We need system change to halt climate change

A international planned socialist economy could realise emissions neutrality and start to reverse some of the impacts of climate change

Helen Pattison, Socialist Party national committee

Was there ever a starker example of the destructive and unplanned nature of capitalism than the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings?

The report is blunt: the very planet we live on, the only one we have, is being destroyed. There are just 12 years to start the work to prevent potentially irreversible damage to the environment.

This is clearly a growing concern for many ordinary people, who will not only be affected by the physical impact of the damage to the environment, but who are also worried about the kind of planet we will be left with if environmental destruction continues.

Poorest hit hardest

This generation of young people will not only be the first in recent history to be worse off than our parents, but, if the capitalist system is not challenged, we will also live under the impact of huge damage to the environment, the destruction of habitat, the extinction of animals and land lost to rising sea levels.

Across every continent on the planet, working-class and poor people will see their access to food, water and safety affected.

The environment is an important issue for socialists. A programme which can save the environment, and which does not ask already impoverished working-class communities to pay the price for climate change, is needed.

It’s estimated that 100 of the world’s biggest corporations are responsible for 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Under capitalism, the needs of people and planet are treated as secondary to the drive for profit.

There is now more CO2 in the air then has been seen for 3 to 5 million years. It’s expected that, as global temperatures continue to rise, a further 500,000 to 1 million people in Europe alone will be affected by flooding. In the US, there has already been a tripling in the number of heat waves. 81% of US states experienced abnormally dry conditions in 2012. This has led to a growing number of wild fires, especially in summer months.

The latest of these, in California, resulted in 85 deaths and the destruction of over 11,000 homes. This happened in the richest country on earth. But not everyone suffers the results of environmental destruction and resulting extreme weather events evenly.

For example, in the recent forest fires, reality TV star Kim Kardashian hired a private team of firefighters to protect her $60 million mansion. The super-rich have access to the resources necessary to minimise the impact of environmental disaster on their lives or property.

It goes without saying that working and middle-class people don’t have this option. As well as the terrible loss of life, many lost everything in the California fires, including their only home.

When hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2005, one climate scientist made headlines when he accurately commented that, while the winds were indiscriminate, their worst impact was on poor, working-class and black communities.

They are more likely to live on land which is susceptible to flooding and in buildings that are less likely to survive extreme weather.

What’s more, in the case of hurricane Katrina, many families were unable to access transport to leave their homes. Some working-class families spent their life savings on motels after evacuation orders.

The brunt of the impact of climate change will continue to be primarily borne by the poorest communities across the globe.

Even if the IPCC’s recommendations were followed, and if a maximum rise of 1.50C in global temperature were achieved, it would still be the case that “13.8% of the world population would be exposed to severe heat waves at least once every five years”, according to the research. Three times as many people will be affected if world temperatures are allowed to increase by two degrees.

Despite the fact that millions of people will be affected by climate change in the coming decades, the IPCC report doesn’t suggest aiming for a zero emissions policy, which they predict would mean only a 0.50C degree increase in global temperature.

The reason cited is that the measures needed to achieve such a target would be ‘unlikely’ to win the support of governments and policy makers.

But even to achieve the target the report does suggest – that of a maximum global temperature increase of 1.50C – the IPCC itself states that “transformative systemic change” would be required.

In effect, the report counterposes the delay and inaction in implementing ‘green policy’ which is evident under capitalism, with what would be possible in “a fully cooperative world”.

But what system might provide the basis for such cooperation?

Limitations of IPCC

While the report does not state it explicitly, its authors are essentially forced to concede that capitalism, in its never-ending drive for profits, is a barrier to implementing the changes needed to save the planet.

The IPCC was set up in 1988 following a resolution passed at the UN – a gathering of capitalist governments dominated by the major imperialist powers. It’s therefore unsurprising that the authors do not suggest a socialist alternative to capitalism.

The report sees genuinely protecting people and the planet as ‘unrealistic’. Rather, the IPCC plays off the differences between the disastrous impact of a 20C temperature rise and a 1.5 degree rise, hoping that capitalist governments will aim for the ‘least bad’ option.

At a 1.50C temperature increase, 420 million fewer people would experience extreme heatwaves.

