Friday, 19 July 2019

UK Right Wing Think-Tank Aims to Discredit the Extinction Rebellion

Policy Exchange, the right wing British think-tank published a report this week entitled ‘Extremist Rebellion – A Review of Ideology and Tactics. Written by Richard Walton, a former Head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command, and Tom Wilson, a Senior Research Fellow in the Security and Extremism Unit at Policy Exchange, the report looks into the Extinction Rebellion campaign, which began in the UK, but has now spread around the world.

The think-tank describes itself on its website as ‘the UK’s leading think tank. As an educational charity our mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas which deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy.’

According to the ‘Who Funds You’ website which promotes funding transparency among think-tanks and political campaigns, Policy Exchange had an annual income of £3,553,565, in the year ending on 30 September 2017, but does not reveal the source of its funding.

A brief look at their website tells you that Policy Exchange is on the right politically, with stories such as ‘Monarchy helps unify the country post-Brexit, new poll finds’ a typical example. So it should come as no great surprise that the organisation is very much a defender of the establishment status quo. 

The popularity of Extinction Rebellion’s campaign, particularly of the protests that took place in London and other UK cities in April this year, is clearly a worry for the writers, and it seems to me that this report is an attempt to discredit the campaign and reduce its public support.  

The report complains about the costs of policing the April event, especially in London, and of the loss of revenue incurred by retail outlets in and around the protests. Whilst the report acknowledges genuine public concern at the prospect of catastrophic climate change, it seeks to undermine support for the rebellion by claiming that the organisers are politically ‘extreme’. Take this example from the foreword to the report written by Richard Walton:

…the leaders of Extinction Rebellion seek a more subversive agenda, one that is rooted in the political extremism of anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism. The ‘civil resistance model’ they espouse is intended to achieve mass protest accompanied by law-breaking —leading eventually to the breakdown of democracy and the state. Obscured from public view, these objectives mark Extinction Rebellion’s campaign out as an extremist one that seeks to break down the established civil order and liberal democracy in the UK.

The report traces Extinction Rebellion’s roots in the London based Rising Up group, which devised and initiated the campaign. RisingUp’s website, which does say that some of the information contained there may now be out of date. states that we need:

A revolution, meaning a rapid change in wealth distribution and power structures, preventing the rich elite from perpetuating a self-serving ideology. Our democracy, our media, our academia, our think tanks and businesses (organisations whose purpose should be to meet our needs) must serve all people and a healthy ecology.’

The authors of the report say that Rising Up, and so by extension Extinction Rebellion, has an eco-socialist or green anarchist ideology, and to be fair it certainly does look that way, and aims to draw attention to this, so as to put the public and indeed some of its participants off the actions of the campaign. They point out that the underlying thinking of Extinction Rebellion, is that only by changing our system of bourgeois democracy, can the climate crisis be solved.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that this is the exact the same position taken by this blog and the wider ecosocialist community. The necessity of accumulation and exponential growth for the capitalist system to survive, and the corrupt nature of the corporations first democracy, makes it unsuitable, in fact impossible, for our current political economy to resolve the climate crisis that it has set going in the first place.

The report emphasises the use of emotional appeal in its recruitment of activists, talk of children dying in the future, and attempts to paint Extinction Rebellion as some kind of cult, but this is an emotional subject. All life on earth is in danger of ending on our current trajectory. How could this not be an emotional subject?

Although the report is clear that Extinction Rebellion only advocates non-violent protests, and indeed acknowledges that the organisers see violent protest as counter-productive. It does hold out the possibility though of ‘breakaway fringe elements’ of activists turning to violence, but presents no evidence that this is likely to be the case.

The writers recommend that stiffer penalties be handed out to those who break the law, non-violently, but again concedes that leading lights within this leaderless campaign, welcome the chance to have a platform for stating their case in court trials, and even the publicity generated by activists being sent to jail. They note that hunger strikes are talked about in some of the presentations that aim to recruit activists.

In the report’s conclusion it states:

This paper proposes that the Extinction Rebellion campaign – one that politicians and the public associate with environmentalism – is deeply rooted in a much wider extreme political agenda. Those running this campaign, which enjoys significant public sympathy, appear sincere about urgently wanting to prevent ecological crisis but argue that capitalism is irredeemably entangled with the ecological crisis which they have set themselves against. It is therefore, unlikely that these leaders would settle for any accommodation that proposed to address environmental damage while keeping the present economic and political system in place.

They are definitely worried that this campaign might catch on, and this report is probably only the first attempt to discourage it getting any larger. But the climate crisis is not going away, and will get even worse, and the authors of this report have offered no solution to the problem, except clamping down on the protests. I think they will fail.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Climate Change and Capitalism: A Political Marxist View

Written by Simon Mair (@simon_mair) and first published at New Socialist

Viewed from the perspective of geological history, our current climatic and economic conditions are unusual. For most of the last 60 million years, the climate has been wildly unstable. It was only 10,000 years ago that it settled into its current stable state, and within this period that the Holocene emerged, during which human societies shifted their relationship with nature though agriculture, and then creating complex settled socio-economic forms, including capitalism.

Despite its omnipresence today, capitalism itself is very young. But it has its roots in that stabilisation of the climate and the subsequent development of agriculture. Fully-fledged global capitalism has been with us for no more than 300 years. In the 4.5 billion year history of the earth, capitalism is a brief moment within the blink of an eye that is human existence.

But this brief moment is a global force. It is capitalism that has placed us on a path to leave the stable climate of the Holocene. Thanks to capitalist development, the earth is currently 0.8 of a degree warmer than the pre-industrial average. Without overthrowing capitalism, we are likely to warm the earth to levels that humans as a species have never lived with.

