How Can We Prevent Climate Catastrophe?
It’s not hyperbole to say that the accelerating climate emergency, which is getting closer to spiraling out of control, is the most serious crisis that humanity has faced in its entire history. Two reports came out at the end of 2018 that ought to have put aside any doubt that we are facing an existential crisis that threatens the continued survival of advanced human societies and possibly even our continued existence as a species.
The first report was issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October.1 The IPCC was set up by the UN to provide an overall assessment of the state of scientific knowledge about the climate and to make broad policy recommendations. It consists of climate experts, but because most of its members are appointed by governments, and because it must issue reports acceptable to those governments, it has tended to make the most conservative assumptions about what is happening to the climate. The IPCC predictions for how rapidly climate change would develop have consistently proved to be too optimistic.2 So when the IPCC reports we have twelve years to get carbon emissions under control or we are going to face a climate catastrophe, this is not some wild worst-case scenario—it is the sober assessment of an extremely cautious body. If the IPCC concludes that we are in serious trouble, we are almost certainly in even greater trouble than it says.3
For anyone who hasn’t being paying attention, the twelve-year deadline may be startling, but it is based on a new scientific consensus that global warming must be kept to 1.5°C above the average pre-industrial global surface temperature to keep the consequences within manageable proportions. Since the 1980s, 2°C has been the widely accepted goal, and it was the target adopted by nearly every government on the planet at the Paris climate talks in late 2015. But even in Paris there were governments and climate researchers saying that the goal should be 1.5°C.
Earth’s average surface temperature has already increased by about 1°C since the pre-industrial period in the eighteenth century. But even with one degree of warming we’re seeing major climate disruptions: the polar ice caps are melting, and some areas are experiencing severe and prolonged drought, creating the conditions for events like the devastating and unprecedented wildfires in California last year. We are experiencing more and longer heat waves. Hurricanes are getting more intense as a result of an increase in ocean surface temperature. There are record floods, soil loss, and coastal erosion. Ocean acidification is increasing because more carbon dioxide is being absorbed. The world’s coral reefs are beginning to die. And the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history has begun.
With an additional degree of warming the consequences will get far worse, including major disruptions to agriculture and food supplies. This is why the IPCC says we now have to keep warming to 1.5°C.4
But in order to meet that target, we have to stop emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. More precisely, according to the IPCC, global net carbon emissions need to be zero by 2050, which requiring a 45 percent reduction in net carbon emissions by 2030. Even if we (meaning human societies across the globe) began working toward that goal today, it would be a steep hill to climb. But at the moment, we’re moving in the wrong direction. Global carbon emissions rose in 2017 and increased to an all-time high in 2018.
A second major study came out in November 2018—the US National Climate Assessment, a report mandated by Congress that the Trump administration tried to bury by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving. But the findings of the report were too dramatic to be ignored. The report concludes that “neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the US economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”5 If current trends continue, we’re on track not for 1.5°C of warming, but for 5°C or more by the end of the century. The cost to the US economy would be enormous, but the consequences for large parts of the Global South would be even more devastating.
Without any question, our species is in dire straits. For the last 12,000 years, humans have been living in the Holocene epoch, characterized by very small fluctuations in overall global temperatures. This is the environment in which settled agriculture and human civilization developed. We are now pushing the climate system out of this relatively stable set of parameters. Some geologists now say we have already moved from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, in which the biggest impact on the earth’s ecosystems is the result of human activity. The consequences are already so dramatic that some environmentalists are saying that it is too late to prevent climate catastrophe. A report in Britain’s Observer newspaper last December was headlined, "Portrait of a Planet on the Verge of Climate Catastrophe."7 The following day, Truthout published an article by Dar Jamail, who has reported extensively on climate disruption, in which he announced, “I have . . . surrendered and accepted the inevitability of our situation: that we will live the rest of our time, however long each of us might have left, on an irrevocably changed planet, while the Sixth Mass Extinction event continues apace. We will daily walk further into that frontier.”8 The next day the Washington Post es to reduce the spheadlined “‘A Kind of Dark Realism’: Why the Climate Change Problem is Starting to Look Too Big to Solve.”9
It is easy to see where the despair comes from. We need to be rapidly reducing carbon emissions, but instead they are rising. And the response of Trump, his administration, and virtually the entire Republican Party has been to reject the reports and the overwhelming scientific consensus, and to accelerate the development, use, and export of fossil fuels. Trump is withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, continuing as if nothing important is happening. He says he has a feel for these issues and his gut tells him that the reports are wrong. In November, he tweeted that cold weather refuted global warming.10
How it is possible for the dominant faction of the ruling class in the world’s biggest economy to succumb in this way to complete irrationalism? Suffice it to say here that in periods of severe crisis, anti-scientific and irrational ideas can spread among all classes of society. If we add to this the dominance of fossil capital in the economy (with powerful economic interest to protect its investments and future profits), the ground is fertile for the dissemination of various brands of climate denialism.
