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What kind of society could solve the climate crisis?

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Issue 2580
The jammed streets of London at rush hour reveal a poor way of organising society
The jammed streets of London at “rush hour” reveal a poor way of organising society (Pic: Flickr/Garry Knight)

Climate change is at the centre of an environmental crisis that threatens humanity’s survival.

If emissions don’t stop rising some scientists predict warming of four degrees, six degrees or more before the end of the century. The consequences would be catastrophic.

So United Nations talks—continuing in Bonn, Germany, this week—aim to limit warming to 1.5 degrees in line with the 2015 Paris agreement. But that ship may already have sailed (see below).

We can make demands and fight for them in the here and now. But to really deal with the climate crisis will mean a much more fundamental transformation of society.

Capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels shapes every aspect of our society, from the layout of our towns and cities to the food on our plates. All of this must change.

Climate change displaces millions and is set to get worse, says new report
Climate change displaces millions and is set to get worse, says new report
  Read More

Production is directed by a race to sell commodities—any commodities—no matter how pointless.

Competition is said to encourage industries to operate efficiently. Instead it creates duplication, overproduction and waste.

Cars and smartphones are designed to wear out or become outdated so their owners buy new ones. Retail firms use extra packaging merely to cut delivery costs.

Control of oil and gas supplies boosts governments’ domestic capitalist economies, their international bargaining strength and the murderous reach of their armed forces.

The military generates huge emissions that governments refuse to even count. It must be disarmed.

Much of the energy used to heat homes leaks straight outside. Forcing landlords to insulate buildings could start to make housing sustainable. But our whole urban landscape is built on a contradiction.

People are brought together in centralised office blocks, industrial estates or town centres to work. Outside work they are scattered in individual households across sprawling suburbs.

This relies on workers doing hundreds of hours of unpaid labour every year, commuting, shopping, cooking and cleaning. It also relies on fossil fuels.

Road emissions would plummet if people had the right to decent homes and services near their place of work, along with better public transport.

Collective kitchens could eliminate food poverty—and an absurdly inefficient system of distribution.

Food wouldn’t need wrapping in tiny parcels of plastic, delivering to competing supermarkets then taken home—with fleets of refuse trucks sent after the inevitable waste.

Equally far-reaching changes are needed in the countryside to sustain food production without the fossil fuel-based pesticides, fertilisers and machinery that defines it today.

The aviation industry’s expansion needs to be reversed, flights rationed and shared fairly.

Challenging the intensification of work would help people relax without having to fly to cram holidays into the little time that’s left.

The changes we need intersect with struggles already underway.

But the demands they raise ultimately point to a different kind of society—socialism based on human need.

Exxon Mobils refinery in Louisiana
Exxon Mobil’s refinery in Louisiana (Pic: Wikimedia Commons/WClarke)

Fossil fuels need to stay in the ground

The most immediate climate threat is from carbon dioxide emissions released by burning fossil fuels. They trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the climate.

So far the average global surface temperature has risen by one degree Celsius—enough to trigger violent storms, floods and droughts and begin to break up the ice caps.

If emissions don’t stop rising some scientists predict huge increases in temperature before the end of the century.

The consequences would be catastrophic.

If emissions stopped completely tomorrow, the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere would continue to warm the planet for decades.

The warming so far has begun to release natural greenhouse gases. This is already having an impact such as the thawing vast frozen bogs in Siberia, that could drive further warming.

One study recently made headlines by claiming that limiting increases to 1.5 degrees is not quite physically impossible.

But even this estimate requires emissions to start falling sharply now and reach zero by 2055.

That’s far bigger than the Paris agreement’s feeble targets—and governments aren’t sticking to those.

We must adapt to survive a hotter world of hurricanes, droughts and rising seas.

But the single most important factor is slashing emissions to limit the extent and slow the pace of warming.

For that, most of the world’s existing oil, gas and coal reserves need to stay in the ground.

Oil companies need to abandon their desperate search for new sources—such as through fracking and deep sea drilling—and write off most of those they already control.

The workers they employ must be redeployed to put their skills and labour to better use.

The change we need is beyond individual lifestyle choices or minor reforms.

It will mean facing down some of the world’s biggest and most powerful companies—and the states intertwined with them.

Our society is addicted to fossil fuels because its ruling class is addicted to profit.

Breaking the addiction means breaking that class’s power.

Suffering that could be halted

Misrule by corporations and states turns storms and droughts into human catastrophes.

Hurricane Irma flattened most homes on the island of St Martin this summer but more solidly built government buildings survived.

Droughts linked to climate change in Sudan and Somalia have helped trigger famines.

There is still more than enough food for everyone on Earth.

War stops it getting to people—and the market stops them affording it.

People escape threats to their lives and livelihoods by migrating.

The laws, fences and prisons that restrict migration could become one of the biggest killers.

Market won’t scrap fossil fuel

Renewable energy sources get better all the time. They could replace most fossil fuel use.

But it’s hard to make enough profit from something that comes almost for free.

Different renewables are tied to certain places and produce energy at different times. But bosses want energy they can buy in unlimited quantities whenever and wherever they can make a profit.

They see renewable energy sources as a complement to fossil fuels at best.

Renewable energy needs to replace fossil fuels. But to fully realise renewable energy’s potential would take a planned economy.

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