by Martin Empson
The release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis) presented us with a grim coincidence. The report was published as parts of the world were literally on fire. Wildfires in Turkey and Greece forced the evacuation of thousands of people, with dozens of phone videos capturing the same apocalyptic drama. The fires made it into Western news because they were happening in tourist hotspots. The disaster was made worse by the European Union’s neoliberal pro-market policies that have cut firefighting services in the name of austerity.
At the same time, and half a world away, fires in North America destroyed whole towns. The US National Interagency Fire Centre reported on 8 August that 39,267 wildfires across the country had burned over 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares). The scale defies belief. The center noted that historically the United States and Canada share firefighting resources, but that this year this had proved impossible as both countries were fighting too many fires. Both Mexico and Australia were loaning crew and equipment to Canada.
In Siberia, a place synonymous in accounts of Russian political exiles with cold and isolation, fires consumed one and a half million hectares. One villager told the Guardian “everything is on fire.” When the fires finally die away the dirty smoke is likely to leave tens of thousands with damaged lungs, as well as the inevitable destruction of homes, workplaces and agriculture.
Apocalypse via TikTok
As the world burns, it also faces floods, hurricanes and other disasters made worse by a warming world. For decades scientists have warned that climate change will make these so called “natural disasters” both more frequent and more intense. The reality of those words is now brought home to us on social media. We no longer have to wait until the evening news to see the apocalypse—it is shared with us on Tiktok by teenager reporters live from the disaster zone.
Back in 2006 former US vice president Al Gore released a film about climate change called an Inconvenient Truth. Watching it today it comes across as rather muted, but 15 years ago, Gore’s glorified PowerPoint presentation brought global warming to a big audience. At one point he explains how a warming world will disrupt earth systems that keep parts of the world habitable. Back at the end of the last Ice Age, Gore intones, a melting glacier in North America suddenly dumped fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean, shutting off one of the massive currents of warm water and plunging Europe into a thousand-year ice-age. With as much drama as Gore can muster he points to Greenland as a similar source of fresh water.
It was rhetorical moment that came back to me when, in the midst of fire season, news broke that a scientist, writing in Nature Climate Change, had identified early warning signs for the collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. If this happens, then we have much more to worry about than a long winter. This shutdown will lead to further accelerated changes increasing “the risk of a cascade of further transitions in other major multi-stable components of the Earth system, such as the Antarctic ice sheet, tropical monsoon systems and Amazon rainforest.”
Code red report
So the IPCC report drops in the midst of discussions about fires, floods, collapsing ocean conveyors and climatic tipping points. Suddenly everyone is talking about “Code Red.” The IPCC report itself is massive. Do not trust anyone who claims to have read its 3,949 pages. The Summary for Policy Makers is 42 pages and much more accessible.
It is worth summarizing what the IPCC says. The first thing they do is to make it clear that “human activity” is almost certainly responsible for all global warming we can see. Socialists, rightly, will quibble that not all humans are responsible – that it is a particular economic system which burns fossil fuels as part of a production system geared towards maximizing profits which is to blame. The authors of the IPCC report do not make this distinction, but the conclusions speak for themselves:
“In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years (high confidence), and concentrations of CH4 and N2O were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years (very high confidence). Since 1750, increases in CO2 (47%) and CH4 (156%) concentrations far exceed, and increases in N2O (23%) are similar to, the natural multi-millennial changes between glacial and interglacial periods over at least the past 800,000 years (very high confidence).”
Unlike the pseudo-scientific arm waving of the climate deniers, climate scientists understand that certainty is difficult in making predictions, so they assign confidences to their statements. The IPCC’s authors are very confident that they are detailing an extremely dangerous future.
Global capitalism has its roots in the 17th century, but its adoption of fossil fuels is associated with the industrial revolution which began in the mid 18th century. Capitalism began to transform our climate almost as soon as the first cotton mills and factories started burning coal to power their engines. As the system transformed the whole world into its own image, capitalism accelerated its environmental destruction. But there hasn’t been a linear degradation of the environment since the day James Watt perfected the steam engine. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, there was a qualitative increase in the systems environmental impact.
In his book Facing the Anthropocene, Ian Angus quotes the radical American academic and ecological thinker Barry Commoner who said that “something went wrong in the country after World War II, for most of our serious pollution problems either began in the post-war years or have greatly worsened since then.” Angus explains the reason for this:
“At the beginning of 1950, four key drivers of the long boom were in place: a powerful industrial base in the US…. a large and growing military budget; a disciplined and financially secure labour force… and a seemingly infinite supply of cheap energy.”
Almost every environmental indicator you can imagine—carbon dioxide emissions, deforestation rates, usage of fertilizer and water—shoots through the roof from the 1950s onwards.
Angus points to the economic basis for this acceleration after World War Two. But in the late 1970s the process was worsened by the widespread adoption of neoliberal policies. This politics saw systematic dismantling of environmental legislation, encouraged free trade and continued to subsidize fossil fuel use. Reagan’s infamous quote “If you’ve seen one redwood, you have seen them all” may be a paraphrase, but it encapsulates a neoliberal approach to nature.
A crisis made by neoliberalism
Today’s right-wing governments continue in the same vein. In the immediate aftermath of Jair Bolsonaro’s election as president of Brazil, he opened up the Amazon to the logging companies and big agriculture who had funded his campaign. More dangerously, the neoliberal approach is central to the global organizations that are supposed to be dealing with climate change.
The IPCC report doesn’t concern itself with the economic backdrop to the crisis it is describing. But it does give a sense of a deepening crisis. “Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered” say the IPCC. They continue: “Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”
These temperatures are, to a certain extent, arbitrary. Earth systems do not deal in absolute figures, but the numbers allow scientists to make predictions. According to a NASA summary from 2019, limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees means the number of people “frequently” experiencing “extreme heatwaves” would decrease by 420 million. Small differences will mean life and death for millions. The IPCC update their report to say that, in almost all their scenarios, “the central estimate of crossing the 1.5C global warming level lies in the early 2030s”. They note that this is ten years earlier than the prediction made in their 2018 report.
The world’s shocked response to the report came from these numbers. But climate the crisis has been with us for some time. Millions have already experienced environmental disasters in the last decades, especially in the Global South. The United Nations has an official estimate of around 20 million climate refugees today. The difference is that now the disaster was something that is affecting the sort of circles that newspaper editors moved in.
The contradictions of COP26
The scale of the crisis, the warnings of scientists and growing environmental movements have, at least, forced politicians to pay lip service to the climate. Six months before the start of the Glasgow COP26 talks, Boris Johnson said “we must be relentless in our ambition and determination” in order to “support the transition to net zero carbon emissions, kickstart a green industrial revolution, and build economies that withstand whatever our changing climate throws at us.”
COP26 is likely to be big on rhetoric but low on concrete policies. Cop talks take place annually. However, ever so often there is a more important one. Conferences in Copenhagen 2009 and Paris 2015 were supposed to be when transformative action began. Both were busts. Talk of a “last chance” at Glasgow is hollow, when similar rhetoric in the past has left the world wanting.
The politicians have a problem. Meaningful action on climate change means confronting the forces of capital. When fossil fuels run through every part of the economy, reducing their use—never mind stopping it entirely—will be a blow to capitalist profits. Capitalism needs workers to create surplus value, but those workers run machinery, commute to work, heat factories and houses, and power hospitals and call centers with fossil fuels. It is possible to replace fossil fuels with something else, but that’s never been allowed to happen. Challenging the likes of BP, Shell or Texaco is a confrontation with the system itself.
This is why, two days after the IPCC report was published, the White House issued a call for oil producing nations to produce more oil to keep prices down. Those who are disappointed in Joe Biden over this should remember that it was another “liberal” US president, Obama, who destroyed the negotiations at COP15 in Copenhagen for much the same reasons.
The central contradiction that our rulers face—the need to act on climate change while simultaneously not hampering the accumulation of capital—is why they turn to alternatives. Here in part is the reason for the “net zero” rhetoric. This environmental accounting trick relies on the idea that emissions can continue as long as they are offset elsewhere. These carbon markets work in the computer models of bourgeois economists. But, when the very forests that have been planted to offset emissions from companies like BP are burning, the rest of us have reason to feel cynical.
The other solution the capitalists have is technology. Innovation, together with the free-market, is their answer. This is what is behind Biden’s emphasis on electric cars—that and a need to keep US car manufacturers happy. Here again the reality of capitalism ruins the rhetoric. Technological solutions already exist but aren’t implemented because they undermine the existing capitalist infrastructure. We’ve had renewable energy technology capable of delivering the world’s energy needs for at least two decades, but it has not been implemented because it doing so would have upset the oil and coal executives. The technological solutions that the capitalists like are ones that allow the system to continue to function as it is, with a promised gradual transition to something more sustainable at some point in the future. Given their inability to fix the climate crisis it is no surprise the world’s billionaires have discovered space flight.
Radical alternatives from below
It is with some urgency then, that the left and the working class movement needs to put forward its own agenda. For many years socialists in the environmental movement have developed alternatives that show how we can reduce emissions while creating jobs in a sustainable economy. In many trade unions, the Campaign against Climate Change’s Million Climate Jobs report has become shorthand for this approach. Winning climate jobs though needs the activity of working people and their trade unions. It was not a program to be handed down from a sympathetic government, but something to fight for. Fighting for these changes would have meant an open confrontation with fossil fuel capitalism, and the prospect of a much broader fight against the system as a whole.
Capitalism can never be a sustainable system. The logic of competition means the system must continually expand. Capitalism means trying to fit a system based on infinite growth into a world with finite ecological boundaries. That is what drives ecological crisis. Avoiding it means ending the irrational, unsustainable, unplanned production that characterizes the system.
When discussing the environment, socialists are fond of quoting the great Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg famous phrase, “socialism or barbarism.” It is appropriate because it makes humanity’s stark choice very clear.
But there are two visions of socialism. One is essentially for a greener, fairer capitalism. But we have seen that’s not possible. The other vision, the one that Rosa Luxemburg fought and died for, is completely different. It starts from the idea that production needs to be organized on an entirely different basis. Rather than an unplanned, irrational economy, we need one where ordinary people are engaged in the democratic planning of production. This “socialism from below” would mean production not for profit, but in the interest of all, within the wider context of planetary boundaries.
Luxemburg raised her stark choice in 1915, as European armies slaughtered each other in the trenches. The war was ended by the Russian and German revolutions. While Luxemburg had her criticisms of the Russian Revolution, she understood that what had taken place was a mass revolt where workers and peasants had created their own organizations – soviets – which could began to put in place a new economic organization. Luxemburg understood that without the revolution spreading, it be isolated and defeated. She called on workers to emulate the actions of their Russian sisters and brothers.
Today, with capitalism dragging the world into climate barbarism, we should remember Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism”. At the same time, we should remember that she also wrote that Lenin and the Bolshevik Party had “advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world.” She concluded, “the future everywhere belongs to ‘bolshevism’.”
Martin Empson is editor of System Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis (Bookmarks, 2019). This article is reposted, with permission, from the UK Socialist Workers Party’s Long Reads and Culture website.