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Earth Day: For our survival, imperialism must end

Photo: A protest at COP28 in Dubai. Credit: Flickr/Mídia NINJA

Tina Landis is the author of the book Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism

We are all witnessing the unraveling of our global climate with more extreme and unpredictable weather increasing each year. 2023 was the hottest year on record with each of the last 10 years breaking heat records. This past March was the warmest March on record and is part of a 10-month record breaking streak of hottest months. 

You would expect this increasing urgency that is threatening life on the planet to be reflected within the international bodies that are tasked with addressing the climate crisis. But instead, we see a mad scramble from the very industries that are most responsible for the problem — backed by Western capitalist interests — attempting to maintain the status quo to ensure continued profits rolling in. 

Capitalism plunders the planet

The COP28 UN Climate Conference last November once again failed to make any meaningful commitments to stem climate change and instead seemed to be in complete denial of the urgent crisis that humanity faces. The conference took place in the petrostate of the United Arab Emirates, and was led by an oil executive, who was appointed president of COP28 despite overwhelming opposition. On top of this blatant conflict of interest, over 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists were also in attendance, bringing the greenwashing that always occurs at these events to new heights. 

The Western imperialists dominate these climate conferences – just as they dominate other UN bodies – and block any binding or enforceable resolutions while ignoring the demands of the Global South for loss and damage compensation. 

Despite the rhetoric from Biden on climate action, the top five oil companies have made record profits under his administration along with record levels of oil and gas production. The US has produced more crude oil than any nation at any time for the past six years in a row. And under Biden, more oil and gas drilling permits have been approved than under Trump, along with the rolling back of key environmental protections in the Clean Water Act.

Newly approved projects will quadruple oil and gas production by 2030 despite warnings from the International Energy Agency that any new projects will push warming beyond the 1.5 degree threshold that spells catastrophe. Fossil fuel corporations should be seen as what they are – criminal enterprises – and should be seized and put under public control for a rapid transition to renewables. These corporations have known since the 1950s that their products would lead to global warming and since then have done everything in their power to spread disinformation and block renewable energy legislation. While making record profits, these companies are at the same time reversing plans to cut production and are watering down their own targets to eliminate greenhouse gasses in their operations. There is really no incentive under U.S. capitalism for them to do otherwise. 

Actually addressing climate change goes far beyond energy production, but the capitalists don’t want to discuss that in any meaningful way because it will require an end to their plunder of the planet. Although the majority of atmospheric carbon comes from burning fossil fuels, a significant amount also comes from clearing land and industrial agriculture practices. All the carbon that is stored in plants and soil, when uprooted and disturbed is released into the atmosphere, adding to warming. 

And water actually plays a more crucial role in maintaining our climate than carbon. Global heat dynamics regulated by carbon are between 4%-20%. But heat dynamics regulated by water are 75% – 95%. Which is why it is crucial that we protect and restore river systems, oceans, wetlands and integrate water bodies into the landscape to recharge groundwater, keep soil hydrated and cool, and feed native vegetation. 

Bare soil, concrete surfaces, roads, buildings, all absorb solar radiation and add heat to the atmosphere, increasing surrounding air temperatures – known as the heat island effect. Vegetation does the opposite and converts solar radiation into energy for the plant which has a cooling effect on surrounding air temperatures. 

And trees create rain through the release of water vapor and microbes that seed cloud formation, which maintains the small water cycle. And in turn, deforestation impacts the climate and weather patterns of a region. 

Scientists and ecologists, Indigenous people and communities around the world recognize the need to transform our relationship with nature, with the living planetary systems that collectively support the existence of the immense biodiversity that we know today, that developed over millions of years. In a balanced, healthy ecosystem each species of plant, animal and fungi plays a role, contributing to the health and resilience of the whole. Life on this planet could be characterized as a communal effort to maintain an optimal balance. Humans, with the rise of private property, class society and the patriarchal capitalist system, became the only species that has largely broken away from that communal planetary system and from our role as stewards of the land for the common good. 

As settler colonialism spread around the globe, so did mass environmental destruction. On this continent this ecological destruction came in many forms beginning with the genocide, enslavement and displacement of the Indigenous people who lived for millenia in harmony with the natural world, taking only what was needed for their survival. When people live in partnership with the land for many generations, there is a deep understanding of the intricate interrelationships of different species that modern ecology has only begun to scratch the surface of. So to displace and massacre millions who held that deep ecological knowledge had a devastating ripple effect throughout the natural world. And the Indigenous people of this continent were not the only causality of colonialism. Everything was seen as a commodity by the colonial powers looking to get rich quick and feed the markets of Europe. 

Keystone species like beaver, otter, bison and wolves were killed in the millions; vast forests were cleared for the timber trade; and mass expanses of wetlands were drained to plant cash crops, causing a drying and warming of the landscape. Colonization was a human and ecological catastrophe that is continuing to this day and was replicated around the world. 

With the rise of globalization, the methods of colonization changed to economic tactics that have driven people off their lands where they have lived for generations, severing that ecological relationship. International trade deals and IMF austerity loans that benefit the wealthy capitalists in the imperialist countries, force the people of the Global South into brutally exploitative wage labor in urban areas, while the land is sold off to big agribusiness conglomerates and forests are cleared for commodity production. 

Globalization is just another phase in the colonial, imperialist plunder of the planet. For instance, in Nigeria people were thrown off communally owned land to make way for monocrop plantations owned by the imperialist-controlled World Bank. 

This trajectory that is happening globally, has major ecological and climate impacts as the trend of Indigenous-held communal gardens and food forests of native crops shifts to monocrop industrial agriculture, driving local populations into deeper poverty. Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to climate change from excessive water use, to greenhouse gas emissions from farming equipment, chemical fertilizers and livestock, to deforestation and habitat loss, and pesticide use that pollutes soil and water and harms pollinators. 

