How Climate Change Will Affect Socialist Strategy

Climate change will create an opening for socialist politics by breaking the link between capitalist growth and political legitimacy.

Why haven’t governments taken the steps needed to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change? The short answer is that capitalists would lose money if they couldn’t extract and burn fossil fuels, and they have the power to block steps that would convert economies to green energy. Capitalists’ ability to profit from industrial production depends on their ability to move manufacturing and other facilities around the world in search of ever-cheaper labor and of governments willing to eliminate regulations that protect humans and the environment.

Capitalism, Climate Change, and Economic Growth

Governments gain legitimacy from their ability to generate economic growth, and to ensure that at least some of it makes its way to the masses. Under capitalism, that growth occurs when governments are able to entice for-profit firms to invest within their country. Firms go to countries where governments hold down wages and taxes and let capitalists decide what to produce. Capitalists produce whatever generates the largest profits. Resource extraction, especially of fossil fuels, is among the most profitable businesses. Industrial production is extra profitable when pollution doesn’t have to be limited. The more capitalists can produce and sell, the larger their profits.

If governments tried to limit CO2 emissions within a capitalist economy, both profits and workers’ incomes would fall. In electoral democracies such a government would be voted out of office. Dictatorships become targets of demonstrations and can be overthrown when their citizens’ incomes decline. Both sorts of governments are especially vulnerable when they anger both capitalists and workers.

So-called green capitalists claim that in fact there is no fundamental contradiction between private profit and reductions in CO2 emissions. They argue that businesses can make money by developing green energy, and that the work needed to create a zero emissions energy infrastructure will more than make up for the jobs lost as the fossil fuel industry disappears. If all that were true, there would be no need to end or even reform capitalism to create an environmentally sustainable economy. The market would do the job all on its own.

In fact, this is not true. Capitalism has not given birth to a significant green energy sector anywhere. The U.S. and European countries claim to be reducing CO2 emissions, and point to China as the current leader in CO2 output. However, what is really happening is that polluting industries have moved from the West to Asia. From a third to two-thirds of the reductions in Europe and a third of the increase in China is due to the fact that more and more of the industrial products Europeans consume are produced in China. Such moves have been facilitated by the World Trade Organization, and through international trade agreements like NAFTA.

So-called free trade has led to dramatic increases in global CO2 levels. Free trade agreements also make it harder for governments to impose limits on fossil fuel emissions by allowing corporations to sue governments in international tribunals to block regulations that limit capitalists’ ability to pollute and to exploit resources. Governments in this era of neoliberalism have rushed to enact more such trade treaties, and have cut their own domestic regulations, rather than pushing against corporate desires to pollute and emit CO2.

As Naomi Klein persuasively demonstrates in This Changes Everything, capitalist firms cannot effectively deploy green energy. Green energy is most effective when it is localized and when pricing is stable in the long-term to justify the upfront investments in solar panels, wind farms, hydroelectric dams and turbines powered by ocean waves. While nuclear energy is zero-emissions, it is more expensive and far riskier than green energy. Germany may have made a mistake in rapidly shutting down its nuclear power plants in favor of natural gas imports, but it certainly is better to focus future investments on green energy instead of additional nuclear power plants.  

Green energy also is inherently local and is more labor intensive than fossil fuels. The local nature of green energy undercuts the usual capitalist strategies of increasing profits by moving jobs to places with lower labor costs. Thus, it is no surprise that the fastest transitions to renewable energy have taken place where the electric grids and the utilities that manage them are publicly owned rather than in the hands of for-profit businesses.

The Socialist Solution to Climate Change

As socialists we have a clear and persuasive case to make that humanity’s ability to avert climate disasters, and indeed to ensure our survival as a species, requires us to replace private capitalist ownership of energy production with collective social control over the generation and distribution of power. Even more, we can demonstrate that socialist control over the economy will benefit most people. Over the past forty years the majority of workers in the U.S. and across the advanced capitalist countries have seen their incomes stagnate and in many cases actually decline. Social benefits have been cut and cut again. Jobs are ever more precarious and the mountains of stuff for sale are unaffordable to many of us, or are purchased through debt that is never paid off.

