Global Warning: Socialism and the climate crisis

As delegates assemble for the COP27 UN summit in Egypt MATT DOBSON argues that capitalism is unable to solve the climate crisis, and examines what needs to be done to secure a future for humanity on our planet.

Three decades of international climate summits and capitalism has failed to get to grips with the climate crisis. All the fundamental problems remain and are worsening. Carbon emissions are rising, as are temperatures, with climate scientists warning that the planet will reach a tipping point if temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.

Extreme weather events are increasingly common – droughts, heatwaves, flooding and wildfires. Climate change is forcing more and more people to migrate away from uninhabitable conditions that can’t deliver the basic needs of life.

Economic and geopolitical crisis after crisis also threatens to escalate the situation. Faced with energy shortages due to the Ukraine war, major capitalist powers in Europe have reopened oil and gas fields and increased carbon-based production.  

Fundamentally, two pillars on which the capitalist system rests prevent capitalist governments from dealing effectively with the escalating environmental damage. Firstly, is the private ownership of the means of production – the means of creating goods and services produced for exchange as commodities. They are produced to realise profit, not with the aim of satisfying the needs of society or the planet. Secondly, is that the capitalist classes are organised in nation states, which each uses as a base for competing with the others.

To achieve net zero carbon emissions and then go further to begin to cool the planet, a massive reallocation of capital and profits would need to take place as part of a coordinated international plan. However, repeatedly the ‘nationally determined contributions’ agreed at climate summits have failed to reach their targets. Even limited agreements for the richer, ‘advanced’ capitalist countries to compensate the neo-colonial world for taking necessary steps – so-called ‘climate reparations’ – are not realised.

In its 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration in the United States offered trillions of dollars’ worth of subsidies to entice fossil fuel capitalists to move to green renewables. However, at the same time the US ruling class presided over a stepping up of oil and gas production.

That colossal subsidy for green capitalist industry was not just about trying to be seen to be saving the environment. It was also intended to be an incentive to the European Union and other powers to become firmer members of the US-led trading bloc in the USA’s competition with China. The US has tried to gain advantages over China in the scramble for domination of markets like electric cars, high-tech semiconductors and military hardware.

In August 2022, geopolitical developments in the hostility between the US and China – the world’s two biggest economies – led to China completely suspending cooperation with the US on fighting climate change. Each technological breakthrough the US or China makes regarding methane reduction, or lowering carbon emissions, they prefer to keep secret, used to attack the other and to be employed as a weapon in the fight for market dominance.

At the climate summits, some of the capitalist classes from the neo-colonial countries – such as India, once dominated directly by British imperialism – have opposed restrictions on coal burning which are hypocritically promoted by the imperialist powers. Even projects by nation states to create new energy sources away from carbon-based production create potential wars. Ethiopia’s plan to fill the reservoir of the Nile dam to provide hydroelectric power met opposition from Egypt and Sudan, concerned about water supplies and flooding.  

This shows the continued applicability of Leon Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’, which explained why the capitalist and landlord classes of relatively undeveloped countries are not able to raise their countries’ economies to those of the imperialist powers. India, with the latest in capitalist production techniques, still has uneven development with huge sections of its population mired in rural poverty. The colossal debts owed by the elites in countries like Sri Lanka to imperialist capitalist financial institutions show that no amount of climate reparations or targeted financing under capitalism will protect the environment from crisis.

This is while, at the same time, the private ownership and hoarding of increased amounts of wealth by today’s oligarchic capitalist classes shows there would be colossal resources at society’s disposal to deal with climate change if they were in different hands.

Trotsky’s theory, borne out historically by the 1917 Russian revolution, is still valid.  It concluded that only through the working class coming to power – overthrowing capitalism and landlordism and building socialist confederations across every region of the globe – can the level of economic planning and production needed to advance human society be reached. This advancing will have to include urgent measures to safeguard the environment.

Unlike some sections of the environmental movement and the left, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) is optimistic about the future for humanity despite the scale of the climate crisis. This is because we are rooted in the organised working class and have confidence in its ability to remove capitalism. Workers will be able to bring about democratically-planned socialist societies that will be able to reverse climate change and end all the poverty, hardship, wars and suffering that are part of the capitalist system today.

