The Guardian 28 September, 2005

Climate change
catastrophe threatening humankind

Contributed by David Wenban

The world faces enormous changes in weather patterns and other natural phenomena. These changes have resulted from the emission of man-made pollutants from traditional, non-renewable fuels such as coal and oil in energy production. There are solutions to the problems posed by these changes. However, the way forward is currently being blocked by the governments of the United States and other Western countries, which are acting on behalf of extremely powerful vested interests. Capitalism’s final imperialist stage may well threaten the continued existence of humankind.

Unless strong and decisive political action is taken to halt greenhouse gas emissions, these changes will cause rising sea levels, and a general rise in world temperatures, with extreme heat variations, as well as drought, floods, hurricanes, cyclones, and carbon dioxide pollution on a global scale. Many species of animals, birds, aquatic and plant life will perish. There will be mass loss of human life, the spread or exacerbation of diseases, dislocation of entire populations, geopolitical instability and a disastrous decrease in the quality of human life.

Unless we act, these changes may well happen within the lifetime of today’s children. Critical factors are the "tipping points" (i.e. the times when various adverse changes become virtually inevitable). The International Climate Change Task Force (ICCTF) says that these points could be reached by 2100. However, other authorities consider that some could be reached in 15 to 20 years’ time.

Over the last two decades the more optimistic predictions of conservative scientific organisations such as the ICCTF have had to be revised. The average world temperature for 2058, which it predicted several years ago, was actually reached last year! Unless realistic measures are taken to reverse the rapid rise of the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, the "tipping points" will arrive sooner than later.

That "breath of life"

Serious atmospheric pollution began during the industrial revolution. For about 400,000 years the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide level remained the same, but it’s now rapidly rising.

This is causing two specific weather trends. The depletion of rainforests and the increasing use of fossil fuels have increased the emission of greenhouse gases (mainly CO2 and five other gases) that trap solar radiation within the atmosphere, gradually increasing temperatures worldwide. At the same time carbon dioxide lodged within clouds deflects solar radiation ("global dimming"). This reduces evaporation from oceans and lakes, leading to prolonged droughts.

Parts of the Amazon Jungle (the "lungs of the world") are being cleared for short-term profit and provision of land for settlement. Climatologist James Lovelock has predicted that a two-degree atmospheric temperature rise would cause the jungle to die, and to become an emitter of carbon dioxide rather than oxygen. Breathing the earth’s atmosphere would presumably become increasingly difficult. As a result of global warming fires in many countries are becoming more frequent and severe and cause major damage and pollution. The increase in droughts, hurricanes, floods and extreme weather conditions has recently caused a 500 percent increase in natural catastrophes, according to one French insurance company.

"Water, water everywhere…

The world is undergoing the greatest change in temperature since the last ice age, and the change is happening faster than ever before. Forty percent of Alaska’s ice coverage has disappeared in recent times. In 2001, Australian scientists found that Heard Island glaciers had shrunk by one third in the past 50 years. Last year scientists discovered that the polar ice was melting nine times faster than it had been in 1994.

If the world’s major ice shelves melted, which could happen by the end of this century or even sooner, the oceans would rise by 7-14 metres, according to Lovelock. The initial rise would occur quickly after the polar ice began to break up, according to Australian Antarctic scientists.

The recent devastation of New Orleans has given a miniscule indication of the impact on the world’s coastal populations. Melting of the polar caps would flood low-lying countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh. This could include Calcutta with 16 million people and scores of other coastal cities and towns are at risk. More than a billion people would die, mostly in the world’s poorer countries. Whole Pacific islands could disappear under water. Australia’s wonderful beaches would disappear, and the Great Barrier Reef would have died long before this.

…nor any drop to drink."

Fossil fuel emissions, which dissolve in sea water to form hydrogen ions, have made sea water more acidic than for millions of years. The oceans have soaked up the C02 emitted over the last 200 years, and they are now absorbing a tonne of CO2 per capita every year. But they may be reaching saturation point.

Tropical reefs may cease to provide protection from destructive waves by 2050. Shellfish and coral will have difficulty forming and maintaining their shells and skeletons because of the higher acidity. By 2010, acidic seas could also limit plankton growth. The supply of sea food for humans could decline, and the sea’s lessened ability to absorb CO2 will accelerate climate change.

