“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.”
– Walter Benjamin
The longer the capitalist system goes on, the more it resembles the “runaway train” of Walter Benjamin’s imagining. And nowhere is this clearer than in the case of climate change.
Here we face a challenge with potentially devastating consequences – rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, the destruction of ecosystems and an accelerating rate of extinctions. Yet the current “drivers” of the train, the world’s business and political elite, show little interest in changing track.
Reforms, half-measures and market-friendly solutions have gotten us nowhere. Only when we pull the “emergency brake” on the system, forcefully wresting power away from the minority who are currently at the controls, can we hope to avert catastrophe and begin the task of building a better, more sustainable world.
The scale of the problem
The global average temperature has increased by 0.85 degrees Celsius since records began in 1880. This warming is concentrated in the past three decades; all of the warmest 20 years on record have been since 1990.
According to the joint Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO State of the Climate 2014 report, if carbon emissions continue to climb at the rate of the last decade, Australia can expect a rise in average temperatures of up to 5 degrees by 2070.CSIRO State of the Climate 2014 report, if carbon emissions continue to climb at the rate of the last decade, Australia can expect a rise in average temperatures of up to 5 degrees by 2070.
Five degrees might not sound like much. But for the natural systems on which our lives depend it would be catastrophic. Don’t think of it as simply having more balmy winters. Take the analogy of the human body: our temperature usually is within 0.5 degrees of 37 degrees Celsius. If it increases to more than 37.7 degrees, we don’t experience it simply as “feeling warmer”. It’s a medical condition called a fever. Hit 40 degrees and it’s a life-threatening emergency.
In the longer term, increasing global temperatures would cause the widespread collapse of the earth’s natural support systems. This would be devastating for humanity. For untold numbers of people, it would threaten the already precarious provision of the barest minimum of food and water. Entire cities and countries would be swallowed up by rising seas. Millions would be driven from their lands and homes.
There’s no guarantee this won’t happen sooner, and be more severe, than current models suggest. Notably, numerous “real time” measures of climate change, such as summer sea-ice coverage in the Arctic, are currently tracking beyond even the worst case projections drawn by bodies like Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Rhetoric and reality
We’re encouraged to believe that the worst case scenario won’t be allowed to eventuate. World leaders, most recently at the G7 summit in Bavaria in early June, often wax lyrical about limiting warming to the supposedly “safe limit” of 2 degrees.
Yet many scientists say that the 2 degree warming limit is far from safe. One of the world’s leading climatologists, NASA’s James Hansen, calls it “a prescription for long term disaster”. What would be required to achieve this goal? According to analysis by the Carbon Brief, emissions would need to start falling by at least 5.5 percent a year from now. The “facts on the ground” don’t give much cause to hope that such a rapid turnaround will be achieved.
Globally, fossil fuel companies are estimated to have around US$27 trillion worth of proven oil, gas and coal reserves on their books. Even under the most optimistic scenario, if the world is to avoid going beyond a temperature rise of 2 degrees, around US$20 trillion of this needs to stay in the ground.
All of it, however, has already been incorporated in the behemoth of global finance. The fuel may lie underground, but the money has already been booked by bankers and wealthy shareholders, who are unlikely to accept a US$20 trillion hit to their bottom-line.
Is there any sign that governments around the world are preparing the captains of industry for something like this? Far from it. Instead, we’re seeing a mad scramble to secure vast untapped reserves in remote and environmentally fragile regions.
The melting of the Arctic ice sheet, for example, is viewed as an opportunity to exploit previously inaccessible supplies of deep-sea oil and gas. Countries bordering the region are desperate to claim as large a portion of the territory as possible.
According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Investment Outlook 2014, annual investment in new fossil-fuel infrastructure has more than doubled in real terms since 2000, reaching more than US$1 trillion a year in 2013.
