Movement Building

Ian Angus: COP21, the climate crisis, and ecosocialism

‘The environmental question is the most important problem that we face in the 21st century: If we don’t recognize its centrality, our politics will be irrelevant.’

An interview with Climate & Capitalism editor Ian Angus, first published in Socialist Worker (U.S.)


Ian Angus is a Canadian activist, editor of the ecosocialist journal Climate and Capitalism and co-author of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. He talked to Phil Gasper about what to expect from the Paris summit and what the climate justice movement will need to take up next.

Ian Angus

Ian Angus

The COP 21 talks are starting in Paris. What can we expect from these? Is there any chance there will be a significant agreement that comes out of them?

My guess is that they will try to produce something that looks better than the Copenhagen accord, and there’s a good chance that they’ll succeed. The real issue is whether the agreement means much in practice.

All of the major countries have announced targets for emissions reductions. But as many people have pointed out, first of all, even if every single one of those targets is achieved—and we know we won’t be–the temperature increase will still be way over two degrees Celsius. In addition, most of the countries that have put in those submissions haven’t actually made concrete plans to do anything. They’ve announced goals, but there’s no program for achieving them.

It remains to be seen whether anything serious is adopted. I don’t think we will get mandatory reductions—that seems extremely unlikely. And of course, there’s always the possibility that the whole thing could blow up, but that also seems unlikely. I think Obama wants to get something at this point in his career, so I suspect we will get good theater and something that looks okay on paper, and not much will happen as a result.

Why is it so difficult for them to come up with a serious proposal that will actually make a difference to the climate situation?

Fundamentally, government negotiators say “we’ll reduce emissions,” but they don’t say “we will reduce our use of fossil fuels,” which is what they must do to reduce emissions seriously and long term.

Fossil fuels are so fundamental to the operation of capitalism and the world today that serious reductions, if they were even tried under capitalism, would lead to a period of extraordinary economic disruption. Entire industries would have to stop functioning while they retool, and other industries would just have to disappear.

The only time we’ve had significant reductions in emissions in a major country was after the break-up of the Soviet Union, when the economy of Russia collapsed. And even that didn’t produce the level of emissions reductions we’d like to see. So the difficulty in reaching agreement is, ultimately, that they aren’t willing to reorient their economies away from fossil fuels, because fossil fuels are embedded in the way capitalism works.

So how serious is the situation that we’re currently facing? Every week, it seems like there’s a new report about the impact of climate change, and things look worse than we thought before. Some people think it’s too late already. Two degrees Celsius is already much more than the environment could take. Even if we could keep warming to one degree, we’d still be facing very, very serious problems. What’s your take on that? How much time do we have to change things?

It’s very hard to say how much time we have, because climate is so complex. You can say that if all other variables stay the same, if only the emissions change, we will have this particular result in 20 years. But of course, all the variables don’t stay the same. So what we’re talking about is not certainties, but probabilities.

I don’t like to put a time limit on it, because we’re going to have to continue fighting no matter what happens. If it goes to two degrees Celsius, we’re going to have to fight to keep it from three degrees, and so on. But I will say that without radical economic change, the two-degree limit can’t be achieved.

Almost all of the scenarios that show an increase of less than two degrees by 2100 requires, first, much greater emissions reductions than anyone is proposing in the next 30 years. And then, after 2050, they require “negative emissions.” That is, there would have to be some technology invented that takes carbon dioxide out of the air, and no such technology exists. And if it is invented, no one can say how it would function on a global scale, or whether it will be safe. It’s pure fantasy, and we can’t depend on fantasy.

The way things are going now, keeping the global temperature increase to two degrees is very unlikely. Without radical economic change, it’s more likely that we’re going to have a three-degree increase by the end of the century, and maybe four. That, as we know, would be catastrophic. There would be substantial parts of the earth that would be very difficult, even impossible, to survive in. So we’re in a dangerous circumstances.

I don’t see a serious commitment by any of the nations participating in the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] to actually make the necessary changes. Eleven or 12 nations could actually make a difference, but none of them is really trying.

