Climate Change and Capitalism
As the climate crisis intensifies, more and more people see the need to take action to stop it. However, there is a lot of confusion about what is to be done about this issue, and as a result the debate often focuses on reforming capitalism. RUF stresses that climate change is a feature, not a flaw of capitalism, and here we deal with the issue concretely: the origins of the climate crisis, how it actually benefits the capitalist class, and the need for a revolutionary alternative.
A graph showing historical levels of CO2 and the rapid increase which began around 1950.
A recent report in July by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that to limit the rise of global temperatures and prevent climate change from reaching catastrophic levels, significant changes would need to be made to cut greenhouse gas emissions within a mere 18 months. This follows a similar report from 2017 that stated society has a period of 12 years to slow the increase of global temperature to an acceptable rate to ensure human survival. The latest IPCC report is galvanizing resistance all across the world in the form of mass demonstrations, including various political action networks and a planned general strike on September 20th to put pressure on politicians and corporations to address carbon emissions and confront the reality of climate change.
However, all of these reports and the action sparked by these reports are deeply tied into the root causes of climate change—not just the emission of greenhouse gasses themselves, but also the structure of capitalism that leads to environmental destruction by virtue of it’s primary function to generate profit. The capitalist elite are neither capable nor willing to really address climate change and its consequences, such as the deaths and mass displacement of people throughout the world as well as widespread ecological devastation. In the face of all this, revolutionaries and working people around the world must confront the question of what to do about climate change and the threat that it poses to so many people.
In the most basic terms, the rise in global temperatures is caused by the Greenhouse Effect, wherein the atmosphere of the planet, and certain gasses—“greenhouse gasses” such as water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide—absorb and re-emit radiation and heat from the sun to warm the Earth’s atmosphere and maintain global temperatures, making life on the planet possible. These greenhouse gasses historically come from a wide variety of natural sources, and as they accumulate in the Earth’s atmosphere, they continue to trap heat that warms the Earth’s climate overall. While on a basic level greenhouse gasses are needed to maintain warmth on the planet, as they reach very high levels this has disastrous impacts on the climate. Through the development of human society, productive activity has had a significant impact on the climate, in forms such as the development of agriculture, cutting down forests, and mining. Since the development of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, the greenhouse effect has accelerated.
A boat moves through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Capitalism emerged with the shift from earlier feudal social relations and modes of production in Europe, when feudalism and it’s institutions, such as serfdom gave way to the rise of a middle class of rich peasants and merchants who had started accumulating capital while being able to employ wage labor and evict peasants off of their land, forcing them to move into the rapidly growing cities to seek employment for the newly emergent bourgeoisie, first on the individual level and then in jointly owned corporations.
This process was accelerated by European colonization and conquest of much of the rest of the world, with the plunder of Africa, Asia, and the Americas for slave labor and for resources with which to accumulate further capital and in the hands of capitalists and colonial governors. This imperialist conquest also had its own negative effects on the ecosystems of the various places the capitalists plundered, where forests were often cut down to make space for plantations to grow cash crops such as tobacco and cotton.
These crops themselves often also required destructive farming practices to maximize yields and profits. For example, tobacco farming is often done with a large amount of potassium enriched fertilizers which have many negative environmental impacts. Another key element of the development of capitalism was the advent of coal power for steam powered machinery in late 18th century. This resource was provided through the exploitation and brutal oppression of miners and destruction of entire mountains in search of more coal. The increase in burning of coal (and eventually oil and natural gas) en masse, as well as the destruction of forests that could convert CO2 into oxygen, has led to a massive increase in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Under capitalism, the constant drive to increase profits leads to production that is carried out to increase profit and not for the benefit of society as a whole. This is to say that production under capitalism is for the enrichment of the capitalists. It is because of this that a surplus of commodities have to be constantly produced; this surplus has to come from an amount of commodities greater than both what the working people consume and what is necessary for capitalism to reproduce itself.
