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How can we stop capitalism’s climate cop-outs?  

Two months after the failures of Cop26, Martin Empson asks what it’ll take to stop the system driving us to disaster  
A sea of people on the protest against Cop26. They're holding banners and home-made placards

100,000 march on the Cop26 conference in Glasgow last year (Picture: Andrew McGowan)

Beyond a handful of billionaires and their political acolytes, few people had much good to say about Cop26.

But, despite most activists’ lack of expectations, the utter failure of the summit continues to raise important questions in the movement for the coming year. How should we organise and mobilise now to achieve climate justice and prevent catastrophic environmental collapse? And questions around anti-capitalism run through these debates.

Activists are not the only people having these discussions. In the Annual Review of Environment and Resources journal, 23 climate scientists ask, “Why haven’t we bent the global emissions curve?”, despite three decades of the Cop26 process.

The authors, including Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, draw interesting conclusions. They have close parallels with what socialists and climate activists might say. For instance, they write, “Dominant economic and political interests are invested in the status quo and work hard against change.

“Causes are also deeply embedded in wider economic and geopolitical divisions, including the historical backdrop of colonialism, imperialism, and other systemic injustices.”

The scientists go on to argue that their analysis “brings to the fore questions highly challenging to the dominant” model “of ‘progress’”. “The almost uncritical pursuit of economic growth, piecemeal politics, and a narrow, techno-economic rationality are fundamental characteristics.”  And “worldviews and perspectives that offer alternatives” have “tended to be marginalised, undermined or otherwise ignored”.

The vested interests pushing back against action on climate change go far beyond the “usual suspects”, such as the fossil fuel industry. Rather, the problem is structural—and “can no longer be reconciled with a massaged form of the status quo”. “In a real sense, a critical tipping point has emerged,” the scientists write. “Whatever direction is chosen, the future will be a radical departure from the present.”

Societies “may decide to instigate rapid and radical changes in their emissions at rates and in ways incompatible” with the status quo. The other outcome is that “climate change will impose sufficiently chaotic impacts that are also beyond the stability” of the system.

The Annual Review article is important, because it shows that environmental scientists are increasingly drawing conclusions that point in an anti-capitalist direction. The environmental movement itself must also take notice of this.

There has been a strong—and growing—element of anti-capitalism to the environmental movement over the last decade. This is shown by the popular slogan, “System Change not Climate Change.” It was first raised outside the Cop conference in 2009 and is regularly seen on placards and banners carried on climate protests around the world.

But there are questions about what system change means and how to achieve it. The dominant strategies put forward in the climate movement remain “reformist”. By this, I mean that they do not try to challenge the capitalist system itself, but try to make the system more sustainable.

These might include planting vast numbers of trees, rewilding huge areas or a transition to sustainable energy. These plans are well intentioned. But none of them challenge the fundamental problems of an economic system that continues to pump vast, and increasing, amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Capitalism, driven forward by competition between rival firms, subordinates everything to profit maximisation. And reformist strategies do not break with this logic of capital accumulation.

The other problem with these reformist strategies is that they don’t confront the legacy of colonialism, or contemporary imperialism, that underlie ecological crises and social injustice.

Other, smaller sections of the movement are drawing different conclusions. In his provocative and widely read book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm argues for mass, militant, violent confrontation against fossil fuel infrastructure. Other groups, such as Insulate Britain, use non-violent, direct action by small numbers of activists to cause disruption— for instance, blocking roads to highlight their demands.

But in many ways, these two wings of the movement are linked.

Malm rails against the governments and corporations that have blocked progress on climate change. He explores the systemic nature of capitalism that drives ecological disaster and keeps the fossil fuel industry at its heart. It is this frustration with the system, and the movement’s failure to win more action from conferences like Cop26, that has inspired many into more radical action. We saw this with the mass mobilisations of Extinction Rebellion, and now Insulate Britain’s much smaller actions.

Malm is highly critical of those that argue for a non-violent movement. He rightly points out that some in the movement, such as the leadership of Extinction Rebellion, idolise non-violence. This is rooted in a misreading of how social movements have won change in the past.

