The wildfire that wiped out Paradise, California.
The wildfire that wiped out Paradise, California, viewed from space. At last count, there were 88 confirmed dead, 296 missing, The fire destroyed 13,972 homes, 528 commercial buildings and 4,293 other structures. (NASA)

An Ecosocialist Path to Limiting Global Temperature Rise to 1.5°C

An emergency plan to meet the climate emergency and “do what the science demands before it’s too late.”  This is an abridged version of a paper that appeared in a special issue of the Real-World Economics Review.

I. The IPCC Report “Global Warming of 1.5°C” and the imperative to immediately suppress fossil fuel production

The much-awaited report from the UN’s top climate science panel describes the enormous gap between where we are and where we need to be to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. The 2015 Paris climate accord committed industrial nations to reduce their emissions sufficient to keep global temperatures within a 2°C rise over pre-industrial levels. In the final accord, highly vulnerable island nations and faith communities represented at the UN pressed the authors to include the 1.5°C limit as an aspirational target in the final draft of the accord with 2°C as the backup target.

Soaring GHG emissions over the past five years, rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, ice-cap retreats, intensified storms, forest fires above the Arctic circle, and die-offs of the world’s coral reefs have all raised concerns about what even a little bit more warming would bring. Parts of the planet including the Arctic and many inland areas, have already warmed beyond 1.5°C. California is on fire most of the year. The worst hurricanes are twice as severe (more precipitation, slower passage, greater wind speeds) than they used to be. And this is just a start. Rapid climate breakdown is one reason why climate scientists now think that the goal just five years ago of limiting warming to 2°C “increasingly seems disastrous in this context.”[1] The Paris pledges were never sufficient even to keep warming below 3°C let alone 2°C. Few of the signatories have even managed to meet the low bars they set for themselves. The world’s largest countries including China, the U.S., and Canada have us on track to a 4-5°C warming. As CO2 concentrations continue growing, preventing runaway warming is going to require ever deeper, truly draconian cuts in emissions, which will mean great economic disruption. IPCC estimates already show us needing to achieve a near vertical drop in emissions in the early 2020s. Every day we delay getting off of fossil fuels increases the probability that we won’t be able to save ourselves.

The 2018 IPCC special report painted a stark portrait of how quickly the planet is heating up and called on governments to take immediate steps to suppress emissions:

“If emissions continue at current rate, atmosphere will warm by as much as 2.7° Fahrenheit, or 1.5° Celsius, above preindustrial levels by between 2030 and 2052. Further, warming is more extreme further inland of large water bodies. [To keep temperatures from rising beyond 1.5° degrees] anthropogenic CO2 emissions [must] decline by about 45% worldwide from 2010 levels by 2030 … [This] would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems … These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale … and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upswing in those options.”[2]

Preventing ecological collapse requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that “has no documented historic precedent.”[3] What would this take? Myles Allen, Oxford University climate scientist and an author of the report said “It’s telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime.” To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming “greenhouse emission must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and by 100 percent by 2050. Use of coal as electricity source would have to drop from 40 percent today to 1-7 percent by 2050.”[4] Drew Shindell of Duke University, another author of the report said: “It would be an enormous challenge to keep warming below a threshold of 1.5 degrees… What might that look like? In part, it would include things such as no more gas-powered vehicles, a phaseout of coal-fired power plants and airplanes running on biofuels,” he said. “It’s a drastic change,” he said. “These are huge, huge shifts… This would really be an unprecedented rate and magnitude of change.”[5]

In response to the report, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned world leaders to “Do what the science demands before it’s too late.[6]

II. Capitalist priority to growth and profits over people and planet

Given this unprecedented existential crisis one might expect governments would responsibly meet this climate emergency with emergency plans to prevent ecological collapse bold proposals for “deep emissions reductions in all sectors,” for “far-reaching transitions in energy, land, infrastructure, and manufacturing” and so on. After all, the 2018 IPCC 1.5°C report makes clear that on present trends we could be facing the collapse of agriculture in California, the Great Plains, India, China much of Africa, mass famine, submerging cities, destruction of the world’s last forests and worse, possibly as soon as 2040, well within the lifetimes of many leaders today and certainly their children’s and ours. On February 5th U.K. Met Office meteorologists warned that the climate is warming so fast that global temperatures could exceed 1.5°C, the lowest of the Paris targets set for the end of the century, in five years.[7]

What’s more, the solution to our climate crisis is astonishingly simple and doesn’t require any new tech breakthroughs. The first step is to stop doing what we’re doing: immediately begin shutting down fossil fuel production, stop new drilling, stop producing and registering fossil fuel-powered vehicles, drastically curb air travel, ration fossil fuels, curtail manufacturing and construction. The second step is to force through an immediate transition to renewable energy across the economy (and do what we can to enable this transition around the world).

A. Where are the bold proposals? 

Yet we hear no bold proposals to meet the challenge from any governments – not from European socialist parties, not from Canadians or Australians (the leading exporters of the world’s dirtiest fuels), certainly not from the Chinese (the world’s largest polluters),[8] let alone from the Trump administration. Trump’s response to his own government’s prediction of a 4°C warming by 2100 is “the planet’s fate is sealed” so we may as well abandon Obama’s federal fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks and “burn baby burn”.[9] To the extent we hear any proposals at all, it’s just renewed calls for more of the same carbon taxes, the same fantasy tech fixes like carbon capture and storage that have manifestly failed to staunch emissions to date.[10] Why is that?