Workers in polluting industries

The transition from fossil fuel, nuclear and other environmentally destructive industries to renewables is an increasingly vital one for the workers’ movement. What is fundamental is who controls this process? Despite all their greenwashing rhetoric there will be no ‘just transition’, ‘climate justice’ or a fair ‘green new deal’ from the capitalist ruling classes. Workers and communities based around these industries (200,000 jobs in the UK’s oil and gas industry) know and are rightly fearful of this because of the long and brutal historical experience of the bosses internationally using transitions in production to wage war on jobs, wages, terms and conditions.

In the drive to secure profits safety is pushed aside and inherent in capitalism is ruthless competition which can lead to market anarchy, with firms driving each other out of business, threatening unemployment and precarity for whole workforces. Even new green industries in Britain such as wind turbine manufacture have seen this, with production being shut and sent offshore.

In Britain, the Thatcher Tory government, after inflicting a historic defeat on a ‘heavy battalion’ of the workers’ movement, the National Union of Mineworkers, carried out mass deindustrialisation from the 1970s to the early 1990s, completely shutting down the coal mining industry, replacing that energy source with North Sea oil and gas. The effect on large areas of the country was mass generational unemployment and social crisis, which exists in some of those areas to this day.

Right-wing populists have been able to exploit the fears and concerns of workers and communities affected by deindustrialisation. This is especially the case as liberal capitalist politicians’ green rhetoric does not answer workers’ concerns about jobs and their policies attack workers’ living standards. Witness the support generated by Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 US elections, against the Democrats, in the US ‘rust belt’. Trump raised the slogan the ‘forgotten men and women of America’ and promised to reopen industries. US Democratic Party administrations from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama had overseen neo-liberal attacks on millions of American workers who had industrial union-organised jobs.

Trump also strongly supported and aided the fossil fuel capitalists, who in return helped to fund his election campaigns. The CWI has a proud record of opposing the capitalists’ continued use of these industries, as we oppose fracking or the continuation of nuclear power, but at the same time of fighting for the workers and communities based in and around them. This includes a consistent orientation to building fighting trade unionism in the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. New renewable energy industries will require the same approach, including mass unionisation drives.

At their worst, sections of the left and climate activists attack workers in fossil fuel and other polluting industries as privileged – due to a layer having higher than average pay – and wrongly demand that they give up their jobs because of the environmental damage caused by their employer. This approach is a gift to the polluting bosses and right-wing populists, and a barrier to an effective working-class mass struggle in response to the climate crisis. Workers having relatively better wages, terms and conditions in these industries is due to their sheer power industrially, as employers can be forced to pay a higher price for the intensive labour that extracts commodities like coal and oil – and a workers’ strike shutting down their production can paralyse profits and society.

Workers in these industries know better than anyone how unsafe and toxic they are, and the appalling safety record of the capitalists. In every industrialised society, from the coalfields of Britain and Germany, to the oilfields of the North Sea and the Niger Delta, there are memories of workers being killed at work or at risk of it, as the capitalist owners put profit over safety. Industry surveys in the North Sea repeatedly show a majority of the workforce in favour of a transition away from fossil fuels but with little faith in the bosses to carry it through.

Socialist transition

We oppose the ‘right’ claimed by capitalists in any industrial sector to damage the environment. They regularly avoid the full costs of even very limited green measures imposed by governments. We stand for a socialist transition, away from fossil fuels and all polluting industries and products, which the working class needs to lead – including utilising the key expertise of workers in these industries – and democratically control. A socialist economic plan would see the nationalisation of the entire energy, metals, mineral, plastics and mining sectors, along with transport and construction corporations, and them being placed under democratic workers’ control and management. Compensation to the former owners should only be paid on the basis of proven need, such as to workers’ pension funds and small shareholders.

In this way, the colossal profits and assets of the polluters would be taken into public hands and used for socially useful, environmentally sustainable production. This would be linked to a wider socialist transformation of the economy, including nationalising the banks and all other major industries and services. A socialist government would need to implement capital controls and a state monopoly of foreign trade to stop the big business bosses running away with wealth. Ultimately a socialist plan and transition must take place on an international basis to meet the scale of the climate crisis.

