This week sees the return of the NUS’ ‘Blackout’ initiative, encouraging students across different universities to take part in an attempt to reduce energy wastage. The event consists of students assembling on campuses to switch off any lighting and equipment left on over the weekend. While the scheme is no doubt well intentioned, it should be stressed that the impact made by ordinary individuals in attempting to combat the effects of climate change and rampant unsustainable energy use will remain minimal when compared with the monstrous levels of carbon emissions generated by the major energy and fuel monopolies.
According to analysis published last year by the journal Climatic Change, the 90 largest energy companies are responsible for nearly two thirds of all carbon dioxide and methane gas emissions between 1751 and 2010, in other words practically the entire industrialised period. The top 5 of these companies alone, including Chevron, Exxonmobil and BP, have accounted for 14.6% of those emissions. Regarding existing reserves of fossil fuels, the report’s author Richard Heede explains ‘Energy companies have strong financial incentives to produce and market their booked reserves and oppose efforts to leave their valuable assets in the ground.’
Not only does this pose a potentially catastrophic threat of further environmental damage in the event that these fuel reserves are released, but it also constitutes a significant financial motive for these companies to use their sizeable political influence to undermine efforts to develop viable alternative energy sources. These ‘carbon majors’ have driven the process of climate change that has led up to this point and will continue to do so as long as the harnessing of energy is directed on the basis of profit, rather than need and sustainability.
On the basis of this research, it is clear that responsibility for the current climate crisis lies with a handful of fuel giants; the vast amount of damage incurred as a result cannot possibly be overturned simply through individuals attempting to reduce their own energy usage. Despite this, many environmentalists, campaigners and activists consistently limit themselves to tactics that rest entirely on the actions of the individual or of single institutions. We support attempts like this to deal with the problems of climate change and recognise the sincerity of those working to solve the problem, but this approach does not adequately address the fact that significantly more radical action is required if the process of climate change is to be seriously challenged. Tactics like this are characterised by a seemingly endless stream of boycotts, petitions and initiatives, none of which appear to recognise that the root cause of such a reckless and destructive approach to energy production lies at the heart of the capitalist system.
The report issued this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the subsequent discussion it prompted reiterated not only the extent of the threat that climate change poses, but also the total inability of the current system to take decisive action to curtail the process, tied as it is to the interests of companies like the ones mentioned in Heede’s report. It is not enough simply to treat the symptoms of this kind of exploitation, what is required is the removal of the economic, social and political structures that allow the destruction of the planet to remain so profitable.
The NUS is right to attempt to organise students in response to energy wastage, but its efforts should be focussed on arguing for the major polluting companies to be taken into public ownership and run on the basis of democratic workers’ control. Through this the development of sustainable modes of production and the means to tackle climate change can begin to take place, without the fetters of private interest. It is only by this means that we can begin to develop a system whereby the energy needs of all people are met internationally, without recourse to further destruction of the planet.
The fight for a green future is the fight for a socialist future.
by Nat Arkwright, Sussex Marxists