There’s a climate crisis, and Labour and the Greens are failing to act.
The climate crisis is upon us, but on some more than others, as more frequent, more extreme weather events take place. In March this year Cyclone Idai affected three million people in Mozambique, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and Malawi, including over 1,000 dead, over 2,000 missing and over 2,400 injured. Yet these Black African victims did not cause the rulers and carbon emitters of the Global North to lose any sleep. Even when the United States was violently affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the American ruling class displayed heartless indifference to the mainly Black low-lying neighbourhoods around New Orleans and were not jogged into action on global warming.
Human victims of climate change-induced catastrophes are more likely to be in equatorial latitudes where the pre-change climate was already very wet. It is not only a matter of geography. The unequal world market, which has been determined by the whole history of imperialist capitalism, puts people in harm’s way. This capitalist world order of economic inequality between nations and between social classes has condemned millions of people in the tropical latitudes to live in dangerous locations in poverty. Millions of people living in river deltas, low-lying coastal littorals, or in river valleys below deforested hills, are already vulnerable to inundations, mudslides and extreme heat. Poverty-struck states in vulnerable regions that have emerged from under imperial subjection, such as Mozambique, lack the infrastructure that could be used to rescue victims of extreme weather events or mitigate effects. In these circumstances Cyclone Idlai brought cholera in its wake.
If catastrophes threatening people living in such places as Pacific atolls or the deltas of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) and Mekong are more immediate, catastrophe for everyone, and for many animal and plant species on the planet, is set in train. Extinctions are underway, ecosystems are collapsing. Disaster for humankind looms at frightening speed. Yet at governmental levels worldwide there is deadening complacency.
Regarding sea level rise, in May this year the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) published a report that predicts a global sea level rise of over 2 metres by 2100, double the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate.
Another report in May, published by the Australian Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, questions the “reticence” of climate scientists and the IPCC. The authors point to the record of underestimating what has actually transpired in recent decades. They say of the IPCC projection of a 1.5 degree C increase in global warming by around 2040 that this point will be met around 2030 and the 2 degree C point around 2045.
The Paris Agreement, signed in 2016, aims to limit global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. This level of global warming is hugely problematic in itself, but if it is left to capitalist governments even the Paris aims will not be achieved. Under the agreement it is left to each country to determine their contribution to the aim. There are no sanctions against countries that do not contribute. The USA, the second-greatest carbon emitter, after China, has pulled out of the agreement. No confidence can be placed in the Paris Agreement. In fact, global emissions have continued to rise. In 2018 carbon emissions rose by 2 percent, the fastest rise since 2011.
Marxism and the environment
It may be a surprise for many that Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their followers have had much to say on the natural environment. Marxism provides a framework for understanding why human interaction with the natural environment has had such damaging effects. Global warming is a major consequence within the whole gamut of destruction of the natural environment that has massively accelerated since the beginning of the industrial revolution two hundred years ago. The fouling up of the natural environment includes deforestation, desertification, loss of wetlands, pollution of the air, land, waterways and oceans, soil depletion, the loss of fish stocks, the loss of other wildlife, extinctions, and the creation and dumping of waste (especially nuclear waste and synthetic materials). Marxist politics point the way, the only way, for the necessary radical re-ordering of humankind’s way of existence on Earth.
For Marxists humans are part of nature. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme begins by addressing the programme’s claim that “Labour is the source of all wealth and all culture.” Marx argues:
Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power.
Engels recognised the unintended consequences of humans’ conscious interaction with nature:
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.
In Marx’s and Engels’ time, and for their followers into the twentieth century, the foremost natural environment issue was the loss of soil fertility.
Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents to the return of the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. … In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting source of that fertility.
Marx saw the solution to soil fertility loss in sewerage systems that returned waste to the soil. He saw no possibility of sustainable agriculture being developed under the capitalist system. In Capital Marx said:
The moral of history, also to be deduced from other observations concerning agriculture, is that the capitalist system works against a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers.
