The Guardian • Issue #2000

Climate change: Capitalism killing the earth

“The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

This wake-up call was given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when releasing part two of its sixth report on climate change.

“Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone now,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told those at the launch of report on 28th February.

The report noted that the vulnerability of people and ecosystems differs substantially between and within regions. It is “driven by patterns of intersecting socioeconomic development, unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, marginalisation, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, and governance.” It is mostly the poorer nations that are hardest hit.

“Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals.

“These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage. They have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on Small Islands and in the Arctic,” the IPCC said.

“Present development challenges causing high vulnerability are influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” the report says.

The peoples and their lands in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on the Small Islands, and in the Arctic are not only the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change but have the least capacity to take the urgent and necessary measures for survival

Historically they have played a relatively minor role in fuelling climate change. Indigenous peoples have lived sustainably and managed the land for thousands of years.


Small islands are already experiencing loss of land, marine and coastal biodiversity; and ecosystems impacting on food and water security and livelihood from fisheries, agriculture, and tourism. There is the risk of loss of life and displacement of people as islands are submerged or become uninhabitable.

In Central and South America water and food security is threatened due to frequent/extreme droughts. Severe health effects due to increasing epidemics, in particular vector-borne diseases (eg Dengue) can be expected. Climate change poses a risk to life and infrastructure from floods, landslides, sea-level rise, storm surges, and coastal erosion.

For Asia, urban infrastructure damage and the impacts on human well-being and health are at risk from flooding, especially in coastal cities and settlements. Biodiversity loss and habitat shifts, as well as associated disruptions in dependent human systems across freshwater, land, and ocean ecosystems, are already occurring. Ocean warming and acidification, sea level rise, marine heat waves and resource extraction will induce extensive coral bleaching and subsequent coral mortality. Coastal fishery resources will decline due to sea level rise, decrease in precipitation in some parts, and increase in temperature.

Climate change also poses a risk to food and water security due to increased temperature extremes, rainfall variability, and drought.

Climate change poses serious risks to Africa. These include risk to food security; risk of malnutrition; and loss of livelihood due to reduced food production from crops, livestock, and fisheries; and a rise in human mortality and morbidity caused by increased heat and infectious diseases (including vector-borne and diarrhoeal diseases).

Water and energy security are also threatened due to drought and heat. There is the risk of species extinction and reduction or irreversible loss of freshwater, land and ocean ecosystems with consequential reduction in economic output and growth, and increased inequality and poverty rates.

Many of these identified risks are already occurring. The extent to which these most vulnerable regions are impacted and whether their peoples survive depends on the action taken this decade by the industrialised countries that are most responsible for climate change. As the report points out, the window is rapidly closing.

“Importantly climate resilient development prospects are increasingly limited if current greenhouse gas emissions do not rapidly decline, especially if 1.5°C global warming is exceeded in the near-term […]. These prospects are constrained by past development, emissions and climate change, and enabled by inclusive governance, adequate and appropriate human and technological resources, information, capacities and finance.”


It is thirty years since the Rio Earth Summit which adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The UNFCC recognised “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” of its signatories. These differentiated responsibilities are based on the difference in social and economic conditions between developed countries and developing and least developed ones. It took into consideration the level of development, circumstances, and capacity of parties to the UNFCC.

The developed countries have a responsibility to assist developing and least developed parties by funding insurance and transfer of technology to enable poorer and less developed ones to meet specific needs and concerns of arising from the adverse effects of climate change and to implement response measures.

From the very outset, at the Rio Earth Summit and every summit since, there has been a fierce struggle between the rich polluting countries and the developing and least developed countries who feel the brunt of climate change. It is only recently, since the impacts of climate change have been felt in the US, the EU, and Japan, that there has been less hesitancy to set more realistic targets for emission reductions.

But the rich countries are still holding humanity back. As the IPCC report noted, based on current country commitments, global emissions are set to rise by almost fourteen per cent over the next decade, whereas the science tells us they must fall by 45 per cent by 2030. These countries have also failed to honour their obligations to provide the all-important assistance with mitigation and adaptation measures, including finance and the transfer of technology.


Australia is a rich industrialised country, which through its export of fossil fuels has a large carbon footprint.

The Australian government cannot even honour its obligations when it comes to the Australian people. It has a particular responsibility to phase out fossil fuel exports and use and assist those affected by the impact of climate change.

Eight Torres Strait Islanders have lodged a complaint against the Australian government to the UN Human Rights Committee. They claim that their rights to culture, family, and life have been violated by the government’s insufficient greenhouse gas mitigation targets and plans, and by its failure to fund adequate coastal defence and resilience measures on the islands.

The islands are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, including sea level rising, land erosion, storm surge, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification. Already fresh-water holes that were inland are nearer to the coast as land is swallowed up by the rising ocean and bones from a once inland burial site are found drifting on the shore.

The Torres Strait Islanders’ legal argument is based on the catastrophic nature of the predicted future impacts of climate change on the Islands, including the total submergence of ancestral homelands.

The Islanders are calling on Canberra to do more to protect them from climate change, including funding adequate coastal defence measures after full consultation with the island communities, but also by addressing the root cause of the problem by reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The government is facing another possible challenge by eight high school children seeking to block the expansion of a coal mine that would add one hundred million tonnes of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. They argue that the federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care towards them. In May 2021, a Federal Court Justice rejected their attempt to halt the mine’s expansion, but he did rule that Ms Ley had a duty of reasonable care not to cause the children personal injury when making legislative decisions.

Ley appealed and a full bench of the Federal Court earlier this month overturned the decision. The children are left with the option of taking an appeal to the High Court.


“This humanitarian crisis is not fundamentally caused by conflict or lack of food but by a pervasive socio-economic order that is inherently unjust and cruel, benefiting those that have, punishing and abusing those that are vulnerable and have not. The natural environment is sacrificed and exploited for profit,” Hannah Middleton points out in the pamphlet Fighting for the Future. (available from CPA Bookshop)

“Capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with the maintenance of a viable ecosystem. The evidence is clear. There can be no green capitalism. Sustainable development under capitalism is an impossibility.”

“Capitalism created the looming environmental catastrophe. It cannot play a role in its solution,” Middleton noted.

“A planned economy which has eliminated the private profit motive has the maximum potential for solving environmental problems.”

“Socialist production is not a slave to capitalist market economics and its vicious frenetic cycle of competition, advertising, consumerism and waste. It aims to satisfy human needs, not over-produce commodities, many of which have little relevance to real needs and lead to gross over-use of energy,” Middleton said.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, speaking at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 made the point: “Let human life become more rational. Let us implement a just international economic order. Let us use all the science necessary for pollution-free, sustained development. Let us pay the ecological debt, and not the foreign debt. Let hunger disappear, and not mankind.”

Following the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference Evo Morales, Bolivian President and first Indigenous head of state, organised the first World People’s Congress on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, in Cochabamba. At it he summed up the choice facing humanity: “There are two ways forward: Either save capitalism or save Mother Earth.”

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