Capitalism, climate and class power


CHECK OUT: CPUSA teleconference on climate change and capitalism with Marc Brodine, Tuesday, January 17, 8 pm EST, 7 pm CST, 5 pm PST. Call (605) 475-4850 and dial 1053538# after the prompt. (In addition to this article see links to more background reading at the end.)

While conservatives win political arguments more often than they should, there are no winning arguments with the basic laws of physics. It's like trying to argue with gravity-gravity always wins.

So no matter what political position wins the day temporarily, the continuing accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to increase global temperatures, continue to increase extreme weather events, continue to increase sea levels, continue to increase floods and droughts and forest fires.

This is not a short-term problem that will go away; it will only get worse for a long time to come. This requires us to understand that climate change is not an issue; it is a fact, a reality that will force changes in human societies.

Weak responses

The official worldwide response to this growing crisis is weak at best-the Durban Conference basically agreed to negotiate to maybe agree about something in the future. Canada is pulling out of the Kyoto Accords. The same arguments between developed and developing nations result in the same stalemates in negotiations, and in spite of some efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, emissions continue to increase. As one participant at Durban said, "The world has been talking about this for twenty years, and there is still no major progress." So the problem is going to keep getting worse for the foreseeable future.

 Tipping points loom

As greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, the world is nearing dangerous tipping points. For just one example, average temperatures at the poles are increasing faster than elsewhere on the globe, resulting in more permafrost melting. As permafrost melts, it releases greenhouse gases that have been frozen for centuries, or even millennia. Once we reach a tipping point, the melting of the permafrost will release so much carbon dioxide and methane that it can overwhelm whatever modest reductions from human activity we manage to accomplish. We don't know in advance exactly when that tipping point will be reached, but once it is passed, that is a disaster. The only sensible thing to do is to avoid reaching a tipping point. As prominent climate scientist James Hansen has said, if the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada's tar sands goes through, the additional emissions of greenhouse gases means "essentially game over" for limiting climate change.

 Keeps getting worse

As proof of the continuing accumulation of scientific evidence, each Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, issued every seven years, shows that earlier optimistic projections are no longer realistic. In each report, summarizing the world consensus of climate scientists, the worst-case scenarios of the previous report become the most-likely scenarios-in other words, the news just keeps getting worse the more scientists understand and research the details and new evidence of climate change. The next complete report is not due until 2014, but interim reports on specific issues are continuing this trend, as the current draft on extreme weather shows.

Climate change is symptom of deeper problem

Climate change is related to many other environmental challenges, and exacerbates most of them. To mention a few examples, increasing water stresses, desertification, forest fires, droughts, and extreme weather events.

In the broadest sense, global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are just a symptom of an even deeper problem-the gross and growing imbalance between humans and the environment upon which humans depend.

We are using up fossil fuels, water, soil, agricultural land, and other resources faster than is sustainable. For example, the so-called "green revolution" in agriculture depends on massive increases of water-leading to the drawing down of aquifers in many parts of the world faster than those aquifers can be "recharged." This is not sustainable-the overuse of fresh water for agricultural uses (along with fossil fuel-based fertilizers and intense extraction of the nutritional value in the soil) has already resulted in declining agricultural yields worldwide. Global climate change is just the most widespread imbalance.

There is a long list of ways in which human activity as currently constructed is destructive of the natural balance that human life depends on-ocean acidification, depleted and exhausted fisheries, rapidly expanding desertification, etc.

Opposition to taking action on climate change is not really opposition to the science, though it often presents itself that way. As Naomi Klein notes in her excellent article in The Nation, "Capitalism vs. the Climate": "It is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts."

This all leads to two conclusions.

One, that global climate change and other related environmental issues and struggles will increase for many decades to come-this is determined by the natural laws governing nature.

Two, the problems are so far-reaching and fundamental that small fixes won't solve the problems.

 Capitalism can't fix it

Another crucial conclusion is that capitalism can't and won't solve these intertwined problems. Partly, this is because of the entrenched economic interests that profit from maintaining the status quo. But even more so, it is due to the basic assumptions of capitalism.

Capitalism wants and needs constant expansion of markets and of commodities, so that profits can continue to grow. Endless economic growth, endless production of ever-increasing commodities, ever increasing development, ever greater burdens on the natural world which require more natural resource extraction at one end and ever-increasing absorption of wastes at the other end, all are part of the unsustainable system of capitalism.

Capitalism wants and needs the continuation of private decision-making over energy, production, transportation, and agriculture (and the ever-increasing concentration of that private control).