Under socialism, workers in these industries would not only be guaranteed a job but would gain better and secure conditions, wages and pensions, both in new industries and in the transition jobs of dismantling and decommissioning polluting industries and nuclear installations. The highly skilled labour that exists today would be put to use in those tasks, and would also provide opportunities for training others. The introduction of more automation and new technology could be utilised in a planned way to cut working hours without loss of income and to relieve the physical strain in intensive industries, rather than being used to throw workers on the unemployment scrap heap as happens under capitalism.

Many more new jobs would be created in publicly-owned renewable energy production and in other socially useful public works projects. For example, a sustainably-planned mass council house building programme could be started, along with renovating existing housing stock using high quality building materials to retrofit homes with insulation or cooling infrastructure that would use less energy.

Committees of elected workers’ representatives on a local, regional and national level could democratically discuss and debate, and implement such a transition. As well as those workplace and industrial sector representatives, democratic representation from the socialist government, consumers and local communities would need to be involved in drawing up and implementing a socialist economic plan.

There could be massive public investment into research, organised by research workers themselves, on the most effective green methods, like for example on how to replace household gas boilers, how to end built-in early obsolescence of products and how to make every product recyclable.

Technology and innovation

Some of the workers’ struggles under capitalism have shown a glimpse of what would be possible in a society in which the working class controls industry. In Britain, Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s made guidance systems for missiles that were subject to defence cuts. The trade union combine shop stewards committee responded by demanding nationalisation of the Lucas Aerospace plants and outlined an alternative plan of production to manufacture socially useful products, from greener transport vehicles to mobility aids for people with disabilities. Of course, the short-sighted profit-hungry bosses rejected those plans.

During the Covid pandemic, bosses in certain sectors did rapidly shift production, in a matter of weeks, to combat the health emergency, especially when government subsidies encouraged them to do so. For instance, car workers at General Motors in the US mass produced breathing ventilators. Imagine what would be possible under workers’ control!

In addition, imagine the effect if the massive number of scientists across the globe who currently work on weapons’ development are instead turned to work on socially useful products. Today, for example, much scientific and engineering expertise is used at the Faslane nuclear weapons base on the Clyde in Scotland that could instead be utilised under a socialist plan for research and development into tidal power to replace fossil fuel reliance.

Already the raw materials and less carbon intensive materials exist, such as ceramics, that can replace the plastics used in most everyday commodities. As well as the unwillingness of the capitalists to invest enough in the large-scale research and development needed to make the necessary changes, significant sections of the capitalist classes have a vested interest in fossil fuels, from which plastics are made.

The food industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. There are food shortages and famine around the world at the same time as massive wastage. Big agribusiness uses intensive farming methods with pesticides and synthetic fertilisers which worsen pollution. Farmers, including across the neo-colonial world, possess the knowledge and techniques to make farming greener, including through crop rotation and composting, that capitalist agribusiness in its ceaseless drive to make fast profits has moved away from.

Those methods and many more could be reintroduced in a socialist plan. Such a plan would include nationalising the land to enable the improvement of soil health and other changes which would drastically reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. 

Building mass movements

The majority of those radicalised by the climate crisis are now more convinced that systemic change is needed. This has been reflected in the slogan ‘system change to end climate change’ raised by school student climate strikers internationally and by many others at protests. But what kind of system?

Internationally, many organisations like NGOs, charities, churches and some Green parties call for system change. They don’t usually mean changing the system of capitalism to a different system, but rather they mean reforming or adjusting the capitalist system. They often advocate that we should all individually change our lifestyle and consumption to aid this process.  

The actions of individuals who recycle more, change to a vegan diet, refuse to fly, etc, are wrongly given more weight, or as much weight, as the need for mass collective action that can grow to challenge the very existence of the biggest polluters: capitalist big business. The CWI calls for ‘socialist change to end climate change’ and points to the need for mass collective action, led by workers and youth, and linked to other working-class struggles, as the most effective way of fighting the big business polluters. Only a socialist programme can unify workers and youth in struggle and provide a clear way forward towards reversing environmental destruction and saving our planet.

The international climate school strikes have had a big impact and gained much sympathy from workers, including those in fossil fuel industries. They are an example of young people using the method of the workers’ movement and mass action to fight for their future.

