Climate Change and Class Conflict

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by Chris Harman

In the past two years the question of climate change has moved from the margins of mainstream political debate to the centre. Hardly a week goes by without some international meeting discussing it. Politicians and corporations of all hues now declare their commitment to do something; even George Bush admits that there is a problem.

There is a mixture of motives here. Tory leader David Cameron’s installation (and subsequent removal) of a rooftop micro wind generator, involves pure publicity seeking. But some of those who run world capitalism understand that the environment on which their system depends is in danger of disintegrating within a generation or two.

There is no longer much dispute about what is happening. A build-up of certain gases in the atmosphere is causing the average temperature across the world to rise with potentially catastrophic consequences. New weather patterns will affect the crops we rely on for food. The likelihood of storms and droughts will increase. Ice caps will melt. Rising sea levels threaten to flood low lying regions such as the Nile Delta, Bangladesh and parts of Florida (and eventually central London and Manhattan).

Most of the gases responsible are produced by burning carbon (in the form of coal) and hydrocarbons (in the form of petroleum products). This is the source of nearly all the energy on which present day society depends.

There are various difficult calculations showing what may happen if the build-up of these gases continues, but there is now widespread agreement on a range within which global temperatures will increase and on the likely effects. Estimates are provided, for instance, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and were contained in the British government’s Stern Review last October, although some scientific research suggests these understate the problem.

The Stern Review and the European Union argue that temperatures have to be prevented from rising by any more than two degrees Celsius. A two-degree increase would cause immense problems for people in the poorest parts of the world and anything higher would be devastating for them. But present policies will not hold temperature rises below even this limit. The concentration of gases causing global warming can be measured in parts per million (ppm) of “carbon dioxide equivalents”. At present this is 459 ppm. The IPCC estimates that if the level reaches 510 ppm there is a one in three chance of the temperature rise exceeding two degrees; if the level reaches 590 ppm there is a nine out of ten chance.

Yet the emissions target of the Stern Review is 550 ppm. That of the British government is 666 ppm (if all greenhouse gases and not just carbon dioxide are included). This, according to author and activist George Monbiot, gives a 60 to 95 percent chance of a three degrees Celsius increase in warming and a likelihood of very dangerous climate change.

Last month’s G8 meeting in Rostock did not even accept these targets. After declaring there was a major problem, the world’s leaders postponed even beginning to do anything about it for two years. Even then all they will consider will be an attempt to halve emissions of the gases leading to climate change by 2050, whereas an 80 percent cut in emissions would be required to have a chance of keeping global warming below two degrees.

The roots of the problem

Governments and businesses have a genuine interest in stopping climate change, just as their predecessors a century and a half ago had a genuine interest in dealing with typhoid and cholera in slum working class districts in order to stop the diseases affecting upper class districts as well.

What is at stake for them now is greater. Not just their lives are threatened, but the stability of global capitalism. But they cannot achieve their goal without trying to dampen down the momentum of competitive capital accumulation, the very basis of their system.

Environmental degradation has always been a consequence of capitalism. Karl Marx showed this in the chapter on machinery in Capital: “Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction.”

In early 19th century Britain the damage to the health and fitness of the working class caused by the drive for profit posed more of a danger to the capitalists than the infectious diseases themselves. It threatened eventually to create a shortage of workers fit enough to be exploited. The interests of the capitalist class as a whole lay in legislation and state inspection to prevent the debilitation of the workforce. But individual capitalist interests fought tooth and nail against such measures. Most of them only understood that a healthy working class was more exploitable than an unhealthy one after the state imposed controls.

Capitalism has now reached out to envelop the whole world and it damages not only localities but the global environment on which it depends. The factory fumes causing bronchitis in working class tenements have now become greenhouses gases threatening to devastate the whole of humanity.

It is precisely because this is a global problem, that those who support the system find it difficult to deal with. The drastic measures needed to reduce emissions will present opportunities for other firms and states to intrude on markets. Capitalism is in the situation of destroying the very ground on which it stands. Our futures – or at least our children’s or grandchildren’s futures – are also at stake.

How should we respond?

There are those who say that the only possible response is to see climate change as the issue that overshadows all others. Everything else has to be subordinated to building a campaign such as has never been seen before in an effort to force governments and firms to take the necessary action.

But campaigns focused purely on climate change will not be the answer to the problem. They can raise awareness of what is happening, but this is not the same as providing an organised force capable of imposing solutions. The most successful single issue campaigns, such as the anti-war movement, mobilise tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of people. In this way they can exert pressure sometimes sufficient to force governments to retreat from unpopular measures, or even, on occasions, to force the adoption of beneficial measures.