This should terrify socialists. As I will argue here, the environmental system and the economy have co-evolved. The economy is dependent on the environment. Once we leave the stable climatic conditions of the last 10,000 years, we have very little guidance on how to build a socio-economic system that works. There is no particular reason to think the systems we have developed in one set of environmental conditions will flourish in another. There is also no reason to believe that such conditions provide fertile ground for the development of a more compassionate or humane socio-economic system.

If we want to stand a chance of building socialism in the near future, we must become eco-socialists and stop catastrophic climate change now. At the same time, to stop catastrophic climate change, environmentalists must also become eco-socialists. The dynamics that drive climate change are core to capitalism. Serious action on climate change will necessarily amount to the first steps of a programme to end capitalism.

The economy, the energy system, and the environment: co-evolutionary systems

The economy, the energy system and the environment have evolved together. They draw on one another, passing materials between them and absorbing one another’s wastes. All economic activity ultimately rests on the transformation of material resources. These must be drawn from the environment and then worked by labour. Marx makes this interdependency explicit:

The use values… i.e. the bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements–matter and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature.1

Marx uses the example of linen–which is produced by workers (labour) who transform the fibres of the flax plant (environment). But this interdependency also holds true for more modern commodities. For example, the servers that host the files for music streaming services are made of up various minerals and metals that have been rearranged by labour.

An additional interdependency comes in the form of energy. At every stage of the production of a commodity, energy is being used to transform matter from one form to another. Metals are heated, melted and transformed into iPhones. Cotton is grown, harvested, woven, and dyed to make scrubs worn by surgeons. The energy used in these processes cannot be created. It can only be transformed.

All energy used in the economy is entropic: it comes from a repurposing of energy found in the earth system, and exacting it in return for a cost. Coal is dug from the ground and burnt, solar energy is captured by photovoltaics, or in plants that we cook and eat. The energy system which enables economic activity is entirely dependent on the environment.

We see here how the environment influences the economy. The economy is the process of transforming materials extracted from the environment by repurposing energy flows from the earth system. The result of this, is, to quote Marx’s citation of the economist William Petty, that when it comes to material wealth, “labour is its father and the earth its mother”.2 But at the same time, the environment and the energy system are shaped by the economy. The priorities of the economic system determine the valuation of each element, as well as which materials are extracted, changing the composition, look and dynamics of the environment.

The practice of extraction itself is not exclusive to capitalism. Agricultural practices that pre-date capitalism have reshaped our landscapes. Take sheep farming, for example.3 Heavy grazing tends to change the biological make up of heathland. Eventually, heathland may lose all of its herbs and woody species and become grassland. As grasses can survive for longer as the sheep eat them than woody plants and herbs, the transition from heathland to grassland can make conditions more favourable for sheep grazing as the sheep have more to eat. 

This is less helpful for bird life, as the grasses are a poor habitat substitute and the sheep compete with birds for certain types of fruit, and reduce the availability of various insects. Through pastoral grazing economic activity has transformed former heathland landscapes.

Climate change is another example of the co-evolution of the economy and the environment, but this time, one specific to capitalism. As we will see, the two are inextricably linked. Without fossil fuel deposits, capitalism could not have become the dominant force it is today. Similarly, without capitalism, fossil fuels may never have become the backbone of the economy.

Coal, the great divergence and the origins of capitalism

Between the mid 1500s and 1900, there was an explosion of coal use in England. On average, English coal use more than doubled every half century during this time period. By 1900 coal represented 92% of English energy use and was providing 25 times more energy than all energy sources combined had in the mid 1500s.

Over this time period the English economy also grew rapidly. For mainstream economic historians, the period from 1700 onwards marks the start of ‘the great divergence’. England began the industrial revolution and its economy took off, becoming much larger than other economies that had until that point been a similar size.

It is not a coincidence that coal use and economic growth expanded simultaneously. Coal is a high quality fuel. It offers a much greater amount of energy out for every unit of energy required to produce it than wood, for example. Consequently, it enables more work to be done–more materials transformed – than muscle power alone, or even wood or water–the dominant fuel sources in the nascent English industrial economy.

But the geographical distribution of coal is not, by itself, enough to explain English economic growth or the ‘great divergence’. In 1700, China had widespread domestic coal use, just like England. And until 1700 China had a similar sized economy, with similar levels of market activity. But neither Chinese coal use nor the Chinese economy grew exponentially in the way that England’s did.

The difference was the consolidation of capitalist social relations in England. We can locate the pressures that lead to capitalism, and the capitalist exploitation of coal, in the agrarian economy of 1500s England. As these pressures grew, they drove coal use and economic growth in England. 

Though pre-capitalist China was incredibly well-developed, had an extensive use of wage-labour within markets, it never became dominated by proto-capitalists, and so did not develop the same systematic pressures. Coal use and the economy, subsequently, did not see the same qualitative expansion.

Political Marxism and the Fossil Economy

Archetypical of the Political Marxist approach to modes of production, Ellen Meiksens Wood argues that a capitalist economy is one where a majority of people depend on the market to meet their basic needs.4 This distinguishes capitalism from feudalism, in which there is a large peasant class largely self-sufficient in terms of basic needs, and in which the more powerful classes depend not on market power to support their consumption, but on military and extra-economic power. 