Meanwhile, the rise of the far right around the world—whether of the populist or neo-fascist variety—has created a major new problem for anyone who wants to avoid climate disaster. While Trump encourages increased production of fossil fuels in the United States, the newly elected neo-fascist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro (another climate change denier) is promising to increase logging in his country’s Amazon rain forests, the world’s biggest land-based carbon sink. In India, the far-right BJP government has encouraged a sharp increase in the use of coal—one of the reasons why global carbon emissions increased over the past two years.
But it isn’t just the far right that is the problem. The Paris climate accord was itself totally inadequate.11 Even if every country was on target for meeting its voluntary goals in reducing emissions (which they are not), we would still be heading toward at warming of at least 3°C by the end of the century. Even Germany, which has greatly increased its use of renewable energy sources over the past decade, continues to mine large quantities of coal for export.12
In the United States, the Democratic Party had virtually nothing to say about climate change during the last election.13 According to some environmentalists, Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, is bringing a water pistol to fight a forest fire. But it’s actually worse than that. While Democratic Party leaders favor the development of renewable energy sources, they have also been in the forefront of increasing production of fossil fuels. In 2018, the United States became the world’s biggest oil and natural gas producer. In November, Barack Obama spoke at Rice University and boasted that he was responsible for this: “American energy production, you wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president. And you know . . . suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer. . . . that was me, people.”14 While Obama’s official position was that the United States should reduce its use of fossil fuels, in his 2013 State of the Union address he advocated an “all-of-the-above” energy plan that would “keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.” In 2015 he signed legislation lifting a forty-year ban on oil exports. The reality is that the Democrats are coming to the forest fire with a water pistol in one hand and a can of gasoline in the other.
Climate and capitalism
That is all depressing. But there is one piece of good news: headlines that say we are past the point of no return are not true. There are no insuperable technological barriers to doing what the IPCC calls for—reducing carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and eliminating them completely by 2050. What we have to do is stop using fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy sources.
A transition to 100 percent wind, water, and solar power for all purposes (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) could be achieved in the continental United States between 2050 and 2055,16 according to a study published in 2015 by a group of researchers at Stanford led by Mark Jacobson. They group followed that up with a 2017 report charting a path to 100 percent renewable energy in 139 countries by 2050.17 While other researchers criticized the earlier Jacobson study, they did concede that 80 percent of energy needs could be fulfilled by renewables by 2050.18 Let’s accept that lower number. The Jacobson plan is based on replacing current energy use. But hand in hand with a transition to renewables, we need massive gains in efficiency and conservation.
The United States is by far the most wasteful user of energy on the planet. Energy consumption per capita in the US is double that in Western Europe. We could halve our energy consumption and still have a standard of living as good as the rest of the advanced capitalist world. One big reason for the difference is the US dependence on cars and trucks for transportation, rather than mass transit and high-speed trains. If we had a massive expansion of such options—powered, of course, by renewables—we could see a huge reduction in energy consumption in this country. And there are so many other steps that we could take, for example, constructing energy-efficient homes and buildings, or redesigning cities to reduce the sprawl that requires people travel long distances to get to work, shop, or do other things necessary to survive.19
But while the technical problems can be solved, there are enormous political and economic obstacles in the way. Reducing emissions will require reducing the size of the global economy, and that runs headlong into the way that capitalist economies are organized. The dynamic of capitalism is based on production for exchange, not for use. In capitalist economies, a small minority, driven by competition and the search for ever-greater profits, controls the means of production. The system imposes on individual capitalists a drive to accumulate, and this results in a focus on short-term gains that ignore the long-term effects of production, including its consequences for the natural environment. Here’s how Frederick Engels explained it:
As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character.20
The measure of success for capitalists is growth and accumulation. If any individual corporate executive tries to buck the trend, they will either be replaced, or their company will go out of business. Endless growth is built into the system. The problem is that endless growth is impossible on a finite planet. Sooner or later the process of accumulation will run into planetary boundaries. Not so long ago, many people believed that the boundaries were so far in the distance that it would be centuries or longer before we reached them. Some people still believe that. Unfortunately, they are wrong.
