Britain  •  Debate  •  Environment

The problem with ‘Just Stop Oil’

27 July 2023

By Alex Rutherford

Over the last few weeks, the earth has been scorched by some of the worst extreme weather events in human history. The world experienced its hottest day since records began on 4 July, and since that time extreme heat and wildfires have occurred in several countries around the world.

In Europe, the main victims have been those living in southern Italy and Greece. Wildfires have ravaged the Greek island of Rhodes, and flights to the island have been cancelled by some airline operators. Some parts of Italy have experienced temperatures higher than 48 degrees. We have also seen wildfires in Spain, as well as temperatures over 50 degrees in parts of China, the US and Mexico.

There has been a record heatwave across the southern US and Mexico in June, and it has been estimated by scientists that this was made at least five times more likely due to human-caused climate change. More than 40 million people in the US have been placed under excessive heat warnings. This has also caused a surge in air conditioner use which has placed energy grids under strain – Mexico has even had to institute load-shedding  (also known as “rolling blackouts”) in response to the increased energy demand, meaning that access to electricity is being restricted for millions of people during a time of extremely high demand.

These events are being caused by a system of “heat domes” which has been locked for weeks in a pattern which scientists are calling “wavenumber 5”. Heat domes, also known as high-pressure systems or anticyclones, are weather phenomena in which sinking air from the upper atmosphere brings about a period of dry and settled weather with limited cloud formation and little wind. The current heat dome was formed by a high-pressure atmospheric system that created a sinking column of warming air, that trapped latent heat already absorbed by the landscape. These domes prevent clouds from entering, which allows the sun to bake the surface of the earth continuously causing long-term temperature spikes.

Anticyclones are slow-moving, which means that they persist for days or even weeks at a time. They can even become semi-permanent features over large areas of land. When high pressure systems form over hot land, in regions like the Sahara, the stability of the system generates even hotter temperatures because the already warm air is heated even more, leading to a vicious cycle of increasingly hot temperatures.

Some have argued that these events are not due to climate change but rather are due to a cyclical temperature variation known as “El Nino”, which occurs every 2-7 years as a result of disruptions of atmospheric circulation patterns over the pacific basin. While it is true that this phenomenon is likely to have made the weather even more extreme than it might otherwise have been, events of this nature occur cyclically and have not previously caused the level of extreme weather which are currently being experienced globally. This is a demonstration of the longer term impact of climate change in exacerbating the impact of such cyclical atmospheric events.

There is no doubt from a scientific perspective that these heat waves are caused and exacerbated by human-caused climate change. Scientists have calculated that the climate crisis made the 2021 heatwave in Oregon 150 times more likely, with heat domes becoming ever more dangerous as the planet heats up. Limiting global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures instead of 2C would halve the number of people who will become exposed to these severe heat dome conditions. Clearly, this summer’s weather is a portent of even worse to come in the future.

Extreme heat has impacts both on human biology and health, but also broader social and economic consequences including damaging structures and railway tracks, reduced water availability, reduction of electricity production and increased demand for energy causing shortages as seen in Mexico.

It is also important to remember that it is not only through climate change that the capitalist mode of production destroys the homes and livelihoods of the global population. Massive pollution, ocean acidification, desertification, and the wholesale destruction of rainforests and marine life will progressively render large swathes of the planet uninhabitable.

These effects are caused by capitalist production itself, but exacerbated by an imperialist system which imports products of consumption while exporting environmental devastation to their economic colonies and the semi-colonial world in general. This problem is compounded by the vast debt repayments which these countries must make annually, reducing the funds available to pay for adaptations to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate catastrophe.

As the consequences of the climate crisis come home to roost within the imperialist heartlands in the form of mass environmental migration, collapse of production chains, and resource overuse and exhaustion, the ability of the existing ruling class to maintain a system which allows for human survival as a whole will increasingly be thrown into doubt.

The class basis of Just Stop Oil

The obvious urgency of the crisis has seen an increasingly determined response from environmental activists, including those in radical groups such as Just Stop Oil (JSO) and Last Generation. Such resistance can be expected to intensify alongside the environmental catastrophe.

However, the current tactics in use by environmental movements are woefully inadequate. While disruption of traffic and cultural events may gain media attention, these protests do little to strike at the heart of the capitalist profit machine which leaves ecological devastation in its wake. Additionally, such individualistic tactics tend to alienate potential allies as much as they gain media attention, as they can be spun by the bourgeois media for propaganda purposes as attacks on “ordinary people”. This can then be used to attack the cause of environmentalism in general, allowing pro-fossil fuel voices to gain an audience by creating anger against the climate activists themselves.

