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Crying wolf is not good enough, Martin

When one of the most respected commentators on the world economy repeatedly expresses his profound pessimism about the prospects of an effective response to the “real and present dangers of climate change”, it is surely worth some serious consideration.

Martin Wolf is chief economics commentator at the Financial Times. He was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 2000 “for services to financial journalism”. He is an honorary fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, honorary fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, an honorary fellow of the Oxford Institute for Economic Policy (Oxonia) and an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham.

Despite his pessimism Wolf has clearly not given up on a campaign to convince his readers that there is still something that can be done. In his second column in two weeks triggered by the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide passing beyond 400 parts per million, he says that “judged by the world’s inaction, climate sceptics have won”. In his first column, he alleged that “collectively, humanity has yawned and decided to let the dangers mount.” 

Wolf is convinced by the consensus of scientific evidence and rightly damning of the sceptics who are “corrupted by the money and fame”, but he says that there are “deep-seated” economic reasons for “our” failure “to shift our choices away from the ones now driving ever-rising emissions”.

He writes that data on the burning of fossil fuels since the mid-18th century show a consistent rise in annual emissions of carbon dioxide. There was, he adds, a slowdown in the rate of rise of annual emissions in the 1980s and 1990s. But this slowdown was reversed in the 2000s, as China’s coal-burning increased. Today, 30%  of CO2 in the atmosphere is “directly due to humanity”.

There’s a consistent theme in Wolf’s analysis that he shares with the official, “politically-correct” presentation of the science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: we’re all to blame, and seemingly helpless to do anything much about it; apart, that is, from a faint, fading hope in an eight-point shopping list of increasingly more desperate and admittedly inadequate measures, aimed at the world’s governments.

But, fortunately, he is wrong. The objective source of his ideological error lies in his blinkered view of the social, economic and political conditions which, currently, govern – and threaten – all of our lives.  As one of its chief advocates, it would be surprising indeed if Wolf issued any critique of the profit-driven economy that became the dominant force in the 18th century and ensured that “we” set out on the path of burning the fossilised remains of millions of years of vegetation. 

But it wasn’t “us”, as Wolf claims. Responsibility lies with the system of social relations that was ushered in and consolidated during the Industrial Revolution and beyond. “Us”, the majority, had no say, and still don’t in how things are done. Capitalism “freed” labourers from the land but at the same time deprived them of the tools by which they could generate an income for themselves and their families. Instead, we all became wage slaves.

This crisis-ridden capitalist system, dependent on the accelerating exploitation of what it necessarily regards as its God-given right to the planet’s resources is the clear and present danger, Mr Wolf. 

If “we” are to survive, the choice we have to make is to bring this period of history to its conclusion.  A month ago, on April 22, the United Nations marked International Mother Earth Day by acknowledging the leading role played by the Bolivian government. Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said: “We need a paradigm shift – a transformation – in the way we produce, use and share energy.”

If we are able to bring about this change, it will be through the replacement of the current social relations. We’ll need a system in which we become stewards of the Earth, not exploiters.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
22 May 2013

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Matthew Worsdale says:

I havn't read the FT article as I don't have the subscription, but Wolf sounds very similar to Will Hutton in the Guardian a month ago, who devoted a whole article to the failings of the carbon emissions trading scheme and then claimed in the final paragraph that the answer to the crisis is 'a new vision of how to do capitalism'. The fact is economists, policymakers and commentators who grew up in the 20th century have exceeded their capacity to imagine a better world. The challenge falls to the next generation to replace their consensus. The stakes are, ultimately, human survival.

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