This is shown by the way the anti-war movement has increased the difficulties the US and British governments face waging war on Iraq. But for deep-seated change more is needed – there must be a power capable of imposing its will on strong capitalist interests. The people who have twice bombed Baghdad to defend their domination of the world’s oil supplies will not be beaten simply by public opinion.

This is especially the case with climate change. The carbon economy is intertwined with every aspect of the system’s functioning, including the lives of those of us living within it. Recognition of this leads many environmental activists to the conclusion that the only solution is for people to change their individual lifestyles. Since we all depend on carbon based energy, we all seem to be part of the problem.

But solutions based on this way of thinking cannot work. It is not just a question of people individually being selfish. For the great mass of people there are no other ways to fulfil our basic needs at present. You can think (as I do) that is irrational that individuals go to work encased in a tonne of metal propelled by pumping out carbon dioxide. But there is little choice but the private car for workers without access to proper public transport.

There are brilliant designs for carbon neutral homes, but hundreds of millions across the world do not live in such homes and cannot afford to buy new ones. In practice the easiest means for individuals to avoid using carbon-derived energy – low energy light bulbs or remembering to turn the computer off – have almost as much effect on combating climate change as spitting on the soil in dealing with the effect of a drought.

Recognition of such realities leads people who once looked upon individual actions as the solution to look to the state for action. This is what George Monbiot does in his generally excellent book Heat. He shows that only the world’s states can bring about the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to end climate change without a fall in people’s living standards. What he does not show is how to create the agency, the active mass force, that can compel the governments of the world’s most polluting states to implement such measures. He puts forward a generally excellent political programme for a political force that does not exist.

Can such a force be created through the usual forms of electoral politics? The effort to create it comes up against the same powerful obstacle that makes individual solutions impossible. Environmental activists can end up tailoring their demands to what they think can be achieved without too great a disturbance to the present system. So they lobby for countries to sign up to the Kyoto agreement on the grounds that “at least it is a beginning”, even though it has not stopped greenhouse gas emissions soaring. Or they join governments that have no intention of taking serious measures against climate change, as the Irish Green Party has just done.

What are governments up to?

The G8 meeting showed different governments taking apparently very different approaches. Even some of the most committed neoliberals, such as Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair claimed to want the controls which George Bush vetoed.

This reflected the fact that some capitalist economies are marginally less dependent on carbon energy than others. The western European states, for instance, are less profligate in carbon use than the US because historically they have not had oil supplies of their own and have sought to keep consumption low. France has massive nuclear energy facilities. Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions were declining because of the halving of manufacturing industry. So European states can press for limited controls knowing it will hit their global competitors – the gas-guzzling US or the rapidly expanding Chinese economy – harder than themselves. But they still shy away from the far-reaching controls necessary to prevent climate change. Instead they favour “emissions trading” and “carbon offset” schemes which allow the big polluters to continue as before, providing they encourage some emission-reducing scheme somewhere else in the world.

Planting trees as supposed “carbon sinks” which absorb carbon dioxide is a favourite – even though trees die and decompose, releasing carbon gases. The market in this case, as in so many others, is not an effective mechanism. Firms that are expert at fiddling their books to avoid paying taxes can easily find ways to fiddle their emissions.

Particular governments promote the alternatives that are most advantageous to their own specific capitalist interests. One reason for Bush’s sudden conversion to biofuels is that they open up the prospect of immensely enhanced profits for US agribusiness. Millions of acres which were making only average profits by producing food now stand to make superprofits by turning out an alternative to petrol. Multinational corporations that control vast swathes of land in tropical Third World countries are looking forward to producing diesel from oil seed plants.

This is already having an important impact. It is raising food prices worldwide at the fastest rate since the 1970s, according to the Financial Times, even though biofuel use is only equivalent to 1 percent of petroleum use. In the medium term it can do much worse than this. It can lead to a depletion of the world’s grain and oil seed reserves just as changing weather patterns due to climate change increase the likelihood of harvest failures in some of the major food producing regions. The result would not only be price rises but famine, affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Class conflict

There is an important general conclusion to be drawn from the biofuel example. By damaging the very environment on which the capitalist system depends for its continued expansion and accumulation, climate change is going to open enormous fissures within the system.

Sudden changes in climate impinge on people’s lives on a massive scale and create immense social and political tensions. All the class and racial contradictions in US society came to the fore with the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. In Darfur the combination of drought and imperialist meddling caused agriculturalists and herders who had coexisted peacefully for generations to turn on each other in civil war.

Climate scientists rightly warn that we cannot say with certainty that a single weather event like Katrina or the Darfur drought is a result of global warming. But what we can say with certainty is that climate change will produce many, many cases like those.

