Nationalize the Energy Industry

Energy is far too important to our future to be left in the hands of
corporate directors and investment bankers.

Simon Butler

The gulf between the science and the politics of climate change has
never been wider. Consider the Arctic ice cap, which has lost half its
volume in the five years from 2005. Experts say the Arctic ice cap is
now in a “death spiral”. The region is warming two to four times
faster than the global average.

If the ice cap melts, it will trigger two even more serious climate
disasters: the melting of Greenland’s huge ice sheet and the release
of methane gas from thawing Arctic soils and seabeds. These are two
big climate tipping points: points of no return that could thrust the
Earth into an inhospitable, dangerous and irreversible climate

There is enough ice in Greenland to cause a seven-metre sea level
rise. Last year, scientists reported that 97% of Greenland’s ice cap
thawed at some point during the month of July.

There is thought to be an amount of frozen methane in the Arctic twice
as large as the atmospheric carbon pollution humans have pumped out in
the past 250 years. In recent years, scientists have made
unprecedented finds of methane plumes gassing up from the Arctic Ocean

Yet worldwide, despite the clear evidence that we must quickly change
our ways, emissions are still rising faster than ever. In the 1990s,
carbon pollution rose by about 1% a year. In the most recent decade,
it rose by 3% a year.

In Australia, politicians still boast of tripling Australia’s coal
exports and becoming the “Saudi Arabia of gas”.

Considering the gravity of the climate crisis, it’s maddening to think
how relatively easy it would be to take serious climate action. We’d
need about 1.5 million wind turbines around the world to replace
coal-burning for energy — not too hard when you consider that the car
industry alone, working at two-thirds of its capacity, made 65 million
cars worldwide in 2008.

Just the unused manufacturing capacity of this single industry would
be enough to build all those wind turbines in a decade.

In 2011, environmental consultants Ecofys released a report that said
the world could have 100% renewable energy in 40 years. It said this
would cost about 3% of world GDP a year, but would lower energy costs
by about $5.7 trillion a year by 2050.

Of course, we’re told that there isn’t enough money to pay for this
kind of thing. We’re not supposed to realise that half of all global
trade passes through offshore tax havens, which control a third of the
world’s wealth.

The money is there. Or, as Hugo Chavez once said: “If the climate were
a bank, it would have been saved already.”

Along with the climate benefits, spending big on a rollout of publicly
owned renewable energy would save money that otherwise will go into
the hands of fossil fuel companies and the banks that fund them. That
is also why every oil, coal and gas company’s business plan is to make
sure that never happens.

Big capital has responded to the climate crisis by moving aggressively
to protect its assets. This has taken several different forms. Many
employ advertising companies to greenwash their activity. Other
corporations have applied a kind of eco-mergers and acquisitions
strategy, offering dirty money to the peak environmental groups
unprincipled enough to accept it and corrupting them from the inside.

Perhaps most prominent among these responses is the move to fund and
organise a conservative political movement of climate change denial.
Insofar as it promotes a wilful rejection of scientific reality,
climate denial surely is deeply irrational. But as a measure to defend
an irrational system, climate denial actually makes perverse sense.
Scratch a climate denier and you’ll often find a hardened capitalist
class warrior.

Naomi Klein makes a good point when she says “it is not opposition to
the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but
rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts”. That
is, the science of climate change implies that we must make
fundamental social changes.

In this sense, Klein says the deniers “may be in considerably less
denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who
paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we
can avert catastrophe by buying ‘green’ products and creating clever
markets in pollution”.

Support for pollution markets — markets that trade in “bads” instead
of “goods” — as a climate response rests on a different kind of
denial. The dismal record of carbon trading schemes organised overseas
has barely been reported in Australia. Flooded with huge amounts of
fake offset credits, the European and United Nations carbon trading
schemes have collapsed.

You can buy carbon offsets from the United Nations for 1 cent per
tonne of carbon. In the EU, the price has collapsed too, now selling
for about $4 and pricing fossil fuels back in the market. There are so
many excess permits in the EU scheme that some say it won’t bring
emissions down until about 2045.

European energy firms have raked in billions from Europe’s ETS.
They’ve passed on to consumers the cost of carbon credits that they
received for free. In just five European countries, they gouged
somewhere between 20 and 70 billion euros from the public. In at least
one case, a Czech energy company used its carbon trading windfall
profits to open a new coal-fired power station.

The rock bottom EU carbon price would also send Australia’s carbon
price scheme, which is due to join the EU ETS in a few years, down the
drain when cheap, bogus EU carbon credits flood the market. Even if
likely next prime minister Tony Abbott were to keep the carbon price,
its future would be incredibly, and undeniably, bleak.

But the appeal of carbon trading lies in that it offers an illusionary
hope — the hope there is a “profitable solution to climate change”
that avoids class conflict, that we can cure capitalism’s assault on
nature with more capitalism.

There are many problems with pricing nature, but perhaps the biggest
is that it assumes we can solve the climate crisis with the same
measures that got us into it, that instead of making our society a lot
more like nature, we can instead make nature a lot more like a
commodity portfolio.

Too rarely do we hear the voices of climate justice activists in the
global South, those in the frontline and who will be the first and
worst affected by climate change. About 25,000 people gathered for the
World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in

The conference released its People’s Agreement, which said:

“The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition,
progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and
consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from
nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming
everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral
cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and
life itself.”

Much like the great US ecologist Barry Commoner, who said to make
peace with the planet we must first make peace among the people who
live in it, the People’s Agreement concluded:

“It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony
with nature and among human beings. And in order for there to be
balance with nature, there must first be equity among human beings.”

Here, we could redesign Australia’s economy to make it 100% renewable
and climate-friendly very quickly, if there was the political will to
put the welfare of people and planet before short-term profit.

Australia’s energy system was built by public investment. A serious
response to the climate change emergency would have the government do
it again — this time creating many thousands of secure, well-paid
green jobs in the process.

In the past few decades, state governments have privatised public
energy assets or made state-owned bodies behave like private firms. In
that time, energy prices have skyrocketed while energy sector
employment has nose-dived.

If energy were put into public hands, and overseen by workers, unions
and community bodies, it could develop an Australia-wide plan to cut
greenhouse gas emissions in line with the climate science, which says
we can’t delay any longer.

A non-profit, publicly owned and community controlled industry could
invest in large-scale wind and solar thermal plants for all our
energy, work to retrofit our homes and buildings to make them
energy-efficient, and plough resources into turning coal-dependent
regions such as the Hunter and Latrobe valleys into renewable energy
manufacturing hubs.

A publicly owned renewable energy sector is the smart economic move
too. Once a 100% renewable energy system is in place, there are no
more fuel costs ever again. A 100% renewable economy is 100%
guaranteed to pay for itself over time.

Energy is far too important to our future to be left in the hands of
corporate directors and investment bankers. Just as we need public
health and public education, we also need a job-rich, public energy
sector that help us really deal with the climate threat.

The Socialist Alliance takes that argument further, saying that we
cannot deal with our social and ecological crises while the 1% runs
our economy like a casino. Neoliberalism says people have to sacrifice
to serve the economy.

The Socialist Alliance says we should put mining, energy and banking
in public hands because the economy should serve people and be under
their democratic control. We think that’s a climate policy worth
fighting for.

Simon Butler is co-author of Too Many People? Population,
Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis.

SOURCE: Climate and Capitalism
May 18, 2013

NOTE: The SOCIALIST ALLIANCE is an Australian electoral coalition and this post is written from the perspective of Aussie politics


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s