While their willingness to take direct action is commendable and lends JSO a certain “radical” appearance, in reality their key demand to “Just Stop Oil” is both highly utopian under capitalism and also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the severity and multiplicity of environmental issues which are caused by our current system of production. It is not just the burning of fossil fuel which causes climate change (although it is of course the main contributor), and even ceasing all oil production immediately would not be enough to avert disaster. It would also do nothing to prevent the rampant deforestation, ocean acidification, desertification and soil erosion which are characteristic of capitalist industry and agriculture.

This demonstrates a certain naïveté within the ranks and leadership of JSO, firstly that with sufficient pressure capitalist governments could be persuaded to “just stop oil”, and secondly that if this demand were fulfilled, that would resolve the environmental catastrophe without the need for any further struggle. This failure to name the capitalist system as the main cause of climate catastrophe is a reflection of the middle class social basis of groups like JSO.

Many within the climate movement increasingly view human production itself (and therefore also human population growth) as a negative force, calling for “degrowth” across human production in general. This perspective completely ignores the reality that the vast majority of environmental destruction is caused by companies whose profits accrue to the imperialist heartlands, while the vast majority of the human population still live in conditions of desperate poverty and are only contributing to the crisis in an ancillary manner.

Even those who recognise the environmentally destructive nature of the capitalist system have demonstrated by their tactics that they have no comprehension of what would be required to overcome the limits of the existing social system of production and develop an environmentally sustainable world.

Those like the Communist Party of Britain and their paper the Morning Star who call for some form of “Green New Deal” within the framework of capitalism are merely providing left-wing cover for what is essentially the programme of a section of the bourgeoisie which sees a profit for itself in the emergence of “Green industries”. Whether openly declared or not, such ideas form the basis of the demands of all pro-capitalist climate activists, including JSO. Even if such a policy could be enacted, it would be in no way sufficient to solve the crisis.

In the wake of the by-elections the Tories are abandoning any pretence of ‘green’ policies at the behest of the tabloids and the far right. Rishi Sunak has scaled back previous commitments to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, stating instead that the response of governments to the climate crisis needs to be “proportionate and pragmatic” – of course, from the perspective of capitalist profits, not long term environmental sustainability or human survival. Grant Shapps, the government’s ‘Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero’, has stated that he plans to ‘max out’ North Sea oil.

The Labour Party are also blaming their defeat in Uxbridge on Khan’s extension of the low emissions zone, demonstrating their complete abdication of the fight to ensure a sustainable future for humanity. Meanwhile, the Earth burns. This demonstrates the Utopianism inherent in JSO’s strategy. Even if one of the pro-capitalist parties were convinced to ‘Just Stop Oil’, they could renege at any time or have any changes they did manage to make reversed by the next party to take power.

For a working class environmental movement!

The recent grassroots conference “We Make Tomorrow” which took place in Manchester demonstrates the road forward – through the trade unions and the working class. While raising crucial issues for the environmental movement, including the need for trade unions to support environmentalist demands and ensuring a just transition for workers in polluting industries, these are merely first steps on the road to solving the crisis.

The only social force in existence which is capable of resolving the crisis is the global working class. By organising itself and using its industrial muscle to gain control over the mechanisms of production, the proletariat can establish a democratically controlled, sustainable plan of production in the interest of human society and nature as a whole. This would require establishing a rational and sustainable metabolism between natural conditions and the needs of human civilisation.

It is the urgent duty of revolutionary communists to form an organisation capable of leading the proletarian struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with an alternative system of production, which produces for the needs of society and nature rather than capitalist profits. Such an organisation can only be a revolutionary party, organised on the principle of democratic centralism and revolutionary discipline.

If the working class fails to take leadership of this struggle, the environmental crisis, and the mass migration and economic destruction it causes, will drive a desperate population into the hands of the far right and fascist forces. The call for a revolutionary party is therefore no abstract demand, but an urgent and burning mission for all those engaged in environmental activism or the working class movement.

Global humanity as a whole is faced with a choice – the reorganisation of production on a sustainable, democratic basis via a socialist revolution; or a collapse into fascism, barbarism and ultimately extinction.

The struggle against the ecological crisis is therefore one and the same as the fight for a global socialist revolution, which will overthrow the existing anarchy of capitalist production and create a democratically planned economy, conducting rational, sustainable production in the interests of humanity as a whole (which includes preserving the possibility of life on earth). In the planned economy, workers currently in polluting industries will be retrained and redeployed to assist with constructing the socialist society on a sustainable basis. This construction must also include the cancellation of all ‘debts’ supposedly owed to global imperialism by the exploited semi-colonies, and a massive programme of technological investment to create a sustainable future for these countries.

Tags:  •   • 

Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter