Movement Building

Does fighting climate change require postponing the fight for system change?

Should ecosocialists put aside calls for radical social change until after we win reforms that solve the climate crisis within capitalism? 


by John Molyneux

Time is always an important factor in politics and history but never has it mattered as much as on the issue of climate change.

The IPCC Report’s warning in October 2018 that the world has twelve years to avoid climate disaster was undoubtedly a major factor in galvanizing a global wave of climate change activism, especially in the form of Greta Thunberg and mass school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion movement. At the same it is clear that this warning could be, and was, “heard” or interpreted in different ways by different people. In this article I want consider some of those interpretations and their implications, particularly in relation to the question of whether there is time to bring about system change or whether, because time is so short, it is necessary to focus on and settle for changes that can be implemented within the framework of capitalism.

Before coming to that, however, I want to suggest that many an opportunist politician will have heard the twelve year warning quite differently from Greta and her followers. To them twelve years would be a very long time indeed: three US Presidential terms, two full length parliamentary terms in Britain and many other countries; in other words more than enough time to fulfill your ambitions, secure your place in the history books or, at least, secure your pension and several directorships, before anything serious would have to be done at all. The only practical implication of the twelve year warning would be the need to set up various commissions, draw up some action plans, attend a few conferences and generally engage in a certain amount of greenwashing. Should you be the CEO of a major oil, gas or car company exactly the same would apply.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there were large numbers of people, especially young people, who “heard” the warning as meaning that there is literally, only twelve years to prevent global extinction.

These are not equivalent misreadings: the first is utterly cynical and immensely damaging to humans and nature alike; the second is naive but well-intentioned. But they are both misreadings of what the report said and of what climate change is. Climate change is not an event that may or may not happen in 2030 and which might be averted by emergency action at the last minute, but a process which is already underway. Every week, month or year of delay in reducing carbon emissions exacerbates the problem and makes it harder to tackle. By the same token, there is no absolute deadline after which it will be too late to do anything and we might as well give up the ghost.

The focus of the IPCC Report was not on “extinction” but mainly on what would be required to hold global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels and what would be the likely effects of allowing it to reach 2ºC. What it actually stated in its Summary for Policy Makers was:

“Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.”

And it added, fairly obviously you might think, that:

“Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.”[1]

I don’t quote these passages because I regard the IPCC Report as a sacred text or by any means the last word on these matters. On the contrary it seems to me clear that the Report was conservative in its predictions — not surprising since its method required consensus among thousands of scientists — and in reality global warming and, crucially, its effects are proceeding at a faster rate than the IPCC expected.[2]

My purpose is rather to show that according to the IPCC and to any serious understanding of climate change what we are facing is not a cliff edge over which we all fall in 2030, or any other exactly predictable date, but a rapidly intensifying process with increasingly catastrophic effects. Within that process there will most likely be tipping points at which the pace of change accelerates very rapidly and certain shifts become irreversible, but no one knows exactly when they will be and even then we will still be talking about a process not an immediate total extinction.

A correct, scientifically based, understanding of this process is vital. As activists it is probably not helpful to be engaged in some kind of countdown — we now have only ten years, nine years, eight years — left to save the planet, as if there were a fixed time line. Nor do we want to be called out for crying wolf when the world fails to end. It is also important as a foundation for addressing the crucial question of whether there is time for system change.

The argument that there is insufficient time for “system change,” by which I mean the overthrow of capitalism, has been around a long time in the environmental movement, since well before the 12 year warning. I remember it being put forcefully (and angrily) against a rather hapless Trotskyist in the Campaign Against Climate Change when I was first involved with it in the early noughties. “There is no time to wait for your revolution’, he was told.

Now, of course, this “no-time” argument can be used as a cover by people who are actually pro-capitalist but it can also be put in good faith by people who would welcome the replacement of capitalism if they thought it a practical possibility. As an example, consider Alan Thornett, a socialist whose lifelong commitment to the anti-capitalist struggle cannot be doubted. In his recent book, Facing the Apocalypse, he writes:

“The standard solution advanced by most on the radical left … is the revolutionary overthrow of global capitalism — by implication within the next twelve years because that is how long we have to do it….

“Such an approach is maximalist, leftist and useless. We can all, as socialists, vote to abolish capitalism with both hands, and this is indeed our long-term objective. But as an answer to global warming within the next 12 years it makes no sense.

“It amounts to a ‘credibility gap’: while catastrophic climate change is indeed just around the corner, the same can hardly be said with any credibility of global socialist revolution — unless I have been missing something. It may not be impossible but it is far too remote a prospect to provide an answer to global warming and climate change…..

