A new episode of Socialist Revolution Podcast is now on air:
Hello everyone, and welcome to Socialist Revolution Podcast! Today, we are going to talk about climate change, and the revolutionary Marxist position on how to adapt to it. In the final analysis, climate change is a product of capitalist exploitation and domination and the solution to this problem is intimately connected to the class struggle. This is a crisis that the working class didn’t create, but which only we as a class can resolve by taking control over society.
Hey everyone, my name is Jake Thorp, I am a contributing writer for Socialist Revolution magazine and a member of the International Marxist Tendency in Northern California. Every August or so, it’s common to see a particular newspaper clipping go viral, which was first published 109 years ago by the American Popular Mechanics magazine.
It says “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2 billion tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”
Today, just over a century later, CO2 emissions are around 37 billion tons a year. After falling sharply during the pandemic due to the general economic downturn, they’ve rebounded in the past year and are once again higher than ever.
Many now understand that human-made climate change is not limited to a simple rise in temperatures every summer, or milder winters—it’s thrown the entirety of humanity’s balance with our environment out of stability and poses a serious existential threat to society.
It has not taken hundreds of years: already, people around the world are suffering from climate change in the form of extreme weather: things like wildfires, storms, droughts, and tsunamis—these are all becoming a fact of life around the world. In addition, we have invasive plant and animal species that are ruining local habitats, along with diseases being introduced by pests and insects where they’ve never been seen before.
And of course, the resulting deaths, the intergenerational trauma and loss; the overwhelming majority of that suffering and uncertainty is falling onto the shoulders of the most vulnerable—the working class, poor, and oppressed of every country. We aren’t the ones who control the economy or who set the terms for its operation, but we are the ones made to pay for the impact it has on the environment.
So far, 2021 has shown the climate crisis on full display. Hurricane Ida left behind tens of billions of dollars in damages, with a death toll coming in at over a hundred, so far, across the US, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Of course, hurricanes are not anything new across the Atlantic. But already, it’s being acknowledged that the incredible rate at which Ida was able to intensify was due to conditions that are amplified by global warming, such as a warmer and more humid climate, particularly in the oceans. This is what allowed Ida to go from a tropical storm to a record-setting category 4 hurricane in less than 48 hours. It picked up steam in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before slamming into the Louisiana coast.
These waters are normally warm this time of year, but right now, they’re three to five degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average from 20 years ago. As is often the case with climate change, and really any system in which complex processes are layered on top of one another interdependently, this small quantitative shift in temperature produces enormous variance and qualitative effects on everything it interacts with.
It’s not just Ida that followed this pattern. Increasingly frequent and more intense storms have been the norm for every Hurricane season for the past 40 years. Research shows that greenhouse gas emissions have caused the ocean to warm faster in recent years than at any point since the end of the last ice age.
While flooding and power outages wrack the northeastern US, the West is burning up in wildfires and record heat waves, alongside an ongoing drought. Every year wildfire smoke has been choking up the air across the region. At various times during the last few wildfire seasons, the air quality has gotten to be the worst on the planet.
And of course, these are just a few examples of the climate catastrophe within the US. But every continent has faced much the same or worse in the last year, with wildfires in the Amazon and in Greece, earthquakes and floods in Haiti, and beyond. All in all, it’s estimated that a person is now 5 times more likely to experience a deadly climate-driven disaster compared to 50 years ago.
To make matters worse, there are now indications that the Gulf Stream could be collapsing. The Gulf Stream is a vital undersea current that basically provides thermoregulation and stability for the entire Atlantic Ocean. This current is essential in regulating global weather systems.
If it were to collapse, it would mean an almost incomprehensible loss of resources and stability for society. There would be a dramatic rise in sea levels across the Atlantic. The hurricane season would get longer and more intense across the entire northern hemisphere. This would also mean a loss of rainfall and disruption for billions of people who rely on it to grow food in Africa, South America, and much of Southeast Asia. Such a significant drop in food production would absolutely lead to horrific famine, on top of mass displacement and more regular destructive weather events.
