What Strategy for the Environmental Movement?


The modern environmental movement began in the 1950s and 1960s and culminated in a massive demonstration on the first Earth Day 1970 of 20 million people, highlighting the widespread concern over water, land, and air pollution from unregulated industrial activity. The movement achieved a series of major reforms in the 1960s and 1970’s – the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) – saving countless lives and raising the bar for environmental standards worldwide.

The torch of the environmental movement is carried today in dozens of environmental organizations like Greenpeace, 350.org, World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, and Avaaz that work to inform and organize millions of people around environmental destruction and global warming. Through the work of these organizations and others the construction of 166 new coal fire plants was halted, new regulations restricting toxic emissions (such as lead, mercury and sulfur) that will save 11,000 lives and greatly reduce the disbursement of toxins in the environment have been passed, and federal standards on fuel efficiency for vehicles was recently doubled.

Numerically there are more people informed and radicalized around environmental issues today than in the 60’s and 70’s, yet 55% of lakes, streams and rivers are classified as in “poor condition,” 20,000 people die prematurely every year in the US alone from air pollution, and whole mountain tops are being blasted away to cheaply unearth coal reserves. Nearly 70% of Americans think global warming is a problem, an increase of over 20% in just three years, yet carbon emissions rise year after year.

We may have stopped 166 coal plants from being constructed in the US, but 1,200 new coal plants are projected to be built internationally in 2013 alone. If there are more environmental activists today than 40 years ago and such widespread concern about environmental destruction and global warming, why has this not resulted in serious political and economic action?

The looming threat of catastrophic climate change and the fact that world leaders have been kicking the can down the road for 30 years is forcing some in the environmental movement to consider a different, more militant strategy to effect change. The Sierra Club announced in early 2013 that they will engage in non-violence civil disobedience for the first time in their 120-year history to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Other environmentalists have given in, becoming “eco-pragmatists” and accepting environmental destruction as part and parcel with “reconciling the needs of people with the needs of nature.” But, do we have to accept environmental destruction to meet the needs of people? Should we accept pollution and climate change as inevitable even though the technology to power the entire global society on renewable energy exists?

Since 1750 industrial activity has unearthed and burned approximately 500 billion tons of fossil fuels. The addition of this carbon, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere has caused the average global temperature to increase 0.8 degree Celsius (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Scientists are now projecting a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius (about 7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

To most people, this seems a rather small increase in temperature to fuss over. We experience far larger increases and decreases in temperature every season and in some places, every day. A recent uptick in drought, floods, intense storms, wild fires, heatwaves, and blizzards, however, is blasting away the skepticism people once had and forcing the public to accept that climate change is not the future, it is the present.

Hurricane Sandy brutally shook the American people awake to the effects of climate change. These massively destructive storms are predicted to increase in frequency (once-a-century events could become once-a-decade or once-every-three-years) if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current pace. Imagine having New York city blasted every three years with category 4 or 5 hurricanes.

In addition to intense rainfall from storms, a warmer planet produces more heat waves, which can cause wildfires, heat-related deaths, and drought. The US experienced the worst drought conditions in 50 years in 2012, an expansion of the 2011 record-breaking drought, with more than 2,000 counties designated disaster areas, and 80% of the US (not including Alaska and Hawaii) in abnormally dry conditions. Farmland was particularly affected, with half of the 2012 crops harvested in “poor or very poor condition.” Decreased food production will lead to increased food prices, globally, hitting low-income and poor families the worst.

Socialist strategy to save the environment

The only way to prevent further global warming and all the devastating effects predicted is to completely stop global carbon emissions. The facts outlined above are known to world leaders. Why they choose to stall serious action is a question we must answer if we are to move the debate forward and begin laying the groundwork for an urgent transformation of society away from fossil fuels.

If we accept that global warming is the biggest threat facing humanity and we have a brief window of opportunity to turn it all around to avoid climate catastrophe, then we have to admit that the strategy put forward by environmental organizations thus far is not going to get the job done.