But this would still leave millions more people than today struggling to find food, water and safety. Land where grain and cereal is typically grown will be destroyed, taken by rising sea levels.

And the record of the world’s capitalist governments of meeting even extremely modest targets has been utterly abysmal.

On the basis of capitalism, millions already starve despite the fact the planet produces enough food to feed everyone. This is because even food is distributed on the basis of profit, not need.

Climate change is clearly a pressing concern for the majority of working-class people. But with 71% of greenhouse gas emissions coming from 100 corporations, capitalism presents a fundamental barrier to solving the problem. After all, you can’t control what you don’t own.

Under capitalism, production is unplanned, driven by the demands of profit. Only on the basis of public ownership of the major monopolies, with democratic workers’ control and management, would it be possible to begin the work of tackling climate change.

Huge investment is needed into new low-carbon and energy efficient forms of technology – according to the IPCC, approximately a doubling in the next 20 years.

But capitalist companies don’t make decisions about investment into technology on the basis of the needs of the environment. The decisions are made on the basis of profitability.

In fact, the IPCC goes on to point out that much of industry is “locked-in” to carbon intensive technology which it would be “difficult or costly to phase-out”.

Green big business?

Some researchers have attempted to appeal to big business to become more environmentally friendly by showing the huge economic impact climate change could have on their profits.

In Europe, the damage from flooding expected with a 1.50C, 20C or 30C global temperature rise ranged between tens of billions and hundreds of billions in Euros each year, according to the data. But faith in big business and the capitalist class is misplaced, because of the short-term nature of the drive for profit.

Alongside energy efficient investment, the IPCC calls for “climate friendly public investment”. After a decade of austerity, many working-class people will expect they, rather than the super-rich and big business, would be asked to pay for any such measures – even if they were agreed. Meanwhile, those responsible for the destruction keep their profit.

Many ordinary people diligently recycle, for example. But this diligence clashes with a Tory government intent on slashing spending, and local councils content to carry out cuts without a fight. To give one example, Hounslow council in west London has started sending all waste from public bins, including separated recycling, to land fill. This is to save £1.3 million from the council budget.

Since the destruction of the environment caused by carbon emissions has begun to be understood, very little has been done. Agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord are ineffective. Paris didn’t go nearly far enough, aiming to keep global temperature rises to 2 degrees. But it was also non-binding.

Even so, Trump withdrew the US earlier this year. For Bolsonaro, the newly elected far-right president of Brazil, opening the Amazon up to deforestation is high on the agenda, and pulling Brazil out of the Paris Agreement is also likely.

Where energy-efficient technology does exist it is largely underused because it is expensive and therefore not profitable.

This is why socialists raise the need to fight for public ownership of industry, so that environmentally friendly technology can be fully used.

The ‘profit’ of saving the planet is not in money for a rich few today, it would be in protecting the lives of millions of people, saving animals from extinction, and in securing for future generations a decent standard of living, with air they can breathe.

Instead of the destruction of what can be well-paid jobs in the fossil fuel industry, socialists call for retraining and redeployment, without any loss of pay or worsening of conditions. On the basis of public ownership of the energy industry under democratic workers’ control and management, this would be possible.

We can look to examples such as that of the Lucas plan for how this might be done. This was developed in the 1970s by aerospace workers. They devised 129 socially useful products they could create using the machinery that was then used to make military equipment.

So the question remains, is capitalism capable of saving the environment? Or is it necessary for working-class people to instead unite in a mass struggle to demand the fundamental change that is needed – to fight for a socialist system?

On the basis of socialism, the nationalisation of the big monopolies would lay the basis for working-class people to democratically plan production in the interests of people and planet.

Ultimately, tackling climate change cannot be achieved within the boundaries of a single nation state. That’s one of the reasons socialists are internationalists. We stand for working-class unity across borders, and for a socialist world.

A planned socialist economy, on an international basis, could make the plans of emissions neutrality a reality and start to reverse some of the impacts of climate change.

A recent US government report on climate change (released when many Americans were on holiday) warned that unless drastic action was taken to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the US economy would shrink 10% by the end of the century and there would be thousands of premature deaths each year. Trump, backed by fossil fuel companies, dismissed the report compiled by 300 scientists and continues to deny global warming is happening.