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Issue #1904      February 24, 2020

A World On Fire

Capitalism, Socialism, and Climate Change

In 2019, we saw a significant escalation in how the climate emergency is unfolding on a global scale. By looking at recent developments we can achieve two things. First, we can illustrate just how serious the climate emergency has become. Second, we can highlight the role of capitalism in the climate crisis and emphasise its structural inability to deal with the situation. Having done this, it will become clear that the only viable pathway through the climate crisis is a global transition to socialism.

Fires are an obvious place to begin our enquiry. As most of us know, the current Australian bushfire season has been one of the most devastating we have ever seen. The latest figures indicate that 18.6 million hectares have burned — 5.2 million hectares just in New South Wales. Almost 3,000 homes have been lost and thirty-four people have died.

In mainstream media, coverage of the environmental impact of the fires has mostly focused on the one billion animals that have perished in the disaster. The loss of these animals is certainly a tragedy and it is likely that there has been a profound impact on biodiversity in our country. However, less attention has been given to what is arguably a far more worrying environmental outcome of the fires: carbon emissions.

This fire season has seen an estimated 350 million tonnes of carbon being pumped into an already choking atmosphere. In 2019, Australia’s net greenhouse gas emissions from industry, transport, energy production and so on, were 560 million tonnes. Emissions from bushfires are not included in this measure. The current bushfire season has contributed an additional sixty-two per cent to Australia’s annual “business as usual” emissions.

Fires like what we are seeing in Australia will become more common as a result of climate change. We are not faced with an anomaly, but the new normal. A 2008 report commissioned by the Australian government predicted the conditions of the current bushfire season almost to a letter. And contrary to the misinformation efforts from Murdoch media and the current government, scientists and experts confirm that these conditions will continue to worsen.

Deteriorating conditions are leading to unprecedented fires. These fires release even more carbon into the atmosphere, which leads to faster global heating. This scenario is known as a feedback loop. Feedback loops occur when an event that is caused or influenced by climate change exacerbates climate change, creating an exponential cycle of degradation. In other words, the worse it gets, the worse it gets.

The concentration of atmospheric carbon once again reached a new high in 2018, with an average measure of 408 parts per million (ppm). In 2008, the average measure was 385 parts per million. This represents a 5.2 per cent increase in just ten years.

These figures are shocking but not surprising given that global emissions continue to rise. In 2010, global CO2 emissions were 33.1 billion tonnes. In 2019, global CO2 emissions were 36.8 billion tonnes. In the last ten years, despite all the talk of renewable energy and sustainable development, global carbon emissions rose by 11.1 per cent.

The alarming result of our failure to control carbon emissions is borne out by this single fact from the IPCC’s 2018 Special Report: even if every country on the planet were to go carbon neutral today, the residual effect of historic emissions will still take us to 1.5°C degrees of global warming by around 2030.

What we are currently experiencing is the result of a 1°C increase. An increase in the global mean surface temperature of 1.5°C is guaranteed, no matter what we do. How we act now will determine whether we reach 1.5°C before turning things back around, or whether we overshoot and hurtle towards 2°C and higher.

Massive fires were not isolated to Australia in 2019. The fires in the Amazon were largely the result of Brazil’s far-right President Bolsonaro encouraging violent deforestation to expand the meat and biofuel industries. Extensive fires were also seen throughout Africa, Europe, the US, and Asia.

The most worrying fires, however, were those in the Arctic. The 2019 fires in Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland were unprecedented in scale. Fires in this region also affected areas of permafrost – soil that remains at or below 0°C for two or more years – which does not usually burn during the region’s annual fires.

Also, in 2019, scientists discovered a troubling feedback loop: The Arctic permafrost has now become a net emitter of greenhouse gases, as opposed to a net sink. This means that emissions of carbon, methane, nitrous oxide, and other harmful gases from the arctic permafrost have now reached the point where they are no longer absorbed by subarctic forests.

Scientists estimate that the total amount of greenhouse gases held in the Arctic permafrost is close to double the amount that humans have emitted into the atmosphere since the beginning of industrialisation.

As a greenhouse gas, methane is three times more potent than carbon. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent. Add to this the fact that the Arctic is warming at a disproportionate rate, as much as three times the pace, and it is obvious that the permafrost feedback loop has the potential to rapidly outrun our ability to do anything about it.

Such is the current state of play. Unfortunately, many people still believe that we can rely on capitalism to navigate a safe path through the climate emergency. We will now examine precisely why this is an unrealistic expectation.

Capitalism Against Nature

To think that we can tackle the climate emergency within the paradigm of capitalism is absurd. It defies the fundamental mathematics of the capitalist mode of production. The basic, defining imperative of capitalism is economic growth, which necessitates the further destruction of nature.

When it comes to the primal urge for capital to expand itself, Marx is unequivocal. “The expansion of value,” Marx writes in Capital, “becomes [the capitalist’s] subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with a consciousness and a will ... The restless, never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.”

With regards to the destruction of nature under capitalism, Marx has this to say in his Grundrisse: “Nature becomes for the first time simply an object for mankind, purely a matter of utility; it ceases to be recognised as a power in its own right; and the theoretical knowledge of its independent laws appears only as a stratagem designed to subdue it to human requirements, whether as the object of consumption or as the means of production.”

