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Climate Catastrophe and the Case for a Planned Economy

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The 20-warmest years on record occurred in the past 22 years and rising temperatures are just one symptom of the climate catastrophe we are now staring down. Eight percent of species are threatened with extinction. The state of Louisiana loses a football-field worth of land every 45 minutes due to rising sea levels. Wildfires are ravaging the Western U.S. and hurricanes have pummeled the Southeastern coast.

Humanity is at a crossroads. Report after report warns that unless decisive action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, we risk triggering a series of “tipping points” after which the effects on the environment cannot be reversed. A report from Columbia Engineering projects that the planet’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide could begin to decline in 2060. Our built-in safety net against excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is eroding, dramatically accelerating the worst effects of climate change. 

Another of these “tipping points” is melting polar ice. The ice at the poles acts as a reflector that sends some of the sun’s rays back into space and cools the planet. When this ice melts, the darker water beneath it is revealed which absorbs substantially more heat, setting off a feedback loop of greater and greater warming. Another danger with melting ice is that it will eventually uncover the existing layers of permafrost which currently contain huge amounts of methane. If the permafrost melts, that methane — which has a far more serious warming effect than carbon dioxide — will be released into the atmosphere. 

At risk with the worsening climate crisis is not just our comfort, but access to the earth’s collective resources, water, land, and clean air, as well as the mass displacement of millions of people who will become known as climate refugees. 

The effect of climate change on earth’s water cycle has been of particular concern to climate scientists. Rising temperatures have led to more water vapor being held in the atmosphere which has in turn made water availability very difficult to predict. This can lead to both more intense rainstorms and more severe droughts.

While tropical storms, hurricanes, and monsoonal rain storms are part of normal weather patterns in the U.S., the increased frequency and severity of these events means more intense flooding which poses a threat to our overall water quality. This is because flood water picks up sewage, pesticides, motor oil, industrial wastewater, and all sorts of contaminants and delivers them straight into our waterways. In 2014, Hurricane Sandy flooded 10 out of New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants causing them to release partially treated or untreated sewage into local waterways!

Responsibility Lies with Corporations

When Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006 it was groundbreaking, explaining in simple language the science behind global warming and the danger it posed to humanity. This movie opened up a real conversation given that for decades major corporations engaged in a determined campaign to hide the facts about climate change in order to prevent any disruption to their enormously profitable business. This sickening campaign of theirs has no doubt already led to the deaths of thousands.

Al Gore’s conclusion was that the key to slowing or reversing the effects of climate change rested on the shoulders of individuals and their consumer choices. Change your light bulbs, take shorter showers, get a hybrid car, don’t use plastic straws. While some of these changes to our daily consumption could have an impact, even if everyone in the U.S. followed every suggestion in An Inconvenient Truth, U.S. carbon emissions would only fall by 22%! Scientific consensus is that it needs to be reduced by 75% globally. This poses the question, who are the real drivers of the climate crisis and how do we take them on?

Reports have found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988, most of those being coal and oil-producing companies like Exxon, Shell, and BP.

It is not a coincidence or an accident that these corporations are the major drivers of global warming. It is inherent in the logic of capitalism that, in order to remain viable, companies have to maximize profit. This means looking for any corners that can be cut, any expenses that can be avoided, and any safety measures that can be bypassed. 

The horrific Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 emptied 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was confirmed by a White House commission, that in the lead up to the explosion, BP, Transocean, and Halliburton made a series of decisions in an effort to cut costs that ultimately caused the blow-out and the death of 11 workers. This White House commission itself confirmed that this was likely to happen again due to “industry complacency.” In other words, this will likely happen again because the cost of cleaning up a disaster is nothing compared to the profits made by creating the disaster to begin with. 

A variety of different policy initiatives have been proposed to address this crisis, most of which have fallen laughably short of what is needed. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (GND) goes the furthest, calling for a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, an overhaul of transportation systems, and for progressive taxation. Winning the GND would represent a huge step forward in moving toward a sustainable society, but where it falls short is in actually dealing with the structural power of the energy sector.  If the energy sector remains in private hands they will work overtime to undermine the GND which would effectively bring the value of their unexploited reserves, worth hundreds of billions, to zero. The conflicting goals of business leaders whose objective is to make a profit and the forces trying to implement the GND will make a rapid transition to renewable energy nearly impossible.

