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Making money out of extreme weather

Capitalism has a genius for inventiveness that drives those who represent its interests to extraordinary feats of creativity. The more extreme the weather, the more money they can make.

Global temperatures in the first half of the year have been the highest since records began 130 years ago. Synchronised violent weather events are disrupting and consuming lives and displacing millions across the world from Pakistan through Russia to the USA.

The entire population of Moscow is struggling for breath and hundreds have already died as the city is engulfed in smoke from wildfires burning throughout vast areas of European Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The long drought which turned the land to tinder has ruined crops on a huge scale while in Pakistan up to 14 million are affected by floods in one of the greatest disasters in history.

With mounting evidence of the effects of climate change adding up to a planetary emergency, post-Copenhagen talks have taken a step backward. The Obama administration has all but abandoned attempts to pass emissions limiting legislation because the additional costs on business might impact their chances in the November elections.

This is further proof that there can be no solution within the framework of capitalist society. Quite the opposite. Capitalists can and do find ways to overcome any barrier to profitable activity, irrespective of the lives they trample on the road to riches.

Reports say that commodity traders from Glencore International prompted the Russian government to ban exports of wheat, thereby boosting the already soaring world price of this critical foodstuff, denying access to the next meal for billions of people, but enabling the Swiss-based commodities corporation to increase its profits. The ban on exports meant that grain trader Glencore could cancel its contracts based on earlier, lower prices and make new deals exploiting the increase. The brilliance of the seriously sick at work.

Wheat isn’t the only globally-traded commodity which has seen prices rocketing in recent days. There’s a causal connection between the horse-has-bolted attempts to rescue the global financial system and the price of basic foods including barley and rice.

Joachim von Braun, former director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute puts it like this:

There are increasing indications that some financial capital is shifting from speculation on housing and complex derivatives to commodities, including food. While the financial markets have recently been regulated to curb excessive speculation, commodity markets have remained largely untouched and are the open flank of the system attracting speculation. A food price crisis is not of great significance for the relatively rich. But for the bottom 3 billion it poses a nutrition disaster with appalling long-term health consequences. The number of undernourished people has increased against the backdrop of economic recession.

Another example of this deranged genius comes from the United States. The location is the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the home of the market in financial derivatives that, from the 1990s onwards, did so much to express and satisfy the mounting demand for credit throughout the late stages of the post-war economic expansion.

The mathematical wizards who invent money-spinners for the global gamblers have come up with a new futures market in “cooling degree days (CDDs)”. It works like this: in common with much of the rest of the northern hemisphere, the US is experiencing record temperatures. Demand for air conditioning has seen power consumption rise by 10%, boosting the profits of the power generators and suppliers. CDDs give a measure of demand derived from the degrees of air temperature in excess of 65oF (18.3oC) and speculators with money to burn gamble on what this number will be in a few months time.

By any standard these people are among the clinically insane. Capitalist exploitation of the planet and its people has to end, as a matter of extreme urgency, before we are dragged beyond the limits of the ecosystems’ ability to recover.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
10 August 2010

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