Malm points out that the struggles against slavery and South African apartheid and for Civil Rights and universal suffrage often combined violent action against property with mass non-violence. And that’s precisely because they were confronting forces that were happy to use the violence of the state to prevent social change.

But Malm then says that to stop the systemic problem of fossil fuel action we need to accelerate violence against property to make the fossil fuel industry unviable. As he argues in Pipeline, “So here is what the movement of millions should do, for a start: announce and enforce the prohibition [on fossil fuels]. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices.

“Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed… If we can’t get a prohibition, we can impose a de facto one with our bodies and any other means necessary.”

Action against the fossil fuel industry can stop its expansion. But the most powerful campaigns have involved mass protests, not groups of individuals destroying infrastructure. The movements against pipelines, fracking wells and other infrastructure— that radical writer Naomi Klein called “Blockadia”—have been most successful when they combined mass movements and direct action.

When Shell pulled out of the Cambo oil field, their press release acknowledged the “economic case for investment in this project is not strong enough at this time.” And that there was “the potential for delay”.

This announcement was made immediately after at least 100,000 people protested in Scotland during Cop26. The anticipated delays that worried Shell would come from environment groups gearing up to protest over Cambo in the aftermath of the summit.

The moratorium on fracking in England, announced by the Tory government in 2019, came out of a mass campaign. It combined protests at fracking sites and blocking vehicles with mass protests and demonstrations. Crucially, much of the trade union movement was opposed to fracking.  Activists successfully argued that there were alternatives, which would provide more jobs without resorting to dirty fossil fuels. 

At its most successful, the US campaign in Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline involved mass protests. They were led by indigenous people and supported by environmental activists, workers and even veteran groups.

The protest camp at Standing Rock had 15,000 participants at its peak. Similarly, the movement that stopped the Keystone XL pipeline involved direct action combined with mass protests, such as the tens of thousands of people who marched to the White House. Under huge pressure, then president Barack Obama blocked the plans. While Trump gave the go ahead again, incumbent Joe Biden revoked permission on his first day in office. And TC Energy, the corporation behind Keystone XL, gave up the project.

These examples show that fossil fuel expansion can be stopped. But it takes mass movements combining militant tactics at specific targets, such as blockades and pickets, with mass demonstrations aimed at creating pressure on corporations and politicians. 

The larger the movements, the more likely they are to pull in wider social forces that can be won to oppose fossil fuel corporations. Winning the trade union movement to an anti-fracking position meant creating a big protest movement with demonstrations and other actions which workers could participate in.

At the same time, we had to show there were alternatives that could create jobs and protect communities. In turn, the participation of trade unions gave confidence and solidarity to the environmental movement. It also raised questions about the potential power of workers—because they are the source of profits—to challenge the system.

In contrast, small groups of militant activists can be easily isolated from the wider community. In the 1990s, for instance, Earth First! was campaigning against logging, which was destroying habitats in the Pacific North West of the US. The government and timber bosses turned the debate into “jobs vs the environment”.

It was common to see car bumper stickers with slogans like, “Save a logger, Eat an Owl.” In turn, some environmental activists lumped workers together with the bosses. They failed to find common ground with workers who had the potential to be a significant force fighting for jobs and the environment.

Malm’s strategy for disruption of fossil fuel industry is attractive to those frustrated by the ongoing activities of the oil, gas and coal barons and the lack of action from governments. But it won’t work out the way he claims.

Malm underestimates the scale of repression the state will be prepared to use against activists. At least ten environmental activists spent Christmas behind bars after being given sentences of up to four months for blocking roads.

Even more draconian punishments against protesters are possible. We saw that with the 14 year sentence given to Ryan Roberts after his involvement in a Kill the Bill protest in Bristol in March 2021.

Capitalist states have never been afraid of using violence and the threat of heavy custodial sentences to protect the profits of business. And tragically it has frequently been the fossil fuel industry that has benefited from such capitalist support.

We need only remember the Ogoni Nine, a group of indigenous environmental activists executed by the Nigerian state in 1995. They had been fighting the destruction of their homeland by Shell.