“Put bluntly, if the overturn of global capitalism in the 12 remaining years is the only solution to global warming and climate change, then there is no solution to global warming and climate change.”[3]

Alan here expresses very clearly the argument I want to contest.

The first thing to be said is that for serious socialists and Marxists (beginning with Marx, Engels and Rosa Luxemburg) the struggle for revolution is not counter posed to the struggle for reforms on any issue. Rather revolution is something that grows out of the struggle for concrete demands.[4]

Just as Marxists combine the belief that the only solution to exploitation is the abolition of the wages system with support for the trade union struggle for wage increases and better work conditions, so they can fight for immediate demands such as free public transport, leaving fossil fuels in the ground and massive investment in renewable energies at the same time as advocating ecosocialist revolution. In this way the possibility of an ecologically sustainable capitalism is put to a practical test.

But this does not exhaust the issue. If revolution is seen as too remote and unlikely a development to be advanced as a solution then climate activists should focus virtually all their energies simply on winning reforms rather than on arguing and organizing for revolution. Moreover, the focus would be overwhelmingly on reforms on only this question. What would be the point, except abstract morality, of focusing on issues such as workers rights at work, anti-racism, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights etc., when the survival of humanity was at stake in the next few years?

If, however, the estimate is that capitalism will prove un- or insufficiently reformable in this regard, then it is necessary to combine ecosocialist campaigning with revolutionary activism, propaganda and organisation on a broader front, recognising that revolution will require the mass mobilization of working people on numerous issues and their unification in the face of numerous strategies of divide-and-rule.

Consequently, three real questions arise:

  1. How likely is it that climate change can be halted or contained by reforms on the basis of capitalism?
  2. How “remote” is the possibility of socialist revolution?
  3. Are there alternatives to this binary choice?

On the first question I and other ecosocialists (notably John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, Michael Lowy, Martin Empson, Amy Leather etc) have argued repeatedly and at length that the possibility of dealing with climate change on a capitalist basis is remote in the extreme, whether in twelve years, twenty years or forty years.[5]

I will not rehearse all the arguments here but simply say that capitalism is a system, inherently and inexorably driven by competitive capital accumulation into a collision course with nature, and the fossil fuel industries — oil, gas and coal — play such a central role in that capital accumulation that there is no realistic prospect of capitalism being able to end its dependence on them.

On the second question I admit that if the future, say the next twelve years, resembles the immediate past, say the last fifty years, the possibility of international socialist revolution does indeed appear very remote. But the very fact of climate change guarantees that the next decade is NOT going to resemble the past. On the contrary precisely the conditions brought about by global warming — increasingly unbearable heat, droughts, fires, storms, floods etc — will transform the level of awareness among the mass of people of the need to end capitalism and the possibility of revolution.

The fact that the worsening climate crisis will be accompanied by a wider environmental crisis (in a multitude of forms), deepening and recurring economic crisis (as is evident right now)and increased international geo-political and military tension (for example with China and Russia) will compound this.

Here the fact established at the beginning of this article that the “twelve years” is not and cannot be an exact or final deadline is very important. If, as I think is overwhelmingly likely, capitalism is unable to hold warming to 1.5ºC this will not mean, as Alan Thornett suggests, that the game is up and the struggle is over, but that all the conditions and disasters outlined above will intensify and in the process increase the likelihood of mass revolt and revolution.

Many people find it possible to imagine a revolution in one country but find the idea of international or global revolution implausible. If by international revolution is meant a simultaneous worldwide coordinated rebellion this indeed extremely unlikely but this was never the scenario envisaged by advocates of international revolution. Rather it is that beginning in one country — Brazil or Egypt, Ireland or Italy — revolution could and would spread to other countries in a long but continuous series of struggles. This is a prospect that is actually reinforced by the experience of recent waves of struggle.

First, there was the Arab Spring in 2011 which witnesses a chain reaction of uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria before also inspiring lesser but still significant revolts with the Indignados in Spain and Occupy in the US. Then there was the wave of mass rebellions across the globe in 2019 — the French Yellow vests, Sudan, Haiti, Hong Kong, Algeria, Puerto Rico, Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon etc.[6] Plus there was the global spread of School Student strikes and, this year, even in the midst of Covid, of Black Lives Matter.

