Planet, Politics and Power: Climate Justice is Class Struggle

The Problem

In 1977 James Black, a senior scientist at leading oil and gas corporation Exxon, delivered a presentation to the company titled ‘The Greenhouse Effect’. He outlined, with startling prescience and the best modelling available at the time, the danger that humanity faces if we continue with our acceleration of fossil fuel consumption. He said “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

Exxon did not release this report. Instead, it engaged in a two-pronged propaganda campaign: show the world how invested they were in climate sciences, while pouring funds into think tanks that argued against the threat of climate change.

Reports commissioned around the turn of the century by world leading bodies such as the UK and US governments warn that carbon emissions were accelerating. That is to say, they were not only increasing, but doing so at an increasing rate. These same reports, unfortunately, crashed between the logic of nature and the needs of capitalism. While warning of positive feedback loops, carbon sinks like forests and oceans decreasing in their capacity to absorb carbon emissions, and the increasing carbon load they also stated, quite explicitly, that emissions could not be slashed in the short term because it would not be economically viable to do so. Radical change for a liveable planet would mean pushing growth below 2.5%. Unacceptable to their logic, so too bad for the planet. 

Such reports and leading political bodies, time after time, argue for, at best, increases in carbon efficiency, or at worst, kick the can down the road to future technologies that could solve the problem.

Unfortunately for the natural world, including humanity, the number one goal of the dominant world economic system, capitalism, is economic expansion, an eternally increasing GDP. In other words, the profit motive. Historically, increases in carbon efficiency have gone hand-in-hand with a like “expansion” of the economy, generally resulting in an increase in overall carbon emissions.

Consumption and Production

The vast majority of discourse and analysis surrounding the intersection of capitalism and the climate focuses on consumption and the emissions created in order for a commodity to arrive at the point of consumption. Mainstream thinkers who position themselves against capitalism argue that the world requires a shift towards ‘degrowth’ economies, because economic growth is inexorably linked with production and consumption. Such arguments, while taking aim at resources used for commodity production, conflate it with the consumption of commodities, stripping out any useful class analysis. Meanwhile, the arguments of the environmentalist capitalists are not terribly different. If we all do our part, they argue, if we all eat less red meat, take fewer plane trips, use public transport more often, then our disparate contributions will result in a decrease in aggregate carbon emissions. The capitalist arguments tend much more strongly towards Friedman-esque assertions that the market follows consumption and demand, but the more rhetorically savvy may also extol the virtues of “The Circular Economy” or “Degrowth”. These frameworks and associated politics advocate decoupling growth and greenhouse gas emissions, in other words growing the economy without increasing carbon emissions. That is to say, “eventually we’ll have the technology to enable my exploitation and profits without harming the precarious environmental balance.”

To be clear, the previous arguments are relegated to the realm of professional and academic spheres. The ideological situation amongst the laypeople of the working class is much more dire. Broadly speaking, what we are encouraged to think when we think about climate change is consumption and an ethical eye towards purchasing behaviour. When this idea is developed into a deeper view of aggregate demand, it touches upon Malthusian overpopulation theories. When this line of thought is taken to its conclusion, we see anti-working class, anti-natalist and even eco-fascist ideas take root.

Consumption-based arguments often rely on the individualist notion of a “carbon footprint,” a phrase and concept developed as a propaganda tool by British Petroleum in the early 2000s. The problem here is that such an individualist outlook is the product of a shallow (or lack of) class analysis, one based on the consumption patterns of disparate consumers across the globe. In contrast, a production and class-based analysis identifies the power and control exerted by the capitalist class which maintains and defends exploitation of the earth and of the people, provided it is profitable in the short-term. The difference between these two outlooks is stark. In an individualised consumption analysis, one can identify any wealthy individual as the primary cause of climate collapse. This does not hold up to any scrutiny. It obscures the real perpetrators of damage: of course random celebrities, say James Cameron or Jerry Seinfeld, are not as responsible for climate collapse as the class of capitalists who plunder the earth for short term profits, who bury evidence of global warming, and who use their wealth and power to prevent systemic or even law changes.

NGOs and some political parties offer similar politics, predicated on the advice of the professional class of scientists, policymakers, journalists. Often such institutions present us with technocratic solutions that are dismissive of or even hostile to the working class, such as policies that internalise the cost of emissions into commodities, in the hope that the market will adjust to more “green” alternatives. Examples include fuel taxes or taxes on carbon emissions that are passed on to the end consumer. These harshen the cost of living for the working masses.