Capitalism has opened up what Marx called a “metabolic rift” between human societies and the rest of nature––a disruption between social systems and natural systems.21 The processes necessary to sustain capitalist society put it at odds with the natural world. As one commentator puts it:
The essential problem for the Earth—for us—is that there is a mismatch between the short timescales of markets and the political systems tied to them, and the much longer timescales that the Earth System needs to accommodate human activity. The climate crisis is upon us not because markets aren’t working well enough but because the market system is working too well in accelerating global energy and material cycles.”22
Since the industrial revolution, capitalism has been entwined with the extraction and use of fossil fuels. From the late eighteenth century coal was used to power steam engines, first for cotton mills, and then for railroads and coal-powered ships. From the late nineteenth century, after the invention of the internal combustion engine, oil became dominant. These innovations drove not just production, but also military expansion and war. After World War II, fossil fuels became an even more central component of the world capitalist economy. As Andreas Malm puts it, coal, oil, and gas are “utilized across the spectrum of commodity production as the material that sets it in physical motion.” Fossil fuels “have now become the general lever for surplus value production.”23
The size of the fossil fuel industry is mind-boggling––there is more capital invested in it than any other industry. The major oil and gas companies make tens of billions of profits each year, and the total value of existing fossil fuel and nuclear power infrastructure is somewhere in the region of $15 trillion to $20 trillion.24 Most of this infrastructure has decades of possible further use. But in order to solve the climate crisis, we need to shut it down almost immediately and invest in renewable energy systems based on solar, wind, and tidal power.
The people who own and profit from the existing system obviously won’t let that happen without a huge fight. That’s why they’ve been funding climate denialism for decades, both through sponsorship of think tanks and through large campaign contributions to right-wing politicians.25 That’s why oil corporations like Exxon and Shell, who knew about the threat of global warming as early as the 1970s, hid their research from the general public and adopted the strategy that the tobacco companies used for decades—deny, deny, deny.26 The tobacco companies ensured that millions of people died prematurely from smoking-related diseases. The oil companies have gone one further and put millions of species at risk.
A transition to an economy based on renewable, non-carbon fuels is physically quite possible, but it won’t happen while it is blocked by the petro-capitalists and their government supporters—from right-winger Donald Trump to liberal Justin Trudeau in Canada—who don’t want to give up the $50 trillion of known oil reserves still waiting to be extracted. The problem runs deep because the use of fossil fuels is so bound up with capitalism as it has historically developed, that it is no longer possible to separate the two. As the British Marxist Chris Harman put it:
High levels of carbon-based energy are central to virtually every productive and reproductive process within the system––not just to manufacturing industry, but to food production and distribution, the heating and functioning of office blocks, getting labor power to and from workplaces, providing it with what it needs to replenish itself and reproduce. To break with the oil-coal economy means a massive transformation of these structures, a profound reshaping of the forces of production and the immediate relations of production that flow out of them.27
Focusing on lifestyle changes or on so-called green consumption by individuals is essentially a waste of time. If we want to prevent environmental catastrophe, we have to organize to change the system.
Reasons to be cheerful?
Does that mean that we have to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a society based on workers’ control of production and sustainable development and in the next twelve years? As much as I would like to see that happen, I think it’s going to take longer than that. But the strategy of revolutionary socialists has always been to fight for immediate reforms while using those struggles as building blocks to create the kind of movement that can take on the whole system at some point in the future. That’s exactly the strategy that we need now.
We have to raise demands and be involved in grassroots struggles that can start shifting the economy away from fossil-fuel dependency as soon as possible. What is important to remember is that the form of the struggle matters just as much as its immediate goal. We want to mobilize the largest numbers of people possible. Radical change can only come about through the action of mass movements, and participation in mass movements changes the people who are involved in them. They begin to develop the skills and the confidence for society to be run on a truly democratic basis, which is the defining characteristic of genuine socialism.
