Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

Our Simmering Planet: What to do about global warming?

By Joyeeta Gupta

Zed Books, 2002, £9-99 (pbk)

Reviewed by Amrita Huggins

JOYEETA GUPTA’S grimly titled guide to global warming and climate change explains in a clear and concise way the science and politics surrounding one of the planet’s most hotly debated environmental issue. Analysing a wealth of statistics and studies mainly derived from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Gupta reviews the evidence for the existence and extent of global warming and concludes – as even the majority of the world’s politicians have been forced to – that climate change is a reality. Very little debate there.

The most important questions are concerned with who is responsible and who will suffer. How can we prevent calamities such as rising sea levels and climate instability? Are the present proposals for cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions enough?

Much of the book explains the history of climate change talks, beginning in 1979 with the first World Climate Conference. Several meetings followed in which countries began to establish loose aims and targets for reducing GHG emissions. It was not until May 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, that the snappily named ‘United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’ was adopted by 186 countries. In July of last year, the same countries, minus the US under the new Bush administration, agreed to the Kyoto treaty which should be ratified by 2005.

Having first studied economics in India, Joyeeta Gupta focuses strongly on the differing attitudes and interests of the ‘developed North’ and ‘developing South’ – or the industrialised capitalist countries and the neo-colonial world. She explains some of the political background since the 1940s to the current world situation: the setting up of capitalist organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation; and how they contributed to the continuing super-exploitation of the neo-colonial world through trade tariffs, foreign debt, aid with strings attached, and structural adjustment programmes. The implication that globalisation is merely another form of economic colonisation is all too clear. Nevertheless, the author shies away from drawing any further political conclusions, let alone suggesting any solutions.

In an attempt to clarify the endless debates, Gupta simplistically views the nations involved as entities in which the populations are united, sharing the same goals and interests. She does not examine the complex political reasons, and changing balance of forces, behind the various attitudes and positions on cutting emissions. For example, George W Bush did not reject Kyoto merely from arrogant ignorance or an ideological attachment to the ‘American way of life’ but because of intrinsic ties to big business. In contrast, 72% of the US population polled by the Worldwide Fund for Nature showed a willingness to accept emission cuts of 20% by 2005.

To depict the issue of climate change as revolving round the squabbles of a few government ministers is, in one sense, accurate. Apart from the token involvement of a few non-governmental organisations, the debates and decisions – as per usual within capitalist ‘democracy’ – are down to the heads of state and are heavily influenced by both national industries and multinational corporations.

However, increasing numbers of young people are challenging the current system and seeing the need for change through political action – the latest EU summit in Barcelona saw the biggest anti-capitalist demonstration to date, with half-a-million workers and youth taking to the streets. The environment, together with world poverty and corporate takeover, is high on the agenda for the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation protesters, many of whom see these issues as being intrinsically linked to the capitalist system itself.

Informative and accessible though it is, Our Simmering Planet leaves the reader as a passive spectator. Idealistic hopes for a "structured dialogue to induce social learning, mutual respect, understanding and forgiveness", are not enough. We simply can’t afford to leave it to corrupt politicians to oversee the future of our planet, any more than we should sit back and watch them cut back and privatise public services.


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