Greening the Labour Party

A key argument in the Communist University in South London paper on global warming at https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/global-warming-a-discussion-paper/ is that capitalism is incapable of responding to the threat because:

  • There are no technological fixes for global warming – the only solution is to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
  • There is too much profit to be made from fossil fuel extraction for capitalists to do this.
  • Market based and capitalist governmental assessments under-estimate the damage of global warming due to the implicit (and in the case of governments, explicit) discounting they apply to future costs .
  • The super-rich may not necessarily believe these assessments and may reckon they can survive catastrophic global warming with the help of technological innovation without the need for 6 billion workers worldwide to support them.

Some of these conclusions appeared to be gradually dawning on at least some of those attending a public meeting at Ruskin House last night , 27 August, convened by Croydon Central CLP. While the consensus appeared to be that we should focus on local initiatives and trust in social democracy and a Corbyn government to tackle the bigger issues, one platform speaker, James Meadway, clearly understood the need for substantial structural and social change if global warming is to be addressed.

James Meadway has written an interesting paper at https://common-wealth.co.uk/greening-the-green-book.html proposing some modest reforms intended to weaken the dead hand of HM Treasury on government policy in this area. Sensible stuff – but we need to go much, much further if we are to avoid global catastrophe.

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ENTER THE CLOWNS

Clowns and jokers are intended to amuse but some of us find them scary, especially when they pop up in the wrong place as happened on Thursday this week.

Boris Johnson may appear clownish, but he isn’t stupid. Reckless, yes, but stupid, no, not when it comes to protecting the class interests he represents. In a series of statements and actions, including his appointments to the cabinet, his intention to do so was crystal clear:

  •  Money for the NHS and schools? We cannot afford it. Tax cuts for the rich?  No problem!
  • Humanitrian relief for refugees? Too expensive. Military adventures to protect oil reserves?  No problem!
  • Social security instead of food banks? It would encourage laziness. Printing money to keep bankers’ bonuses flowing? No problem!

But perhaps the most chilling policy statement from our new Prime Minister came in his answer to a question from Anneliese Dodds MP in his first Prime Minister’s Question Time. Asked why he had said so little about global warming, he replied:

The Conservatives are the only party that believes that private sector driven new technology can provide a solution to the problem.

This astounding answer deserves unpicking. Why do Tories alone believe a technological fix will be discovered? Belief (for some) is a wonderful thing, but communists prefer scientific analysis and evidence and they indicate that no such technological fix is possible, at least not one that would result in a stable climate. Of course, it is possible to believe in anything -fairies with magical remedies for example – but even Tories are not that self-deluded. Some further unpicking is called for.

The emphasis on the private sector to find and implement the imagined technological fix assumes that markets can be relied on to do this. Markets are great for meeting the immediate, inessential needs of consumers but they cannot distinguish between immediate, containable costs in the medium term and catastrophic cost in the more distant and less certain future[1]. Are Tories really willing to leave global warming to a mechanism with such a serious defect to address global warming?

These extraordinary beliefs might better be explained by examining the nature of the ‘solution’ they seek. Could this be not global temperature containment but rather the survival of the 1% (0.1%?) on a mountain top (not necessarily metaphorically speaking) and the extinction of the rest of us? Such a solution might not be so implausible in a world in which automation and robotisation rendered most of the 8 billion world population redundant. In other words, could the solution be a ‘final solution’ in name and deed?

So don’t be amused and distracted by the grease-paint. Clowns and jokers can be really scary.

[1] By way of example, markets reflecting a risk adjusted discount rate of 10%markets, cannot distinguish between a cost of £1 million incurred in eighty years from now, when someone born today might expect to still be alive, and one of £480 incurred today.

CHANGING THE WORLD, NOT MERELY UNDERSTANDING IT

The collapse of the class-based, slave -owning society of late antiquity might appear on casual reflection to hold few lessons about the future of capitalist society in the first quarter of the 21st Century, but a recent book by Professor Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma (The Fall of Rome – Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, Princeton University Press) can give us pause for thought.

