COP26 and the future of capitalism

| 8th December 2021 |

Alok Sharma President of the Cop26 climate summit, throws his hands up in the air after his speech of the closing plenary, during an 'overun' day of the Cop26 summit in Glasgow.

The failure of the COP26 climate conference reminds us that capitalism is the driver of ecological breakdown. But what does that mean for environmental activists?

Those trade unions that prioritise airport expansion over the future of our world are not only undermining the fight but actively damaging the cause.

The world is heating up because of fossil capitalism, and if it heats up much more than 1.5oC then the impact on the planet, animals, and human society will be catastrophic.

The scientific consensus - beyond a few crank contrarians - is that human activity is causing global warming, so the liberal institution of the United Nations has organised a series of Conference of Parties (COP) events to try and address the issue with the hope of preventing runaway climate change.  

Despite the constant international meetings of politicians, NGOs, and business leaders, the planet continues to heat up with disastrous results for the climate. Massive forest fires blight countries around the world, whilst other succumbs to dangerous flooding. Ocean acidification threatens marine life and the permafrost in the Arctic is melting, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Pledges

South-eastern Amazonia is now so damaged by deforestation and ‘controlled burning’ to make space for farmland that it has become a net producer of greenhouse gases.

We are perilously close to ‘feedback loops’ emerging where carbon and methane emissions from peat bogs and the permafrost accelerate to the point where they cannot be stopped, where planetary heating would continue even if all human pollution ceased.

With so much riding on the COP process, COP26 itself was a failure. The Glasgow Pact agreed on the final day saw some small steps forward, but they are the equivalent of a toddler learning to walk when we need to be sprinting.

Two essential issues were left without agreement: renewing targets for 2030 that will limit warming to 1.5oC, and an agreement on accelerating the phasing out of coal. A last-minute intervention by the Indian government watered down the final statement from phasing out coal to ‘phasing down’.

Even if an agreement had been reached that met the needs of the age, what guarantee would there be that it would be implemented? We live in a world of global liberal institutions passing all kinds of statements and declarations and pledges which are not made real.

Ameliorate

The UN Declaration of Human Rights remains only a piece of paper in many countries. Who can force the governments of the USA, Brazil, China, or India, or the major corporations of world capitalism, to do the right thing? There is no global government and indeed many people are deeply suspicious of such a thing.

The COP26 summit also pledged to end deforestation by 2030, but a similar pledge was made in 2014 at the New York summit and in the years afterwards deforestation actually escalated.

The Kyoto Protocols, the Paris Accords … every few years there is a climate summit where world leaders declare that finally, this time, something will be done.

Yet four days after the Glasgow summit finished, Joe Biden’s government sold off 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration. China, meantime, is continuing to build more coal-fired power stations.

Those trade unions that prioritise airport expansion over the future of our world are not only undermining the fight but actively damaging the cause.

It isn’t that no reforms are possible under capitalism that might ameliorate some aspects of environmental degradation.

Threat

There have been concerted efforts at various times to ban forms of pesticides or regulate other environmentally damaging activities. When CFCs were found to be contributing to the hole in the ozone layer, they were banned worldwide under the Montreal Protocol. Acid rain was a frequently discussed environmental issue in the 1980s, but stronger emission controls on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide have hugely reduced instances of it.

But at this point in the development of Late Capitalism we are not talking about a few chemicals or gases here and there, where limited reforms are possible.

Capitalism replaced CFCs with something else that didn’t stop the production of aerosol cans, fridges, and air-conditioning. Acid rain has been much reduced in the West because the ‘dash to gas’ has largely displaced coal for electricity generation - though this has yet to happen in places like China and India.

The automobile industry will be able to move slowly away from combustion engines towards electric cars  - though that will involve an expansion of metals mining and extraction with its concomitant threat to indigenous peoples and biodiversity).

Global warming is an ecological threat on a wholly different scale. A common reaction to COP is to say, ‘Yes, the COP process isn’t great and has been a let-down, but it is the only game in town, so even a small step forward is better than nothing.’

Lobbying

The problem here is it doesn’t deal with the enormity of the problem of capitalism as an economic, social, and political system.

How do we really trust any elected government when we know they ultimately represent business interests before anything else? How can we trust major corporations when they have spent decades denying climate change, funding ‘science’ to disprove it, targeting climate activists, covering up their own role in carbon emissions, and so on?

We know that oil and gas companies suppressed reports into global warming back in the 1970s - just as cigarette companies tried to do with cancer in the 1950s. We know that car companies cheat emissions tests.

We know that Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and other major companies fund pro-business lobbying groups in the US that are trying to kill climate change legislation in Congress.

We know that DuPont spent a fortune trying to cover up the damaging impact of Teflon in its products and fought compensation payouts for over a decade.

Beast

We know that when oil and gas companies do huge rebranding efforts or talk about their ‘environmental work’ it is usually greenwashing and that they spend only a tiny fraction of their profits on this.

The Western nations can claim that they are reducing carbon emissions, but this is hypocrisy because they have outsourced so much industrial production to countries like South Korea, China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. China’s CO2 emissions are huge in large part because it is the factory of the world, producing consumer goods for the rest.

I, like most socialists, do not oppose poorer countries developing. Why should they live in poverty whilst so many live in relative luxury? But under capitalism, economic development comes at a huge cost of carbon emissions and environmental damage.

The Yamuna is a sacred river in India that is covered in toxic foam from industrial waste. China’s Yangtze – the world’s third longest river – has billions of tonnes of rubbish and toxic industrial and chemical waste poured into it every year.

Around 55 percent of all plastic waste in the oceans comes out of the Yangtze – the price paid for mass industrialisation in China to feed the hungry beast of global capital.

Reactionary

The goods being produced are artificially cheap because capitalism externalises its costs, offloading expenses by cutting corners over workers’ safety, health care, and environmental protections.

Degradation of the planet is built into the profit system. If the goods produced were priced at what they actually cost, then they would become prohibitively expensive for many consumers.

The problem isn’t that capitalists are slow to act; it is that they actively fight against policies and legislation that will harm their profits. It is in their nature.

Capitalism is a system which privileges profit and the private property of the rich and their enterprises. It is incompatible with a more just and fair world. Only a complete shift of the global political economy away from market forces and profit will save us.

Climate change will bring about revolutionary ruptures but also the possibility of the worst reactionary impulses.

Demagogues

Whenever there are climate protests, social media is filled with people declaring their hatred for any activism which is trying to make the world a better place.

They scoff at people like Greta Thunberg and claim that the real conspiracy is the climate scientists and the left who are trying to ‘fool us’ that global warming is caused by human activity.

They think they are the ones speaking truth to power; but in reality they are only repeating the propaganda of Exxon, Shell, and BP, of the car and mining companies. They think they are being anti-establishment and brave, but they are cowards acting as shills for big business.

As the climate crisis grows, we will see the poison of nationalism spreading wider. Too often workers are held back by loyalty to this government or that boss, a false notion that somehow ‘our’ country comes first. In the world of Late Capitalism and runaway climate change borders won’t save us - in fact, they will be used to divide us and turn us against each other.

When a billion people are made climate refugees in the next two decades, the far right and nationalist demagogues in the richer nations will sow hatred and fear, making the refugees the enemies instead of the super-rich and the capitalist system which has led to this crisis.

Industries

Planetary heating is a global issue, but it will impact countries differently. Small Pacific islands and countries that exist on large river deltas like Bangladesh will be submerged. Populations will be forced to move. As arable lands flood and the seas become too acidic for fish, the price of food will rapidly climb. Drinking water will become scarcer.