Appalling examples

In absolute terms the US is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, producing about 25 per cent of the total. Australia is the largest emitter per capita, producing about 2.1 percent of the developed world’s emissions.

Neither country has signed the Kyoto Protocol, which stipulates the initial steps to counter global warming. These are appalling examples for developing countries, who are not yet signatories to the treaty, and whose industrial growth is mostly dependant on fossil fuels. Around 50 million Indian people are expected to soon become car owners. Present indications are that India will triple carbon emissions within 20 years.

China’s industrial production is approximately 80 per cent of the USA’s and may reach that of the USA soon. Although China is building large hydroelectric and nuclear power installations, much of its industrial production is currently powered by coal. China’s steel production has doubled in the last four years and is expected to reach 322 million tonnes this year.


The world’s greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced, and the world’s forested areas must be protected. To avoid a "tipping point" temperature rise (at 3.6 degrees higher than in pre-industrial times), we must keep the atmospheric carbon dioxide below 440 parts per million (ppm). It’s already at 370 ppm, and rising.

The Kyoto Protocol requires a reduction of five percent in emissions compared with 1990 levels by 2012, but scientists say that between 60 and 80 percent is needed.

There have been many proposals for the best way to achieve this. Shell Oil Chairman, Ron Oxborough, suggested that CO2 should be separated from hydrocarbons, with the hydrogen burnt in power stations and the CO2 pumped underground ("carbon sequestration"). This has also been advocated by the coal industry in Australia, with the enthusiastic support of the Howard government. Possible dangers, such as the pollution of Australia’s vast aquifer network, have received little discussion.

Some scientists have advocated a reduction in energy consumption, so that worldwide carbon production does not exceed 2.5 tonnes of carbon per capita per annum. In order to achieve this, the rate of CO2 production per kilometre of travel, and the level of vehicle use, would both have to be cut. Any move to implement this would be vigorously opposed by the vehicle industry.

One critical issue is the production of mass energy from power stations. Some experts believe that natural gas should be used for energy production, and that energy production from alternative sources should be raised sharply.

Some business groups and politicians have advocated building nuclear power stations, despite the possibility of catastrophic accidents, and the danger and huge cost of storing nuclear waste. They have pointed out that nuclear energy produces no carbon emissions. Despite the example of Chernobyl, they also claim that the number of deaths from nuclear accidents has been small, compared to the casualties from wars, motor accidents, and fossil fuel pollution.

Because of the growing urgency of the global warming threat, some scientists have reluctantly come to agree with them. However, others have objected that construction of nuclear power stations would in itself take decades, requiring long term waste storage at enormous cost, and could result in accidents, threatening the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of people.

They favour wind, solar, hydroelectric power and other under-­utilised alternative means of energy production. Some countries have already constructed wind power stations, despite problems in maintaining a stable energy supply, and other problems, such as objections to the visual impact of wind turbines.

One alternative approach involves the collection and storage of energy at the point of use, for example by the utilisation of solar energy. Power stations could then derive more of their energy from wind and solar energy collectors, and might eventually be used only to power a relatively small number of sites, and to provide a back-up "uninterruptible power supply" for homes and workplaces.

Given the short time frame imposed by increasing global warming, decisions will have to be made and acted upon very quickly. Solar and wind power systems have an advantage in this respect, as they could be introduced much more quickly than, for example, the construction of massive nuclear power stations. All these alternative approaches are potentially extremely useful, and require urgent and serious consideration. However, their advocates have far less political power than the representatives of the coal or nuclear power industries.

Campaigning to save the world

Combating global warming would involve taking forceful steps to reduce pollution, and is therefore vigorously opposed by certain sections of capital.

These interest groups have recruited a small number of scientists who claim that there’s really nothing to worry about, even though most of the world’s scientists say unequivocally that global warming is undeniable, and that we need to tackle it immediately and vigorously.

The biggest problem in the struggle against global warming is that capitalism is dominated by the United States, the world’s worst atmospheric polluter. At the recent G8 summit, the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, Russia and China reached a climate change agreement. French President Jacques Chirac said the deal met five key French conditions, i.e. a recognition of climate change and human responsibility for it; a call for urgent action to slow the greenhouse gas build-up; references to Kyoto in the communiqué; an understanding to negotiate a long-term climate strategy at the UN, and a commitment to launch a dialogue on market mechanisms for cutting carbon emissions.

