Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 29, 2008

In Defense of Marxism gets Spiked

Filed under: Global Warming — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

The In Defense of Marxism website (IDOM) is associated with a small Trotskyist sect in Great Britain that was led by Ted Grant until his death 2 years ago. It is now led by Alan Woods who has done some good work in publicizing and defending the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, even if there is some sectarian baggage that goes along with it.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Grant-Woods tendency was its rather serious engagement with science, especially manifested in the two leaders’ book “Reason in Revolt: Marxism and Modern Science”. That legacy has been tarnished by the appearance of a 2-part article on global warming by one Brian J. Baker. Baker’s article is filled with the usual global warming skepticism found at places like Spiked and in Alexander Cockburn’s recent articles. It should be mentioned that IDOM has never published anything like this in the past. Only last December they were saying things like this:

The impact of climate change, says the report, will vary regionally but in an overall view it points out that even with temperatures rising only 3C there will be an important increase of mortality from heat waves, floods and droughts; reduced agricultural production in low latitude areas with important negative impact on smallholders, subsistence farmers and fishermen; 30% of the world species will be at risk of extinction and hundreds of millions of people will be exposed to increased water stress.

Those less able to adapt to these new circumstances will receive the heaviest blow. These are the poor of the world and it will matter very little whether they live in Burkina or in the United States of America, as the working class and poor of New Orleans learnt during and after Katrina.

Now we learn from Brian J. Baker that global warming is a capitalist plot against the working class:

“We are all going to fry,” a sentiment endorsed from the ex-public schoolboys from Eton, to the lofty heights of Rupert Murdoch and George Soros from the media and financial world. And at the same time are joined by various left and pseudo-socialist organisations the world over.

So what is it that unites such disparate class interests? A common understanding that industrialisation has destroyed the planet? But then the Victorian gentry had a disparaging attitude to the common men of trade. “Tradesmen’s Entrance” was always around the back. And we have always seen the religious fundamentalists parading along Oxford Street telling us to “Prepare to meet thy doom.”

Fred Weston prefaces Baker’s article by stating that it “is not the job of the Marxist.com Editorial board to develop a ‘line’ on climate change.” Maybe that is so, but it does strike me as a bit odd to see two so sharply opposed articles on global warming within a few months. He adds that he invites “any of our readers, comrades and supporters, especially the more scientifically qualified, to contribute to this debate with their opinions both for and against.” Well, that’s very generous of him, but until his website actually includes a place for comments or letters, the invitation seems pretty hollow.

Turning to Baker’s piece, we note that it shares Alexander Cockburn’s conspiracy theory approach to the problem. Global warming is a capitalist plot to step up the use of nuclear power and to deepen the exploitation of working people, especially in the Third World. If Cockburn’s favorite bogeyman is Al Gore, Baker is at least to be credited for inventing a new bogeyman, or bogeywoman to be exact:

As we shall see Anthropogenic Global Warming was an obscure scientific curiosity that was elevated by two factors to become the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today. The first was that Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party wished to seek vengeance on the NUM for the crippling defeat inflicted on them by the miners’ strike in 1972 and 1974. So, early in her global warming campaign – and at her personal instigation – the UK’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research was established, and the science and engineering research councils were encouraged to place priority in funding climate-related research. This cost nothing because the UK’s total research budget was not increased; indeed, it fell because of cuts elsewhere. It also enabled Thatcher to propose the building of new nuclear power stations as an alternative to the “dirty, polluting” coal fired stations and thus destroy the political base of the miners as producers of necessary energy. We thus find it ironic that Greenpeace demonstrators can protest at power station plants and pitheads labelling the workers “climate criminals”. How far has consciousness travelled.

Let’s be clear. Thatcher was not bent on destroying Great Britain’s coal industry because it was “dirty” and “polluting”. She was mainly interested in profits. Coal was not profitable. Whether it was “dirty” or not was besides the point. The Globe and Mail (Canada) reported on October 23, 1992:

Because the industry is under government stewardship, its contraction has been far slower, more costly and more politically fraught than it should have been. With the exception of Germany and Spain, most European countries have wound down their coal production and switched to cheaper fuels. In England and Wales, by contrast, 78 per cent of electricity is still generated by coal-burning plants. Coal has kept that share because the British government supports the industry with subsidies of $2.4- billion a year – or about $50,000 per worker – while at the same time compelling electrical utilities to buy British coal at inflated prices.

