Saving the Environment: Short and Long-Term Solutions

by Ryan Eustace on July 16, 2013

With the failure of the Doha climate talks last year, the failure of Durban before that, of Copenhagen before that, and of Kyoto before that, and with all of the failures in between, it is difficult to remain optimistic about the prospect of successfully combating the effects of climate change. It increasingly appears as if our species has the collective inability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that our elected officials neither have the leverage nor the interest to combat increasingly complicated and global environmental problems.

Why, despite a consensus of climatologists urging decisive action, is political discourse almost absent? President Obama has, after five years in office, has finally begun the discussion about combating climate change. Any hope of legislation to curb emissions in the United States within the next three years is misplaced. And without leadership from industrialized western nations, the political leadership of developing nations will refuse to enact environmental regulations that may curb growth. In some places, we are seeing a reversal of past gains. Stephen Harper, citing economic concerns, has withdrawn Canada from the Kyoto Accord. In many nations, particularly the United States, multinational corporations have hindered any progress for solutions to environmental problems.

These corporations and the executives who run them are interested only in short-term profit. In the United States, a disinformation campaign by energy company executives has led to a widespread misunderstanding of how serious the problems we face are. The Koch Brothers are the most notorious example, funding think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation which has argued that “scientific facts gathered in the past 10 years do not support the notion of catastrophic human-made warming.” The Koch brothers, who make a significant amount of their revenue from petroleum refining, stand to sacrifice profit if the energy industry is properly regulated. These tactics were used 50 years ago by executives in the tobacco industry. By questioning the science behind climate change, those who profit from pollution will continue to benefit from the status quo.

This endless pursuit of profit causes short term decisions that have major environmental impacts. Rather than invest in sustainable alternative technologies, energy companies continue to rely upon cheap fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gasses. Large scale factory farms continue to produce beef in a way that releases enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere. These companies have no incentive to change their methods, and little interest in averting an environmental catastrophe. National and international government efforts have been ineffective in finding a solution.

Short vs. Long-Term Progress

An old predicament of the left is whether to sacrifice short-term gains to focus on building an alternate sustainable and egalitarian society. In the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World, the most uniquely American radical organization, struggled between fighting for wage increases and members’ vision of a syndicalist society. Governments are faced with the same problem. Is it a government’s obligation to reduce poverty or to provide a stable planet for future generations? The primary objectives of Western industrialized nations are economic growth, expanding markets, and profit motives. What about resource-rich nations that are less industrialized?

Earlier this year, Venezuela’s National Institute of Statistics released figures that showed a dramatic drop in the population living in extreme poverty. From 2001 to 2011, the figure dropped over 4%, from 11.36% to 6.97%. Similarly, average life expectancy rose from 74.5 years to 79.5 years. The social, educational, and health programs provided by the Venezuelan government could not have achieved these results without oil revenue, which remains the cornerstone of the Venezuelan economy. Despite this, the Venezuelan Ministry of the Environment estimates that Venezuela contributes less than 1% of global greenhouse gasses. Compared with the United States, where the profits of multinational energy corporations largely go to excessive executive compensation packages, the actions of the Venezuelan government are incredibly beneficial to its citizens.

While the Bolivarian project is progressive, it is not a long-term solution. Venezuela is right to use oil revenue to help its most needy citizens, but the problem of climate change threatens billions of people with famine, poverty, war, and natural disasters. Western nations must learn from Venezuela; by using oil revenue to fund education and the development of alternative, sustainable energy technology, we can begin to reduce emissions and hopefully reduce the impact of climate change. During the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, Hugo Chavez said that the only way to combat climate change was to “go from capitalism to socialism.”

A Socialist Solution

Climate change is the most severe problem humanity has ever faced. Unlike the threat of nuclear war, inaction will cause destruction of an unprecedented magnitude. Billions of people will be without water, food, and shelter. Disease will spread rapidly. Wars will break out over scarce resources. We cannot accurately predict the repercussions of these problems, but one thing is certain. We need to act immediately. If we continue polluting at the rate we are now, the effects will soon be irreversible.

