Socialism, Internationalism, and the Climate Crisis

The challenge of climate change demands nothing less than the creation of new forms of democratic socialist internationalism.

What we need is an internationalist movement, rooted in local democracy and grassroots empowerment, that can forge new alliances to take on the challenge that faces us.

There is a growing understanding that our current economic system is driving the climate crisis. This system relies on endless growth on a finite planet. It depends on social and environmental externalities to maintain profitability. In order to sustain itself politically, elites have fought democracy to move power away from the people towards politics ruled by private interests. Corporations have in fact deliberately sabotaged action on global warming. This reality has effectively hobbled society’s ability to make collective decisions for the benefit of the majority. This is why barely any progress has been made towards addressing climate change despite decades of knowing the threats. After almost a quarter century of United Nations-led efforts to negotiate a climate deal, government actions are so weak that we are still on course for catastrophic global warming. Democratic socialist politics must present visions of how to address the crisis differently. It needs to reclaim platforms for international discourse from failing centrist forces, bring true democracy back to society through the empowerment of communities on the ground and act as a conduit for devolved, local action to succeed.  

For climate action to be truly effective, attention must be focused on the sectors and issues that can deliver climate action at scale. Most obviously, the oil and gas industry must be severely reduced in the next decade. But there are other sectors that need to be radically transformed, such as forestry, agriculture, buildings and transport. Under capitalist modes of ownership and control there is little incentive for any of these sectors to radically change their business model. Fossil fuel industries will never commit economic suicide voluntary. The current approach favoring non-threatening market signals and corporate cheerleading do not challenge the bottom line by design, and they don’t come close to the needed system overhaul. Private industry will continue to drag its feet as long as profits are assured by the status quo. Given that we only have just over a decade to deliver the deep emissions cuts needed, the pace at which capitalism is willing to adjust does not match humanity’s needs.

There is clear potential for democratic socialist theory and action to address this dangerous status quo by attending to the root causes of neoliberal mismanagement. Strategies to reign in market-driven short-termism through regulation, and frameworks for regulating industries to protect collective rights, can be retooled to support action on climate. Additionally, a redistribution of wealth, and therefore political power, away from forces that have free-loaded from workers and parasitized our decision-making institutions will be essential to repair democratic processes and fund climate strategies.

However, in order to take on the greatest challenge of our times, the movement must critically reexamine the ideologies and constructs that have defined it over the last century. It must create new values, priorities, and ways of thinking in the form of shared policy platforms and political demands. These should be pushed in coordination with allies, such as land rights, cooperative and green-left movements. It should work towards a fresh form of internationalism that puts local sovereignty and real democracy at its heart. It has to form renewed relationships with labor, moving away from blind job protection at all costs towards transitioning old workforces into new sectors. Finally, it must learn how to be trusted allies for groups that aren’t traditionally Left. This includes indigenous and local communities who may have their own visions for self-determination that are not classically socialist.

Note that this essay does not seek to provide an exhaustive policy platform but explores less examined issues the left must wrestle with from an internationalist perspective. Less attention is given to approaches well-covered by others, such as the inclusion of environmental justice communities and communities of color. 

Promoting radical localism and collective ownership

Left policies should:

  • Expand local autonomy and accountable democracy so local communities can be in charge of their lands, not corporations.
  • Privilege different collective and local ownership models, including cooperatives, over corporate ownership.
  • Reduce the influence of private utilities and advocate for decentralized, publicly owned models of energy.
  • Tame agribusiness and promote small-scale, climate-friendly agriculture.
  • Protect forests through securing land rights for indigenous peoples and heavily regulating deforestation-reliant commodities.

The future of the climate fight is international but also deeply local. Many of the critical fronts against climate change require the accelerated empowerment of grassroots-led solutions. Examples of this include local resistance to pipelines and fracking, efforts towards community– and municipal-owned renewable energy, and indigenous resistance against deforestation. The Left has always been a champion of the right to unionize, a minimum wage, and free education and health care. But progressives must develop a new canon of recognizable climate policies, with the empowerment of independent, transparent, and accountable local democracy at the center.