What would radical action really look like? One of the debates in the movement has been about growth vs. degrowth. Some people argue that any kind of growth of the economy is ruled out by the danger of climate change, and that we have to move to a simpler kind of social organization, simpler technology and so on. What do you make of that debate?

The degrowth movement is mostly in Europe, mainly in France. It includes some good people doing very good analysis of the problems. The difficulty is that they focus on growth as an abstraction—it’s just “bigger is bad.” Instead of targeting the kind of growth that you get in a system that’s based on commodity production and on capital accumulation, they seem just to be against “more stuff.”

To save the planet, we have to stop some significant things. Two really good immediate steps would be shut down the armed forces and stop all advertising. Both of those are trillion-dollar-a-year items. Any government that was really committed to stopping environmental destruction would take those steps. You could call that degrowth—stop doing the things that are causing the damage.

On the other hand, we are never going to build a global movement unless we recognize and accept that two-thirds of the world actually needs “more stuff.” For example, we need to make access to electricity in every home a basic right. That’s going to require building a lot of solar panels and other equipment. There is no way around that. So focusing on reducing or stopping growth in the abstract doesn’t get us very far.

You were one of the early proponents of ecosocialism. What exactly is ecosocialism? What type of contribution do you see ecosocialists making to the environmental movement?

In every talk that I’ve ever given on ecosocialism, I’ve said that there is no trademark on the word. The range of opinions about what constitutes ecosocialism is very broad–just like the range of opinions about what constitutes socialism.

Think of all the different variations of socialism you’ve heard of, and then add all the variations of ecology to that. There are green social democrats and green anarchists and green revolutionary Marxists. There are even a few hard-core Malthusians who call themselves ecosocialists: I think they’re mistaken, but that’s their opinion.

Ecosocialism is three different things. First, it’s a goal–a society in which capitalism no longer dominates and which places a high priority on repairing the ecological damage that has been done and ensuring that we don’t do any more.

Second, it’s a body of ideas. In that respect, John Bellamy Foster talks about first-stage and second-stage ecosocialism. The first wave, in the 1990s, attempted to combine green political thought and Marxism. Some very important analysis resulted, but also a lot that was politically incoherent, because there are areas in which Marxism and traditional green political thought are not, ultimately, compatible.

The second wave really began with two books published in 1999 and 2000—Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature and John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology. They both, in different ways, asked, “What did Marx actually have to say about humanity’s relationship with nature in capitalist society?” They showed that Marx said an awful lot more about ecology than most 20th century Marxists thought he did, let alone than what greens thought. That led, most notably, to metabolic rift theory, which some environmentalists are now using to understand specific environmental problems.

The third thing is that ecosocialism is a movement. It includes a fair range of opinion, but fundamentally, it’s composed of people who agree that there’s no ecological revolution that isn’t socialist, and there’s no socialist revolution that isn’t ecological.

For Marxists, ecosocialism involves the recognition that the environmental/ecological question is the most important problem that we face in the 21st century: If we don’t recognize its centrality, our politics will be irrelevant.

Marx famously said that people make their own history, but not under conditions of their choosing. This is a concrete example–changing the world in the context of impending environmental disaster. Marx didn’t expect that, but that’s our reality. The way we build socialism, the kind of socialism we will be able to build, will be fundamentally shaped by the state of the planet we must build it on.

Given that, what do you think are the strategies that we should be advocating for in the broad climate justice movement?

First of all, I think we have to accept the fact that the socialist movement is not going to triumph in the immediate future. So we have to find ways to unite the broadest possible range of people, socialists or not, in a mass movement to achieve whatever is possible in this social order. We need to work with everyone who is willing to join in fighting climate change in general, and the fossil fuel industry specifically.

That’s going to include everyone who supports Naomi Klein’s approach, and other radical NGOs, and also local groups—anarchists, Trotskyists and more. Various groups in different places, people who are not socialists, but who see this as the central issue in our time. Our key strategy here must be to build that broad movement.

