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Still 'business as usual' when it comes to climate change

Nicholas Stern – who wrote the 2006 report on the economics of climate change for New Labour – argues that recession “is the time to build a low-carbon future with the investment vital for economy and planet”. In an article entitled Green routes to growth (“growth” appears no fewer than 11 times) he proposes a quasi-Keynesian solution to climate change and recession, which is superficially attractive.

His argument in today’s Guardian goes like this: We know business as usual would bring catastrophic climate change by the middle of this century. But the credit crunch and slump in demand, means business as usual is no longer on the table. And that provides an opportunity to use public money and private investment to build a low-carbon future.

But the problem with Stern’s approach is that capitalism goes for growth in pursuit of profit. Profit, not growth in and for itself, is the criteria. And just because “the public” recently bought a massive stake in the ruins of some banks, it does not mean we have any control over their investment decisions. Any investment in “green technologies” would take place in the same profit-driven context – and that simply means more fraud, greenwash and unmet targets.

Alongside Stern’s fiscal optimism would run the continued exploitation of the planet – the unavoidable outcome of private property in land and resources. Even if there is some small investment of capital by the state – such as plans to fund more energy-efficient homes – this will not alter the rapacious nature of capitalist production. Stern puts his faith in measures like the Clean Development Mechanism to reward companies that cut carbon. But with so-called “Clean Coal” now included, the CDM is more corrupt than ever. As Carbon Trade Watch’s Kevin Smith explained in a recent article, the dirtiest fossil fuel technology is now earning billions in subsidies. And corporations with the most appalling human rights records are being rewarded with public funds.

Stern writes: “And if, as we must, we halt deforestation - the source of 20% of greenhouse gas emissions – at the same time we can also protect and enhance our biodiversity and water systems.” But how is this to be done? Where is the “Keynesian mechanism” that will bring about that miracle? The exploitation of land will become more ruthless and less safe, as the capitalist drive for profits enters a new, desperate phase. “Clean coal” power generation will demand more destructive forms of coal production. By supporting new nuclear power, governments will be forced to allow mining corporations access to deposits of uranium currently closed to them for environmental or social reasons.

Other indications are just as serious. Earlier this month the Chinese government announced the biggest shift of land from public to private hands since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Millions of acres of small collective farms may now be sold off into private hands. The claim is this will allow peasants to share the profits that have enriched China’s middle class. In reality, they will be robbed of their land wholesale, which will be used to develop agri-business, growing GM Soya for bio-fuel, for example. And in the meantime the people will go hungry as food prices rise.

The reality is that whilst “business as usual” may not be on the cards, “profit-driven globalised capitalism as usual” is – and that will be even worse for the planet. The only way to halt catastrophic climate change is to bring land and banks into common ownership and create new democratic decision-making over what the economy produces, and how.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
23 October 2008

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