Oskar B., May 2021
The ongoing process of environmental devastation we are living through is the result of an untenable, destructive and totally unsustainable economic and social order. The past two hundred years of capitalist development have been marked by a relentless escalation of environmental destruction in the search for raw materials to fuel the profits of the bourgeoisie. They have seen the creation of an international order built on an unsustainable fossil fuel economy, the driving force of climate change. Generations of industrialists, fossil fuel magnates, and financial investors have grown rich beyond comprehension off the back of the wholesale destruction and plunder of the environment. Climate change is a crisis of the capitalist mode of production, there is no path forward within the framework of capitalism. Only the overthrow of this system through socialist revolution, and the establishing of planned economy, can genuinely combat and mitigate the crisis ahead.
Humanity rapidly hurdles towards an ecological catastrophe. The environmental, social, and political crises developing as a result of climate change are fast reaching a breaking point. The first year of the new decade, 2020, was one of the hottest in recorded history.1 Throughout it, apocalyptic fire seasons burned tens of millions of hectares of land, devastating floods impacted millions, and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a record high.2 These events should serve as a rude awakening to the extent of this emerging crisis, a crisis already displacing people on a significant scale in nations across the world, and a crisis which will continue to worsen with every tonne of carbon spewed into the atmosphere.
While capitalists can escape and shield themselves from the intensifying advance of climate destruction, it is working class people who are forced to keep working in toxic bushfire smoke, who are killed and displaced by rising sea levels, floods, and walls of flames, who are in the crossfire of social collapse and political crisis. This is especially the case in colonial and semi-colonial countries, with estimates predicting hundreds of millions of additional displaced people globally as a result of climate change.3 And the question of how this will be responded to is as troubling as the estimation itself. Military and security apparatuses in imperialist countries are extremely aware, and actively studying, the relationship between climate change and forced migration. But the response the imperialists are preparing is one of further militarisation of borders, fortification of states, and an increase in overseas imperialist build up. All this in order to stave off the “national security threat” posed by climate change: its victims in the global working and toiling classes.
Even as the impacts of climate change increasingly reveal themselves, as the risk and severity of climate change becomes undeniable, the capitalist class and its state apparatuses continue to show themselves to be unwilling and unable to resolve the crisis ahead, or to mitigate it significantly for the wellbeing of the toiling people. While the destructive impact of fossil fuels on the climate has been well known to the major corporations for decades,4 the only significant actions those corporations have taken over that time is to cover up such information and stonewall any attempt to jeopardise their profits. The past two decades have been marked by an endless series of empty, symbolic “international climate agreements” which even in their extremely meagre state have been broken and ignored by many of their signatories. At a time where all use of fossil fuels must be replaced drastically and rapidly, the big energy corporations continue to ramp up their extraction of these resources, a trend set to increase over the next decade. Major energy corporations like ExxonMobil plan to pump 25% more oil and natural gas in 2025 than they did in 2017.5
While bourgeois ideologues preach that market forces and policy by the capitalist state will step in and save us from climate change, “green” capitalist illusions have always been a farce. While coal use is declining in Europe and North America for instance, this is not out of any special concern for climate change but to provide a more stable, modern energy basis for capitalist exploitation. This fact is demonstrated clearly in that the overwhelming majority of phased out coal infrastructure is replaced with equally environmentally damaging natural gas.6
We’re assured that simply investing in green technology will provide a solution to climate change. This is entirely insufficient, and yet even under this framework global investment in renewable energy continues to be paltry. Commitment to renewable power investment from 2020 to 2030 is one trillion dollars globally, a number less than the total amount invested in the previous decade, and significantly less than the total amount required to meet the already insufficient commitments of the 2015 Paris climate accord.7
This one trillion dollars over a decade is also pales in comparison to the eight trillion dollars that the United States alone is set to spend on military investment over that period.8 The insane discrepancy in these commitments is a clear display of the twisted priorities of capitalism, with its endless armaments to war and militarist imperialism to safeguard capitalist profits and prepare repressive institutions to deal with the “national security” fallout of the climate crisis. Never mind that, ironically, these institutions of imperialism and war are themselves major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions; with the US Defence Department alone being one of the largest single polluters on the planet.9
What Is To Be Done?
To combat climate change, and to reduce its impacts on billions of working class people across the world, will require a rapid and drastic transition away from a fossil fuel based economy. But the productive forces of the world economy are totally outside of the rational control of working class people. Instead, a tiny minority – the capitalist class – whose only concern is maximising their wealth, command the levers of power. And for the vast majority of the bourgeoisie there is no reason to voluntarily abandon a major industry and the most profitable form of energy production.
We need to expropriate without compensation the polluting industries: energy, transportation, heavy industry, agriculture; the companies and asset holders destroying the planet, and place those industries under the control of the working class. In the hands of workers’ democracy, the resources of the old fossil fuel economy must be used to reorganise a sustainable social and economic system built for the long term interests of the vast majority of society, not for the profits of a small number of capitalists. Energy generation needs to be fundamentally revolutionised and transitioned from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources: solar, wind, hydro, etc. Nuclear energy, with operating CO2 emissions roughly the same as solar and wind, is a viable low carbon energy source too and should not be foreclosed. Alongside a rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean energy: this reorganisation ought to include a number of additional radical environmental programs. An ecological transformation of agriculture; investment in extensive research to further develop green technology; and the protection of livelihoods while overseeing the voluntary retraining of fossil fuel workers to new industries.