Marx’s and Engels’ interest in nature was not limited to soil fertility. Their interests extended to deforestation and, amazingly, climate change. Marx and Engels read extensively on agricultural science. Marx wrote to Engels in 1868:
Very interesting is the book by Fraas (1847): Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte Beider, namely as proving that climate and flora change in historical times. He is a Darwinist before Darwin, and admits even the species developing in historical times. But he is at the same time agronomist. He claims that with cultivation — depending on its degree — the ‘moisture’ so beloved by the peasants gets lost (hence also the plants migrate from south to north), and finally steppe formation occurs. The first effect of cultivation is useful, but finally devastating through deforestation, etc. This man is both a thoroughly learned philologist (he has written books in Greek) and a chemist, agronomist, etc. The conclusion is that cultivation — when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point) — leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency!
Engels noted that the cause of floods in France was deforestation. In Capital Marx noted that forestry had little attraction for private investment due to the length of the turnover time. He commented:
The development of culture and of industry in general has ever evinced itself in such energetic destruction of forests that everything done by it conversely for their preservation and restoration appears infinitesimal.
Engels, following Fraas, wrote:
Main evidence that civilisation is an antagonistic process which in its hitherto existing form exhausts the land, turns forest into desert, makes the earth unfruitful for its original products and worsens the climate. Steppe lands and increased warmth and dryness of the climate are the consequences of culture. In Germany and Italy it is 5-6°C warmer than at the time of the forests.”
Michael Kandelaars has commented on the above quotation:
The observation of temperature changes due to deforestation is an important one. The earliest records of global temperature changes due to human activity date from the 1940s, yet Engels made this remark between 1877 and 1883. He saw these temperature increases as local rather than global changes, but this is understandable given the general level of scientific knowledge of the time.
What makes Marx and Engels’ observations unique however is not just the time, but the political conclusions they drew. Every environmental criticism they made was linked to the exploitative nature of capitalism, and therefore they saw the solution in its overthrow and the creation of a socialist society.
Marx used the German word Stoffwechsel – metabolism – and applied it by analogy to society. He singled out the capitalist system that creates large land holdings, depopulates the countryside and concentrates an industrial population in cities. Marx wrote that:
in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.
Taking from Marx, John Bellamy Foster’s concept of ‘metabolic rift’ is useful. It can be applied beyond the question of manuring soils to an understanding in general of the tasks of socialism to repair as much as possible and to live in harmony with the natural environment. Since Marx’s and Engels’ time, and as capitalism has developed, the metabolic rift has become far wider, stark and dangerous. Today, the struggle for the replacement of capitalism by socialism is at once a struggle for human liberation as it is the salvation of humankind’s existence on Earth. As Marx said philosophically and poetically:
Communism as completed naturalism is humanism and as completed humanism naturalism. It is the genuine solution of the antagonism between man and man and between man and nature.
Tackling climate change in Aotearoa?
In Aotearoa the “metabolic rift” accelerated exponentially upon the impact of British colonialism. The displacement of the Maori mode of production by capitalism was a change from living in near complete harmony with the natural environment to a rapid destruction of forests, soils, waterways and wetlands on a massive scale.
New Zealand punches above its weight when it comes to greenhouse gases, having the fifth highest emissions per capita in the OECD.
According to the Ministry for the Environment, New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 were 23.1 percent higher compared to 1990. The main culprit is the agriculture sector (dairy cattle, sheep and beef cattle), which accounts for 48.1 percent of emissions, mainly in the form of methane. The energy sector accounts for 40.7 percent of the total. Within this sector road transport is the largest component, which is responsible for 17.9 percent of total emissions. Thus the two greatest emitters at sub-sector level are dairying and road transport. They alone account for 42.2 percent of emissions and, logically, should be the prime targets for radical change.
