Global Warming: Hot Air in Kyoto

Revolutionary Worker #942, February 1, 1998

The evidence is piling up that capitalist industry may cause global warming over the next century with catastrophic impact for hundreds of millions of people.

In December 1997 an international conference in Kyoto, Japan showed once again that those heading the world's most powerful governments today are incapable of seriously addressing this danger.

Though government heads find it fashionable to talk about "ecological responsibility," the needs of their system are completely incompatible with saving the earth's environment.

Scientists around the world have been pointing out the available evidence and the seriousness of the danger--and urging governments to take action before it is too late. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body studying the human impact on climate, released its "Second Assessment Report" in December 1995. This report concluded that there is evidence that human activity is already changing the climate in early ways, and that there is real reason to believe that such changes could escalate with disastrous results. This report was endorsed by 2,000 scientists and climate experts worldwide. It represents a major statement of scientific opinion.

During the Kyoto conference, environmental groups lobbied the delegates from 160 countries--urging them to adopt significant cuts in the "greenhouse gases" that cause global warming and to promote alternative fuels. Activists held marches and set up informational booths. Greenpeace built a large, T-Rex-like "Carbonasaurus" out of oil cans to portray the world's oil monopolies as dinosaurs.

Scientists estimate that to avoid global warming, CO2 emissions must be cut, step by step over the next century, to a level 60 percent below the emissions of 1990. In line with that, inside the Kyoto conference hall, the Alliance of Small Island States (ASIS) proposed a 20 percent cut in emissions in "industrialized countries" below their 1990 levels by 2005. These 38 countries take climate change seriously--because they would lose much of their territory if global warming caused significant rise in ocean levels.

At Kyoto, however, such proposals were never seriously considered. The final agreement was essentially imposed by the major world's powers: the United States, Japan and the European countries. These are the same countries that have been responsible for the problem--releasing 80 percent of past emissions and 75 percent of current emissions.

Empty Words,
Meaningless Agreement

In words, the Clinton administration claims to understand the danger of global warming. In October 1997 Clinton said that preventing catastrophic global climate change was "a solemn obligation." "If we do not change our course now," Clinton said, "the consequences will be destructive for America and for the world."

But when the time came to announce a negotiating position for Kyoto, the Clinton administration said the U.S. would only agree to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels--a position that was so conservative that Clinton's own Undersecretary of State for Global Environmental Affairs resigned in protest.

Vice President Albert Gore went personally to Kyoto. Because he wrote the book Earth in the Balance on environmental matters, some people hoped that Gore might represent a policy for seriously cutting greenhouse gases. Instead, Gore vaguely called for more "flexibility" by the U.S. negotiators and endorsed the official U.S. position. Outside the hall, protesters chanted "Al, read your book!"

Soon after Gore left Kyoto, a final "Kyoto Protocols" was announced. It was an outrage. It called for insignificant reductions by the world's 34 "industrialized nations"--lowering their release of greenhouse gases to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

According to the agreement, the United States would cut emissions by 7 percent, the European Union by 8 percent and Japan by 6 percent. The agreement would allow the European powers to allocate this reduction among themselves. Under the Kyoto agreement some countries, including Portugal and Spain, would even be able to increase their emissions.

Greenpeace released a statement saying, "It is absurd that after 11 days of intense negotiations and five years of planning, the conference could not agree to reductions that would forestall dangerous climatic change.... This is an agreement that endangers the world, not protects it."

Loopholes and Toothlessness

"Air and water are simply no longer the `free goods' that economists have assumed. They must be redefined as property rights so that they can be effectively allocated."

Richard Sandor, Managing Director of Kidder and Peabody, Director of Chicago Board of Trade, and participant in a UN report endorsing emissions trading

At Kyoto, the U.S. had demanded that the world accept a perverse plan called "emissions trading"--where wealthy countries will be allowed to buy the "gas emission rights" of other countries. Russia and the Ukraine, for example, are in deep economic crisis, and as a result their CO2 emissions are 32 percent lower than they were in 1990--far below what they are allowed to release under the Kyoto agreement. The U.S. is still planning to buy the "hot air rights" from economically depressed Eastern European countries--so U.S. industries and transportation can continue to release dangerous gases.

The details of "emissions trading" are scheduled to be settled at a new conference sometime this year.

The U.S. military demanded and got a "hot air exception"--greenhouse gas restrictions will not apply to "international transport" of military supplies or any international wars approved by the UN. If the U.S. wages another war to dominate Middle Eastern oil, its invading forces will be permitted to release all the CO2 they want.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, DC, it is possible that the U.S. Congress will still not even approve this Kyoto treaty--because it supposedly includes "mandatory" cuts opposed by the major oil and coal monopolies. Key figures in the Senate have vowed to block ratification of the agreement, saying that it was "dead on arrival."