However, the only substantive achievement was the initiation of a discussion between the Kyoto signatory nations and the US on global warming. Chirac described the deal as "only just" sufficient. Tony Blair evaded commitments on new emission targets by postponing debate on global warming until 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol’s targets will expire.

US President George W Bush described the agreement as "a better way forward", but he is now planning to replace government committee experts who oppose his views with apologists for the oil and coal companies.

G8 fails

The deal was described as a political victory for Bush, who resisted calls to adopt a more ambitious framework for climate change. The G8 leaders’ statement notes that countries welcome the Protocol’s entry into force "and will work to make it a success". Nevertheless, they failed to set firm gas reduction levels or to specify how much money to spend on the project.

The President of America’s National Environmental Trust, Philip Clapp, called the agreement "utterly meaningless, the weakest statement on climate change ever made by the G8". He commented bitterly: "The G8 leaders did not agree on a single concrete action to address climate change. Not one new dollar was committed by any country to develop technologies — they just told the World Bank to go and do it with no financing."

The next G8 meeting is in November. South Africa, Mexico, India, China and Brazil participated in some of the G8 meetings and expressed their concern about the global warming issue. Socialist Vietnam and Cuba are also deeply concerned about the issue, but given US hostility it’s unlikely they’ll be invited to future meetings, or that they’ll be asked to assist in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Conservative US and Australian politicians have excused their failure to sign the Kyoto Accord by stating that underdeveloped nations do not have to sign, so it is unfair that the US and Australia should.

This is transparently and despicably irresponsible. Developing nations face huge economic and physical hardships. If they are to contribute their meagre resources to the struggle against global warming, the least the developed world can do is to assist others financially to meet greenhouse reduction objectives.

Underdeveloped countries hit hard

The struggle against global warming involves long-term considerations. However, the under­developed countries are confronted with immediate and horrific problems. Extreme poverty’s three biggest killers — respiratory infections, diarrhoea and malnutrition, together with other treatable illnesses, claim 20,000 lives each day in developing countries. More than 6000 of these were in just four African countries: Nigeria, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Tanzania. About 270 million people — 13 times the population of Australia — have died from poverty related causes since 1990.

Moreover, their growth is crushed by the trade barriers of wealthy countries, and in many cases by the threat of military actions, particularly from the United States. The obscene sums spent by the US and other Western countries on armaments could eliminate many of the problems that plague the poorer countries of the world, as well as helping them to combat global warming.

Public awareness of the imminent threat from global warming has only developed over the last 20 years. Moreover, because of other threats (for example Howard’s vicious new industrial relations agenda in Australia), progressive and working class forces have not taken up the issue as a political campaign with the necessary vigour.

However, combating global warming requires global action. Working people and others must be mobilised as quickly as possible to force present governments to introduce effective large-scale measures to reduce our dependence on coal and oil.

The Australian government, which presently spends 50 per cent more on fossil fuels than on renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, tidal and hydroelectric schemes, has barely concealed its contempt for environmental issues.

The left and progressive forces in Australia will have to place at least the same importance on assisting humankind to overcome global warming, a threat to our very existence, as on defeating the Howard government’s vicious Industrial Relations agenda. Apart from developing renewable, non-greenhouse gas emitting sources of energy there are many other ways of reducing greenhouse gas production. One such method is by the reduction of the number of petrol-guzzling cars and trucks on our highways through the development of the rail system (for freight and people) and other public transport.

To adequately deal with the global warming problem, we have to sign the Kyoto Protocol. We also have to improve it, for example by scrapping its Howard-inspired paragraph that exempts countries like Australia from reducing emissions in absolute terms, merely requiring them to reduce the rate of increase of emissions.

We also have to end huge military spending, progressively eliminate coal-fired power generation, extend public transport, restrict and compensate for land clearances, and lessen our dependence on fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Beyond our shores we have to help poorer countries achieve greenhouse gas targets, for example by preventing the clearing of forests and assisting with the development and utilisation of alternative energy sources.

And that’s just the beginning.

This article has been prepared as a contribution to discussion on this vitally important issue and it is my hope that others will also contribute in order that we clarify our position and take practical action forthwith. David Wenban

Back to index page