The fight against climate change is a fight against capitalism

Updated: Feb 14

Simon Hannah writes that global warming is rooted in a social and economic system that has a parasitoid relationship to the Earth upon which we live.

First published: 13 August 2019 at Open Democracy

Capitalism as a system is highly exploitative of both people and planet. It is driven by a desperate need for profit and accumulation. That is the overriding priority. Companies might ‘green-wash’ (BP changing its logo to the green flower is the most infamous example), but we live in a world where the polar ice caps melt and then oil companies go in to tap the ground for previously unobtainable deposits of oil.

Whilst some reforms will no doubt happen as we approach the 2030 deadline, it is apparent that left unchanged our economic system will continue to destroy the basis for life on this planet - until it is too late. No wonder Elon Musk is planning on establishing a colony on Mars: the 1% are already end-gaming a strategy to get the hell out of here.

But there is no escape for the rest of us.

The urgency of the time we are living in has seen movements like Extinction Rebellion and the school climate strikers led by Greta Thunberg hit the streets. They are taking matters into their own hands through direct-action protests to try and force policy changes in government.

Even in the Labour Party there is a burgeoning movement for change. The Labour for a Green New Deal (LGND) initiative is going to be a major point of this year’s Labour Party conference. But will it be enough?

Green new capitalism

The overarching strategy of the LGND motion is summed up as the call to include in the next manifesto the following:

A state-led programme of investment and regulation for the decarbonisation and transformation of our economy that reduces inequality and pursues efforts to keep global average temperature rises below 1.5°C.

The inclusion of such a paragraph in the next manifesto would leave a lot of wriggle room for softening some of the more urgent political actions that will be required to save the planet from runaway global warming.

'State-led investment' and 'regulation' sound thoroughly Keynesian, even moderate. Merely regulating the private sector rather than making deep inroads into corporate capital does not remove the profit motive from the economy; it only seeks to constrain it in various ways. As long as our economy chases after profit, it will seek ways to circumvent any regulation.

State-led investment is fine, but on its own it does not challenge capitalism as a socio-economic system. Indeed, at its worst, it props it up and helps overcome aspects of capitalism’s inherent instability – Paul Krugman wrote about Keynes, 'He was no socialist – he came to save capitalism, not to bury it.'

As we approach climate catastrophe, what will be urgently needed is a global democratic plan for the economy. We must ensure that what resources we have are distributed properly and that we organise our society effectively and fairly - given that we will be dealing with the effects of climate change for generations to come. Capitalism is simply incompatible with social justice and living in harmony with the Earth, so it has to be changed, and changed quickly. The clock is ticking.

Concerning the specific demands of the motion, the first four (zero carbon emissions by 2030; rapid phasing out of all fossil fuels; large-scale investment in renewables; and a just transition to well-paid, unionised, green jobs for all) are good demands - though the debate over whether it is possible to achieve a totally zero-carbon economy in the next decade is an important one. Will we have no plane flights at all in 2030? No methane-producing farm animals? We will surely need some degree of offsetting even within our own national economy. Certainly Unite's climate-change ignoring leadership could do with reading on this and thinking about it as they continue to lobby for the disastrous third runway at Heathrow.

The next demand is the one that will no doubt will lead to huge debates and disagreements over interpretation:

A green industrial revolution expanding public, democratic ownership as far as necessary for the transformation.

'As far as necessary'. What is meant by that, only time will tell. The ambiguity of such phrases means that you can read into them anything you like. It could be read to mean a radical nationalisation plan which takes energy, transport, logistics, retail, and all the other sectors that are heavy carbon emitters into public ownership, so as to introduce plans to reduce their carbon footprint. Or it could mean a far more modest plan of taking bankrupt industries into temporary public ownership in order to ‘green’ them.

Private property and climate change

Certainly, if you wanted to do more than 'regulate' the petrochemical industry and actually dramatically reduce the extractive nature of those industries through socialisation and effectively shutting them down (and redeploying the workers to sustainable jobs), then taking them out of private ownership would be the most direct and effective way - but that raises the question of compensation for shareholders.

Now it could also mean seizing the companies without paying compensation. There is a moral and practical case for this in the context of a climate emergency which poses a threat to all life on the planet. If you went down the route of paying, trying to pay off shareholders and buying the company outright, then it would be prohibitively expensive. BP alone is worth billions. How to square the circle of the increasing need for socialised and democratic global solutions in a world of nation-states and jealously guarded private property?

This is where a serious fight against climate change that tries to get to the root of the problem of capitalism is going to clash head-on with our political and legal system. Property is 9/10th of the law, as the saying goes, and anything which moves beyond state-led investment to actually grappling with social ownership of the means of production and distribution is going to come across either huge financial problems or legal challenges.

Of course, if you see climate change from a revolutionary perspective, then you rip up those capitalist laws that are protecting the ill-gotten gains of the rich who are plundering our natural environment until we are on the brink of social collapse. The issue is going to revolve around the interpretation of 'as far as necessary' and whether the political will to drive through the necessary changes exists.

Likewise with the housing crisis: we need to simply seize the second homes of the rich or 'investors' and turn them into social housing to end homelessness and no doubt deal with the massive climate refugee crisis coming our way. Obeying the legal framework of capitalism, where the 1% are effectively hoarding essential resources while the rest of us suffer, is not going to cut it anymore.

Mass movements

Angus Satow from LGND has written a useful article in Open Democracy recently on the need for a mass movement to deliver a green new deal. This is an important point: we cannot leave it up to the politicians. They need to feel the heat (excuse the pun) from below – a mass social movement clamouring for urgent action. The current 2050 target is far too late – a 2030 deadline is what we should be working towards.

There is also the question of what happens if Labour loses the next election or only secures a hung parliament. If the parliamentary route to green policies becomes blocked for the next few years, then we need to take matters into our own hands. We have to stop the third runway at Heathrow, through non-violent direct action if necessary. We have to identify the most polluting companies and occupy their offices, disrupt their business, and hit them in the profit margins to force them to take action. Workers need to walk out of work and impose the four-day week on their employers as a way of reducing carbon (and the climate strike on the 20 September is a great place to start). This will no doubt mean a challenge to the anti-union laws that prevent political strike action. At this stage it is go hard or go home and wait for the planet to burn.

The debate is moving forward. That is important. The question now is the relationship between policy, mass movement, and the radical action needed to save the planet. With news coming in that the irreversible feedback loops which will lead directly to runaway climate change are already operating, we are not in 'business as usual' territory any more.

Simon Hannah is a UNISON and Labour activist and author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left.

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