What this makes clear is that in today’s globalized world revolts can spread internationally with amazing reach and rapidity. The international impact of a socialist revolution in any one country would be immense. This will be all the greater if there is a strong anti-climate change, ecological, element in the revolution — as there will be — because whatever the debates about socialism in one country in the past, it will be abundantly clear that no revolution in South Africa or France, Indonesia or Chile will be able to tackle climate change while the US, China, Russia and India carry on with business as usual. Climate change is an international issue like no other in history.

In relation to the question of other alternatives to either making capitalism sustainable or its revolutionary overthrow there are two that suggest themselves: there is the perspective/strategy of transforming capitalism into socialism by means of winning a parliamentary election — what might be called the Corbyn strategy; there is the “alternative” of fascist/authoritarian barbarism. The first, unfortunately, is illusory; the second, even more unfortunately, is all too real.

What I have called the Corbyn strategy (as its most recent iteration) is in fact very old, going back at least to Karl Kautsky and the German Social Democratic Party before the First World War, and it has been subject to numerous practical tests with disastrous consequences whether in Germany itself, in Italy during the Red Years, in Chile in 1970-73, or with Syriza in Greece or indeed with Corbyn (except that he failed to achieve the necessary general election victory).

Superficially this strategy seems enormously more practical and plausible than revolution but in reality it is fundamentally flawed. The existing capitalist ruling class will not, either in any one country or internationally, vacate the stage i.e. surrender its power, on account of a socialist election victory. On the contrary it will deploy all its economic power (through investment strikes, flight of capital, runs on the currency etc.), its social and ideological hegemony especially through the media and, crucially, its control of the State to bring the would-be socialist government to heel or if necessary to destroy it.[7] Such sabotage could be resisted and overcome only by the revolutionary mobilization of the working class.

That is why this option, for all its progressive intentions, is an illusion; it will either become the revolution it was designed to render unnecessary or it will vanish into thin air.

When it comes to the fascist/authoritarian option, we know from bitter experience, the experience of Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Chile and elsewhere, that this is a real possibility, in many respects the opposite side of the coin of the failure of the reformist option. And as we look around the world today at capitalist system trapped in a multi- dimensional crisis we can see growing political polarization and the forces of the far right mustering in many different countries. It is a grim fact that three major countries (the US, Brazil and India) are under far right if not fully fascist control and that significant numbers of others are ruled by highly authoritarian regimes.

As the climate crisis grows, and with it the number of climate refugees, the authoritarian/fascist option will look increasingly attractive to panicking ruling classes and to some of their middle class supporters. In the long run fascism will not stop global warming but that failure may be on the far side of an ocean of barbarism.

To return to the question of is there time for system change: no one can predict the future with any precision[8] but by far the most likely scenario is that the accelerating climate and environmental crisis will intensify class struggle and political polarization across the board.

This process will mount as the world heads towards the 1.5ºC threshold and continue after it is crossed. The movement will have to deal not only with how we avert or stop climate change but also with how we deal with its devastating effects: with barbarity or solidarity?

Capitalism, in all its forms, will increasingly turn to barbarity; only system change, the replacement of capitalism with socialism, will permit a response based on working class and human solidarity.


John Molyneux is editor of Irish Marxist Review and a member of the Steering Committee of the Global Ecosocialist Network (GEN). A slightly different version of this article was first published on the GEN website.


Notes

[1] https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/

[2] See John Molyneux, “How fast is the climate changing?Climate & Capitalism, August 2, 2019.

[3] Alan Thornett, Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism, (Resistance Books, London. 2019), 95

[4]The most obvious example is the Russian Revolution which grew out of the demands for Bread, Land and Peace, but the same applies to virtually all mass revolutions.

[5] See for example John Molyneux, “Apocalypse Now! Climate change, capitalism and revolution’, Irish Marxist Review 25, 2019. http://www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/341/331 and Martin Empson ed. System Change not Climate Change, (Bookmarks, London, 2019).

[6] John Molyneux, “A New Wave of Global Revolt?Rebel, November 6, 2019.

[7] I argue this in depth in “Understanding Left Reformism,” Irish Marxist Review 6, 2013; and in Lenin for Today, (Bookmarks, London, 2017), Chapter 3.

[8] “In reality one can ‘scientifically’ foresee only the struggle but not the concrete moments of the struggle.” Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (Lawrence & Wishart, London 1971), 438.

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2 Responses to Does fighting climate change require postponing the fight for system change?

  1. David Schwartzman August 26, 2020 at 2:52 pm #

    Thanks John Molyneux for addressing these critically important issues! I posted this on Facebook, commenting on this article: “Hell no, these demands are essential to drive the reforms in question! And further to open up a path to a global ecosocialist transition.”

    John points to tipping points in the climate system kicking in with further warming. Reaching these tipping points will be more likely as 1.5 deg C is reached and surpassed at 2 deg C warming (e.g., Lenton et al., 2019). Climate catastrophe if it fully materializes will result in the collapse of civilization along with the end of the possibility of any kind of post capitalist society worthy of envisioning for a long time into the future.

    That is why action on the short timescale to act is so critical, hence an effective program to avoid these tipping points must begin now, under the rule of capital. We do not have the option to wait for a global eecosocialist transition to materially address this climate challenge, we must work to implement the beginnings of a Global Green New Deal (GGND) as a just green recovery out of the current deep crisis triggered by the COVID 19 pandemic as Andreas Malm has recently argued in “Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency”.

    John strongly supports the argument “that the possibility of dealing with climate change on a capitalist basis is remote in the extreme, whether in twelve years, twenty years or forty years.” I disagree because what is called the “capitalist basis” is itself subject to challenge before the capitalism system is terminated. Implicit in their assumption is that the capitalist state is simply a dictatorship of the bourgeois.

    In contrast, this state can be viewed as contested terrain contingent on the strength of working class driven class struggle, along the lines of Nicolas Poulantzas’ analysis. The class struggle over the valorization of labor power, including the global conditions for its reproduction, manifests itself in the balance of power in the capitalist state (see the discussion in chapter 9 of our book, The Earth is Not for Sale).

    So rather than the GGND being a dead end, I suggest that this strategy begins with a GGND of a Green Keynesian character, utilizing a broad front including green capital to defeat militarized fossil capital, thereby preparing the way for the next stage for a global ecosocialist transition led by the transnational working class and its allies, with class struggle being the driver from the inception of a GGND forward.

    Defeating militarized fossil capital is critical to make a truly just GGND, confronting the challenge of resource extraction especially in the global South, while ending energy poverty and having the capacity for effective climate mitigation and adaptation in a 100 percent global wind/solar energy transition. “Green” capital must be challenged all along the way, to optimize environmental, worker and community protection, while progressively eroding its power to manage this transition, until full social management is in place.

    To summarize, the struggle for radical reforms under the rule of capital is essential in the fight for system change because it is necessary to create sufficient global working class power to end this rule, in the vanishing time left to have any chance to avoid the 2 deg C tipping points leading to global climate hell. Cited: Lenton et al. 2019. Nature 575, 592-595.

  2. Philip Ward August 26, 2020 at 6:40 am #

    I think the argument about not having time-limited targets, or even target temperature rises, is a good one. It allows us to emphasise that the climate crisis is already well underway, while at the same time not allowing “missed targets” to demoralise the movement to combat climate change. It is also good that John Molyneux states that fighting climate change, despite its existential threat to humanity, is not the only struggle and that all struggles against exploitation and oppression, by opposing the capitalist system, contribute to the fight against climate change.

    I fully agree that socialist revolution is more likely to happen than capitalism solving the climate crisis. This is something I’ve argued since 1989 (https://climateandcapitalism.com/2008/06/14/the-ecological-crisis-and-its-consequences-for-socialists/). It is unfortunate that there are forces in the revolutionary socialist movement that still do not understand this, as it means that time that should be spent of clarifying other questions is wasted on arguments that could have been resolved years ago by a cursory look at the evidence, let alone any Marxist analysis of the nature of accumulation etc.

    What are those questions?

    Here are 3 that arise from John Molyneux’s aricle:
    1) Whether the climate crisis and the “conditions and disasters… [that it engenders]… will intensify and in the process increase the likelihood of mass revolt and revolution”. This is something that needs looking at in more detail: how climate change impinges on the consciousness of the exploited and oppressed and spurs them into action.

    2) Secondly, there is a difference between “revolt” and “revolution”, i.e. the question of leadership. John refers to a series of revolts that have taken place over the last decade or so. None of them were consciously socialist and for no socialist forces were any of these struggles their “1905”. How is a new revolutionary leadership going to be built? Revolt on its own is not enough (https://redmolerising.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/working-class-insurrection-and-dual-power-in-europe/).

    3) Climate and social justice and a much more ecological approach to extractivism require restriction of production and access to a great many things (including energy) for at least a billion people – the ruling class everywhere and large sections of the working class in the imperialist countries. Overcoming climate change is going to be very hard for those of us who’ve been used to these things. Most discussions of post-climate-change socialist future I’ve seen are completely utopian, romantic and unrealistic. We need to discuss how the “sacrifices” necessary to mitigate global heating are compatible with socialist democracy.

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