movement building

Climate crisis: There is only one way out

Climate catastrophe can only be averted if  people around the globe unite in the biggest, broadest, most effective global social movement the world has ever seen

John Foran is professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-founder of the Climate Justice Project. This article was first published in

by John Foran

First, let’s please just acknowledge there is a crisis.

I’m afraid any reasonably educated, rational, and unbiased adult (or younger) can understand what the climate science has been telling us now for two decades:  the Earth is warming (so far by about 1 degree Celsius since 1800), slowly but surely, due to humans’ putting carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere, mainly through burning fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal) and the byproducts of large-scale and animal-based agriculture.  A good primer on this is Danny Chivers’ No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change.

Second – and it only takes a bit of sociological thinking here – we see that this is having massive negative effects on people’s well-being:  floods, droughts, superstorms, rising sea-levels, loss of biodiversity, polluted cities, rivers, and oceans.  This means homes lost, famine, early deaths, poor health, social disruptions, and conflicts (think wars, civil wars, overthrows of governments, and the like).

Third, the governments and the economic elites of the world do not have this steadily worsening crisis under control.  The Paris Agreement signed by 196 nations of the world in December 2015, offers no chance of containing global warming under the thresholds that science suggests must not be passed (above two degrees Celsius we can expect extremely dangerous disruption in all the living and social systems of the planet).  We have already reached 1.4 degrees Celsius of inevitable warming (the extra .5 degree is guaranteed because there is a lag between the gases getting into the atmosphere and the warming that they cause).

The Agreement is weak because it is not legally binding (each government made a “pledge” of what it would do in terms of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, and there is no enforcement mechanism for failing to comply) and the pledges, even if all met, would still raise global temperatures in this century by around 3 degrees Celsius.

A further devastating disappointment is the stinginess of the wealthy nations of the global North (historically responsible for most of the CO2 already in the atmosphere) in financing the renewable energy revolution that the under-resourced countries of the global South require (their emissions are growing, and China is the world leader now).

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel corporations, some of which are the biggest in the history of the world, and one of whose former chairmen, Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil, is now U.S. secretary of state in the climate-denying Trump administration) have no plans to reduce their profits by keeping their assets in the ground.  This spells catastrophe if they are not checked;  what leading U.S. climate scientist James Hansen has called “Game over” for the planet.

In 2012, U.S. climate activist Bill McKibben of the organization (350 parts per million being what scientists have established as the “safe” limit for controlling climate change – we are now at 405 and rising) calculated and others have since confirmed that the world’s carbon “budget” for staying under two degrees was about 565 gigatons of emissions, while the proven reserves of the fossil fuel companies and countries (some having nationalized their oil and gas as in the Middle East, Russia, and Venezuela, among others) were around 2,795 gigatons at that time.

In other words, these corporations have a business model that entails burning more than five times the amount of fossil fuels that the Earth handle.  Since we currently emit over 30 gigatons per year (this is the number that must be reduced to zero before 2050) one can see that we have less than 20 years of “business-as-usual” before we pass into extremely dangerous climate territory.  In fact, if one wants to hold to a more stringent, safer limit of 1.5 degrees, and wants to have a better than 80 percent chance of staying under that, we have more like nine years left till our climate’s tipping points loom large.

So, given the inexorable and terrifying math of global warming, the incapacity of world governments to curtail it, and the determination of some of the richest economic entities on earth to bring it onto us, what are we to do?

The only way out

As a scholar of twentieth-century revolutions and twenty-first century movements for radical social change (understood as calling for far less inequality and far more democratic participation than at present) such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, Occupy, and the Arab Spring, my firm and considered conclusion is that the only chance that humanity has to come to grips with the biggest existential crisis of our century is for people to somehow form the biggest, broadest, most effective global social movement the world has ever seen.  Our purpose should be to force governments and corporations to do what must be done.  There is no other way that this is going to happen.