Local struggles to protect lands from corporate destruction are a clear candidate for close attention. Civic efforts to prevent fracking and other types of resource extraction have been systematically undermined and overridden by “higher” authorities influenced by corporate interests. Local municipalities and communities have repeatedly found their democratic will ignored in these battles. These patterns are being played globally, with famous cases in the U.S. and the U.K, as well as innumerable examples of indigenous resistance from the Alberta tar sands to the Niger Delta.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the local energy movement, where utilities that enjoy monopolies and privileged relationships with higher government authorities are able to throw down roadblocks to slow the expansion of locally driven solar and wind power. This not only works against the goals of expanding renewables, it has also led to the perpetuation of models of electricity generation and distribution that leave populations more at risk. The vulnerability of centralized grids to both hackers and extreme weather events are more apparent than ever. The collective ownership of utilities and the decentralization of energy systems should become Left policy goals. This should include a variety of ownership options, including cooperative, community, indigenous, municipal or national ownership of energy production and distribution, depending on the context.

In terms of managing carbon emissions, two areas that should take political priority are forest land use and agriculture. Taken together, these sectors generate around a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. There is also tremendous potential for locally-led action to address this challenge. Some estimates indicate that up to a quarter of the world’s tropical forests, a major carbon sink that need to be maintained to stabilize the climate, are found on the territories of indigenous peoples and local communities. It is well documented that forest lands under indigenous control have lower rates of deforestation than even forests under formal government protection. But there is intense private economic interest in resource-rich indigenous lands. Systematic assaults on indigenous forest territories by governments in collusion with corporate interests, such as agribusiness and extractive industries, are all too ubiquitous, as seen in the emblematic case of Brazil. This dynamic must be resisted and dismantled. The environmental and moral significance of indigenous land rights and sovereignty should emerge as a new central principle in progressive politics.

This is not only the responsibility of groups in forest-rich countries, Left movements in industrialized countries also have opportunities to support the protection of critical forests, both through their power as purchasers and their influence in international negotiations. EU moves towards cleaning up commodity supply chains are a good example. Such initiatives could be strengthened and expanded to better protect the lands and human rights of indigenous groups.

Local power has formidable promise to form the center of the kind of agricultural transformation we need. The tangled and long history of big agribusiness’s influence over government policy has left a legacy of environmental mismanagement and has under-served small-scale farmers. Though meat farming is often singled out in climate-agriculture discussions, we need to reduce the carbon footprint of the entire food system, including major crops. There is the additional challenge of ensuring food security as climate change reduces agricultural productivity. The UN has concluded that promoting small-scale, integrated farming, that additionally preserves ecosystem services such as clean water, is the best path to agricultural emission reductions.

Unfortunately, the small-scale farming sector is under continual assault from pressures such as land grabbing, debt, land speculation, and unsupportive public policies. To counteract these pressures, governments should: divert subsidies (currently skewed towards big-ag and the rich in many countries, including the U.S.) towards small producers to support their adoption of climate-friendly methods; aggressively secure land rights for small-scale farmers globally; heavily regulate investments in agricultural land that may undermine local tenure rights; and block the disproportionate political voice of agribusiness.

Left-driven policy platform for climate action, such as the Green New Deal, should outline clearly how they will expand local democracy and ownership, and protect indigenous and local rights. Any subsidies or incentives for climate-friendly agriculture must be distributed discerningly, and not form yet another public subsidy of large-scale, corporate monoculture. In terms of forest protection, there should be more emphasis on reducing the deforestation footprint across supply chains. This could be achieved through regulating, and heavily taxing, destructive industries and strengthening forest land rights for indigenous peoples and local forest-dependent communities, rather than depending on market-based forest payment schemes. Core work should include efforts to break down incestuous relationships between utilities and regulators and the redirection of subsidies away from fossil fuel industries and agribusiness, instead towards locally-led agricultural and energy movements.

Creating a New Democratic Socialist Internationalism

The Left should:

  • Develop a shared international narrative on what real climate action looks like.
  • Work strategically across borders to push this vision internationally.
  • Build new Left institutions, and re-engage tactically with existing ones, to do this.

The battle ground of climate change is unquestionably global, requiring a clear international narrative on what constitutes real, systemic solutions. The neoliberal policing of critical global institutions, such as the UN and World Bank, has resulted in the intellectual air being sucked out of the room around dialogue on climate change. The UN is effectively the only game in town for transnational climate cooperation. However, the doors of the UN climate talks have not been open to much more than a failing mix of market based solutions, voluntary targets, corporate-led initiatives, and a tangle of vaguely-defined private-public partnerships.

