UN Climate Conferences have been going on for 25 years. They have achieved precisely nothing. The participants at Paris in 2015 agreed to decrease production of oil, gas and coal by 6% a year for the next decade. Instead, according to the UN itself, they are planning increases of 2% annually, even as carbon emissions continue to mount.
It is undeniable that the continual rise in carbon emissions threatens life on earth through the process of global warming. Governments and Greens alike talk of ‘human beings’, ‘humanity’, or at the very least ‘primarily human activities’, as being responsible for the 48% increase in “the global average concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide” over pre-industrial levels. (NASA’s October 2021 Newsletter.) Now, just before the Glasgow jamboree the latest IPCC study confirms that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” Increases in greenhouse gas concentrations have been “observed since around 1750 [and they] are unequivocally caused by human activities.” So, now we get the theory: around 250 years ago humans, homo sapiens, who have been on Planet Earth for almost 300 thousand years, abruptly changed their ‘activities’ and began polluting the atmosphere and destroying the natural environment as never before. This is no explanation.
The Climate Crisis is a Capitalist Crisis
Today’s ‘climate emergency’ cannot simply be attributed to general ‘human activity’. The IPCC evidence says it all: the massive increase in emissions of greenhouse gases since the 18th century coincides with the rise of capitalist industrial society, and has intensified as capitalism has become the undisputed mode of production over the entire planet.
Those who blame ‘human nature’ point to the consumption habits of the general population. They claim that this is at least equally responsible for the massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions as the production processes for those very same products. Others repeat the Malthusian stance that overpopulation is the cause. These myths, the latter of which implicitly advocates mass genocide, both treat society as a collection of individuals, rather than a set of social relations. As such they fail to consider how class differences within capitalist society created and maintain the climate crisis.
The capitalist class owns the means of production and uses them to produce products solely for the purpose of exchange, so as to generate profit. The result for the working class is an absolute lack of alternatives. They have no means to produce the things they need themselves, and so must give their labour to an increasingly life-threatening production process in exchange for wages which they then use to buy the commodities that the process created. Anybody who chooses to produce goods through more ‘ethical’ means will be out-paced and out-priced by those who don’t. Capitalists compete for profit. To do so they expand production, ravage the earth’s ‘free’ natural resources and invest in machines that increase productivity. This incessant growth of capital is a means to an end that never ends. Climate change is not the result of a general human nature that can be traced back to hunter-gatherers; rather it is specific to capitalism, where profit and capital determine action. Capitalist states, which exist to protect their own (capitalist) economies, cannot stop the damaging consequences. No amount of climate summits or window dressing government pronouncements can protect the world’s working class from the increasing number of catastrophes.
Who Pays the Highest Price?
States, for their part, have obscured their true intentions. In Glasgow much will said about carbon taxes and promises of “net-zero emissions no later than 2050”, as Biden promised in his presidential campaign. However, millions of acres have just been leased by the Biden administration for the exploration of oil and gas. More tellingly, a recent US federal statute set up a Climate Security Advisory Council with the goal of assessing and working to counteract climate change’s effects on “national security infrastructure” and “potential political violence”. There is not even a token mention of attempting to mitigate climate change itself. The goal here is clear: while the working class suffers from natural disasters, famine and war, the states of the world are tooling up to protect the capitalist class from any threat to their power from the people they claim to protect. In other words, in a climate emergency capitalist states will operate in their usual manner, as protectors of capital and enforcers of private property. Climate change and its consequences are not treated as a disastrous possibility that must be stopped at all costs, but an inevitability whose costs must be accounted for and its consequences to be prepared for.
And there will be much to prepare for as the consequences of global warming will be devastating and the world’s poorest, including the working class, will feel the worst of it. We are already beginning to see its effects, as wildfires in the Amazon rainforest, Australia and California burned down over 50 million acres of land, destroyed thousands of homes and killed over 500 people in 2019-2020. In July 2021, in India, Europe and China, flooding killed over 700 people and over 1 million people had to be evacuated from the flooded areas. Rising sea levels will continue to exacerbate flooding and will submerge large sections of coastlines making them uninhabitable, destroying homes and displacing millions. The increase in heat will dry out crops leading to starvation and deadly famines, especially for those living near the equator. Migrants seeking refuge elsewhere, where they might find food, work or peace will be turned away, detained or will die travelling across dangerous terrain. This mass of misery is undeniably inevitable. The Syrian refugee crisis showed us just how capable the world’s richest states are at letting millions of desperate people fleeing a civil war die.
And the more the planet heats up, the more impossible it will be to reverse it, if at all. The melting of the ice caps will reduce the amount of reflected sun rays which will further increase global temperatures; the melting of permafrost will release huge stores of previously trapped greenhouse gases; the acidification of the oceans will kill most of the ocean’s plankton, the basis for the majority of the oceanic food chain; continuing deforestation will increase levels of CO₂ in the atmosphere as fewer trees will be able to absorb it; rising temperatures will further exacerbate water scarcity, a problem that already affects over two-thirds of the global population. Moreover, states’ humanitarian response to these tragedies will decline as they focus their efforts on maintaining civil obedience through the police and warring over dwindling resources with their armies.
Only One Solution: Revolution!
Our hope for the future doesn’t lie with politicians or CEOs. No international agreement will be able to reverse capitalism’s effects on the climate; no such agreement could even be enforced. The United States’ brief exit from the Paris Climate Accords from November 2020 to February 2021 shows the ease with which a powerful nation can suspend any supposed “commitment” to stopping climate change. With imperialist tensions mounting the cost of combating climate change will increasingly become an unnecessary expenditure.
The truth is clear: so long as capitalism survives, the habitable land on this planet will shrink and hundreds of millions will die prematurely. It is clear we need a new social model. We need a society which can take and adapt the technology that has been built, and use it for the satisfaction of human needs rather than the accumulation of wealth for a few. A society where decisions can be made by all for the benefit of all, and where the survival of human life on the planet is not under constant threat.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 57) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.