We live in a dystopian age. Governments have known since at least the mid-’90s about the potentially devastating impact of human-induced climate change. But for the most part they have either disputed and denied this, or pretended to be responding to scientists’ findings.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the world has already passed certain tipping points, setting off large and unpredictable changes in the climate, why are governments still refusing to act on the scale and pace required?
Why are some still denying that there is a climate emergency?
Why, despite the sorts of technological advances that mean we can send people to the Moon and robots to Mars, are so many governments refusing to act?
To answer those questions, you have to understand how the fossil fuel age is tied up with capitalism and class rule.
With the clock ticking, climate activists need to interrogate how we got to this stage and work out the next steps. To do that effectively we need to understand class politics.
We also need to understand the power that large numbers of people, organised in a sustained way, have to force change. History shows this is the way to challenge fossil-fuel capitalism in what has become a fight for survival.
The science on climate change was settled by the first major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1995. It warned about the possible consequences of an ever increasing rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other more potent greenhouse gases.
The latest IPCC data tells us we have 11 years left to fundamentally turn things around and we can already see the devastating impacts of climate change, particularly on those countries that have contributed least to the problem.
Extremes in temperatures are wiping out whole nations and species. Some low-lying islands and cities no longer exist.
Yet rich governments are sticking to their failed business-as-usual model, effectively declaring war on Earth systems. Rationality, science and our collective ability to chart an alternative course is being thwarted by a powerful minority.
It is useful to summarise what science is telling us.
The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) warned in the 1990s that human activity was not just disrupting the Earth, but that it was doing so in ways that are more extensive and fundamental than anyone had imagined.
In 2000, one of its chemists coined the term “Anthropocene” — from the Greek word anthropos, meaning human — to indicate that the Earth had moved from the Holocene into a new epoch. (The Holocene is the time since the end of the last major glacial epoch, or “ice age”.)
According to Canadian ecosocialist Ian Angus, the IGBP were the first scientists to present a more complete understanding of the global carbon cycle and its relationship to climate change.
In an interview about his book Facing the Anthropocene, Angus said:
“We now know that for 800,000 years atmospheric carbon dioxide has varied within a strictly limited range — never lower than 180 ppm [parts per million] in cold times and never higher than 300 ppm in warm times.
“Over very long periods carbon dioxide has cycled between the atmosphere and the oceans, keeping Earth’s temperatures within surprisingly well-defined limits.
“Now, as a direct result of fossil fuel combustion, the concentration is over 440 ppm, and is growing fast. Human activity has disrupted a complex natural cycle that took millions of years to evolve, and that disruption is rapidly changing the state of the planet.”
In 2007, Will Steffen, Paul J Crutzen and John R McNeill warned that the Earth had recently moved well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over at least the past half a million years.
They said that while pre-industrial societies had influenced their environment,
“the changes they wrought were based on knowledge probably based on trial-and-error of natural ecosystems dynamics and its modification to ease the tasks of hunting, gathering and eventually of farming.”
They asked the critical question: “Humankind will remain a major geological force for millennia, maybe millions of years, to come. To develop a universally accepted strategy to ensure the sustainability of the Earth’s life support system against human-induced stresses, is one of the greatest research and policy changes ever to confront humanity. Can humanity meet this challenge?”
They also noted, somewhat pessimistically, that: “In most parts of the world the demand for fossil fuels overwhelms the desire to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. About 60% of ecosystems are already degraded, and will continue to degrade unless significant societal changes in values and management occur.
“There is also evidence for radically different directions built around innovative, knowledge-based solutions.
“Whatever unfolds, the next few decades will surely be a tipping point in the evolution of the Anthropocene.”
Nearly 30 years later, the IPCC sounded a warning with its October 2018 report. They said scientists had underestimated the impact of warming and that the world had just 12 years to cap temperature rise at 1.5°C.
The IPCC report stated:
“Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050”, and warned that “Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes”.
The report pointed to several alarming trends including: global greenhouse gas emissions showing no signs of peaking; global carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industry rising in 2017; and many countries, including Australia, are not on track to meet national targets for 2030.
In February, IPCC scientists warned that “increased action would need to achieve net zero [carbon dioxide] emissions in less than 15 years to keep temperature to 1.5°C.”
Fossil fuel governments
Given this data has been available for decades, why should we expect that more information will convince governments to act?
This question goes to the heart of the debate over strategy, which is being had across the globe. It sets up challenges for anti-capitalists to both relate to the rising and broad movement, while also seeking to win people to the idea that anti-capitalist solutions are the only chance we have of saving the climate.
Science is on our side. But the science is not enough.
McKibbon said the emergency requires us to “move beyond education to confrontation … We may not always win, but we always make life harder for the industry.”
He acknowledges weaknesses with this approach, saying the biggest challenge facing the climate movement remains the strength of the opposition: “With unlimited cash, it has managed to dominate politics, especially in the US.”
The same is true for Australia. The fossil fuel industry has its hired guns sitting in federal and state parliaments.
