When we think of messaging based on stability and security we tend to think of the political Right. These values most vividly call to mind conservatives who wish to cement status quo hierarchies that the Left fights to dismantle. Republicans have long touted themselves the party of security despite their calamitous foreign policy and counterproductive criminal justice programs. “Strong and stable” has been the recent rallying cry for the (disastrously destabilizing) Conservative Party in the UK. When we think of leftist messaging and governance on the other hand, ideals like equality, fairness, justice, and progress tend to take the center. This should not change.
But if democratic socialists hope to shape society into the future, they’ll also have to successfully champion safety, security, and stability more effectively than their opposition. This is because climate change will make the world dangerously unstable, and when voters’ basic security is at risk most will turn to whatever political party seems the most competent at ensuring their safety. Socialists will have to govern the massive and disruptive decarbonizing transition of the material economy or cede that fraught process to authoritarians. This transition will be the main vehicle through which socialist values are either institutionalized or criminalized. The values of stability and security will be important means of justifying the policies necessary to govern this transition.
Climate emergencies are coming. They are as inevitable as winter, and even more likely than winter these days. Many have already arrived. Every year hellish wildfires burn huge swaths of land from the Arctic to Sub-Saharan Africa to the American West. Some islands and coastal cities already rest beneath rising seas. Refugees flee climate-driven famines and droughts and their begotten wars by the millions. We cannot prevent climate change. The climate is already dramatically changed.
But there’s huge variation between outcomes still possible. The best-case scenario is dramatic upheaval of everything we know that culminates in some version of continued survival and maybe sporadic thriving. The worst-case scenario is runaway nonlinear warming that kills most life on earth including Homo sapiens. There still may be some room for human agency to decide the outcome. When ecological collapses have occurred regionally in the past they have always led to political and social ruptures. Famous examples include the fall of Mayan and Indus Valley empires and debatably the fall of Rome. No regime however mighty can survive the collapse of the resources on which it depends. Today ecological collapse is happening at a global scale. Inevitably it will result in—is currently resulting in—ruptures in the political and social order on a global scale.
Challenging the Climate Authoritarians
This fact has many important ramifications for the international Left’s ability to implement reforms that bolster democracy and justice into the future. The ways in which frightened people respond to decreasing security and stability will largely decide how democratic and just our societies in a climate-fractured world can be. Climate emergencies are scary. Oftentimes in the past very scared people have given up liberty and equality in exchange for security and stability. They will again. But this isn’t just a problem for the future; it’s already happening today. In many places in the world—such as the Maldives, Kenya, Germany, and Italy—climate emergencies are bolstering the rise of authoritarians. Some leaders are advancing far-right agendas that include violence toward marginalized groups, crackdowns on the press and elections, and continued concentration of wealth and power in exchange for promises of stability and security.
If socialists wish to beat back these authoritarians and implement an agenda, then they’ll have to prove competent at establishing security and stability in an insecure world. This is both a messaging challenge and a governing challenge. Leftist leaders have to speak in ways that are comforting and reassuring. The messages they impart must convey specifically how their policy programs will increase a sense of stability and security now and into the future. This isn’t to say the Left should imitate neoliberal Democrats’ cynical attempt to co-opt Republicans’ cruel criminal justice policies or xenophobic closed borders rhetoric. The Left should still be seeking to reform prisons, abolish ICE, and pass healthcare-for-all. But it should also be couching these policies not just in messages of equality and justice, but also making the case that abolishing ICE and healthcare-for-all are necessary to maintain a secure and stable society.
For example, there has recently been debate on the left about including non-climate policies in the Green New Deal. Why should we be muddling climate mitigation policy with healthcare policy (or the reverse)? The response has largely focused on the tactical and moral. Medicare-for-all is an attractive, popular policy. Also, it’s just the right thing to do. But we can also add stability/security messaging by emphasizing that free healthcare makes people more resilient in a climate-fractured world. A jobs guarantee gives people the skills, incomes, and networks to endure climate emergencies present and future. Taxing the wealthy can pool more resources that will be necessary to build seawalls, fight wildfires, relocate vulnerable populations, and rebuild after hurricanes. Abolishing ICE preemptively prevents a paramilitary force that has already been used to abuse power from exploiting climate emergencies and imposing martial law. Investing heavily in public infrastructure projects can make them more resilient to climate impacts, particularly focusing on decentralized energy and food production. So far few leftist leaders seem to have mastered this messaging. There remains ample room for elected and informal leaders to step up and begin crafting this kind of message and image.
If socialist leaders fail to mobilize effective responses to emergencies they will be replaced by blustering strongmen who look like they would be good at mobilizing a response to emergencies, whether they are or not. Socialists will constantly fight an uphill battle against authoritarians who put forward convincing—but false—appearances of being strong and stable (like Theresa May or George W. Bush). Authoritarian leaders are far less vulnerable to performance judgment because they fundamentally do not care about or believe in democracy. They will subvert democratic accountability using every tool at their disposal. They can be incompetent and retain power because they will use brute force and deception to retain power. These authoritarians are already winning the battle for the public around the world. Socialists on the other hand have the added burden of having to actually be successful and competent to retain power because they do care about democracy and the will of the governed. Climate emergencies will test their ability to competently govern more than anything else. Whichever side can more effectively monopolize messages of security and stability will ultimately determine whether far-right authoritarians or democratic socialists get to administer their agenda.