Professor Harper is no Marxist, but his approach is evidence-based, scientific and socio-economic. He does not directly address, as a Marxist might, whether the collapse of the social structures of Late Antiquity  arose from a failure of those structures to protect and grow the economy, but his findings can readily be considered from this perspective. The fundamental cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, according to Professor Harper, was not, as has often been suggested, the growth of Christianity within its borders or Islam beyond its crumbling eastern edge; nor was it some intrinsic fault that only worked itself out in the fullness of time, suggestions for which have included contested imperial succession and the abandonment of the short sword and armour by Roman infantry. Drawing on both the latest archaeological and paleo-genetic evidence and on classical sources including judiciously assessed eye witness reports, Professor Harper convincingly demonstrates that the collapse was caused by climate change and pandemic disease: first the Antonine Plague in the mid-second century (probably a voracious smallpox pandemic), then the hammer blow of bubonic plague from 558 until 749. The way in which the consequences of disease and climate change interacted and undermined the economy of the Roman Empire, including its tax and fiscal structures, is dealt with in an admirably dialectical way; and the resulting class struggle– especially the efforts of the Roman land owning class to cling on and even expand their estates at a time of economic crisis and population decline is not ignored.

Professor Harper concludes his book with a muted but cautionary warning to the 21st Century reader. This concerns the recent discovery of the speed with which history’s great pathogens have evolved. This evolutionary facility to exploit opportunities opened up as society changes represents a threat to us today although it is one that Professor Harper only hints at. He is even more reticent about the threat today of climate change due to CO2 emissions even though the effect could be far greater than that which contributed so significantly to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire following the Antonine Plague.

We are indebted to Professor  Harper for an excellent book which helps us understand why the Roman Empire fell. We, his readers, need, however, to bear in mind Marx’s advice: it is not enough to understand the world – what we have to do is change it.

 

The Anthropocene

Commenting on progress in the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy in recognising the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch, one in which human activity is having a dominant impact, the eminent geologist Steve Drury points out (see link below) that, while it is essentially a political, not a scientific statement, it is nevertheless to be welcomed, coinciding as it does with the rapidly escalating efforts, mainly by young people, to end massive threats to the Earth System. The only way, according to Professor Drury, to erase the “exponentially growing human buttock print on our home world” is for growth-dependent economics to be removed. If that social revolution doesn’t happen, there will, he argues, be a mass extinction to join the ‘Big Five’ previous ones (the most recent one being 65 million years ago) and society in all its personifications will collapse.

The growth-dependent economics to which Steve Drury refers is capitalism. Capitalism is the social system based on the accumulation of capital through economic growth and it cannot function in a world where that growth is curtailed. Previous and, in China, on-going attempts to build an alternative to capitalism, i.e. socialism leading to communism, may not always have prioritised sustainable growth and the welfare of future generations. Lack of scientific understanding resulted in some serious ecological mistakes in the USSR such as the draining of the Ural Sea, but at least the potential to plan the economy for the benefit of future generations exists under socialism. No such potential exists under capitalism. Under capitalism there is one objective: capital must accumulate; and one criterion for judging this – the market, which means net present value arrived at by discounting the future at a rate which reflects the required rate of capital accumulation. Capitalism is incapable of valuing the welfare of future generations without applying this savage discounting. It is therefore only to be expected that our government is seeking to placate climate change protestors with its tentative commitment to “zero carbon emissions” by 2050 while ignoring the carbon content in our imports – about to soar if British Steel is closed – and from aviation – similarly about to be boosted by Heathrow expansion.

 

https://wileyearthpages.wordpress.com/2019/06/12/anthropocene-edging-closer-to-being-official/

System Change, Not Climate Change

The government’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has finally been awakened from its slumbers by the school kids strikes, Extinction Rebellion demonstrations over Easter and Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK and meeting with opposition leaders. With the UK slipping behind on its legal obligation to cut emissions by 2032, this is long overdue, but don’t expect too much from it. This is the body that gave the government cover for Heathrow expansion and has remained silent on fracking. Its assertion that the UK could and should lead the global fight against climate change by cutting greenhouse gases to nearly zero by 2050 is welcome, but, as one of its principal authors has admitted, there is no way this can be done without government action. How likely is this?

As the Communist University in South London argued in its discussion paper on climate change [1], there is no known technology that can remove carbon economically from the atmosphere once it’s there. The only known remedy for global warming is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This cannot be done under capitalism, however many windmills we construct, however efficiently we burn hydrocarbons, however many solar panels we manufacture. There is simply too much profit to be made from pumping the known reserves of oil and gas, not to mention those waiting to be discovered when the poles melt as a result of the CO2 we have already pumped into the atmosphere. The capital this profit has created has given the extractive industries a death-grip on governments. It lobbies them, it finances their political parties and their leaders and it appears to be working on the assumption that, assisted by robotisation, the global elite can, unlike the rest of us, survive the threat of global extermination. Gated communities on top of mountains?