This also means that capitalists have a real incentive—and even a necessity if they don’t want to go out of business—to produce products that do not last, so that consumers will constantly buy more stuff. This drive for maximum profit leads to a system of production of goods which is incredibly wasteful and lead to massive environmental destruction. Just think about how much garbage is produced by disposable wrappers of candy bars and things like M&Ms. And likewise, how many things are made to not last very long so that people always need to buy a new one every few years. In fact, the accumulation of garbage alone has led to an “island” of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean that is more than double the size of the state of Texas!
Countries most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, 1990-2011.
It should come as no surprise then that in the present day, the biggest culprits behind the pollution resulting from increased greenhouse gas emissions are, unsurprisingly, the imperialist powers and various large, multinational corporations. They are are the greatest perpetrators of exploitation and imperialist plunder in the modern day. Through the 1990s and early 2000s the United States was the greatest leader of CO2 emissions.
Since the restoration of capitalism in China in 1976, it has also been a major producer of CO2. Over the past few decades it has rapidly expanded its production and seen a corresponding spike in emissions. China is now a bigger polluter than the U.S., in terms of CO2 emissions. As China has developed into a global imperialist superpower, both it and the U.S. (as well as both of their allies) have begun a massive military buildup in preparation for World War III. This has lead to a big spike in emissions as well, because the U.S. military is the biggest polluter in the world, and historically they have cause vast amounts of environmental destruction above and beyond simple greenhouse gas emissions. For example they poisoned the entire water supply on Cape Cod, giving thousands of people cancer, and they irradiated whole islands in the Pacific Ocean when they conducted nuclear tests there.
From this it becomes clear that the biggest polluters are the big capitalist corporations and the neocolonialist imperialist powers. In addition, one report has shown that the top one hundred companies are responsible for 70% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and a substantial chunk of these are oil companies which continue to produce mass quantities of petroleum for profit. All of this shows us that it is the actions and day-to-day operations of the capitalist and imperialist elite as a whole—not individual lifestyle choices of average people—that are the single greatest contribution to pollution and environmental devastation.
This is important to see because much of the contemporary discourse on climate change focuses on the need to change individual patterns of consumption. For example, we are encouraged to recycle our plastics, despite the fact that 95% or more of all materials placed in the recycling bin end up in a landfill instead of actually being recycled. Likewise, we are told to stop using straws, as if this tiny amount of plastic will make a difference when we drink from plastic coffee cups! All of this is part of a larger efforts by the capitalist ruling class to distract from the fact that they are the biggest polluters and trick the people into believing that the climate crisis can be solved by individuals making minor changes to their consumption habits.
Despite the emission reduction targets outlined in the Paris agreement, emissions have remained basically unchanged.
Even if everybody in industrialized countries took steps like driving a hybrid car and always turning off the lights, the reduction in carbon emissions would on the whole be fairly minimal simply because the capitalists and ruling elite in imperialist countries are the worst polluters overall. In fact, for capitalism “eco-friendly” lifestyle changes present a new market for businesses to profit off of, channeling the fear of climate change into “green” capitalism as companies phase out plastic straws, and other such consumer products and introduce new ones like “reusable straws.” These PR efforts also help to generate goodwill for new taxes on the poor to subsidize capitalism’s transition away from fossil fuels. Instead of drawing from the trillions of dollars in profits that capitalists make each year, most major nations are looking to “transition” to “green” energy by taxing the hell out of working people.
These major investments in alternative energy sources have occurred alongside other token initiatives such as the Paris Climate Accords signed by the United Nations in 2016, which claims to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C without actually setting any real enforcement mechanisms to compel the major polluting states to reach these goals. However the reality, as many studies have pointed out, is that even if all the signatories had reached the target limit outlined in the Paris Agreement—which many have already failed to do—these measures likely would not be enough to limit temperature rise to the targets outlined in the agreement. The Paris Accords, ultimately represent a lackluster promise by the very same imperialists who are destroying the planet for profit.
This is all part of an effort to generate the public impression that the capitalist governments are “doing something” about climate change while they actually continue to work hand-in-glove with major corporation to preserve the status quo. These PR campaigns and lackluster agreements are coupled with a wide array of advertising and media messaging to blame “individual consumers”—especially poor people—for the problems of climate change.
