In an article titled “Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future,” 17 climate scientists from around the globe state that, “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.” Yes we’ve heard about increasing global temperatures, but these scientists lay out the much longer list of symptoms that will come as a result of unmitigated climate disaster: mass species extinction, unprecedented migration, more pandemics, extreme weather, and food, water, and land shortages. These compounded crises are on the horizon if we do not fight for a top-to-bottom overhaul of society and an end to the for-profit economic system of capitalism.
Under a subhead “Political Impotence” these scientists detail the contradictory reality of a rapidly worsening climate situation and the increasing clash of national interests that, if left intact, dooms the type of international collaboration necessary to avert full-scale climate disaster.
The situation is so bad that it has forced a section of the global ruling class to act. The World Economic Forum’s 2020 conference was dubbed by Time a “Climate Conference,” Biden released his climate-driven infrastructure proposals, and corporations have pledged to cut emissions. All of this can be glimmers of hope to some. But the pace of change that’s possible on the basis of a competitive, free-market economy, even one that has resolved to fight climate change, is far too slow. We need a socialist transformation of society on a green basis, which will only be achieved by a genuine revolt of the global working class.
State of the Climate
Having already surpassed an increase of 1.0° C above pre-industrial global temperatures, we are on track to reach 1.5° C between 2030 and 2052. Even if the emissions reduction goals of the much hailed Paris Climate Agreement were met (which they are not almost anywhere) we would reach 2.6-3.1° C of warming by 2100. According to the international scientific community, anything above 1.5° C would be catastrophic.
CO2, methane, and nitrogen levels (three long-lived greenhouse gases that cause warming) all started to dramatically increase in 1750 with the rise of the coal-fueled industrial revolution and the rise of British capitalism. Imperialism spread these fossil-fuel-burning, resource-extracting, and industry-building methods around the globe.
Today, electricity and heat production are the biggest source of emissions leading to a warming planet (25% globally), followed by agriculture, forestry, and other land use (24%), and then industry at 21%. Since 1992, CO2 emissions from energy and industry have increased by 60%. From 1990 to 2005 emissions from agriculture increased by 17%. The bulk of these greenhouse gas emissions from the rise of capitalism to today have come directly from corporations.
Scientists have warned that we have either reached or surpassed a number of climate tipping points, which are a “point of no return” in the climate system that mean unavoidable and dramatic consequences. The conversion of the Amazon rainforest into a savannah, the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the complete collapse of the Gulf Stream are all decisively underway, meaning a collapse of biodiversity, huge dumps of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, extreme sea level rise, and uncontrollable weather.
Climate-related extreme weather disasters jumped by 83% globally in the last 20 years, killing 1.23 million people. Major floods have doubled and severe storms have increased by 40%. Last year saw the worst wildfire season in the West on record and the Southeast broke the record of number of tropical storms and hurricanes.
This will only get exponentially worse. Right now, the West Coast is experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years. Lack of rainfall and snowpack (frozen reservoirs that release water during spring and summer) are spelling what could be the worst fire season yet, with two fires each in California, Arizona, and New Mexico already this season. With a warming climate and worsening droughts, extreme water shortages will be “nearly ubiquitous” west of Missouri by 2040 according to projections from the federal government. The Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies nearly a third of the country’s irrigation groundwater and supports one sixth of the world’s grain production, could be gone by the end of the century.
In response to droughts, New Mexican officials have directed farmers who rely on water from the Rio Grande and other rivers to avoid planting crops unless absolutely necessary. Floods, drought, storms, fire, and global warming pose a dramatic threat to our homes, our communities, and our water and food supply. A half-billion people around the world already live in places that are turning into desert because of destructive agricultural practices and a warming climate that will eliminate the potential for anything to grow. One billion people globally rely on coral reefs for food, which now face extinction from warming oceans.
Sea level rise, caused by melting ice at the poles will cause extreme flooding, eliminating coastal land for food production and displacing entire communities. By 2060, an estimated 13 million people in the U.S. will be forced to move away from submerged coastlines, which would represent the largest internal migration in American history.
In 2019, weather-related hazards forced 24.9 million people across 140 countries to move. Estimates suggest there will be anywhere from 200 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050 when you factor in permanent food and water shortages. This means, in the worst case scenario, one in seven people globally will be forced to move because of climate change in the next 30 years. Already in the U.S. a historic surge at the southern border has largely been driven by devastating hurricanes and prolonged droughts in El Salvador and Honduras.
Massive migration will further strain dwindling resources. As one example, by 2100 it is possible that Atlanta, GA could receive a quarter million new residents from sea-level rise displacement alone. But Atlanta may very well lose its water supply by then to drought and face worsening heat-driven wildfires.
And if all this wasn’t bad enough, increasingly dense cities in many countries and strained public services from forced climate migration threaten worse outcomes for future disease outbreaks. Scientists are already warning of more deadly pandemics to come, largely linked to deforestation and a loss of biodiversity.