Wood further distinguishes between the form of markets under capitalism and those that characterise pre-capitalist economies. She argues that markets originally functioned and made profit by providing a means of getting goods that could only be produced in one part of the world to other parts, where those goods could not be produced. She goes on to argue that capitalist markets operate differently: profit here is achieved by reducing costs and improving productivity.

Though substantially debated, this approach was developed by Wood (alongside Richard Brenner) as a reaction to what she saw as ahistorical explanations of the role of markets in the development of capitalism—particular the claim, coming from Adam Smith, that capitalism is “…the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”5 Against this, Wood argues that capitalism began in England because of its unique constellation of social conditions.

In her landmark work The Origin of Capitalism,6 Wood argues that capitalism could only have begun in agrarian England. Unlike other nations with similarly sized economies, England had the unique combination of a large national market, substantial numbers of tenant farmers (as opposed to peasants, tied to the land by social convention), and highly centralised state power. These three components come together to create a transition to a market dominated economy. 

Highly centralised state power took political and military power away from land owners. So unlike in Holland, for example, the primary way for landowners to exploit the surplus of their workers was through market means rather than direct coercion. This was possible because of the existence of the large national market in which they could sell goods for a profit, and because of the existence of tenant farmers, which meant they could remove unproductive farmers from their land.

It is the development of capitalist markets, as Wood describes them, that creates the conditions for fossil fuel exploitation. Capitalist markets, like all economic systems, turn on the necessity of using economic tools to extract surplus. This dynamic creates capitalism’s drives to reinvest in productivity growth and to discipline the workforce in order to increase output. Because landowners were now dependent on the market for their own livelihoods, they tried to reduce costs and maximise outputs. 

This fundamental change in the nature of production created a system in which the ability of energy to do extra work became very attractive. Although Wood never directly discusses energy, her work has influenced Andreas Malm, whose Fossil Capital 7 does pick up the energy question.8

Malm argues that under the conditions of capitalism, coal came to be a tool of social control. Coal centralises production, bringing workers under one roof. This serves the dual purpose of making them less able to embezzle from their employers, allowing improved scales of production, and also enabling employers to more easily regulate the times of work and levels of production. In addition, coal—alongside the machinery it allows—improves productivity: by giving them a greater source of energy than food and their muscles alone, coal increases the amount of output that can be produced by workers.

Only in England did the capitalist class benefit from these features of coal. Economic structures elsewhere followed fundamentally different logics that did not reward productivity and output growth. Though markets existed outside of England, central power and surplus was derived from military and political power, and only peripherally from economic power. Consequently, although productivity increases may have occurred by chance, societies were not systematically driven by the need to continuously produce more, or to do so more productively. As Debeir et al. put it, Chinese coal use:

…did not create new social needs, did not constantly push the borders of its own market outwards…proto-industrialisation and economic growth were remarkable achievements but failed to generate an accelerated division of labour.9

To understand this more fully, let us now examine the nature of capitalist markets in more detail.

Capitalist Markets and the Pressures to Grow

The ecological economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor call the above dynamic the “productivity trap”.10 It occurs because, under capitalism, workers must be able to sell their labour to be able to obtain a decent standard of living. Capitalists depend on market power for their profits and therefore constantly reinvest in productivity gains. 

Productivity gains mean fewer workers are needed to produce a unit of output. So if output stops growing, employment will fall. This creates a legitimate desire amongst workers for more growth, and gives governments a mandate to do everything they can to expand economic activity.

Moreover, this ‘productivity trap’ is self-reinforcing. The expansion of markets drives the division of labour. Adam Smith argued that as workers become more specialised, they are better able to improve the production processes they’re engaged with. And at a higher level of specialisation you develop whole classes of workers whose job is purely to make production more efficient. In this way market expansion itself leads to productivity gains. 

But as people become more specialised this means that they come to depend on markets to get more and more of their goods—because (to use a personal example) people who sit in offices reading long-dead economists for a living don’t spend much time growing food, sewing clothes, or saving lives. So the expansion of markets creates both the conditions for further growth and the need for it.

We also need to talk about consumer capitalism. Innovations leading to productivity gains do not in themselves create a market for the greater volume of goods produced. This means that capitalism must alter consumption as well as production. Today, this increasingly involves the stimulation and artifical creation of consumer needs and desires by the capitalist class—who need us to keep consuming if they are to continue earning profits. 

William Morris argued that in order to get and maintain profits, capitalists must sell a “mountain of rubbish…things which everybody knows are of no use”. In order to create demand for these useless goods, capitalists stirred up:

a strange feverish desire for petty excitement, the outward token of which is known by the conventional name of fashion—a strange monster born of the vacancy of the lives of rich people

A substantial body of more modern work suggests that current society encourages the idea that consumption is the path to self-betterment. Psychologist Philip Cushman argues that the dominant present configuration of the “self” is as an empty vessel that requires filling up with consumer goods.11 The emptiness, he argues, comes from a lack of community, tradition, and shared meaning. 

These are not things that will be solved through consumption. Under consumer capitalism, there comes a collective inability to imagine social and personal change except through consumption. As a result, even ‘radical’ leftist futures tend to revolve around ever increasing levels of material consumption, rather than imagining new ways to live that prioritise our need for community and purpose beyond consumption.

No decarbonisation under capitalism

Because of the structural drivers towards growth that we see under capitalism, it is extremely unlikely that capitalism can avoid catastrophic climate change. The structural drive for growth means that efforts to reduce carbon emissions will be overwhelmed by the expansion of economic activity. This is controversial to most mainstream environmentalists (and to many socialists). But it is the clear experience of the history of capitalism.