Wars and imperialism fuel climate crisis

I want to tie this issue back to what we are seeing today in the U.S.-Israeli genocide against the Palestinian people, which is an example of this ongoing human and ecological catastrophe for the expansion of capital. The displacement of Palestinian people – Indigenous to the land for thousands of years – is a humanitarian catastrophe and also is an ecological one. The Zionist settlers who come mainly from Europe and the United States have no care or understanding of how to work with the local ecology of Palestine. They destroy native orchards and thousand-year-old olive trees in their attempts to push out the Indigenous people, replacing them with tracks of suburban-style housing developments. And of course the munitions and bombs being dropped on Gaza create a toxic environment, polluting the soil, air and water. 

The same is true of all the U.S. and NATO military operations around the globe. The U.S. military is the single largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet, to not only fuel their wars, military exercises, and interventions – but also through the logistical support supplying their over 800 military bases that span the globe. The U.S. military continues to be exempt from any emissions reporting to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change despite its immense contribution to carbon emissions. 

Since the start of the industrial revolution through today, the United States has contributed the largest share of carbon emissions of any country. And the economic sanctions and blockades, coups and election meddling, subversive destabilization campaigns, trade deals and austerity measures that the Western imperialists force onto struggling countries – all these tactics have a role in maintaining the status quo of domination and exploitation of the planet and its people. Which is the root cause and ongoing cause of climate change. 

One example of how U.S. imperialist policies are not just holding back global solutions to climate change, but also solutions here at home, can be seen in the case of the tariffs being placed on goods imported from China. The Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer BYD produces high-quality electric cars, buses, trucks and other zero-emission equipment –  at a far lower cost than any domestic company can produce, due to centralization and economies of scale that bring down production costs. BYDs electric car costs only $11,000 to purchase, but the 27.5% tariff imposed by the U.S. government makes it unaffordable for purchase here. The tariff is an attempt to keep U.S. companies afloat, which are unwilling and unable to produce electric cars that are more affordable. 

As part of scaling down our impact on the planet, we must move away from individual car ownership and move to a zero-emission mass transit system throughout the country. But the point is that the United States could quickly reduce emissions from the transportation sector by dropping the tariff and allowing the purchase of BYD vehicles domestically. We could then convert all the public bus systems and diesel truck fleets across the country to electric, which would literally save lives in communities located near freeways, ports and rail yards where diesel emissions cut lives short. 

Another example of the ecological impact of imperialism is the Nord Stream pipeline explosion, which all evidence suggests was perpetrated by the U.S. government. The explosion itself was an ecological disaster that released over 115,000 tons of climate-warming methane into the atmosphere and harmed untold numbers of marine life. The subsequent shipping of liquified natural gas (LNG) across the Atlantic to Europe has also increased fossil fuel emissions and energy use. 

To make LNG, you have to convert natural gas from a gas to liquid form for shipping and keep it at a very low temperature, which uses immense amounts of energy in production as well as the increased emissions from shipping a product across the ocean that was formerly piped a short distance between Russia and Europe. Carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. LNG facilities have increased by 81% since 2019. This step backward in emissions reductions is all for the profits of U.S. fossil fuel corporations, who now have a previously untapped foothold in the European energy market, along with attempting to further U.S. imperialist aims at weakening Russia. 

These are just a few examples of how imperialism holds back humanity’s evolution. How can countries of the Global South, coming out of centuries of colonial plunder, ever hope to achieve sustainable development when they remain under the boot of imperialism and often struggle to just provide the basics for their people? How can the world have honest climate negotiations with the imperialists in the room, seeking to undermine any development that is independent of their domination?

Internationalist cooperation needed to address the climate crisis

What is needed is internationalism – global cooperation across borders – to improve the lives of everyone while developing on an ecologically sustainable path. This can never happen as long as capitalism exists because capitalism is the exact opposite of sustainability. Its very nature requires endless growth, increasing profits for investors, and ever expanding markets, which inevitably evolves into imperialism as VIadamir Lenin outlined in his pamphlet “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.” What we need is a socialist revolution here in the heart of empire, which would free the rest of the world to develop on an independent path. It would free the people of the world to collaborate and share resources and knowledge to solve the climate crisis. 

So many communities around the globe are already implementing real solutions in their local areas – from renewable energy-powered microgrids; to using organic, regenerative methods to grow food; to ecological restoration of the land and oceans and so much more that contributes to healing the planet. The large-scale advances that China is making toward sustainability — like their eco-cities and sponge cities, renewable energy expansion, and electrification of the transportation sector — shows how socialism has the capacity to solve the crisis through centralization of resources and a planned economy. The multipolar world emerging beyond the grip of Western imperialism also shows a path toward cooperation and shared development. But imperialism still continues to hold humanity back from truly evolving and transforming how we live on this planet and how we relate to the natural world.

The U.S. military budget, when you look at military-related spending as a whole beyond just the Department of “Defense,” is over one trillion dollars annually. 

Socialism is the future

Imagine a future where the one trillion dollars that goes to the military every year, along with the millions of workers currently employed in related industries, could instead build a sustainable world — contributing to life instead of destruction and domination. Under socialism, communities would have the resources and power to implement climate solutions and contribute to the global effort.

Humanity has the tools and the understanding to make the transformations that are needed to solve the climate crisis and all the other crises we face. Only the capitalist system and the handful super-rich capitalists that control that system stand in our way. Socialism is the future. A socialist reconstruction of society is what we are fighting for and I hope that you join us in that fight. 

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