The reason why no government dares take the obvious steps to save the humans is because no one has come up with a magic fix to suppress emissions without suppressing economic growth and profits. Given capitalism, economic growth and profit maximization must be systematically prioritized over all other considerations including emissions reduction or companies will fail, the economy will collapse, and mass unemployment will be the result: global warming may kill us in the long run but economic collapse will kill us in the short run. This is the ultimate contradiction of capitalism: We have to destroy our children’s tomorrows to hang onto our jobs today.

That’s why from the very first climate negotiations around the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s, all efforts to contain emissions have been subordinated to maintaining economic growth. Year after year, decade after decade, for 21 straight years to COP21 at Paris in 2015, UNFCC annual summit negotiations invariably collapsed in failure and acrimony. Despite the pleas of climate scientists, desperate submerging Pacific islanders, Africans, Indians and others who contribute few emissions but suffer disproportionately from global warming-induced drought and crop failures, no industrial nation has been willing to accept binding emissions limits because they all understand that caps would suppress economic growth. As George Bush Sr. infamously told the 1992 Climate summit, “The American way of life is not negotiable.” And if America will not accept binding emissions caps, why should China? Facing growing protests over their do-nothing annual summits, the only thing negotiators at Paris could agree on was to stop holding their embarrassing annual farces (henceforth they agreed to meet every five years instead) and contrive another “agreement” in which industrial countries pledged to reduce their emissions somewhat some day but are under no legal obligation to do so –prompting James Hansen, the world’s foremost climate scientist, to complain that 

“It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2°C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years’. It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned.”[11]

B. Halting global warming requires degrowth, substantial de-industrialization

If there’s no magic tech fix then phasing out fossil fuel consumption has to mean shutting down or at minimum, drastically retrenching companies, beginning with the fossil fuel producers like Peabody Energy (coal), Exxon Mobil, Chevron, but continuing down the petrochemical food chain through the fossil fuel dependent industries. After all, it’s easy to blame the fossil fuel companies for global CO2 emissions.[12] Environmental groups have focused too narrowly on fossil fuel producers, their pipelines and such, while ignoring the downstream industrial and personal consumers. Not to put too fine a point on it but the oil producers don’t burn the oil. We burn the oil producing, processing, transporting and refrigerating food, driving our cars, building our homes, heating and cooling our homes, manufacturing this and that, jetting off on vacations, and so on. Fossil fuels are pervasive. As this table shows, fossil fuel emissions are generated across the entire economy.

Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2018

Transportation  28%
Electricity   27%
Industry 22%
Commercial & Residential   12%
Agriculture 10%  

                                     

                                            

 

 

Source: EPA: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

III. FDR’s “command-and-control” economy that worked

If the U.S. government really wanted to suppress emissions it could simply ration fossil fuels like FDR did during WWII when he rationed private consumption to divert maximum supplies to the war effort. They could inaugurate a crash program to phase out fossil fuels. They could simply order America’s private companies to shut down private vehicle production and change their production output from fossil fuel vehicles to, say, electric cars, public transit, wind turbines, solar power plants, just as FDR ordered GM, Ford and other companies to stop producing private cars and start producing tanks, bombers, fighter planes, artillery, machine guns, ammunition, just as he ordered Packard to build fighter aircraft and PT boat engines, just as he ordered Chrysler to build diffusers to process uranium for atomic bombs. And so on. FDR’s virtual takeover of the commanding heights of American industry during WWII was tantamount to a temporary nationalization but his “command and control” was accepted by labor and capital and it succeeded – brilliantly – providing the industrial base to win the war.[13]

We would no doubt require the declaration of an emergency comparable to WWII to win the approval of Congress and the American people. The war against fascism certainly qualified as an emergency. Even so, fascism killed tens of millions but it did not threaten the extinction of life on earth. Global warming threatens extinction. Is saving the humans, not to mention the whales, less of an emergency than saving General Motors or Boeing or Apple? If Roosevelt could turn the economy on a dime to meet the emergency of WWII, why can’t we do the same today? If we don’t organize an emergency industrial shutdown and retrenchment of unnecessary production, superfluous manufacturing, superfluous electricity usage, wasteful over-consumption, nature is going to do it for us in a most unpleasant manner.

Yet today we can’t get a fair public debate on the need for state intervention in the economy because since the age of Thatcher and Reagan, Milton Friedman’s maxim “capitalism good, government bad” has been the reigning ideology of Republicans and Democrats, Tories and Labour alike. Since the 1980s Friedmanite economists and their Koch-funded think tanks have produced a relentless stream of propaganda “proving” that “command and control” or almost any “government intervention” is “bad” and “can’t work”.[14] Reagan told us businesses don’t want to be ordered about and told what to do like FDR did. They want to be “incentivized.” Since the 1980s Republicans and Democrats alike have steadily whittled away and gutted government regulation and control wherever possible,[15] clearing the way for Trump’s coup de grâce at the EPA this past year. In the process, their “market solutions”, like carbon taxes, have completely failed to staunch emissions.