Instead of conceding defeat at this reality, now is the time to remember that the UN is shaped and led by national governments. There are genuine opportunities for left-leaning parties in power to target their contributions to international discussions and drive the debate towards real solutions based on socialist principles of equity, social justice and economic democracy. Furthermore, the emphasis on cities taking the lead in climate action provides further windows for municipalities with left-leaning leaders to push the dialogue.

Nascent groups like Progressive International have the potential to serve as a conduit for political coordination around these ideas. Additionally, we should look in the grab-bag of international alliances for building new productive relationships around climate action. There are institutions and initiatives already in place that focus on a raft of relevant movements including the social and solidarity economy, cooperatives, local economy, and land rights. A few examples off the bat: the International Network of the Social and Solidarity Economy; the International Trade Union Confederation; the International Co-operative Alliance; international local farmers and peasants organizations; and regional renewable energy coop movements. A number of countries have tried to build momentum for the social and solidarity economy through forming a “Leading Group” of governments who advocate at the UN to promote alternative economic approaches.

Such alliances could be used to influence global consensus on what constitute genuine climate solutions. In order for these to be effective, there should be a well-defined, unified message. That is, we all need to sing from the same song sheet. Initiatives like the Green New Deal could offer a common framework for shared climate action platforms. The other sections of this essay outline some ideas for what story this new narrative should tell.

Marshal Labor Through a Just Transition

The Left should:

  • Support labor, unions, and communities to make a just transition through a rights-focused system of economic diversification backed by special purpose financial tools.
  • Use classic approaches such as public health, education, and other social safety nets to help workers and communities to shift out of fossil fuel dependence.
  • Look at nationalizing industries that are resistant to changing at the pace required to avert catastrophic climate change.  

As seen in debates over universal healthcare, when hard-won union rights are threatened, unions aren’t always on the side of change that truly benefits the many. This is apparent in the resistance to climate action from fossil fuel-related unions. Many unions are harnessed to the short termism of the current system and presented with few options to exit industries in a way that doesn’t destroy union power. Past economic shifts demonstrate that when a sector is dismantled, whether it be the steel industry or manufacturing, workers are unlikely to find the same level of unionized employment again.

Capitalism’s preoccupation is maximizing profits for owners and shareholders, not providing new, decent jobs for workers. A socialist approach to transitioning fossil fuel dependent industries becomes highly valuable given this reality. Building social power and ownership is where socialist ideas can add great value to a just transition. The state could even buy-out fossil fuel industriesan idea that has been compared with the forced nationalization of industries in the US during the Second World War. This may be the only way to ensure that fossil fuels are phased out fast enough.

The Left needs to become expert in navigating the seismic workplace shifts that are needed for catastrophic climate change to be averted and to bring organized labor along. Progressive parties need to outline a vision for how these sectors will walk out in a way that doesn’t leave them stepping into the void. All sectoral “losers” must be included in this, both workers and communities dependent on fossil fuel revenue. This will require the careful conversion of unions and communities currently served by the fossil fuel sector towards new forms of unionized employment and local revenue.

Publicly-supported job guarantee programs and the expansion of unionized work opportunities through increased public ownership could be focused on impacted workers. There is little incentive for a private sector-led transition to provide unionized jobs and support communities robbed of fossil fuel income. The case for a democratic socialist economy founded on industries that serve, are owned by and fully accountable to the public becomes more urgent in light of the need to transition. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy make the case for a transition rooted firmly in social power that requires a restructuring of the global political economy, with an emphasis on public ownership of common resources such as energy.

The response of the Canadian government to economic shocks, both in the wake of US-Canada trade agreements the 1980s and due to real estate crashes in the 1990s, provides lessons on how a socialist interpretation of a just transition could look. Measures included a mix of increasing safety nets and encouraging re-employment through retraining. The case of the collapse of real estate in particular provides relevant examples. In Toronto, the city council led programs to encourage more retrofitting work to provide employment for construction workers left without work after the crash. This was achieved through creating a special revolving loan fund to finance this new sector, providing city support to building audit work, and apprentice programs. The initiative is thought to have reduced carbon emissions by 680,000 tonnes in addition to providing the equivalent of 45,000 person years of employment.

