will become one of the key issues over the next few decades.

In the British Isles we are more likely to see water shortages, rising food prices and energy bills, and possibly higher taxes as governments enforce the economic costs of climate change onto the working class. Some coastal areas will be liable to flooding which may lead to struggles over land use and housing. We are likely to be dragged into more wars as ruling classes try to counter political instability and clash over access to resources. However, the most profound effect is likely to be felt through a faltering global economy based around consumerism.  In the short-term it is likely that capitalism will recover from the global recession but it is not at all obvious that in the long-term it can sustain an economic model based around consumerism in the minority of capitalist countries and export led growth in the rest of the world.

It seems increasingly likely that the legacy of capitalism to future generations will not be the development of the productive forces but the ecological collapse of the planet. The vision that the left have to provide is not one based on economic growth but on the quality of life built on a sustainable relationship with the environment. Consumer led capitalism is increasing looking like a dead-end and this has major implications for the working class in Europe and North America, implications which will become more visible over the next few decades.