A competitive drive to oblivion
A World Wide Fund for Nature report from 2011 found that, based on existing technology, the transition to a 100 percent renewable global energy system could be achieved by 2050 for an investment of no more than US$4 trillion a year. This might sound like a lot. But when you compare it with the colossal amounts sloshing around in other parts of the economy – the up to US$32 trillion stashed away in offshore tax havens, the US$3.1 trillion lost annually to tax evasion, or global military spending of US$1.7 trillion a year, for example – it’s peanuts.
The technology is there. The money is there. So why isn’t it happening?
The short answer is that such action would run counter to the basic logic of the capitalist system, on which the immense wealth and power of the world’s ruling class is based.
Capitalism rests on the ability of business owners and investors to turn a profit. The amount of return that capitalists get depends on minimising costs while maximising the price they receive for the goods or services they produce. Each business is competing against others in a common market, so they must ensure that their costs don’t rise above those of their competitors.
The history of capitalism is a history of more profitable businesses eating up their less competitive rivals. That’s why, as the system develops, we see an ever greater concentration and centralisation of capital in the form of giant multinational corporations that dominate the world economy.
These dynamics feed into competition between nations – imperialism. The relationship between nation states and the businesses based within them is one of mutual interdependence. Businesses rely on states to provide the “armed might” they need to secure their interests in an increasingly “globalised” world. For nation states, the success of businesses based within their borders is crucial to secure a revenue base and to avoid civil unrest and other issues that could arise were economic growth to falter.“globalised” world. For nation states, the success of businesses based within their borders is crucial to secure a revenue base and to avoid civil unrest and other issues that could arise were economic growth to falter.
States, like businesses, cannot afford to “opt out” of the competitive global scramble for control over resources and markets. To do so would be to erode their position in the global pecking order.
Capitalism’s fossil fuel addiction
In terms of “inputs” to the global economy, a cheap, reliable supply of fossil fuels is, with few exceptions, central to the competitiveness of businesses and the standing of the nations in which they operate. You only need to look at the tumultuous and violent history of the most oil-rich region in the world – the Middle East – to see the lengths to which the world’s major powers will go to secure it.
In the years since the global financial crisis, cheap energy has become more important.
The US in particular has undertaken a massive expansion of domestic oil and gas production based on the new, and highly environmentally damaging, method of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Since 2010, oil production from fracking in the US has more than tripled.
According to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, the US is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer in less than two years. It is already the number one gas producer, having beaten Russia to that title in 2012.
Cheap energy has provided a significant boost to the US. It has lowered business costs across the economy, improving the competitiveness of US-based corporations in global markets. And it has given a boost to consumer spending without the need for any increase in wages.
Perhaps most important is the leverage that increasing energy independence promises to give US imperialism. For example, it will reduce the importance of the Middle East for US foreign policy, allowing it to free up military resources for its “pivot to Asia”.
US president Barack Obama parades about as someone who takes climate change seriously. However, he is presiding over a long term geopolitical strategy that is based firmly on the continued exploitation of fossil fuels for decades to come.
If the world’s leading economic and military power, far from transitioning away from fossil fuels, has rapidly expanded production in an effort to gain an advantage over others, why should any other country act differently? Why should any other country with an existing or potential abundance of cheap fossil fuels not fully utilise them to maximise their own power and influence?
The answer is they neither can nor will act otherwise. That’s why we’re currently seeing countries around the world, in the face of often significant community opposition, follow the US example and build up their own fracking industries. And that’s why the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year will likely be another case of fiddling while the planet burns.
What kind of movement?
Despite increasing awareness of the problem and the rise of environmental NGOs with multi-million dollar budgets and an army of paid staff and volunteers, we’re in a much worse position now than we were 20 years ago. The rate of destruction of the earth’s natural support systems continues to accelerate.
A large part of the failure of the environment movement can be attributed to its inability to recognise that serious action on climate change would entail a direct challenge to the logic of capitalism and to the interests of those whose wealth and power depend on it. Environmentalists have all too often striven for a “respectability” that, while it may provide access to the corridors of power, renders them easy prey for the big money interests that dominate within.