The Canadian example shows how elements of a just transition that puts labor and social rights at its core could include: programs to diversify the local economy and retrain or pivot the workforce (as in the real estate example); investment in research and sectoral analysis with a rights-based focus to support this; initiatives to ensure the adoption of labor rights and standards in these new sectors, including unionization and collective bargaining; long-term safety nets to fully support impacted workers and communities (e.g., income support for workers during the full duration of transition, replacing community revenue from oil and gas with publicly funded services, etc.); and special financial tools, funds or even public banks to increase investment in new sectors.

Maximize Benefits from Climate Solutions and Practice Being Good Allies 

The Left should:

  • Develop climate strategies in a way that provides maximum benefits for society as a whole.
  • Act as allies and learn how to let other movements lead.

The strategies outlined above create opportunities to generate broader benefits beyond stemming climate change. Moving towards public oversight and collective ownership can break the unhealthy dominance that elite interests exert on political and economic systems, improving governance and citizen confidence in democracy. Pushing socialist policies that make the economy more responsive and accountable to the majority can also lead to greater community wealth building and better social and environmental outcomes.

There is increasing evidence that cooperatives and collectively owned institutions produce greater benefits to society and are potentially more economically successful than “traditional” economic models. Research on community-owned energy cooperatives reveal that they have a wide range of positive outcomes, including job creation, direct financial benefits to the community, and a number of other desirable impacts such as local skill building and economic diversification. Coops are also more resilient to economic shocks. Worker and social cooperatives in Spain and France exhibited a greater resilience to the post-2008 financial downturn and steadier rates of employment. Over 2008, during the midst of the financial crisis, the combined turnover of the world’s 300 largest cooperatives was an impressive $1.6 trillion, comparable to the GDP of Spain. The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) determined that that worker and customer owned banks made less risky decisions and outperformed investor owned banks on almost every rating level during the last global financial crisis.

The community-centered restructuring of the agricultural sector, which employs around a third of the global workforce, could have enormous impacts on the economic conditions of millions. Globally, agricultural workers experience high levels of poverty and exploitation. Contrary to what GMO companies would like you to believe, small holder farmers are responsible for the bulk of global food production and are critical for the food security of billions, particularly in less industrialized countries. Climate-positive agriculture concentrating on small-holder farming presents the chance to expand locally- and collectively-owned farming systems that can contribute to community wealth building, food security, and provide essential ecosystem services such as clean water. It could also prove essential to prevent ecosystem collapse through maintaining insect populations and other biodiversity.

In order to deliver reform, and provide benefits, in such a diversity of contexts, respectful and generative relationships will have to be forged with actors that may be relatively unfamiliar to the mainstream Left. Though the role of the public sector is significant and critical, the Left needs to get good at lifting barriers for other forms of collective, accountable ownership and devolving real power to the grassroots. Indigenous groups, environmental justice groups, green activists, the local economy movement, and even cooperatives, have all often sat outside the circles draw in the sand by some socialist parties. Dialogue with these groups to build a shared approach to climate action that is predicated on their ownership and leadership, will be key.

In the case of indigenous movements, some of this work could involve simply getting out of the way and letting indigenous groups determine their own visions of local development. As some of the earliest and most expert pioneers of collective resource management in tune with nature, indigenous peoples should be viewed by the Left as natural leaders. There should be a focus on transferring greater autonomy and leadership to indigenous communities.

This could also be the ideal approach for working with local environmental and farming movements that are experimenting with their own models of ownership and management. The job of the Left in these circumstances would be to consult with grassroots movements to understand their needs, and push policies that support their self-defined priorities. This may look distinctive in different places, requiring flexibility, adaptation, and coalition-based work.

Given that we have limited time to salvage a productive and hospitable planet, democratic socialism has no choice but to rise to the occasion. The fracturing and neoliberal weakening of the Left calls for concerted efforts to rebuild. It also presents an opportunity for us to get it right this time. To be bold where we need to, and to be humble and let others lead where it’s clear they have something to teach us.  The challenge is for democratic socialism to leverage its strengthsand evolve past its weaknessesto take on the climate crisis.