IV. The ecosocialist path to 1.5°C sustainability

We ecosocialists have a practical answer. We accept the science that to prevent runaway global warming “greenhouse emission must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and by 100 percent by 2050.” We agree with the IPCC that this will require “deep emissions reductions in all sectors.” We agree that it will require “far-reaching transitions in energy, land, infrastructure, and manufacturing,” that it will require “systems transitions” (indeed, more than they imagine). And we understand that this must all be done at “unprecedented speed and scale.” “We understand that we desperately need to “do what the science demands before it’s too late”.[16]

But we also understand that imposing drastic cuts in fossil fuel production has to translate into industrial shutdowns and retrenchments across the economy. There is just no way around this. We reject the carbon-tax-to-collapse scenario. Instead, we propose a strategy of rationally planned, democratically managed, wind-down and phase-out of fossil fuels and a coordinated transition to renewable energy that avoids economic collapse and guarantees reemployment for the affected workers. Our strategy for the United States is based on a four-point:

EMERGENCY PLAN TO MEET THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:

1. Declare a State of Emergency to suppress fossil fuel use: ban all new extraction, ration gasoline, ban production of new fossil-fuel vehicles. Nationalize the fossil fuel industry to phase it out. We propose to do this by means of a government buyout at fair value (fair to both owners and society). Nationalize downstream fossil fuel industrial consumers from pipelines, refineries, distribution networks to autos, aviation, airlines, shipping, petrochemicals, some manufacturing, some tourism and others whose business is irreversibly based on fossil fuels and which without a government buyout would be bankrupted.

2. Institute a new federal Public Works Administration-style jobs program (on the model of the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Core and other programs set up under FDR) to re-employ every worker in the fossil fuel-related industries at equivalent pay and benefits in other useful but low-emission work. Those workers in coal, oil, plastics, toxic chemicals and so on, deserve jobs, just not the jobs they have now.

3. Launch an emergency state-directed program to phase-in renewable electric generation, replace fossil-fuel powered transportation with electric propulsion, discourage individually-owned vehicles, and encourage public transit, shared vehicles, bicycles and other non-fossil fuel modes of transportation.

4 Develop emergency plans to phase out wasteful, destructive and polluting industries from arms production to needless toxics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals etc, disposables like single-use plastics, designed-to-be obsolesced iPhones, cars etc., and useless inventions.[17] Develop emergency plans to shift from fossil-fuel dependent factory farms to fully-organic agriculture.

 

A. The argument for nationalization

If fossil fuel companies can’t reverse their suicidal growth-to-bust trajectory, then what alternative is there but to nationalize them, socialize them, put them under public ownership to phase them out?[18] We say to Democrats, Republicans, capitalists, and pro-fossil fuel trade unions too, “If you have a better strategy to save the planet, where is it?” As Juliana vs. United States (the Our Children’s Trust suit which is now working its way through the courts) contends, the federal government has a responsibility to preserve a habitable planet to maintain “life, liberty, property” for the next generations. The plaintiffs argue that preserving a habitable planet requires that the government immediately begin enforcing strict limits on CO2 emissions, immediately develop plans to phase out of fossil fuel production, and ban all further extraction (Section 7 p. 80ff).[19] Since the companies can’t put themselves out of business because they have a legal and fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, not to society, the only way to effect the phase-out of fossil fuels without precipitating economic collapse is for the government to nationalize the companies so we can dismantle them and redeploy their capital and labor with as little economic pain as possible.

That’s why I propose to nationalize them via federal buyouts. Many on the Left ask with justification, “why should we pay to buy out the fossil fuel capitalists who already have too much money and who after all, are directly responsible for global warming?” Indeed, some call for trying fossil fuel executives for crimes against humanity.[20] I’m all for that – but I’m for buying out the shareholders. For three reasons: First, as noted above, the oligarchs drill the oil but they don’t burn it, or much of it. We all bear responsibility for that. Second, roughly a quarter of fossil fuel stocks are held by pension funds, i.e. workers. Ecosocialists are not in the business of expropriating workers. Third, and most importantly, the timeframe: speed is of the essence. The Left does not have the power to expropriate the fossil fuel companies and we can’t afford to waste decades waging a class war we can’t win. With just a decade or so to suppress emissions by 50%, we need to make the transition as smooth and fast as possible. The path of least resistance is to buy out the corporations and the capitalists – a hostile buyout perhaps, but a buyout nonetheless.

Of course politicians will holler about the cost. The cost is significant but surprisingly affordable, a bargain actually. As of December 2018, the ten largest American oil and gas companies claimed a combined value in 2018 of $968.1 billion (Exxon Mobil is valued at $344.5 billion, Chevron $239 billion, ConocoPhilips $79.3, and the others from $68 to $33 billion).[21] The two major coal companies have trivial net worth (Peabody at $3.6 billion, Arch at $1.5 billion). But the IEA says that in truth, the world’s fossil fuel industries are worth a fraction of their claimed value because most of their assets – the oil and gas and coal in the ground – are fast becoming valueless “stranded assets” as electric utilities and vehicle manufacturers shift to renewable power and because of growing political pressure to “leave it in the ground.”[22] Given their looming existential profits crisis, the companies might actually welcome a buyout. But if society is to pay a fair price for those companies, their nominal retail value would have to be discounted by the harm their production has already done to people and planet. On any fair assessment, that would leave these companies owing the government, not the other way around. Yet even at their current retail value, just under a trillion dollars, by the standards of wasted U.S. expenditures, this is easily affordable. President Trump just gave away $2.3 trillion in tax cuts to the rich this year alone.[23] Just rescinding that inexcusable giveaway would cover the cost of nationalizing the entire fossil fuel producing industry and leave enough left over to buy out the bulk of America’s fossil fuel-burning industries as well including Boeing, the major airlines, the American auto industry, the worst polluting chemical industries, and leave billions to spare. Boeing’s net worth is $95 billion, the seven largest U.S. airlines have a combined market capitalization of $130 billion, the American auto industry, Ford, GM and Tesla (excluding Chrysler which was bought by Italy’s Fiat in 2011), has a combined value of $277 billion, the big dirty three of Dow-Dupont, Monsanto, and 3M combined are worth $225 billion. The government could buy all these companies, even without discounts for their social and environmental crimes, for a paltry $727 billion. Add in the bulk of private and shareholder-owned gas and electric utility sector, 20 companies with a combined market value of $557 billion, and the government could buy up all of America’s fossil fuel producers and the bulk of its fossil fuel-burners for $2.26 trillion and still have some change left after rescinding Trump’s tax giveaway to the rich.[24] In effect, we buy out the fossil fuel capitalists with their own money. What’s not to like about that – from the standpoint of the working class? 

As to the cost of replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewables, Stanford’s Professor Mark Jacobson estimates the capital cost of building renewable energy to supply electricity generation, heating, cooling, and power an all-electric ground transportation system at $9.5 trillion for the U.S. or $950 billion per year amortized over, say, the ten year conversion plan envisioned by the Green New Deal Resolution No. 109 now before the House of Representatives. That’s around a third more than our imperial war department spends ($686 billion for 2019) bombing and wrecking countries around the world.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that the Jacobson study also maintains that the “levelized cost of energy” (including upfront capital costs, fuel cost over time, operation and maintenance over time, and decommissioning cost) for a renewable energy powered system is about 90% less over the lifespan of the system than the fossil fuel-powered systems it would replace, meaning the capital costs would be offset for society by large savings in the day-to-day cost of energy (not to mention savings in healthcare, reduction in mortality and so on that would also accrue from a transition to renewables).[25]

Of course there are many ways to pay for this. We could rescind the dozens of other needless tax cuts and handouts to the rich since the days of Reagan. We could impose the fines on the banks that Obama and Trump failed to impose.[26] We could restore the progressive tax structure we use to have before Reagan as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has called for. We could impose wealth tax as in France as Sen. Warren has proposed, and so forth. We could gut the imperial war budget (around three-quarters of a trillion a year). According to the most recent study, by the end of 2019, the U.S. government will have spent a staggering $5.9 trillion on its illegal criminal wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria since September 11, 2001[27] – wars that were never fought for democracy and certainly not for defense since none of those countries attacked us but were, instead, imperial wars to protect “our” oil under “their” sand.[28] In short, there are many ways to pay for the transition from fossil fuels to renewables without massively indebting future generations.   

B. The argument for a new Public Works Administration-style jobs program

Under capitalism, closing and retrenching companies means throwing workers out on the street. We’re socialists. We don’t accept that. If capitalists won’t provide the jobs then it’s the government’s responsibility to do so. We face an existential threat to our survival and the only way to prevent collapse is to shut down the industrial emitters. It’s not the workers’ fault if the industries they work in need to be closed or cut back to save our children and theirs. They deserve jobs, different jobs, better jobs. If society is going to abolish their present jobs then it owes them new jobs with comparable pay and benefits. This is not only morally right as a “just transition” but it’s also the only way we can win the support of those workers in the struggle for the common good.

There’s no end of low-carbon work to be done, starting with the buildout of renewable energy. As Carla Skandier writes, “The good news is that the energy transition requires a lot of workers. An investment of US$ 200 billion annually in renewable energy and energy efficiency, as estimated by economist Robert Pollin and others, could create 4.2 million jobs in the US, a net gain of 2.7 million when jobs lost from the fossil fuel sector are counted.”[29] Beyond this we will need to create jobs in environmental restoration, infrastructure repair and upgrades, expansion of public transit, commuter biking, development of share-vehicle commuting, heating and environmental retrofitting, upgrading and improving our schools, expanding medical care, expanding services and facilities for our retired workforce, expansion of organic farming, and more. If private corporations can’t figure out how to make a profit doing these then society through our government must employ them – just as FDR’s New Deal public works programs of the 1930s built tens of thousands of projects – dams, electric utilities, airports, highway systems, bridges, tunnels, new railways, gorgeous train stations, glorious city halls and post offices, incredibly beautiful parks, beautiful public schools, modern hospitals, public universities and more.[30] FDR’s construction programs built the bulk of this country’s national infrastructure that we still rely on today. And if in the midst of the Great Depression, the government could afford to provide full-time government-funded jobs for tens of millions of workers from 1933 through the 1940s, becoming the nation’s largest employer by far, our immensely wealthier society and government can easily afford to re-employ the millions of workers from the fossil fuel-based industries to construct a permanently sustainable economy.

C. The imperative of economic planning and democratic management 

After they wrecked the economy and plunged us into the Great Depression in 1929, America’s capitalists couldn’t pull themselves together to restore economic growth. In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning on a state-interventionist, help-the-poor “NewDeal,” won a landslide victory over “do-nothing” Herbert Hoover who was deservedly blamed for letting the Depression get as bad as it did and reviled for his failure to intervene to rescue the economy and the citizenry. Over the next decade President Roosevelt turned the government into the biggest economic engine and the biggest employer in U.S. history, creating a state-directed capitalism, organizing a powerful state planning apparatus, setting up federal employment programs, and superintending construction of the country’s first basic social safety net  – transformations that handed him three more landslide victories in 1936, 1940, and 1944. Roosevelt and Congress established the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB) in 1933 to organize public works programs to put people back to work, revive the economy, and modernize our infrastructure. This was the first and so far only national planning agency in U.S. history. It evolved from public works planning to broader social and economic planning and then to mobilize and direct resources for the war effort. Regional planning groups were created in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Most states established planning agencies while planning boards emerged in many cities. Capitalist ideological hostility to economic planning per se – they couldn’t stand the threat of a good example – eventually forced Congress to abolish the national board in 1943. But NPRB legacies included wartime and postwar planning, the first version of the G.I. Bill of Rights, the Second (Economic) Bill of Rights (a manifesto for postwar liberalism), an institutionalized policy planning process via the Council of Economic Advisors, and the annual federal budget process established by the Employment Act of 1946.[31]

The climate emergency, the existential crisis we face is to say the least, far more dire and urgent than the Great Depression. And here again, capitalism has no solution to the crisis it created because the capitalist solution to everything is the same growth that drove us to this precipice in the first place. That’s why we argue that the only way to brake the drive to collapse is to socialize the commanding heights of the economy. We don’t need to nationalize the entire economy. Small producers, worker co-ops, family farmers, mom & pop shops, restaurants and so on are not killing the planet. Large corporations are killing the planet. They can’t help themselves. To preserve a habitable world we need to take them under public ownership so we can abolish the harmful companies and rationalize, reprioritize and restructure production to create a permanently sustainable, if somewhat less industrialized, economy.

