Capitalist society is lurching into an environmental crisis it seems powerless to do anything about.
Global warming is already having an impact. From severe floods to more frequent and stronger hurricanes and cyclones, from the acidification of our oceans to the melting of glaciers.
United Nations (UN) summits, such as the Cop21 in Paris, aim to agree emissions targets to limit warming below two degrees Celsius.
Global average surface temperatures have already risen by one degree since before the industrial era.
Another degree would dramatically increase the risk of passing “tipping points”. These could trigger feedback mechanisms, leading to catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
Yet we are currently on track for four degrees of warming by the end of the century, according to a 2012 report by the World Bank.
The impact on food stocks, the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity and the rise in sea level would be immense.
How can we prevent this and what is stopping us? That’s one of the most urgent questions now facing anyone who cares about humanity’s future.
It means deep and fast cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide—in wealthy countries these must be of up to 10 percent a year.
There is a simple way to do this. Instead of burning fossil fuels, we must leave them in the ground. We need to make a rapid switch from coal, gas and oil energy generation to one based on renewables.
The exact opposite has taken place. The last decade in particular has seen a boom in what may be termed dirty energy.
Fracking for shale gas and tight oil, deep water drilling and tar sand extraction have all enabled the extraction of previously unreachable fossil fuels.
All come with immediate environmental risks. And though shale gas in particular is sometimes spun as a “bridge fuel” to help a transition towards renewables, they are terrible for the climate.
Fracking releases large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. And while the US coal industry has faced competition from cheaper fracked gas, it has responded by increasing exports.
Half of the emissions avoided in the US power sector between 2008 to 2011 may have been exported as coal to China.
Germany is often heralded for making a big transition to renewables but its coal companies have switched to export more too. Rather than challenging this process, politicians have gone along with it.
Much hope was placed on the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. But governments failed to reach any binding agreement.
In Britain the Tories are cutting subsidies to solar power by 87 percent. Yet globally fossil fuel companies get up to £656 billion in subsidies each year.
This reflects how capitalism is organised—and how it is entwined with the fossil fuel industry.
Human societies have always required energy to meet our needs—from feeding, clothing and sheltering ourselves to pursuing art and science. But capitalism adds a new dynamic.
Production is in the hands of private bosses who must compete to expand their activities or perish. This makes rapid accumulation a central organising principle of society.
The energy to fuel that expansion had to come from somewhere. And fossil fuels are highly concentrated energy.
Coal drove the industrial revolution, and the discovery of oil in the 1850s transformed the economies of the world.
A barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of roughly 23,000 hours of human labour. And up until the year 2000 it was generally very cheap.
The modern capitalist economies we know today were founded on this cheap fossil energy. That has consequences.
There are enormous sunken or historic investments in the infrastructure of highways, internal combustion engines, gas furnaces and power plants.
There are whole related industries either derived from oil or dependent on it—from cars and aviation to plastics, fertilisers and pesticides. The dynamic at the heart of capitalism has further entrenched the hold of fossil fuel companies.
The fossil fuel-centred model of industrialisation has spread across the globe. Existing companies expand into new markets while new ones seek to overtake them.
In order to remain stable or grow, they must prove to investors that they have at least as much oil or gas in proven reserves as they do currently in production.
Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything cites the response of Shell in 2009 when the size of their reserves dipped to just below their production.
In order to reassure the market that it was not in trouble, Shell stopped all planned investment in wind and solar to focus on new reserves of shale gas, deep water oil and tar sands.
It managed to find reserves equivalent to 3.4 billion barrels of oil.
In 2011 the Carbon Tracker Initiative think tank found that all the oil, gas and coal companies had already laid claim to 2.8 trillion tons of carbon.
That’s more than five times the estimated amount we can burn between now and 2050 and still have an 80 percent chance of keeping warming below two degrees.
If we are serious about combatting climate change, most of these reserves would have to stay in the ground. But that would turn the £18 trillion invested in them into what business calls “stranded assets”.
The size and wealth of fossil fuel companies is colossal and so is their influence.
The oil and gas industry spent more than £250,000 a day lobbying US congress and government officials in 2013.
If governments are to take even a minimum of action on climate change, we have to build movements that put at least as much pressure on them.
Protests at UN summits are important—but we can’t stop there.
We need campaigns for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewables. And we must keep up the
protests against the Tories’ fracking agenda that have already scored victories.
Stopping Cuadrilla drilling in Lancashire earlier this year has put the Tories on the back foot nationally over their fracking strategy.
But to prevent catastrophic climate change will take much more than this.
It will take a switch from fossil fuels and nuclear power to renewables, a massive home insulation programme, and a transformation of transport and industries.
A programme of how to do this is outlined in the Million Climate Jobs report. But these goals are at direct odds with the priorities of the bosses.
The French government’s decision to ban the climate protests in Paris is a reminder that states are just as much a part of their system.
What we need is a force that can defy them—and replace a society built on profit, competition and accumulation with one that’s sustainable and democratically planned.
And there is such a force. Just as the problem lies in the dynamics at the heart of the economy, that is where we have to look to the solution.
The accumulation that takes place in capitalism is of a specific type. Profits don’t come from energy or natural resources. It takes human activity to convert these into something profitable.
That means that wherever there is profit, there is labour. Wherever there are bosses, there are workers.
And if those workers can take control of their own labour, they can turn the whole of society on its head.
Getting there isn’t necessarily easy. But climate change gives even more reason to do it.
That’s why it’s so brilliant that trade unionists have been such an important part of the climate movements. And it’s why we need to raise demands for the climate in every struggle.
But it’s also why fights on issues that can seem unrelated to climate change are essential to tackling it.
Whether it’s taking on the racism our rulers use to divide us or localised attacks on jobs and wages, every struggle that can build workers’ confidence and organisation is crucial for beating the bosses.
What links these struggles together is a different vision of the world, a different way of organising society that’s based on socialist ideas.
There are urgent measures we must fight for today. But we also need a strategy for getting rid of capitalism.
- Up against the clock: Climate, social movements and Marxism by Suzanne Jeffery in International Socialism Journal (ISJ) 148. Go to bit.ly/1MZAaWk
- Environmentalism in crisis by Ieuan Churchill, ISJ 142. Go to bit.ly/1kKLWcP
- lMarxism and Ecology - a Socialist Worker pamphlet by Martin Empson, £1.50
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk