Socialism and the Environment

Socialism and the Environment

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This pamphlet, produced in May 2008, is a collation of material written by members of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in Australia, the United States and Britain. SP is the Australian section of the CWI. We are happy to publish it for the first time on line.

Our environment is deteriorating rapidly. In the past 50 years, human activity has changed the ecosystem more rapidly and extensively than in any other half-century in human history. The climate is changing because the average surface temperature of the earth has risen by 0.74 degrees Celsius since the 1850s. The climate change of the past 150 years has been caused by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases act like a blanket on the planet and are rising to dangerous levels.

The most critical greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide – concentrations in the air have risen by 30 per cent since the start of the Industrial Revolution and are now present in the atmosphere in higher amounts than at any time for the past 650,000 years. The burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and the changing use of land have produced most of that extra carbon dioxide.

Eleven of the warmest years since records began 150 years ago have occurred in the last 12 years. The rise in average global temperatures over the last 50 years is now reckoned to be twice the rate of the previous 100 years.

If rising average temperatures only meant flowers blooming with the arrival of an earlier spring, or French champagne houses planning to plant vineyards in southern England, few would be worried.

But the effects that are already being seen are more dramatic. Arctic ice is thinning (by 40 per cent since the 1960s) and shrinking (by 9 per cent per decade). The number of Category 4 and 5 storms has almost doubled in the last 30 years; droughts in the Sahel during the 1970s and 80s, and current droughts in the Amazon and Australia, are suspected to be a result of rising ocean temperatures. Poverty and food insecurity have also been linked to climate variability. And those changes are due to an average rise in global temperature of less than 1 degree Celsius.

One report from the United Nations climate science panel (IPCC) predicts that there could be temperature rises as high as 6.4 degrees Celsius before the end of the century. The rise in sea levels, which melting ice and expanding oceans would produce, could displace hundreds of millions of people presently living near coasts in Asia, as well as other low-lying countries such as Holland or river deltas such as the Nile in Egypt.

Some islands in the Pacific Ocean would disappear completely. Widespread changes in rain and wind patterns could produce expanding deserts in Spain, Italy and Greece; making life impossible for tens of millions of people who could seek to migrate.

In Australia, the driest continent of all, the effects of global warming are stark. Temperatures have risen higher than the global average – by 0.7 degrees since 1950. Over the same period rainfall has fallen by between 20-40 per cent in the most populated areas of the southeast and southwest. By 2070, if there is no major policy change, the CSIRO expects a 70 per cent increase in droughts in NSW, up to 40 per cent less snow cover, up to 80 per cent bleaching of coral reefs, and a 100 per cent increase in the number of people exposed to flooding. Climate change is therefore no theoretical issue.

Climate sceptics

Over the last ten years, a small minority of scientists have challenged the majority view put forward by the IPCC. Over that period the IPCC considers that climate change was “likely” (over 66 per cent chance) to have been caused by human activity.

Most maverick sceptics have now been marginalised. Yet still a think tank funded by oil giant Exxon Mobil offered scientists and economists $10,000 each to write articles to rubbish the IPCC report.

The report was the product of the work of thousands of scientists and had to be unanimously approved by 154 governments. By its very nature that makes the report conservative and potentially underestimating the risks of rapid global climate change. What is still not fully understood, for example, is the potential for positive feedback to occur which could accelerate climate changes.

For example the reduction of Arctic ice, which reflects a lot of sunlight, and its replacement with warmer, dark ocean water, could see a greater absorption of heat by the Arctic Ocean and in turn a further speed up of global warming. Faster temperature rises in the northern latitudes could release billions of tonnes of methane from rotting vegetation presently trapped in the frozen tundra. Methane is 23 times more dangerous a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

In Australia an unholy alliance of business interest groups, rightwing think tanks, bought off economists and lobbyists, and conservative media columnists have led the sceptics charge. However public opinion has steadily moved in the opposite direction. Sceptics like Catholic Cardinal George Pell have been reduced to describing climate change fears as examples of “pagan emptiness…in the past pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods. Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions”!

It is worth noting that Bush and his oil producing friends led the campaign to eradicate the frightening but nevertheless realistic term ‘Global Warming’ and replace it with the vague label, ‘Climate Change’. Why? So that the oil industry does not shoulder the blame for environmental melt-down and it also implies that if there really is a problem, then it’s a natural occurrence. In reality, this is a fictional debate (continually engineered by oil interests), as the vast majority of scientists agree that global overheating is man-made and not due to natural causes.

What are governments doing?

While any steps forward in fighting climate change would be welcome, weak international treaties so far have had virtually no effect. The UN called a climate change conference in 1992, which led to the Kyoto agreement in 1997. That agreement eventually came into effect in February 2005!