To date, resources have not been conserved under capitalism. Rather when we become more efficient or find new resources, this frees up resources that are used by other parts of the capitalist machine. 

This explains why, for example, renewable energy and nuclear power remain only a small part of the global energy system (Figure 2). Under capitalism, low-carbon energy sources have grown but they have not replaced fossil fuel at any meaningful scale. Instead low-carbon energy is simply another energy pot available to fuel growth in economic activity in order to generate profits.

Figure 2 Global Primary Energy Use by type, 1900-2014. Source: Author’s own calculations based on data from De Stercke, 2014.

The same is also true of energy efficiency gains. Energy efficiency can be a key contributor for decarbonising the global economy. But only if it is coupled to a plan to limit the size of the economy. Under capitalism, energy efficiency measures actually drive economic growth. This happens for the same reason renewable energy doesn’t lead to decarbonisation. Energy efficiency improves productivity and reduces costs. In this way it reinforces capitalist growth imperatives, driving the expansion of the economy which requires more energy to be used overall.

This is also why progressive action on climate change will undermine capitalism. We will only successfully avoid catastrophic climate change if we are able to break the dominance of the market, and break the social imaginary that ineffectually ties fulfilment to consumption.

So, where do we go from here?

The economy, the energy system, and the environment are all inextricably linked. Combining ecological economics and Political Marxism, I have set out a framework in which climate change can be seen not only as a consequence of capitalism but as fundamental to it. Widespread fossil fuel use was enabled by, and necessary for, the capitalist dynamics of productivity growth and expansion. Climate change is a feature, not a bug of capitalism.

To avoid catastrophic climate change, we have to break the expansionary cycle of the economy. Otherwise technological improvements, renewable energy, and energy efficiency gains will do nothing but add to the stock of ways that capitalists grow the economy and their profits. Likewise carbon taxes and other market mechanisms will simply reinforce the core dynamics of the market and any positive effects will be overwhelmed by growth. Growth will increase energy use, including fossil fuel use. 

This will plunge us into a world that we do not know how to live in. It is likely that ‘hothouse earth’ will eventually destroy capitalism. But not before destroying the livelihoods of millions through extreme weather, greater incidence of disease, and ecological breakdown. There is no reason to believe this will lead to a better future.

Breaking the expansionary cycle of the economy in a just way requires rolling back markets. We must instead use commons, household, and state-based production as the principal means of meeting the collective needs of society. Only in this way can we break the societal drive for productivity growth and expansion. 

There is nothing inherently more sustainable in non-market forms of production (all economic activity uses energy), but these systems lack the expansionary drive of markets. Consequently, energy efficiency gains and new technologies can be used to replace fossil fuels rather than add to them.

This transition has the potential to be hopeful, a chance to build a more humane system. This system will be materially poorer than today’s society. But this is not ‘eco-austerity’. Much of the energy we use today is in producing goods that we do not need, that do not fulfil our needs. Richard Seymour articulates this in the context of the labour theory of value:

The overproduction of ‘stuff’ is largely achieved by making a costly withdrawal from the worker’s body, a form of life-impoverishing austerity. And a great deal of that ‘stuff’ is not for workers’ consumption, but rather, where it is not consumed as profit and dividends, is dead labour whose main effect is to achieve a further extraction of labour. We might think of energy conservation as class self-defence.

Put another way, consumption is an ineffective way of building a good life. Collectively limiting our consumption could open a path to a better economic system.

There are links between such a program and other radical leftist programs for change. Freedom from the market and repurposing of production along the lines of social need rather than profit are central to the post-work movement.12 But this movement lacks a critique of consumerism, and its analysis of capitalism fails to engage rigorously with insights from ecological economics. 

Visions of mass space flight continue the fantasy that consumption can fulfil us, and rely on the notion of continued expansion of output and energy use. It is unclear why those who advocate ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (for example) believe that a political programme whose key appeal lies in having more stuff will find itself able to break free from the expansionary cycle that lies at the heart of the ecological catastrophe. If the promise is more mass consumption, doing away with the most reliable and efficient energy sources to which we have access will be a hard political sell. 

There can be no avoiding growth in fossil fuel use under capitalism. But this does not mean that anti-capitalist programmes are all equally good solutions. The route forward is to embrace these radical impulses, but critique their obsession with consumption, and highlight the destructive dynamics they share with capitalism.

This marks out the terrain for political struggle. Socialists must engage mainstream environmentalists and work with them. We have a common foe in the big capital of the fossil industry. Many environmentalists are critical of the economy as it is, but lack a full analysis of its mechanics. Extinction Rebellion is a key example of this: a critical yet ‘apolitical’ movement. Yet they offer perhaps our best hope for building institutions that give us community, autonomy, and purpose, and for breaking with the expansionary capitalist fossil economy.


1 Marx, Karl. (1856) 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, p.133

2 ibid. p.134

3 Ross, L.C., Austrheim, G., Asheim, LJ. et al. ‘Sheep grazing in the North Atlantic region: A long-term perspective on environmental sustainability’. Ambio (2016) 45(5):551-566.

4 Wood, Ellen Meiksens. 2017. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso.

5 Smith, Adam. (1776) 1976. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.17.

6 Wood (2017).

7 Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.

8 ibid. p.258, 263

9 Deléage, Jean-Paul, Jean-Claude Debeir, Daniel Hémery. 1991. In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilisation Through the Ages. London: Zed Books, p.59

10 Jackson, Tim and Peter Victor. ‘Productivity and work in the ‘green economy’: Some theoretical reflections and empirical tests’. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions (June 2011) 1(1):101-108.

