By Martin Empson
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Debating how to save the planet

This article is over 2 years, 6 months old
Martin Empson reviews four recent books putting forward solutions to the climate crisis.

Solutions to the climate crisis are contested (Photo: flickr)

You could be forgiven for thinking that the only book on climate change published recently is Bill Gates’ self-serving How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Gates’ book is a political intervention into the debates around climate change. He and his class get nervous when thousands of young people demand system change on mass protests. Instead, Gates offers a different vision.

We do not need system change, Gates says. He argues climate change can be solved if the market is allowed free rein. They can do this through corporations developing new technologies and capitalists like himself making massive profits. For Gates the role of government is not to create jobs, but rather to take on the risky investments that capitalists don’t want. Research and development is expensive, so the costs should be borne by the state. But for Gates the results should be handed over to companies like the ones he owns.

It is easy to attack Gates’ solutions as ones that he will personally benefit from. Touting in turn nuclear power, biofuels and electric vehicles, we learn about his financial interest in nuclear power companies, as well as biofuel and battery research.

But this is actually the least insidious part of the snake oil he is selling. Gates cheerfully tells us, “I think more like an engineer than a political scientist, and I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change”. The problem is that climate change is not a technical problem, but one that needs political answers.

So Gates has little to say to millions of people facing disaster. He glorifies technology, but has nothing for those whose lives are blighted by the legacy of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism today. He has no understanding of how capitalism drives environmental disaster, nor how it intertwines with oppression and inequality. His book is also depressingly ignorant of wider ecological issues – biodiversity loss for instance. The best thing about Gates’ book is its insight into the mind-set of some of the richest people on the planet.

So it is a relief to discover plenty of other books that try and unpick the environmental crisis in a much more meaningful way.

Market mechanisms?

Michael E. Mann is a distinguished climate scientist and author. His talks and books have contributed greatly to our understanding of the crisis. His most famous contribution is the research that produced the famous Hockey Stick Graph. In 1999 this simple visualisation helped to bring home the reality of climate change. As a result Mann and his collaborators faced systematic attempts to discredit their work by climate deniers. But as he explains in his new book, The New Climate War, this denial was not new. It is merely the latest in a series of attempts to undermine environmental science, politics and legislation that might stop fossil fuel corporations making money.

Mann’s book is strongest when he is explaining climate science and the history of climate denial. He also tackles another key argument – individual responsibility. Arguing, “It’s not YOUR fault”, Mann says the tendency to blame individuals for their environmentally destructive behaviour is a deflection from the real enemy. Deflection, Mann says, encourages “finger-pointing, behaviour-shaming, virtue-signalling and purity tests. It also provides a means for tarring leading climate advocates as hypocrites and firing up political conservatives by emphasizing the purported personal sacrifice and loss of personal liberty that climate action demands”.

Mann is optimistic about the future and is confident the world can tackle the climate crisis. But he warns “deflection” diverts us from his preferred solutions – “pricing or regulating carbon, removing fossil fuel subsidies, or providing incentives for clean energy alternatives”.

Unlike Gates, Mann doesn’t see climate change as primarily a technological problem. He thinks the solutions are financial and state led which is why he refers to “carbon pricing”. This market mechanism is one that Mann believes will ensure that companies will reduce emissions, as fossil fuels become too costly to use.

But Mann frets about opposition to such measures. He worries about “progressives” who portray carbon pricing “as an ostensible mechanism of neoliberal economics that discounts social justice”. He links this to the Yellow Vest rising in France, when protesters took to the streets against a carbon tax introduced by President Macron.

The problem with this argument is that carbon pricing is a neoliberal economic mechanism, which ends up discounting social justice. Mann wants his readers to believe that carbon pricing and other market mechanisms can be progressive, but he neglects the reality that such measures are also made in the context of capitalism. This is why Macron’s carbon tax brought the Yellow Vests onto the streets – precisely because it would have hit French workers financially.