Capitalism wants and needs environmental problems to be "economic externalities" so that corporations don't have to bear the costs of the wastes that they dispose of in water and air, nor the costs of disposing of the wastes generated by their packaging and marketing decisions.

Environmental problems affect all of humanity, and require social decision-making, social investment, and worldwide cooperation at the scale of all humanity. These are also antithetical to capitalism, and to narrow nationalism.

To make real progress on climate change means, as Klein writes, "Making a persuasive case that the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system-one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power. It would also require a shift away from the notion that climate action is just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention. Just as climate denialism has become a core identity issue on the right, utterly entwined with defending current systems of power and wealth, the scientific reality of climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives."

She goes on to note that the fact that "the earth's atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need, and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract. But it is not just the atmosphere that we have exploited beyond its capacity to recover-we are doing the same to the oceans, to freshwater, to topsoil and to biodiversity. The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal-and acutely sensitive to natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence."

A matter of class power

The environmental problems we face are inextricably linked to the political problems we face. It is striking that Al Gore's last book, "Our Choice", starts by saying that all we lack is the political will to make the necessary changes, and then spends the rest of the book talking about all the potential technological fixes and ignoring what he already identified as the central problem! Why do "we lack the political will?" and who is this "we" he is talking about?

This is just a newer and amped-up version of the old question, "Who benefits?" Freedom for the wolf is not freedom for the sheep, and freedom for the capitalists to profit from resource extraction and to not pay for their waste is not freedom for the rest of humanity.

The majority of people in the United States have no more say in how many coal-fired electric plants are built than the majority of those who live in sub-Saharan Africa have to do with the economic circumstances that result in the destruction of forests to make charcoal so they can cook food. The vast majority of humanity makes decisions about what to buy, what to consume, and how to survive in circumstances not of its making or choosing.

The questions facing humanity about the environment are ultimately questions of class power; they are issues of class struggle.

The importance of the Klein article is that it links the necessary environmental change with the necessary fundamental transformation of our political and economic systems. She points out that progressives have to approach climate change and environmental crisis as not just another issue but as a crucial, central aspect of our critique of capitalism.

The real limitations of Klein's article are not the reflexive swipes she takes at the "Stalinist" and "statist left," nor her assumption that solutions all require "interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level." (Some of them do but others require more centralization, even internationalization.)

The real limitation is her restricted view of the forces required to bring about the change she calls for. This is true as well of some other prominent writers about environmental issues, like Richard Heinberg. They see the problems clearly, they see the links between environmental problems and economic and political systems, but they are relatively blind to the social forces needed to bring about fundamental transformation. They don't see the essential role of the organized working class as not just another in a list of social forces but as the crucial element without which fundamental transformation cannot take place.

What is needed is not just an amorphous "countervailing popular movement" but a broad coaltion with the organized working class at its core. While Klein points to positive developments around the Occupy Wall Street movement, she neglects to include alliances with the labor movement.

Social movements, including the Occupy movement and the environmental movement, are important, but without the organized might of the working class, the changes they can create will be limited, and will stop short of solutions.

Building international union alliances and joint struggles will be an important feature as countries around the world wrestle with climate change. Part of the problem with the international negotiations that have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations is that the top level negotiations take place between governments, each most often representing the interests of their own capitalist class, rather than the interests of the people of the world.

Movements such as, national environmental organizations, and NGOs play a role, but they struggle to have enough of an impact. The power of workers is needed to push through the competiting national and class interests to reach international agreements with teeth.

Klein's bulleted list of solutions is a contribution to the discussion, but many versions of such lists exist, and none, especially none for short articles, are comprehensive.

For Communists, we can and should see Klein's article as a challenge: to place environmental issues more squarely in the center of our critique of capitalism, and more squarely at the heart of our vision of a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.

Communist also have to understand that building environmental consciouness into our vision of the future challenges some of our traditional views. Nature's limits mean that production can't be endless, and so a future in which there is more than enough of everything for everybody, no matter how many people there are, is not a vision based in reality. We need to adjust our vision to our current knowledge of nature's limits.

I'd like to end with a few questions:

1.   How can we (and should we) make environmental challenges more central to our critique of capitalism?

2.   Can we help the labor movement place environmental issues more to the fore? What changes in the labor movement have already happened, and how can we build on them?

3.   How can we prepare ourselves now, so that as global climate change and other environmental crises escalate, we are ready with a program to address them, a program that places organizing workers as the most crucial aspect of creating fundamental change?

Background reading for teleconference:

Capitalism vs. the climate by Naomi Klein:  

Six reasons to oppose the Keystone Pipeline:

Photo: CPUSA poster