I have a dismaying sense of déjà vu reading Alexander Cockburn’s global warming articles. Around ten years ago, I and my good friend, the late Mark Jones, had an ongoing debate with one James Heartfield about these very questions. James was a militant of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain, to be distinguished from the American sect by its love of DDT, nuclear power and genetically modified crops rather than Mao’s Little Red Book. Taking some of Marx’s early writings in an extreme direction, the RCP propagandized for what amounted to better living through chemistry in their magazine LM. Nowadays, the RCP operates under the rubric of Spiked Online, where their denial of global warming dispenses with Marxism altogether and sounds much more like CNN wack job Glenn Beck.
Cockburn’s hostility to the global warming alarmists, especially Al Gore, is driven by a kind of conspiracy theory of the sort associated with vulgar Marxism. He believes that all the global warming alarms are meant basically to push nuclear energy. While I have much more respect for Alexander than I do for the 9/11 conspiracists, something tells me that there is a common methodology at work. Vast conspiracies operate in order to promote the hidden energy goals of the ruling class, whether to scare the population into supporting a war for oil or to accept nuclear power like a herd of sheep.
This involves major leaps of the imagination. Just as I always found it difficult to picture CIA agents agreeing to planes (or cruise missiles) being flown into the WTC or the Pentagon, I can’t quite get my mind around the idea that scientists are involved in a huge con job.
One of the interesting things about this global warming “debate” (this is tantamount to referring to a debate over whether HIV causes AIDS) is the infinitesimal number of participants who cross over to the opposing side after considering the data and arguments. For example, I doubt that anybody at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty is going to wind up changing their minds at this point. However, you do find a number of skeptics changing their mind. One of them is Ronald Bailey of “Reason” magazine, an outfit that is more or less the American counterpart of Spiked online. The two publications cosponsored an event at the New School about 5 years ago that amounted to a trade show for the petrochemical industry.
But Bailey has changed his mind. In an August 11, 2005 article, he stated:
Anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up. All data sets—satellite, surface, and balloon—have been pointing to rising global temperatures. In fact, they all have had upward pointing arrows for nearly a decade, but now all of the data sets are in closer agreement due to some adjustments being published in three new articles in Science today.
Returning to Cockburn’s article, there is something else that he has in common with Spiked online besides the belief that global warming is not caused by greenhouse gases. The Counterpunch publisher and the British libertarians both would prefer to challenge the Al Gore and Laurie Davids of the world than they would the Marxist ecologists, like John Bellamy Foster. When I was at the Spiked online/Reason Magazine conference, I made this point. Where were the Marxist panelists? If the debate consists solely of mainstream or “deep ecology” types on one side and pro-industry spokesman on the other, you are ignoring the sizable community of revolutionary-minded environmentalists who have developed a critique of capitalism.
Here is how Foster approaches the question. It is an alternative to both mainstream environmentalism and the kind of backhanded support to unbridled capitalist development espoused by Spiked online and Alexander Cockburn:
Most climate scientists, including Lovelock and Hansen, follow the IPCC in basing their main projections of global warming on a socioecnomic scenario described as “business as usual.” The dire trends indicated are predicated on our fundamental economic and technological developments and our basic relation to nature remaining the same. The question we need to ask then is what actually is business as usual? What can be changed and how fast? With time running out the implication is that it is necessary to alter business as usual in radical ways in order to stave off or lessen catastrophe.
Yet, the dominant solutions—those associated with the dominant ideology, i.e., the ideology of the dominant class—emphasize minimal changes in business as usual that will somehow get us off the hook. After being directed to the growing planetary threats of global warming and species extinction we are told that the answer is better gas mileage and better emissions standards, the introduction of hydrogen-powered cars, the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere, improved conservation, and voluntary cutbacks in consumption. Environmental political scientists specialize in the construction of new environmental policy regimes, embodying state and market regulations. Environmental economists talk of tradable pollution permits and the incorporation of all environmental factors into the market to ensure their efficient use. Some environmental sociologists (my own field) speak of ecological modernization: a whole panoply of green taxes, green regulations, and new green technologies, even the greening of capitalism itself. Futurists describe a new technological world in which the weight of nations on the earth is miraculously lifted as a result of digital “dematerialization” of the economy. In all of these views, however, there is one constant: the fundamental character of business as usual is hardly changed at all.
As much as I admire Alexander Cockburn’s critique of the evils of the capitalist system, it is on questions such as global warming that I find him lacking. It is understandable that a radical journalist would shy away from getting involved with full-bore Marxist analyses of the kind that Mike Davis is famous for. They would require you to be committed to a system of thinking that might seem too binding, like a pair of shoes that doesn’t fit.
In any case, I find that much of the writing that Counterpunch produces, either by its esteemed publishers, or by the stable of volunteers they rely on, is quite good. As Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon immediately after proposing marriage and learning that he was really a man, “Nobody’s perfect.”