It aimed for all developed nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by between 3 per cent and 8 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2012. Few countries have achieved that target and the US, which produces about a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide pollution, refused to ratify the agreement. Australia also refused for a long time although the Rudd Labor government ratified the agreement in late 2007. This was hardly a radical step as it allows Australia to increase its emissions by 8 per cent! Other major emerging economies, such as China and India have never been involved in the Kyoto deal.

Big companies with vested interests have fought campaigns to protect current shareholders’ profits, rather than invest to prevent a catastrophe 20 or 30 years away. The debate on whether human activity has caused global warming may be more settled but those mainly responsible for greenhouse gases (the owners of energy and transport industries) are still seeking to avoid anything that hurts their profits.

Most climate change scientists have argued that the cuts required in greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent major climatic change need to be of the order of 60-80 per cent, ten times the previous Kyoto targets. NASA’s top climate scientist, Jim Hansen, believes those cuts need to take place over the next ten years or the rate of climate change could reach a tipping point and accelerate even faster.

Are consumers to blame?

Everyday we see more commercial and state funded campaigns promoting individual action on climate change. We are told to switch off the light, turn off the tap and switch to “green energy”. But can our personal lifestyle choices alone save the environment?

More and more people are working hard to reduce their own personal energy consumption. Schools and communities everywhere are raising awareness on alternative energy, water conservation and sustainable living.

We are also being told to make the switch to “Green power” in campaigns like ‘You have the power. Save Energy’ and ‘Make the Switch’. However choosing green power is very expensive at around $400 extra a year and is often limited to a certain percentage of over all household usage actually being from renewable sources. In Victoria for example only about 4 per cent of all energy produced is from renewable sources, while coal generates about 84 per cent of available electricity and results in 50 per cent of our greenhouse emissions.

Energy companies have been quick to cash in on the environment crisis, and in our willingness to take action. Green power sales are surging, over 8 per cent of Australian households already pay more for their electricity to ensure it’s environmentally friendly.

The concept that demand for clean energy will drive the increase in renewables is unfortunately limited. Consumer power alone cannot solve the crisis and in fact does nothing to challenge big business polluters such as coal producers and exporters of uranium. Nor does it stop the wastage of water and energy in agribusiness like cotton farming, mining and in factories. In Australia around 90 per cent of water usage is by agri-business while only 10 per cent is used by households. While water restrictions on residential properties are compulsory, big business has not been forced to cut back.

Reducing our domestic demand for coal-fuelled electricity or “black power” is far from the solution when for example in Victoria the State Labor Government has recently increased and expanded our dirty brown coal production. Labor has also given major subsidies to these companies rather than invest in renewable sectors.

The main culprits in producing greenhouse gases are the large energy giants like Exxon-Mobil and BHP Billiton, companies that continue to increase their emissions. It has been estimated that the changes we make at the personal level would account for at best 20 per cent of the change required. When scientific estimates say the world needs a minimum of 80 per cent reduction. The big energy guzzlers are not our hot water systems – but big business!

Consumer style campaigns are in many ways a distraction to the urgent action needed, it’s going to take more than a flick of a switch, to make the change. While it’s clear that working people and youth are committed to tackling climate change, we need to resist being quietly coerced and co-opted into a commercialisation of the movement.

Is nuclear power the answer?

Many sections of big business, in response to the looming climate change disaster, propose nuclear energy as a solution. They say that this is the only clean option and the only way to cut carbon emissions quickly. This is a total myth, nuclear power doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases.

As environmentalists such as John Busby point out CO2 is released in nearly every component of the nuclear fuel cycle: “Fossil fuels are involved in the mining, milling and enrichment of the ore, in the fuel can preparation, in the construction of the station and in its decommissioning and demolition, in the handling of the spent waste and its re-processing and in digging the hole in the rock for its deposition,”. Not only that, but nuclear power is only capable to produce a very small percentage of the required world energy needs.

Less well understood is the massive impact of uranium mines and nuclear facilities on water resources. Nuclear power plants consume 20-83 per cent more water than coal-fired plants. The daily extraction of 35 million litres of Great Artesian Basin water for the Roxby Downs uranium mine in South Australia has destroyed some of the precious Mound Springs and adversely impacted on others. Due to the “arrangement with State Labor”, BHP Billiton pays nothing for this massive water take! Conversely, the water consumption of renewable energy sources is negligible or zero.

Many of those who argue for nuclear power are doing so from a one sided point of view. Most have not engaged in a serious examination of clean energy alternatives, but a campaign to ensure that uranium mining is expanded in Australia. Australia produces 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium deposits – much of it at BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine in South Australia. Western Australia also has many deposits. China, with eleven nuclear power reactors in commercial operation plans a 4-fold increase in nuclear energy by 2020. China is starting to rely on imported uranium from Australia. Nuclear power is very big business.