All of this is to say that climate change is unfolding right in front of us, and is giving us just a taste of the future in store for humanity if things continue the way they are.
The problem is that we live in a society in which the needs of the majority are not the primary motive for economic activity and the appropriation of resources. Instead we live under capitalism, a system where in spite of the enormous potential of the wealth created in socialized production, that wealth is privately appropriated, and where the incentive for investment must always be for the sake of profit.
We are not “all in this together”
The governments of the world reflect this “inconvenient truth”—that they are ultimately the custodians of capitalism, and won’t transgress beyond its limits in their proposals to address climate change.
The Paris Accords of 2015, where governments around the world gathered to discuss the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, resulted in a non-binding agreement between national governments who agreed to set their own limits upon emissions. In reality, emissions would need to be curtailed by up to 80% more than the stated goals of each country to have a chance at keeping warming below catastrophic levels.
Nonetheless, the media heaped praise on the signatories at the time. In press coverage, heads of state were beaming with pride at having established what was lauded as the first real international effort at curbing global emissions.
Fast-forward 6 years later. Between the pandemic, the global recession of 2020, political instability and social upheaval around the world, all of the important signatories have completely abandoned even the modest goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
This fact expresses what Marxists have understood from the beginning—in a world divided between nation-states competing in cut-throat market competition on a world scale, meaningful international cooperation against a problem on the scale of climate change is completely utopian.
This is why we say the working class is the only force capable of transforming society. As Marx and Engels say in the Communist Manifesto: “the workers have no country.” We have nothing to gain from competition between competing capitalist powers—on the contrary, it’s working people who suffer and die in their wars and intrigues against each other.
Only the working class is capable of finally bringing about an end to national antagonisms, borders, and the repressive state. Until then, capitalists’ inability to coordinate their efforts internationally will continue to be an objective barrier to meaningful climate policy. Even where the threat of climate change is acknowledged by the capitalist class, you’ll see this recognition is veiled in sociological speculation and a lot of technical minutiae. The law of capitalism, that everything must be motivated by profit, is given as an absolute, a line that cannot be crossed when it comes to finding a way out of this crisis.
We’re also often given the impression that individual lifestyle habits, “going green” and “voting with your dollars” are key factors in fighting climate change. The role of capitalist industry and the market are relegated to being so beyond change in any but the most incremental and gradual manner, that, essentially all we can do, for now, is use less plastics, buy expensive new hybrid cars, shop local, and so on. It’s really an insidious inversion of the truth, meant to divert attention from systemic, revolutionary change into piecemeal, individualistic efforts. It’s exactly this kind of flaccid critique of consumerism that has led many working people to tune out whenever the subject of environmentalism comes up.
In reality, just 100 of the biggest multinational companies on the planet have been responsible for 71% of global emissions over the past 30 years. If these companies were in the hands of the international working class and subject to a sustainable plan of production, we could end the greatest threats of climate change, practically immediately.
As it is, there is an absolute tension hardwired into capitalism between short-term profitability and ending unsustainable practices. This isn’t a mere psychological preference for short term profitability over the future of humanity, or the result of too many sociopaths at the top of the economy in the abstract. Liberals are fans of this argument, because it implies a friendly, humane capitalism is possible if we can only replace or change the values of the people ruling the world markets.
In the market economy, the tenacity and skill with which one business interest is able to undercut and corner the market against every other is an iron law. It’s this private interest, driven directly by short-term profits, that is behind capitalism’s extremely rapid technological and cultural development of society. But the days where that was a useful systemic driver are now long past. The 2008 and subsequent 2020 crisis have clearly demonstrated that the expansion of the world market has reached critical limits.
The climate crisis, on the other hand, shows that our environment has reached a critical limit of what it can tolerate under capitalist exploitation. The science behind climate change and the need to radically curb emissions has been overwhelming for decades, but it’s really only lately that we’ve seen any real alarm from the ruling class about climate change. Even members of the Republican Party, after more than a decade spent trying to cast doubts on climate change, are beginning to warn against it, especially in parts of the country hit by hurricanes, wildfires, and other forms of extreme weather.