Richer countries will be able to offset some of this at first, will be able to ‘protect’ their populations to a degree, but even then there will be a class divide between rich and poor which will only grow starker. In this context, ‘Our Country First’ will become a popular slogan, as desperate people fall on each other and demand that borders be closed and food be hoarded for those who can afford it.

The most reactionary forces will be those in power who claim to care, who claim to be ‘doing something’, when in fact they are lying to us. Perhaps they are lying to themselves as well? It is not our place to assess their mental state. They hope the impact of their (in)action will be to demobilise us, to convince us that things will be okay if there are a few demonstrations, a bit of lobbying here, a bit of pressure there. We cannot afford to be fooled by these professional liars.

Despite a global climate movement and the fact that the climate crisis is talked about every day in the media, we are still nowhere near being able to achieve the radical change that we need. There have been summits and mass demonstrations, climate emergency declarations and direct action protests, but they are only scratching the surface.

There is a trend on the left for ‘Green New Deal’ style politics. Essentially this involves a list of policies to be implemented by the state – more green technology, investment in green jobs, regulating or shutting down environmentally damaging industries. Whilst many of these policies are sound, they remain policies for a potential ‘left’ government, not a guide for people in the here and now.

Workers

With the rise of the global authoritarian right there are many countries around the world that might not see a left government this side of 2030. What is needed is a guide to action for youth, indigenous people, and workers now.

Young people have shown the way with the student climate strikes. But young people alone cannot leverage enough power to force change. Only the working class can do that. We need to move from protests to a position where working people are taking control of their workplaces and a socialist movement is struggling for power against the politicians who serve the interests of the captains of industry.

Several indigenous struggles against extractive capitalism have happened across the world, often against pipelines being built through people’s lands. These struggles are important, as indigenous groups are often located in or near land rich in resources like oil. Support for these campaigns is central to an environmental fightback. The victory against the Keystone XL pipeline in 2021 shows what a concerted and focused resistance movement can achieve. 

In September 2019, there was a global strike by workers in 185 countries. Greta Thunberg’s school strike movement called on workers to join and many did – from Pacific islands to India to Nigeria, Poland, Germany, and the USA. And it wasn’t just about global warming; it was also about toxic air quality in cities like Delhi and Lagos.

In February 2020, thousands of SEIU union cleaning workers in Minneapolis took strike action against their employers, major companies like Wells Fargo and United Health group. Among their demands was that their employers take action against climate change.

Democracy

On the strike rally the union provided simultaneous translation into Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Nepalese, reflecting the international nature of the working class on strike that day. US unions said this was an example of ‘bargaining for the common good’.

No more strikes just about pay and conditions – our wages will be worthless on a planet which is dying. All our strikes have to be about the security of our communities, our planet, from rapacious, devastating capital.

This approach is exactly what Marx and Engels had in mind when they wrote: ‘Each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form, it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.’

The working class is the universal class. We are in every country, we are every nationality, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Nothing gets built, moved, sold, or serviced without our labour, and we can withdraw that labour in the interests of reclaiming the future from capitalism’s death cult. Not just withdraw out labour, but build a movement where we reorganise the world along genuinely democratic lines, a democracy in politics and in economic decision-making.

Billionaires

What does that mean specifically for socialists like me? The starting point for socialists has to be that we fight for meaningful reforms in the here and now – and we mean actually implemented, not just ‘agreed to’. Deeds not just words are required.

As such we fight for all the reforms we can to slow down the process of planetary disaster in the same way as we fight for improvements in pay and working conditions whilst accepting that these won’t end exploitation under capitalism.

But we know that this is a problem of the entire capitalist system. It is embedded in energy production and the demands of a profit-driven system that prioritises money-making over the needs of people and planet.

Extractivism and fossil-based capitalism are central to capitalist production. Even if they wanted to change it without really threatening their profits, they wouldn’t be able to do it in time. This is why so many governments and corporations talk about 2050 as a target, not 2030 – kick the can down the road and let someone else deal with it.