Nuclear waste contamination

We know that the current global environmental crisis requires global solutions, and the mining and the export of uranium will create serious environmental threats around the globe. As a form of energy, nuclear power is far too dangerous.

In Britain, between 1950 and 1976 there were 177 nuclear plant incidents that were serious enough to warrant an investigation. As late as last year there was a leak of 83,000 litres of highly radioactive liquid from a tank at the Thorp plant in England. It is estimated by the President of the Australian Medical Association for the Prevention of War that between 34,200 and 38,500 people have died or will die, due to the Chernobyl accident.

Children living in areas with the worst levels of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, 20 years ago, are offered two “health trips” every year, one during spring and one in the Autumn. During these trips, the children stay at a sanatorium for 24 days. Scientists are counting on 12,500 new cases of post-Chernobyl cancer in the next 10 years.

The nuclear industry have yet to address the question of the vast amount of highly radioactive waste that is a by product of nuclear fission. Even after more than 50 years of research, there is still no known way of economically and safely disposing of high-level radioactive wastes on the scale required, and for the tens of thousands of years for which they remain dangerous. Plutonium, a bi-product of nuclear reactors, is one of the most toxic and cancer-causing substances known.

It is also the case that, mining of uranium threatens the health of mine workers and the communities surrounding the mines. In the short term, uranium mine sites wreck the ecology of the local region; in the long term, they pose a risk to a much broader area.

According to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, uranium mining has been responsible for the largest collective exposure of workers to radiation. One estimate puts the number of workers who have died of lung cancer and silicosis due to mining alone at 20,000.

Collectively, uranium miners suffer the highest radiation doses of all workers in the nuclear fuel chain (apart from accident cleanup crews). Low-level radiation is also implicated in birth defects, high infant mortality and chronic lung, eye, skin and reproductive illnesses.

While the health risks of uranium mining are now quite well known, they are still aggressively disputed by the multi-billion dollar mining industry. In twenty years time, when the health effects of uranium are emerging, it will be ordinary people who will be left to pick up the costs, just like the workers who have been affected by asbestos before them.

As socialists, we argue, that we urgently need alternative forms of energy supplies and employment. While mining currently represents around 1 per cent of employment, the renewable energy sectors are a growing source of employment as international examples show. For instance, Germany’s fast-growing renewable energy industry already employs more than its coal and nuclear industries combined, while Spain’s wind industry supports more than 30,000 jobs – and will support twice that many by 2010. The Climate Institute notes that a solar industry that received strong support from the Australian government could create 31,000 jobs by 2020.

One key point that needs to be raised in this debate is that “you can’t control what you don’t own”. If you leave the energy industry in the hands of multinationals and corporations it will be a recipe for continued environmental disaster.

Carbon trading

Carbon Trading is often put forward as the solution to global warming. In reality, it is just a license to pollute. The thrust behind the proposals to use Carbon Trading as the solution is twofold, firstly it extends the idea of the free market as being able to solve all problems and secondly it tries to put the blame on individuals rather than on big business.

There are two basic types of Carbon Trading the large formal plans like that of Kyoto that allow governments and companies to earn and trade carbon credits and the more informal sector were charitable and for profit organisations charge a fee to organise offsets on your behalf.

Carbon credits

Under emissions trading, governments allocate permits to big industrial polluters so they can trade “rights to pollute” amongst themselves. For instance, in the Kyoto treaty firms or other bodies that are heavy carbon emitters, according to an arbitrarily set level, will have to buy a quota to pollute from those that are below the level. The theory goes that this extra cost faced by polluters will gradually induce them to change, or alternatively they will be forced out of business and be replaced by environmentally friendly companies.

Pollution trading schemes were first implemented in the US by the Reagan administration as an alternative to imposing environmental regulations and other restrictions on the activities of the major corporations. Carbon trading schemes stall real action on climate change, and are being used as a smoke-screen to ward off legislation needed to cut emissions and develop alternative low-carbon solutions.

The European ETS is one such example. The key mechanism introduced to implement the Kyoto Agreement in the European Union was a complicated Emissions Trading Scheme. This has had little effect on carbon emissions and energy efficiency. Meanwhile British oil companies BP and Shell, made £17.9 million and £20.7 million ($40 million and $46 million) respectively through the sale of their carbon credits.

An Oxford academic who studied the scheme, Adam Bumpus, concluded, “This regulation is ultimately there to facilitate the markets – it’s not about making cheap reductions, it’s about making a lot of money.” This illustrates the fundamental constraints on such schemes under the existing capitalist system.

