We Need System Change, Not Climate Change
The recent heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, Pakistan, and British Columbia are yet further evidence that climate change is no longer some abstract, far-off future threat. Catastrophic climate change is unfolding right now. It is no longer a matter of “if” or “when” the climate crisis will wreak havoc upon human civilization and the natural world. The only question that remains is how bad things will get.
Climate Change is the Symptom, Capitalism is the Disease
Yet liberalism offers no meaningful solutions to the climate crisis. Liberals and the bourgeoisie have merely foisted the climate crisis on to individuals, urging us to use paper straws, drive electric cars, bike to work or bring our own reusable bags to the grocery store.
These are all fine and noble actions, do not get me wrong. But individual actions alone cannot mitigate the climate crisis. And such bourgeois environmentalism likely holds little sway for working-class people who can barely afford the skyrocketing costs of rent, groceries, or daycare. Climate change is a global phenomenon that requires a global, collective response. More precisely, effectively combating climate change requires a massive reorganization of our capitalist economic system. Changing one’s individual behavior or consumer habits will not save the planet.
The truth is climate change is not the result of working-class people’s consumer habits or lifestyles. It is the result of capitalism. Some 100 corporations — most of them fossil fuel companies — are responsible for 70 percent of global CO2 emissions since 1988.
And these corporations have been keenly aware of the deleterious effects of greenhouse gas emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere for decades. Yet fossil fuel CEOs and right-wing billionaires like the Koch Brothers have spent millions of dollars on deliberate misinformation campaigns to sow doubt in the minds of the American public about the very existence of anthropogenic (or human-induced) climate change.
“We don’t all have our hands equally on the levers that fuel climate chaos,” writes Kate Aronoff in the Sunrise Movement’s essay-compilation, Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can. “A tiny set of very powerful corporations and oligarchs spent prodigious amounts of money to keep burning and extracting towards destruction.”
The Green New Deal is Not the Answer
In the absence of a revolutionary call for a socialist alternative, liberalism is left advocating for middling reforms within the framework of capitalism — reforms that are nowhere near sufficient enough to meet the scale of the climate crisis. Liberals and the Democrats call for various market-oriented “solutions” like cap-and-trade legislation or carbon-taxing.
The most recent liberal solution on offer is the Green New Deal which aims to create thousands of “green” jobs, while also de-carbonizing the atmosphere. The Green New Deal has been championed by the Sunrise Movement, along with figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
But the Green New Deal is not even embraced by the entire Democratic Party. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, mocked the proposal as the “Green Dream or whatever they are calling it.” In the event that the Green New Deal were ever put to a vote, it almost certainly would fail to garner the votes of “moderate” Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Kyrsten “Girl Boss” Sinema (D-AZ).
Furthermore, advocates of the Green New Deal are not calling for the working-class to seize the means of production. Indeed, the proposal leaves the system of capitalism thoroughly intact. Maintaining capitalism — a system that relies on resource extraction and consumption — all but ensures that CO2 levels will continue to soar past any reasonably “safe” limit. Absent heavy, meticulous regulation, capitalists will always find ways around any environmental laws — just as they routinely maneuver around labor laws. This is not because all capitalists are necessarily “bad” people (though many of them are horrific) who hate the environment. It is because capitalism’s drive for maximizing profits demands that they break the law.
And while the Green New Deal is modeled after Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal, it is worth noting that it was not the New Deal that ultimately ended the Great Depression in the 1930s. Rather, it was the United States’ entry into the second world war — and the ramped up production which it entailed — that ended the worst economic collapse in U.S. history.
Additionally, Roosevelt did not implement the New Deal out of any real concern for the plight of working-class Americans. He was forced to by the massive, sustained pressure of the labor movement — a movement that included socialists, anarchists, and communists. Roosevelt had no choice but to offer a reform from above to stave off revolution from below. Yet, the ruling class has successfully chipped away at many of the New Deal’s gains (gains, which, it should be noted, were not shared by black Americans). Over the last 40 years, particularly during the era of neoliberalism, workers have seen some of the most ambitious elements of the New Deal revoked and rolled back.
Thus, the Green New Deal, in the unlikely event that it were to pass Congress, could just as easily suffer a similar setback. Reforms under capitalism — while often quite beneficial to working-class people in the here and now — are ultimately fleeting and temporary. They are too easily undone by future presidents. As socialists, we should no doubt support any effort aimed at curbing CO2 emissions. But reforms like the Green New Deal can only get us so far. If we are to truly avert climate chaos, we must abolish capitalism, entirely.
The Democrats are Also Climate Change Deniers
Beyond the Green New Deal (which, it is important to note, is not even a formal piece of legislation), the Democratic Party has done precious little to address climate change in recent decades. This refusal to act on the climate crisis stands in stark contrast to the Democrats’ professed acknowledgement of the scientific reality of global warming. The increasingly fascist Republican Party, meanwhile, has cultivated an overall anti-science/anti-intellectual approach as one of its major selling points.
President Joe Biden’s tepid environmental proposals are not nearly sufficient enough to curb runaway climate change. Yet even these weak measures are unlikely to pass Congress, due to Republican obstructionism and a lack of support among the Democrats’ own party. If the Democrats merely eliminated the filibuster, a racist, anti-democratic relic of the Jim Crow era, they could actually enact the progressive agenda the majority of Americans voted for.
And, during Biden’s stint as vice president, Barack Obama oversaw a significant increase in offshore oil-drilling. During Obama’s two terms, the U.S. outpaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer. And Obama continually tried to promote something called “clean coal” (which I am quite certain does not exist…), as a viable renewable energy resource.
The Democrats have no real intention of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and interfering with capitalist profits. And even those “progressive” Democrats who are genuinely concerned about climate change, like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are largely powerless to defy their party’s stifling corporate structure. It is long past time for working-class voters to break with the capitalist Democratic Party for good.
This is why the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) “dirty break” scheme of running “socialist” candidates for federal and local office on the Democratic Party’s “ballot line,” is a stupendously contradictory goal. The Democratic Party is not “our” party. It belongs to the billionaires and the capitalist elite. No meaningful environmental action will come out of history’s “second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.”
The Kids are Alright
As such, much of the environmental left remains mired in middle-class, bourgeois politics. Even the genial, undoubtedly well-intentioned teenage activist, Greta Thunberg has little to offer, politically, beyond urging people to refrain from flying and making moral condemnations of Baby Boomers.
Still, thousands of college- and high school-aged working-class people have radicalized over the issue of climate change. It is, indeed, the defining issue of their lifetimes. And this radicalization is no doubt the most inspiring development in the last decade or so.
Any hope of maintaining a planet at all conducive to supporting human life lies with the international working class. This is, no doubt, a working class that is multi-racial, multi-gender, and multi-ethnic. The bourgeois politicians — least of all those within the Democratic Party — will not save us.
As Bryan Dyne writes in a Sept. 14, 2020 piece for the World Socialist Web Site:
Any effort to genuinely tackle climate change comes into conflict with the nation-state system and the broader framework of capitalism itself. The necessary influx of funds to temper the fires and abate the climate crisis collide with the private ownership of production and the enrichment of a tiny elite at the expense of society as a whole. As long as a handful of billionaires dominate society, with every aspect of economic life geared to their personal enrichment, not a single social problem — including climate change — can be solved.
As Rosa Luxemburg wrote over a century ago, the choice humanity now faces is one between “socialism or barbarism.” Climate change is rapidly painting a bleak, dystopian future for the planet and human civilization. Our only hope lies in fighting for a socialist alternative.