D. The imperative of system change to brake climate change

It’s perhaps conceivable, taking FDR’s war-emergency industrial reordering as a precedent, that the three-point plan just described for fossil fuels buyout-nationalization, state-directed transition to renewables, and creation of a large federal jobs program, could be enacted within the framework of capitalism, though the result would be a largely state-owned economy. Roosevelt created his state-directed capitalism with only modest, if latent and increasing ruling class resistance because, first, he revived a broken capitalism from the depths of the worst depression in history and saved it from communism, secondly, he never needed to actually nationalize the industries he effectively took over because he was paying their owners handsomely to expand and grow their companies, if by producing different products, and thirdly, this was all just a temporary encumbrance, limited to the duration of World War II. 

We face the opposite problem: we face a booming capitalist economy at the top of its form with a powerful entrenched ruling class in full command of their economy and their state. What’s more, we need to nationalize industries not to grow them but to phase many of them out, retrench others, and transform some like GM from an automaker into, say, a wind-turbine maker or a train manufacturer, and permanently. Given the “unprecedented scale” of the problems we face, given the “far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure … and industrial systems” we need to make, and given the speed with which we need to make these changes, it’s difficult to imagine how this could be done within the framework of any capitalism. Private ownership of the means of production, profit maximization, and market competition have been the leading drivers of global ecological collapse and pose the main barrier to the rational re-organization, restructuring and reprioritization of the economy we need to make to save the humans. The depth and urgency of our climate crisis cries out for something like an immediate transition to ecosocialism. We don’t have many decades left before it’s too late to bother trying.

The IPCC climate scientists tell us we have just a dozen years or so to rein in our growth-to-bust economic system and come up with an effective pollution-suppression plan and mechanisms to staunch CO2 emissions. Ocean scientists tell us we need a “Five-Year Plan” to save the oceans.[32] We need global plans to save the oceans, save the forests, save species from going extinct.[33] This requires generalized large-scale economic planning. These problems can’t be solved by private corporations competing in an anarchic market.[34] Saving the world requires the sort of large-scale economic planning that only governments can do. We need to replace market anarchy with rational planning and management of a mostly, though not necessarily entirely, publicly-owned economy.[35]

E. Planning for the common good requires democracy and equity

Rational planning requires democracy. Polls show that 69% of Americans (85% of those ages 18-29), 71% of Chinese, 87% of Europeans, nine-in-ten Ugandans, Tanzanians, South Koreans, Chileans, and Brazilians want binding limits imposed on CO2 emissions.[36] Corporations don’t want binding limits. Well, why don’t we get to vote on such questions? We don’t need to be experts. Corporate boards aren’t composed of experts. They’re composed of major investors and politically influential VIPs who solicit experts to advise them, then vote to decide what they want to produce and sell, and hire engineers to figure out how to get it done. Why can’t society do the same – but in the interest of the common good? We need to establish democratic institutions to plan and manage our social economy — planning boards at local, regional, national and international levels. We have plenty of examples from the Paris Commune to Polish Solidarity in 1980. We have the example of FDR’s National Resources Planning Board – established by an elected president and congress. And as Greg Palast and co-authors describe in their book on regulation of public utilities, we have a working prototype right now: 

“Unique in the world … every aspect of US regulation is wide open to the public. There are no secret meetings, no secret documents, individuals, industrial customers, government agencies, consumer groups, trade unions, the utility itself, even its competitors. Any and all citizens and groups are invited to take part: Everyone affected by the outcome has a right to make their case openly… In public forums, open to all citizens, the principles of social dialogue and transparency come to life. It is an extraordinary exercise in democracy – and it works.”[37]  

We see no reason why this cannot be scaled up to the whole economy. If the major U.S. political parties offer no solution to the climate crisis, if they abdicate their responsibility to preserve a habitable planet for our children, then it’s up to the American left to provide vision and leadership in this struggle – and right now that looks to be the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am a proud member). As Maria Swart wrote to members on October 23rd

“Limiting global warming below 2 degrees is going to take a monumental mobilization of people from all walks of life, demanding that our lives matter more than corporate interests. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have risen to the task of leading this effort. In the absence of their political leadership, we must rise to the occasion.”

V. From FDR to AOC: the Green New Deal

Congressional Representative-elect (D. New York) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC), the whip-smart self-confident 28 year-old DSA-er who won office on the Democratic ticket, rose to the occasion, drafting a proposed Plan published in early November for a Green New Deal she put before Congress in January 2019. The Plan called for the achievement within 10 years from start of execution the following:[38]

  1. 100% of national power generation from renewable sources,
  2. building a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid,
  3. upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety,
  4. decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries,
  5. decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure,
  6. funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases,
  7. making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to a completely carbon neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.