One reason that Mann is particularly keen on market mechanisms as a solution to climate change is because he believes it will unite both wings of American capitalism. Carbon pricing, he points out, actually originates with the Republican Party, and is “supported by all former Republican chairs of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers”. Mann, a Democrat, knows that carbon pricing is also widely supported on the other side of the US political fence.

Mann is very keen on such bipartisan support. In fact, his book is very much a search for the sort of climate policies that can be acceptable to both the Democrats and Republicans. As such, he is unhappy when more radical ideas are linked to climate demands. Doing this will help “create a political economy that is toxic for bipartisan compromise”.

“Some progressives” says Mann, “feel current policies don’t do enough to address basic societal injustices… They argue that any plan to address climate change must address societal injustice”. Instead he continues, “I would argue that social justice is intrinsic to climate action. Environmental crisis… disproportionately impacts those with the least wealth… So simply acting on the climate crisis is acting to alleviate social injustice”.

This approach may please Republicans unconcerned about racism or poverty. But it offers nothing to those who face losing their lives, homes and farms through climate change – or experience inequality and low pay today.

Mann’s optimism about dealing with climate change rests on his belief that those who have contributed most to the problem can be brought on board a project to save the world.

Planet on fire

Luckily, two other recent books take a different approach. They place questions of social justice, anti-racism and anti-imperialism, at the heart of tackling climate change. Planet on Fire by Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a manifesto for a Green New Deal that offers social justice and jobs at its heart.

In contrast to Mann’s optimism, they suggest say that “there are few, possibly no, historical examples of societies successfully undertaking such fundamental transformative action in so little time”. They mince no words when blaming capitalism, drawing on Rosa Luxemburg famous wartime comment that society faces a choice between “socialism or barbarism. They point out that “extractive capitalism tears apart the natural systems upon which all life depends and drives the disruption and violence of breakdown hurtling towards us. We are at a terminal juncture”.

Their goal is an economy “reoriented towards meeting social and environmental needs, overturning the injustices of contemporary societies and an extractive, neo-imperial global political economy; promoting communal luxury in societies of everyday beauty and comfort; expanding social ownership and control; and deepening and extending democracy and freedom”.

This “systemic change” is far more thorough going than anything promoted by Mann. Kate Aronoff’s book Overheated also has a similar message. Both books make it clear that fighting environmental disaster means fighting capitalism and this cannot be separated from struggles for social justice.

Aronoff hammers the idea that capitalism can solve the problem through market mechanisms like carbon pricing. As she says, there are plenty of “monstrous behaviours” that are rational for capitalism, and the “kinds of prices that would be needed to fully and properly account for the externality of greenhouse gas emissions and cap warming at anything short of catastrophic levels would amount to a ban not a nudge to polluters to gradually conform… Fossil fuel companies’ business model is to dig up and burn as many fossil fuels as possible as quickly as possible, and there’s precious little evidence to suggest that will change anytime soon”.

Anti-capitalist environmentalism

It is excellent that socialists are engaging in these discussions and both Kate Aronoff’s and Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton’s books explore in detail how a sustainable society might work.

But I think there is a problem with how all three authors frame their anti-capitalism. In both books the real target is not capitalism itself, but neoliberalism. This is the extreme free-market agenda which arose in the late 1970s, epitomised in the policies of Thatcher and Reagan. As Aronoff shows, neoliberalism saw both the systematic dismantling of environmental policies and the introduction of market mechanisms as the preferred solutions to environmental issues. There is a tendency to see neoliberalism as the problem, rather than the way that capitalism itself functions. Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton write that the “institutional transformation affected by neoliberalism remains fundamental to how our economies operate today”. They continue that “moving beyond neoliberalism requires learning from its success… we have to transform the foundational institutions that organise the economy and distribute power”.

But what does that mean concretely? For Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton it means that we need to democratise the financial systems and make sure workers are part of corporate bodies. Their “radical reimagining” includes the democratisation and social ownership of the economy, particularly the finance system. Their alternative “against the rule of capital… seeks a democratised market place, with finance under social control, enterprise reimagined as a generative institution, and underpinned by a pluralistic ecosystem of common ownership and control”. They point to the role of “works councils” in Germany, which have had very modest successes in ensuring that workers’ viewpoints are heard at board level.