Green energy will create public jobs that can be the foundations of stable careers. As CO2 spewing factories are shut those jobs can be replaced with work that delivers services providing far more enduring satisfaction than the delivery of yet another consumer product. There is a vast need for more teachers, social service providers, health care workers, and others who can address the huge unmet needs people throughout the world have for better health, more education, and care for their physical and emotional needs. We need to rebuild infrastructure that is crumbling, to construct new mass transit systems, and to repair the environmental damage caused by capitalist exploitation of resources. All of that will create jobs. And since those activities are not designed to generate profits, the public entities that manage those sectors will be more democratic and egalitarian than the corporations that now make most of the decisions about what will be produced and whether the environment will be protected or destroyed.

The clear connection between capitalist profit and energy intensive production means socialism is the only alternative to catastrophic climate change. So far, that stark reality has not been enough to shift governmental policy in most of the world. However, climate change itself creates a dynamic that will change political dynamics. In addition to explaining why capitalism continues to make climate change worse while socialism offer the solution, we need to anticipate how environmental disaster will affect politics and mold our strategies to meet the changing realities and to fend off reactionary movements that will seek to exploit those openings.

Politics Under Climate Change

As the effects of climate change intensify, governments will no longer be able to produce economic growth, even growth with extremely unequal benefits, by doing capitalists’ bidding. Climate change will thus break the link between capitalist growth and political legitimacy for two main reasons. First, disruptions from storms, droughts, flooding, and more will wipe out many capitalists’ investments and make it impossible for them to deploy their usual strategies of insurance and diversification to hedge risk. Second, ever more people will suffer real and drastic declines in their standards of living as they have to abandon their homes and as their jobs disappear.

As with the 2008 financial crisis, capitalists will turn to governments to bail them out of their ill-considered and unsustainable investments. Capitalists in most countries, as in 2008, still have the political power to get governments to cough up the grants, loans and regulatory changes that will allow them to recover their losses. Such subsidies are not given openly and directly. They are hidden in complex tax provisions, obscure budget items, administrative rulings and regulatory decisions. Our first job is to publicize these moves. That in turn, requires at least some of us both to study the ways in which governments operate and then to watch on an almost daily basis the decisions that are being made. We will need to use our knowledge to alert the mass of people who don’t have the time to follow what is happening in their governments but who will be outraged at such unfair gifts to the already rich. In 2008 and the following years we were too slow to unearth these outrages and the mobilization that occurred was too late to prevent those schemes.

Each new instance of capitalists feeding at the public trough can become both a teachable moment and a mobilization opportunity. We can be confident that most people do not approve of giving more money to the rich, especially not government money that otherwise could be used for social purposes that would benefit us all. If we can show that capitalists are asking for bailouts to counteract environmental disasters they themselves caused we can highlight the link between capitalism and climate change. We can harness mass anger to mobilize the public to oppose specific benefits for capitalists.

It is not enough to assert opposition; we need to present a socialist alternative. Instead of subsidies for fossil fuels, we can propose spending for green jobs to retrofit houses, to build smart grids, and to create local wind and solar farms. When capitalists ask for subsidized flood insurance to allow then to continue to build and sell houses and commercial buildings in areas that are exposed to the storms and flooding caused by climate change we can instead advocate for public housing that will allow ordinary residents to move away from exposed areas to safer ground.

Huge corporate farms already receive subsidies from drought insurance and from massive irrigation and flood control projects. However, climate change will render many of those schemes ineffective. Corporate farms will ask for deeper subsidies and even larger dams and irrigation systems. We can instead show that it is cheaper to support small-scale local farms that do not depend on fertilizer, genetically modified seeds, or the transport of water from long distances. Our alternatives would repair rather than further degrade the environment, and would reduce instead of increasing CO2 emissions.

Our proposals speak to the declining incomes and greater precariousness of work and life that most people in the U.S. and throughout the world experience today. By redirecting government money from capitalists to the mass of workers we can offer an antidote to the effects of the past forty years of neoliberalism. We can also present concrete proposals that can be contrasted with the vague promises and hatemongering of self-proclaimed populists. Right-wing demagogues from Trump to Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Narendra Modi in India have failed to alleviate the economic losses suffered by their supporters. We haven’t gotten anywhere, and we won’t get anywhere, with vapid slogans like “Stronger Together” or “America is Already Great.” No country is together when a few are getting ever richer while the rest are falling behind. Most people don’t see their country’s supposed greatness in their own lives -why should they rally to a slogan which assumes nothing is fundamentally wrong?  