11 Cushman, Philip. ‘Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology’. American Psychologist (1990) 45(5):599-611.

12 Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Anti-Work Politics and Post-Work Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.  

Thursday, 11 July 2019

New Climate Data Points To Mass Extermination

Written by Jennifer Chu and first published at MIT News

Carbon dioxide emissions may trigger a reflex in the carbon cycle, with devastating consequences, study finds.

In the brain, when neurons fire off electrical signals to their neighbors, this happens through an “all-or-none” response. The signal only happens once conditions in the cell breach a certain threshold.

Now an MIT researcher has observed a similar phenomenon in a completely different system: Earth’s carbon cycle.

Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has found that when the rate at which carbon dioxide enters the oceans pushes past a certain threshold — whether as the result of a sudden burst or a slow, steady influx — the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.

This global reflex causes huge changes in the amount of carbon contained in the Earth’s oceans, and geologists can see evidence of these changes in layers of sediments preserved over hundreds of millions of years.

Rothman looked through these geologic records and observed that over the last 540 million years, the ocean’s store of carbon changed abruptly, then recovered, dozens of times in a fashion similar to the abrupt nature of a neuron spike. This “excitation” of the carbon cycle occurred most dramatically near the time of four of the five great mass extinctions in Earth’s history.

Scientists have attributed various triggers to these events, and they have assumed that the changes in ocean carbon that followed were proportional to the initial trigger — for instance, the smaller the trigger, the smaller the environmental fallout.

But Rothman says that’s not the case. It didn’t matter what initially caused the events; for roughly half the disruptions in his database, once they were set in motion, the rate at which carbon increased was essentially the same.  Their characteristic rate is likely a property of the carbon cycle itself — not the triggers, because different triggers would operate at different rates.

What does this all have to do with our modern-day climate? Today’s oceans are absorbing carbon about an order of magnitude faster than the worst case in the geologic record — the end-Permian extinction. But humans have only been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for hundreds of years, versus the tens of thousands of years or more that it took for volcanic eruptions or other disturbances to trigger the great environmental disruptions of the past. Might the modern increase of carbon be too brief to excite a major disruption?

According to Rothman, today we are “at the precipice of excitation,” and if it occurs, the resulting spike — as evidenced through ocean acidification, species die-offs, and more — is likely to be similar to past global catastrophes.

“Once we’re over the threshold, how we got there may not matter,” says Rothman, who is publishing his results this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.“Once you get over it, you’re dealing with how the Earth works, and it goes on its own ride.”

A carbon feedback

In 2017, Rothman made a dire prediction: By the end of this century, the planet is likely to reach a critical threshold, based on the rapid rate at which humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. When we cross that threshold, we are likely to set in motion a freight train of consequences, potentially culminating in the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

Rothman has since sought to better understand this prediction, and more generally, the way in which the carbon cycle responds once it’s pushed past a critical threshold. In the new paper, he has developed a simple mathematical model to represent the carbon cycle in the Earth’s upper ocean and how it might behave when this threshold is crossed.

Scientists know that when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in seawater, it not only makes the oceans more acidic, but it also decreases the concentration of carbonate ions. When the carbonate ion concentration falls below a threshold, shells made of calcium carbonate dissolve. Organisms that make them fare poorly in such harsh conditions.

Shells, in addition to protecting marine life, provide a “ballast effect,” weighing organisms down and enabling them to sink to the ocean floor along with detrital organic carbon, effectively removing carbon dioxide from the upper ocean. But in a world of increasing carbon dioxide, fewer calcifying organisms should mean less carbon dioxide is removed.

“It’s a positive feedback,” Rothman says. “More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. The question from a mathematical point of view is, is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

“An inexorable rise”

Rothman captured this positive feedback in his new model, which comprises two differential equations that describe interactions between the various chemical constituents in the upper ocean. He then observed how the model responded as he pumped additional carbon dioxide into the system, at different rates and amounts.

He found that no matter the rate at which he added carbon dioxide to an already stable system, the carbon cycle in the upper ocean remained stable. In response to modest perturbations, the carbon cycle would go temporarily out of whack and experience a brief period of mild ocean acidification, but it would always return to its original state rather than oscillating into a new equilibrium.

When he introduced carbon dioxide at greater rates, he found that once the levels crossed a critical threshold, the carbon cycle reacted with a cascade of positive feedbacks that magnified the original trigger, causing the entire system to spike, in the form of severe ocean acidification. The system did, eventually, return to equilibrium, after tens of thousands of years in today’s oceans — an indication that, despite a violent reaction, the carbon cycle will resume its steady state.

This pattern matches the geological record, Rothman found. The characteristic rate exhibited by half his database results from excitations above, but near, the threshold. Environmental disruptions associated with mass extinction are outliers — they represent excitations well beyond the threshold. At least three of those cases may be related to sustained massive volcanism.

“When you go past a threshold, you get a free kick from the system responding by itself,” Rothman explains. “The system is on an inexorable rise. This is what excitability is, and how a neuron works too.”

Although carbon is entering the oceans today at an unprecedented rate, it is doing so over a geologically brief time. Rothman’s model predicts that the two effects cancel: Faster rates bring us closer to the threshold, but shorter durations move us away. Insofar as the threshold is concerned, the modern world is in roughly the same place it was during longer periods of massive volcanism.

In other words, if today’s human-induced emissions cross the threshold and continue beyond it, as Rothman predicts they soon will, the consequences may be just as severe as what the Earth experienced during its previous mass extinctions.

