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The fight against climate change is a fight against capitalism

Global warming is rooted in an economic system that has a parasitoid relationship with the Earth upon which we live.

Simon Hannah
13 August 2019
Image: Lausanne, CC by 2.0

Global Warming which is caused by human activity is rooted in a social and economic system that has a parasitoid relationship to the Earth upon which we live.

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 on its own, 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 Labour 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.

With my anti-capitalist hat on, "state led investment" and "regulation" sound thoroughly Keynesian, even moderate. Merely regulating the private sector rather than making deep inroads into socialising capital and businesses’ private property doesn't 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 particularly challenge capitalism as a socio-economic system. Indeed at its worst it props it up and helps overcome aspects of capitalism’s inherent instability - as 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 to ensure that what resources are left are distributed properly and we can organise our society effectively and fairly when we might 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.

Moving on the specific demands of the motion, the first four (zero carbon emissions by 2030; Rapidly phasing out all fossil fuels; Large-scale investment in renewables; and a just transition to well-paid, unionised, green jobs available for all) are all good demands, though the debate over whether it is at all possible to have 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 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. It is in the ambiguity of such phrases that you can read 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 to introduce plans to reduce their carbon footprint. Or it could mean a far more modest limited 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 they could also mean seizing the companies without paying compensation. There is a moral and practical case to do this in the state 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 question is going to be both the interpretation of "as far as necessary" and also the political will to drive through the changes that will be necessary to start to plan our economy.

Likewise with the housing crisis, we need to just 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, the 2030 deadline is what we are 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 force the 4 day week on their employers as a way of reducing carbon (and the climate strike on the 20th 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 which is important. The question now is the relationship between policy, mass movement and how radical we need to go to save the planet. With news coming in that the irreversible feedback loops have already started which will lead directly to runaway climate change, we are not in ‘business as usual’ territory any more.

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