This movement already exists, though it is far from strong enough to have a chance of success at the moment.  It is called the global climate justice movement and it is a very loose and diverse set of local organizations, national coalitions, and global networks of ordinary Earth citizens in every corner of the world.  And it is growing in power (the most promising articles of the Paris Agreement were largely the product of climate activists’ decade-long pressure at the climate summits).

The next step must be to find ways to turn this movement power into political power, and to do so in an era of people’s lack of confidence in existing parties of all kinds.  It seems likely that we are talking about some new kind of party that comes out of the social movements that will bring it to power and then is held accountable by them as it turns the ship around.

Daunting?  Yes.  Improbable?  Probably.  But do it we must, nevertheless, and quickly, if we are to come to grips with the crisis.  As an observer and participant in this movement for the past eight years, I am hopeful and inspired, particularly by the youth, indigenous and other people of color, women, and the courageous defenders of the planet and humanity whom I encounter and see wherever I go.  As the slogan goes, we need “System Change, not Climate Change.”

It’s important, it’s right, and it’s fun to change the world. Please join with us to make it happen.

Posted in Climate Change, Ecosocialism, Movement Building

13 Responses to Climate crisis: There is only one way out

  1. Ian Angus March 13, 2017 at 3:05 pm #

    The Climate Fee and Dividend proposal, which Anders Ekelund raises below in his criticism of Foran’s article, has been discussed previously on Climate and Capitalism. See:

  2. Hélène Nivoix March 9, 2017 at 4:55 pm #

    Hello from France!

    Thank you for your website and your vision, you’re right not to resignate. In order to give people some hope, I have a proposal, a really astonishing one. All over the world, we could impulse a gigantic global movement – scientists, activists, artists, religious – to demand the creation of a world complementary currency indexed to living biomass (thick and rich soils, healthy vegetation and animals) of the emerged land.
    By harnessing the immense power of photosynthesis, we can convert atmospheric carbon, which is a problem, into soil carbon, which is a solution.
    Indeed, by restoring ecosystems and by growing living biomass on a very large scale, it allows to capture carbon dioxide and in doing so, to feed people and animals, to curb global warming, to preserve water and biodiversity. Besides, it gives jobs to people.
    I call it the Crocus Currency, it is awarded by the UN to governments, and can be distributed only to individuals: to small farmers and all agricultural employees, provided that food is produced in an ecological way ; to forest rangers and field scientists.
    See the operating principles here:

    Tell the IPCC and the UN! The Crocus Currency, a smart way to tackle climate change and feed people | Le Club de Mediapart

    To conclude, let me quote from the famous ecologist John D. Liu who said, when interviewed by Regeneration International (*):

    Question: If there were one behavior or habit of humans that you could magically change, what would it be?

    Liu: “It is clear right now that economics is driving today’s problems. There are a lot of assumptions in economics that are simply false. Economics now says that extraction, manufacturing, buying and selling can create wealth. This is bullshit. We are creating poverty by doing this. We are creating degradation of the landscapes. So few people in a tiny minority are accumulating vast material possessions in this system, while billions of people are living in abject poverty at the edges of large degraded ecosystems. Others can no longer even stay in their homes, and millions of people are migrating to escape from the horrible conditions. Well this cannot work. This must change.

    What I have noticed is that ecological function is vastly more valuable than extraction, production, consumption, and buying and selling things.

    What we really need to understand is: “What is money?” If I were going to leave one thing for the people to think about it is this: What is money? What is it?

    It is basically a storehouse of value, a means of exchange, and a trust mechanism. That means it is an abstract concept; it can be anything that we want it to be. If we say that money comes from ecological function instead from extraction, manufacturing buying and selling, then we have a system in which all human efforts go toward restoring, protecting and preserving ecological function.

    That is what we need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, to ensure food security, to ensure that human civilizations survive. Our monetary system must reflect reality. We could have growth, not from stuff, but growth from more functionality. If we do that and we value that higher than things, we will survive.”