Build a Movement of Millions

On February 17, 2013 nearly 50,000 people turned out for the largest climate action rally in American History. The sheer size of the crowd shows the level of concern within the population. However, 50,000 is far less than what is necessary to force government to stop dragging its feet. In comparison, nearly 200,000 people showed up for Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity in 2010. If the aim is to grow the environmental movement to a comparable size and beyond, the movement must change strategy and widen the demands to include human well-being.

The major concern of Americans (and the 99% globally) is jobs that provide the possibility for decent living standards and access to quality health care and education. This is illustrated in the recent poll showing a solid 66% support for the Keystone XL pipeline while 69% agree global warming is real and a threat. (Huffington Post, 4/3/2013) To grow the movement and begin the fight to replace the fossil fuel infrastructure, we have to first do a better job at connecting fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL pipeline to the severe weather caused by global warming, and we must expand the demands beyond environmental health and ‘saving the environment’ to green union jobs and a good quality of life.

System Change, Not Climate Change

The protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and the civil disobedience taking place to stop the construction of the southern portion of the pipeline are highlighting a key demand from concerned people, which is to keep the fossil fuels in the ground. Activists know that allowing the pipeline to be built is a huge setback to stopping climate change. On the west coast, environmental activists are mobilizing communities to reject the proposal to build the largest export terminal in North America in Bellingham Bay, Washington.

Stopping these large-scale projects are key battles to stopping global warming, but they only address one industry, energy production. Ultimately, only by acknowledging that the entire global economic system is infused with fossil fuels, from powering production to transportation, to the raw materials used in manufacturing new products, will we fully understand the Everest-sized mountain we must climb to turn it all around. The existing fossil fuel infrastructure is the biggest barrier to stopping global warming.


“I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change…” – Obama in 2013 State of the Union Speech


All world leaders of advanced industrialized countries, including Obama, advocate a market-based solution to climate change. As far as they are concerned, any solution that smacks down the invisible hand of the market is out of the question. Under capitalism, solutions to global warming must be “profitable.”

But requiring “profitability” from renewable energy projects at a time when fossil fuels have a 150-year head-start, is like saying a toddler must run as fast as an adult. Renewable energy is still competing with fossil fuels for investment dollars despite the fact that fossil fuel companies are ridiculously profitable, even without billions of dollars in subsidies they get from governments.

With the threat of global warming looming, why not switch to renewable energy immediately? Because, under capitalism, the economic system we live under, decisions about what is produced, and how it is produced, are based on the prerequisite to increase profits for the owners of corporations and their shareholders. Since the entire global economy primarily runs on fossil fuels, the profits from fossil fuel production are extremely high. Billions of dollars were invested in this profit-making infrastructure, and corporations want to continue to reap the rewards from that.

Transitioning to renewables, in contrast, requires constructing an entirely new infrastructure, finding different raw materials to use, and so on. Therefore, under capitalism there is no plausible incentive to force industry and governments to dramatically shift to clean and sustainable alternatives. Industry and government understand the implications of continued carbon emissions and yet the human and environmental costs of global warming are not ‘incentive’ enough to force them to make the necessary transition, unless capitalism can make a profit from it.

By limiting the solutions to those that are market-based (meaning they have to be profitable), the President (and all other world leaders) is putting a straight jacket on the fight against global warming. In fact, all of the solutions offered so far—cap and trade, carbon taxes, and lifestyle changes (for example, buying local produce or an electric car)— are market-based solutions that fit within the framework of the existing capitalist system, and all have failed to stop carbon emissions from rising year after year.

The incessant quest for profits, at the expense of climate stability and ultimately at the expense of human life, serves only those who collect the profits, the major multi-national corporations and the super wealthy. Five years into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, capitalism is unable to restart growth and an estimated 200 million people are without jobs. In reality, the 99% do not benefit from an economic model that deems it necessary to force millions of people out of work in addition to continuing down a path toward climate catastrophe, all for the sake of profits for the 1%. Capitalism cannot solve global warming or the current economic crisis. Not a single solution that satisfies the market will turn the ship around fast enough to avoid the iceberg.