One of the most terrifying and underreported realities is that it is “scientifically undeniable” that we are already on the path of a sixth major extinction. One million (out of 7-10 million) species are at threat of immediate extinction, 40% of plants are endangered, and insects (including pollinators who help us grow food) are disappearing rapidly. An extinction event on this scale will have profoundly destabilizing and complex consequences on global ecosystems. It will contribute to more warming, worse food shortages, poorer water and air quality, more frequent and intense flooding and fires, and compromised human health.
The Cost of the Climate Crisis
All of these horrifying consequences of the unrestricted use of fossil fuels have been known to scientists, politicians, and CEOs for decades. But as scientists really started to ring the alarm bells in the early 80s, deregulation of industry and global expansion under the neoliberal era took carbon emissions to record highs. Capitalism’s virtually unrestricted pillage of the natural world in the interest of profits has gone so far that it now threatens its own economic and political security.
Capitalism has never factored environmental impact into its profit-making formula. This despite the fact that all of its wealth comes from the raw resources of the earth, and the work done to them by workers. According to a recent UN report, if any company did have to pay the cost of their environmental damage, not one of them would actually be profitable. We’ve been operating under a severe climate deficit for centuries, but our economic and political system has blatantly ignored this fact because living sustainably is fundamentally contradictory to capitalism’s constant need to expand, cut costs, and maximize profits.
In the last 20 years, an estimated $2.97 trillion in global economic losses have come as the result of climate-related extreme weather events. In the most extreme climate warming scenarios, the U.S. alone could lose $520 billion a year from climate change damages. Food and water shortages, destroyed infrastructure, worse and more widespread human illness and instability, the collapse of tourism economies, and more will be extraordinarily expensive.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), which informs climate policy globally and has historically encouraged the use of fossil fuels, issued a shocking report this month that sets the goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. They say that this means halting sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars by 2035, phasing out all coal and oil plants by 2040, and halting any new investment in oil or natural gas this year. This means a massive scaling up of renewable energy technologies, and the creation of new ones. To illustrate the gargantuan shift this would require, they explain that for solar power, it would be the equivalent of “installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day.” This will also mean tripling investments in clean energy worldwide by 2030 to about $4 trillion.
Unfortunately, the IEA has been complicit in perpetuating a global economy whose foundations are fossil fuels, so how do we turn this freight train around?
Joe Biden hosted a climate summit in April that brought together world leaders, almost all of whom belong to countries who have failed their completely inadequate Paris Climate Agreement promises, but who engaged in showboating discussions about the climate crisis nonetheless.
Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the summit, where he doubled down on his previous commitment to reach peak emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. But shortly after, Chinese minister Wang Yi issued a statement saying “If the United States no longer interferes in China’s internal affairs, then we can have even smoother cooperation that can bring more benefits to both countries and the rest of the world.” Essentially, China’s cooperation with Biden on the climate is contingent on broader relations between the two countries, which are deteriorating due to inter-imperialist rivalry.
In order to meet Xi Jinping’s carbon neutrality pledge, China will need to invest $21 trillion to remove carbon from its energy system by 2060. In order to meet this goal, there has been a rapid expansion of Chinese “green finance.” Over the past five years, China’s “green finance” sector has become the second largest in the world after the U.S. Climate could well become a key battleground in the two countries’ battle for global dominance.
Biden has proposed a $2.25 trillion infrastructure package in the U.S., which promises money to update and weatherize infrastructure, transition away from gas-powered cars, and ramp up research and development of renewable energy technologies among other things. In his speech unveiling the plan, Biden mentioned China six times, and explicitly framed it as an attempt to build up U.S. manufacturing and the economy to undermine growing Chinese economic influence.
The Chinese economic model includes a very high level of state intervention into the economy. This has given the Chinese ruling class a certain advantage in scaling up key sectors. Seeing this, Biden is suggesting a level of state intervention into the economy not seen in decades in the U.S. This is accepted by a section of big business itself who recognize that it’s the only option given the scale of the crisis.
So what about other countries at the summit? For poorer countries who have been devastated by COVID-triggered economic crises and continue to face outbreaks because of wealthy countries’ vaccine hoarding (see page 11), trillion dollar climate spending packages are simply not an option.
Biden’s infrastructure package will barely scratch the surface of what is necessary to address the climate crisis in the U.S., which historically is the number one emitter of greenhouse gases. And Biden’s pledge of $2.5 billion for overseas climate finance is as insulting as his pledge to send 20 million vaccine doses abroad. Poor countries, many of whom have economies that are completely dependent on dirty energy (like Nigeria, Venezuela and Iraq), were promised $100 billion a year in climate finance starting in 2020, but this is yet another Paris agreement promise left unmet.
Leaving poor countries that are saddled with debt due to the legacy of imperialism and colonization to fend for themselves on the climate (or the pandemic) is the murderous logic of capitalism’s reliance on the nation state. An “America first” approach to the climate is doomed to fail and will only fuel mass migration and leave millions of poor and working people from the Global South seeking refuge at the doorstep of advanced capitalist countries.