The Case for Public Ownership

It is certainly not ruled out that mass pressure could lead to steps that begin the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy even under capitalism. However, without bringing important sectors of the economy, beginning with the energy sector, into public ownership, that transition would be slow moving and largely disorganized. In order to do what is needed to radically change course and avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to move onto war footing. This means a rapid and organized approach to take the energy sector into public ownership and re-tool it on a sustainable basis. 

Carrying out a rapid transition away from fossil fuels – even with a publicly owned energy sector – would also require bringing other sectors of the economy into public ownership. Taking over important parts of the manufacturing sector would allow for rapid expansion of electric cars and public transport. Beyond that, we need the banks in public hands in order to assist ordinary people and small businesses in making the transition to energy efficient homes and shops. Such profound change points toward a complete reorganization of production on a socialist basis with a democratically planned economy.

Historically, capitalism unleashed human productivity on a massive scale. However, the defining features of capitalism – private ownership and the nation state – have now become a fetter to the further development of our economy and society. This is evident with the series of international agreements on the climate which have had very little effect because of the unwillingness of competing nation states to make concessions that would benefit their rivals.

Right now, all the major decisions about how to deploy society’s resources are made by a select few extremely wealthy business leaders. The decisions are made on the basis of whatever will bring in the most money. This often means using completely inefficient methods to produce things. For example, when a car is being assembled, almost every single component part will travel to Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. over and over before the parts come together to form a car. The metal base of a steering wheel that’s produced in the U.S. is sent to Mexico to get covered and stitched up before being sent back to the U.S. This is entirely so the company can find the cheapest supplies and labor to make their final product.

Another example of inefficient and wasteful production under capitalism comes from the so called “fast fashion” industry. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world. Creating trends that change so quickly that no one can keep up ensures that people will continue to buy cheap, disposable clothing — dump those clothes — and then buy more. Eighty billion garments are mass produced each year, almost exclusively using water-guzzling but cheap textiles like cotton. In order to get the right color for a pair of jeans, 2,866 gallons of water are used! 

While these may be shocking examples of waste and complete innovation-starvation, this is typical of the way society is organized under capitalism. So the question is, what’s the alternative? How can we organize society more efficiently and in the interests of people and the planet rather than profit?

Planned System Needed

We need a democratically planned economy where the top 500 companies are brought into public ownership and decisions about how a given industry is run are made by elected bodies of workers and consumers. The climate crisis may be the most existential crisis humanity faces but capitalism inevitably produces massive inequality, poverty and structural racism. To address all these questions requires a society where key economic decisions are democratically made by the masses of people. 

Bringing a company into public ownership means taking both their material resources – factories, tools, distribution networks, technologies, infrastructure – and their existing financial reserves out of the hands of wealthy investors and into the hands of society as a whole. Once that critical step is taken, democratic councils can replace the capitalist bosses and facilitate the operation of that company or industry. These councils would need to reflect the expertise of the workers in that industry who are intimately familiar with how it operates, what it produces, and what can be improved. In order to prevent the development of a bureaucracy, anyone elected to a workers’ council would make no more money than the average worker in that industry and would be subject to immediate recall. 

These councils would not aim to maximize the profitability of their given industry, but rather to maximize the ability of that industry to meet the needs of society. This would lead to a substantial increase in the general standard of living of the vast majority of people because there would be no reason to keep wages down, workweeks unnecessarily long, or social services starved. 

The transition to a planned economy may well start in one country, but in order for it to succeed it will need to spread internationally. We live in a world economy created by capitalism but to take full advantage of this requires global socialist planning. Under a democratically planned economy, international structures would need to be established to facilitate the maximum coordination of workers councils in different industries across borders.