When Stephen Harper withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, he dismissed the initiative as a “socialist scheme.” A socialist scheme? While Harper’s agenda seems to be nothing more than enriching the wealthy and continuing the neoliberal economic project, perhaps both he is on to something. The West has failed to take ownership of the problems that they disproportionately created. It is time to look to nations like Venezuela for a solution.

A society based around generating profits and economic growth cannot combat the existential environmental problems our species faces. A complete reorganization of society is needed, one centered around sustainable growth and an equitable distribution of resources. Capitalism has already harmed the poorest citizens of this planet, and those are the ones who will suffer most from global food and water shortages.

We must act now! Our window is rapidly closing. Capitalism has failed us. Only a new, globally organized socialist order can save us now.

Ryan Eustace is an activist and a graduate student. He is optimistic, but he is not sure for how long. He can be reached at RyanCEustace[at]gmail.com.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

David Ellis July 17, 2013 at 7:54 am

Capitalism cannot give up the anarchy on which it is based or it wouldn’t be capitalism. It would be like asking the rich to get rid of the thing that made them rich: chance. Not to mentinon the thing that keeps them rich: violence.

Anarchy and violence that’s capitalism and there is no room for the environment in that equation.

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Ryan Eustace July 17, 2013 at 9:48 am

The majority of those critical of capitalism realize that those in power will not simply give up their power.

Climate change is the most pressing problem facing humanity. To say that their is no room for the environment will only make solving this problem more difficult.

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Arthur July 17, 2013 at 11:00 am

“With the failure of the Doha climate talks last year, the failure of Durban before that, of Copenhagen before that, and of Kyoto before that, and with all of the failures in between, it is difficult to remain optimistic about the prospect of successfully combating the effects of climate change.”

It is difficult to remain patient with people who continue to push for policies that have repeatedly failed and do not even attempt to offer an argument as to how they could possibly succeed.

Instead of evidence that such agreements could possibly solve the problems of climate change, we are just hectored that “We need to act immediately. If we continue polluting at the rate we are now, the effects will soon be irreversible.”

The only action proposed is to curb “growth”.

Obviously India, China and other poor countries wil NOT curb growth. They WILL industrialize, using the cheapest available energy resources. That is the main driver of inreased carbon emissions and it will continue unless and until massive R&D poduces low emissions energy technology cheaper than fossil fuels (or until poor countries have developed enough to be able to afford to switch to the next cheapest technologies – nuclear).

By advocating hysteria about “the most severe problem humanity has ever faced” the article contributes NOTHING to actually dealing with the problem. Its impact is primarily to promote fatalistic acceptance and token efforts to keep trying policies known to fail – the main point being to promote hostility to economic growth and suggest that reducing poverty conflicts with a better world in the long term.

Communists have a directly opposite perspective. We regard capitalism as a fetter restricting economic growth and progress generally. We are oriented towards unleashing the productive forces and conquering nature. Developing new energy technologies to replace fossil fuels is just one of many tasks we are confident that humanity will tackle as it climbs out of the mud and reaches toward the stars.

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David Walters July 17, 2013 at 11:14 am

I’m curious as to how Venezuela is engaged in a “sustainable energy future”…it’s has the largest reserves of Tar Sands in the world, even more than Canada. This is the dirtiest oil in the world. I defend, unconditionally, Venezuela’s energy and national sovereignty but this is a huge issue for everyone.

The larger “long term” contradiction or issue is that the essayist here addresses the billions that live in poverty and hunger and under the threat of war. How else to alleviate this without a huge freeing of the productive forces to raise our standard of living? How to do this without massive generation of energy?