In reality, making carbon a commodity represents a large-scale privatisation of the Earth’s carbon cycling capacity, with the atmospheric pie having been carved-up and handed over to the biggest polluters. Attesting to this is the fact that carbon trading has already become an industry within itself and is worth billions of dollars. Carbon trading credits’ market estimated value is now $32 billion.

Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsetting is being promoted as a relatively pain-free way of tackling climate change. A growing number of schemes now exist which claim that carbon-conscious individuals and businesses can compensate for the carbon emissions released by their activities by donating to various ‘green’ projects from tree planting to renewable energy schemes in the developing world. The environmental concern is that Offsets encourage businesses and individuals to continue or even increase polluting activities.

Some other problems of carbon trading include that firstly, it involves taking out carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) rather than stopping it from going in – most plans involve planting trees. Secondly, it cannot be accurately accounted – so for example if a polluter pays for a scheme that allows it to increase carbon gases by a certain amount there is no guarantee that this amount will be recovered from the atmosphere.

For those plans that do prevent carbon gases going into the atmosphere e.g. investing in solar power, wind and other renewable resources there is no guarantee that the plans to decrease carbon going into the air would not have happened anyway without the extra pollution that was allowed for. These problems apply for both formal plans like Kyoto and even more so for the informal sector.

There has also been a great emphasis on each individuals carbon burden or carbon footprint, i.e. the amount that each of us as individuals contribute to carbon use and hence to global warming – conveniently these multi national media companies ignore the fact that overwhelmingly the largest amount of carbon gases is produced by corporations.

They also ignore the fact that that the amount that individuals can do to reduce carbon use depends on income – i.e. you can only afford energy efficient appliances a flash new energy efficient car and green electricity if you have the money. Research commissioned by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence has shown that a household reliant on unemployment benefits would find it costing them twice as much as a double income with no children if carbon taxes or emissions trading were applied.

Large companies are the ones that produce carbon emissions and will continue to do so as long as they can make a profit. Essentially, trading and offsets amount to “buying the right to pollute”. Big business polluters and rich individuals are able to buy the right to degrade our environment.

These voluntary market-based measures are largely ineffective at reducing emissions. One alternative is for governments to legislate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, where polluting companies like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, are forced to follow emissions reductions, with real penalties for companies that break the law.

These schemes allow us to sidestep the most fundamentally effective response to climate change that we can take, which is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The obvious need is to stop the problem at the source. Market-based mechanisms such as carbon trading are an elaborate game of global creative accountancy that distracts us from the fact that there is no viable “business as usual” scenario.


Carbon taxes or eco-taxes or what are sometimes referred to as “green taxes” are another pro-market solution to climate change. The principle – central to the Greens environmental programme – is that by increasing the price of polluting resources, there will be an incentive created to use them less and seek substitutes. However the issue is not so simple however when examined in more detail.

Carbon taxes proposed in the recent Garnaut climate change report will see households burdened with a hefty 30-40 per cent increase in power costs as energy retail giants pass on the cost of carbon. Rudd himself has said that this will lead to higher energy prices for all Australians.

The first thing to highlight is that the development of new non-polluting technology is not being promoted to a significant extent by adjusting prices through eco-taxes. The evidence shows that key economic factors that help create sustainability, e.g. the development of new non-polluting technology, would not be promoted to a significant extent by adjusting prices through eco-taxes.

It is significant that in Scandinavian countries where some form of eco-tax has been implemented, companies are specifically excluded from paying, and the whole burden is put on individuals. There are indications the pattern might be the same in Australia if introduced on a wide scale.

Eco-taxes such as carbon taxes are also inequitable. Another consequence of eco-taxes is that the poor are hit hardest by their introduction because the cost of warmth and cooking, usually provided by fossil fuels, is a large proportion of their income. A carbon tax here would be regressive, because poorer households spend around 15 per cent of their income on energy, while those with incomes over $50,000 spend less than 3 per cent.

On a different level, this regressive effect also applies to congestion charges, such as those introduced by the London Mayor in Britain, Ken Livingston, to promote the use of public transport. Livingstone now wants to raise the daily levy on all cars driving into the city centre.

Public transport and eco-taxes

Currently the city of Melbourne is looking at introducing such a congestion tax to cut down the number of cars. In Melbourne public transport fares have risen by 25 per cent in the past five years and fares are amongst the highest in the world. The private train operator puts too few train services on the tracks that exist. Whole suburbs are not covered by trams and trains. In that context, working people are ‘pushed’ into car use, especially as State governments and the private sector build more (tolled) roads. Socialists support a vast expansion and integration of the public transport system. We want a free public transport system.

Congestion charges and other eco taxes are a penalty and not an incentive. Surveys show, the majority of car owners would reduce their car use, but found there were no practical alternatives. That is why we need a system where everyone in cities like Melbourne, Perth and Sydney has access to free, frequent accessible, safe, and fast public transport. As is stands, these regressive style taxes do nothing to reduce car usage and greenhouse gases when we have failing public transport system. Congestion taxes are simply another tax on workers and the middle class and do nothing to solve the real reason people are forced to use cars instead of public transport.

