Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1147/33010
Climate change, capitalism, and the struggle for socialism
Unless you happen to be Tory Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and therefore oblivious to what's happening in the world, you'd be aware of the recent extreme weather events claiming lives, and destroying homes, infrastructure, and even whole towns.
From the unprecedented high temperatures and drought in Canada and the US, which have sparked infernos; to the highest recorded temperature in Europe and the devastating fires in Greece and Turkey; to the deluge of rainfall and floods in western Europe, China and, more recently, New York and Louisiana.
Previously once-in-a-lifetime events are becoming the 'new normal' as the planet gets hotter. The World Meteorological Organisation recently said the number of weather-related disasters to hit the world has increased fivefold over the past 50 years.
Of course, it's those on the lowest incomes that suffer the most. Over two million people have died from extreme weather events in the last 50 years - 90% of those deaths have occurred in ex-colonial (so-called developing) countries.
It's also the case that many environmental disasters have been made far worse through funding cuts by governments in flood defence and forest management.
Apart from Donald Trump, a handful of Tory backbenchers, and a motley collection of conspiracy theorists, most people - and certainly the overwhelming majority of climate scientists - understand that this adverse climate change is the result of the heating up of the planet, due to human activity.
This heating is caused by rising CO² emissions and other greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere from capitalist industry, transport, agribusiness, and so forth. The concentration of CO² in the atmosphere is now the highest in 14 million years.
The recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report painted a doom-laden portrait of where civilisation is heading unless drastic remedial measures are enacted on a global scale.
The question is, can this climate emergency be halted under the current world economic, political, and social system - capitalism?
And make no mistake. The solution has to be worldwide. Emitted greenhouse gases don't stop at the borders of nation states.
And therein is the heart of the problem. Capitalism, and its insatiable drive to maximise profit through the exploitation of labour and raw materials, has created an interconnected global system of finance and trade, but corporate ownership still resides within individual countries.
No capitalist government is unilaterally going to jeopardise its global share of trade and production, and therefore corporate profits, by implementing the comprehensive measures needed to halt climate change. The only feasible way to achieve sustainable levels of net-zero carbon production - and a redistribution of wealth to secure decent living standards for all - is through democratic, international planning; impossible in a capitalist system of competing companies and nation states.
Therefore, the Socialist Party unequivocally says: to stop destructive climate change we need socialist change. That, in turn, means building a mass movement for a fundamental shift in wealth and power, based on working-class people - whose class interests are diametrically opposed to the capitalists.
But before addressing the building of such a movement, it's worth taking a look at what the representatives of the capitalist class are advancing as their solution to halting climate change.
After all, most capitalists realise that the cost of not doing anything to halt climate change will cost them and their system a fortune. The economic cost of extreme weather events in the last 50 years has amounted to an estimated $3.64 trillion.
That sum can be broken down into $383 million per day losses between 2010-2019, a sevenfold increase on the $49 million per day between 1970-1979.
But capitalist governments' measures to tackle the climate emergency are piecemeal, inadequate, and contradictory.
In Britain, the Johnson government is committed to achieving a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050 - an 80% cut in CO² levels of 1990, to limit global heating to a 1.5ºC average rise.
But this deadline is deemed too late by many scientists, and even the government has conceded that meeting this target won't stop extreme weather events continuing.
According to the government's own Climate Change Committee, £50 billion extra investment per year is needed over the next 35 years to achieve net-zero carbon emissions - a sizeable sum. So far, the amount the government has pledged is paltry - maybe £3 billion extra in terms of new money.
But the cost of not investing in green policies will be even greater to the economy. Moreover, the £50 billion a year is roughly equivalent to the £900 billion in 'quantitative easing' that UK governments have shelled out over the last decade to bail out the banks and keep the capitalist economy afloat.
Boris Johnson is also hosting the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this November. COP is the Conference of Parties (197 nations/territories) who are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
According to the blurb: "COP26 will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement."
The 2015 Paris Agreement - which Joe Biden made a great deal of signing up to after Trump had withdrawn from it - is a voluntary, and unenforcable, commitment to 'work towards' containing global temperature rises to under 2ºC of pre-industrial levels by, roughly, 2050.
However, while Johnson intends to bask in the photo-opportunities at the Glasgow summit - posing as 'the world's leader' on tackling climate change - an analysis by the conservation charity WWF points out that, while the last UK government budget allocated £145 million for environmental measures, it committed £40 billion to policies that will increase emissions.
Moreover, a recent leaked email shows that UK government ministers Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng agreed to drop references to the targets of the Paris Agreement in order to sweeten a trade deal with the Australian government.
Also, the Tories are expected to give the go-ahead for more oil and gas extraction - including the Cambo field - off the Shetland Isles. Oddly, this follows £400,000 in donations to the Tory party from the oil and gas industry!
The Cambo field will also be a big test for the new Scottish National Party/Green Party coalition in Holyrood. SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is hoping that a decision over the Cambo field by the Johnson government will take the political heat off her.
'Big energy' continues to enjoy tax breaks and other government subsidies. In the USA, for example, Joe Biden abandoned his election pledge to ban new drilling and fracking on federal lands, and instead his administration has granted more than 2,000 new permits.
The principal mechanism promoted by the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce CO² emissions is the 'carbon trading market'. This market was established following the earlier 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
But instead of adopting measures aimed at ending the use of fossil fuels, the carbon trading market simply allows high emissions industries to offset their CO² limits by buying carbon permits in low emission countries.