The only thing preventing us from taking action against climate change is the rule of capital, to push back against the mounting climate crisis will require the total overthrow of capitalism through a worldwide proletarian revolution, and the formation of a planned economy to coordinate the wide scale ecological transformation of society necessary to prevent catastrophe. Capitulating to empty capitalist climate “solutions” displays only delusion and an underestimation of the severity and structural causes of climate change. Any environmental strategy that does not recognise the necessity of the overthrow of capitalism is a strategy for failure.
Climate Change and the Workers’ States
Outside of the capitalist powers, in the world’s remaining deformed workers states, a different and superior response can be seen; but one still highly burdened by the contradictions inherent to their bureaucratic deformations. These are states where social revolution has expropriated the capitalist class and produced a workers state under the political control of a bureaucratic caste. With central planning, control over industry and the economy, and a state not subservient to a capitalist class, these countries are far better suited to take steps to prevent further contribution to climate change and to resist the worst impacts it will bring.
Long term policies in Cuba, made possible by central planning and state ownership, have made it one of the most environmentally sustainable nations on the planet.10 It also continues a project of investment in renewable energy that is incredibly ambitious for a poor country under heavy economic sanctions by foreign imperialism. And it has a 100 year plan to increase its resilience to climate change and resulting natural disasters.11
In China, despite having a far more highly industrialised economy than Cuba, central planning is similarly facilitating action to combat climate change. China has implemented hundreds of policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and leads the world in renewable energy production and reforestation projects. Last year the Chinese government announced plans for a “green revolution” which would see net zero emissions by 2060, and has already begun mobilising state owned enterprises to meet this goal.12 The country is also on track to meet its Paris accord obligations nine years early.13
However while these workers states, with their centrally planned control over industry and the economy, have the potential to take the decisive action against climate change needed to prevent ecological crisis, they are ultimately hamstrung by the fact that political power is held not by the working class themselves but by a bureaucratic clique sitting above them. These cliques care ultimately about preserving their own political power not about the fundamental interests of the working class in the preservation of the environment. In the Soviet Union, degeneration into Stalinist bureaucratism led to a reversal of the significant environmentalist and conservationist policies developed after the Russian revolution.14
Additionally, the bureaucracies of current workers states have allowed major capitalist inroads, including active capitalist enclaves in Special Economic Zones in the case of China. With these capitalist inroads the ability of workers states to enact and maintain widespread ecological reform is severely impeded. China’s achievements are indeed quite impressive for a major industrial economy, but are arguably not decisive and drastic enough; with 2060 a long way away and Paris obligations almost universally too low to begin with.
Marxists understand that we must fight to defend deformed workers’ states from counterrevolution and capitalist restoration. We struggle for the political overthrow of their bureaucracies to put them under the control of the working class to defend their existence in the long term. In the environmental sphere we see the relevance of this program, as these states hold the potential to take the necessary ecological action to prevent climate change but require a significant political shift into the hands of the working class to fully achieve this potential.
Climate Catastrophe, Capitalist Bankruptcy
The devastating impact of Climate Change will come to play an increasingly defining role in the remainder of the 21st century. The rule of capital has brought humanity to the brink of an environmental and human catastrophe. A generalised ecological crisis is in the making, if not already beginning to play out; and at this junction capitalism has shown, without a shred of doubt, that it has nothing to offer but empty words and further barbarity. The struggle to save humanity and our planet from capitalist climate devastation is inextricably tied up with the struggle of the working class to liberate humanity from capitalism and build socialism. As Marxists we participate in struggles, both environmental and otherwise, with a revolutionary program built on this understanding.
We advance the demands necessary to avert climate devastation. For a sustainable, total reorganisation of the energy, agricultural and transportation industries; expropriated without compensation under workers’ control. For extensive development and implementation in green technology alongside the ensured protection of workers’ livelihoods from the old fossil fuel economy. For the end of imperialist subjugation of toiling people in the colonial and semi-colonial world, now facing the brunt of climate devastation. And for mass investment in infrastructure and services across the world to deal with the impacts of climate change (drought, flooding, rising sea level, fires, natural disasters, etc). We raise these demands because they are objectively necessary to deal with the crisis ahead in a way that does not suffocate and sacrifice the workers and toilers of humanity in service of the continued domination and opulence of capital. And we raise them whether they are achievable within the structures of the capitalist order or not. Capital and its partners in government will not save us from on high. Only the organised working class, struggling economically and on the streets, can pry from these vampires salvation in the face of ecological devastation, and in the process begin to build a new world.
- abc.net.au “2020 equals world’s hottest year on record, as factors behind Black Summer become clearer” (12 January, 2021)
- Yale Climate Connections “The top 10 weather and climate events of a record-setting year” (December 21, 2020)
- The Conversation “Climate change will displace millions in coming decades. Nations should prepare now to help them (December 19, 2017)
- The Guardian “Shell and Exxon’s secret 1980s climate change warnings” (September 19, 2018)
- The Economist “Bigger oil: ExxonMobil gambles on growth” (February 9, 2019)
- Euractiv “Gas overtakes lignite as Europe’s largest source of power emissions” (17 April, 2021)
- Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNE “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2020” (2020)
- cbo.gov “Budget Outlook: 2020 to 2030” (September, 2020)
- The Conversation “US military is a bigger polluter than as many as 140 countries” (June 25, 2019)
- telesurenglish.net “As World Burns, Cuba Number 1 for Sustainable Development: WWF” (October 27, 2016)
- sciencemag.org “Cuba embarks on a 100-year plan to protect itself from climate change” (January 10, 2018)
- China Daily “SOEs set out measures on carbon neutrality” (January 18, 2021)
- New Scientist “China is on track to meet its climate change goals nine years early” (July 26, 2019)
- Climate and Capitalism “The rise and fall of environmentalism in the early Soviet Union” (November 3, 2014)