AOC’s Green New Deal does not stop with decarbonization. She writes that

“The Plan … shall recognize that a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation. In furtherance of the foregoing, the Plan (and draft legislation) shall: 

  1. provide all members of our society, across all regions and all communities, the opportunity, training and education to be a full and equal participant in the transition, including through a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one;
  2. take into account and be responsive to the historical and present-day experiences of low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, rural and urban communities and the front-line communities most affected by climate change, pollution and other environmental harm;
  3. mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth (including, without limitation, ensuring that federal and other investment will be equitably distributed to historically impoverished, low income, deindustrialized or other marginalized communities);
  4. include additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs and any others as the select committee may deem appropriate to promote economic security, labor market flexibility and entrepreneurism; and
  5. deeply involve national and local labor unions to take a leadership role in the process of job training and worker deployment.”

1. What’s said and what’s not said

To be sure, the process of “decarbonization” outlined above is abstract, lacks specifics, and is far from fully worked out. Most obviously, it’s hard to imagine how the government could decarbonize fossil-fuel producers and industrial consumers without taking them into public hands. What’s not said is that decarbonization has to translate into shutdowns and retrenchments of actual companies. How does one decarbonize ExxonMobil or Chevron or Peabody Coal? To decarbonize them is to bankrupt them. Further, the same is true for many downstream industrial consumers like Boeing, United Airlines, Duke Energy, Dow Chemical, Dupont, General Motors and others. These companies live and breathe fossil fuels. Someday there may be electric airliners but not in the foreseeable future. And it’s the near term, the next decades that are the most critical. Given the imperative need to radically suppress CO2 emissions from aviation, the only way to do that in the here and now is to drastically reduce flying and thus aircraft production: ground many if not most planes, and ration flying, reduce or eliminate most air freight. But there is no mention of shutdowns, retrenchments, buyouts or nationalization. That will need to be addressed if the GND Plan is to move from the abstract to the concrete. 

Perhaps the biggest weakness of AOC’s GND from an ecosocialist perspective is that it’s not based on the fundamental understanding that an infinitely growing economy is no longer possible on a finite planet. There’s no acknowledgement of the imperative need to “de-grow” the overproducing overconsuming economies of the industrial North including China. There’s no acknowledgement of the imperative need to abolish entire unsustainable industries from bottled water to toxic pesticides to disposables to arms manufactures and many others. This too is going to have to be addressed if the GND aspires to create a truly sustainable economy.  

2. “Decarbonization”: a self-radicalizing transitional demand

And yet, the audacity and breadth of the technical and socio-economic transformations here envisioned call to mind nothing so much as the economic and social revolution that FDR’s New Deal brought about (albeit within the framework of capitalism), and goes beyond him in some respects. Occasio-Cortez may be just 28 but she is a bold, feminist, anti-racist, and socialist-inspired successor to FDR. With this Green New Deal she’s taking the global warming discussion to a new level, changing the conversation and challenging the political economy. She’s not calling for cap and trade or carbon taxes or divestment or any other “market solutions”. She’s issuing a full-throated call for “decarbonization”, in effect throwing the gauntlet down to capitalism and challenging the system because, as we know, there is no way to decarbonize an economy based on endless growth, endless resource consumption, and thus inevitably, endless pollution and CO2 emissions. Thus the push for decarbonization must inevitably raise the question of nationalization because, how else can government enforce the retrenchments and shutdowns needed to save the planet without precipitating economic collapse? The nationalization of the coal and oil producers, the obvious first targets, would in turn raise the question of what to do about all the industries that are based on fossil fuels – autos, aviation, petrochemicals, plastics, construction, synthetics, manufacturing, shipping, tourism, and so on. And consideration of how to decarbonize those industries would in turn raise larger questions about what society should or shouldn’t produce, and who should decide such questions – private companies or society as a whole through democratic processes. Thus as I see it, the push for decarbonization is simultaneously a push for an increasingly radical democratization and that in turn could open the way to a transition to some form of ecosocialism – because at the end of the day, that’s the only way to reconcile the jobs vs. environment dilemma.

3. Government good, capitalists not so much

AOC’s Plan pushes us in that direction even though it’s situated entirely within the framework of capitalism. Firstly, her Plan is a definitive break with the Reagan-Thatcher-Friedman doctrine that “capitalism good, government bad,” that the best role for government is to “get out of the way and just incentivize the private sector” that has been the religious dogma of the ruling class and its puppets in congress since the 1980s. Instead, the Plan calls for robust expansive government to drive the needed changes, for two reasons: (1) scale and (2) time: No. 1: “The level of investment required will be massive. Even if all the billionaires and companies came together and were willing to pour all the resources at their disposal into this investment, the aggregate value of the investments they could make would not be sufficient.” Besides, “private companies are wary of making massive investments in unproven research and technologies; the government, however, has the time horizon to be able to patiently make investments in new tech and R&D, without necessarily having a commercial outcome or application in mind at the time of the investment.”

No. 2: “The speed of investment required will be massive. Even if all the billionaires and companies could make the investments required, they would not be able to pull together a coordinated response in the narrow window of time require to jump-start major new projects and major new sectors.”

AOC explicitly rejects the Reaganite claim of the superiority of the private sector and the efficacy of incentives:

“We’ve also seen that merely incentivizing the private sector doesn’t work – e.g. the tax incentives and subsidies given to wind and solar projects have been a valuable spur to growth in the US renewables industry but, even with such investment-promotion subsidies, the present level of such projects is simply inadequate to transition to a fully carbon neutral economy as quickly as needed… we’re not saying there isn’t a role for private sector investments; we’re just saying that the level of investment required will need every actor to pitch in and that the government is best placed to be the prime mover.”