Earlier this year Mexico City saw an enormous protest – the “tortilla march” – over the cost of the country’s staple foodstuff. Its price was soaring as the maize from which it is made is increasingly turned into biofuel. Filling SUV fuel tanks in California was causing hunger in Mexico. We can expect many similar protests in the years ahead-battles pitting class against class and also, it is to be feared, state against state and ethnic or religious groups against one another.

There have been previous instances of civilisations collapsing due to ecological devastation as did the Maya civilisation that flourished in southern Mexico around 1,200 years ago. Over-farming of the land led to a decline in fertility until starvation threatened the mass of people. But the upper classes did not suffer in the same way, and bitter class struggles erupted which tore society apart as people were forced to abandon their old way of life.

It will not be any different as climate change takes effect. There is unlikely to be one great movement, but there will be 1001 struggles as different classes respond to the impact. The real issues in these struggles may often seem complex. Capitalists and states will react to the need to do something about greenhouse gases by price and tax measures that inevitably hit the living standards of the poor (just as Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge allows the rich to drive more easily through central London).

So there will be protests, strikes and uprisings whose immediate goal will be to reverse such price rises. The underlying motivation could be a strong sense of class grievance, yet these movements can also be manipulated by sections of the ruling class to advance the capitalists’ interests in producing greater emissions. And there will be many, many cases when states and capitalists take measures to hurt the living standards of the mass of people, but disguise them as methods of addressing climate change.

Faced with these struggles, there will be a particular onus on those who see climate change as resulting from the blind advance of capitalist accumulation to understand their class dynamic. That means trying to give struggles a direction that protects people’s living standards and conditions while at the same time presenting real alternatives to pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The only sure protection against climate change is the replacement of a society based on accumulation for profit with one based on production for need. But that will not come about if we wait for it. The impact of climate change will cause an intensification of all the struggles bred by capitalism, just as it will cause spasmodic protests over particular climate change issues. There is only one way to build the forces needed to put an end to the system that creates climate change. That is through participation in all these struggles, pulling them together into a force that can challenge capitalism as a whole.

Reprinted, with permission, from Socialist Review, July-August 2007


  • Chris is right to recognise climate change as a profound crisis of capitalism. However, he does little to break with what has become an unfortunate tradition among Marxists (not shared by Marx and Engels themselves incidentally) which is to counterpose the class struggle to the struggle for ecological sustainability. We are therefore advised by Chris that ‘campaigns focused purely on climate change will not be the answer to the problem.’ Of course they won’t, in and of themselves. But then neither will campaigns focused purely on fascism or on War in Iraq. Chris’s approach ignores three crucial factors. Firstly, increasing numbers of workers and youth around the globe are radicalising on precisely this issue, and should be actively encouraged to do so. Secondly, the emergence of a global mass movement raising what is in fact a transitional demand (for sustainable production) will, because of its impact on social consciousness, tend to strengthen the anti-capitalist dynamic of all the other struggles that Chris refers to. And thirdly, if socialists follow Chris’s advice and stand aloof from this emerging movement, they will in effect be abdicating leadership to the very same pro-market, individualist and liberal environmentalists that Chris rightly criticises in his article. Socialists are right to build ‘campaigns focused solely on climate change’ just as we are right to build campaigns focused solely on smashing fascism or on getting imperialist troops out of Iraq. It is the tried and tested tactic of the united front. What is particularly encouraging in the current period is that so many socialists acknowledge our traditional weakness on environmental issues and are starting to regroup internationally as ecosocialists. I very much hope that Chris will be part of this regroupment.

  • Comment received by email from Jane Kelly:I agree with Liam’s comments. Chris Harman’s article is a good summary of the situation and shows clearly the impossibility of capitalism being able to even start to resolve the problems. But his remarks on ‘How should we respond?’ reveal contradictions in his analysis. If, as he says, ‘campaigns focused purely on climate change will not be the answer’ why does he follow this by suggesting that the huge demonstrations organised by Stop the War did put pressure on Blair over the war against Iraq? Of course it’s true that if capitalism cannot deliver it will need to be defeated and replaced by a socialist society, but we have to build a movement against climate change in the here and now – not by dropping everything else we are doing, but as a major part of our work of socialists. It requires, as Liam says, a new system of alliances, and unless socialists put real forces into building these alliances we will be part of the problem rather than the solution.

  • A pretty good article with a politically weak conclusion which essentially says “let’s carry on doing what we’ve always done.” The struggles to which Chris refers will have very incoherent leaderships often with contradictory and reactionary ideas. One of the things that socialists who want to participate in and lead these struggles in a progressive direction will need to do is to seriously develop an ecosocialist critique of 21st century capitalism and start creating new systems of alliances.