Capitalism and the Climate Emergency: What sort of Green New Deal do we need?
The scientific consensus is clear on the likelihood of an impending climate catastrophe. Specialists agree that a global average temperature of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would mark a tipping point. It would trigger an avalanche of immediate effects – melting ice caps leading to rising sea levels, exposing low-altitude cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai to mass flooding and destruction. Fertile land would be devastated, posing the possibility of mass famines in the neocolonial world, which would open a new phase in the global refugee crisis.
In many ways, it is misleading to describe it as a ‘climate crisis’. It is much more than that – it is a crisis of civilisation. Scientists have increasingly referred to our time as the “Anthropocene” – a new stage in the history of Earth’s existence, characterised by ‘human-made’ climate change, posing the possibility of extinction if we don´t take drastic action immediately. We have lived on Earth for hundreds of thousands of years, while capitalism has existed for only a few hundred. It has been the actions of the exploiting class that has done the real damage.
The climate catastrophe is having a hugely politicising effect, ultimately taking a number of forms. The new Fridays for Future movement, kickstarted and spearheaded by Swedish school student Greta Thunberg, has had a tremendous effect. On the 20 September, for the ‘Earth Strike’, around 4 million young people, students and workers staged a global walkout to expose the inaction of world governments in response to the crisis.
Extinction Rebellion’s strategy of using direct action methods to paralyse urban areas has forced the climate to the front of the agenda, pushing parliament to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in May of this year. In spite of increased police repression on their recent ‘October Rebellion’, they have organised mass road blockages and airport occupations, calling on the trade unions for a workers’ day of action on October 12. The ‘rebels’ have exposed the silence of big business politicians and media over the impending catastrophe.
In the US, self-described democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has popularised the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’. While just a few years ago climate change was treated as a secondary issue by Republican and Democrat politicians, AOC’s proposal that a 70% tax rate on millionaires and billionaires could fund well-paid, unionised green jobs has thrust the climate to the centre of political gravity. 64% of US millennials now support the idea of a GND.
The GND’s popularity is fundamentally based on a rejection of the ideas pushed by capitalist politicians – namely that tackling climate change can be reduced to modifying the individual spending habits of consumers, often promoting lifestyle changes that are simply unattainable to most working-class people. The politics of guilt touted by the proponents of ‘green capitalism’ has been rejected by many, in favour of targeting the rich, to make them pay up to address a crisis that they have created.
An equally positive aspect of the GND is how it envisions a radical program that, by eating into the profits of the ruling class, could tackle both the climate crisis and poor living standards among working-class people. AOC sees neoliberal austerity as something that could be tackled alongside the climate catastrophe. This is a hugely promising development that Marxists cannot stand aside from. This is why in the US, Socialist Alternative (sister organisation of SA in England, Wales and Scotland) has been battling Amazon’s rule over Seattle, as part of Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s fight to be re-elected to the City Council under the banner of a “Green New Deal for working people”.
Capitalism is the culprit
The scale of the crisis has forced many young people on the #YouthStrikes to draw increasingly radical conclusions. It is no coincidence, for example, that the dominant slogan emerging out of the strikes across the world has been ‘system change not climate change’. While not all have fully drawn socialist conclusions, anti-capitalist ideas remain extremely popular. Many youth strikers see the ruthless and uncaring nature of the capitalist system as the fundamental driving force of runaway climate change. The fact that just 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of CO2 emissions is widely known and cited among the youth.
These ideas did not come from nowhere. Young people have been left with no option but to draw these conclusions – the inaction of capitalist governments around the world make it obvious. Take the criminal irresponsibility of Bolsonaro’s reactionary government of big business in Brazil, which has granted unprecedented access for corporations to the Amazon rainforest, while wildfires have increased 84% on from last year. Many were outraged when Trump announced his plan to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement; he has ruled out re-joining the Agreement if he wins a second term in 2020. Trump remains in the pocket of the major oil corporations – Exxon, Chevron and BP all donated around $500,000 each to his presidential campaign in 2016.
Equally guilty are all the governments who pay lip service to the need for climate action, but still defend capitalist profits above all. At the September UN Climate Summit, 70 states committed to a goal of net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. But we can’t let ourselves be deceived by this. The ‘net-zero by 2050’ target is grossly inadequate. A widely publicized report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, estimated that at current rates, we will reach temperatures of 1.5°C by 2040. But the reality is that it would most likely be even sooner than that. Even if the 2050 net-zero target was enough to prevent runaway effects, our governments would still be drastically falling short. All scientific reports show the UK government failing to meet its climate target by a long margin. 79.4% of the UK’s energy is still derived from the use of fossil fuels. This is a trend replicated on a global scale. The ten biggest polluting countries in the world emitted roughly 27.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2017, and only one (India) has come anywhere near to meeting its Paris Agreement targets.
The pledges of the sort laid out in Paris are designed to pay homage to the crisis, while member states are not compelled by any binding targets that would push them into confrontation with the major fossil fuel giants. World capitalism can play at looking ecological, while it continues to rapidly undermine the health of the world’s ecosystem.
