Can Global Warming Become a Political Issue?

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Fri Jun 9 20:57:39 MDT 2000


    I think you are mistaken here.

    While you are correct to stress the deeply scientific approach of Marx
and Engels, the approach of the Marxist movement to "the agrarian question"
was not then and is not now exclusively or primarily determined by technical
and scientific issues, but by political and social ones.

    And that is precisely what I argue should be our approach, for example,
to the so-called energy crisis which have a lot more to do with the rape and
pillage of the third world than to any actual physical shortage of fuel

    This is not to denigrate the scientific study of environmental impacts,
including the hypotheses that the rise is CO2 levels in the atmosphere is
causing/will cause the earth's climate to become warmer on a world scale.

    As you might remember, among the things I do in my "other" life is
produce a weekly half hour science and technology show. This means I stay in
fairly close touch with the discussion around such issues. And as far as
I've been able to determine, the science of global climate modeling and
prediction is still extremely tentative. The global warming hypotheses, for
example, is based on a very simplified view of global climate. This is, of
course, a perfectly legitimate way of conducting scientific inquiry,
developing models and hypotheses, testing them and so on, provided, of
course, that you understand what you've done.

 But as I explained in great detail over a couple of posts some months ago,
such simplifying *assumptions* can be extremely *dangerous*, when those who
use them are not fully conscious of what they are doing.

    I agree with Engels that natural phenomena are best understood
dialectically rather than linearly. Everywhere from quantum mechanics to the
emergence of new species and the evolution of the early universe following
the big bang we see the same "chaotic" pattern where what happens are not
smooth transitions from one state to another but rather apparently
discontinuous "jumps" where quantity changes into quality.

    Nobody familiar with the basic science denies the greenhouse effect,
i.e., that certain gases "trap" heat in the atmosphere. For one thing, it is
a fairly standard textbook problem to work out what the earth's surface
temperature should be discounting that effect, and the result is below the
freezing point of water, i.e., the kind of life we have on the earth would
not survive without the greenhouse effect.

    The "scientific consensus" on the global warming hypotheses is based on
this, and on the simple, "common-sense" proposition: more greenhouse gases =
a warmer earth. This statement, however, if viewed as more than a hypotheses
is more an expression of pragmatic, bourgeois ways of thinking about the
natural world, not, or at least not yet, an expression of scientific

    The reasons for that are that, compared to the greenhouse effect at work
on the earth as a whole, the amount of "forcing" introduced by the CO2
increase is quite small; and that the mechanisms through which earth's heat
balance is  maintained are poorly understood.

    And as the discussion and increased climatological research has
progressed on global warming and related issues since the late 1980s, the
picture grows increasingly complicated.

    Ice core studies of the last glaciation indicate (which should come as
no surprise to followers of Marx and Engels) that rather than a gradual
warming over many centuries as bourgeois scientists had "naturally" assumed,
the change in the climate took place in a decade or two.

    Contrary to the predictions of the general circulation models,
weather satellites have not been able to detect a clear pattern of warming
of the lower atmosphere to accompany surface-based temperature records of an
increase of about one-one hundredth of a degree per year in the mean surface
temperature. This has led to questions being raised in all sorts of
directions -- about the reliability of the satellite data, about the
reliability of the surface data, and more recently some scientists are
wondering if mean surface temperature is that useful a way to get at what's
going on in terms of long term climate evolution, for the El Niño/La Niña
oscillation has shown just how close the coupling between ocean, surface and
atmospheric temperatures is, and how much of an impact the internal "climate
patterns" of the ocean have on atmospheric conditions.

    In other words, the actual scientific work being done, rather than
"confirming" the global warming hypothesis, has created all sorts of new
questions and challenges. The truth is, one climatologist told me recently,
that the biggest thing we have discovered over the past decade is how much
we don't know about how the climate system actually works, how complicated
it really is.

    Does this mean that Marxists should turn their back on ecological issues
and ecological science? Not at all. But we should avoid the hysterical,
cataclysmic pose that the bourgeois press takes on this from time to time,
and that some environmental groups adopt as a permanent posture.

    I firmly believe that even if the projections of the global warming
hypothesis are borne out, it will not mean the end of
capitalism or of civilization as we know it. If the changes happen under
socialism, then the dislocations will be minimized, and such "pain" as there
is will be shared. If it happens under capitalism, the disruptions are
likely to be greater, and the entire burden of the problem will be placed on
the backs of working people, especially the masses of the third world. But
life, and human civilization, will continue.

    The proof of this is to hand, for people ALREADY adapt to "climate
change" much greater than that which is projected when they move from a
colder climate to a warmer one (and vice-versa).