This neoliberal, individualist outlook is of course most at home in the modern neoliberal capitalist epoch, but it offers no hope in articulating why capitalism is an obstacle to solving the climate crisis, and contains no politics that could do so.

As Marx says in Capital Vol 1, to learn about the true forces of the capitalist economy, we must delve “into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.”” We need to recognise the role of production in climate change. Under capitalism, that means capitalist production and economic growth.

Capitalist accumulation is driven by the engine of market competition. In Capital, Marx outlines how competition forces each company to increase the productivity of its workforce by investing more and more in “dead labour,” that is, machinery, plant, and other investments in the non-human forces of production. This drive to invest more and more into production due to competition is key to understanding the links between capitalism, environmental destruction and climate change.

Capitalists aim to maximise production, while minimising the cost of labour, in order to outcompete each other. We can see the evidence of this all throughout the globe: ever more intensive forms of oil fracking rigs, expansion of polluting industrial factories, and development of environmentally harmful agriculture. Capitalists do not normally have an economic motivation to divest, to scale back their industry, as competition is a constant factor. Each company is trying to capture the lion’s share of the market. In countries in the imperial core, the institutions and companies doing the most harm are also investing the most resources into lobbying their governments into letting them continue unimpeded, or loosening regulations to plunder the earth to line shareholders’ pockets.

It is not enough, however, to simply describe how the ruthless pursuit of profit in an economic environment of rampant competition accelerates the crisis. Surrounded by the neoliberal lie of individual responsibility, we must begin building a popular solution.

What does a popular solution look like?

Our dominant political parties are so desperate to cling to constant, indefinite capitalist growth, that the most radical course-correction their politics (or the reports they commission) can dream up, is a fantasy decoupling of economic growth from carbon emissions.

Of course as socialists, our politics must be independent from that of capitalists, but we can learn from their failures over recent years. Technocratic market solutions to the climate crisis, enacted by the Labour Party and defended by Green capitalists such as the current Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw, inevitably become a pressure on the working class. Forcing the average worker to pay more for food, energy, transport and so on because of the emissions they create, hurts the material position of the worker. It increases their cost of living and so materially, the working class is hostile to it, even if ideologically many support it.

This paradigm is a mistake. It means that even while the better-paid strata of workers, or the poorer but ideologically supportive workers may support such moves, much of the working class is forced politically rightwards, internalising ‘climate solutions’ as ‘solutions that make me poorer’. Because the Labour Party has no interest in collective working class politics and enacts policies that instead hurt the working class, politics to their right is able to leverage surface-level cultural grievances as well as ongoing economic grievances to win people over and in rhetoric appear as a party of the working class, as much as Labour. This rightward pressure will only worsen the climate crisis, as a ruling right-wing party is incentivised to strip environmental regulations for the sake of private profit, as its base has little interest in environmental concerns.

Political solutions to the climate crisis must focus on linking the exploitation of the working class to the way we are forced to pay for its symptoms, now and in the future. Solutions which make the working class poorer are not sustainable, as recent working class fightbacks in France and Lebanon and Kazakhstan so rightly show us.

We must dismiss the technocratic solutions that raise the market price of energy, and instead offer a politics which materially benefits the working class while we build organisations that can fight for system change.

The sectors that we need to most rapidly decarbonise to avoid catastrophe are energy, agriculture and transport, as well as better, more energy-efficient housing. It takes little imagination to see how climate politics in these sectors can be linked with restricted energy prices, cheaper foods, public transport infrastructure, cheaper and better housing and so on. What these improvements would require is a massive public investment, without throwing the working class under the bus to pay for it, and instead articulating how the end result of such projects could be hugely beneficial for the average Joe trying to get by.

System-wide degrowth on its own is not possible. Degrowth intrinsically means a decrease in aggregate profits, and as the entire history of the capitalist epoch teaches us, the capitalist class will throw everything they have at any climate solution that reduces profit. So we have to reduce their power first. We need class struggle. We must first recognise that there is no climate solution without first limiting capitalist power, while growing power in the working class. The ideas outlined above will not be taken up by the capitalist class on their own. There is little pressure to do so, and we must take stock of our historical moment in a post-neoliberal era. We have no Ministry of Works, there is no pressing fear amongst the capitalist class of revolution or the appeal of the Soviets. To restrict the power and freedom of the capitalists, to make capital pay for the benefits of society and the costs of climate change, we need to build stronger trade unions that act in the broader interests of the working class, we need to build larger independent socialist organisations that span working class strata and layers of communities that can carry political lines forward that appeal to the broader working class, without economically punishing them. Climate justice is working class liberation, and our future depends on our ability to politically articulate that liberation.