    * Meet John D. Liu, the Indiana Jones of Landscape Restoration | Regeneration International

    I hope you like this idea!
    Hélène Nivoix,

  3. David Jones March 9, 2017 at 2:43 pm #

    First, I just want to thank John for the 2050 Conference and other valuable efforts towards a synthesis.

    I was struck by a recent article in the Guardian claiming that a large majority of Americans surveyed believed in AGW yet did not feel it was an “imminent” threat. This failure to communicate the science points to confusion on the climate left and success of capitalism’s ideologues.John’s apology for “catastrophism” articulates this most clearly.

    How critical a problem can it be if the Presidential candidates were not asked about it once, or if the NYTimes has not seen fit to squeeze in a mention between it’s All Trump/All the Time coverage? If your house is on fire, do you talk about the weather to the fire truck dispatcher, as the Big Green groups do to their members? A little solar here, a little insulation there, and we’ll be just fine! So wary of sounding “alarmist”, they instead dull the truth and avoid mention of feedback loops or tipping points. Most people are left with the impression the problem is linear.

    Which brings me to the Green Party. How would a Climate Party be different (or would we meld) and why should we expect different results? I think such a party could have value as a vehicle for promoting an eco-socialist agenda, but I would not expect to gain power through the electoral process. Mc Kibben and others are calling for increased state intervention (WWII style mobilization). I would push this to include state ownership of energy resources and production. As for tax and dividend, after much reflection I have come to oppose this because it reinforces market ideology rather than democratic planning.

    Last point: the crisis will intensify with increasing Moments of possible rupture. My un-popular stance is we should help to “heighten the contradictions” to move the disintegration along. At any rate, let’s agree on a vision to insert when the vacuum opens.

  4. David W Schwartzman March 8, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    Thanks John Foran for your excellent post highlighting both the urgency of the climate crisis and the imperative of creating a global Subject strong enough to confront this challenge. Yes, of course a concrete strategy should be discussed, and obviously this movement must begin now under real existing capitalism. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about creating a Global Green New Deal, as a basis for ecosocialist intervention, not relying on green capital for salvation, but rather as a more favorable terrain for pushing demilitarization and solarization of the global economy and agroecologies replacing industrial/GMO agriculture, along the lines outlined for a just transition by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. Overcoming the obstacle of the Military Industrial Complex is critical to having any remaining chance to avoid climate catastrophe while opening up an ecosocialist transition, ending the rule of capital. I addressed this in my chapter in Socialist Register 2017 and earlier papers in Capitalism Nature Socialism.

  5. John Foran March 8, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    John Foran replies to his comrades:

    Ah, never a dull moment among ecosocialist comrades! I should like to start by sincerely thanking all of you for commenting, and Ian for both publishing the piece and answering my critics. It seems to be one of those cases where the discussion provoked by the piece could turn out to be more important than the original piece!

    I should also mention that the piece wasn’t written for an ecosocialist audience, or even a climate justice activist audience, and that is important for a better understanding of what it does and doesn’t do.

    It was originally drafted as a sample 1,000-word op-ed type piece for an organization called the Scholars Strategy Network which I was invited to join. A look at their website and work shows it is a very worthy project by left-of-center (sometimes not very far from center, in the American context, whatever that means now, since clearly the center does not hold, and RIP to that) U.S.-based academics who want to take their scholarship out of the hallowed halls and into the public (mostly policy-making) realm.

    So, I took it as a challenge to lay out the case for why that realm is not going to keep the planet from cooking us all, and that therefore we need to consider something a little more radical – namely a revolutionary social movement of a kind never before seen.

    That said, I think it’s a little unrealistic to expect me to lay out a strategy much beyond that (and I know that is baby-stuff ABCs for any activist, let alone seasoned ecosocialist).

    We don’t have such a strategy, comrades, or at least we’ve never agreed on one (and I am willing to bet we can’t, so factor that into your strategy too). But we do have a movement full of capable, energetic, smart, 21st century, mostly-young human beings from all over the world, and that is where I am doing my best to help it grow as one of the currents that will feed into a bigger network that might “somehow form the biggest, broadest, most effective global social movement the world has ever seen.”