The ability of the capitalist state to unleash repression against individuals who are confronting the system is the biggest barrier to this strategy. It’s one that relies on groups of people—no matter how large they are—to try to stop the fossil fuel industry solely by targeting their infrastructure.

Socialists do not side with the state against those blocking roads, shutting down oil wells, or trying to put fossil fuel infrastructure out of commission. But we must also argue that such strategies cannot bring about fundamental social and economic change.

For instance, despite Malm’s radicalism, his strategy also ends up with reformist conclusions. Writing in the Guardian in the aftermath of Cop26 he said, “We can observe that slowing down the climate catastrophe means, by definition, the destruction of fossil capital—there can be no more profiting from fossil fuels.

“And if governments are incapable of initiating this work, because they take their orders from the top floors, then others should do so. Not because activists can accomplish the abolition of fossil fuels—only states have that potential—but because their role is to ratchet up the pressure for it.”

In other words, for Malm, the movement even in its most radical form is subordinated toward encouraging the capitalist system to transition away from fossil fuels. 

Where does this leave the climate movement after Cop26? Firstly, we must celebrate the scale and radicalism of the movement that developed around Glasgow. It was a mass movement that worked hard to increase participation from groups that are usually underrepresented.

A focus on climate justice helped ensure that anti-racist campaigns, refugee and migrants organisations and groups fighting for solidarity with the Global South were in the leadership. We need to continue to develop the links between environmental campaigns and those organising against global injustice.  

The breadth of our movement is also important because we must ensure that everyone can find their space. We cannot have a situation where mass protests are contrasted to separate direct action. Instead our movement must incorporate a plethora of tactics. But it must also have a strategic focus on challenging capitalist power and give confidence to the force in society that can overthrow capitalism, the working class.

We need to ensure that our mass movement continues to reach out and engage with wider social forces—in particular workers’ organisations.

In Britain, there are sharp debates inside the trade union movement over climate action. 

The TUC union federation conference passed a motion that backed nuclear power and gas production. It did call for a “just transition”. Yet it heavily implied that action on climate change posed a danger to workers, meaning unions had to fight “to protect British goods and jobs”.

But it was good to see trade union participation on the global day of action during Cop26, helped by national trade union support for the Cop26 Coalition.

In Glasgow, the council’s cleansing department strikers joined the climate strike, led by Greta Thunberg, on Friday 5 November. They marched on the mass mobilisation the following day, calling for “Climate justice and social justice as one”. They are GMB members, a union that backed the backward TUC motion.

We need more of this, and socialists have to push to make sure that workers link the fight for their own jobs and conditions to the wider environmental struggle. The arguments put in the Million Climate Jobs report are an excellent explanation of how the fight for workplace justice and a zero-carbon future are closely linked.

But the participation of workers’ organisations is also important because of the central role of the working class in capitalist society. Ultimately, it is only because of workers that the system functions at all. Who kept key services running during the pandemic? Why were the Tories and bosses so keen to herd people back to work before it was safe? To get profits flowing again.

This means workers have immense “social weight” to shut down the system that’s driving climate change. It is the potentially revolutionary role of workers, through their strategic power within capitalist society, that is missing from Malm’s strategy.  

This doesn’t mean workers automatically unite with the climate movement. But as climate change wreaks devastation across the world, there is a potential to link struggles over social and climate justice. 

This is why socialist organisation is so important to wider struggles. Without a focus on workers’ power, especially the economic power they have through strikes, movements risk being drawn into a “substitutionist” radicalism. This is based on a few individuals doing it on our behalf and can easily be snuffed out by the state. The stronger and larger socialist organisation is, the easier it is to draw links between different movements and to articulate an anti-capitalist vision of a sustainable future.

It is through workers’ power that we can build a society based on rational, democratic organisations of production. It would be production for human need, not profit. We can see an embryonic form of workers’ power in strikes. 

Such a new, socialist, society will do away with the irrational, chaotic, and profit-driven nature of capitalist society. That requires a revolution, where ordinary people assert their power and take control. 

This is the vision that must inform our strategic discussions as we look forward to a re-energised environmental movement in 2022.

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