Global Warming - Evidence mounts for dire consequences, but profit priorities block available technological solutions


Global Warming
from the New Unionist, November 2000

Global Warming

Evidence mounts for dire consequences, but profit priorities block available technological solutions

By David Zink


Have you ever experienced a "Greenhouse Effect?" You have if you've ever gotten into your car on a sunny day and the air inside feels hot enough to roast a turkey.

Just as car windows allow sunlight in and trap the heat inside your car, certain gases allow sunlight in, then, instead of allowing the heat to reflect back into space, trap the heat within the earth's atmosphere. For this reason carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, certain halogenated hydrocarbons and nitrous oxide are termed "greenhouse gases."

This "greenhouse effect" is natural. Without it the earth would be a frozen rock spinning through space. Too much, and the earth would be a hot barren rock spinning through space.

The Problem

Globally, the warmest year on record was 1998. Seven of the hottest years on record have occurred since 1990.

A sea-level rise of almost a foot in the last century due to ice melt has caused saltwater intrusion into some coastal drinking water wells and destroyed beaches and wetlands around the world.

Polar and sub-Arctic regions have been experiencing warming well above the average for the past few decades. Thousands of square miles of Antarctic ice shelves collapsed and melted in the late 1990s. The area covered by sea ice decreased by about 6% from 1978 to 1995.

Based on analysis of ice-core drilling samples from polar glaciers scientists are saying that the large bodies of open water now appearing right on the North Pole are the first in 50,000 years. From the Himalayas to Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, and around the world, alpine glaciers are also shrinking.

To most people who have survived an icy northern winter reports of a warming climate probably come as good news. What can be bad about longer summers and shorter, less severe winters?

If that was all there was to it this would be good news. But along with the warmer temperatures climatologists are warning that we can expect some unpleasant things, such as more frequent intense storms, a gradual rise in sea level, flooding of the coastlines on which the majority of people live, displacement of wildlife, hotter/drier summers, wetter winters and the spread of tropical diseases.

Some areas may actually get colder. That's why the problem is per-haps better termed, "Global Climate Change."

Studies have documented other dangers of climate change.

Persistent neurological toxins such as DDT, banned in the U.S. and Canada decades ago, are still used in many tropical countries. These chemicals evaporate into the atmosphere, then return to earth in snowflakes that fall in higher latitudes where they're stored in glacial ice. Glacier melt increases the rate at which these compounds are released into the environment, where they get concentrated up the food chain. They are now turning up in dangerously high levels in the breast milk of Eskimo mothers.

Doctors at the Harvard Medical School have linked recent U.S. outbreaks and the extension in the range of many insect- and water-borne diseases, such as dengue ("breakbone") fever, malaria, Hantavirus and schistosomiasis, to the warming climate. As yet, no suitable vaccines exist for many of the diseases most likely to spread as a result of the anticipated climate change.

By pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and destroying the earth's ability to cleanse herself and maintain climatic stability, capitalism is delivering a devastating 1-2 punch to our environment. Suburban sprawl is displacing natural vegetation and cropland at an alarming rate. Unlike forest and grassland, parking lots and strip malls don't absorb CO2, nor produce oxygen.

In 1997, in negotiations leading to the Kyoto Treaty, the United Nations set up an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to investigate whether global warming is real or not, and what dangers it poses. The IPCC commissioned 2,500 of the world's top climate scientists, including eight Nobel laureates, to participate in this research.

The IPCC reached four basic conclusions:

1. There is evidence of a 25% increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration since pre-industrial times.

2. The balance of evidence supports the view that global warming is caused by such human activities as fossil fuel combustion and clear-cutting and burning of forests.

3. Although there is uncertainty and disagreement on any future timetable of events, the long-term trend for an increase in both global temperature and sea surface temperature is unequivocal. The warming is projected to be greater than any seen in the last 10,000 years.

4. If current rates of fossil fuel burning continue, sea levels will rise from between 15 to 95 cm. Since the IPCC report is the best science we have available prudence dictates that we use it as a guideline for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

If not averted, continued warming may mean a sea-level rise that would cause the flooding of Louisiana, Florida, Bangladesh, coastal cities like New York, London and Jakarta, small island nations and other low- lying areas around the world. These areas are densely populated. This would cause catastrophic population displacement and shifts. You may be getting some new neighbors. Lots of them.