“It’s difficult to know how things will end up given what’s happening today,” Rothman says. “But we’re probably close to a critical threshold. Any spike would reach its maximum after about 10,000 years. Hopefully that would give us time to find a solution.”

“We already know that our CO2-emitting actions will have consequences for many millennia,” says Timothy Lenton, professor of climate change and earth systems science at the University of Exeter. “This study suggests those consequences could be much more dramatic than previously expected. If we push the Earth system too far, then it takes over and determines its own response — past that point there will be little we can do about it.”

This research was supported, in part, by NASA and the National Science Foundation. 

Saturday, 6 July 2019

A Green Lib Dem Alliance in England? I Really Hope Not

With the announcement this week that Plaid Cymru has now joined with the Green Party in not standing a candidate in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in Wales, in favour of the Liberal Democrats, can we expect to see the arrangement spread to England?

Plaid Cymru of course does not stand candidates in England, being the Party of Wales, but an electoral arrangement between the Greens and Lib Dems in England is being talked about by members of both parties, and not just the leaderships. It wouldn’t be a first either.

In 2016, at the by-election in Richmond Park in south west London, the Greens stood down in favour of the Lib Dems, helping them capture the seat, but this wasn’t wholly supported by local Green party members. As it happens the seat was narrowly won back by the Tories in the general election a year later, despite the Green-Lib Dem alliance remaining in place.

In that 2017 general election the Greens and Lib Dems where part of the ‘progressive alliance’ and more local arrangements were entered into, in many constituencies, which benefited mainly the Lib Dems, but also quite a few Labour candidates, even though Labour offered nothing in return. The Lib Dems sole concession was not to stand against the Greens only MP in Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, which the Greens would have held in any case.

And this is thing with these type of arrangements, the Greens do other parties a favour, but get very little, if anything at all in return. The imperative in 2017 was to help deny the Tories, what looked like being a big majority in the House of Commons, and to that end it did contribute to the successful outcome of the Tories losing the small majority they had before the election.

What is currently being discussed is a kind of remain in the EU alliance, since both the Greens and Lib Dems are anti-Brexit, although for quite different reasons. For example, the Lib Dems are a neo-liberal party and have long championed ‘free trade,’ whereas the Greens are not neo-liberal and want to reform the EU into a more strongly social Europe, as well as working cooperatively on environmental policies, especially on climate change.

There are 16 million, perhaps more now, potential voters to be harvested by pro-Remain parties, if we include Scotland and Wales, where the nationalist parties might be brought into any alliance, so the rewards could be high. I have my doubts though that it would lead to many, if any, Parliamentary seats for the Greens, but would very likely be a considerable help to the Lib Dems in rehabilitating the party from the stigma of the austerity coalition with the Tories in 2010-2015.

That coalition’s policies in large part caused people to vote to leave the EU, even though the austerity policies pursued by the Tories-Lib Dems were completely home grown, and nothing to do with the EU. If you give people the opportunity to stick it up the establishment in such circumstances, there is good chance they will, and they did. Can the Greens really trust a party that supported such policies? I say no.

It is easy to see why the arrangement in Brecon and Radnorshire has been made for the by-election, to be held on 1 August. At the 2017 general election the Greens did not stand a candidate and although Plaid Cymru did stand, they received only 3.1% of the vote. The Lib Dems were a fairly distance second with 29.1% to the Tories 48.6%. I’m not against this arrangement and there may more constituencies whereby local Green parties do some kind of deal, but the Greens should be wary of anything too extensive.

The Greens are on about 9 or 10% in opinion polls at the moment, and what with climate change rising up the public’s agenda in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion protests and student's strikes. The Greens need to keep this momentum going, and I suggest that will not be helped by standing down in too many places in favour of the Lib Dems.

The Labour party could yet change its position on Brexit, to an unequivocal remain one, before the next general election, but I don’t think the Greens should be as passively supportive of Labour as they were in 2017. If Labour offer the Greens something worthwhile electorally, that would be a different matter though. But it won’t happen, Labour is not like that, and will just expect Greens to not stand, and bully them with ‘you are letting the Tories in’ type of rhetoric.

The Green party should be wary of any suitors just when we are making progress on our own.   

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

What ever happened to the Energy Transition?

Written by John Treat and first published at AIDC

Anyone trying to understand what’s happening with the world’s energy systems right now can be forgiven if they are confused. On one hand, most people know about the climate emergency, and the need to move away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, we frequently see headlines about “record setting” levels of wind or solar power, how “coal is dead,” booming sales of electric vehicles, or how renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels. Many stories in the second category suggest that the transition to a low-carbon economy is “inevitable,” or even “well underway.”

Sorting through all of this can be very daunting, especially for people who are not energy experts, but who are concerned about the climate crisis. For South Africans, understanding these issues is especially important given the country’s heavy reliance on coal, the serious problems facing Eskom, and the announced plans for its “unbundling” in order (among other things) to accelerate the shift to renewable energy sources. As my colleague Sean Sweeney has argued elsewhere, talk of “unbundling” Eskom is code for privatisation: it is a well-established part of the privatisation playbook of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

So what’s really going on? It is true that energy systems around the world are undergoing profound changes. Different countries are facing different challenges, and are tackling those challenges in different ways. But since the climate crisis requires global as well as local action, it is worth looking at the trends in order to understand the lessons.

Demand for energy is growing faster than renewable energy

Despite “record setting” growth in renewables, the overall growth in demand for energy is larger still. In March 2019, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global energy demand grew by 2.3% in 2018 – the sharpest rise, and nearly twice the average rate, this decade. The surge was attributed to strong overall economic growth, as well as to record temperatures in many parts of the world, which raise demand for heating and cooling.