Furthermore, Thatcher’s “environmentalism” was like Gore’s, all glitter and no substance. As an astute politician, she understood that lip-service must be paid to green issues as the May 10, 1989 NY Times noted: “Prime Minister Thatcher is a clever enough politician to try to keep the Green wave from washing away her support,” especially since West Germany’s Green Party had “grabbed a governing role in West Berlin and in the state of Hesse and may hold the balance of power in the next national election.”

After Baker is done with Thatcher, he lets some other members of the global warming conspiracy have it. He tells us that at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Gavin Strong, the Assistant General Secretary of the UN, said, “Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?” Now, that’s quite a statement coming from a UN official. I could find no evidence that he ever said such a thing except for Baker’s claim that he did on IDOM and in a comment on the London Telegraph.

A search on Lexis-Nexis for anything related to “Gavin Strong” and climate turned up nothing. I have written IDOM for a source and have not heard back from them yet. Frankly, I am not optimistic that anything is forthcoming since Brian J. Baker is not very scrupulous when it comes to these matters. After the rather odd attribution to Strong, we have his assurance that Christine Stewart, the Canadian Environment Minister, once said in reference to global warming: “Who cares if the science is phony, the collateral benefits are the main aim.”

Again, there is no citation for this, but apparently she was quoted as saying this in a meeting with the editorial board of the Calgary Herald on December 14, 1998 as was subsequently reported in the pages of the newspaper. Since the article is not available on Lexis-Nexis, all we have to go on is this quote attributed to her. Maybe she said this, maybe she didn’t. All we know is that the quote has gotten what the Deejays call “heavy rotation” on the rightwing of the Internet. If you google “Christine Stewart” and “phony”, you will find plenty of links, including one from Human Events, a publication that describes itself as “Leading the Conservative Movement since 1944”.

Stumbling along in his merry way, Baker next refers to “the previous French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who stated that the Kyoto Treaty was the finest vehicle for World Governance to date.” Our intrepid expert on climate must have meant Jacques Chirac who said the following in a speech to a UN conference on climate change on November 20, 2000:

For the first time, humanity is instituting a genuine instrument of global governance, one that should find a place within the World Environmental Organisation which France and the European Union would like to see established.

How this gets turned into a statement that “the Kyoto Treaty was the finest vehicle for World Governance to date” is beyond me. Maybe Baker was trying to invoke fears about Black Helicopters and all that. If that is the case, I am surprised he didn’t publish his piece on Counterpunch where there is great receptivity to that line of reasoning.

After he has finished making his rather dubious case that global warming is a capitalist plot to plunge the working class into poverty, Baker next turns to scientific matters, where things take a turn for the worse.

As is the case with many global warming skeptics, Baker’s ploy is to look back at previous periods in history in order to show that there is no basis for alarm even if one of the periods in question dates 600 million years ago:

But in looking at the periods prior to the modern era, for example the Phanerozoic (the term is Greek for visible life) period that occurred 600 million years prior to the present era, CO2 levels 18 times higher than the present era are found but unfortunately this was the greatest period of the expansion of life on earth.

It is really difficult to figure out what this has to do with the situation we face today, but not so for Baker who finds the “expansion of life” 600 million years ago reason enough to plow ahead with the production of greenhouse gases. He assures us:

To believe as Dr Jim Hansen does that 385 ppm of CO2 represents a tipping point towards the extinction of life on earth shows nothing more than his ignorance of the entire history of the earth.

It is difficult to make any sense out of this statement. It is as if Baker sees the threat to life as CO2 displacing oxygen. Of course, if somebody drained the oxygen out of your apartment and replaced it with CO2, you’d become extinct as well, specifically by suffocation. But the real issue is not suffocation, but the loss of home and livelihood due to calamitous changes in sea levels, rainfall, intensity of storms, etc. This is something that apparently does not concern Baker, although it did get a rise out of Weston who muses:

If sea levels are going to rise, we will have to move millions, hundreds of millions of people across national boundaries to more inhabitable zones. Can capitalism plan for such a scenario? It cannot.

