Gore, global warming and the whole damn thing

Al Gore, former U.S. vice president and presidential candidate, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate on Climate Change, a UN-sponsored group of scientists, have jointly won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their work on global warming. Like most things in life, this is a mixture of good and bad, positive and negative.

On one side, the global warming skeptics and reactionaries are foaming at the mouth about how Gore made this all up to reignite his political career, a patently ignorant and phony claim. On the other side, many liberals are now speculating about how this might affect Gore, about how he might run for president in 2008, a possibility he has denied many times. Both of these viewpoints miss what is most important about this award.

Much ink and airspace will be wasted focusing on Gore’s political career rather than on the real issues. Some ink and airspace may try to explain the positions of the IPCC, but without exploring the limitations of their proposals.

Human-caused climate change threatens many aspects of human societies — cities and communities near sea level, how we manufacture necessary goods, how we get our energy, our food production, our transportation systems. This Nobel award calls greater attention to these threats and that is a good thing. Both Gore’s work calling public attention to the looming threats from global warming and the patient, careful work of the IPCC to deliver the best summary of scientific knowledge about climate change are worth celebrating. Partly due to their work, the world is now much more aware of the real and pressing problems and threats we face, and that will help develop the political will to make necessary changes.

But there are several shortcomings with the way the world’s attention is being focused. The environmental problems confronting humanity involve more than just global warming. To name just a few, these include industrial pollution, rapid growth of persistent organic pollutants accumulating everywhere, increasing stresses on water and agricultural systems, the unequal impact of any major crisis on the already poor, exploited and oppressed, the rapid urbanization of the world’s population, the spread of new diseases and the spread to new areas of old ones. If we focus on global warming to the exclusion of these other issues, we won’t make the changes necessary to rebalance humanity’s needs with the needs of the natural systems on which we depend.

In addition, the potential solutions put forward by both Gore and the IPCC have built-in limitations. They are constricted, by choice or by current political realities or both, from considering any basic changes in economic systems, so they point to “market solutions” and personal choices. They end up placing the blame on “humanity” or “industrial development” or “the ways in which humans waste energy.” This lets the capitalists off the hook, as if all humans have benefited equally from industrial development, as if we all are responsible for the way the oil industry operates, as if we all decided to impose capitalism and capitalist globalization on the whole world. In this way, even as he explains the scientific problems we face, Gore ignores crucial economic and social factors.

Now, we can’t wait for socialism everywhere before tackling global warming, so it is important to find ways that some capitalists can make money from changing to more environmentally friendly production, distribution, power generation, etc. But in most cases these are temporary measures, not solutions. They can contribute to slowing down the problems, but not to fundamentally resolving them.

Technological improvements are part of the solution, personal choices to conserve and to have less carbon dioxide impact are part of the solution, but fundamental economic and social changes are also required. And as long as we limit ourselves to tinkering with the systems, tinkering with technology, adjusting here and there, we won’t address the fundamental problem: the relationship between capitalist development and environmental degradation.

Marc Brodine (marcbrodine@inlandnet.com) is chair of the Washington State Communist Party and co-authored the second edition of the CPUSA environmental program, “People and Nature Before Profits.”