We need system change to stop climate change

09 October 2021

By Chris Clough

The world’s eyes will be fixed on the COP26 governmental conference on climate change in Glasgow from 1 to 12 November. But in truth little will be ‘negotiated’ there as most, if not all the fundamental points have been agreed in advance. And it is clear that the ‘big players’ – the G7 and China – will not step up to meet the challenge of global heating.

The task of activists in the coming month is to use the increased media coverage and growing awareness of the climate emergency to build the environmental movement and to debate the solutions to the crisis and the strategy to get there.

School strikes, direct action stunts and demonstrations can all play a part, but unless we discuss the scale of changes needed and the obstacles in our path, we will not be able to distinguish ally from foe, or tactics from strategic goals.

If we fail to do that, millions of the world’s poorest will suffer from death or the destruction of their homelands and the fate of climate refugees. Ask the Haitians, fleeing from an earthquake and Storm Grace, only to be whipped and turned round in the US and Mexico, how that feels.

System change

The starting point for socialists is to point out the clear causal link between capitalism and climate change and the consequent failure of world leaders to tackle the crisis. This means we need to convince activists of the need to overthrow capitalism, the system at the root of climate change. The popular school strikers’ slogan, “System change, not climate change’ sums this up nicely.

However, the climate movement is dominated by those who believe protest alone will persuade politicians to ‘do the right thing’ and reform capitalism, or force fossil fuel companies to relinquish their profits. Extinction Rebellion, for example; for all its radical rhetoric, has illusions in the institutions of capitalism, and their own ability to force change through civil disobedience alone.

Their strategy, as laid out in Common Sense for the 21st Century, states that if they can mobilise just 200,000 people in acts of civil disobedience (which so far has almost exclusively taken the form of blocking traffic), eventually the government and the polluting industrial bourgeoisie will concede. This really beggars belief.

Capitalists and the governments that defend their interests are driven by profit – if they let up, they give ground to their rivals. As with the coronavirus pandemic, global cooperation is not on their agenda. If they refuse to roll out vaccines to Africa, South Asia and Latin America because it is not profitable, why would they disregard the profit motive to stop climate catastrophe? They won’t.

Take fossil fuels for example, the single biggest cause of CO2 emissions. These are not even mentioned in the Comprehensive Assessment Report for COP 26 – because the big powers vetoed it. Instead Britain is opening a new coalmine and oilfield, China is opening coalmines until 2030 and only then winding them down slowly and the USA is still fracking. Only a mass movement, rooted in the working class, can force these governments to switch to renewables in time.

Yet XR argues that their plans must be ‘satisfactory to both liberal and revolutionary constituencies’ because an alliance between these two forces is necessary. Therefore their strategy is counterposed to one of class struggle, strikes and more militant actions for fear they would make businesses, politicians and middle class voters hostile.

Instead they place their hopes in a Citizens’ Assembly, composed of randomly selected people, presented with scientific evidence and with the powers to pass laws to stop climate change in place of parliament. It is a doomed strategy. The notion that parliament would relinquish its sovereignty over such a crucial issue or that the capitalists would give up their vast amounts of wealth are without precedent.

Climate Justice

Climate change is a prism through which to expose the contradictions of capitalism. Not only does it highlight people’s disconnection with the natural world, but it is also tied up with poverty, inadequate housing, racism and the imperialist domination of the underdeveloped world.

Many of the solutions to climate change are also the changes required to create a better world. Through addressing the degradation of the environment, the myriad social crises that humanity faces can also be tackled.

Millions of jobs created in new green industries could mop up unemployment. Refitting homes with insulation and hydrogen boilers could let our cities breathe. Well-connected, electric-powered public transport could massively reduce the need for cars and road freight. Sustainable agricultural practices could improve the quality of food and provide living incomes for farmers across the globe.

By way of reparations for the environmental damage created by the developed countries, we could divert resources from the imperialist centres to the global south and cancel the third world debt. Instead of reinforcing imperialist bondage, we could channel aid directly to the poor farmers and working class, transforming lives and protecting the environment.

This is the crux of the matter; the climate disaster is not a ‘single issue’ and cannot be satisfied with the sorts of reforms winnable through direct action alone. It demands ‘system change’ – nothing short of the total expropriation of the financial sector and the most profitable industries on the planet.


The working class has the economic strength, through industrial action and occupations, to stop the accumulation of profit, force major concessions from their bosses and fight for control of their industries.

Where employers are outsourcing their environmental degradation to poorer countries, our movement must demand the right of workers to open the books and perform a carbon audit. Where they say they cannot afford to reduce or eliminate their carbon footprint, we must fight for nationalisation under workers’ control. Where they persist in polluting production methods, we must boycott their use by downing tools.

Because the working class has agency, that is, the ability to force through radial change, we need to actively draw the unions and working class more widely into the movement. Spreading the climate school and university strikes to workplaces, as already happened to a limited extent in September 2019, could bring such a coalition closer.

People’s Assemblies, which have occasionally happened in XR actions, could bring climate activists and trade unionists together to discuss strategy and agree common action. Developing them into permanent committees of action, with elected delegates representing workplaces, schools, universities and neighbourhoods, is the obvious next step, opening up the possibility to create a vibrant working class democracy.

General strike

Unlike the XR concept of a Citizens Assembly, which is ultimately a desperate call for a capitalist government of unaccountable technocrats, a movement based on grassroots democracy would be able to learn from its mistakes and successes, link up the various strands of the movement and give it collective leadership and direction. The ultimate aim should be a general strike – youth, workers and climate activists together – that would pose the question ‘who controls society – the producers or the owners?’

When faced with such questions in the past, ruling classes have many times been forced to make radical changes to the way they rule and real concessions to the people they rule. But whenever revolutions have stopped at this halfway stage, the oppressed have paid a heavy price. Climate change is, after all, only one aspect of the environmental crisis. The collapse of biodiversity, the pollution of our oceans and the degradation of the soil are all not far behind.

We must use this opportunity to stop climate change through working class action and build a revolutionary party, a Fifth International, that can rid humanity of the capitalist system completely. System change, not climate change will be its rallying cry.

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