The real motivator for this anxiety, though, is not loss of life and livelihoods. The ruling class is trying to mobilize and prepare its political representatives to protect them from the economic and social fallout of climate change. Losses due to climate disasters and their associated effects are expected to reach over $30 trillion annually by 2075, getting more expensive year after year between now and then.
As for the other capitalist party, greenwashing and the thin veneer of “progressivism” has allowed the Democrats to pose to the left on this issue, aided by a liberal bourgeois mass media who swear that Biden is going to be our savior. The Democrats have built their political careers on being excellent saboteurs and back-stabbers, baiting-and-switching the working class for several generations. Their ability to frame pro-capitalist policy as being a compromise between all classes hinges on whether or not it is taken at face value.
Luckily, fewer and fewer people are doing so, and young people in particular have had enough of pandering and double-dealing, and support bold initiatives against the system. The Biden administration is nothing more than a committee for managing capitalist affairs, as Marx said of all capitalist states. The administration’s shutting down of the Keystone XL pipeline looks good on paper, but the Democrats, conniving as ever, will still allow over 20 other pipelines to go forward under their governance, including the Dakota Access pipeline that was famously fought against by protestors at Standing Rock with support from across the country.
With half measures like this, it’s clear that the timeline for a transition to a green economy is being set by profits and in fiscal quarters, not according to the needs of humanity and the generations to come.
Reform or Revolution?
Marxists, of course, support any reforms which are to the benefit of the working class, but we never fail to point out their limitations under capitalism, either. In this respect, we welcome the motivations behind things like the Green New Deal. In seeking to radically curb carbon emissions and the need to struggle against climate change, the Green New Deals’ proposals help to bring to light the fact that working class interests and action on the climate are one and the same.
The reality, though, is that the Green New Deal and initiatives like it don’t go nearly far enough. While they do, in some ways, go beyond the lowest bar of pro-capitalist, double-dealing climate policy such as the Biden administration’s, these proposals are still shackled to the market economy and also the political means by which policies have to be implemented under a capitalist state.
Like FDR’s New Deal before it, the Green New Deal is trying to save capitalism from itself, and prevent a revolution from below by instituting reforms from above. Setting aside the problems of funding such an initiative in a way that doesn’t have the working class ultimately footing the bill, the Green New Deal is an attempt to appeal to the logic of capitalists, to get them to take the long view of history.
But this is in contradiction to the way the system is run. Proposals that seek to overhaul industry to make it more sustainable sound good, except when you consider that much of this overhauling would be done with public funds, poured into the hands of private capital. To expect capitalists to do anything other than seek profits with this public expenditure is seriously misguided. As usual, the state would end up shouldering the burden of initial investments, while private capital reaps all the benefits thereafter.
Public investment for social needs is always distorted by the profit motive when it’s under a system of private ownership. ESG funds, which stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance funds, saw private investment increases of up to 50% since the start of the pandemic, which is to say that they grew despite the economic downturn. I think we can explain this by the fact that the capitalists are eager to speculate in any new means by which they can secure a profit, even if it means no real value is being added to the productive economy.
In the case of ESG funds, they bill themselves as vehicles for investment into technologies and firms that are tackling climate change and other socially responsible market initiatives. The reality is that most of this money is finding its way right back into the hands of major polluters. Even companies with notoriously bad environmental records like Exxon and Amazon can access this speculative capital by showing that some small part of their business has been rendered more sustainable or “ethical.” This allows managers of ESG funds to justify pumping money into them as far less risky investments than, say, renewables, which as far as investors are concerned are still unproven in terms of their profitability.
So by greenwashing a small part of their portfolios and businesses, these companies are attracting good PR and new investments. Of course, they call this a win-win! What’s left out is that the vast majority of the way these companies operate is left unchanged—the same practices bringing the world to the breaking point of the climate crisis are allowed to continue, albeit more quietly than before.
The prioritization of profits over society knows no bounds under capitalism. Even with the market for ESG funds growing, the world’s richest nations pumped another $190 billion of public money into fossil fuels last year, which was about nine-tenths more than their investments into clean energy. And most of it was given without any stipulations for a transition to a more sustainable technology, or even research into renewables.
