Swedish climate change activist, Greta Thunberg met with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, in Kiev, on June 29. The 20-year-old, celebrated activist and speaker met with Zelensky and other prominent European figures to discuss the “ecological damage” from the Russian “invasion” of Ukraine.
During the press conference meeting, Thunberg accused Russian forces of “deliberately targeting the environment [in Ukraine] and people’s livelihoods and homes.” She went on to charge Russia with “ecocide.”
But where was Thunberg’s condemnation of NATO and the United States for provoking the war…? Are they not also guilty of “ecocide”? Furthermore, it is highly likely that the U.S., in coordination with Ukrainian forces, blew up the Nord Stream pipeline, on September 26, 2022. The destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline resulted in the release of 500,000 tons of methane gas into the atmosphere — making it the largest release of methane in history. Again, Thunberg had nothing to say about the incident.
The point is not that Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has had no impact on the climate crisis. It almost certainly has. Indeed, all wars contribute significantly to climate change. But one would never know this from left-wing discourse on climate change. Thunberg’s photo-op meeting highlights a longstanding contradiction within the left-environmental movement: The virtual absence of anti-war politics in confronting climate change.
As Stacy Bannerman wrote in Black Agenda Report on Aug. 22, 2018, “How do you clear a room of climate activists? Start talking about war.”
War on the Climate
The U.S. military is the largest contributor to climate change on the planet. According to Neta C. Crawford, a political scientist at Oxford University, the U.S. Department of Defense is the “single largest institutional fossil fuel user in the world.” Crawford is the author of The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War: Charting the Rise and Fall of US Military Emissions.
“U.S. military emissions are about 51 metric tons, CO2 equivalent, annually… ,” Crawford told Mother Jones’ Ruqaiyah Zarook, in an interview published October 7, 2022. “This is a reduction from past military emissions, but still larger than the emissions of most countries.”
It is perhaps a twisted irony that the majority of U.S. military invasions and operations revolve around forcefully seizing and securing even more energy sources (oil, particularly) from other countries. This oil is then burned into the atmosphere — thus, contributing to climate change in a vicious cycle. In the last two decades, the Pentagon has destabilized Iraq, Libya, and Syria — all in order to steal those countries’ oil supplies.
The United States maintains over 800 military bases in 80 countries throughout the globe. The exact number of military bases is not known as the Pentagon does not release such data. Some have speculated that the number could be closer to 1,000. And the U.S. spends more on its military than the next ten countries combined.
But the left rarely makes this link between U.S. imperialism and climate change. And this is perhaps unsurprising given that so many self-proclaimed “socialists” support the Democrats’ proxy-war with Russia in Ukraine. Instead, the environmental left has, for decades, focused entirely on individualistic lifestyle behaviors and consumer habits to combat climate change. They urge working-class people to drive less, bike to work, eat less meat, not to fly, and to shop locally.
Such individual actions — no matter how well-intended — have little impact on reducing global carbon emissions. They are entirely symbolic. The wealthy and corporations are responsible for the majority of CO2 emissions over the last century. According to a study by Oxfam the wealthiest one percent of humanity is “responsible for twice as many emissions as the poorest 50 percent…” Put another way, as the report’s headline states, “A billionaire emits a million times more greenhouse gases than the average person.”
Likewise, just 100 corporations have been responsible for more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. The majority of those corporations are, perhaps unsurprisingly, fossil fuel companies along with their investors.
As such it is the system of capitalism — a system that prioritizes short-term profit above human need and the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet — that drives the climate crisis. It has nothing to do with your individual “carbon footprint” — a bourgeois concept invented by oil giant, BP. And, as Lenin observed, imperialism is the “highest stage of capitalism.”
Greta Thunberg is Not on Our Side
It should not be terribly surprising that Thunberg’s politics do not stray far beyond standard liberalism. In the short time that she has been in the public eye, Thunberg has never given any indication that she is a socialist. Her public appeals to addressing climate change rest entirely on moralistic arguments rather than any class analysis. She routinely urges the elites and world governments to “do the right thing” for “future generations,” and act on climate change. Indeed, Thunberg has more condemnation for Baby Boomers than for the bourgeoisie.
This is because Thunberg is not, in fact, part of the working class. Her parents, Malena Ernman and Svante Thunberg, are both Swedish celebrities. (Ernman is an opera singer, while Greta’s father, Svante Thunberg, is an actor worth around $1-$10 million.) Thunberg herself has a net worth of $2 million. Thunberg’s 2019 sailing trip to the U.N. climate summit in New York, was sponsored by car manufacturer, BMW and Swiss private bank, EFG International.
And Thunberg is hardly alone among environmental leftists who (rather hypocritically, one would think) partner with corporate polluters. Bill McKibben’s environmental “nonprofit” 350.org receives significant funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Yes, that’s right: Rockefeller as in John D. Rockefeller — the founder of Standard Oil.
(The Rockefeller Foundation announced in 2020 that it was joining the ranks of several other “woke” Fortune 500 corporations and elite universities in “divesting” from fossil fuels. Big deal. As a Nov. 4, 2022 report in Harvard Business Review points out, such “divestment” campaigns are often little more than elaborate “green” PR stunts. All divestment means is one company is selling off its shares in a particular industry or holding to another company.)
If we are to meaningfully tackle climate change, we must revive the long dormant anti-war movement. Too many on the left view “climate change,” and “imperialism” as two separate, incompatible spheres of activism. Yet they are inextricably linked.
A major part of the problem lies in the petty-bourgeois, PMC nature of the contemporary left. This petty-bourgeois left (which Thunberg is a part of) seeks narrow, “market-based” solutions to climate change. It naively believes it can solve the climate crisis through the existing capitalist system. It fails to understand that capitalism is the crisis. Its members utter trendy slogans like, “System change, not climate change!”, only to then advocate for vegan lifestyles, while ignoring issues of war.
This is petty-bourgeois, boutique activism, plain and simple. If we are to meaningfully mitigate the climate crisis, we must attack it at its source: capitalism and the imperialism that is its logical outgrowth.
No war but class war!