    This is not child’s play. It is not an outcome of sitting at a desk and devising a strategy based on the correct analysis.

    And though it was a little lost between the lines, there is in fact a new(ish) strategy proposed for discussion and debate here among ecosocialists: to begin to address the dilemma that we can neither abandon electoral politics nor play the game under its current rules – a bit of a seemingly impossible situation like the need to arrest catastrophic climate chaos (yes, I am a catastrophist – meaning I can understand the science) in the next ten to fifteen years by overthrowing capitalism, because say what you will about Nomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (and I think that’s correct as a title), her subtitle is even more to the point: it’s now Capitalism versus the Climate.

    Which for 21st-century democratic ecosocialists means that our best chance of overthrowing capitalism in the past 150 years is to help build a radical, intersectional, global movement for climate justice.

    Oh, and the starting point, or perhaps the end point: “to find ways to turn this movement power into political power, and to do so in an era of people’s lack of confidence in existing parties of all kinds. It seems likely that we are talking about some new kind of party that comes out of the social movements that will bring it to power and then is held accountable by them as it turns the ship around.”

    Let’s stay tuned, and stay (arguing and ACTING) together. It’s going to be an awesome journey.

  6. Jeff White March 7, 2017 at 7:50 pm #

    “Our purpose,” says Foran, “should be to force governments and corporations to do what must be done.”

    I had something more ambitious in mind. Like taking over those governments and abolishing those private corporations. Putting all of them under democratic control and collective ownership. In other words, a kind of social change a bit more “radical” than anything the Zapatistas, the Occupy Movement, or the Arab Spring ever came up with.

    • John Foran March 8, 2017 at 10:42 am #

      Sorry, I meant by doing exactly what you say here!

  7. Anders Ekeland March 7, 2017 at 11:38 am #

    This text is just an illustration of why there is no movement that is really getting emissions dow. It is held on a very general, intentional level. The author does not pose one single critica analytical question.

    The text is just yet another article describing what kind of movement we need, not any real analysis of why it does not exist.

    The author could have started asking “Is there a strategy, a political “line” out there that has the key elements necessary to be that basis of a broad mobilisation”?.

    If yes – who has then articulated this strategy? Why is there not a broad concencus around that strategy?

    The closes to a concrete slogan the author comes is “System change, not climate change”. But this is clearly not a “transitional” slogan. In my opinion it is just a sign that given the severity and urgency of the problem – part of the potential movement has gone into ultra-leftism.

    But what about Standing Rock and Ende Gelände – the Blockupy/Blockadia strategy?

    But can that become more than a heroic figths?

    But suppose we were successfull in reducing the supply of fossil fuel significantly – that would rise the price of carbon – of gasoline and all other products dependent on fossil fuel.

    Such a general price rice due to reduced supply of fossil fuel would hit the poor harder than the rich, i.e. socially unjust. Just like any other way of increasing the price of carbon (emission trading, carbon tax). Without a redistribution mechanism, more expensive carbon (and less use and less emissions) is directly contrary the material interest of the working class, the poorer, the more so.

    Can you the working class for such an unjust policy – no, and then it follows that you cannot win the “battle of the climat either”.

    Is the idea of a carbon fee and dividend, formulated by the worlds most famous climate scientist and supported by John Bellamy Foster and Ian Angus a solution, a “line”?

    The author writes as if that “exit strategy” does not exist – and consequently cannot analyse the politcal resistance to this strategy by people like Daniel Tanuro, Andreas Malm and Richard Smith.

    If such key left activists do not agree – how can you build a broad movement?

    So if there is only one way out – the article above does at least not point it out, not even i the broadest outline.

    If we continue to write such very well intended, but way to general analysis we will not make much progress. That’s for sure.

    First of all we need to discuss the very real disagreements about strategy and tactics.

    • Ian Angus March 7, 2017 at 6:00 pm #

      Anders — Knowing John Foran well, I’m sure that he agrees that all of the issues you raise are important and must be addressed.