    The *only* REAL threat to our survival as a species and to the survival
of civilization is world nuclear war. And that threat, far from having
disappeared with the victory of imperialism in  the cold war, remains and
would grow tremendously if the U.S. rulers succeed in their plan to
establish a first-strike capability by building a "Star Wars" defense.

    (This is an extremely important point: the real apocalyptic threat is
here, in this program. All the rhetoric about rogue and terrorist states
are fairy tales for the gullible: a one-off insane nuclear terrorist strike
need not, and probably would not, be carried out by a missile: the device
can be more easily transported as "freight," so to speak by land, air or
sea. The REAL target of the projected U.S. defense is the relatively thin
nuclear deterrents of the Europeans and the Chinese in the first instance,
and eventually the much larger Russian force).

    But today, even as we write about these possible future catastrophes,
REAL holocausts continue throughout much of the world, especially the
semicolonial countries, that are plenty big enough to be compared to the
projected catastrophes of global warming. One such situation is in
sub-Saharan Africa, whose population is being ravaged by AIDS. In several
areas, the breakdown in semicolonial order is well-nigh complete; and the
imperialists could care less as long as the rival factions tearing these
countries apart continue to sell them whatever natural resource the
imperialists are after, whether it be diamonds or oil. The cataclysm that
has befallen the Russian working class with the reintroduction of
capitalism, as evidence by the plummeting life expectancy, is another silent
holocaust getting virtually no attention.

    And throughout the entire planet, capitalism continues to make an
absolute and quite immediate environmental mess of things in ways which are
clear, direct, well-documented and do not involve apocalyptic visions based
on speculative science. The "climate change" that has most impacted both
humans and other species is not GLOBAL but LOCAL climate change, such as the
by now well-documented "urban heat island" effect which, measurements show,
is an order of magnitude GREATER than the projected effect of the increase
in greenhouse gases. Air pollution from internal combustion engines and
power plants is extremely common; we do not need to base ourselves on some
projected eco-apocalypse 50 or 100 years down the road to denounce what
capitalism is doing or formulate demands.

    Moreover, there is an aspect in which the bourgeois sectors of the
anti-global-warming movement present an absolutely reactionary and
imperialist program, and that is in all this stuff about buying and swapping
pollution credits and so on. The idea is that giant corporations should use
the immiseration of the third world to force them to "sell" to the
imperialist countries "rights" to cause X amount of pollution. But what such
sales involve is also the right of third world countries to develop their
economies on the basis of existing technologies. And, of course, such
mechanisms do absolutely nothing for the people choking from toxic fumes in
Atlanta, Los Angeles or New York.

    By presenting an overarching, overriding ecological apocalypse of global
warming, Marxists disarm themselves before bourgeois forces who argue,
essentially, "Wish we had the time and resources to save the hundreds of
millions of children starving to death and dying from preventable diseases
in the third world, but we've got to save the planet!"


----- Original Message -----
From: "Louis Proyect" <lnp3 at>
To: <marxism at>
Sent: Thursday, June 08, 2000 9:57 AM
Subject: Re: Can Global Warming Become a Political Issue?

>But no matter *what* the scientific facts are. No matter *how
>soon* the disaster will come, Global Warming or Global
>Catastrohe of any kind will never be a core organizing principle
>for socialists.
>Only a Man on a White Horse can save us from Global Warming.
>Socialist Revolution is too slow, too uncertain.

Carrol, you should talk less, and think and research more. The agrarian
question occupied the same place in Marxist theory that the discussion of
global warming does today. It was essentially an ecological question that
addressed basic issues of the "metabolic rift". None of the writings by
Bebel, Kautsky or Bukharin on the topic had any kind of immediate strategic
importance, but they got to the very heart of the question of how society
reproduces itself.

Why do you think that Engels wrote "Dialectics of Nature" or
"Anti-Duhring"? Such works were the first attempts at providing an
methodology that could address the interaction between society and nature
under the general framework of scientific and historical materialism? It is
only through lobotomizing Marxism that we can pretend that an issue like
global warming is immaterial to our agenda as revolutionaries. If you read
Christopher Caudwell's "Studies in a Dying Culture", you'll encounter the
same exact questions.

We are talking about fundamental problems that confront thinkers in every
camp in society, from free-market liberals to Marxists. People such as Paul
Johnson are approaching it from the right, and Lester Brown from the
liberal left. The Worldwatch Institute exists solely to try to come up with
answers to such questions and their annual reports are sold in bookstores
all over the country.

So what do we Marxists say? We don't have solutions to such over-arching
problems? We are too involved with trade union work or defending Mumia? I
find something really annoyingly demagogic in your attitude. It reminds me
of the hectoring I used to hear in the 1960s from some Black nationalists
who would tell a mostly white audience that it "didn't have time" to deal
with any issues that didn't immediately relate to the problems in the

Louis Proyect
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