The depth of the capitalist crisis has provoked a growing mood of struggles. Massive working-class struggles have developed in Europe against the capitalist elite’s policies of austerity (that is, cuts to programs that help workers and the poor). Revolutionary movements emerged in Tunisia and Egypt. In the US, mass struggles developed in 2011 in Wisconsin followed by the Occupy Wall Street mobilizations. All these struggles won broad support among the public.

It is by linking up struggles on economic, social and environmental issues against capitalism that the environmental movement can develop the power and strength it needs to change the corporate environmental policies pushed by both parties in Washington. In essence, it will be the strength of the movement of the 99% against the pro-capitalist policies of the elite 1% that will determine whether humanity and the planet can be rescued from the twin scourge of global warming and capitalist decay.

Leaders who discuss the need to focus on jobs before tackling climate change are driving a wedge between labor and environmental activists. Obama recently remarked on the jobs versus the environment saying “…[I]f the message is somehow [that] we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.” The false dichotomy between jobs and the environment must be rejected. A massive green jobs program could put millions of people back to work and kick-start a global transition away from fossil fuels.

Action to halt carbon emissions needs to occur immediately, not 10, 20, or 50 plus years from now as capitalism demands. In fact, world leaders met in Durban, South Africa late in 2011 and decided to wait until 2015 before drafting a Kyoto Protocol replacement that wouldn’t take effect until 2020! Ultimately, environmental activists must recognize that capitalism is at the root of global warming and it is the biggest barrier to stopping it.

A socialist economic system of production and distribution of goods and services, publicly owned and democratically run by workers, is needed to replace capitalism. Economic decisions would then be focused on meeting the needs of humanity, including environmental health and climate stability, not profits.

No longer would we need to rely on the dinosaur technology that pollutes our water, air, and land because “the market” deems it the cheapest. Instead of constructing coal export terminals, deep-sea drilling rigs, and oil pipelines we could build solar panels, windmills, a new electric grid. A massive expansion of transit and high-speed rail would be built to drastically reduce the need for personal vehicles. Energy and resources use under socialist planning would far exceed the current trash-pile creating system of capitalist planned obsolescence, a profit-scheme of products designed to be consumed, thrown away, and then replaced. Products would be manufactured to be durable, not disposable.

Under socialism, instead of the world being a market for exploitation by a handful of huge multinational corporations, it would be organized to unite the resources and skills of workers to improve the conditions of people around the world. We could finally attain the international cooperation necessary to deal with global problems like global warming, and begin to reverse the environmental catastrophe.

The Democratic Party is Not Our Ally

For decades environmentalists blamed the Republican Party for inaction on climate change. This was especially apparent during the 8 years of the George W. Bush administration. But, environmental activists need to take a sober look at the bleak reality of the Obama administration’s environmental record: the largest increase in domestic drilling in a generation, opening up of the Arctic for drilling, opening the east coast for seismic studies and eventual drilling, first loan guarantees on nuclear energy in 30 years, and broad support for hydraulic fracturing (or fracking).

Obama has opened federal (i.e., public) lands for oil and gas exploration and continues to use the phrase “all of the above strategy” to gain energy independence and move towards renewables. But, an “all of the above strategy” is not a serious solution to global warming. Any investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure is a waste of resources that could have been used to further develop the renewable energy sector.

In the 2013 State of the Union address, Obama discusses the need to seriously address global warming, how “ we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.” But, in the same breath said that “…in the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that. And that’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.” You can’t both seriously tackle global warming and work to increase the extraction (and burning) of fossil fuels.

Environmental organizations must take a stand against the President and the Democratic Party, and stop making excuses for them. In fact, illusions in the Democratic Party have actually been a barrier to a major investment in renewable energy. For far too long environmental organizations have given the Democratic Party a pass. No one can blame them for wanting to keep out the Republican Party, whose big business policies and deregulation of industry would be a disaster for the environment and working people. But, by supporting the Democrats what has the fight to stop global warming gained?

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