      But in this article, he addresses an issue you don’t mention — the view, held by many (perhaps most) environmentalists, that we can and should depend on capitalist governments and corporations to solve the global crisis. I think he did a very good job of concisely explaining why that won’t work. His article is a useful resource for ecosocialist activists who need to discuss with people who have not yet reached such conclusions.

      You simply list issues that he didn’t intend to discuss. With respect, that’s not particularly useful. If you have insights into ““Is there a strategy, a political ‘line’ out there that has the key elements necessary to be that basis of a broad mobilization?” I encourage you to share them, rather than just complaining that others aren’t doing so.

      • Phil Ward March 8, 2017 at 10:17 am #

        I’m afraid I agree with Anders Ekeland: the article misses out what goes between “build a big movement” and “system change, not climate change”. Anyone who is convinced by these arguments that we should not “depend on capitalist governments and corporations to solve the global crisis” (Ian, above), will presumably ask what measures a non-capitalist government could implement, or what goals aside from the almost content-less “system change, not climate change” this movement should have.

        Where I disagree with Anders is that the carbon fee and dividend is the best (or even an effective) option. As John Foran observes the coming crisis “means homes lost, famine, early deaths, poor health, social disruptions, and conflicts (think wars, civil wars, overthrows of governments, and the like)”. What this suggests to me is that a major crunch is looming, which will involve a huge squeeze on (especially) energy supplies and food supplies. Such crunches in the past, especially leading up to and during the second world war, were met by drastic, repressive emergency measures on the part of the capitalist governments (and indeed that war, as well as being a cause of the critical situation was a response to the crises in the 1930s).

        The idea that a tax on carbon that raises the price of gasoline by $1 per gallon – when it has already jumped that much at least twice in the past several years – is going to have a significant impact on carbon emissions looks unrealistic to me.

        Socialists need to work out their own, democratic, pro-working class measures that are capable of dealing with the problem with the hope of them becoming aims of the Big Movement. The centre of this must be a much lower level of economic activity – less stuff, less pollution, less energy wasted on tack – and a turn away from human satisfaction through things to improving the quality of life through human interaction. Then it may be possible to use resources sustainably to satisfy the basic needs for housing, food, education and health of those who currently do not have those needs met.

        Along with these measures, it should be possible to have a shorter working week and work sharing. But we need to be realistic: even if a workers’ government implements the measures needed to combat climate change, there will be a lot of dislocation and discomfort and probably disasters too. That is the nature of the crisis facing us. Under capitalism, if they ever do seriously try to tackle climate change, which I doubt will happen, the policies they adopt to do so (and to confront the mass movement facing them) will be very nasty indeed.

        • Anders Ekeland March 12, 2017 at 11:57 pm #

          Phil W. and I have discussed the carbon fee and dividend (CFD) before, so let me be brief:

          I cannot understand why he only mentiones that 1 USD as that was the whole CFD. One can start as “aggressiv” as one wants, and the price of carbon will be ever increasing, so there will be huge effects. Just remember what happened to cars and research in renewable energy after the OPEC price “shocks”

          While agree that global warming will lead to more catastrophes, I cannot – regrettably see why it should lead to a sqeeze on energy supplies. There is still to much relatively cheap fossil fuel out there, so neither peak oil or peak coal will come to the rescue of the climate.

          After having ditched CFD Phil starts the same favourite left wing sport of describing what should be the characteristics of the solution without making it very concrete:

          “Socialists need to work out their own, democratic, pro-working class measures that are capable of dealing with the problem with the hope of them becoming aims of the Big Movement.”

          Well – we have had a couple of decades to “work out” those kind of demands – and I have not seen much that has been cutting the gordian knot that when you reduce the supply of fossil fuel – you rise prices – which is socially unjust and consequently and correctly difficult to get working people to support.

          But besides people like John Bellamy Foster and partially Noame Klein, a progressive carbon tax is a no-no, a proposal not discussed in the left of the climate movement.

          In my opinion this is really an obstacle to creating the movement needed.

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