The Ruling Class’ Divided Response
Even Biden’s very limited infrastructure package faces huge challenges ahead. Democrats will have to be fully united (meaning winning over centrist Democrat Joe Manchin, who represents the second-largest coal producing state of West Virginia) and use a special process called budget reconciliation to pass the package in its full form. Republicans, especially those representing fossil-fuel-dependent states like Texas, have already signalled strong opposition.
The growing price tag of the climate crisis is driving divisions in the ruling class about what to do, as evidenced by the emerging debate around Biden’s infrastructure package. Many banks who have invested heavily in major polluters for decades will act as fetters on a transition to sustainability because abandoning these investments would represent a big loss on their balance sheet.
However, even among the titans of finance capital, there is a growing recognition that climate change carries tremendous fiscal risks. BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, has suggested that climate change will lead to a “fundamental reshaping of finance.” In a similar vein, corporations like Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft have begun to pledge carbon neutrality in the coming decades. For these companies, disastrous climate scenarios pose the biggest threat to their medium and longer-term profits, meaning they’re willing to invest up front now. For Biden, the threat of losing the cold war with China and seeing the further weakening of U.S. imperialism globally has forced him to act as well.
In June 2020, Goldman Sachs announced that spending on renewable power would soon overtake oil and gas drilling, and that clean energy provided a $16 trillion investment opportunity through 2030. They pointed to the growing cost of fossil fuel development (which will increase if fossil fuel subsidies are removed as proposed in Biden’s infrastructure plan), which could lead to higher oil and gas prices and spur more investment in renewables. It is possible that we do see politicians and big business interests make a shift towards renewable energy to avoid full climate collapse, and to get in on a growing market.
We should of course hold our applause for the companies and politicians who have waited until it was clear they would lose money to do anything at all, and we shouldn’t hold our breath that any of it will be enough anyways.
What is concretely needed to address this crisis is a global plan to completely rebuild energy grids that rely 100% on renewables in the next decade; ending new production of gas-run cars, scaling up electric vehicle production and massively expanding public transit; developing renewable fuel alternatives for planes, trains, and cargo ships and completely phasing out fossil fuel dependence; retrofitting, weatherizing, and building new green housing and infrastructure to withstand extreme weather and accommodate climate refugees; reforesting the planet and overhauling our food system top-to-bottom, full scale replacing of mass monocrop agriculture with local, organic alternatives; and investing to historic proportions in yet-undiscovered technologies that can help deal with the crisis of water contamination and shortages, infectious disease, coral reef and pollinator population collapse, and so much more.
Despite a shift in the ruling class’ approach, it will inevitably be too slow because of the logic of capitalism. Inter-imperialist rivalries mean countries will work separately to develop and then hoard climate technology, instead of collaborating to most rapidly produce and share out the best innovations. Poor countries will be left behind. Corporations will continue to invest their profits in the financial markets as opposed to expanding their productive capacity in the direction needed by humanity. Fossil fuel interests, the agricultural industry, other major polluters, and their loyal politicians will work to block a transition to a sustainable future with ferocity. While we’re seeing increased state intervention globally, the levels required to mitigate all of these bottlenecks and speed the process up enough to put us on track is extraordinarily unlikely.
That is why we need to take things into our own hands. Mass climate protests have clearly put this issue onto the agenda, and we need a dramatic ramping up of this movement. School strikes should be coordinated and planned as soon as schools open again in the fall, and should be ongoing with a plan to involve more students, teachers, and staff. The youth-led movement also urgently needs to link up with the broader working class. In the short term this could look like striking students appealing to local unions to join them for demonstrations and days of action.
This will crucially need to include workers in polluting industries. Ten million people globally work directly for the fossil fuel industry, and many more rely indirectly on these and other highly polluting jobs. To build a powerful movement with political and economic power, demands for the environment need to be linked with demands to retrain these workers in new, sustainable fields with no loss of pay or benefits and a guarantee of high wages and union recognition.
This type of organizing could win crucial victories for expanding renewable energy, reforestation, and general resource protection. This would help buy time. Fundamentally though, these battles will need to be waged again and again on a mass scale to address the many complex dynamics of the climate crisis caused by a system that is based on the exploitation of workers and the earth.
What is actually necessary for a long-term solution to climate disaster is a complete restructuring of a society on a socialist basis. This can only be won by the global working class asserting itself in a mighty struggle against the capitalist system.
Mitigating the climate crisis on the time frame necessary requires an end to a for-profit system and its replacement with a democratically planned economy run by the working class itself. This means bringing the energy industry, the transport sector, key sections of manufacturing and finance fully into public ownership. On this basis, millions could be put to work helping rebuild a green economy, the accumulated wealth of polluting industries could be reallocated to green and socially productive projects, scientific innovation would be unleashed as global collaboration would replace nationalist competition, and instead of profits for a few, all economic activity would be geared towards meeting global human need, including averting the climate crisis.
In this society, economic decisions would necessarily include environmental and social impact. On the basis of a truly democratically-run economy, we could make rapid decisions about the resources of society and put the full weight of the global working class behind stopping the climate crisis in its tracks. Winning this society will require the biggest ever united struggle of the global working class against capitalism. While the size of this task is mammoth, the future of humanity depends on it.