Marxists have no illusions that tackling climate change will be easy. In fact, it will likely entail some of the most difficult disruptions to life that modern humanity has ever contended with. Under capitalism, though, this isn’t just a difficult task, it’s impossible to achieve without also creating enormous unemployment and devastating effects for generations.
The many billions of dollars needed to retool into a sustainable economy without job losses are not going to be given up willingly by the ultra-rich. They are obviously more concerned with sending rockets to Mars and building futuristic robots than solving the existential threat facing us here on earth, today.
A socialist future
This year, capitalism gave humanity two more grim milestones to add to its track record of destruction. And they’re both linked to one another.
The first is that the Amazon Rainforest—the lungs of the Earth, as they’re called—is now at an all-time high for it’s annual rate of loss, in both absolute terms and the biodiversity of plants and animals that make it up.
The second is that there are now more than 55 million internally displaced people in the world.
While floods, hurricanes, landslides and other extreme environmental events are in large part driving the increase in people having to flee their homes, many millions more were impacted by fallout from COVID-19, civil war and sectarian conflict, apartheid and other forms of systemic violence. This is where all paths converge—the global suffering capitalism inflicts on humanity is manifold and varied in nature.
We can make no mistake—capitalism is killing us. And when something is killing you, you don’t slap a band-aid on it, or take half measures. You instead leave no stone unturned—nothing isn’t on the table for how to treat the ailment, as aggressively as possible, to save you and allow you to live with dignity.
Thousands of scientists have reiterated the need for immediate action to combat climate change. And likewise, the majority of working people around the world, and young people today in particular, are more in favor of bold initiatives to tackle climate change than ever before.
The working class must take control of the commanding heights of the economy, and through taking state power, we can begin to implement controls in production that limit emissions, slashing them year after year. Already, a combination of wind, geothermal, solar, and nuclear power production can entirely replace fossil fuels, becoming more clean and efficient by way of massive investment into additional renewable sources.
Intellectual property laws that benefit monopolies are the norm under capitalism. These put a stranglehold on advancement and limit our ability to implement and access new technologies. By allowing for the free association and exchange of ideas, we can unleash humanity’s creative potential to implement existing technologies while rapidly developing new ones.
The implementation of scientific guidance on climate change would then be a simple matter of appropriating and administering resources. These already exist in abundance in the immense wealth that the capitalists appropriate and accumulate from the exploitation of workers. Through the nationalization of the banks, we would have no trouble directing these resources where they need to go.
A truly ambitious, well-funded plan for green energy and public works can add new jobs while transitioning us out of fossil fuels. This could include plans for sustainable mass transportation that ends our reliance on private vehicle commuting, while rebuilding our public infrastructure.
Only with the working class in control can we ensure that phasing out fossil fuels does not mean a loss in jobs, with paid retraining and relocation as a key part of restructuring the economy, while also moving people out of the path of climate disasters.
Humanity has evolved to the point where our means of economic and scientific production are our species’ means of adaptation to our environment. If we must make sacrifices to adapt to and ameliorate climate change, it should be done collectively, and not with a tiny class of winners living the good life on the backs of everyone else.
Climate struggle is class struggle. Humanity deserves a future in which everyone has access to food, housing, education, and a fulfilling livelihood, without the fear and precarity the climate crisis promises to introduce ever more of. If we want to win a future worthy of the name, we have to fight for it.
Thank you so much for listening! Big thanks, as always, to Laura Brown, our audio-visual producer, whose hard work behind the scenes makes these episodes possible.
If you liked what you heard today, please share, subscribe, and give us a five-star rating, which will help other listeners find us. Or consider making a donation to the International Marxist Tendency, or subscribing to Socialist Revolution magazine.
Better yet—why not join the IMT and bring these ideas to your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers? You can learn more about the IMT and about getting involved at socialistrevolution.org.
Stay healthy and safe, and keep fighting the good fight—the fight for socialism in our lifetime!