On December 27, 2004, a work colleague was holidaying at Robe, on the south coast of South Australia. About mid-morning the tide suddenly rushed out, then in, then out again. After a while, the sea returned to normal. My co-worker didn’t know it at the time, but he had seen the Indian Ocean tsunami passing. Eventually it was measured on tide gauges around the world. We all share the same ocean. And we all face the same problem. While the water may not rise as fast or as far as the ocean after that terrible earthquake, rising sea levels is not a problem of the future. Everywhere the ocean is rising by about three millimetres per year, every year. Global warming is happening, now.
In denial. Two weeks ago, I read a column by Murdoch lackey, Christopher Pearson. He had found a “scientist” who argued that the sea wasn’t rising. For, you see, one of the greatest discoveries by Charles Darwin was that coral atolls are the summits of drowned volcanos. Over time, these volcanos become extinct and are eroded by the waves. The process is slow, and the coral generally grows fast enough to match it. “Ah ha,” writes Pearson, “this shows that sea level rise is just a conspiracy by the Deep Greens and the Left.” These far right apologists for big business never let the facts get in the way of their propaganda. Neither Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia nor Papua are coral atolls. Yet the sea is rising at precisely the same rate on their coastlines as those of Pacific Island nations.
What is happening. Reading the literature, one gets the sense that the scientific community is attempting to break it to us gently. A flaw in the model used to predict warming means that the planet is warming much faster than previously thought. Events predicted for the end of this century may be observed by 2050, or sooner. This means a rise of about half a metre in average sea level. This doesn’t sound like much, but it will be enough to completely flood Shanghai, displacing between 30 and 70 million people. In India, up to 60 million face displacement, and 15 million at least in Bangladesh — ironically not from sea level rise, but from inland floods as the Himalayan Glaciers melt faster. All up, Oxford professor, Norman Myers, estimates that 150 million will need to move by 2050. Many small island nations will cease to exist. Already, the population of Tuvalu is gradually relocating to New Zealand, the Carteret Islands have been abandoned and inhabitants of the capital of Kiribati are moving to higher islands. The Maldives, the Marshall Islands, and many others are seriously at risk. And it’s not just the rise itself, it’s the increase in potential damage from storm surges, like that which destroyed New Orleans and washed over the island of Niue in 2004, despite its 18-metre-high cliffs.
The economic and environmental cost is incalculable. Insurance companies, including the giant Swiss Re, are warning that the predicted increase in violent storms may lead the insurance industry to collapse. And, yes, Cyclone Katrina was boosted to such freakish violence by excessively warm sea temperatures in the Atlantic.
Too much carbon. In mid June, the National Academy of Scientists (NAS) in the U.S. published a report commissioned by the Senate. In it, this conservative representative of the scientific community found that the world is very much warmer now than at any time in the past 2,000 years, and possibly since the last Ice Age. Using studies of tree rings, bore-hole temperatures, glacier lengths and, in the last two centuries, weather observations, the NAS concluded that, beyond a doubt, the temperature rise has increased since 1850 and the increase is due primarily to human activity. No matter which method one uses, the trend is up and it is increasing. The cause is simple. More carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), is being pumped into the atmosphere than is being removed by plants and dissolved in the sea — a process called the Carbon Cycle. CO2 is a vital part of the atmosphere, providing an insulating blanket that keeps the globe
38º C warmer than it would otherwise be. Too much CO2 tends to overheat the planet. Responding to the NAS report, one commentator wrote that the Earth has a fever.
Nuclear fraud. Prime Minister Howard has set up a pro-nuclear talk shop aimed at one thing: ripping as much uranium out of the ground and flogging it off to the highest bidder before it’s all gone. Nuclear power is not economically viable in this country, and it will not be for centuries. We have too much coal, oil and renewable energy sources to make the investment pay. Another reason to oppose Howard’s plan is that the government wants to steal Indigenous land and give it to the miners. And if that’s not sufficient to justify keeping uranium in the ground, there’s the waste and clean-up costs. While profit is the motive, there will never be a safe nuclear industry using uranium as its raw material. This is enough to oppose any attempt to build power stations and is also a reason to oppose further mining. If it’s unsafe for the Australian community to put up with the hazards, then it’s unsafe for any community. The argument that nuclear power will make a difference to global warming is spurious. It’s a very finite resource which, if the nuclear lobby gets its way, will be exhausted, globally, in 30 years or so. Meanwhile, technologies that would make a difference — like wind, tidal and solar production — are starved of investment and research. The world’s population cannot wait another three decades for a reduction in greenhouse gas pollution.
Good intentions are not enough. Like most Australians, I recycle everything I can. I use my green canvas bags at the supermarket and I’m mindful of my water and energy use. I take my litter away when I go to a National Park. But these are personal solutions. While they certainly do no harm, they do little good. Households in Australia contribute only 20% of greenhouse gas production, and that’s taking into account the car and the electricity for the train or tram.
The biggest polluters are corporations. Unless their activities are restricted, then all of our good-intentioned conservation will be in vain. Capitalist production methods — geared to maximise profits and shareholder returns — are, by their nature, wasteful, dirty and dangerous. This means that attempts to regulate emissions and sharply reduce the corporate world’s ecological footprint ultimately come up against the logic of the profit system itself. In the final analysis, if clean production, transport and distribution added to profits, then we would have a much cleaner economy.
Only one solution. The atmosphere, like the sea, has no borders. The former Soviet Union collapsed because socialism cannot be built in one country. Neither can a sustainable economy be built in one country. Yes, we all have a social responsibility to keep our effect on the natural environment to a minimum. That alone, though, is far from enough. The issue is to create a global political and economic system that will enable us to do it.
The working class owes a debt to the environmental movement, which for decades has been warning about what is being done to the planet. It’s a valid criticism of the socialist movement that, for too long, development was viewed through a prism borrowed from capitalism — that development was possible without regard to the planet’s resources. Still, the message has got through, and no serious revolutionary socialist would argue against environmental sustainability. In many places, the right to fresh water, clean air and uncontaminated food have become transitional demands. Capitalism can’t fulfil them any more.
But the environmental movement must join with revolutionists in overthrowing capitalism. It’s not possible to do anything about such earth-encompassing changes unless all of us, collectively, work together to repair the planet. That can only mean a global socialist economy, free of the profit motive, where our collective ingenuity and labour can be harnessed to build a sustainable future.
Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s leading living scientist, said recently that the Earth could become like Venus; therefore we will have to move. With respect, that’s defeatism. We can restore our only home. It just means evicting our dirty, exploitative landlord.