Electricity and coal

While demand for all forms of energy is growing, what is happening with the power sector (electricity) is especially important. Moving away from fossil fuels will involve widespread electrification, dramatically increasing the need to generate electricity. Global demand for electricity grew even faster in 2018 than demand for energy overall, at 4%. And 42% of energy-related emissions last year came from the power sector.

Despite the closure of many coal plants around the world, coal remains the dominant fuel for generating electricity globally. On current trends, coal consumption is projected to remain at roughly current levels for many years. Although coal consumption declined for a few years, it actually rose in 2017, and again last year.

Coal consumption is growing dramatically in several large countries, mainly in Southeast Asia. China recently announced plans for at least 300 new coal-fired power plants – most of them outside China. Coal demand for power rose 2.6% last year, and CO2 emissions rose 2.5%, with coal accounting for 80% of the increase.

Where coal generation capacity has been replaced in the energy mix, it has mostly been replaced by natural gas rather than renewables. This is especially true for the world’s two largest emitters, the U.S. and China.

From the perspective of climate change, this is bad news. Natural gas has been promoted as a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewables, because burning methane produces less CO2 than burning coal. But methane itself is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 on shorter time scales – roughly 86 times more powerful on a 20-year time scale – and we are learning that methane leakage from fracking and other operations is significantly higher than previously recognised. It even exceeds any gains associated with burning gas rather than coal.

So what we are seeing is not a “transition to renewables,” but rather a reconfiguration of the world’s energy systems. Meanwhile, overall use of energy continues to grow, and no major fuel source is going away any time soon. In other words, not only are we not yet digging our way out of the hole, but we haven’t even stopped digging the hole deeper yet.

Time to Stop Digging and Inspect the Shovel?

How did we get here? In order to understand why the situation is so alarming, we need to look more closely at the policies that were supposed to drive the transition to a sustainable new “green” economy.

In March 2019, the IEA reported that the deployment of new renewable generation capacity “stalled” in 2018.

Why has this happened? As Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in early 2019, investment in new clean energy capacity fell 8% in 2018 from 2017 levels – from $362 billion to $332 billion. This is very striking, given that we hear so frequently about “record low” prices for renewable generation, which we are told makes renewables more attractive than fossil fuels.

The problem is that the way these “falling prices” are typically reported ignores a crucial distinction: the distinction between the falling construction costs of the infrastructure, and the falling auction prices for the projects that are contracted.

It is true that the construction costs associated with building new renewable projects are falling; this is due to economies of scale, technological improvements, etc. But the competitive pressures of auction-based procurement are driving down the final auction prices even faster. This means profit margins are shrinking, and investors are turning elsewhere.

Crucially, this decline in investment has taken place at a time of very low interest rates. This is especially important because the cost of capital – the interest on money borrowed to build the projects – is by far the largest cost factor for renewable generation, accounting for three quarters or more of total project costs for wind and solar projects. So any rise in interest rates would act as a significant further brake on investment levels.

China to the Rescue?

We often hear that China has taken a different path, and indeed recent data from Bloomberg would seem to show that clean / renewable energy investment in China is continuing to grow (despite the fact that China is also building large numbers of coal plants):

Unfortunately, this apparent difference seems to be largely a matter of timing. In order to understand it, we need to back up a bit.

The initial boom in solar and wind capacity in Europe and elsewhere – the boom that has now stalled there – was largely due to generous, “come one, come all” subsidy schemes. These typically took the form of “feed-in tariffs,” where anyone who could afford to provide generation capacity could sign up and enjoy the guaranteed revenues. This generated a burst of deployment – so much in fact that it became impossible to accommodate all of the new capacity into existing grids.

It also led to exploding subsidy bills for governments. These costs were often passed on to users in the form of higher electricity bills, which led to skepticism about renewable energy and political pressure on government officials. This is why many governments shifted to “competitive bidding” systems, which allowed them to contain both capacity additions and costs – but also led to shrinking profit margins and the loss of investor interest.

That same pattern now seems to be emerging in China. On June 1, 2018, in an effort to contain ballooning subsidy bills and growing overcapacity, the country’s National Development and Reform Commission announced that, effective immediately, approvals for new projects had been “halted until further notice,” and tariffs for existing contracts would be lowered by 6.7 to 9 per cent (depending on the region). The announcement caused serious drops in share price values for Chinese solar companies, and industry observers slashed capacity growth forecasts for the year by as much as one-third.

“No Just Transition without a Transition”

The implications of these trends are profound. In order to have any chance of a just transition, we first need to ensure that there is a transition. The current, market-based approach to the energy transition has failed, and we cannot afford to wait any longer.

Unions and climate activists need to organise and mobilise for public and social ownership of energy, with real democratic accountability. Only such an approach can ensure a rapid but orderly transition to renewable energy – one that takes considerations of profit out of the equation, and puts workers and communities at the centre.

John Treat is based in the International Program for Labor, Climate and Environment, part of the City University of New York’s School for Labor and Urban Studies, where he supports Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED): 

Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Socialist Workers Party is Infiltrating Extinction Rebellion

To any political activists on the left who have been involved with the British SWP in various campaigns, this post will come as no great surprise. This is their modus operandi after all.

Written by Alan Story 

I was an active member of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in Sheffield in the UK. I joined in mid-January 2019 and we in XR Sheffield met EVERY Monday evening - quite impressive for a new group, for a vegan meal followed by a planning meeting. I found them a friendly bunch and think we accomplished quite a lot as we'd try to do “our bit” to challenge climate change.

