|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Bush’s climatic ‘conversion’?
ON 7 JUNE, the most destructive cyclone to hit the Gulf coast in 60 years reached maximum category five intensity. Cyclone Gonu caused 70 deaths but missed the oil wells and the price of a barrel of oil temporarily dropped from its recent highs.
The G8 countries, representing about 65% of the world economy according to the United Nations (UN), were meeting at the time in Heiligendamm, Germany. Just after the G8 concluded, the worst storms for 30 years flooded the coast of Australia, which is said to be in the middle of a ‘once in a thousand year’ drought, washing ashore an oil tanker and causing an estimated $840 million-worth of damage but missing the almost empty reservoirs upstream. The droughts in Australia, the US, China and elsewhere continued to intensify.
At an informal meeting in Washington in February this year, delegates from the G8, plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa, agreed that a global market should be formed to cap and trade carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon trading, favoured by capitalist politicians and now the US administration, allows companies to buy permission to pollute and will hit the poorest hardest. A World Wildlife Fund report (13 June) says that "short-sighted plans to allow European companies to buy their way out of making reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions" will fail to produce any significant emissions reductions in phase II of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (2008 to 2012).
In December 2006, the UN failed to set a timetable for cutting emissions by 50% by 2050. Its aim, to keep global warming to a 2C increase in temperature from pre-industrial levels, is in any case too little to save the planet. Global temperatures have risen by less than one degree in the last century, and yet the resulting climate change is already a deadly reality.
One of the climate changes now being recognised as a result of global warming is drought. A new report by the UN’s environment programme links the Darfur conflict with climate change, a devastating drought that swept Sudan and the Horn of Africa, depriving Sudan of 40% of its rainfall. (Independent, 21 June) While true, this conveniently masks the role of imperialism in the oil-rich region in the first place. (Socialism Today No.86, September 2004; The Socialist, 7 February 2007) But it is now recognised that over the last ten or perhaps 15 years, changed rainfall patterns mean that more than 40 million people in Australia and the USA are now facing serious drought. How will the workers and small farmers fare in these advanced capitalist countries?
Just before the G8 met, US president, George W Bush, brushed aside the existing UN negotiating process and proposed a voluntary ‘new global framework’ to combat climate change. He offered to chair UN talks on targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and pointedly included ‘rapidly growing economies like India and China’.
The US administration does not want to cut its emissions while China is free from restrictions, fearing further loss of markets. Capitalist competition continues to hinder action. Two days before the summit, China unveiled its first national plan on climate change. Climate change rests with rich western nations, it said, and China would not reduce its emissions at the expense of economic development. If all rich nations reduced their per capita CO2 emissions to those of China there would be no climate change threat, the Chinese regime argued. (New Scientist, 9 June) China and India, which have ratified the Kyoto protocol, are not required to reduce carbon emissions under the present UN treaty.
China’s environmental record has been indistinguishable in many ways to that of unregulated capitalist development. Every week to ten days, a coal-fired power station opens somewhere in China (New York Times, 11 June 2006) with the result that China may exceed the carbon emissions of the US this year. Northern China is now in the tenth year of a severe drought. A fire swept the outskirts of Beijing renewing "concerns about the capital’s crippling water shortages as an enduring drought deepens and temperatures hit record highs… ‘We had no water here to fight the fire, we haven’t had any rain all year so the whole forest was dry’," a worker told France 24 (18 June). Chinese authorities have recently acknowledged that "global warming is at least partly to blame".
The US produces almost a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Now the Southwest may be heading for a ‘mega-drought’ the New Scientist says (9 June). Thirty million people in the US from Los Angeles to Phoenix get their water supplies from the Colorado river and it irrigates some of the US’s most productive farmland. It may run dry. The lack of wet years has created a "situation unlike anything we’ve seen in recent times". The Florida Miami Herald reports (16 June) that "approximately 34% of the contiguous US is in a moderate-to-exceptional drought". Local newspapers carry the story: "The ‘exceptional’ drought category is creeping north from Alabama where streams have run dry, lakes are shrinking and farm ponds are shrivelling. Some farmers in Alabama have even given up on replanting this year due to the dryness of the soil. The drought is the worst in 50 years". (Tullahoma News and Guardian, 18 June) Panic, paralysis and idiocy mark government circles: "Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue asked the people of his state to pray for rain. ‘We don’t need government’s help, we need God’s help,’ he declared". (Globe and Mail, Canada, 22 June)
The reality of climate change was brought home to the US population in the flooding of New Orleans in 2005, the deaths and abandonment of the poorest sections of the largely black population, the apparent paralysis of the richest nation on earth. Bush’s popularity never recovered and now 85% of the US population accept the reality of global warming. (New Scientist, 23 June) In the year hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, 28 storms formed, producing 15 hurricanes, five category four and four category five, three times the seasonal average. Damages were over $128 billion.
Climate sceptic, Australian prime minister, John Howard, has also been dragged ‘kicking and screaming’ to accept climate change and he, too, urged his flock to pray for rain. Drought knocked 1% off Australia’s economic growth. (Melbourne Herald Sun, 19 June) In May, "The sense of panic became palpable", the New Scientist reports, as the populations of Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane – twelve million people – already facing water restrictions, begin to wonder where their water supply will come from next year. Farming is devastated. In Queensland the drought is "now threatening to leave the state with a milk shortage… Fresh milk supplies could run dry by next year". (ABC Online, 4 June)
Australia has the worst greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the world and did not sign up to the Kyoto treaty. Analysis by climate change specialists has indicated that in Australia’s worst-hit region, half the reduction in rainfall is due to the increase in greenhouse gasses. Brisbane’s main water supply runs out in early 2009 unless something is done. Electricity supplies are vulnerable. The coal fired power stations, which are the main cause of much of Australia’s CO2 emissions, require water for cooling.
The drought has caused Queensland to turn off two of its generators, and the hydroelectric turbines in the snowy mountains in New South Wales are at 8% of capacity. Australian industry requires electricity and water. Much of industry still gets its water cheaply, and one city council voted to sell its emergency supplies of water to keep a gold mine open. The gold mine in Orange, near Sydney, which employs 400 people, with 2,500 in associated industries, uses 1.3 million gallons of water a day.
The G8 meeting on 6-8 June in reality decided nothing. Oil man Bush took charge of the agenda, and the British delegates gushed that Bush was now on board. Recent studies are suggesting that the droughts that are concentrating the minds of the G8 are not going to break but are new climates, a permanent change to rainfall patterns.
In Australia there are various government plans, including mobile desalination plants, yet what is causing panic is the apparently accelerating speed of climate change, the year-on-year new temperature highs. Perth has a desalination plant already running, and Melbourne plans to have a desalination plant by 2015. But a recent study found that over the last 5,000 years parts of Australia sometimes switched to much dryer conditions than at present, and that the changes took place in as little as 30 years, not the hundreds or thousands of years expected. Desalination in 2015 may once again be too little too late.