To date, there haven't been any measurable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that can be attributed to these measures. Indeed, the International Energy Agency reckons that CO² emissions are expected to rocket upwards this year by the second biggest annual rise in history.
Are the Greens - the most prominent political advocates internationally of halting climate change - a credible alternative to the establishment capitalist parties?
Unfortunately, many readers will be familiar with the lamentable role of the Greens in power. In governments and councils - in Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, Scotland, and indeed in Brighton council in the recent past - the Greens have gone along with spending cuts and other capitalist austerity measures.
But even their claims of championing green policies don't amount to a hill of beans.
In Germany, in the largest federal state of North Rhine Westphalia, where massive demos and occupations of open-cast brown coalmines have taken place, the Greens, as part of the state government, voted for the destruction of the Hambacher Forest, so that the energy giant RWE can continue to make profits by mining brown coal. Brown coal produces the highest emissions of climate change gases and pollution.
In the German state of Hesse, the Greens sent a huge force of police to clear protesters from the Dannenroeder forest who were trying to prevent the building of another motorway.
They also voted to extend the lifespan of deeply unpopular nuclear power plants.
Time and again the Greens have shown that they will break their election promises by adapting themselves to the pressures of capitalism.
In Scotland, the SNP-Green governmental pledge to provide "a realistic and affordable alternative through investing in public transport and active travel"... has been undercut by the SNP cutting 10% of train services from next year!
In relation to oil and gas production, instead of calling for socialist public ownership of the energy industries to transition away from fossil fuels to renewables, the Greens bluntly call for an immediate halt in production. This has left them politically vulnerable to the Scottish Tories - who disingenuously attack the Greens over the question of jobs - portraying the Greens as 'anti-worker'.
The SNP, as the main coalition party, is attempting an impossible balancing act over oil and gas extraction - which in 2019 was worth £8.8 billion or 5% of Scotland's GDP (total output), supporting an estimated 100,000 jobs.
Unable, and unwilling, to overcome the constraints of capitalism, the SNP, with the world platform of COP26 beckoning, is attempting to position itself as champion of the 'green agenda', while supporting the highly profitable oil and gas industry. This political contortion could easily damage the SNP's credibility, especially as it falters over pursuing a second independence referendum.
In contrast to the Greens and SNP, Socialist Party Scotland fights for an independent socialist Scotland in which the commanding heights of the economy would be nationalised.
On this basis, oil and gas workers could be retrained, retooled and redeployed, in the production of wind, tidal or solar energy or carbon-capture programmes to get Scotland carbon neutral. This would be done without loss of pay, job cuts or deteriorating conditions in the workplace.
The failure of capitalist parties to seriously challenge capitalism over climate change has led to a growth in 'direct action' in recent years.
'Fridays for Future' protests - involving mainly young people in school and college walkouts, mass demos, blockades, etc - came to prominence in many countries prior to the Covid pandemic. In the run-up to COP26, these protests are likely to revive.
A necessary strategy is linking up these actions by young people to the organised workers' movement, with a clear programme for change.
Many trade unions have agreed 'new deal' programmes for generating 'green' jobs. This requires pressuring union leaders into fighting for the implementation of such programmes, including through strike action.
Of course, fearful of the anti-trade union laws, under which 'political strikes' are illegal, and other new Tory government restrictions on the right to protest, the right-wing leaders of the Trades Union Congress, as well as Starmer's capitalist Labour leadership, will run for cover when pressed to take meaningful action.
But the potential power of the organised working class to halt production remains the key, and that is what must be argued and built for, linked to a programme of socialist policies for a sustainable plan of economic production.
The alternative is leaving it to the "politically non-partisan international movement" of Extinction Rebellion (XR).
XR's three demands are: "Tell the truth; act now; and go beyond politics". We can all agree and do concur with the first two demands. But its third 'non-party political' demand - which also calls for a 'Citizens Assembly' without saying how that will come about, let alone how it will be constituted, and what policies it will implement - ducks the question of what policies are required to build a movement for fundamental change. If capitalism is the problem - which it is - then 'tell the truth; act now' and build a movement to overthrow it!
That means mobilising the majority in society, not confining the movement to small numbers of activists, in order to fight against the profit system. And through that process, build a new, mass political party based on the working class and embracing a socialist programme.
Socialist Party members have always been to the fore in organising and defending the democratic right to protest. But XR's 'shock and awe' tactics of street and workplace blockades is limited - and on occasion can even be counter-productive eg, XR activists gluing themselves to the roof of an (electric-powered) DLR train during the London rush-hour in 2019.
Equally, not engaging beforehand with workers inside XR-targeted workplaces can lead to unnecessary antagonisms with the very people who, ordinarily, would be sympathetic to fighting climate change.
The Socialist Party argues that the most effective action is not simply blocking Oxford Circus or Parliament Square for hours or days, but strike action by workers.
This 'traditional' method of working-class struggle - hitting the bosses where it hurts, in their profits - retains its validity today, often winning full or partial improvements in pay, health and safety, and working practices. Just imagine the galvanising political effect of a 24- or 48-hour general strike demanding the employers and government implement a worker-friendly, green plan of production?
Such a demonstration of workers' power, if the start of a genuine movement for socialist change, would be an unstoppable force to halt catastrophic climate change.
Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) facebook live e-rally
- Capitalist Climate Catastrophe - the socialist solution
- 26 September - 2pm (BST)
- Join us live to hear from socialist activists around the world who are fighting for socialist change to end the climate catastrophe.
- The CWI is the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.
In The Socialist 15 September 2021:
What we think
Youth and students