Can reforms stop climate change?

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Monthly Review replies to Christian Parenti: Realistic climate politics are not reformist politics. Immediate reforms are needed, but there will be no real solution without truly revolutionary social change.

EcosocialistCoaltion

Monthly Review, November 2013

There is a pressing need for a coherent left strategy on climate change and in relation to the planetary environmental threat in general. The current scientific consensus indicates that we have at best several decades before the earth’s average surface temperature rises by 2°C, viewed as the point of irreversible climate change. This means that decisive action must  e taken quickly if the world is not to go off the planetary climate cliff.

We therefore read with considerable interest Christian Parenti’s article, “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis” in the Summer 2013 issue of Dissent. Parenti’s main thesis is that since the time with which to address the climate change problem is so short,

“it is this society and these [existing capitalist] institutions that must cut emissions. That means, in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of total economic re-organization.”

Parenti follows this up with a discussion of what he considers the practical measures that might be pushed in the United States as part of rational climate politics, including: (1) a carbon tax; (2) barring that, the EPA using the Clean Air Act to impose a “de facto climate tax”; and (3) what he calls a “Big Green Buy” in which federal-government purchases of green technology and goods serve to create a market for alternative, low-carbon energies.

In the final section of his article Parenti refers to Marx’s theory of metabolic rift and its application to our major environmental problems. He recognizes on this basis that capital accumulation may ultimately face insurmountable natural and social limits. Nevertheless, he insists that capitalism has been successful in the past in addressing “specific environmental crises” and that this will also likely be the case with respect to climate change.

He concludes: “Anyone who thinks the existing economic system must be totally transformed before we can deal with the impending climate crisis, is delusional or in willful denial of the very clear findings of climate science”—which point to the immediacy and overwhelming seriousness of the present crisis.

In our view Parenti’s argument here is partly correct (some limited reforms to slow climate change are conceivable in the system and should be pursued), partly incorrect (capitalism if allowed to operate according to its own logic does not offer a solution to the climate problem, but only a path to destruction), and the overall conclusion to which it leads is wrong (realistic climate politics are not reformist politics).

Perhaps the best way to explain this is to counterpose what we think would be a more appropriate statement on the nature of a revolutionary strategy. It would read as follows:

Anyone who thinks that it is conceivable to counter climate change (and the planetary environmental crisis as a whole) without opposing and in part superseding the logic of capital accumulation is in denial of the very clear findings of climate science and critical social science—which point to the immediacy and unprecedented scale of the present epochal crisis and thus the need for truly revolutionary social change.

A revolutionary approach in this area is one that does not simply stop with whatever limited reforms are easily conceivable within the present system, but also:

  1. seeks to accelerate the shift to a substantively equal and ecologically sustainable (global) society;
  2. involves the mobilization of the entire population (and entire peoples), culturally, socially, and economically in the process of transformation;
  3. prioritizes conservation of human and natural resources;
  4. seeks to transform infrastructure and technology on a massive, democratically planned basis to meet ecological and social ends; and
  5. opposes the logic of profit-making at every point along the line, substituting the alternative logic of people and the planet.