I have news for comrade Weston. When it comes to moving hundreds of millions of people across national boundaries, I doubt that socialism will be of much use either. Humanity has never faced such a challenge and there is no reason to entertain the idea that it can rise to the occasion. Our best bet is to reduce the threat to the best of our ability. Publishing tripe like Baker’s does not help things, needless to day.

After his brief visit to a period 600 million years in the past, Baker comes closer to home—the so-called Medieval Warming Period (WMP) that constitutes a key talking point for global warming skeptics. If temperatures rose from AD1000 to AD1300 in the absence of greenhouse emissions, then perhaps it is “bad science” to single out the burning of carbon-based fuels today as the culprit. Baker points to the research of U. of Michigan scientist Shaopeng Huang as his trump card:

Those wanting to “get rid of” the MWP run into the problem that it shows up strongly in the data. Shortly after Deming’s article appeared, a group led by Shaopeng Huang of the University of Michigan completed a major analysis of over 6,000 borehole records from every continent around the world. Their study went back 20,000 years.

I generally shy away from the more technical aspects of climate science and prefer to take my cues from professional scientists, including my fellow employees at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory but I for one would be cautious about including Shaopeng Huang in the skeptic’s camp in light of the following:

As global climate changes, atmosphere warming and ocean warming make frequent headlines. But less well known is that the lands are warming too. Based on world-wide meteorological and borehole temperature records, my recent study shows that the 20th century global warming had deposited about 1022 Joules of thermal energy into the continental landmasses. I show that if the observed global warming trend over the past 35 years were to continue over the rest of the 21st century, the continents would gain additional thermal energy more than five folds the amount they acquired over the 20th century. Even if the global surface temperature would stabilize at the current state throughout the rest of the 21st century, the continental landmasses will continue to acquire heat from the atmosphere. At this stage of global climate change, stopping atmosphere warming is not sufficient to stop the lithosphere warming. An overall 0.7 K cooling at the global ground surface over the 21st century is required to avoid further heating of the continents.

The extraordinary 20th century warming is an evidence of anthropogenic forcing in the recent global climate change. Human activities including industrialization and urbanization not only increase greenhouse gases and aerosols in the atmosphere which affect the radiation balance of the climate system, but also change the thermal environment at the surface and subsurface. Over the past decade, tremendous efforts have been devoted to improve our understanding of the anthropogenic effects on the atmospheric temperature change. In comparison, little has been done in understanding the human impacts on the subsurface temperature and their environmental consequences.

As part of the industrialization and modernization process, the population of the world is increasingly concentrated in urbanized environment. In the United States, nearly eighty percent of the population lives in the urban areas. Urbanization alters the thermal properties of the land, changes the energy budget at the ground surface, changes the surrounding atmospheric circulation characteristics, and introduces a great amount of anthropogenic waste heat into the urban climate system.

This is from the page titled Shaopeng’s Research Interests on the scientist’s website. If his research into the Medieval Warming Period is supposed to encourage us to go full-blast ahead with the creation of greenhouse gases, his website does not reflect this at all.

10 Comments »

  1. I sent a link to this post with a note to Marxism.com.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — April 30, 2008 @ 4:04 am

  2. Louis — thank you for this. It’s outrageous any group considering itself Marxist, or even radical, would provide a platform for Baker’s grossly anti-scientific views.

    In your second paragraph, you write: “One of the more interesting aspects of the Grant-Woods tendency was its rather serious engagement with science, especially manifested in the two leaders’ book “Reason in Revolt: Marxism and Modern Science”. And you say that this legacy is “tarnished” by their recent excursion into anti-science quackery.

    I can’t agree. “Reason and Revolt” is just as bizarre, although on topics without such immediate social consequences. Among its claims:

    “Decades ago, Ted Grant, using the method of dialectical materialism, showed the unsoundness… of the big bang theory.” (p189)

    “From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, it is arrant nonsense to talk about the ‘beginning of time,’ or the ‘creation of matter’.” (pp198-9)

    In Reason and Revolt, Woods and Grant, who are not scientists, criticize modern science for not conforming to their very formal and narrow concept of dialectical materialism. They seem to think that knowing something about dialectics gives them a unique ability to decide when actual scientists get things right or wrong. They prefer an alternative view of cosmology which, so far as I can tell, was supported by exactly one scientist, Hannes Alven. Why are they qualified to make such a judgment? Because they know dialectics.