The 'Debate'

The Kyoto Treaty does have some serious shortcomings that serve to illustrate how corporate- dominated globalism is the chief stumbling block to the resolution of international environmental problems.

Since most industrialized nations have fairly stringent controls on greenhouse gas emissions, the protocol will encourage businesses that intend to pollute to move to third-world locations where the treaty stipulates fewer or no controls. This will promote the migration of jobs to low-wage areas around the world. The likely result is even more pollution than we have now. It is becoming increasingly evident that solving global environmental problems will require a better global economic system than capitalism.

What is the current status of the Kyoto Treaty?

Island nations throughout the world are strong supporters. The European Union countries accepted the Kyoto Protocol and are trying to achieve lowered emissions. But the treaty hasn't been submitted to the U.S. Congress yet because of strong opposition.

Key members of Congress have indicated that the treaty will be ratified over their dead bodies because they say it would harm the U.S. economy. The Republican-controlled Senate would either vote it down or not let it out of committee. It will take 65 countries to ratify the treaty, but it won't mean much if the U.S. doesn't sign it.

The current debate is not over whether the climate is warming. Most scientists now agree on that. The debate now centers on questions regarding how quickly and how much the earth is warming.

The issue is complex because climate is affected by a mixture of natural events, such as volcanic activity, solar energy fluctuations and changes in oceanic water circulation. Dr. Michael E. Schlesinger, a climatologist at the University of Illinois, says it is particularly important for policy makers and the public not to assume that temperature trends will follow a smooth rise. The array of factors is so complex that temporary fluctuations along an upward trend could create confusion and hamper work that could help solve the problem.

Rather than admitting that our increasing use of petroleum products and coal is altering our climate, the companies that are making profits out of fossil fuel and the powerful auto industry are spending millions of dollars in an effort to discredit the IPCC and global warming. Claiming that global warming is nothing but an "alarmist hoax," they have set out to buy the kind of "science" they want, and politicians are paying attention to corporate-funded "climate experts."

The "climate skeptics," a handful of scientists many of whom are directly subsidized by the fossil-fuel lobby, are promoting what most mainstream scientists regard as blatant misinformation on climate science.

According to Greenpeace, corporate-funded front groups base their arguments on a combination of deliberate misrepresentation of IPCC reports, contextual inaccuracy and unsubstantiated conclusions. They emphasize the disagreements at the Kyoto Conference but don't talk much about the overwhelming agreement on the basics. They say that even if global warming was for real, so what? It would be a good deal. Benefits would include longer growing seasons, more precipitation and less stress on wildlife.

This picture of a greener, more productive world is attractive. But would increased CO2 concentrations really bring this about? While elevated CO2 has been shown to increase plant growth and water use efficiency under controlled conditions, such as in the lab or a greenhouse, doubt exists over how much of this benefit would be realized in the real world.

We are living in a time of unprecedented clearing of forests and destruction of coral reefs. As well as producing CO2 and other greenhouse gases, burning fossil fuels is also the major cause of acid rain (sulfur dioxide combines with water vapor to form sulfuric acid), urban smog, soot particles (which cause respiratory illnessess) and other environmental problems. The U.S. is the world's worst global warming polluter, accounting for 23% of emissions worldwide while comprising only 4% of the world's population.

Business-as-usual is not only causing these problems but, by increasing our reliance on imported oil, is also increasing the likelihood of more destructive oil spills and international tensions.

The Real Problem

Human-induced climate change is basically a pollution problem. Over its lifetime the average car on the road today will spew out 50 tons of CO2 into the air. No solution to this problem will succeed until we can reduce auto-motive emissions and improve fuel efficiency, and/or increase the use of alternative technologies such as fuel cells.

Raising the fuel economy standards in the U.S. to 45 miles per gallon for cars and 34 for light trucks would keep millions of tons of CO2 out of the air. Our cars, trucks, lawnmowers and power plants could be made much more efficient simply by using better current technology. Vehicles like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic VX have shown that with simple advances in technology today's cars can get over 50 miles per gallon.

So what's stopping us?

These common sense measures run smack into powerful corporate interests. A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists points out that 80% of greenhouse gases are produced by only 122 corporations. Exploitation of fossil-fuel resources is easier and far more lucrative for the oil companies than the development of solar or wind power. These corporations are jeopardizing the integrity of the entire global ecosystem, endangering the future for all children and holding the world's people and governments hostage by a combination of bribery and brute force.