Other eco-taxes of this style that are advocated by some environmental groups include: parking taxes, airfare levies and other regressive taxes that are supposed to discourage usage. In reality these “green taxes” will hit working-class people proportionately more than others, and so socialists, while also being green, are far more critical of them. For instance, the rich will still fly when they want, but ordinary people could be priced out of many holidays and other travel.

While eco-taxes on luxury consumption are fully justifiable, applying them widely to reduce greenhouse gases will hit the working people and the poorest hardest. A report titled “Experience with Environmental Taxation in OECD Countries”, looking at the results of eco-taxes as a whole, shows that while they have been successful revenue collectors, their overall environmental impact is negligible.

Renewable energy

How does Australia produce its energy? Mostly from coal fired power stations, the dirtiest source of energy, which produce about 50 per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions. As a result Australia emits the highest amount of greenhouse gas per capita in the world.

Could Australia take its energy from renewable energy sources including solar power? It seems a prime candidate. It is the driest continent on earth, about one third desert. And urgent, radical measures are required, not just in Australia but worldwide.

Alongside other renewable energy sources, solar power could provide a very significant proportion of the world’s energy requirements, replacing greenhouse gas emitting sources like coal and oil fired power stations. In October 2001 Greenpeace announced that 26 per cent of the world’s energy could come from solar power, under existing technology. It was a very conservative estimate. Since then, a way has been found of doubling the output of even the most efficient solar panels, to 40 per cent.

The solar panels we are familiar with come in two forms. Solar panels that heat water for household use, in radiators, for instance and on the other hand solar panels (strictly called photovoltaic or ‘PV systems’) that provide electricity. If these panels are producing more electricity than you are using, the electricity produced runs into the national grid, and your electricity meter runs backwards. Other suppliers of solar panels provide a bank of batteries which can be kept charged up for peak and night time use.

“In just one hour”, the New Scientist reports, enough solar energy reaches the earth’s surface “to meet all our energy needs for an entire year”. Deep-water algae can harvest 97 per cent of the sun’s energy that reaches it. By comparison, commercial PV solar panels are as yet very weak producers of energy, converting about 15 per cent. Vast arrays of solar panels would be required to replace each of Australia’s coal fired power stations. Australia, Africa and America do have vast deserts suitable for this, although deserts are perhaps more suited to solar-thermal power plants, which concentrate the sun’s energy using mirrors to heat a fluid and drive turbines.

This is not suitable for every country, but why centralise energy production in a few large power stations? If the roof of each house, warehouse, factory, office building or shopping centre produces electricity from solar panels connected to the national grid, they would all be part of a vast array of solar panels. Some units of this array could produce far more power than they consumed, whilst some, like factories, much less. A socialist plan could match supply to requirements.

Generating power at the point of use is sometimes termed ‘micro-generation’. Power might be generated from a single unit like a house or warehouse, or from a rural village, shopping centre or industrial estate, although in the larger installations, connection to the national grid takes more work and involves a certain cost. Wind turbines and other methods can be part of a ‘micro-generation’ system. Micro-generation, with a connection to the national grid, is seen as the best way of using renewable energy by environmental campaigners like George Monbiot (in his book ‘Heat’) and Greenpeace.

Decentralisation, or micro-generation, is the only meaningful way to use the power of the sun, but it threatens the privatised energy industry’s existence. There would be no need for powerful energy monopolies selling the consumer overpriced energy. Once installed, solar panels can generate energy freely, invisibly, and noiselessly for thirty years. It’s hardly surprising that there is little investment in solar power from the energy companies, and the cost of current PV systems is prohibitive.

Some object that energy is required to manufacture solar panels, but renewable energy can supply the energy to make them. Obtaining the materials to manufacture solar panels will create some emissions, but only a fraction of what they will save over their life time.

Another objection is that it is very difficult to store electricity, and a vast power station of solar panels would only be able to generate electricity in daylight. But once again, if we use the micro-generation model, where each household or other small unit stores its own power and is connected to the national grid, then storage for night usage becomes much less of a problem, as a small store of batteries (like those used on golf carts) would meet most household needs.

Of course other means of producing energy, such as wind and tidal power, would no doubt be necessary, in addition to storage, to power major installations that run at night. But there has always been one well established method of storing vast amounts of energy: to use spare electricity to pump water up a hill into a reservoir. The water is released when required to drive a hydro-electric generator.

The main objection, in fact, comes down to cost. Until recently when solar panels began to be sold much more cheaply it would take at least 60–70 years to get your money back from savings on your electricity bills, so naturally, there was little take up. PV systems are still far too high a price for most households.

