Socialist View, No. 15,Spring 2006

Hurricanes, Asian quake, global warming...

Capitalism destroying the planet for profit!

53,000 DEAD AND three million homeless in Pakistan; the city of New Orleans submerged by Hurricane Katrina. Natural disasters whose scale and consequences have been worsened by capitalism.

We all watched the images from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in horror. One of America's most culturally and historically important cities was left in ruins. The huge power of the level 4 hurricane and the sea swell it carried with it left a million people homeless and over one thousand dead.

DANIEL WALDRON writes

A STUDY by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that the average wind force of hurricanes has increased by approximately 50% in the last fifty years. But what is responsible for this change? Some climatologists think that global warming may well be playing a role.

Hurricanes can be caused when a weather disturbance moves over an area of ocean with a high surface temperature. The warm water causes atmospheric instability at low altitudes that act as the energy source for the storm. Essentially, the warmer the water is the more powerful the hurricane is likely to become, although random factors such as wind sheers also have an effect.

In the past three months, the Gulf of Mexico has been hit by a number of powerful storms. An event like Hurricane Katrina was estimated to take place every 300 years. There have now been two such floods in the last 80 years.

It's certain that our world's oceans are getting warmer, although it is difficult to say how much of this is down to global warming and how much is down to natural processes. However, there has been a particularly sharp increase in the strength of hurricanes over the past decade, suggesting that damage to the environment by human activities may be playing a significant role. When climatologists factored the effects of climate change due to global warming into computer models the regularity of level 5 hurricanes tripled, although the frequency of hurricanes overall remained constant.

Ocean temperatures are expected to increase much more rapidly over coming decades, possibly causing even more extreme weather conditions. Carbon dioxide emissions are trapping more solar energy in our planet's atmosphere, producing an overall warming affect. The only way to counter this process is to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels. Even if we cut CO2 emissions by 70% it could still take almost 100 years for the effects of global warming to completely disappear.

The Bush government has up until recently denied that global warming was taking place, basing this on the evidence of a tiny minority of climatologists who are in the pocket of multinational oil corporations. ExxonMobil Corporation has spent $13 million over the last 10 years to fund research attempting to cast doubt on the effect that carbon dioxide emissions are having on our environment.

The Republican Party is hugely reliant upon finance provided by major oil companies. Bush and a number of other members of his administration have a personal connection to the oil industry. Dick Cheney amassed a fortune of $50 million while he was chief executive of Haliburton Oil Company, while Condaleezza Rice was a director of Chevron.

This government represents the interests of the oil barons, not the interests of working people, and so stubbornly ignores the evidence that shows the detrimental threat that global warming poses to our planet. The Bush government resisted huge public pressure even to sign up to the token Kyoto Agreement, where governments committed themselves to cut carbon dioxide emission by 5.2% by 2012. The profit margins of Bush's big business backers take precedence over the future of our planet.

If we look at the response of the US government to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, it becomes even clearer where their priorities lie. After Katrina struck, Bush claimed, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." This is simply untrue. Scientists and engineers warned on a number of occasions that the system designed to protect New Orleans from flooding would not be adequate against a hurricane of Katrina's magnitude. Plans drawn up in 1998 to help improve the flood defences were shelved because Bush's government refused to provide adequate funding. Last year, only $40 million of the $105 million requested for maintenance and strengthening of the levees was provided.

This is part of Bush's agenda to strip public spending on services and welfare to the bone. The cost of the occupation of Iraq, which most Americans now oppose, stands at over $200 billion. Bush has handed tax-cuts worth hundreds of billions to his cronies in the major corporations. Meanwhile, Bush has continued the brutal attacks on healthcare, education, housing, abortion services and welfare of previous presidencies.

During the evacuation of the city, no transport was provided for the 200,000 people, among the poorest in the city, with no vehicle of their own. These people, mostly black, were left to fend for themselves as the bulk of the city was flooded and support services collapsed. Many made their way to the Convention Centre, which had been designated as an evacuation point for those stuck in the city. They found no food, no water and no protection from the small criminal elements that crawled out from capitalist society's underbelly to exploit the situation. It was four days after the event that a completely inadequate convoy of coaches was sent to New Orleans to rescue some of those stranded there.

Poor left behind

Bush was not interested in rescuing those left desperate in the devastated city. His first priority was to defend the property of big business. He condemned all "looting", even though most people were simply doing what they had to, taking food, water and other essential supplies in order to survive.

When the troops were sent in, the city was essentially put under martial law. They were given no clear programme for rescuing the people still there or removing the remains of the dead. It became clear that responsibilities had not been delegated and a proper plan of action had not been drawn up. When questioned, soldiers, firefighters, police and others involved in the operation often said they weren't sure who was supposed to be removing corpses to prevent further contamination, but it wasn't them.

Hours into the emergency, Bush praised the handling of the situation by Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As Brown's incompetence emerged, Bush may well have wished he had never spoken those words. Brown was appointed because of his common political ground with Bush and his record as a loyal yes-man, not his record in emergency planning. Bush's latest judicial nominee, Priscilla Owen, has also been offered her position because of her fundamentalist religious beliefs and her support for Bush's neo-conservative agenda.

Hurricane Katrina showed the huge class divide that exists in American society. It was the working class and poor that bore the brunt of the disaster, particularly those from the oppressed ethnic minority communities. Even the right-wing corporate media has raised this issue, as they see that the continuing alienation and impoverishment of such a large section of society lays the basis for huge social upheaval that could shake US capitalism to its core.