System Change, Not Climate Change is a slogan we can rally behind. Society can address climate change, but not under capitalism. As a system it has generated huge economic growth over the last two hundred years, but only at a price, and that price is now approaching the destruction of life on our planet. It’s not government action such as that called for by the CCC that can save the day, it’s changing the system from one whose function is to accumulate capital to one which meets everyone’s needs. That means a planned, democratic society managed for the benefit of ordinary working people. It’s called socialism.

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[1] https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/global-warming-a-discussion-paper/

Global Warming

The Croydon Branch of the Communist Party has enthusiastically supported the decision by Croydon TUC to invite Derek Wall to speak at a public meeting at 7.30 pm at Ruskin House on Thursday, 10 January. Derek Wall is a former Principal Speaker of the Green Party but, unlike many greens, he recognises that climate change  cannot be overcome without “challenging capitalism”.

Communists agree but would go further than merely “challenging” capitalism. We seek its replacement by socialism and recognise that the scientific evidence indicates that time is running out. Furthermore, as was argued in the recent discussion paper from the Communist University in South London (CUiSL), global warming is a class issue that can only be resolved by social revolution. The only viable remedy open to capitalism if mass extinction is to be avoided is the carbon tax model proposed by James Hansen in which the tax is set at a sufficiently high level to keep fossil fuels in the ground and the revenues are distributed to citizens, not corporations. As recent decisions on fracking, airport expansion and defending Saudi Arabia demonstrate, those who own capital will never tolerate this. Their strategy is

A programme of developing green energy and promoting energy saving while leaving fossil fuel consumption to market forces

Making workers pay for the resulting costs and unavoided environmental damage

Protecting the capitalist elite even if this means retiring them to protected, secure environments

It doesn’t, however, matter how many windmills we build. If there are profits to be made from oil and gas extraction, this will continue until CO2 levels reach a point where the oceans boil dry – or, more likely, a tipping point is reached and we tumble into mass extinction.

Socialism or death

The Paris Agreement (COP21) in December 2016 is intended to encourage fuel efficiency and develop non-fossil fuels so as to limit global warming to 1.50C above pre-industrial levels. Will it?

The USA has given notice that it will withdraw from COP21 by 2020. This will not help, but the strategy itself is flawed. As the discussion paper on Global Warming from the Communist University in South London (CUiSL), currently in the proof reading stage, argues, catastrophic climate change will only be avoided if fossil fuels are left in the ground. There is, however, no indication that this is happening. According to a forecast from the International Energy Agency, annual fossil fuel consumption is set to increase by the equivalent of 82 trillion barrels of oil by 2040[i]. This is 14% more than at present and is forecast despite a forecast increase in renewable and nuclear energy of 67% by 2040. These will still be contributing less than a quarter of our energy by 2040.

This failure to act to halt global warming should not surprise us. As the CUiSL discussion paper also argues, capitalism is simply incapable of addressing global warming. Its rationale is the accumulation of capital by generating profits. Due to market-based discounting, its time horizons are too near, leading it to under-estimate catastrophe in coming decades; there is simply too much profit to be made today and in future from fossil fuel extraction to leave it in the ground; and there is too much capital tied up in fossil fuel extraction to see it written off. Whether or not every apologist for capitalism recognises it, their mantra is “Pump, baby pump”. Ours should be borrowed from the Cubans: Socialismo o muerte (Socialism or death). Cubans use it to affirm their willingness to die to defend their system. We need to adopt it in recognition that our system, capitalism, will kill our grandchildren if we don’t begin to take steps now to replace it with socialism.

[i] https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=26212

 

 

 

Criminal Irresponsibility

Interviewed on the Today Programme today, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling sought to defend the government’s decision to push through parliamentary approval for Heathrow expansion without waiting for the Climate Change Committee to report later this week on the UK’s progress on meeting CO2 emission targets. His reasoning was that

  • By 2050 aircraft would be much more efficient, thus generating much less CO2.
  • CO2 emissions by aircraft were an international responsibility and don’t affect UK targets.

