International cooperation at a historic, unprecedented scale is essential if the world is to avert the looming climate catastrophe. Anyone can see that and, for their part, our world leaders are happy to go through the motions. This international act plays out at conference after conference in which governments sign on (so we’re told) to fight climate change together: from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement to the International Solar Alliance.
In November the world stage will once again be crowded with leaders keen to display their climate credentials when the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is convened in Glasgow. We can only hope that this time, people will see through the inevitable fanfare (in Australia, Uni Students for Climate Justice are organising to protest as part of a global day of action coinciding with the conference).
Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe that any new agreements for global cooperation on climate change emerging from the conference will achieve any more than all the many other agreements that have come and gone in the past four decades. Maintaining a clear-headed assessment of such events is helped by an understanding of the competitive dynamics of capitalism that mitigate against serious globally coordinated action on any issue—whether climate change or, for example, COVID-19.
Capitalism is a system defined by the pursuit of short-term profit and cut-throat competition between businesses and between the nation states in which they’re situated. And just as no boss will knowingly do anything that puts them at a disadvantage in relation to their rivals, no national government will be willing to sacrifice the interests of “their” capitalists to those of capitalists in rival countries. The “national interest”—which equates with the material interests of the capitalist class of any particular nation—will always trump a commitment to the “global community” or any other high-flown liberal abstraction.
This is made clear by the economic and military rivalry between the US and China. Neither country has skimped, in recent times, on idealistic-sounding rhetoric about the need for the world to take climate change seriously. In April they even put out a joint statement outlining their plans to cooperate in addressing the climate crisis. But while the US (with the exception of Donald Trump) and China have been prepared to sign on to many such statements and international agreements and commit billions to fight climate change, they’ve never for a second let this get in the way of spending much greater sums to prepare their economies and militaries to fight each other.
Hence the spectacle of US President Joe Biden talking a big game on climate change, while simultaneously presiding over a record-breaking pace of approvals of new oil and gas wells on public land. The climate change talk is in no small part a matter merely of diplomacy—a prerequisite for maintaining a claim to leadership on the world stage. The domestic oil and gas boom, which his Democratic Party presidential predecessor Barack Obama pursued with similar vigour, is a matter of economic and military supremacy. And it’s the latter that, under capitalism, will always rank first.
Many people recognise this problem in a superficial way. They can see that the potential for global cooperation is threatened by economic and military rivalries. But they respond by demanding merely that global leaders take cooperation more seriously. In July, for instance, 48 of the world’s leading environmental advocacy organisations delivered an open letter to the Biden administration calling for global cooperation and de-escalation between the US and China.
“Amid a climate emergency that is wreaking havoc on communities across the globe”, they concluded, “the path to a liveable future demands new internationalism rooted in global cooperation, resource sharing, and solidarity. Nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new Cold War between the United States and China”. All of which is true, of course. The rivalry between the US and China is a major barrier to serious climate action. And should this rivalry evolve into a military confrontation, it would be catastrophic for human life and the environment around the world.
The problem lies in thinking that letter-writing or any similar forms of lobbying by environmental organisations will convince world leaders to put their countries’ rivalries aside. It’s not the individual opinions and outlooks of leaders like Joe Biden or Xi Jinping that are pushing the world towards war—it’s the “zero sum game” of global imperialist competition. And that’s not something that any leader of a capitalist country, never mind the world’s biggest economic and military powers, can simply opt out of.
In a recent opinion piece for the Financial Times, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson pointed to the material, economic roots of the problem. “We can burn about 900 more gigatons of carbon”, he writes, “before we cross the 2C average global rise in temperature that will put us in truly dangerous territory. But we’ve already located thousands of gigatons of fossil fuels around the world. Most of those, which simply must be left in the ground if we want to avoid cooking the biosphere, are owned by national governments, who consider these reserves part of their national assets. They’re already collateral, and a steady source of income and, for quite a few of these nations, a big portion of their wealth”.
Compliance with the Paris Agreement, as Robinson explains, would carry trillions of dollars in opportunity costs and potentially bankrupt some nations. The short-term financial hit is only one part of it. The bigger problem, from a capitalist perspective, is the hit to a country’s global competitiveness. The geopolitical clout enjoyed by many imperialist powers today, such as, in addition to the US and China, Australia, Russia and Saudi Arabia, owes much to their abundance of fossil fuels. And we can see in Australia’s case how hard the capitalist class and their political servants will fight to maintain that advantage.