We call for the strikes to build further and deeper links with workers’ movements, setting up democratically elected joint committees of students and trade union representatives to coordinate and organise the actions – and that can raise a socialist programme to link up all the issues that face young people under capitalism.

Figureheads like Greta Thunberg have received widespread admiration for their determination and boldness and for rightly condemning the inaction and hypocrisy of the greenwashing capitalists. However, they have mainly appealed to the world’s elite to change course, when instead a mass struggle needs to be built to overthrow its rotten system and bring about the revolutionary socialist change that is needed to halt the climate crisis. 

Political and class consciousness has shifted since the Covid pandemic and in the face of the international economic and social cost-of-living crisis. There have been waves of strike action in many countries, with governments even forced from power in countries like Sri Lanka.

There is often huge public support for action by trade unions and interest in joining them, along with a growing understanding that mass collective action is the most effective form of struggle.

All workers must be supported in struggle in every industry, and demands for the coordination of strike action are vital across all continents. The building of trade union movements on an independent, fighting basis is a key task, along with advancing steps towards political representation for workers. 

Methods of struggle

Some of the environmental protest organisations have shifted partially towards giving support to workers’ struggles. In Britain, Extinction Rebellion (XR) has included verbal and written support for strikes by rail and nuclear power workers in its statements and XR activists have supported and attended strike picket lines. However, at times, XR, Insulate Britain and other environmental groups have also been among those who have attacked fossil fuel workers and their trade unions.

It is also the case that some of their direct actions have caused disruption for workers without much affecting the bosses. This can provoke opposition from working-class people. Blocking roads or stations can be a fully acceptable form of struggle in the workers’ movement, but should be democratically planned, with involvement from the workers or communities that would be affected. At the very least, such actions shouldn’t be carried out without a programme to try to appeal to the ordinary people affected and the wider working class.

Socialists often support or call for acts of civil disobedience or disruption to the bosses’ profits as part of campaigns against attacks on the working class or on other issues, including environmental. We also oppose and actively campaign against police and other state repression of protesters, including police spying, use of riot squads, the jail sentences often imposed, and laws that restrict the right to protest.

The successful mass anti-poll tax movement in the early 1990s led by Militant – the predecessor of the Socialist Party – organised a mass non-payment campaign of 18 million people that brought down the Thatcher Tory government.  That campaign also organised mass demonstrations, and protests that disrupted courts and prevented bailiffs and warrant sales.

Mass working-class community campaigns linked with industrial struggle are important in the fight against fuel poverty, to bring down the bills and stop the forced installation of prepayment meters – and to demand nationalisation. Many different types of mass action can be considered as part of these campaigns and others; and the path forwards lies with such actions and not with calls for consumers to use less energy and fuel, as some sections of the environmental movement settle for. When calling for ordinary people to cut back, they don’t always even criticise the energy profiteering and wastefulness of big business, which alienates them from workers and communities moving into struggle. 

The political front

Trade union and community struggle by itself will not be enough. Workers and youth must be politically organised to confront the crisis and to counter the greenwashing capitalist politicians as well as the climate-change-denying right-wing populists.

The political roots of the labour movement in Europe lay in areas like the industrial Ruhr valley in Germany, the centre of the coal and steel industry in Europe, where mass parties of the working class once existed. Those workers’ parties moved politically to the right after the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a process that has left the working class without mass, independent, political forces that can fight for its interests – including in regard to the climate crisis.

However, today there are still a vast number of industrial and service sectors across Europe with workforces from which the members of new workers’ parties will come. Also, the large-scale industry that has arisen in countries like China and India, much of it based on fossil fuels, has created a mass of millions of new workers that can also organise industrially and politically to become gravediggers of the capitalist system in revolutionary movements of the future. 

Many environmental groups are organised as loose networks or ‘horizontal’ groups of activists, taking action without a democratically elected leadership that is accountable to the group and leading the way in implementing decisions.  And they often lack a democratic structure for discussion among the group’s participants and for the outcome of that debate to influence national policies and actions. When mistakes are made there can be no way to correct them or learn lessons.

New mass parties of workers and youth need to be based on the organised working class in the trade unions in order to have the potential strength to challenge and remove capitalist rule of society. Within those workers’ organisations, debates and discussions about how to achieve a socialist society, including how to reverse and prevent environmental damage, will be possible in an organised, mass, and democratic way.