4. There is no Plan B

Secondly, AOC makes a powerful and explicit case for state planning: She calls for a new Select Committee “with a 360° view” to serve the specific function of “examin[ing] emerging issues that do not fit clearly within existing standing committee jurisdictions or cut across jurisdictional boundaries.” The Select Committee requires “a mandate to develop a plan for the transformation of our economy to become carbon neutral.” Having its own Select Committee

“ensures constant focus on climate change as the standing committee deals with that and many other issues of the day – such as wild fires in California, infrastructure, clean water issues, etc. First, they would put together the overall plan for a Green New Deal – they would have a year to get the plan together, with the plan to be completed by January 1, 2020. The plan itself could be in the form of a report or several reports. Second, they would also put together the draft legislation that actually implements the plan.”

Her request for a new Select Committee was shot down but this is only the beginning of a long battle.

This is not yet FDR’s Planning Board, nor as presently envisioned would it have the power to nationalize industries, nor is it clear that it would even have the power to order companies to stop producing, say, cars, and shift to producing wind turbines à la FDR. But as the environmental crisis deepens, as it becomes more and more urgent to effect radical change, fast, it will soon become apparent that nationalization with buyouts is the only way to force the pace of decarbonization and reallocate capital and labor to the sustainable projects we need. Of course all this sounds wildly utopian at the moment and this Plan is sure to go nowhere under Trump and the Republican Senate. But it won’t seem so extreme in a few years as the Western states burn up, as Florida sinks under the waves, as food production across the Great Plains and California begins to collapse, as temperatures reach Saharan levels in the Southwest – and as people everywhere look for government to “do what the science demands before it’s too late.”  There is no Planet B. Let’s hope with a developing vision and that monumental mobilization around this Green New Deal we can derail that dystopia and build an ecosocialist civilization to save the human race.



[1] Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, “Climate scientists are struggling to find the right words for very bad news,” Washington Post, October 3, 2018: https://www.washingtonpost.com/energy-environment/2018/10/03/climate-scientists-are-struggling-find-right-words-very-bad-news/?utm_term=.7507997aa8fe&wpisrc=nl_green&wpmm=1.

[2] IPCC, “Global Warming of 1.5°”(October 7, 2018): http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_headline_statements.pdf.

Note, the subsequent 9th UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2018 states up to a 55% cut over the time line:

“In contrast, global GHG emissions in 2030 need
to be approximately 25 percent and 55 percent lower than in 2017 to put the world on a least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to 2°C and 1.5°C respectively” (UNEP, 2018: p. xv): https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2018.

[3] Ibid. Also Coral Davenport, “”Major report describes a strong risk of crisis as early as 2040,” New York Times, October 7, 2018.

[4] Davenport, “Major report” op cit.                                                                                         

[5] Mooney and Dennis, “Climate scientists struggling,” op cit.

[6] Somini Sengupta, “Projection on climate is ominous. Now what?” New York Times, October 10, 2018.

[7] Jonathan Watts, “Met Office: global warming could exceed 1.5C within five years,” Guardian, February 6, 2019:  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/06/met-office-global-warming-could-exceed-1-point-5-c-in-five-years.

[8] Jane Cai, “Northern China’s clear air get lost in the smog of the trade war,” South China Morning Post, November 15, 2018: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/2172956/northern-chinas-clean-air-targets-get-lost-smog-united-states.

[9]Juliet Eioperin et al., “Trump administration sees a 7-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100,” Washington Post, September 28, 2018: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-administration-sees-a-7-degree-rise-in-global-temperatures-by-2100/2018/09/27/b9c6fada-bb45-11e8-bdc0-90f81cc58c5d_story.html?utm_term=.ff9927f10914

[10] For example, Jim Snyder and Mark Drajem, “FutureGen’s demise means carbon capture for coal faces woes,” Bloomberg, February 5, 2015: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-05/futuregen-s-demise-shows-carbon-capture-for-coal-faces-long-road.

[11] Oliver Milman, “James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud’”, Guardian, December 12, 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/12/james-hansen-climate-change-paris-talks-fraud. And it was not just Hansen. The “Paris pledge” drew blistering condemnation from scientists around the world. See Tom Bawden, “COP21: Paris deal far too weak to prevent devastating climate change, academics warn,” Independent, January 8, 2016: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/cop21-paris-deal-far-too-weak-to-prevent-devastating-climate-change-academics-warn-a6803096.html.

[12] As does, for example, Tess Riley, “Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says,” Guardian, July 10, 2017.

[13] Arthur Herman, Freedom’s Forge (New York: Random House, 2012); A.J. Baime, The Arsenal of Democracy (Boston: Mariner, 2015).

[14] For a critique of this hypocrisy and nonsense see Richard Smith, “Six theses on saving the planet,” Next System Project, 2017: https://thenextsystem.org/six-theses-on-saving-the-planet, PDF pp. 20ff.

[15] For example, President Obama’s much-ballyhooed program to “double vehicle fuel efficiency by 2025” was a con job, custom designed to service Detroit’s desire to build humongous cars by including a gaping loophole based on “vehicle footprints” which let the Big Three and others build ginormous gas-hog trucks and SUVs – Sierras and Ticonderogas and Denalis and Armadas and Suburbans that get worse gas mileage that Cadillac land yachts of the 1950s – but still meet their “fleet mileage” targets (As I noted elsewhere, “Your typical 1955 Cadillac coupe DeVille got 12.9 mpg in city driving whereas your typical 2013 Cadillac Escalade gets 10 mpg in the city… and this is after six decades of Detroit’s fuel economy “’improvements’”: Green Capitalism: the God That Failed, p.131). Thus Obama let the industry push gas-hogs at the expense of gas-sippers while his “drill baby drill” program to frack the whole country conveniently supplied so much cheap gas that Americans all but abandoned small cars in favor of giant over-accessorized gas-hogs which have become the biggest sellers. In result, U.S. vehicle fleet mileage actually declined under Obama. Brilliant. Worse, it “incentivized” Detroit to abandon producing actual cars altogether. By spring 2018, Detroit auto companies announced they would stop producing economical small cars to focus on producing their profitable luxury hogs. So much for “win-win” market solutions. Roger Ferris, “The steadily disappearing American car,” CNBC News, April 6, 2018: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/06/the-steadily-disappearing-american-car.html.

