Socialist Worker 2038, 17 February 2007

Global warming: why rich won't turn off the heat

Alex Callinicos looks at responses to the threat of climate change

 From being a fringe issue climate change has apparently become 
completely mainstream. News bulletins are incomplete without a report 
on some new sign of global warming.

The general view seems to be that we're all in the same boat, and 
must all, by recycling our rubbish or cutting down on foreign travel, 
do our bit to help save the planet. But there are various indications 
that the real picture is quite different.

One of the more unfathomable is the deluge of technical criticism 
directed at the official British review of the economics of climate 
change by Sir Nicholas Stern, a senior Treasury official.

Many economists have attacked Stern because he dropped the standard 
assumption made in mainstream economics that people care less about 
the future than they do about the present.

They argue that, so long as we stick to this assumption, the fact 
that various sorts of catastrophe will afflict the world in 50 years 
time may matter less than the money we would have to spend now to 
prevent these catastrophes taking place.

Stern quotes the mathematician and philosopher Frank Ramsay who says 
that the idea that we should care less about the future than about 
the present is "ethically indefensible". It is the philosophy of King 
Louis XV of France, whose response to the misery of the French people 
in the 18th century was to say, "After me, the deluge."

Well, now we know the deluge is coming. The fact that Stern's 
eminently moderate report should come under such attack is a sign 
that plenty of rich people don't want to pay the cost of preventing 
it, whether through higher taxes or changed lifestyles.

Tony Blair, always quick to defend the interests of the rich, was 
quite representative in his grumpy response to journalists' questions 
about the carbon footprint left by his family's holiday which 
involved sponging off one of the Bee Gees in Florida.

The rich's selfishness may seem mad, if we think we all really are in 
the same boat. But in fact we know the impact of climate change will 
be uneven. It will affect the global South more than the North.

Insulate themselves

This is in itself a huge global injustice, since the North is 
responsible for a far higher proportion of carbon dioxide emissions 
than the South. Nevertheless, spokespeople for the oil and mining 
corporations still repeat the hypocritical mantra that they won't 
worry about their emissions till China and India start controlling 

The world's rich are, of course, far more concentrated in the North 
than in the South. This creates an automatic buffer against many of 
the worst consequences of climate change. But they can also use their 
wealth to protect themselves further.

Last month I took part in the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. 
The opening march started from Kibera, which has the reputation of 
being the biggest slum in Africa.

While we were waiting for the march to begin, a helicopter flew over 
that vast expanse of poverty. A Kenyan journalist told us it belonged 
to ex-president Moi, whose mansion nestles behind fortress walls 

The rich can insulate themselves from the sufferings of the poor. As 
airport congestion has got worse, the private jet business has been 
booming. So senior executives can jump the queue, in the process 
increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

The rich also create their own special enclaves. One of the most 
bizarre is the Gulf emirate of Dubai, busy transforming itself into a 
complex of hotels, malls, and theme parks for the world's rich - what 
Mike Davis calls "a vast gated community, the ultimate Green Zone". 
The environmental costs of this mega-Vegas for the elite, perched on 
the edge of the Arabian desert, must be colossal.

This sick logic is universal. The rich depend on the capitalist 
economic system that, driven by the blind pursuit of profit, is 
responsible for the process of environmental destruction.

They have no interest in reversing this process - unless doing so can 
create profit. But they do have an interest in protecting themselves 
from the consequences - usually in ways that add yet more 
environmental damage. Stopping the machinery of destruction will take 
place against the bitter resistance of the rich and powerful of the