In 2017, then-treasurer and now Prime Minister Scott Morrison went as far as bringing a lump of coal into parliament to showcase his party’s allegiance to fossil fuel corporations. It was a sobering, if perversely funny moment.
Around the world, the fossil fuel lobby is among the most powerful and organised of its kind. Market Forces estimates that donations from fossil fuel corporations to Australia’s major parties were up 32% over 2017-18. Some $1,277,933 was gifted to Labor, the Liberal Party and The Nationals over this period, up from $968,343 in 2016-17 and $1.03 million in 2015-16.
Woodside, Santos, Chevron and the rest are not philanthropists: they expect, and get, profit-making policies for their bucks.
These fossil fuel corporations are not only big and powerful; they are deeply enmeshed with giant banks and financial institutions, the arms industry and a whole host of other related corporate sectors.
In Australia, this toxic alliance of powerful vested interests includes such a large section of the corporate elite that both Coalition and Labor governments have promoted fossil fuel expansion, despite all the evidence that this is totally irresponsible.
Coalition and Labor governments have promoted coal exports and smoothed the way to Australia outstripping Qatar in LNG production. They gave gas companies outrageous tax concessions totalling more than annual government expenditure on education to help reach this ignoble goal.
Any government that challenges this course will be forced to take on this powerful alliance — and with it, the capitalist system itself.
Once upon a time, climate activists would shrink away from this conclusion. But that is changing.
Activists in the global School Strike 4 Climate movement have adopted as their own the slogan “change the system, not the climate”. Many in the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement agree, even if the movement does not include system change in its platform.
There are also activists in the Greens who think the same, even if the party’s program does not reflect this yet.
But has this sentiment developed beyond a growing awareness of the powerful vested interests the climate movement is confronting and “change the system” slogans on placards?
Is there an emerging strategy that is up to this challenge and that has won significant consensus in movement?
No. But the movement is seeking out tactics that could become part of an effective anti-capitalist strategy.
The student climate strike movement is reaching out — with increasing success — to workers and trade unions to join the next global climate strike on September 20.
Just as there is a toxic alliance of capitalist interests blocking an adequate government response to the climate emergency, at the heart of any anti-capitalist strategy has to be the building of an effective counter-alliance.
The capitalists have their wealth and power, but ultimately their is little they can do if employees refuse to work for them.
There will be political challenges to getting trade unions on board for September 20.
The leaderships of most trade unions have the same pro-capitalist outlook as Labor politicians.
Many support the Adani coal mine (among others), because it will supposedly deliver jobs. They also support Australia’s gas expansion for the same reason.
One way of countering this is to bring in the idea of climate justice and making it a critical part of the movement’s focus.
The new youth-led climate movement has highlighted climate justice — the notion that wea re not all in this together. Inequalities in wealth and class differences within countries will impact the way people cope — or not — with climate change.
But climate justice needs to go beyond being one more slogan.
The climate movement needs to champion real measures that will deliver jobs and decent livelihoods. This means more than abstract promises of new jobs in renewable industries. It needs to push for an expansion of public investment in housing, health and education, and reject the privatisation madness that has made life more miserable for most workers.
The movement needs to argue that society must not be held hostage to profit-driven corporate interests and that our main resources need to be put back under collective ownership and control.
The urgency of the climate crisis will attract more and more activists to “radical” action because “time is running out”.
XR has as its core tactic sustained mass civil disobedience and holds out hope that such actions will force governments to the table.
If this movement persists, it will learn that the ruling class, even in the most democratic capitalist country, will use the might of its police and other armed forces to protect its interests.
It will learn that the real power of mass civil disobedience is not its power to shock the powerful into listening to the movement, but rather its potential to draw into action the masses of people that the powerful rely on to keep businesses running.
The urgency of the climate crisis is driving the search for “new” solutions. There is no time to build a new system, it has been argued.
They find false hope in the fact that militaries are acknowledging the climate crisis and making contingency plans. So is the insurance industry — but that does not make either a strategic ally of the climate movement.
Others are arguing for a Green New Deal. But critics have noted that unless workers and communities are actively involved in the fight for new, sustainable jobs and industries, such a plan will only amount to a greening of capitalism.
US sociology professor John Bellamy Foster says the Green New Deal proposed by US Democratic politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has value, but only if it is “the entry point to … wider, eco-revolutionary change”.
Bellamy Foster explained:
“We have to go against the logic of the system even while living within it.
“There are no merely technological solutions to the climate problem, though technological innovations are necessary.”
In the long run, “we have to have a full ecological and social revolution, transcending existing capitalist relations of production”.
“We have to reach zero net carbon emissions globally by 2050, and as long as we are committed to pursuing the logic of profit before people and the planet, getting there is impossible.”
For a habitable planet, we have to reduce global carbon emissions by 3% a year. Any viable solution involves a major incursion on the property rights of the capitalist class.
In other words, the very urgency of the analysis rules out “market solutions” within a system that has created this crisis.