Climate Change and Mass Migration

Climate change is already rendering parts of the globe unlivable. Millions of people are fleeing famines caused by droughts. More will have to move away from homes that will be covered by rising seas. Yemen’s capital Sanaa could become could become the world’s first capital city to run out of water. And regions in other parts of the world, including parts of the U.S., also will become unlivable due to lack of water and rising air temperatures.

Immigration is a potent issue for right-wing politicians. By creating ever more refugees, climate change could become the gift that keeps on giving for the Right unless we can present a compelling alternative. It will not be enough to present a counter-narrative. Explaining that refugees are being pushed away from homes where they would prefer to stay, not pulled to the U.S. or Europe by the supposed lure of welfare benefits, has not and will not be enough to convince people who feel their own precarious jobs will be taken by new arrivals. Instead we need to show that the decision to invest in publicly-controlled green energy will provide enough good jobs for both existing residents and newcomers alike.

At the same time, we need to recognize that very few people actually want to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to strange new places. While some locales will become truly unlivable, most refugees are produced by policies that allow capitalist businesses to exploit and ravage their homelands. The U.S. government has a long and still ongoing history of undermining and overthrowing governments that try to help their people in favor of authoritarian regimes that serve the interests of domestic and foreign capitalists.

The Central American “caravans” are fleeing countries with governments that were placed and kept in power by the U.S. The same is true of Africans who try to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, except that horrid African governments are backed by former European imperial powers as much as by the U.S. Similarly, the ecological disaster in Yemen is being propelled by a regime backed by the U.S. and its regional ally Saudi Arabia.

We need to keep drawing the link between a U.S. foreign policy committed above all else to facilitating capitalists’ profits and the growing number of refugees around the world. Refugees can remain in their home countries and thrive there if governments commit to implementing ecologically sensitive policies. Such policies would create more than enough jobs for their citizens and would repair the environment enough to allow people to remain in their chosen homes. However such governments will not gain office unless there are revolutions in those countries, as well as a revolution in U.S. (and European) foreign policy.

Just as we need to explain and expose the secretive and complex ways in which governments subsidize capitalists, so to do we need to illuminate the ways in which America’s pro-capitalist foreign policy supports governments that intensify ecological disaster and generate refugees. That work is the only way to undermine the false anti-immigrant narrative that draws people who should and could be natural supporters of socialism to vote for right-wing demagogues and con men instead.

People Want to Feel Good About Themselves and Their Future

Climate change threatens a grim future. It is scary to think about what will happen if nothing is done and temperatures rise to a level that leads to mass extinctions and renders much of globe unlivable for humans. As we have seen, capitalist solutions will not work and will lead to a future of ever-greater ecological disasters. In matters of the environment as well as for the economy and social life, capitalism fosters feelings of helplessness and despair. If capitalism is seen as inevitable and natural then all the consequences of that system, including climate change, appear unstoppable and unavoidable.

Socialism, above all else, offers hope. When we propose to take control of energy production and use away from for-profit businesses and return decisions to the public, we show that disaster is not inevitable, that we can reshape our future in a humanitarian direction. We also are showing a path toward a meaningful life for all of us.

Someday, when the history of our time is written, the only thing that will be remembered if climate change proceeds to a disastrous climax is what we did not do. We will be known for our failure to challenge the lords of capitalism and force them to surrender control over the economy. Future generations will ask: why did you allow the continuing mining and pumping of fossil fuels from the ground? Why didn’t you force a conversion to a carbon free economy? However, that need not be our legacy. Instead, we can take a heroic stance and force a shift to green energy. This is what socialism can offer to everyone.

Socialism promises more than a way out of the catastrophe of climate change. It offers a way toward a meaningful life. Most people want a job that offers more than just a paycheck, even if that pay is increasing. We want meaning and purpose in our lives. We want to do work that helps others, that repairs the environment, and that leads to a viable future for our children.

By laying out the very different worlds that will be created by capitalist and socialist societies, we offer hope. The grim possibility of declining incomes, endless cuts in social programs, and the death of vast expanses of our planet with tens of millions of people forced to find refuge in unwelcoming countries need not be our future. We have the chance to do work that is necessary, which serves others, and saves the environment. That work is enough to keep us all employed. All it requires is a radical social transformation. Our job is to explain the choice and show that a socialist possibility is viable and achievable, and the only alternative to disaster.