We have to accept that in such a movement, we’re outnumbered—there are far more people from non-socialist backgrounds than there are of us. We won’t always agree with specific actions or slogans or demands, but that’s just how it’s going to be. Standing on the sidelines criticizing will get us precisely nowhere: socialists must be in the movement, building it to the best of our ability.

As I said, I think the focus should be on the fossil-fuel industry. That doesn’t mean we don’t do other things, but primarily focusing on fossil fuels because that’s where such a movement can actually make changes, even if we can’t change the entire system yet. If we can’t shut down a pipeline or prevent fracking someplace or get a university to divest itself of investments in the oil industry, how can we imagine that we’re actually going to overthrow capitalism? A socialist movement that doesn’t take defending human survival as a central goal isn’t worthy of the name.

One of the things that the movement has to figure out is how to operate in an environment dominated by NGOs, which bring some positives to the movement, but also have a very different way of operating. Do you have any thoughts about that general question?

There are NGOs, and there are NGOs.

Most of the “Big Green” NGOs have long ago given up on any serious effort to save the environment. They’re fundamentally fundraising operations: They lobby, and they raise money, but they don’t build a movement. If we can get people associated with those organizations to speak at rallies, to sponsor things, that’s wonderful, but we shouldn’t expect very much of them.

But there are smaller, more activist-oriented groups, like On the whole, they are serious and committed people who have no tradition of building democratic mass movements– but they have no idea of how to do it. We have to find ways to work with them. In the short term, it will probably be just: “Let’s both agree to show up at the same time”.

Unfortunately, a lot of folks on the left seem to think that the main thing we need to do is separate ourselves from other activists by focusing on where we disagree. Some people on the left have gotten so used to being isolated that they are uncomfortable when the walls start to break down. They feel safer in isolation.

I saw a lot of that when Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything came out. It’s attracting a lot of attention and creating openings for discussions of capitalism that we haven’t seen for a long time. Instead of treating that as a major step forward, many leftists promptly denounced it and her for not being really anti-capitalist.

Or take the Pope’s encyclical, which was better than what I see from most NGOs and mainstream environmental groups. Not perfect, but an opening for us to talk to religious people and involve them in the climate movement.

But when I wrote a good review of it for Climate and Capitalism, I promptly got e-mails from people saying, “Yeah, but he opposes abortion.” If you get the Pope on your side about anything, take what you can get! Of course we oppose his awful position on women, but if we really want to build a broader movement, we need to learn how to work with people we disagree with.

Another big piece of building the movement is the labor movement. There have been some sections of the labor movement that have taken the issue of climate change seriously, but an awful lot more who have yet to do so. What are your thoughts about how we need to win over organized labor–because that’s going to be an important part of the coalition fighting on these issues?

One of the difficulties, of course, is that the labor movement has focused so much of its attention for half a century on ensuring that its members have jobs, just making sure that whichever industry they are in gets its share of government contracts and so on. So they see themselves as having a vested interest in pipeline building or drilling oil wells or whatever.

The fact is that workers don’t want to lose their jobs. Here in Canada, we have the phenomenon of people from some of the poorest parts of the country going to work in the Alberta Tar Sands. After six months or a year, they can go home, to a place where there are no jobs, and buy a house or a car, or pay off their debts. Telling those people “Don’t do that because you’re causing greenhouse gas emissions” is just absurd. It’s a guaranteed way to turn working people against the environmental movement.

Now again, unfortunately, we see a lot of that. I’ve heard greens argue that we shouldn’t even try to reach oil sands workers because they’re just part of the colonial-settler assault on First Nations territory. Which is true—so we have to win them away from doing that, not force them into a firmer alliance with their bosses.

We need to find ways to work with the labor movement around the whole concept of a “just transition.” That concept has come out of the international labor movement—that we realize the change in the economy is going to result in lost jobs, and nobody should suffer as a result. There should be jobs or full pay, free retraining and so on.

But those things won’t be won from the outside. They won’t be won at all unless the unions themselves build a movement to fight for them.

Posted in Climate Change, Ecosocialism, Featured, Movement Building, UN Meetings

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