We know that if we are going to stop runaway global warming and restore a genuine equilibrium between humans and the earth, we need to get rid of capitalism. We cannot have human civilisation based on profit and greed – we need a democratically planned economy to ration our resources and ensure that we have a decent standard of life for all in a way that is sustainable. No more billionaires and no more billions scraping by on $2 a day.

Need

Concerted work needs to be done within the trade unions and wider working class so that workers come to the fore of the movement against global warming. It is our work at the behest of the capitalists in the carbon economy which is destroying the planet. We can stop the wheels and gears of industry. We are the ones that can decide what economic activity happens.

Workers must demand a climate audit of all their work to find out what is the most polluting aspect of what they are made to do by their bosses. In Australia, for example, the trade unions are campaigning for green bans on environmentally damaging work.

We need political demands on governments and bosses against industries that are destroying the planet. Those trade unions that prioritise airport expansion over the future of our world are not only undermining the fight but actively damaging the cause.

We need an emergency plan, on the scale of what happened during the COVID pandemic. Internationally coordinated action to phase out fossil-fuel energy production, expropriate major companies and agri-businesses, and make public transport free.

This fight will take us right to the heart of capitalism, to the ‘rights of bourgeois private property’. All the legal, political, and economic arguments will be used against it. But this will only expose the huge contradiction between what we need and what capitalism is willing to do.

Accumulating

The fight to save the planet is a fight against profit, against the wealth and privilege of the rich, and against the very essence of capitalism itself.

Once the capitalist class has been removed from power and the shift away from fossil fuels in the most polluting countries is complete, along with closure of the most environmentally damaging industrial and agricultural activities, we can begin the process of restabilising our relationship with the Earth.

Marx talked about the metabolic rift between humans and their environment. He argued that we are not separate from nature but part of it, and that capitalism causes a break, a dislocation between people and planet, because it is a socio-economic system built on profit and accumulation, not on rational balance.

This is why arguments about growth and degrowth are not particularly helpful in the context of capitalism or ecological problems. It is true that capitalism is a system of perpetual growth. The bosses have to keep accumulating more capital and grabbing more market share from their competitors.

Looted

As ecologist Edward Abbey memorably said: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." It is also the ideology of capitalism.

But growth is often measured by methods like Gross Domestic Product, ways for economists to keep track of economic activity but useless for the rest of us trying to understand the world. The argument for degrowth is that there is too much damaging human activity - factories, shipping, transport, etc, so it will have to be reduced alongside our own consumption. We will have to consume less in order to maintain a zero-growth economy.

The problem with this argument is that it largely becomes a matter of individual responsibility – instead of a structural and social issue. But also, in many parts of the world more growth is actually required.

Countries that have been systematically looted by the West and structurally ‘underdeveloped’ will need to be developed so people there can enjoy a decent standard of living.

Harmful

Moreover, if we want to move towards better insulated homes, better train transport links, and so on, then we will need to produce more of certain types of products. This will produce more carbon, but it will offset later emissions: it will be an investment in a more sustainable world. The reality we face is that we cannot create a world of equal development under capitalism.

As a strategy, socialists argue for reducing the most harmful economic activity and taking the economy out of the hands of the global corporations that can only act in theiown interests. We propose a democratically planned economy run by working people.

Under a democratically planned global economy, we can decide what resources are needed where, not based on whether things are profitable, but on whether people need them or not. Since we can do so in a coordinated way, where cost is not the primary concern, we can factor in what carbons can be emitted to build transport links, better housing, and so on.

It is unlikely that we will be able to totally eliminate all carbon activity from our society, but we can massively reduce it, offset it, and decide where and when we might need to burn carbon. A proper planned economy means we will be able to decide what can be produced locally, regionally, or internationally in ways which are less harmful for the planet.

This Author

Simon Hannah a union activist and the author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution. This article first appeared at the Anti-Capitalist Resistance website.

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