Climate change and the socialist alternative

02 September 2023

By Alex Rutherford

WORLDWIDE, JULY 2023 broke the all-time record for hottest month. The news has been filled with reports of wildfires, extreme weather events, and death from heat exposure.

The specific impact of capitalist production on the climate and the environment generally has been undeniable for decades. But throughout the entire period of modern climate science, the capitalists, through their ownership over the media and influence in scientific and political debates, have sought to downplay both the extent of the developing disaster, and the urgency and extent of the measures required to counteract it.

A common view is that the world has entered a new geological age, the ‘Anthropocene’, in which human industrial production becomes the determining factor in the operation of the systems which allow the planet to function. What is generally left out of this analysis however is a concrete understanding of the social system under which that production takes place, and which defines its methods and outcome. That system of production is capitalism.

Modern environmental science recognises that the natural environmental systems of the earth (such as geological, meteorological, biological, chemical etc.) are highly complex, interconnected processes. The ecosystems on which many species depend for their survival are themselves dependent on these underlying processes within the earth system. However, these processes can only continue to operate within certain limits, which are now being crossed due to capitalism’s environmentally destructive methods of production.

While much of the global focus has been on climate change, largely due to its potentially devastating consequences for the survival of human industrial civilisation, there are many further planetary limits which are in danger of being crossed. These include ocean acidification, depletion of the ozone layer, species extinction, biodiversity loss, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, loss of ground cover (particularly forests), loss of freshwater leading to desertification, chemical pollution, and radioactive pollution. Each one of these taken individually would be a planetary emergency, and the current environmental catastrophe is caused by an interlinking of these developing emergencies. The common denominator in these interlinked crises is the capitalist world economy.

Because the environmental disaster is being caused by capitalist productive methods, market-based capitalist solutions to the crisis will never be sufficient to solve it. Despite the majority of media attention being focussed on the climate rather than on the other aspects of the interlinked ecological catastrophe, even the limited reforms promised by governments are not being carried out.

Scientists working within official bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been forced to leak parts of their reports prior to official publication, as they know their findings will be censored and altered. This is a symptom of the general straightjacketing of scientific opinion within capitalist society, with mechanisms like funding grants and media coverage to prop up viewpoints which support the dominant, ruling class ideology.

There are also deep structural issues with the organisation of the capitalist system which prevent any meaningful attempt to solve the crises. The system of competing national states leads to the hoarding of resources, and attempts of the various national capitals to establish monopolies over the extraction of natural resources, social industrial production, and mechanisms of distribution and exchange.

This is a major impediment to a coordinated global response. Each private capitalist is incentivised by the profit motive to produce its product in the cheapest way possible, rather than producing in a way that is sustainable and which maintains reasonable working conditions. Likewise, this system of competition creates the need to continually expand the nation’s strategic energy reserve, preventing older more polluting forms of energy generation from being decommissioned.

The previously much-hyped concept of ‘carbon credits’, through which large corporations are able to purchase credits to supposedly offset their impact on the climate, has now been widely discredited. The financial value of these credits has recently plummeted, and a new study in the journal Science has found that millions of carbon credits are largely worthless, and if anything could worsen the climate crisis. These schemes involved generating carbon credits by avoiding ‘hypothetical deforestation’, and were in fact found to barely reduce deforestation at all. Likewise, the Green New Deal, which is argued for by some wings of the capitalist class is far from sufficient to cope with the scale of the crisis.

By the very nature of the system of the private ownership of the productive forces, capitalism is incapable of directing production in a sustainable manner. This would require a systematic, international attempt to reduce the environmental impact of production and allow human society to co-evolve alongside the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth. The constant drive to increase profits under capitalism leads to the destruction of the very environmental systems which are relied on to continually renew the social production process. This leads to what Marx described as a ‘metabolic rift’ between capitalist production and the environment. In the early 21st century, this rift has now become a chasm.

This also raises the question of environmental imperialism, an aspect of the general imperialist world system. This system is built on the extraction of huge amounts of natural resources and the super-exploitation of cheap labour in the semi-colonial world. While the products of this human and environmental expropriation are largely consumed within the imperialist centres, the lion’s share of the ecological and social consequences of capitalist production are visited upon the exploited semi-colonies.

Another related aspect of this is the huge levels of debt burdening the semi-colonial world, which requires a large part of these countries’ national budget to maintain, and which therefore impedes efforts towards climate adaptation and mitigation in the present, as well as plans for sustainable ecological development. The cost of borrowing is far higher for these countries than for the imperialist great powers, further entrenching international inequalities in resource distribution. In Africa, on average, more is spent on servicing interest on debts than is spent on either healthcare or education.

In the semi-colonial world, people are already facing terrible conditions, working in highly exploitative sweatshop factories, often lacking clean drinking water and food, and living in unsanitary conditions with insufficient accommodation leading to the rapid spread of disease. This is entirely interconnected with their exploitation by imperialism, through which these populations are enslaved economically while their countries’ natural resources are plundered. The common solution to both of these issues is a socialist revolution to replace the anarchy of private ownership of production, and the nation state, with an ecologically sustainable democratically planned economy, under the control of the international working class.

This is what is required to achieve the dual aim of improving the living and working conditions of the vast majority of the world’s population, while setting the social system of production on a sustainable course for future development. A socialist economy would be planned on the basis of the interest of society as a whole, including the need to prevent the destruction of the environment which sustains it. Our goal must be the construction of a system in which human society co-evolves with nature in a sustainable fashion, overcoming the previously dysfunctional relationship between humanity and nature.

It is clear that this is not possible within the framework of the national state, but can only be carried out at an international level. Likewise, this is not possible while the system of production is dominated by the narrow interests of private profit. In order to carry out this task, the working class will require an organisation of a new type – a world party of communist revolution, capable of attracting mass support for a socialist programme, and of leading the struggle to overcome both the economic and ecological crises which capitalism has inflicted on humanity, through the revolutionary overthrow of the global capitalist system.

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