This is particularly ironic because the Kyoto Agreement's claim to be "mandatory" is toothless--since the proposed treaty has no provisions for enforcing any of these reductions.

History suggests that the U.S. is unlikely to respect agreements anyway.

At the 1992 Rio conference, the U.S. agreed to reduce greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels--but instead it has since increased its CO2 emissions 13 percent over 1990 levels. Under the Clinton administration, while officials gave lipservice to stopping global warming--U.S. greenhouse emissions rose 3.5 percent last year alone, the highest growth 20 years.

The U.S. "Model"--
A Worst Case Scenario

The whole experience of Kyoto confirms that the modern capitalist/imperialist system--its corporations and governments--are incapable of seriously addressing the danger of human-caused global warming.

In 1990, then-President Bush said that the U.S. government would not agree to any global warming treaty that "threatens the U.S. way of life." This remains the guiding principle of the U.S. government. And for U.S. corporations, that "way of life" rests heavily on an extreme inequality in the world and on "cheap energy"--burned at a massive rate to give them a competitive advantage on a world scale. The U.S. carries out a waste of the world's energy, consuming 22 times more energy per person than a country like India.

While fighting for the right of the U.S. to continue polluting with CO2, the oil companies and U.S. delegates at world conferences have demanded that Third World countries be forced to restrict their production of CO2 gas. This would mean these countries would be ordered to slow their production of new energy--even though the struggle for more energy is literally a life-and-death matter in much of the world. Many observers believe these demands are just a way of sabotaging any attempts to reach agreements that would cut greenhouse gases.

There is a special hypocrisy here. For political purposes, the U.S. demands that the Third World cut back on greenhouse gases. But in reality, it is the U.S.-dominated World Bank that is financing (and profiting from) the projects in the Third World that will be producing those same greenhouse gases.

Major energy projects are being financed by the World Bank using investment funds from western oil and coal monopolies. A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies looked at $9.4 billion that the World Bank has invested in Third World oil, gas, and coal projects over the last five years. At the same time, the IPS found that these projects--like electrical generating plants--will add 36 billion tons of CO2 to the earth's atmosphere over their lifetimes. This is more than the whole global output of CO2 for one year.

And what are these energy projects intended for? Not fundamentally to help the masses of people. The report showed that less than 5 percent of these projects would contribute to the rural electrification that is so desperately needed by the people in these countries. Instead 84 percent of the newly created energy will be channeled toward creating a larger energy infrastructure for industry--meaning that foreign investors can more easily set up profitable industries to exploit the labor of these countries.

These days, the U.S. ruling class claims that their society and economy have become a "model" for the rest of humanity. But in fact, this "model" is a disastrous one for many reasons--including because it may now cause global warming and climatic catastrophes.

Though the U.S. has only 4 percent of the world's population, it produces over 20 percent of global CO2 emissions. If radical change does not stop the waste carried out by the U.S. economy, and if the world as a whole moved toward such extreme practices over the next century--it would be the "worst case scenario" described in the projections of climate scientists. The results would be disaster for humanity and for the planet as a whole.


Capitalist enterprises by their nature see no further than the bottom line of short-term investment. The governments of the major imperialist powers are focused on the immediate struggles over the intense economic restructuring of world capitalist production and markets. For them, the added costs of reducing greenhouse gases appear as intolerable burdens in their competitive war to "expand or die." Capitalism has always approached the natural world with the attitude of "snatch and grab"--as if resources were limitless, and as if the earth could absorb waste forever without any effects.

Many forms of "alternative energy" and conservation have been proposed for further research and implementation--including low-carbon fuels, solar and geothermal energy. But none of them (except for the poisonous nuclear power projects) have ever been seriously developed under capitalism. Mass transportation languishes. Every element of U.S. society, and capitalism generally, is marked by tremendous waste of energy and reckless production of pollutants.

One hundred and fifty years ago, no one could yet predict that unplanned capitalist economic development would one day threaten the very climate of the earth. But it was already possible to understand the inability of capitalism to consciously direct the productive forces of society for the benefit of humanity.

In 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in their Communist Manifesto that "Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."

Capitalism is strangling the very life out of this planet. The lungs of the earth are being ripped out as the rainforests are destroyed. And "profit in command" is changing the composition of the atmosphre itself--and with it, perhaps, the world's climate. This is a total disregard for the people and the future. These capitalists cannot be left in power as the owners and abusers of the earth.


"Climate models project that the mean annual global surface temperature will increase by 1 to 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, that global mean sea level will rise by 15 to 95 centimeters and that changes in the spatial and temporal patterns of precipitation would occur. The average rate of warming probably would be greater than any seen in the past 10,000 years."

from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, 1995

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)