Climate another blow in a bad era for capitalism

April 7, 2010 at 3:29 am Leave a comment

Paddy Manning, April 3 Fairfax Business Day

Can capitalism deal with climate change? It’s an article of faith for this column that a relatively free market operating in a democratic system will respond more quickly and effectively to climate change than a centralised dictatorship.

Faith is needed, because climate change is proof of colossal market failure. The economy does not value what really matters in life.

Last year when it came to developing an effective market-based response to climate change in this country, instead of responsible businesspeople taking a rational, long-term view of action versus inaction, we got an orgy of rent-seeking and manipulation from the carbon lobby, and a proposed emissions trading scheme so brown it could fairly be called pointless.

Capitalism is already having a bad century. If the right was energised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the radical left finds vindication in the global financial crisis.

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave a 25-minute speech at Copenhagen on the evils of capitalism, climate change and the GFC, it was reported here as evidence of how shambolic and loopy that gathering had become.

Chavez: ”They say in the streets the following: if the climate were a bank it would have been saved already.” A few more quotes: ”Capitalism is a destructive development model that is putting an end to life … The 500 million richest people … 7 per cent of the world’s population … are responsible for 50 per cent of emissions. Socialism … is the path to save the planet.”

He got a standing ovation, and it should be no surprise that anti-capitalists here feel climate change is an issue they can work with.

Neo-conservatives harp on the ”watermelon” theme, warning against greenies who are red on the inside. On the radical left, conversely, greenies are often seen as bourgeois.

A June 2009 paper by Simon Butler from Green Left Weekly, and endorsed by the Democratic Socialist Party/Socialist Alliance, outlined a strategy for building and influencing the growing popular movement on climate change, made up of 250 local climate action groups with up to 20,000 members nationally.

Butler argued the diffuse movement was growing partly out of frustration at the inaction of conservative peak environment organisations on climate change.

”We need a policy of engagement, not adaptation. The movement still has huge illusions in the ability of the capitalist system to solve this crisis, or at least they have no confidence in an alternative.”

Butler concluded: ”The problem cannot be solved without a radical rupture from capitalism … we are positioning ourselves for the future and to do what our whole organisation exists for: to contribute to building a revolutionary political movement that allows a pathway out of this impasse.”

Easier said than done, of course. Butler’s paper stirred a written response from one Climate Action Network organiser, Wennie Theresia.

In a 10-page submission written before the second Climate Action Summit, held last month in Canberra, Theresia raised concerns that ”specific groups in the climate movement, namely the Socialist Alliance and Solidarity, may come to dominate representation on the [Network Facilitation Group]”.

Climate Action’s Network Facilitation Group is the body that will attempt to co-ordinate, and occasionally speak for, the broad movement for climate action. Theresia feared it would be a top-down body used to control the movement and told ”how I’ve seen some groups and individuals approach ‘peak’ decision-making spaces. An organisational philosophy of groups like Socialist Alliance and Solidarity seems to be seeing highly charged, lengthy and (deliberately) polarised debates – dominated by a few, pre-caucused positions of these organisations – as ‘politicising’ and beneficial for the movement.”

The Climate Action Summit reached consensus on forming an NFG, though I was told it was still unclear which individuals would be on it and how much authority it would have.

All parties emphasise the desire to work together with diverse elements of the climate movement, and organisers were not keen to talk about the divisions.

One conservationist mired in the present divisions within our peak green groups told me there was a lack of political sophistication within the local climate action network, and they were open to exploitation or a takeover.

A lefty squabble? Storm in a teacup? It’s more fundamental than that.

David McKnight, author of Beyond Right and Left, says environmental concern is not confined to the left – there is a strong conservative argument for action on climate change.

”Part of the fundamentalist left see climate change as a purely a class issue,” says McKnight. ”This is wrong and simplistic. Some people profit by burning fossil fuel but this does not mean the only way to solve the crisis is to abolish capitalism.

”Apart from anything else, waiting until capitalism is abolished means accepting that climate change will continue to occur in the meantime. Moreover, the absence of capitalism in the Soviet Union did nothing to avoid ecological destruction.”

But which Australian capitalist is out there proving the socialists wrong? During negotiations on our emissions trading scheme, business voices for the scheme were few and far between. Only the Investor Group on Climate Change consistently articulated a business case for action, while larger, more established bodies like the Business Council of Australia fence-sat or, like the Australian Chamber of Commerce, lined up with the sceptics.

The Australian Industry Group, in a shabby display, has pulled support for the ETS. Good enough three to four months ago, it’s an inconvenient policy in 2010.

Sooner or later, some powerful members of the business community are going to have to push for a responsible position on climate change.

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Entry filed under: capitalism, climate movement, Ecosocialism.

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