Covid-19 and global warming are symptoms of rapacious capitalism

We are over time on shifting to an economic system that is not only sustainable, but fair

The Covid pandemic is directly linked to the environmentally reckless capitalist practices that are driving climate breakdown. These three crises facing humanity have common roots. Emergency responses to the pandemic presage what will be required to tackle the much larger climate emergency. Can that be done effectively without moving beyond capitalism?

This was climate week in New York, sponsored by the United Nations during the General Assembly’s annual meeting. A public opinion survey in 27 states shows high 90 per cent rates of concern with climate issues in poorer countries, much less so in richer ones. The finding coincides with another showing direct personal experience of climate breakdown is much higher in poorer states.

An Oxfam study finds the world’s 10 per cent best off (630 million people) responsible for an estimated 52 per cent of carbon emissions. The richest one per cent produces 15 per cent of them – twice those produced by the world’s three billion poorest people. Oxfam calls for wealth and carbon taxes on private jets, yachts and frequent travellers to pay for the damage.

Accelerated clearing of tropical rain forests for grazing, palm oil plantations and logging have proceeded in spite of warnings in Africa, southeast Asia and the Amazon since 1990 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change first reported the dangers of greenhouse gases caused by carbon emissions.

Deforestation also removes the insulation forests offer from zoonotic diseases – ones that pass from animals to humans – like HIV, Sars and Ebola originating in these habitats. Covid-19 is traced to bats in China and associated with wet markets in wild-food epidemic diseases

Together with industrialised meat and fish farming deforesting practices expose a much more urbanised humanity to many new dangers of infection, as is vividly documented by writers like Mike Davis.

These dangers include the catastrophic loss of natural diversity represented in the extinction of up to 40 per cent of natural species since the 1990s, documented by David Attenborough in coral reefs, natural ecosystems, plants, animals and insects.

A capitalist system that fails to respond does not deserve to survive

Alongside shifting Arctic ice, wildfires in California and Australia and methane gas leaks in the North Sea these warning signals of an approaching climatic tipping point come on top of the Covid emergency. The economist Mariana Mazzucato says the world may have to resort to lockdowns again – this time in a climate emergency. She suggests it could involve government limits on private-vehicle use, banning consumption of red meat, and extreme energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.

To avoid that, she says in a syndicated column, “we must overhaul our economic structures and do capitalism differently”. That would include more stakeholder control by workers and consumers rather than shareholders working to relentless quarterly profit maximisation. Longer-term planning is required. So are strict government conditions attached to bailouts about investing in green projects and divesting from fossil fuel investments.

Radical voices

The trouble is that at least the Anglo-American varieties of capitalism controlling many environmentally reckless companies show no signs of making such a change.

Radical voices addressing the issue include Noam Chomsky and the economist Robert Pollin. In a book published this week, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, they argue it is possible to tackle climate collapse over the next 30 years.

Chomsky says it it will not be possible to get rid of capitalism in that time, but that alternative ways of forcing change through market and state-directed policies are doable.

Pollin says: “We have to think about ways through which we can incentivise this transition that will also be egalitarian, in the sense that it will open up opportunities for small-scale enterprises. It’s going to generate jobs, and we have to make sure those are good jobs, union jobs. There will be jobs lost in the fossil fuel sector, so we have to create a just transition. But that’s all within the institutions of capitalism.”

These three huge linked challenges are now out there very explicitly. Green New Deal programmes provide much needed hope and mobilising power if the will is there. A capitalist system that fails to respond does not deserve to survive.