placard says "fight for our future"

Planet in flames: Capitalism’s climate crisis

16 November 2020

2020 is on course to be the warmest year on record, continuing the clear and undeniable fifty-year trend of global warming. Greenhouse gas concentrations also reached a record high, which will raise the temperature even further. At the end of October, large quantities of methane were observed bubbling up from the Arctic seabed. This dangerous greenhouse gas – roughly 100 times more damaging than carbon dioxide – had been frozen for millions of years but has now been thawed and released by global warming. 

It takes roughly ten years for greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere to cause a rise in temperature. So far, the temperature has risen by 1 degree and the damage done to the earth over the past 10 years means we are likely already locked into a 1.5 degree rise. 

Back in 2018, the United Nations warned that we have 12 years to cut carbon emissions by 40% and limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Anything above that is expected to render large areas of the planet uninhabitable. 

Despite all this, emissions continue to rise. We’ve known about climate change for decades. Governments have held international conferences, made inadequate pledges and broken them. A whole climate industry has sprung up, profiting from the desperate need and growing pressure to switch to green energy production, recycle and use sustainable materials. In 2007, Richard Branson offered a prize of £12.8m to anyone who could come up with a way to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, presumably because he couldn’t patent the design for trees. The idea that climate change can be resolved by the current system, by the market or by enlightened government intervention, has proven to be a dangerous utopia. 

Climate change is primarily a problem of big business – fossil fuel extraction and its utilisation in transport and industry. The world’s oil reserves contain an estimated 2795 gigatons of carbon and is worth $27 trillion. Scientists have shown that if any more than 565 gigatons is released into the atmosphere the temperate will rise above even the disastrous 2 degree point. Yet those who own that oil expect it to be extracted and sold, and will not give up their investment willingly. 

No matter how much ordinary individuals cut their carbon footprint, it will never be enough to cancel out the damage being done to our planet by a handful of billionaires and the system that supports them. Making green consumer choices cannot drive oil companies out of business. If there is profit to be made from burning that fuel then other companies will buy it. And those of us who cannot afford to choose more expensive, greener energy will use it to heat our homes. 

Capitalism is a competitive, nationalist system that cannot solve an international problem like climate change. Where rich countries have declared that they are making progress towards carbon neutrality, they achieve this primarily by exporting their emissions to poorer countries. The more environmentally harmful work of raw material extraction and processing is often done in poorer countries, who suffer the immediate effects on their air, water and farmland. Poorer countries are often in areas worst affected by extreme weather events and climate disasters, least equipped to protect lives and rebuild infrastructure and most likely to be made uninhabitable by rising temperatures. Climate change was caused by the imperialist countries and is being inflicted on their former colonies. This environmental imperialism is underpinned by the competitive nature of the capitalist system – each country must protect its own economy by competing with and exploiting others. 

It is a question of economy vs climate. Our governments are sacrificing our lives to coronavirus to limit damage to our national economies. In the same way, despite knowing about climate change and understanding the long-term threat to human life it poses, for decades they have been sacrificing our futures to save their economies. 

The climate movement has raised awareness of the climate emergency and forced many governments to acknowledge it. Some have made plans to reduce carbon emissions, but the fundamental problem remains that they are balancing this against the needs of a capitalist economy geared towards quick profits. The system is incapable of making radical, rapid, expensive changes to energy production and consumption. 

In 2019 we saw a new slogan popularised in the climate movement, “system change not climate change”. In Britain, it means the 70 per cent of industries and services presently owned by 10 per cent of the population need to be taken out of their hands, put into collective, social ownership and management to reorganise the economy on a carbon-neutral basis. The reason for this is simple; you cannot direct or control what you do not own. 

We must resist every new airport runway, fight for the nationalisation and expansion of public transport and expropriate the energy and mining companies to phase out fossil fuels with a massive investment in sustainable energy. Our movement must link the fight against climate change to the fight for socialism, make inroads into private ownership and thereby gain control of our economy. 

The people with the power and numbers to make these changes are those who work in these businesses, who can strike to stop production and force change and have the expertise to reorganise it to produce for public need not private greed. The working class has no use for national competition and can organise the collective, international response needed to avert climate catastrophe. Alongside the youth who, across the world, walked out of their schools to demand climate action, workers can and must smash the capitalist system. 

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