However, a few of us began to wonder why an increasing number of members from the local branch of the Socialist Workers Party were attending our meetings? 

At a meeting on 29 April, for example, eight or nine SWPers walked into our meeting and took up strategic positions around the cramped room. Perhaps that kind of thing happens at sessions of 300 people in London. But in Sheffield? And on the global warming issue?

Later that same evening the apparent mystery was explained. I was forwarded an e-mail sent the week before from SWP HQ in London to all SWP members in the UK. The orders were clear: climate change is the SWP’s issue of the moment and Extinction Rebellion is the SWP’s flavour of the month.

The entire e-mail is copied in below. A few phrases give you a sense of what’s being planned. “GO TO YOUR XR MEETING” (boldface) – and get stuck in! … get yourself added to whatsapp groups and mailings lists ….we will have a model motion and self- sign out soon…make sure you have [SWP] materials for the [next] Youth Strike 4 Climate…INVITE XR TO SPEAK AT AN SWP MEETING ( boldface).” The 29 April issue of the SWP’s ‘Party Notes’ gives 500 further words of detailed and ‘crucial’ instructions to the troops.

The subtext and the objectives are clear. If we play our cards right, we just might have another SWP front group by autumn. Mind you, what to call it is still to be resolved. Should it be called ‘STAND UP TO CLIMATE CHANGE’ or ‘THE STOP CLIMATE CHANGE COALITION.’? The SWP’s national secretary Charlie Kimber will make that decision later.

But if the SWP’s top brass is certain that it needs the UK’s rapidly blossoming climate change movement for fresh recruitment fodder, does that movement, including XR, need the SWP? For three briefly-stated reasons (among others), I say a firm ‘NO’.

1) On the one hand, it is very clear that the anti-climate change movement needs radical ideas. And such ideas - ecosocialist, socialist, green, anarchist, Marxist and so forth - should be welcomed. Capitalism cannot solve the climate change crisis. To be frank: I am worried that a significant number of politically inexperienced anti-climate change activists will be overly cautious about debating and discussing radical and socialist ideas if the tired bromides from the SWP are taken to represent the best of the UK left and of contemporary radical thought and practice. They don’t. An anti-radical/ anti-communist/ no politics please backlash is a real worry.

2) But while new ideas are definitely required, what XR does NOT need is an outside organisation of experienced and disciplined political operators to enter it with the usual SWP objectives in mind: recruiting new members, manipulation, stirring up disputes and splits, capturing leadership roles and the like. (To even begin to list and explain the more than eight splits, ‘re-groupings’, break-aways, mass resignations, splinters and ideological ‘dust–ups’ within the SWP during the past 15 years would take a treatise…and a thick one at that.) XR does not need a split yeasted up by a group’s who feeds on division, as well as by infiltration.

3) And speaking of infiltration: environmental groups - and many other political groups on the left - have long been the target of infiltration by police agents and agent provocateurs. It became such a scandal that the UK government was forced to set up the ‘Undercover Policing Inquiry’ in 2015. Check out the long list of groups which evidence has shown were infiltrated:

Only the most naïve would believe such infiltration has ceased. What target would be more obvious today than XR? It has had more than 1,000 members and supporters arrested in the past 16 days. As a 71-year-old socialist who has been activist on the left since 1965, let me pass on a word of advice to my former XR colleagues: you need to “up your game” when it comes to shutting out infiltrators from the BOTH the police and the SWP.

Alan Story is a member of Sheffield Green Party and has now left Extinction Rebellion for unrelated reasons to this post. 


Text of the email sent out (on official SWP digital stationery) on Thursday, 25 April 2019 at 16:10 by the SWP head office in London to their members across the UK.



Dear comrades:

The Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests over the last week mark a big shift. Their scale and size is very impressive, and the protests have shown that mass action can shift the debate on climate change.

Socialist Worker has some very good coverage of the XR here, including an important article by Alex Callinicos. As the SWP we have been part of the protests from the beginning, and in many places we are part of local XR groups. It’s crucial that the party continues to do this.

Below are 5 ways you can relate to XR in your local area:

1. Go to your local XR meeting - and get stuck in! XR report that around 30,000 people have joined them in the last few weeks. This means local XR meetings are likely to be big and full of new people - comrades report 300 at the Bristol XR meeting last night! The meetings might sometimes be in different formats but it is worth being part of them. Find your local Extinction Rebellion page on facebook, get yourself added to whatsapp groups and mailing lists. We should be part of outreach groups - we will have a model motion and self-sign outsoon.

2. Can you set up a wider meeting on climate change in your area? The SWP has played an important role in the climate movement over the years, especially within the Campaign against Climate Change (CaCC). Comrades have helped initiate a meeting in central London tonight with CaCC, XR, school strikers and Green New Deal activists. Can you do something similar in your area?

3. Youth Strike 4 Climate, Friday 24 May: The next student strike has been announced as 24May. Make sure you have materials for the strike. But also see if you can get in touch with the students organising it to build up support among trade unions and the public.

4. Trump Protest. The protest against Donald Trump’s visit has been announced for Tuesday 4 June. It organised by Together Against Trump, a coalition including Stand Up to Racism and CaCC. Local initiatives will be taking place - can you invite XR to be part of them?

5. Invite XR to speak at an SWP meeting. Lots of branches have had XR speak at SWP meetings on System Change not Climate Change with an XR speaker alongside an SWP one.

If you want to discuss any of these initiatives, please speak to Lewis or Amy in the National Office on 0207 840 5600. And let us know how you get on!

In solidarity