All of this aims to justify the present world order, and trick people into believing that climate change can be solved by some minor changes in the habits of individual consumers without addressing the elephant in the room, the pollution caused by capitalist enterprises. Instead, what we need is a major social and political revolution that drives the capitalists pigs from power and establishes a social system for the people. Only in such a system will it be possible to carry out production for the social good—instead of maximum profit for the elite—and in a way that takes into account environmental impact of human activity.
Furthermore, not only are capitalists and imperialists the ones most responsible for climate change, they will also be the least effected by the consequences of their actions. Some have argued that constant, continuing pollution and resulting sea level rise from the melting of the polar ice caps will hurt capitalism, making operations more difficult and costly. This will perhaps only be true in the short term. Climate change certainly wreak havoc on existing production, leading to flooding, droughts, famines, and dislocations of existing supply chains. Many factories and pieces of important infrastructure will be outright destroyed and whole cities will sink underwater. However, at present capitalists face a deep crisis of overproduction and the falling rate of profit. This means that they are producing far more goods than people can consume—just think about how much people buy on credit these days, from iPhones to cars, tvs, and more—and that the capitalists struggle to find profitable investments as a result.
As climate change causes the glaciers and icecaps in place like Greenland to melt, capitalists are lining up for the “exciting new investment opportunities."
Take the example of Uber, the “ride-sharing” company. They are worth over $55 billion and are constantly receiving new investment from major capitalists around the world. However, despite being worth so much, they have never made a profit, and by their own admission may never do so! Why are capitalists investing so much in a company that is losing several billion dollars each year? Because right now there are not many profitable places to invest the money they make off exploiting working people. Since the 2008 economic crisis factories all around the world have closed and many of those that remain open are not operating at full capacity. There is already too much being produced and working people are too poor to buy it. That’s why tens of thousands of cars go unsold each year.
While the capitalists can invest in improving the existing factories, they face a diminishing return on investment. It’s much more profitable to build a new factory than to marginally improve an existing one. This is where climate change comes in and could actually help the capitalists!
While some individual capitalists will lose their fortunes as rising sea levels and increased flooding destroy existing infrastructure and displace hundreds of millions of people, these disasters will also create “exciting new investment opportunities” for the capitalist class as a whole. There will suddenly be a need to create new factories, cities, apartments, highways, and more. Assuming that climate change does not destroy all human life, the destruction caused by climate change will, paradoxically, make capitalism more profitable and help the capitalist class as a whole. The capitalist system will be able to adapt, persist, and even expand as a result of climate change.
The capitalists could also move significant capital and power towards projects to preserve themselves first and foremost. For example, a number of capitalists, such as Tesla’s founder Elon Musk and Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos are working on space companies that aim to eventually send people to live permanently on Mars. They seem to hope that if they destroy this planet they can flee to Mars and set up capitalism—or a slave colony—there. In addition to these plans, the capitalists are maneuvering to ensure that their wealth and social position is not hurt by climate change. For example, although Donald Trump has infamously denied the basic reality of climate change—calling it a “hoax”, “pseudoscience” and even a conspiracy by the Chinese state to sabotage U.S. manufacturing—Trump has also petitioned a local council in Doonbeg, Ireland for approval to construct a series of sea walls to protect his golf course from erosion caused by rising sea levels. If the capitalists are trying to protect anything from climate change, it is their own assets and capital, and not the masses of people. Even though some capitalists will doubtless be hurt and even lose their fortunes as a result of climate change, it is working people that will be be hit the hardest.
We don’t need to imagine a future scenario to see this, because climate destruction and its consequences are already playing out in our time. In Guatemala, massive droughts have caused widespread crop failures for the peasantry, forcing thousands to flee the country or face famine – a situation that peasants in many other oppressed nations have to face as the effects of climate change become more and more intense and widespread. Meanwhile, island nations, such as the Republic of Kiribati in the Pacific, are literally sinking into the ocean as sea levels rise, forcing many to flee their homes. Both of these examples are warnings of the catastrophic refugee crises to come, which are actually already beginning as a result of climate change.