Witnessing the slow-motion car crash of rival blocs of capital, each driven by “national interests” and imperialist rivalry into mutual catastrophe, is not without historical precedent. And just like today, before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, it was common for liberals and reformists alike to believe in the potential of global cooperation between capitalist nations to steer clear of disaster.
The arguments made by Karl Kautsky, a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party at the time, strike a note that we might find familiar. Kautsky believed the mutual interest of capitalists to avoid disruption to the normal functioning of the system would ultimately drive them to seek to eliminate conflict between states. Even after the war started, he held to this position. “There is no economic necessity”, he wrote in late 1914, “for the continuation of the great competition in the production of armaments after the close of the present war. At best such a continuation would serve the interests of only a few capitalist groups. On the contrary capitalist industry is threatened by the conflicts between the various governments. Every far-sighted capitalist must call out to his associates: Capitalists of all lands unite!”
In their own way, they gave it a shot. Emerging from a war that killed millions was the League of Nations, an international body set up (in theory) to mediate conflicts between states. But the League was a sham from the start, accurately described by Lenin as “a thieves’ kitchen” and “a group of beasts of prey”. The League did little but fight over the spoils of war, contributing to the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the subsequent outbreak of the Second World War, which was far more devastating and expansive than the First.
The United Nations should be seen in a similar light. Beneath the facade of diplomacy and cooperation is the same old capitalist battle for power and influence, fought for the sake of the economic fortunes of each respective national capitalist class. The chances of such a body actually bridging the economic and military divides of today and leading the world into a new era of global cooperation to tackle the climate crisis are approximately zero. The fact that we’re coming up to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (the first was held in Berlin way back in 1995) and yet global greenhouse gas emissions are higher than ever, should be evidence enough of that.
Rather than dreams of global cooperation between capitalist rivals, what we need today is socialist internationalism and ultimately revolution to rid ourselves of the irrational, profit-driven system that’s driving human civilisation towards catastrophe. The climate crisis demands international cooperation and planning on a massive scale. To achieve this, we need to look to the only class with both the power, and material interest, to deliver it: the working class.
Unlike capitalists, whose outlook is shaped by their participation in the competitive global scramble for profit, workers’ lives are defined, at the most basic level, by cooperation. This cooperation occurs, most obviously, at the level of individual workplaces. Factories, warehouses, supermarkets, schools, offices and so on can’t operate effectively without a high level of coordination between workers. And while most workers, most of the time, aren’t conscious of it, this coordination of activity extends well beyond individual workplaces to entire industries, and through increasingly giant and sophisticated global supply chains, the entire world.
So while the bosses and their political servants are focused on the fight to secure for themselves the biggest slice of the global economic pie, workers are getting on with the job of cooperating to keep the wheels of the world economy turning. Most of the time, of course, the outcome of all this activity is to keep the profits flowing to the ruling class. As long as workers are not conscious of their collective interests, and remain unorganised and incapable of asserting their collective power, their central role in the system doesn’t actually give them any real agency.
But when workers enter into struggle, it’s another story. Strikes, by definition, must be done collectively; you can’t “go on strike” on your own. To take such action, workers have commonly elected strike committees to plan and coordinate the struggle. When strikes in individual workplaces grow to encompass whole industries, or become general strikes involving workers across many industries at once, the coordinating bodies grow accordingly—from workplace strike committees, to industry level bodies and ultimately to institutions like the Russian soviets in 1917, which comprised the democratically elected representatives of the entire working class.
These kinds of institutions have sprung up again and again throughout the 20th century. And in each case they’ve provided a glimpse of the potential power of the working class to put society on a completely new foundation. Instead of the competitive scramble for short-term profit under capitalism, we get, instead, democratically planned production and distribution to meet the needs of society as a whole.
Where this has occurred, it has had a clear internationalising dynamic. The example of the Russian soviets that sprang up and ultimately took power in October 1917 was followed, in 1918, by workers in Germany. In November that year they rose up against the ongoing slaughter of the First World War and formed workers’ councils to coordinate their actions. It was this revolution, and not capitalist diplomacy, that finally brought an end to the war. Throughout the history of capitalism, workers have shown the potential for revolutionary struggle to cut across borders in this way and overcome the seemingly intractable conflicts arising from the competitive nature of the system.
To really tackle a global catastrophe like climate change, a similar scale of struggle will be necessary. Climate-related disasters are already upon us, and we need to be clear about who is to blame and what is to be done. As daunting and complex as this challenge may seem, there is also optimism and simplicity in the endeavour. As the Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly once put it, “Our demands most moderate are—we only want the Earth”.