At present, governments are using taxpayers' money to carry out the corporate agenda. Development of solar, wind and other clean energy is neglected. Instead, tax dollars are subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry, the chief source of greenhouse emissions.

At the same time, the federal government is auctioning off logging rights to our national forests to timber companies at the rate of pennies per tree. The logging companies are also allowed to deduct the costs of building stream-killing logging roads from their bids. Often the cost of building these roads exceeds the company's bid for timber. Net results: for the corporations, cheap timber; for the rest of us, the loss of all those CO2-absorbing trees, as well as loss of wildlife habitat, recreation areas and air and water quality.

Why do we allow such anti-social - even sociopathic - behavior to go unrewarded by prison sentences for these CEOs and boards of directors responsible for these crimes? Perhaps a better question would be: How long will it take until the majority finally be- gins waking up to the fact that it is the capitalist system itself that is the crimi- nal and must be summarily dealt with?

Regarding the environment and natural resources, our species has too often played the role of "a bull in a china shop." Because of the high pri-ority it places on short-term corporate profit maximization, capitalism tends to exacerbate this tendency. The profit mania pushes other considerations, such as the need to preserve a healthy environment, off the stage.

A living planet is a rarity. The earth is the only one we know of so far. The planet Venus is a good example of a runaway greenhouse effect that we would do well to pay attention to. It would make a great place to send some of our favorite corporate CEOs for a l-o-n-g educational sabbatical. If there ever was a sign of life on that planet the greenhouse effect has long since obliterated it.

If we fail to take preventive steps technological civilization may not outlive capitalism. This may be a less desirable way of allowing the earth to bring itself back into climatic equilibrium.

Under the rules of the capitalist system corporations are compelled to maximize gains and minimize costs, or lose to the competition. They do this by privatizing gains and externalizing costs to the public domain. So the environment serves as a free sewer to dump corporate wastes. Costs of cleanup are a public cost, financed by tax dollars.

Gasoline-combustion engines are really no longer necessary. We have the technology to move to solar energy for electricity, and hydrogen-burning engines that produce only water vapor as exhaust. Cleaner, renewable sources of energy are available, affordable and waiting to be developed. But the capitalist system is acting as a cork on the teapot of human inventiveness and innovation. If something is profitable for corporations it happens - even if it is detrimental to the vast majority of people, our communities and our global life-support system.

But if something is not seen as profitable - even if it would be beneficial to the majority - then, sorry folks, corporations aren't interested. The deciding factor, the highest priority of capitalism, is short-tern profit maximization for the corporations.

Cars that get more miles per gallon may be better for us and our environment but oil companies are in business to make a profit. The more gasoline they sell, the more money they make. A major reason why capitalism fouls things up is that the command decisions regarding which technologies are utilized are made by CEOs in the narrow interests of major corporate stockholders, not by those who do the work and who must live with the consequences of those decisions.

The Solution

Environmental education is important in instilling an environmentalist ethic in our children. It is an effort worthy of defending and strengthening.

But corporate-financed critics are saying that this is an effort to brainwash our kids and fosters a "gloom and doom" perspective. They cite all kinds of reasons that environmental education should be dismantled, but make their most scathing attacks on the science of climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, species extinction and acid rain. They stress that environmental educators ought to be teaching that the "free enterprise system" provides the best environmental protection.

An estimated two million teachers have received this kind of material from various companies and trade associations, and dollar-strapped schools are increasingly accepting corporate-developed curricula. This tends to have a chilling effect on the willingness of teachers, school administrators and parents to push for sound environmental education curricula.

The crucial question is how to shake our fellow citizens out of their stupor and wage a more effective campaign to dispel capitalist illusions. It is the so-called "free enterprise system" - a euphemism for capitalism - that got us into this mess to begin with!

Let us be clear on this: "Free enterprise" can only be truly free when we, the working-class majority, join together and democratically decide what is produced, how it is produced and how the rewards are to be allocated. Only then can we dis-empower the parasites who are systematically stealing the wealth labor creates and wrecking the environment we all depend upon.

As workers we need to move beyond paycheck issues and transform our unions into class- and environmentally-conscious militant organizations that are also concerned with wresting control over technology decisions in order to enhance, not damage, environmental health.

Sooner or later - and the sooner the better - we need to take the struggle into our workplaces, to take, hold and operate the offices and factories for ourselves. For it is only in that way that we'll be able to start building a cooperative economic democracy that will fundamentally change this world for the better.