Both arguments demonstrate the government’s criminal irresponsibility in this area. Basic physics demonstrates that, after more than one hundred years of development of aviation, the scope for further efficiency savings is vanishingly small. Don’t take my word for it – refer to the late Professor David MacKay’s book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air which he generously published as a free book which you can download here. The proof you need is in Part 111, section C

The argument that aviation’s CO2 emissions are none of the government’s business is simply risible.

Global warming and its consequences, including both the need and the potential for social revolution, is the subject of a discussion paper being researched and drafted by the Communist University in South London. Go to https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/ to follow progress or, even better, to register your willingness to participate.

You Cannot Be Serious!

In December 2015 the government signed up to the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP 21), requiring net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 – a cut of 90 percent in the then prevailing level. If there is a new runway at Heathrow, aviation is projected to account for 50% of our carbon emissions by 2050. Does this make sense?

Global climate change is a class issue[i]. A world that ignores COP21 will be very different to the present one. The choices for the working class will not simply be between continued exploitation and social revolution. The risk of total subjugation and extinction could not then be ignored.

Aviation’s contribution to CO2 emission is also a class issue. As we pointed out on 29 October 2016, frequent flyers are predominately drawn from the wealthiest 10% of the population. 15% of the British population who fly three or more times a year account for 70% of all flights. More than half the UK population takes no flights at all.

The response of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport to Heathrow expansion which reported today is to call for tougher rules on night flights and a plea to keep costs to flyers down. They are silent on CO2 emission.

Have you noticed how the BBC invariably concludes reports of bad news for the government with an anodyne government rebuttal? Perhaps they will employ this one by a Department for Transport spokeswoman in response to the Select Committee’s report:

“Expansion [at Heathrow] will only proceed if it meets strict environmental obligations and offers a world-class package of compensation and mitigations for local communities.”

A more appropriate response to the Select Committee would be that of John McEnroe to a poor line decision:

“You cannot be serious”.

Footnote

[i] If you are interested in participating in research by the Communist University in South London into this, go to https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/

Looking to the future

The Labour Chair of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, has written to the top 25 pension funds to enquire about what they are doing to “safeguard people’s pensions from the financial risk of climate change”. Ms Creagh was reported in City AM on 5 March as saying that “a young person today may be 45 years away from retirement. Over that time scale climate change risks will inevitably grow”.

The lack of understanding implied by this statement is breath-taking. Setting aside the problem that personal pensions[i] , the kind subject to auto- enrolment that pension funds provide – represent poor value for money because of the level of management fees and other expenses and place all the risk on the employee, the issue here is a failure to understand the kind of risk that climate change brings.

Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) holds that there are two kinds of risk: systemic and unsystemic. As we all live on the one planet, the risk associated with climate change is systemic. It is born by everyone and is independent of any investment decision the individual may make. With systemic risk there are no hedges available, no clever portfolio strategies by which it can be reduced. Ms Creagh might just as well have written to the Met Office to ask about what steps they were taking to stop climate change.

The primary interest of pension funds is to flog their product. They need to attract and retain customers – and the government’s requirement for auto-enrolment ensures a steady stream of these. They market their product by stressing their skill at achieving a good investment return and, to a lesser extent, the level of their fees. MPT holds that the future return on investments is largely independent of investment skill and, perhaps somewhat optimistically, the return will follow the long run average – no more than around 5% per annum real rate of return[ii]. Funds that imply a higher return are either in the snake oil business or taking on more risk that the punter realises. Rock bottom management fees of 0.5% per annum still represent 10% of this anticipated future return. Many management fees and other hidden costs are significantly higher than 0.5% per annum.

The horizons of pension funds are also determined by MPT. At the heart of MPT is the concept of discounting the future. This too is done at the 5% per annum real rate of return. Thus a certain loss in 45 years of £1 is treated as equivalent a certain loss of only some 10 pence today. Even if the pension funds had any way of influencing global warming in 45 years time, this interest would only represent one tenth of their concern about a similar risk today.

We need a solution to global warming, but it isn’t going to come from pension funds – or, regrettably it seems, from Ms Creagh. The only way out of the crisis we face is through genuine democratic control – the kind that promotes the interests of all workers, living and unborn. It’s called Communism.

[i] The alternative is a defined benefit scheme provided by an employer, but they are fast disappearing and, in the case of university and college lecturers, under current attack.

[ii] The only exception is when insider information is exploited. This is only possible for crooks and the super-rich.