The current Labour-Green-New Zealand First government is headed by a prime minister who told the nation during the 2017 general election campaign that climate change was the issue that defined her generation. Jacinda Ardern said, “This is my generation’s nuclear-free moment, and I am determined that we will tackle it head on.” Furthermore, she appointed Green Party co-leader James Shaw as Minister for Climate Change, who, however, was not given a cabinet seat. The rhetoric on climate change is strong, but halfway through its 3-year term this government has done hardly anything in practice to tackle emissions.
What the government has done is to introduce to Parliament the Zero Carbon Bill in May this year. The main features of the bill are to set up an advisory Climate Change Commission and to set emission reduction targets. The targets are to reduce methane emissions by 10 percent below 2017 levels by 2030, reduce methane emissions by between 24 percent and 47 percent below 2017 levels by 2050, and reduce other greenhouse gas net emissions to zero by 2050. Net emissions are gross emissions less carbon off-sets, i.e. absorbed carbon in new trees. This bill is toothless. The proposed Commission has no power and the targets will not be legally binding on this government or its successors. By separating methane and setting low targets, the bill is clearly designed to not “tackle head on” pastoral farming.
As if to mock its own bill, a few days after clearing its first reading the government announced its 2019 budget that was conspicuous for absence of action on emissions. There was $1b for KiwiRail, but this is not as good as it sounds as the money will do no more than offset years of underinvestment. It will go into replacing worn out existing assets (track, rolling stock and ferries). There are no plans for developing the rail network to achieve a modal shift away from road transport.
Mini-quotes by ministers are interspersed in the budget document. James Shaw’s is “Urgent and ambitious action is needed on climate change, and this Government is not afraid to face that challenge.” The second part of Shaw’s sentence is the opposite of the truth. The government has done nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Shaw and the government are committed to the preservation of capitalism. As reformists, their modus operandi is gradualism. Their politics determine that they cannot take on the farmers and the vested interests of private capital.
The real priorities of the government became even clearer on 11 June when the government released its Defence Capability Plan 2019. They intend to follow the previous National government’s plan to increase defence spending by $20b, mainly on warplanes and warships. That money could be used on measures to reduce emissions, such extending the railway network or installing a national network of electric vehicle charging stations.
The Green Party, rather pathetically, positively gushed with praise for the 2019 Budget. At the time of writing, the party’s website home page bears the slogan Green Change Budget 2019 and James Shaw’s post claims “strong action on climate change”. The Green Party is selling its own principles short. It is giving green cover to a thoroughly capitalist government that has no intention whatsoever to take radical action on climate change. To do so would require the intervention of the state in what is a free-market-dominated economy. The Green Party is misleading people into believing that the government is tackling climate change, and in so doing it has become part of the problem.
What is to be done?
Capitalism, its drive for profit, is the reason for the climate crisis. After decades of inaction since the 1992 Kyoto Protocol, capitalists and their governments have proven their incapacity to cease the pollution of the atmosphere. It is a truism that the battle against further global warming must be an anti-capitalist revolutionary endeavour. This is a simple argument to make, but it is still a very necessary task for socialists to carry out since the vast majority of the masses of young people, and not so young, who desire to see radical action do not understand, or only half understand, the connection.
Fortunately, the school strikes for climate movement, as long as it lasts, and let’s hope it does and broadens, is providing the conditions for the connections between climate and the class struggle to be made. Greta Thunberg threatened the world’s rulers with doing away with the capitalist system in her magnificent speech to the UN Climate Change COP24 Conference.
The weakness of the size and influence of the far left internationally is the real weakness of the climate change movement. It is not popular desire for climate action that is lacking, but the capacity of the far left to extend the school strikes to joint strikes with workers and to point the way to a revolutionary solution. Without a revolutionary current, the danger for the climate movement is that its activists are co-opted into futile environmental reformism – the Green Party approach – or fall they into despair.
It is no exaggeration to say, as far as Aotearoa is concerned, the greatest contribution that socialists can make towards tackling the climate crisis is to build revolutionary socialist organisations in order to become more effective in offering a revolutionary perspective in the movements to come.
That those movements are growing is a cause for hope. Everyone should support the Climate Strikes.