Labour Party Conference
This radical awakening on the issue of the climate has taken place across many sections of society. The recent Labour Party Conference, for example, saw a grass-roots effort across 128 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) for a motion committing Labour to a Green New Deal. It called for co-operation with specialists and trade unions to work towards a goal of net-zero emissions by 2030. There were further proposals for taxation of the rich, a ban on fracking, along with a program of mass public investment to build high-speed electrified railways. A separate motion had been submitted, calling for a “Socialist Green New Deal”, with the support of the Bakers Union and Fire Brigades Union. This proposed the additional nationalisation of banking and the financial sector, “empowering workers to take action over political and social issues including climate change”. It is very significant that the final motion was overwhelmingly supported, with the added backing of the CWU and TSSA, along with prominent names in Unite and Unison.
It is unsurprising that the FBU gave its endorsement. Intimately tied up with the climate emergency is the global spike in wildfires, which most notably affected Saddleworth Moor, burning 39,537 acres of UK land. The climate emergency is an emergency for those working in the fire service, along with workers in general.
The call for Corbyn to place a GND at the centre of his next election campaign came from what took shape as a rank-and-file revolt. This was seen most vividly when protests held by Labour activists led to the cancellation of a fringe event hosted by fossil fuel giant BP. This upsurge must have a lasting impact on Labour’s climate change policy. It will need a mass movement to start to implement the policies agreed by Labour conference, even if Labour is in power and Corbyn in Number 10. All CLPs should now pass motions, noting the result of the GND vote and keeping on the pressure for Labour to adopt a socialist GND policy.
The push for Corbyn to adopt a radical environmental policy has largely been the work of the ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’ (LGND) group. Emerging out of circles linked with the Momentum left, the group has many positive proposals to make. In an online policy paper, titled A just transition to well-paid, unionised, green jobs, they make the case for a ‘just transition’ that would have to be “fundamentally worker-led”.
Equally worthy of support is LGND’s proposals for a break from a neo-liberal model, to nationalise the energy and water companies, for instance. They have called for a program of mass investment in democratically-run public transport, and for it to be expanded beyond the skeletal service provided to people today. We would equally support their call for the scrapping of Thatcher’s anti-union laws.
As LGND’s website puts it, they “envision a prosperous, socialist, zero-carbon society as the alternative to our current world ridden with political economic and ecological crises”. We would mirror these words completely. But their current program, if adopted by a Corbyn government, would still ultimately leave capitalism intact. Another policy paper of theirs, entitled Expanding public, democratic ownership makes this clear. They make many correct statements, for instance that “The prevailing neo-liberal ideologies of private ownership, value extraction and profit maximisation form the root of the crises we face of climate change, economic inequality, housing, biodiversity, and international and intergenerational inequity”. But it proposes policies that would only superficially break from the mould of big business politics.
The same is the case with the ideas coming from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has floated the idea that nationalising the national grid in of itself would be enough for a Labour government to oversee a program of rapid decarbonisation. An issue to consider, however, is the scale of the task involved. To transition to zero or net-zero by 2030, while reskilling the relevant sectors of the workforce for green jobs would take a gigantic level of planning that the capitalist system could never deliver on. The financing of such a huge task would inevitably put a strain on the pockets of the mega-rich, hitting the profits of some of the most powerful and polluting companies in energy, finance and land. These companies dominate capitalism as a whole and their bosses will fight any serious attempts at the kind of planning necessary for full decarbonisation. This was made very clear in a recent issue of the Financial Times (24 September), which quoted an unnamed representative of the Confederation of British Industry, who declared that big business saw “no credible pathway” to decarbonisation by 2030.
While the ruling class cheers on the vague idea of ‘net-zero by 2050’, it rejects any radical program that would let us decarbonise before the tipping point of 1.5°C is reached. The fact that they dismiss this as ‘unrealistic’ (unprofitable) says a lot about how the capitalist economy functions. This stage in world history is one where the capitalists of each country act in constant fear of being outcompeted by rival profit-seekers. This leads the ruling class to push the state to act in their interests, not those of people and the planet. So it would not be enough for a Labour government to simply stick to the goal of reforming capitalism.
Any government that took the radical steps outlined by LGND would have to accompany it with a wider program of public ownership. This could guarantee a high level of investment in green, free and accessible public transport, replacing the widespread reliance on personal vehicles, along with the building of ecological council houses. This could only be achieved as part of a wider democratic socialist plan, which would use the world’s resources in a rational and sustainable way.
Socialist Alternative is a democratic, revolutionary socialist organisation. We are made up of youth, working people and students, fighting in our unions, communities, workplaces and campuses to build action necessary to bring down the Tories and the fossil fuel giants. Join us today!
What we stand for
A socialist government to bring the automotive, shipbuilding, aerospace and agricultural and food industries, along with the banks and major corporations, into democratic public ownership. Compensation to be paid out only on the basis of proven need. Nothing for the big capitalists.
A research and development plan, with full trade union and worker involvement, to oversee a reduction in polluting / emitting industries, in order to maintain skill levels and re-deploy workers into useful and well-paid employment
A massive program of public works to oversee the reduction of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and to remediate damage to the environment. For a plan to rewild and reforest green space through the nationalisation of land, removing control from the major landlords and land-owning companies.
For publicly-owned industries to be managed democratically, forming elected bodies of workers, consumers and trade unions in each sector. For a plan of sustainable agriculture to be drawn up by committees of farm workers, small farmers and elected specialists.
Capitalism is an international system. For a global fightback of workers and youth against this system which means ecological destruction, exploitation and oppression. For world socialist revolution to save the planet!