“Pursuing this tendency,” Marx continues, “capital has pushed beyond national boundaries and prejudices, beyond the deification of nature and the inherited, self-sufficient satisfaction of existing needs confined within well-defined bounds, and the reproduction of the traditional way of life. It is destructive of all this, and permanently revolutionary, tearing down all obstacles that impede the development of productive forces, the expansion of needs, the diversity of production and the exploitation and exchange of natural and intellectual forces.”

We can put solar panels on every roof. We can all drive electric cars and eat a plant-based diet. But even if every human on the planet does this it will not be enough, so long as it is done within the capitalist paradigm. Because of its reliance on constant expansion, capitalism can only ever result in the increased degradation the natural world.

In the previous section, I mentioned the increase in the concentration of atmospheric carbon. Tracking this change over time demonstrates the undeniable link between capitalism and climate change. Data compiled by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association indicates that, for the last 800,000 years, the concentration of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere never exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm) until the modern era. This threshold was passed for the first time in the year 1909 CE. In 2015, we passed 400 ppm.

Between the year 10,000 BCE and the beginning of industrialisation in around 1750 CE, the average measure of atmospheric carbon was approximately 270 ppm. Since that time, when industrialised capitalism based on fossil fuels became the dominant mode of production, the concentration of atmospheric carbon has seen a severe increase. We are now at 408 ppm and rising. This leaves no doubt that climate change is human-induced and that it is inextricably linked to the capitalist mode of production.

In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen delivered what is considered to be the first major public warning about climate change. At a US congressional hearing, Hansen warned that global temperature increases were the result of human activity and that they would only get worse without efforts to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Since then, awareness of the need to pursue more eco-friendly practices has become widespread. Despite this awareness, however, global emissions have continued to rise. Why is this the case? The answer is simple: the majority of people – even those who consider themselves environmentalists – have allowed themselves to be convinced that capitalism is capable of cleaning up the mess that it made. This fantasy, conjured up by fossil fuel companies and global corporations, has given those same companies space to continue the expansion of capital while doing nothing to mitigate the destruction of the environment.

Eco-capitalism, sustainable development, the Kyoto Protocol, emissions trading schemes, carbon taxes, the Paris Agreement – all this phrase-mongering is designed to obscure the fact that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with the maintenance of a viable ecosystem. The evidence is clear. There can be no green capitalism. Sustainable development under capitalism is a mathematical impossibility. Capitalism created this problem. It cannot play a role in the solution.

The Way Forward

The only feasible method of mass mitigation for climate change is to adopt a de-growth mode of production. We must shift to an economic model that serves human need, not the hunger for profit. To put it simply, the best tool we have for fighting the climate emergency is socialism.

There has never been a better, more appropriate time to transition away from capitalism toward a higher stage of human organisation. Capitalism, for all its faults, has given us the infrastructure we need. If we channel the productive energy that is wasted under capitalism, we can easily furnish the needs of people while scaling back the destruction of the natural world.

Of course, there are significant hurdles to overcome. People will need to unlearn a hundred years of anti-communist propaganda. They will need to suppress the knee-jerk reaction that compels them to dismiss socialism without ever questioning capitalism. 

It is within this space of education that there is work to be done. The growth of popular environmentalist movements around the world indicates that many people are opening up to the idea of revolutionary praxis. However, an underdeveloped sense of class-consciousness within these groups remains a problem. Without education, any potential revolutionary energy stagnates and ends up being misdirected towards reformism. And the ultimate achievement of reform is, of course, the maintenance of the status quo.

Revolutionary leftists have long played an educational role by raising class consciousness and steering collective strategy within trade unions. Environmental groups should be no different. It is the duty of revolutionary leftists to agitate within these movements and guide people away from fantasies of tinkering with capitalism and instead move towards its total abolition.

If we are to succeed in fighting the climate emergency, international co-operation must replace international competition. This means divorcing ourselves from pointless, arbitrary national divisions. We must refuse aggressive foreign policy and resist the influence of the largest single user of fossil fuels on Earth: the imperialist military of the United States of America. A wholehearted pursuit of climate action and climate justice must include the overthrow of all imperialist entities throughout the world.

We need to free ourselves from the imaginative constraints of capitalism – constraints that force us to see only the predetermined outcomes that suit the ruling class. When it comes to action on climate change, the capitalist elite and their puppet politicians are stalling. Petty reforms and the merry-go-round of bourgeois politics will not be enough to avert the global climate catastrophe that is unfolding this very moment.

We need to cast aside tools that are no longer fit-for-purpose, open up our minds and imagine new pathways. The choices we make in the next few years will determine the odds of survival for every living thing on the planet.

The simple fact is this: change is coming whether we like it or not. Either we begin the process of systemic change now while we still have room to manoeuvre, or we continue to stall and hold on to our comforts while painting ourselves into a corner. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to address the problem and the higher the chances that we descend into a global fascist dystopia defined by hunger, war and death.

We must not allow the magnitude of the situation to force us into silence. There is hope for the future. But that hope can only be realised if we set aside our differences, roll up our sleeves and work together to cast aside the capitalist system that is churning our planet into dead, gold bricks.

Next article – Migrant workers: a growing integration on a base of internationalism

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