We Can’t Beat Climate Change Under Capitalism. Socialism Is the Only Way.

The changes needed to avert environmental catastrophe are incompatible with capitalism.

Ashley Dawson

An estimated 40,000 people rallied March 10 at the Climate March in Amsterdam, pushing the Dutch government to move faster on climate action. Twenty-six percent of the Netherlands sits below sea level. (Photo by Paulo Amorim/Nurphoto via Getty Images)

The Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC)’s land­mark Octo­ber 2018 report declared that pre­vent­ing run­away glob­al warm­ing will require far-reach­ing tran­si­tions in ener­gy, land … and indus­tri­al sys­tems” for which there is no doc­u­ment­ed his­toric prece­dent.” Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty cli­mate sci­en­tist and report author Myles Allen explained, It’s telling us we need to … turn the world econ­o­my on a dime.”

Rapid and equitable decarbonization means putting corporations under public control.

To make this turn hap­pen, we need a care­ful­ly planned and demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly admin­is­tered emer­gency pro­gram for eco­log­i­cal recon­struc­tion. But such a pro­gram is not remote­ly rec­on­cil­able with capitalism’s imper­a­tives of prof­it max­i­miza­tion and growth, not to men­tion pri­vate own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion. In oth­er words: We need sys­tem change to beat cli­mate change.

Under cap­i­tal­ism, economies must grow at a min­i­mum com­pound rate of 3 per­cent to remain healthy. Any slow­down or block­age in cap­i­tal flow will pro­duce a cri­sis,” wrote Marx­ist geo­g­ra­ph­er David Har­vey in a 2010 paper. If our blood flow stops, then we die. If cap­i­tal flow stops, then the body politic of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety dies.” This gen­er­al­ly means a slow­down in invest­ment, falling wages and wide­spread unemployment.

But giv­en our finite plan­e­tary resource base, this inces­sant growth is killing us. A recent review of hun­dreds of sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies show­cas­es the direct link over the last half-cen­tu­ry (dur­ing the so-called Great Accel­er­a­tion) between eco­nom­ic growth, ener­gy use and car­bon emis­sions. While the orig­i­nal New Deal helped spur this uptick, the Green New Deal must wind it down.

Some sec­tors of the econ­o­my require imme­di­ate con­trac­tion. Accord­ing to the think tank Car­bon Track­er, 80 per­cent of known fos­sil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground if we are to avert tem­per­a­ture rise above 2 degrees Cel­sius (3.6 degrees Fahren­heit). But much of these reserves are con­trolled by fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions account­able only to investors. To main­tain their val­ue and mar­ket share, these com­pa­nies must con­tin­ue to extract and sell these reserves and dis­cov­er new reserves to replace them. Con­trac­tion is inim­i­cal to growth, so it’s Drill, baby, drill.”

How can we dis­man­tle this plan­et-destroy­ing extrac­tive econ­o­my? Free-mar­ket solu­tions and incen­tives like car­bon tax­es have, where imple­ment­ed, failed to sig­nif­i­cant­ly dimin­ish fos­sil fuel con­sump­tion (part of why the big oil and gas com­pa­nies sup­port them). A dra­mat­i­cal­ly high­er car­bon tax might work to effec­tive­ly bank­rupt these cor­po­ra­tions, but it would not give the pub­lic any con­trol over how the clo­sure of these indus­tries takes place, risk­ing job loss and eco­nom­ic disruption.

Rapid and equi­table decar­boniza­tion, then, means putting these cor­po­ra­tions under pub­lic con­trol — i.e., nation­al­iz­ing them, through buy­ing out the major­i­ty of their shares. Writ­ers at The Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive esti­mate a price tag of around $1.15 tril­lion. This may sound expen­sive, but remem­ber: Over the next decade, Trump’s tax cuts will give $2.3 tril­lion to the rich.

This assault on pri­vate prop­er­ty will no doubt trig­ger fierce resis­tance from elites. To over­come this oppo­si­tion, we will need a mas­sive, orga­nized anti-cap­i­tal­ist movement.

The phase­out of fos­sil fuels must be econ­o­my-wide, includ­ing wind­ing down, find­ing alter­na­tives to, and sup­port­ing affect­ed work­ers from fos­sil fuel-depen­dent indus­tries like petro­chem­i­cals, agribusi­ness and avi­a­tion, and much super­flu­ous indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion — not to men­tion the arms indus­try and the mil­i­tary. A cam­paign against mil­i­tarism, and for a Glob­al Green New Deal, would require chal­leng­ing the intra-state eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary com­pe­ti­tion upon which cap­i­tal­ism relies.

While the net effect will be to con­tract pro­duc­tion, we must also invest in selec­tive growth in cer­tain sec­tors, from renew­able ener­gy to organ­ic farm­ing, as well as low-car­bon, social­ly nec­es­sary activ­i­ties such as edu­ca­tion and the car­ing pro­fes­sions. This will involve revers­ing the neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist dog­ma that has imposed aus­ter­i­ty for decades.

The Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work (IEN) applauds the vision, inten­tion and scope of the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion but insists on the fun­da­men­tal need to chal­lenge and trans­form the cur­rent dom­i­nant polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tems that are dri­ving for­est destruc­tion, social injus­tice and the cli­mate crisis.”

An econ­o­my based on extract­ing from a finite sys­tem faster than the capac­i­ty of the Earth to regen­er­ate,” IEN argues, will even­tu­al­ly come to an end.” Our demands for reform must pre­cip­i­tate what comes next. As the IEN puts it, To reclaim our future, we must change the present.”

For a response to this piece, see We Don’t Have Time to End Cap­i­tal­ism — But Growth Can Still Be Green.​

Ash­ley Daw­son is the Cur­rie C. and Thomas A. Bar­ron Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor in the Envi­ron­ment and the Human­i­ties at the Prince­ton Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute. He is the author of two recent books on top­ics relat­ing to the envi­ron­men­tal human­i­ties: Extreme Cities: The Per­il and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Cli­mate Change (Ver­so Books, 2017), and Extinc­tion: A Rad­i­cal His­to­ry (O/R Press, 2016).
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