This has meant that solutions proposed have been either sadly inadequate to the scale of the issue or completely ineffective in reducing emissions.
Thus, on the one hand, we have farces like “Earth hour” and various other corporate-friendly sustainability initiatives that amount to little more than exercises in “greenwashing”. Alternatively, there’s the focus on individual consumption – a phenomenon largely limited to small enclaves of relatively well-to-do people living, by and large, in the trendy suburbs of major Western cities.
Finally, there are the various forms of carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes that, in an effort to avoid any significant impact on business competitiveness, have tended to over-compensate polluters and/or allow for the passing on of costs to income-poor consumers.
In her book This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate, Naomi Klein describes such approaches as trying to fit the “square peg of climate crisis” into capitalism’s “round hole”. What’s needed, as she sees it, is a mass movement that’s not afraid to take direct action to disrupt “business as usual” – whether that’s the business of companies directly involved in fracking, tar-sands mining and other acts of climate vandalism, of the big-banks and investors who profit from it or of governments that facilitate and support them.
The question remains, however: what kind of mass movement could realistically hope to pose a genuine challenge to the entrenched and well-protected interests of the global capitalist ruling class?
The case for socialism
Under capitalism, there are areas of life in which meaningful reforms can be fought for and won: the eight-hour day, the abolition of slavery, reproductive rights, equal pay, universal health care, half decent age pensions, voting rights, an end to legal discrimination of various kinds. Socialists have been at the forefront of many if not most past struggles for such reforms.
Climate change is different. Things have progressed to the point where nothing short of getting rid of capitalism could conceivably allow us to address the issue in the timeframe required to avoid the potentially irreversible damage to the earth’s natural support systems. As Terry Eagleton put it in his book After theory, this is “plain realism”: “No enlightened, moderately intelligent observer could survey the state of the planet and conclude it could be put to rights without a thorough-going transformation”.
On one hand this means the total restructuring of the economy on socialist lines – building a society in which workers exercise direct, collective and democratic control over the entire productive apparatus of society. This is the pulling of the “emergency brake” on the runaway train of capitalism. The replacement of the current economy with production for human need would completely undermine the current drive to environmental calamity.
However, the rich and powerful have made it abundantly clear that they are prepared to watch the world burn in order to protect their interests. This should not come as a surprise. They were prepared to destroy Europe in two world wars and brought humanity to the brink of nuclear Armageddon last century for the same reason. Nothing has changed.
No fundamental economic restructure is possible so long as the capitalist class remains in power. So the struggle for a socialist economy, which is the only basis for dealing with climate change, must be a struggle to strip the rich of their economic, military and political power.
Recognising something of this, there is a trend today to say we need to put the “eco” in socialism. Workers clearly have a stake in fighting for sustainability. The exploitation of workers and the degradation of the environment – whether through carbon emissions or the myriad other forms of pollution that currently blight our world – go hand in hand. Global capitalism’s fossil fuel addiction has its origins in the same competitive dynamic that drives the scramble to undermine workers’ wages and conditions.
Workers stand to lose the most in a runaway warming scenario. Particularly for workers in developing countries, but increasingly also in the West, questions of sustainability, far from being something that can be put off into the indefinite future, are already having a direct impact on lives and livelihoods. It makes sense, then, for workers to play a central role in environmental struggles.
Yet it is highly unlikely, at least in the West, that a revolutionary challenge to the power of the ruling class will be driven by concerns for “the natural environment”. Historically, mass revolutionary struggles have been triggered by other issues of immediate concern – economic crisis, war, poverty and so on.
Mass revolutionary struggle, whatever drives it, holds the promise of liberation from the logic of the market and the pursuit of profit at all cost. Then we could build the kind of society in which the world is no longer treated simply as a resource for exploitation, but, as Marx famously put it, as humanity’s “inorganic body” – something that we should care for and nurture in the same way as our own flesh and blood.