The response of the US government to the crisis in New Orleans stands in stark contrast to the handling of Hurricane Dennis by the Castro regime in Cuba. This category 3 storm hit Cuba on 8 July this year. The Cuban government organized an evacuation operation of the area expected to be worst hit by the hurricane which makes the operation of Bush's government look pathetic. Approximately 10 people died, less than 1% of those killed by Katrina. In the town of Trinidad, 7,900 houses were damaged with 457 being completely destroyed. Three weeks later, 181 houses had been totally repaired, while 632 homeowners had been given the necessary materials to fix their homes themselves.

This shows the benefits of a planned economy, despite the bureaucratic nature of the regime. In Cuba, the bulk of society's resources are state-owned, rather than being owned by small groups of individuals only interested in profit. This allowed the Castro regime to respond in an efficient way as Dennis approached, ensuring that transport out of the danger area was organised for those who needed it, as well as temporary shelter, food and other necessities. The rebuilding process was carried out in a planned way by state agencies, while the reconstruction of New Orleans will be handed to big business, who will pick over the city's corpse like vultures to make as much money as possible. However, Cuba is a one-party Stalinist dictatorship. We call for the people of Cuba to remove Castro and his privileged, bureaucratic caste from power and take the planned economy into their own democratic control.

However, it is not only in the United States that the right-wing policies of governments have left working people suffering unnecessarily in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The response by the regime of General Musharraf to the earthquake which hit Kashmir and North West Frontier Province of Pakistan was totally impotent, almost non-existent. Over 53,000 have died as a result of the immediate destruction of the disaster, and the UN estimates that this death toll may double.

Aid Crisis

Hundreds of thousands now face death from starvation and exposure. Government aid supplies have not reached much of the affected area. People have been left with no food or clean water and desperately searching for shelter. Many are left sleeping in the open with barely anything to keep them warm during freezing winter nights.

State authorities were completely unprepared for such an event. Government agencies have been totally overwhelmed. In some isolated areas, authorities have simply abandoned their posts because of their inability to cope with the situation. Reactionary Islamic extremist groups have tried to capitalise on the vacuum which has been created by distributing aid and setting up camps to provide shelter. There is the danger that nationalism and religious and ethnic division may well increase in the wake of the disaster.

Musharraf is a stooge of US imperialism and international capitalism. He has pushed through a steady programme of privatisation since coming to power, recently using state forces to try to intimidate Pakistan's telecommunications workers during their heroic struggle against the sell-off of the industry to a multinational corporation. Musharraf has tried to convince the people of the country that private control of services is more efficient and that the owners of private companies have the interests of Pakistan's people at heart.

Profiteering

This lie has now been shattered as fat cats seized the opportunity to make super-profits on the back of people's suffering and desperation. Bus companies doubled their fares to the affected region, knowing worried friends and relatives would gladly pay the price if they could possibly afford it. The price of blankets, tents and food supplies skyrocketed after the earthquake. Capitalism's never-ending drive for profit has no concern for the well-being of our world's poor and starving.

In the rubble of the earthquake, the division between rich and poor was clear to see. While the poorly-built housing in the working class districts was razed to the ground, leaving the impression that nothing had ever stood there before, the luxurious homes in many of the affluent districts were left largely unaffected. The rich can afford to pay for well-built housing but private contractors cut corners when building housing for the poor in order to keep prices low and maximise profit. A similar picture has been seen in the aftermath of many earthquakes.

The disaster of Hurricane Katrina dominated news coverage here for two weeks afterwards. In contrast, the earthquake in Pakistan receded from the headlines in a matter of days, despite the much higher death toll and the equally precarious position that survivors were left in. The media were shocked by the events in New Orleans, that such destruction and anarchy could be wreaked upon a city in the advanced capitalist West by a natural event. However, when such an event takes place in the neo-colonial world it attracts much less attention. It is seen as inevitable and almost acceptable that the poor of countries like Pakistan will suffer such tragedies.

The private media is owned and controlled by a tiny group of multi-millionaires, while state television like the BBC and RTE are run by appointees of the right-wing British and Irish governments. Their coverage of all issues and events, from natural disasters to industrial disputes to the war in Iraq, is based on the twisted logic of capitalism and defending the interests of big business.

Natural disasters are unavoidable and inevitable, but the system of capitalism means that they are not dealt with using all of the resources at society's disposal in an organised, logical way with the needs of those affected in mind. Instead, the responses are hampered by profiteering, discrimination and lack of planning.

However, it is not only in the aftermath of natural disasters that capitalism exploits and attacks ordinary working class people. This system is run in the interests of a tiny, super-rich elite. Their interests stand in opposition to those of humanity as a whole. The constant drive for profit means that the future of our planet becomes a secondary priority at best. Global warming is a reality and evidence is building up that the environmental destruction of our planet at the hands of the multinationals is already affecting us. If left unchallenged, capitalism will destroy our environment leaving it uninhabitable for the human race. In order to ensure ever increasing profit, capitalism must attack the living standards of the working class and push the mass of people further and further into poverty. To make the needs of the majority central in the running of our world, and to stop the destruction of our ecosystem we need to fight for a socialist future where the huge wealth, resources and technology that exist will be used to benefit all.



More articles on the Environment from the SP archives are available here.

This article is from the Spring 2006 edition of Socialist View.

The contents list for this issue is here, with the back issues here.