[16] See the extensive discussions of this topic at http://systemchangenotclimatechange.org.

[17] “Alexa has 80,000 skills and none you need,” Bloomberg Business, March 18, 2019, pp. 22-23.

[18] I’m hardly alone here. Others have also argued for nationalization to phase-out fossil fuels. See Carla Skandier, “Nationalize the fossil fuel industry,” In These Times, November 17, 2017: http://inthesetimes.com/article/20700/nationalize-the-fossil-fuels-industry-carbon?mc_cid=117a3e6cbd&mc_eid=e653bfe46a; and “Quantitative easing for the planet,” The Next System Project, August 30, 2018: https://thenextsystem.org/learn/stories/quantitative-easing-planet. Also Peter Gowan, “A plan to nationalize fossil fuel companies,” Jacobin, March 2018: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/03/nationalize-fossil-fuel-companies-climate-change.

whereas Gowan looks to hiring freezes, voluntary redundancies, and welfare state and union-run retraining schemes “to smooth out the transition as much as possible,” I argue for iron-clad government-funded job guarantees at comparable pay and benefits for laid off fossil fuel workers. Given the need for immediate and rapid shutdowns and retrenchments, nothing less than this has a chance of winning worker support in those industries. Thirdly, this plan insists on a parallel and coordinated emergency phase-in of renewables to replace the industries we need to phase out. Fourthly, this plan calls for transitioning to broad democratic planning. 

[19] Our Children’s Trust, Juliana v. United States, Youth Climate Lawsuit: https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/juliana-v-us.

[20] Kate Aronoff, “It’s time to try fossil-fuel executives for crimes against humanity,” Jacobin, February 5, 2019: https://jacobinmag.com/2019/02/fossil-fuels-climate-change-crimes-against-humanity.

[22] Julian Ambrose, “IEA warns $1.3 trillion of oil and gas could be left stranded,” Telegraph, March 20, 2017.

[23] David Rogers, “POLITICO analysis:  At $2.3 trillion cost, Trump tax cuts leave big gap,” POLITICO, February 28, 2018: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/02/28/tax-cuts-trump-gop-analysis-430781.

[25] Jacobson et al., “Matching demand with supply at low cost in 139 countries among 20 world regions with 100% intermittent wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) for all purposes,” Renewable Energy, 123 (2018), Table 4, Case C (with heat pumps), p. 245:  https://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/CombiningRenew/WorldGridIntegration.pdf Table 4 does not break out the capital cost for the U.S. from North America. But Jacobson says that “The capital cost for the U.S. + Canada is $11.3 trillion. The U.S. is 84% of this, or $9.5 trillion.” (personal communication, 2/25/18). 

House Resolution 109: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/109/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22congressId%3A116+AND+billStatus%3A%5C%22Introduced%5C%22%22%5D%7D&r=80&s=1.

[26] Ben Protess et al., “Trump administration spares corporate wrongdoers billions in penalties,” New York Times, November 3, 2018.

[27] Neta C.Crawford, “US Budgetary Costs of the Post-9/11Wars through 2019: $5.9 Trillion Spent and Obligated,” Watson Institute: Boston University, November 4, 2018:  https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Crawford_Costs%20of%20War%20Estimates%20Through%20FY2019%20.pdf.

[28] Though in truth, money saved here should first be paid out in reparations for the hundreds of thousands of people the U.S. military murdered and the countries we’ve wrecked.

[29] “Quantitative easing,” op cit.

[30] Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (New York: Bantam, 2008). Joseph Maresca, WPA Buildings: Architecture and Art of the New Deal (Atglen, PA: Schiffler Publishing Ltd., 2016).

[31] Marion Clawson, New Deal Planning: The National Resources Planning Board (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981). Jess Gilbert, Planning Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

[32] Jenna Iacurci, “Report Calls for Five-year Plan to Save World’s Over-fished Oceans,” Nature

World News, June 24, 2014: http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/7735/20140624/reportcalls-for-five-year-plan-to-save-worlds-over-fished-oceans.htm.

[33] Damian Carrington, “Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds,” Guardian, October 29, 2018.

[34] Richard Smith, “How did the common good become a bad idea? The eco-suicidal economics of Adam Smith,” in idem, Green Capitalism op. cit.

[35] Smith, “Six theses,” op cit.

[36] Yale University, “Americans support limits on CO2,” May 28, 2014: http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-support-limits-on-co2/. Bruce Stokes et al./Pew Global, “Public support for action on climate change,” Pew Research Center, November 2015: http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/11/05/2-public-support-for-action-on-climate-change/.

[37]Greg Palast, Jerold Oppenheim, and Theo MacGregor, Democracy and Regulation: How the Public can Govern Essential Services (London: Pluto Press, 2003), pp. 1-4. 

[38] Select Committee for a Green New Deal (November 2018): https://ocasio2018.com/green-new-deal.

 


Richard Smith is a co-founder of System Change Not Climate Change.
 

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