Capitalists fiddle as the world burns

This summer, the world has been struck by calamitous weather events, including immense droughts across multiple continents. Satellite pictures show vast areas, completely desiccated by the heat. Europe experienced its worst drought in 500 years. Meanwhile, China was hit by its most severe heatwave in 60 years, causing a drought whose impact continues to ripple through agriculture and industry.

In multiple regions, lost crops, restricted waterways, wildfires and flash floods have followed in the wake of these once-rare events. Every year the impact of climate change worsens – and capitalism offers no way out.

One of Europe’s greatest rivers, the Rhine – an essential artery for shipping – reached a record low this summer. On key parts of the route for transporting fuel, wheat and other commodities, the water level fell below 40cm – the lowest level at this time of year for 15 years. As the depth of the river decreases, the maximum weight a ship can carry through the river also falls, leading to delays and higher costs.

In some instances, boats have only been able to load to 30-40 percent capacity to avoid running aground, further restricting the distribution of coal and petrol, piling on further pressure amid a looming energy crisis.

In China, the Yangtze, Asia’s longest river, was likewise reduced to a trickle. Hundreds of millions of people live in the region surrounding its basin and tributaries, which was among the worst-affected areas.

Ironically, besides the massive impact on transport and agriculture, this catastrophe brought about by fossil fuel consumption has massively impacted hydroelectric power plants as the river dried up. The Sichuan province normally generates almost 30 percent of China’s hydroelectric power. But this year’s heatwave resulted in a massive drop in electricity production – from 900 million kWh to 400 million kWh. The low water supply and electricity production led to temporary closures of factories in some provinces.

The devastating impact on crop production is only beginning to be counted. In France, fruit and vegetable crops have witnessed a 35 percent decline in yields. In Pakistan, it was not drought but flooding that was to blame, caused by the melting of glaciers that have swept away livestock and crops. In China, temperatures of over 40 degrees for 70 days straight in the almost complete absence of precipitation has utterly ruined soil along the basin of the Yangtze, which is home to 450 million people and produces a third of the country’s crops.

China produces more than 95 percent of the rice, wheat and maize that it consumes, but the reduced harvest this year could increase demand for imports – putting further pressure on global supplies already strained by the conflict in Ukraine.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs issued an emergency notice warning on 23 August that the drought posed a “severe threat” to China’s autumn harvest.

The catastrophic effect on harvests will inflame food price inflation. But the extreme heat is also boosting demand for electricity, just as the Ukraine war is pushing up energy prices. Demand for natural gas has been driven up by prolific use of air conditioning, which in turn pushes up prices across the rest of the world.

“High temperatures in Asia means higher cooling demand. That means higher global gas prices,” explained Anise Ganbold, research lead in global energy markets and hydrogen at Aurora Energy Research.

It only gets worse

But this year’s drought is not the end of it. Every time we are presented the bill for capitalist climate destruction, the very same capitalist class’ short-sightedness can be guaranteed to make things 100 times worse.

biden cop Image COP26 FlickrAll of the so-called ‘climate commitments’ of the past are being thrown out the window / Image: COP26, Flickr

The extreme weather sweeping across the world, from Europe to China, has implications for the world’s efforts to halt climate change. Because of the loss of hydropower and the increased demand for fossil fuel – in addition to the Ukraine war – all of the so-called ‘climate commitments’ of the past are being thrown out the window.

Gas supplies are also coming under strain as a result of these heat waves, leading to short-term outages at gas plants, and further inflating prices. Solar plants are facing similar problems: ironically, despite the sunshine, when it gets too hot solar panels lose their efficiency, and are therefore being turned off.

In France, the availability of nuclear power is at its lowest point in at least four years. Some nuclear plants had to be shut down to prevent hot discharge water re-entering rivers and endangering wildlife.

But on account of the high demand for energy, the French government decided to tweak its rules to keep the nuclear plants running – endangering entire ecosystems. But despite these changes, France – which is usually a net exporter of power – has had to import power. On the hottest days of the heatwave, France bought 8 to 10 gigawatts, equivalent to the output of about eight nuclear reactors.

The main point here is that all of this was predictable. Climate scientists have been warning of the numerous risks associated with climate change for years, and the ruling classes have done nothing in preparation. Driven only by the impulse for short-term profits and the cost-cutting of government austerity, they have done nothing to upgrade infrastructure in preparation for the extremes that climate change would inevitably bring.

A capitalist trade off

The only solution capitalism has come up with is ramping up the use of coal-fired power plants to plug the gaps. China’s domestic mining of coal has been at or near record levels.

Coal plant Hunan Image Huangdan2060China’s domestic mining of coal has been at or near record levels / Image: Huangdan2060

A piece in the New York Times explains how cheap energy prices have for years led to the growth in Sichuan Province of “energy-intensive industries like chemical manufacturing,” but that “some of these industries have squandered power through inefficiency.”

In other words, these industries could have been built on an efficient basis but there was no profit motive to do so. Now a (wholly foreseeable) crisis has hit and coal power is being shovelled into these industries to keep them going and keep profits flowing, without the first thought of coal-burning’s catastrophic long-term impact.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the government had ‘officially’ committed to ending the use of coal power by October 2024. However, the Guardian reports that this target is turning into a pipe dream now that ministers and power operators are racing to secure coal supplies. Drax, which operates a power plant in Yorkshire, already agreed to source up to 400,000 tonnes of additional coal.

As Robert Buckley, the head of relationship development at the energy consultancy Cornwall Insight put it to the Guardian:

“At the margins coal could play a significant part this winter and maybe even next. The ability of coal power to ramp up quickly when the wind drops or it suddenly gets very cold could be very important.”

Buckley added that a return to polluting coal power was a “trade off” between progress in tackling the climate crisis and ensuring energy supplies continue smoothly this winter.

This just about sums up the attitude of the capitalist class that cannot plan beyond the next quarter’s profits: we are forced into the “trade off” of keeping the lights on and the long-term future of humanity. This is where a system based on the anarchy of the market has brought us.

Today, demand for coal is soaring. The International Energy Agency released a fresh report on 27 August warning that global coal consumption is set to rise by 0.7 percent in 2022 – matching the record levels of 2013. The price of thermal coal used for power generation has risen about 170 percent since late last year, rising sharply after the Ukraine war started.

In the midst of a climate crisis caused by capitalism’s insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, coal has never been more profitable!

Working class is made to pay

For the ruling class, the road out of this energy crisis is not the most rational one for humanity. They lack any long-term perspective of preventing climate change from worsening – what they are looking for is the most profitable way out of the crisis. They are kicking the can down the road.

Switching back to coal means an increased use of the most polluting fossil fuel that exists, which will only make future winters and summers even worse. What is the plan to deal with that? The capitalist class has none.

In the meantime, it is the working class that is experiencing the consequences of these decisions. The same heat that is causing droughts is leading to record monsoons and the melting of glaciers, leading to massive floods. We witness apocalyptic scenes in Pakistan, with at least 1,343 killed – this despite the fact that Pakistan produces less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

 

 

It is the working class that is bearing the brunt of the climate change impact. The poorest countries in the world are being hit hardest in terms of directly-attributable deaths as well as impoverishment, but workers everywhere are facing the impact. In Germany alone, 3,000 excess deaths were recorded during the hottest week of Europe’s heatwave.

Socialist solution

Simply demanding climate agreements from politicians and companies won’t change a thing. All of these climate commitments and regulations are thrown out of the window the minute they cease to suit the short-term interests of the ruling class.

system change Image Joe Brusky FlickrThe only way out is to overthrow the capitalist system / Image: Joe Brusky, Flickr

This is why Marxists highlight the fundamental point: we cannot plan what we do not control, and we cannot control what we do not own. We can not build a sustainable supply of energy when electricity industries, mines and water companies are privately owned and operating solely to make profit. These businesses must be fully nationalised and operated democratically by the working class, to function in the interest of society as a whole.

The monopoly that certain groups of capitalists and countries have over agricultural and water management knowledge and technology should be shared with poorer countries to mitigate the immediate impacts of climate change and extreme weather events.

Besides tackling the immediate effects of climate change, we must also implement a long-term solution to bring the further warming of the planet to a halt – and even to reduce global temperatures.

Even if the capitalists had the will to switch to green energy, it simply would not be profitable for them to do so. The expensive infrastructure for it simply does not exist. Furthermore, we need an international plan.

Solar panels should be built in the most suitable areas that receive the most sunlight. The same goes for hydroelectricity and wind power. National competition for energy is only generating imperialist war, higher prices, and deteriorating misery. But under a global plan, overabundant energy in one region could be stored and transferred to wider regions.

Without the limits of private property and the nation state, the whole world could be supplied with energy and the necessary infrastructure rapidly installed along the lines of a global plan. This would also include a rational plan of agriculture, a step that would be vital to limiting energy and water consumption.

We have all the tools to do this – and the money. The only thing stopping us is the institution of private property, which is concentrated in the hands of the ruling class. In the midst of a huge energy crisis, energy companies are reporting record amounts of excess profits of £170 billion.

These profits lie uninvested in the banks of the rich, whilst the poor are being made to pay. This is why we need to expropriate the big banks and major companies and bring them under democratic control by the working class.

The world is literally burning, the effects of climate change are visible right in front of us and will only become more severe in the years to come. We need to urgently overthrow this system. That is the only way out.