The second challenge the Left must face if we wish to implement a vision of a more just and democratic society is how to navigate the transformation in the material economy that must take place in a climate changed world. In the interest of both preventing human extinction and adapting to climate impacts we simply can’t use fossil fuels any longer. They both drive climate change and make populations more vulnerable to emergencies. But fossil fuels underpin every aspect of the economy. Fundamentally reshaping the economy requires more than just plugging solar panels and batteries into the grid here and there or swapping internal combustion engines for electric vehicles. We can’t just create a sovereign wealth fund invested in oil (like Alaska and Norway) and call it a day, as some on the Left have suggested. Nor can we just nationalize the fossil fuel industry and assume this will necessarily entail shutting them down. Plenty of leftist leaders around the world have proved unwilling to give up that sweet petroleum revenue. Even if they use it to socially beneficial ends, we’ll still all go extinct if fossil fuels remain in use. Socialists may be uniquely suited to reimagining the contours of our material economy. But the mechanics of how it can be reformed rapidly have been largely left out of both leftist and climate debates. How this transition plays out will determine whether socialist values and policy get implemented. Let’s explore a few concrete examples.
Agriculture is one area that must be decarbonized and deindustrialized. One of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions, it is also ripe for positive reform. Socialists—both as elected leaders and private citizens—can begin implementing new means by which food is grown and distributed. This will entail substantially subsidizing small farms, dismantling large monocrop farms, and integrating the food system with urban spaces. Decentralizing agriculture can be one means of embedding a socialist ethic and value system in communities. A decentralized, deindustrialized agricultural system has the benefit not only of reducing carbon emissions and making people more resilient to climate impacts. It can also bolster community democracy by establishing new forms of communal land-ownership and investing in local governance. But making these kinds of reforms is extremely complex. There are risks of alienating powerful farm lobbies or precipitating food price shocks or even fundamentally reshaping the labor market to necessitate a dramatically greater proportion of farmworkers. Socialists who underestimate both the political and administrative challenges of this do so to their peril. Making the case that decentralized farming can make the food supply more resilient to climate impacts will be essential.
Decarbonizing energy is another mechanism of shifting the material economy. Electricity is the second largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter in the United States. We cannot continue using coal and natural gas for electricity if humans and most other life on earth are to survive into the future. The alternatives must include both non-carbon renewable sources and nuclear. Renewables offer the opportunity for socialists to implement community-owned and -distributed energy production. Democratizing energy is one critical way of building socialist principles and policies into infrastructure. Socialists not now discussing the details of this transition are choosing to leave it to authoritarians to manage. Decentralizing the grid can give people access to more resilient sources of energy and in the face of disasters. We can advocate for decarbonized energy by emphasizing the security and stability they can bring to future emergencies.
There are hundreds of examples of community food and energy production projects around the world doing good and important work. But the scale on which they’re operating isn’t near what it needs to be to provide useful models or examples. A few giant farms still dominate the agriculture industry and major economic incentives still work against small farms. This is due to policy decisions that will have to change before local farms will have a chance to scale. Meanwhile, renewables account for about 15% of domestic electricity production and a tiny share of that consists of community-owned, local energy. Many states still have laws on the books preventing community energy from taking off and still incentivize centralized, utility-scale renewables. These structural obstacles will have to be removed before local-scale energy production will be capable of producing at scale.
Transportation—which includes private and commercial trucks, trains, cars, boats, and planes—recently took the top spot in the United States as a source of CO2 emissions. Decarbonizing transport can also benefit from an ethic of common good and public access and can help solidify those values in the physical infrastructure. Subsidized transportation that is publicly accessible and replaces private personal transportation is a vital way of both democratizing transportation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Making cities more walkable and bikable, too, is an important means of both reducing carbon emissions and making cities more pro-social places to live. Like the other forms of decarbonization, though, transport reform is politically and physically difficult to implement. Transport infrastructure gets baked in for decades and many decisions impacting transportation in 2050 have already been made.
Like the other means of shifting the material economy, an important step to making these reforms viable and actionable is making them appealing from a standpoint of security and stability. One way of doing this would be to emphasize the vulnerability of existing supply chains, which is a major source of transport-related CO2 emissions. The way in which our commercial goods are transported is vulnerable to climate emergencies, both physical and social. A more stable and secure supply chain is one that is shorter, less dependent on fossil fuels, and less centralized. Most transportation emissions come from “light-duty vehicles” which primarily includes personal transport. Decarbonizing this sector will require a major investment in public alternatives. Advocating a robust transport system independent of fluctuating gasoline prices and supplies, and not leaving people dependent on expensive and fickle personal vehicles is another way of ensuring security and stability in the face of emergency.
Disruptive change is here and is only accelerating. If the left will set the agenda of the 21st century instead of authoritarians, then it will need to monopolize messages of stability and security early on. The massive transition from our fossil fuel industrial economy to something less biocidal will provide the vehicle through which socialist principles may be implemented. The left must be taking that transition seriously or risk ceding the responsibility to authoritarians. Socialist leaders and DSA chapters can begin implementing shifts in the material economy on which production depends right now. Much has been written in this publication on how this can be accomplished. But one aspect that cannot remain overlooked is that they must be proving themselves strong leaders in formal and informal positions capable of providing stability and security in an increasingly insecure world. They must be speaking to the real fears that will only ramp up as climate collapse intensifies. Much of this work is already being done in pockets across the country. But it must scale up dramatically if the left is to occupy the seats of power necessary to implement a socialist vision for the future. In a world beset by climate emergencies and the authoritarians who exploit them, our choice is between strong and stable socialists or brutally incompetent barbarians.