Yet imagine if we had a government that was genuinely interested in investing in renewable energy and not supporting their big business mates.

Are Bio fuels green?

A great deal of hype has been generated recently by the prospect of “greener” bio fuels such as ethanol and bio diesel. Most cars produced since 1988 can run on a fuel composed of up to 20 per cent bio fuel. Generally this is something like ethanol (produced from organic sugars) or refined rapeseed oil. With minimal modifications most cars can run on a mix containing up to 85 per cent bio fuel.

Many cite ethanol and bio diesel as the best route to a cleaner environment and increased energy independence. In reality, however, the potential of these new energy sources to halt climate change is small, while their use will undoubtedly exacerbate many of the problems facing the world’s working class.

Although burning ethanol produces less atmosphere-warming carbon than traditional petrol, its production requires massive amounts of fossil fuels. It takes the equivalent of “seven barrels of oil to produce eight barrels of corn-based ethanol” (CATO Institute, 5/8/06).

Many processing plants being planned and built to produce ethanol will be fuelled by coal, which effectively erases any decrease in the amount of carbon garnered by using ethanol as a substitute for oil. This means that the impact of increased ethanol usage on climate change will be negligible at best.

In addition, the increased demand for corn and other bio fuel crops poses a serious threat to precious natural resources. Rainforests in Malaysia, Brazil, and Indonesia are being bulldozed and burnt to make room for bio fuel crops. Not only are these unique habitats home to countless endangered species, the destruction of vast swaths of these landscapes produces huge amounts of excess carbon.

Although the rhetoric surrounding ethanol couches the issue solely in terms of “energy independence” and environmental concerns, big business and the corporate politicians both stand to benefit from the expansion of bio fuel usage. Ethanol production is based on the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the taxpayers to the multinational companies.

Ethanol and other crop-based fuels also pose a threat to food supplies, particularly for workers and the poor around the world. Mexico has already experienced major price increases for staples like corn and tortillas because of the rising demand for corn to produce ethanol. These price hikes and shortages have sparked major protests in Mexico, China, Morocco, West Bengal, Senegal and Yemen.

These price spikes in the necessities of life for average Mexicans demonstrate the exploitative nature of NAFTA. Millions of Mexican farmers have been driven out of business under NAFTA by heavily-subsidized American corn.

The growing appetite for ethanol can only mean a more difficult, expensive existence for workers and poor worldwide. Giving over huge swathes of the world’s most fertile farm land to the production of bio fuel is having devastating effects. In one year, the production of bio-diesel is estimated to have increased worldwide food prices by 5.9 per cent. The proliferation of ethanol seems criminal when it is estimated that the grain required to make enough ethanol to fill a large cars tank is enough to feed a person for a whole year!

The dire threat global warming poses for humanity has been made painfully clear in recent years. In order to insure our survival, we must find a clean alternative to fossil fuels.

Ethanol however, is not the alternative; rather, it is the product of a system that puts short-term profits ahead of all other concerns. Major corporations and corporate-backed political parties are willing to risk the future of people all over the world for a few agricultural subsidies and increased quarterly earnings.

Ethanol represents a dangerous diversion from the pursuit of actual solutions to climate change. Although options like wind and solar power have enormous potential to reduce our dependence on carbon-producing bio and fossil fuels, they are not given the same attention as ethanol because they might not generate as high profit margins. This sort of narrow, self-interested calculation, which is the essence of capitalism, is what stands in the way of meaningful change on this issue.

Clean Coal

Similar hype surrounds the idea of ‘clean coal’ or ‘carbon capture and storage (CCS)”. This, along with nuclear energy, was pushed by the previous Federal government and the coal industry as the only realistic and short-term solution to cutting carbon emissions.

What it means is that through a process called geosequestration there is the capture of carbon dioxide emissions from a coal or gas-fired power plant or other industrial source, transport via pipelines or haulage, and storage of the gas underground or in the ocean, in isolation from the atmosphere. However the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that “notwithstanding significant penetration of CCS systems by 2050, the majority of CCS deployment will occur in the second half of this century”.

In reality ‘clean coal’ is a PR campaign by Australia’s coal industry. They have a self-imposed 15c levy a tonne to invest in ‘clean coal technology’. This is a sop. It will generate a mere $300 million – about 1.2 per cent of what the coal industry earned through exports alone in 2006.

Proponents of “clean coal” claim it will be 30 per cent cleaner than a standard brown coal power plant and about the same emission levels as a black coal plant. However, as the Climate Institute points out, “there is no such thing as ‘clean coal’ for climate change. The description is a marketing triumph for the coal industry, like ‘safe cigarettes’ for the tobacco industry”.

The proposed ‘clean coal’ fired power plant in the Latrobe Valley of Victoria, one of the first of the so-called plants to be built, has benefited from a large injection of taxpayer money with $150 million of state and federal government grants. As the Friends of the Earth report ‘Burning Coal at Three Minutes to Midnight’ highlights, these subsidies will continue Victoria’s reliance on coal based electricity. On a national scale Rudd’s “clean coal solution” to global warming, will expand Australia’s reliance on polluting fossil fuel sources of energy such as coal, to the detriment of the clean, green renewable energy solutions available to us.

The Environment and Jobs

Some people in the environmental movement do not treat the working class as allies and in some cases they even see them as opponents. Too often they blame workers in certain industries as much as the owners. This leads some environmentalists into the trap of the bosses’ argument that it is a choice between the environment and jobs, making it hard to win local support for defending the environment. Since when have bosses cared about jobs?

There are now over 35 million people unemployed in the developed capitalist countries of the OECD. In Europe the equivalent of the whole working class of Spain and Portugal is on the dole. The big business parties of the Liberals and Labor don’t care about unemployment – in fact, it’s in their interest, as a means of driving down wages. If they said they were concerned about jobs in any other context, no-one would believe them: so why should we believe them when it comes to jobs and the environment? It is simply an attempt to divide and rule people.

Most workers and middle-class people are rightly concerned about both jobs and the environment. But there is no division between the two: unemployment, low pay and the destruction of the environment are all caused by the same profit system. The police and courts are used to protect the interests of big companies and land-owners. The battle to protect the environment is linked to a social struggle for decent living conditions and against the established order. It is poverty that is the enemy of the environment. The bosses who rule the world exploit both people and the environment in their greed for profit.

A programme of sustainable use of resources would create long-term jobs and a better life for the peoples of an area than leaving big business to get on with its profiteering extraction of resources or construction of some mega-project. Energy saving by insulation, replacement of leaking water systems, provision of public transport, and many of the other policies advocated in this pamphlet would all provide jobs.

For instance, the expansion of environmentally-friendly public transport would create far more jobs both during construction as well as during operation than those created on carbon emitting roads where the jobs created are almost exclusively in the construction phase alone.

Factories designed not to produce pollution and waste would be safer to work in and live near. It is the power of ordinary people, the vast majority of whom are workers and poor peasants, organised and active together, which has the strength to change the world and protect the environment.

Some in the labour movement also at times argue in favour of big business interests, despite the prospect for long-term environmental damage. For instance many trade unions in Victorian supported the dredging of Port Philip Bay on the basis that this may provide more jobs for their members. Another example is the mining and energy industries. While the mining industry often finds agreement with some union leaders in order to secure jobs – a typical recent case is the coal industry – in reality more jobs could be created in alternative energies and sustainable industries. There are many myths about the so-called partnership between miners and mining bosses interests.

Firstly, in Australia particularly in the light of the mining booms in WA and Queensland for instance, there has been a lot of talk about the importance of the mining industry to working people. While it is certainly true that a percentage of skilled workers receive high income in the mining industry of up to $100,000 – $150,000, a great majority of workers are only receiving slightly higher wages based on the amount of hours, (including overtime and penalty rates) they work while on site. Many workers only receive $20- $25 an hour! This in reality highlights the low average incomes of all Australian workers, rather than opportunities for working people. Unions could be better deployed waging real industrial battles for better wages and conditions, to increase the minimum wage for instance.

Mining contributes to only 1 per cent of employment world wide, while recent figures continue to show that mining has the highest rate of deaths of any industry in the country, and indeed the world. As socialists, we are in favour of fighting for safe jobs they are sustainable and long term, alongside waging an industrial campaign that increases the standard of living for all workers. We also understand that industry giants care as much about the health and wealth of their workers as they do about the environment.

Green Bans

In Australia building workers, in the 1970’s, waged many battles alongside local communities to protect the environment. They took action to stop work that would damage the Great Barrier Reef. In New South Wales the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF) instituted over 100 ‘Green Bans’, which stopped building work.

One in Sydney involved action to prevent developers building a luxury development on Kelly’s Bush, 12 acres of open space enjoyed by the community. After years of protest by the local community, the plans were eventually dropped when the Bull-dozer and Crane-Drivers’ Union refused to work on them. Other bans were to protect working-class communities from roads being built through the middle of them, historic buildings and other open spaces. A ‘Green ban’ even stopped a plan to build the car park for the Sydney Opera House in a local cliff face. This was one of the reasons the employers and the government launched a vicious attack in the 1980s on the BLF.

Jack Mundey, secretary of the New South Wales BLF between 1968 and 1973, commented on the bans that: “Its strengths were its achievements. The Green Bans are there. The legacy of the bans lives on.” He also points out that one of the major problems with the environmental movement is that it “has failed to address the issues of workers’ conditions and urban environmental issues.” Also, too many environmentalists are “the enlightened middle class … some think that you have to include business interests too, but the Atlantic Richfield oil company, for example, give money to the World Wildlife Fund in the US but are ripping the shit out of Alaska.”

Workers should have the legal right to refuse to work, without any loss of income of threat of discipline, on any process that is a threat to their health or the environment.

The Case for Public Ownership

It is clear we have the technological and scientific capacity to stop global warming. The key barrier is the capitalist system, dominated by multinational corporations and competing nation states.

This situation demands a fundamental, root and branch solution rather than superficial reforms or other band-aid solutions. The future of the planet and humanity demands we overthrow this system. This is only possible by taking the giant corporations that dominate the world economy into public ownership under the democratic control of working people.

By taking the global economy out of the ownership and control of capitalist elites, the vital decisions of society would no longer be determined by the drive for profit. Decisions about how resources are distributed and what and how products are made, could be made democratically rather than behind closed doors in corporate boardrooms.

The use of our resources could be planned rationally, in the interests of society as a whole, rather than being subject to the anarchy of the market. This is what is called socialism.

This would clear the way to urgently convert society from an oil based economy to renewable energy and carry out a huge research program to expand upon existing technology. The $1 trillion spent globally on the military each year (over half of which goes to the U.S. military) owing to the hostility between rival capitalist countries could be used to fund this conversion, as well as to lift billions out of poverty.

Instead of employing the majority of the best scientists to work on weapons research and other harmful ends, as is currently the case, their talents could be utilized to avoid an environmental catastrophe, as well as preventing disease and other useful things.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would not require a return to a pre-industrial age. The problem is not with industry or technology in itself, but rather with who controls it and how it is run – in the narrow interests of individual corporations, rather than society as a whole.

Nor would stopping global warming require a dramatic reduction in human population or in living standards, as some environmentalists believe. The advances in technology and productivity made over the course of the last two hundred years mean that it is now possible to provide all of humanity with quality food, clothing, and shelter, and to do it in a way that is sustainable for the environment.

This was shown in a UN Human Development Report which estimated that “the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food and safe water for all (is less than the combined) wealth of the (worlds) 225 richest people.”

A socialist economy could leave a much smaller environmental footprint by operating in a fashion which is qualitatively more energy efficient than capitalism, while at the same time raising living standards for workers all over the world. Huge savings would come from producing goods that are durable and designed to last, abolishing the widespread capitalist practice of “built-in obsolescence,” where corporations design their products to deteriorate after a relatively short period of time in order to force consumers to buy new ones.

For example, Philips has a patent on a light bulb that would last for many years without burning out – but to sell it would undermine their sales and profits. So they have mothballed this technology which would save enormous amounts of resources without in any way lowering workers living standards. In fact, developing long-lasting, durable products would mean higher quality products for consumers and improve living standards by allowing a decrease in the workweek, increasing leisure time.

Further, the $1 trillion a year spent on advertising to convince people that they need such things as Coke rather than Pepsi is an enormous waste of vast amount of paper, plastic, packaging, and energy that could be freed up for socially useful purposes.

Democratic planning

Another example how economic planning would allow energy efficiency is housing and construction of buildings. Under capitalism construction, like all other industries, is done in a short-term fashion to maximise profits, which means shoddy quality and energy inefficient buildings which leak heat.

Instead, a planned economy could focus on making long lasting, energy efficient buildings. This would actually be more economical in the long term, better for the environment, and provide higher quality housing for ordinary people.

A socialist society could also vastly increase living standards by providing the billions of people around the world who suffer from unemployment or under-employment with jobs producing socially useful goods. Billions of people have their talents wasted under capitalism owing to hunger, poverty, and unemployment. Ending poverty and hunger and providing free education would mean a huge increase in the world’s manual and scientific labour power which could be mobilised to help solve problems facing society.

Many workers in the nuclear, auto, or other polluting industries fear that their jobs would be sacrificed by efforts to save the environment. Yet these workers – many of whom now see their jobs threatened by their profit-hungry bosses, as in the case of the auto industry – could be employed to help convert society to renewable energy sources and expanding the public transport system, among other socially useful areas of work.

Under socialism, instead of the world being a market for exploitation by a handful of huge multinational corporations, it would be organised to unite the resources and skills of workers to improve the conditions of people around the world. We could finally attain the international cooperation necessary to deal with global problems like global warming, and begin to reverse the environmental catastrophe.

Humanity cannot afford to allow the narrow profit interests of a tiny super-rich elite to cost us the planet. The very future of the earth depends upon overthrowing the rule of profit and replacing it with democratic socialism, which can utilise the world’s resources for the common good and institute a rational plan of production.