As was detailed earlier, most major industries under capitalism are completely held back by the constant need to cut costs. Bosses will look for shortcuts in order to ensure they’re getting the cheapest goods and labor. The task of democratically elected councils in overseeing workplaces and industries would be to identify where things can be made more efficient and more environmentally sustainable. For example, right now, the vast logistics and supply chain networks that exist at Amazon and Walmart are completely divorced from one another because they are in direct competition. When this competition is eliminated, these incredibly useful networks can be combined and re-tooled. The just-in-time model adopted by Amazon and other major retailers where a product can be ordered and delivered in a matter of days could be of tremendous use to society if separated from the profit motive. Walmart’s vast enterprise is itself planned – with coordination at all levels of the supply chain. This lays the basis for a relatively painless transition to a cooperative, democratically planned enterprise. 

So, how does all of this connect to the existential threat of climate change and how could a planned economy help?

Planning a Green Future

Capitalism produces significant innovations – however these are subordinated to what is profitable, not necessarily what is needed. 

On the basis of a democratically-planned economy, innovation can be unleashed in the interests of ordinary people and the climate. We can invest in a genuine transformation of major industries on a sustainable basis. We can invest in the retraining of millions of workers in currently polluting industries and create millions of good-paying union jobs harnessing renewable energy through solar, wind, and wave technology. There will no doubt be new forms of renewable energy that will be discovered, and perfecting the technology to harness this energy will require the training of more scientists and engineers as well as moving scientists currently working on weapons development to far more useful work.

In order to reverse some of the worst effects of the climate crisis, a global reforestation project would need to be taken up. Restocking forests by planting millions of native trees would dramatically reduce pollution in the air and would rebuild natural habitats and ecosystems that have been lost to deforestation. Alongside this there will need to be a significant reorganization of global agriculture to reduce the land given to cattle as well as the development of healthy meat alternatives.

Public transportation in most major cities is completely eroding. Meanwhile, Americans spend 19 full days a year stuck in traffic on their way to work. While people should have the choice to own and use their own vehicles, massively expanding public transit and making it entirely electric would allow many more people to travel faster and more easily than driving. Beyond local public transit, long-distance trains need to be expanded as well. High-speed electric trains could provide a cheaper and far less environmentally damaging alternative to air travel. 

Expanding sustainable public transportation would not only improve the standard of living for many people, it would also be a leap forward in transforming society on a green basis.

A society freed from the constraints of profit could take up a number of ground-breaking projects to change society: creating energy efficient housing designs with more effective insulation, researching direct air capture stations to clean and re-emit currently polluted air, and developing electrified roads to charge electric vehicles as they drive.

The solution to this crisis will not be handed down from on high, it will not be innovated by Elon Musk, it will not come as a result of simply voting every four years. Retooling society on a truly sustainable basis and ensuring a future for humanity rests on ending the anarchic and chaotic rule of capitalism and replacing it with a truly democratic planned economy. 

What Next?

Winning revolutionary change and transforming our society on a socialist basis will require mounting a historic challenge against the super rich who currently dominate our society. There are very exciting signs in the U.S. and internationally of the potential to develop that challenge. From the historic teachers strikes that have taken place in the past year and a half which could spread into other sectors, to the growing youth climate movement that now has plans for an international day of action on September 20.

It is the united and organized strength of working and young people that can usher in socialist change. A critical step in this process will be the building of our own mass political party with a clear socialist program and determined leadership. Since 2015 we’ve emphasized the role Bernie Sanders – and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – could play in that process by using their huge base of support for progressive, working-class politics and launching a new mass organization. 

We need to continue building and strengthening the organizations of the working class in preparation for the decisive struggles ahead. This means building fighting unions in our workplaces that are well organized, truly democratic, have the active participation of all workers, and are willing to do whatever it takes to defend against attacks from our bosses. The unions need to link up with the vibrant social movements currently taking place against climate change, sexism and racism, and point the way forward on a working-class basis. 

In order to take the leaps necessary to save the planet from the ruin of profit we need to fundamentally break with capitalism and fight for the socialist transformation of society on the basis of true innovation, cooperation, and equality. 

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