    It’s hard to see how publishing Baker’s views could “tarnish” that legacy.

    Ian Angus
    Editor, Climate and Capitalism
    http://www.climateandcapitalism.com

    Comment by Admin — April 30, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  3. Constructive dialogue rarely begins with describing holders of a different view as a sect. While it is true that the supporters of IDOM were the first to spot the significance of the Bolivarian revolution their reluctance to engage with the clear evidence for human induced climate change is only a slightly more assertive version of what much of the left is still doing. For example the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Conference was attended by 300+ people. That’s modest start and much of the left was not there and much of what it produces on the subject is not fully engaging with either the seriousness of the problem nor the possible solutions

    What some of us are trying to do is elaborate a Marxist approach to the issue which locates responsibility for the situation in the capitalist mode of production but it is unsurprising that comrades who view orthodoxy as one of the high political virtues have associated themselves with this position.

    http://socialistresistance.org/savage-capitalism-the-ecosocialist-alternative/

    Comment by Liam — April 30, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

  4. In the title there’s written “Discussion Document”.
    The article is signed “Brian J. Baker” (who is not a member of the International Marxist Tendency, apparently).
    In the introduction there’s written that it does not represent the “line” of IDOM on climate change.
    In the introduction there’s an appeal to all comrades to enter the debate with contributions “both for and against” the view proposed by Baker.
    In the article text there are some attacks on the International Marxist Tendency itself like a reference to “the scary numbers postulated by the IPCC, (never mind some environmentalists or Socialist Appeal)” – Socialist Appeal is the name of the IMT in UK and US.

    Comment by mv — April 30, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  5. You say, of Fred Weston’s invitation for contributions to the debate: “but until his website actually includes a place for comments or letters, the invitation seems pretty hollow”.

    I suggest you hit the “contact us” button and send your article, letter, comments or whatever as an email or as an attachment.

    Comment by Rob Walsh — April 30, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  6. Never mind, Louis, I’m a long time friend of IDOM and the IMT but I think your point is excellent. There’s not as much culty thinking around Ted’s thought as there used to be, with all due respect to Ted Grant, but the IMT has a long way to go, especially around this “science” piece. Good lookin’ out, brother.—m. hureaux, Seattle

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — April 30, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

  7. The website has published today a first reply by Mick Brooks that counters Brian Baker’s position:

    http://www.marxist.com/climate-change-an-answer-to-brian-baker.htm

    Comment by Mauro Vanetti — April 30, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

  8. Dear Louis,
    Earlier today I sent the following message to your emailaddress (lnp3@panix.com):

    Dear Louis,
    I’m writing to you about the recent articles on climate change published on our website, http://www.marxist.com. I am away from our office, but have been informed you wrote to us. I’ve taken a quick look at your comments on your blog. I haven’t seen your original email yet. I will read your comments more throughly this evening, but I’d like to point out that the invitation for our readers to comment in favour or against Brian Baker’s articles was
    genuine. Would you mind if we published your comments on our website? Or if you wish, you could write a comment specifically aimed at our readers on this question.
    The article by Brian Baker does not reflect the views of marxist.com. The purpose of publication was to provoke debate and it is already doing so. We will also be publishing another article critical of Brian Baker.
    I believe this question is worth debating and listening to all arguments. In the process of debate hopefully we will emerge with a sharper understanding of these questions.
    Comradely,
    Fred Weston

    I hope you got the email and will take up the offer,
    Comradely,
    Fred Weston

    Comment by Fred Weston — April 30, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

  9. The debate is going on: http://www.marxist.com/climate-change/

    Comment by Mauro Vanetti — May 14, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

  10. The Committee for a Workers International (the organization that Ted Grant helped found and then left to form IDOM) has published a reply to “Reason and Revolt.” You can find it here: http://www.marxist.net/sciphil/reasoninrevolt/index.html
    -josh

    Comment by Joshua Koritz — June 20, 2008 @ 7:52 pm


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