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Ryan Eustace July 17, 2013 at 11:24 am

I’d be interested to here your perspective on actually dealing with the problem other than a reference to climbing out of the mud. Yes, we need low emission technology. Yes, China, India, Brazil, and industrializing nations will continue to emit to increase growth. Until I see motivation other than short term profit and growth from multinationals and nation states, I will not share in your confidence. I will say that we are conquering nature, albeit not in a positive way.

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Arthur July 17, 2013 at 12:55 pm

As I said, “massive R&D”. Except for military purposes that is difficult to organize under capitalism, partly because of “free rider” problems – governments that provide the funds don’t reap all the benefit, partly because of ideological prejudice that anything worth doing will be profitable, whereas the products of fundamental science are generally beneficial but often hard to recover investment funds from.

Moving past capitalism will result in a far larger proportion of GDP going to R&D and thus accelerating the development of productive forces generally, including energy technology (or if that proves intractable and fossil fuels remain cheaper, enabling us to afford more expensive energy technology such as nuclear).

But we certainly won’t move past capitalism with “socialists” proposing curbs on growth instead of unleashing the productive forces.

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David Walters July 17, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Arthur is correct and poised it better than I did. *Regardless* of the mode of production…energy is, and will be developed, either for human needs or for profit. But even in a communist society, the exact same technical and environmental considerations have to be made. We need, *as a species* to use a lot more energy than we use now. Obviously capitalism will takes this to mean fossil fuels and similar GHG and polluting technologies. But we need to come up with a “Transitional Program” of sorts that is not de-development, not tailored to a 19th Century world, but one that employs the vast quantities of energy for our use.

Most energy development is not around short-term profit, it is around long term development of the capitalist system, even where modified by a strong bonarpartist “national” perspective (India, China, UAE, Vietnam, etc etc). That is in terms of the national plans of each country. That’s implemented using private contractors and administrators is another question.

Out tasks it point a way forward, placing demands ON the capitalists and planners for the capitalist energy perspectives.

Here is ONE such plan, quite well thought out:
It is called “”Moment of Transition: Structural Crisis and the Case for a Democratic Socialist Party” and I did a very little bit of the technical work on it. The link to it is here:
http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/Roberto_Meyerson_Essex_Noonan.pdf

The four authors are all communists who are dealing with these very issues.

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Arthur July 19, 2013 at 5:59 am

Just a thank you for the paper. Glad to see it clearly expresses the well established absurdities of Green claims about relying on intermittant renewables for power. I haven’t even skimmed it properly but have added it to my list of things to read carefully when I have time. Unfortunately that is a very long list. But just on the basis of the refutation of renewables I am recommending it to others and hope a shorter summary might be made available.

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Pham Binh July 19, 2013 at 8:34 am
Arthur July 19, 2013 at 8:51 am

Power from solar panels is orders of magnitude more expensive than grid power. Such projects are only relevant for providing interim miniscule amounts of power (eg for LED torchlight) in areas beyond the grid.

Note how that link admits:

“The first part of the program aims to provide solar systems to 500,000 extremely poor households in areas that lack even basic access to the power grid.

But blithely proceeds to claim:

“If Peru can do this for its people, it makes you wonder why more prosperous countries can’t do the same.”

This is quite typical of the sheer dishonesty of greenie claims about renewables.

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Pham Binh July 19, 2013 at 10:01 am

I think this is a good solution given that it’s probably not economically feasible to extend power grids into mountainous and super-remote areas. Yes?

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Arthur July 19, 2013 at 11:33 am

Yes, good interim solution until grid can be extended. Generally requires hybrid systems with diesel backup for when the sun doesn’t shine. Should not be an excuse for delaying the grid but better than only having batteries in the meantime and lower cost than just using diesel generators in areas with very high transport costs for fuel that happen to have lots of sunshine. Mainly relevant with very low population density (not just super-remote) as grid can be extended even in super-remote areas whenever there is enough population to justify each km of grid extension.

It is of course completely irrelevant to the absurd demands made by greenies for subsidy of solar panels in areas with grid coverage.

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