They will therefore be very attractive to everyone involved in struggle, including the fighting elements of the climate movement.  

Uprisings have regularly taken place across the world and many more are to come that can become revolutionary struggles that threaten the capitalist system. The climate crisis and its consequences, famine, financial insecurity, mass displacement, and war, are among the key objective factors that push people towards the need for revolutionary developments.

Economic crisis, the impact of climate change, and decades of military dictatorship were factors that led to revolutions and uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011-12. Heroic struggle by workers, the poor and youth overthrew tyrants backed by US imperialism in Egypt and Tunisia. But unfortunately, because of the absence of mass revolutionary parties with a programme capable of bringing the working class to power, new tyrants came to the fore. The building of Marxist revolutionary parties is essential for humanity to be able to solve the climate crisis and all the other damage done by capitalism.

Defending democratic socialism  

A part of the capitalists’ ideological offensive against socialist ideas is to point to the ecological damage caused by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the former Soviet Union, including the destruction of the Aral Sea.

Stalinist rule did enormous damage to the environment, as does capitalism. We stand in the tradition of genuine Marxism, including that of the leaders of the Bolshevik party in the 1917 revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, who led an overthrow of capitalism and landlordism and took a pioneering approach to the environment. That included the nationalisation of forests, minerals and water, with programmes for cleaning, reforestation and countering pollution. The world’s first state-funded nature reserves were set up, and parks were created in cities to improve workers’ conditions.

Another myth put forward by capitalist commentators and some in the environmental movement is that Marx and Engels took the environment for granted. In fact, throughout their works on economics and programme they both pointed to the destructive effect of capitalism on nature and warned of the effects, including alienation, of a disruption in the relationship of people with nature. Nature, Marx pointed out in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, is a source of use values that the capitalists seek to extract profit from, alongside labour, with long-term disregard for both.

A materialist dialectical approach, ie Marxist philosophy, shows us that both nature and society develop through the build-up of contradictions, leading to qualitative leaps. Climate scientists apply this when they warn of the effects of global warming creating tipping points. Marxism also explains that the capitalist mode of production isn’t the only form of organising society and that the working class can bring about a qualitive change in the planet’s fortunes by carrying out a socialist transformation.

In addition, the proponents of ‘de-growth’ and eco-socialism wrongly accuse Marxists of advocating continued destruction of the environment in order to have increased production that can provide access to commodities for everyone. They also attack us for recognising that capitalism initially had progressive features compared to the system of feudalism before it.

This is while they themselves struggle to put forward a programme that does not appear to be a form of eco-austerity, or a form of the working class and future generations paying for the environmental costs of capitalist production for infinity.

Capitalism and its market economy has an inbuilt need for permanent economic growth fuelled by competition and profit. This is the case despite its cycles of crisis, with sometimes dramatic falls in production. A socialist society will have no inbuilt need for growth in order to accumulate capital, as happens under capitalism.  Rather, its aim will be to change and develop production and technology in order to satisfy people’s needs while reversing the environmental damage done under capitalism.

Capitalism is today in fact an absolute fetter on developing production, and on humans’ relationship with nature and the environment. Its progressive value in the past was twofold: firstly that through mass industrialisation and urbanisation, it created the methods and scale of production that can make enough goods, food, etc, that under socialism can be used to satisfy the needs of everyone on the planet. Secondly, at the same time it created the main force, the working class, that can bring about socialism – societies in which production will be organised through conscious democratic planning.

On this basis, production and use of resources would be on a much higher level than even the summits achieved by capitalism, which is limited by the numerous contradictions within its system. Production and technique would be developed on a cooperative basis, and distribution of commodities, services and resources would be democratically organised.

The land, sea, sky and air around us would no longer be resources to make private profit from, or markets to dominate. A reuniting of humanity and nature would be restored, as referred to by Marx in his early writings. A socialist plan would balance resources between what is needed for individual consumption and what is needed for society as a whole, as well as setting aside resources for future investment.

Removing inequality, poverty, want, and instead satisfying people’s needs with high quality housing, food, healthcare, leisure facilities, and much else, will allow real freedom to progress society forward, including ending environmental degradation and crisis.