Similarly, Aronoff hopes that the very international intuitions that have driven neoliberal destruction around the world can be transformed. She calls for a “New Bretton Woods” summit to reform the international financial system to challenge climate change and other social questions.

It is certainly a bold vision. But it is utopian. Much as we all might hope that work can be democratised and capitalism made sustainable and equitable, it is not possible. Capitalism is a system with exploitation at its heart. Surplus value is extracted from workers’ labour forming the basis for the accumulation of profit. Trying to turn such a system into its opposite is not possible. The only way we can get a system without exploitation and accumulation is through the destruction of capitalism. Which means ending the domination of the world by people like Bill Gates.

The problem for those who, with the best intentions, want to reform capitalism and build socialism from inside is that the system itself organises to prevent this. Even Aronoff acknowledges this. She writes “the existing world order remains more of a hindrance to decarbonisation than a helper. Powerful international law threatens to unravel the most ambitious climate plans at the national level, having been written to give corporations and governments acting on their behalf a mighty line of defence against democratic reforms.”

The capitalist state, far from a neutral set of institutions, organises to protect the interests of capital. From international laws, to the police who club protesters and the soldiers who fire on revolutionaries, capitalism protects itself against challenges to its interests.

Disappointingly, neither of these left critiques of capitalism and its environmental record engage with the work of Karl Marx. This is a particular shame, because the last few decades has seen a flowering of writings building on the ecological message at the heart of Marx’s work. For Marx capitalism is so environmentally destructive because it has broken the historical, sustainable, relationship between human society and the natural world. Capitalism’s innate drive to accumulate leads to resource depletion, pollution and human suffering.

Revolutionary conclusions

Rather than build on these insights, Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton reject the revolutionary conclusions that arise from Marx’s work. They say there “will be no final confrontation with capitalism… no binary moment when it is overthrown” – but this implies continuation, not change. As long ago as 1880, in his polemic against the dreams of the Utopian socialists, Frederick Engels wrote “These new social systems were foredoomed as Utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.”

It is hard not to be reminded of Engels when we read that Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton hope of “green” companies, using “new rules… to turn it from a vehicle for maximising profits for the few towards an institution of the commons”.

Aronoff’s vision is more radical. She sees a Green New Deal as “rooting out the deep power imbalances that have made the fossil fuel economy possible”. But she fails to offer a concrete strategy for getting achieving this.

Socialists must approach the question differently. We begin by blaming capitalism for ecological crisis – not just neoliberalism. A truly sustainable society can only be achieved by ending the domination of capital over the planet. This requires revolution.

That’s not to say that we don’t believe reforms are valid. Socialists support the most radical versions of the Green New Deal, and the plan for millions of Climate Jobs. Rather than toning down our demands to placate the Republican Party, we link environmental questions to wider social issues – housing, transport, racism and gender inequality. We want to use these demands to build a movement that can challenge capitalism and win climate justice – one that has workers at its heart.

Our vision of a socialist world is one where the institutions of capital have been broken. What we want is a democratically planned economy where production is organised in the interests of people and planet. This can only come out of mass revolutionary movements. Every time working people rise up, they create new organisations of popular power. This is true from the Paris Commune to the Soviets of the Russian Revolution, from the workers’ councils of the German Revolution in 1919 or the Hungarian and Portuguese revolutions of 1956 and 1974. These organisations of workers power form the basis of an entirely new society – one that can help heal the rift between humanity and nature, by organising production in the interests of us all.

  • Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown
    Mathew Lawrence & Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Verso, 2021
  • The New Climate War: The fight to take back our planet
    Michael E. Mann, Scribe, 2021
  • How to avoid a climate disaster: The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need
    Bill Gates, Allen Lane, 2021
  • Overheated: How capitalism broke the planet and how we fight back
    Kate Aronoff, Bold Type Books, 2021


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