How can we go about building that kind of movement? People are already beginning to move into action, and it is this that should give us some hope and inspiration. Immediately after last year’s mid-term elections, activists in the Sunrise Movement occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office in Washington to demand progressive climate action, supported by newly elected member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.28 The young people involved may have all kinds of mixed ideas. Some of them no doubt have illusions about what the Democratic Party is willing to do. But much more important than that is the fact that they took direct action. It is through involvement in struggle that people’s ideas begin to change as they come to see that tinkering with the system isn’t enough and that we need a much more thorough-going transformation.
Another exciting development last year was the emergence of Extinction Rebellion, which is committed to acts of mass civil disobedience in support of a radical climate agenda. In November, thousands of activists blocked no less than five of the bridges that cross the River Thames in London, leading to many arrests.29 Since then there have been other actions in the UK and other countries, including the United States.
We can also draw inspiration from Greta Thunberg, the fifteen-year-old student in Sweden who has been organizing weekly climate strikes outside her school. Her activism got her invited to speak at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 24 meetings in Poland last December. COP 24 was the gathering at which the world’s governments were supposed to sort out the details of the Paris climate agreement, but it was even more useless than earlier meetings, with representatives from the US and Poland advocating for the increased use of coal.30 This is what Thunberg told the assembled world dignitaries:
Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago . . . [O]ur political leaders have failed us, because we are facing an existential threat and there’s no time to continue down this road of madness . . .
[W]e can no longer save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed. . . . So, we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge.”31
There is also incredible inspiration to be drawn from the mass struggles against oil pipelines that have taken place in the US and Canada in the past few years, often led by Native American nations and organizations. Of course, these are all still small steps––they need to become part of a much bigger movement that can fight in a more unified way for its immediate demands. The ideas motivating those involved are mixed, to say the least. But this is the way that bigger movements start.
A crucial part of any movement that is capable of winning the kinds of changes we need is the organized working class. Workers not only can demonstrate in large numbers, but also they have the power to shut down sectors of the economy. It’s that power that gives us leverage against the entrenched economic and political privileges of the ruling class. One recent example of this power is the “Yellow Vest” movement in France, launched by truck drivers in opposition to a regressive fuel tax imposed by the Macron government. In the mainstream media, Macron was typically presented as the responsible leader who was simply trying to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. But this narrative was rejected not just by the “Yellow Vest” movement, but also by the vast majority of the French population, who gave the movement overwhelming support. They point out that Macron cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy before imposing a fuel tax that hurts workers and the poor. The movement raised a set of progressive demands through popular assemblies that it has organized, which of course include taxing the rich. French workers want the government to go after the big polluters instead of putting the burden on the backs of the poor. After weeks of protests, which turned into riots in Paris in November, the mayor of one district in the city announced, “We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Within twenty-four hours, the Macron government announced that it was suspending the fuel tax.32
What took place in France is an illustration of the incredible power that workers have if they are organized. The movement confronted both the government and the conservative trade union leadership. As the Marxist environmentalist Andreas Malm argues, an effective environmental movement “could learn a great deal from the methods and tactics of the gilets jaunes.”33 That’s why the demand for a Green New Deal that has been raised again recently by a handful of progressive Democrats is important. It makes clear that a transition away from fossil fuel use does not have to come at the expense of ordinary people. A Green New Deal means promoting an environmental agenda that offers well-paid jobs and fights against economic inequality. Some critics on the US left worry that the proposal is just a way to prop up capitalism. But it is not the content of the reform but the way it is fought for that will prove decisive. Reforms can be used to strengthen the existing system (as was the intent of the original New Deal in the 1930s), but they can also be used as a stepping to stone to press for more radical changes, provided that there is a movement powerful enough to do this.34
There are other demands that could and should be raised, including a huge expansion of mass transit and a state-of-the art high-speed-train network across the country. Demands like these begin to challenge the logic of the capitalist market and give the opportunity to build campaigns and movements that can go on to fight for more. The role of socialists is to participate in whatever struggles like this emerge, fighting for immediate victories, while making an argument about why we need to go much further with the goal of building an ecosocialist alternative to capitalism. None of this is going to be easy. But it is possible, and it offers an inspiring vision. Most importantly, if we don’t fight for this alternative, capitalism will surely take us over the climate cliff.
Phil Gasper is the editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books, 2005) and Imperialism and War: Classic Writings by V. I. Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin (Haymarket Books, 2017). He is the International Socialist Review's reviews editor, and writes a regular feature in the ISR entitled "Critical Thinking."