Contemporary capitalism presents a direct threat to the survival of most of the world’s species: climate change. The global capitalist economy is anchored in fossil fuels. Burning these fuels releases warming gasses into the atmosphere where they accumulate over time, raising the earth’s temperature. The rising temperatures have significant effects. For example, melting glaciers and polar ice caps lead to rising sea levels. Changes in air and ocean temperatures impact weather patterns, which leads to droughts in some places and floods in others.
Even though it is necessary to stop burning coal, to stop drilling for oil and gas, and to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, the capitalist class wants to protect its investments. It will do all that it takes to hold on to power, even if that means destroying much of the world. Socialism is the only way to confront the unfolding climate catastrophe in a just and equitable way.
Already there are movements addressing climate change and fighting for environmental justice. These include the struggles against fracking, pipelines and gas storage as well as battles over the fossil fuel infrastructure. Some of the most significant and successful struggles are those led by Indigenous and first peoples, groups on the frontline of climate change. The inspirational leadership that we saw at Standing Rock, for example, points to the courage and solidarity that the battle around the climate demands. Our task is to engage in, learn from and intensify these struggles, demonstrating the ways they are necessarily and unavoidably anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.
That the capitalist class is most interested in protecting its power, position, wealth and way of life means that the struggle to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of global warming is a class struggle. It is a struggle for power — not a struggle over morality or individual consumer choices. The capitalist class holds out the promise of “more of the same” because that is the way that it can continue to accumulate wealth while working people get the same raw deal of exploitation, racism and oppression that they have for centuries.
Capitalists want us to think that the system can keep going. This is a lie, as we see from the floods and fires, temperature extremes and increasingly violent storms around the globe. Under the pretense that everything is basically fine, the capitalist class is rapidly seizing ever more of our common resources. Examples of this include the so-called economic recovery since the 2008 crisis, which has really been an enormous redistribution of wealth away from working and oppressed people. They include as well myriad policy decisions that benefit billionaires and corporations as they damage the rest of us and undermine the remnants of the United States’ always minimal welfare state.
The class war unfolding in the context of the changing climate is an imperialist war. Those parts of the world most impacted by imperialist exploitation and colonialist plunder are the first to be hit by the colossal damage of rising sea levels and disrupted weather patterns. This is one of the reasons Indigenous and colonized people are leading the climate struggle from the frontlines.
The imperialist dimension of climate change manifests further in the closure and militarization of borders undertaken by the United States, Israel and a number of European countries. Immigrants are violently apprehended and imprisoned in concentration camps even as climate change forces ever more people around the globe to migrate in search of places to work and live. We also see the imperialist dimension of climate change in the fact that the U.S. military is the world’s biggest institutional greenhouse gas emitter. When the United States fails to join in international agreements to combat global warming, it is doing so to protect its position as an imperialist power. Dismantling the US war machine is thus crucial both for peace and for human survival.
Winning the class war to save the planet
Our challenge is to build the collective power that can force the changes the capitalist system refuses to make. Crisis rhetoric and moral posturing alone do nothing to stem the release of carbon into the atmosphere. That the struggle to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change justly and equitably is a class struggle means it is a political struggle — a struggle over power in society.
Moving from a carbon to a renewable economy will demand the demolition of the oil and gas sector. It will demand the reconstruction of plastics, transportation, shipping, fertilizer, construction, mining and virtually all heavy industries. It will require the reconfiguration even of information networks, from the coltan used in cell phones to the vast amounts of energy eaten up by big technology’s massive server farms.
The work force of all these industries is immense. Capitalists try to convince workers that threats to the carbon economy are threats to the working class, attacks on the working class’s way of life. Our responsibility is to emphasize the antagonism between workers and capitalists while at the same time providing a compelling vision of sustainable and worker-led production.
Artisanal crafts and agriculture under increasingly adverse conditions, as emphasized by some on the left, are inadequate to task of dismantling capitalism’s carbon economy and building a sustainable socialist one. The problem of climate change isn’t local and local solutions will not be able to solve it. A socialist vision focused on sustainably developing and building massive public works, infrastructure, education, science, health, agriculture, forestry and transportation is necessary for a livable future.
Addressing the climate catastrophe in an equitable and just way requires planning at multiple levels – international, state, regional, and local. The scale of the problem is global. The scale of the solution must be global as well.