Shortly after the signing of an environmental protection bill in California, climate scientists in September reported that the Earth had passed the "tipping point" milestone of atmospheric CO2 exceeding 400 ppm, further concluding that these levels were unlikely to come below 400 ppm again within our lifetimes. And so, the capitalist system has signed off on yet another chapter of what its historical legacy will be: further environmental degradation and destruction, the sheer scale of which will have deleterious repercussions for generations to come.
In light of this development, news of Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of SB 32, establishing goals to limit carbon emissions in the state to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, may seem like a beacon of hope. California has been touted for years now as a national leader in the fight against climate change, and as the world’s 6th largest economy with a population greater than all of Canada, the region’s economic and political influence is undeniable – if any state government is capable of enacting the best that capitalism has to offer in solving the environmental crisis, it ought to be Governor Brown’s.
However, as is usually the case under capitalism, the reality is rather more bleak. Capitalism is extremely effective at creating environmental, social, and economic problems, but not so effective at resolving them. Narrowly passed by the majority Democrat state legislator, SB32 is essentially an extension of an earlier bill, AB 32. Despite the fact that SB 32 does nothing in itself to strengthen current policies which will only achieve around half of the targeted emission cuts, and the convenient time frame which assures the current administration will ultimately be free of the responsibility for meeting them, much of the bourgeois press and the governor’s office are touting this as an “incontestable” and “groundbreaking” victory for the environment. In fact, this is just the latest example of greenwashing and chicanery by the Democratic Party in California, attempting to maintain what is left of their "progressive" veneer while always upholding the interests of the rich and powerful.
The bill is laden with vague language, and grants to the State Air Resources Board only the power to “design market-based compliance mechanisms” to “quantify voluntary compliance of greenhouse gas emission limits” – an assurance to polluting industries that their bottom-line will not be disturbed.
In practice, these half-hearted attempts to regulate the worst emission sources have resulted in companies continuing to unabatedly reap their profits by exploiting ready-made loopholes, i.e. “market-based compliance mechanisms”.
California’s cap-and-trade system, whereby the state government places a limit on carbon pollution and issues permits for limited emissions to offenders, has only resulted in in-state companies buying up carbon permits from more “efficient” firms, which are typically set up out-of-state and have the added benefit of not coming under the regulatory board’s direct scrutiny. In this way, the system effectively exports any immediate benefits of lowering pollution, granting companies with urban facilities free reign to choke up the air of residential areas - especially those occupied by the state’s poorest working class families. The scheme has also led to the enrichment of a layer of middle-men acting as brokers in the carbon market, making fortunes off of companies buying and selling the right to pollute while producing nothing of value themselves.
Meanwhile, new federal laws regulating emissions in the natural gas industry, again peddled as “historic” and “pioneering,” do nothing to address the already existing poorly-maintained energy infrastructure that led to Southern California being the site of one of the worst environmental catastrophes in U.S. history. In October 2015, a methane well in Aliso Canyon owned by SoCal Gas ruptured due to poor maintenance and aged equipment, and until February of this year continuously spurted methane gas into the atmosphere.
The long term effects of this disaster are still being gauged, but estimates suggest that over 107,000 tons of methane and 8,000 tons of ethane were erupted from the well. For reference, the global warming potential of methane is around 72 times that of carbon dioxide. The leak will therefore have roughly the same impact as the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the metropolitan area of Los Angeles. Over 2000 families were relocated because of the leak, and in spite of the thousands in LA county who continue to report nose bleeds, nausea, rashes, temporary blindness, asthma, and other illnesses resulting from exposure, SoCal Gas has yet to pay anything to cover the health costs and suffering of its victims - and likely never will.
Capitalism will always place the needs of profit before people: as the state makes stern declarations and hands out slaps on the wrist to the ruling class, working people are made to bear the brunt of any crisis or disaster that the system conjures up. As market-based policies and policy-makers become increasingly discredited by their inability to confront the looming existential threat that capitalism poses to the world by its wanton environmental destruction, the working class will have to organize on our own to combat climate change.
But if we want to decide how energy and resources are used, we must have public ownership and control of these means, and be able to democratically plan them under a socialist, sustainable world economy. Only by breaking with capitalism and its representatives can we launch a serious fight against climate change - not just for the good of the people of California, but for the very survival of humanity as well.