Villagers in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati contend with flooding from sea level rise.
Meanwhile Puerto Rico is still reeling from the consequences of Hurricane Maria in 2017, which knocked out 95% of the nation’s electrical grid, destroyed much of its infrastructure, and led to the deaths of at least 5,000 people.1 This disaster was also greatly exacerbated by the corruption and decadence of the U.S. colonial regime that still holds the island nation in chains. In the past few years wildfires in the U.S. state of California have consumed 500% more land than they ever have before, and these fires will likely continue to intensify every year as global temperatures increase and capitalists agricultural practices dry out the land.
Many people across the world have begun to experience the alarming impacts of climate catastrophes and as a result, many movements against climate change have emerged in the hopes of pressing for more substantial action across the world. This is part of a global upsurge and mass outrage over inaction of the ruling elite in the face of climate change. These protests have been sparked in part by the many reactionary figures and their inaction or overtly malicious attitudes towards the environment. Examples include the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords under Donald Trump and Brazil’s inaction and enabling of rampant forest fires in the Amazon Rainforest—which produces 20% of the planet’s oxygen—as a result of capitalist development under Brazil’s reactionary comprador president Jair Bolsonaro.
Young people in imperialist countries all across the world have walked out of their classes and fossil fuel divestment movements have emerged on universities around the world. International protest movements such as Earth Strike and Extinction Rebellion have also sprung up in recent months to protest the failure of the ruling elite to decisively handle the threat of climate change and pressure politicians and companies to take more substantial action. One such group, Earth Strike, has planned for a massive global general strike against climate change to take place late in September, 2019.
Though their mobilization is significant—and the people power of those seeking an alternative to climate destruction is inspiring—the approach that groups like Earth Strike and Extinction Rebellion are taking to combating climate catastrophe is fundamentally flawed.
Many of these climate activist groups are predominantly liberal in character, and though they understand that it is capitalists and imperialist states that are primarily responsible for climate change, they mistakenly assume that the ruling class can be peacefully persuaded to change their ways.
Young people protesting in Sidney, Australia to call on leaders to adequately address the problem of climate change, one of many such protests across the world.
These groups hope to pressure the ruling elite to take the sorts of action necessary to slow the onslaught of climate change and reduce the harm that it will now inevitably have on people. However, this can never happen under capitalism, where production is fundamentally oriented towards profit maximization and not social good. And the capitalists will never peacefully give up their power. There are already a series of new politicians in the bourgeois governments, like Alexandra Ocassio-Cortez, who promote the idea that reforms alone will be enough to stop climate change. She has famously proposed the “Green New Deal” which will not actually address the root cause of climate change, capitalist production itself.
Even if CO2 emissions are cut, capitalist production still has to operate by the law of value and the profit motive. And so, the transition to an electric grid powered by solar panels and batteries, will still entail capitalist production that rips rare-earth mineral out of the ground, poisons water tables, and most of all, shackles billions in the chains of wage-slavery. We actually already have the technology and knowledge to transition to production practices which do not harm the environment. What we lack is a social system built around serving the people and their needs, instead of making the rich richer.
Given that the bourgeoisie cannot and will not lift a finger to resolve our climate crisis, the only option left to make significant changes to limit the damage that climate change will have on the people and the planet—namely, a revolution to overthrow the bourgeoisie. The steps that need to be taken to reduce pollution and mobilize the masses to figure out solutions to pressing environmental problems can only be taken in a pro-people, socialist society where the workers can lead the broad masses of people in cleaning up the oceans, replanting forests, and truly taking steps to limit carbon emissions and waste.
The task of proletarian revolution, though difficult, is absolutely necessary to prevent the worst impact of climate change and liberate the people from the shackles of wage-slavery. Indeed, climate change already is killing and displacing millions of people, and the working people of the world can and must band together to shake off the parasitic capitalist class and liberate the people of the world so that we can work together for our common good instead of slaving away for the profit of the rich.
For more information, see pages 82-88 in http://www.iboninternational.org/sites/ibon/files/resources/LII2C_English.pdf ↩︎