Opinion

An ecosocialist strategy to make 1.5° possible

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David Schwartzman argues for an ‘Eco-Leninist’ movement against fossil fuels

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(Pic: Frank Neulichedl/Flickr)

by David Schwartzman

“The WMO provisional State of the Global Climate report confirms that 2023 is set to be the warmest year on record. Data until the end of October shows that the year was about 1.40 degrees Celsius (with a margin of uncertainty of ±0.12°C ) above the pre-industrial 1850-1900 baseline.“

COP28 agreed new targets, but only countries can deliver action. The stocktake ‘encourages’ them to submit ambitious new 2035 pledges aligned with 1.5°C, with a deadline of 2025. This will be the ‘moment of truth,’ one expert told Carbon Brief.”

This past year’s record temperatures were boosted by the El Niño, the generation of a warm water in the eastern Pacific which leads to hotter weather across much of the globe, in synergistic relationship to global warming.

Nevertheless, even though this record global temperature was already apparent to leaders of the COP 28 Conference, its results turned out to be extremely disappointing to climate justice activists around the world. So given this failure, is the 1.5° warming target still possible to achieve?

Mainstream accounts of COP28 — and even from some leftwing sources — say 1.5° is now dead in the water, given the failure of the meeting to make real enforceable commitments to terminate fossil fuel consumption. For example, David Wallace-Wells, the New York Times columnist on climate change:

“In the aftermath of a conference that may well be remembered as the moment the climate world finally gave up on the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, it is worth recalling now just what passing that threshold would mean. Global warming doesn’t proceed in large jumps, for the most part, and surpassing 1.5 degrees does not bring us immediately or inevitably to 2 degrees. (In theory, such ‘overshoot’ could also be quite temporary.) But we know quite a lot about the difference between those two worlds — the one we had once hoped to achieve and the one that now looks much more likely. Indeed, in the recent past, a clear understanding of those differences was responsible for a period of intense and global climate alarm.”

But Wallace-Wells simply projects present fossil fuel consumption levels to the future, so is it surprising that 1.5° is breached? He like many other mainstream commentators cannot imagine a radical change in society, political tipping points which come before climate ones.

An excellent counter to his argument is from Richard Betts, a leading climate scientist who points to the implications of overshoot. Betts emphasizes that 1.5°C of global warming is not a hard cut off between safe and dangerous, but it’s a kind of marker as to where we become increasingly concerned, with tipping points to much worse global impacts will kick in if this warming target is breached over time, recognizing there is uncertainty regarding how long will it take for overshoot will trigger them. Betts points to the IPCC estimate of a 20-to-30-year average for breaching 1.5°.

These climatic tipping points include the collapse of massive ice sheets in Greenland and different parts of Antarctica, thawing permafrost, massive die off of forests in the Amazon, northern boreal forests and mangroves and seagrass meadows, degradation of savannas and drylands, nutrient overloading of lakes, coral reef mass mortality, as well as collapse of deep ocean mixing in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

Betts concludes that to have any chance of limiting warming to below 1.5° we have to bring emissions to zero or Net Zero by the middle of the century at the latest. Carbon removal technologies will be necessary to reach Net Zero and can help bring temperatures back down if we overshoot 1.5°.

Note the latest assessment from climate scientists: “We conclude that the RCB [remaining carbon budget] for a 50% chance of keeping warming to 1.5 °C is around 250 GtCO2 as of January 2023, equal to around six years of current CO2 emissions.”

Of course, I do not accept the problematic goal of “net zero” rather than real zero. Further, the carbon removal technologies are not the false solution of carbon capture and storage (CCS) coupled to continuing burning fossil fuels, but rather direct air capture of carbon dioxide (DAC) and permanent burial in the crust in the form of carbonates. DAC will very likely be imperative along with the restoration of natural ecosystems and the shift to agroecologies, since the latter carbon sinks into the soil are limited by saturation and future temperature increases even meeting 1.5°C.

COP is still dominated by fossil capital, so the results should be no surprise. Defeating fossil capital and its political instruments should be the priority. I submit that linking struggles will be critical to strengthening the global climate/energy justice movement, eg Boycott Divest and Sanction Israel, health impacts of air pollution etc. and the climate challenge.

The critical political tipping point we must fight to reach before climate tipping points kick in can only come with creating a global movement uniting the broadest coalition possible to defeat fossil capital and its political instruments, one led by the working class and its allies, notably indigenous communities around the world, a coalition which includes sections of capital, so-called green capital, while vigorously confronting the latter’s agenda of extractivism (see my discussion of this challenge.)

This strategy could be called Eco-Leninism today. It uses the Global Green New Deal as an arena for transnational class struggle, building the capacity of the global working class and its allies as a hegemonic force for ecosocialist transition. As Lenin wrote in another context:

“The more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest, rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional. Those who do not understand this reveal a failure to understand even the smallest grain of Marxism, of modern scientific socialism in general.”

And as Andreas Malm put it:

“In order to stabilize the rise of global temperatures at 1.5°C, emissions will have to be reduced by 8 percent a year until you meet net zero [rather real zero!]. This sort of change is totally impossible to do simply by tinkering with market mechanisms or introducing some carbon taxes; rather, it will require a massive expansion of state ownership and comprehensive economic planning.”

This strategy promotes first a defeat fossil capital followed by the defeat of all capital in an ecosocialist transition with democratic social management of society, not by CEOs of corporations and their political instruments.

Because of overshoot considerations there is a bit more than a chance in hell of not breaching 1.5°C. And this remaining chance needs to be shared with the global movement, not a message of defeat, in order to motivate the creation of a global subject with sufficient power to defeat fossil capital in time. And this agenda must include a fierce struggle to avoid every 0.1, 0.01 degree of additional warming if the 1.5°C is breached, as Richard Betts recognized.

The defeat of Trump and the Republicans in 2024 will be a big critical step to overcoming this challenge, of course critiquing the neoliberal imperialist agenda of the Democratic Party leadership, to advance a Green New Deal informed by our ecosocialist vision.

As radical educator Paulo Freire wrote, “what can we do now in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today.”


David Schwartzman (atdschwartzman@gmail.com) is co-author of The Earth is Not for Sale. Climate & Capitalism welcomes further contributions and discussion on movement strategy.

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3 Comments

  • First step of eco Leninists is to highlight the connection between the eco-fash nothing can be doners and the fossil-fash. Regardless of if they acknowledge it, these types are all in alliance. The former needs to be exposed and expelled from any climate or eco minded movement.

  • No way I’m ever voting for either of the US major parties ever again. No positive social change can result from a system that permits liberal capitalism to exist without severe constraints on its activities.

  • Biden has expanded oil drilling more than Trump did.
    Your embrace of Democrats betrays your entire “Socialist” philosophy.
    The Democrat party only exists to stop the left.
    We need more than wishful thinking here.