Can Socialism Address Climate Change?

A world simultaneously on fire and flooded. Droughts, famine, wars for increasingly scarce resources. A refugee crisis with millions displaced and desperately hoping to survive. This could be the introduction to a dystopian science fiction story. In fact it is the global situation today.

The Latest IPCC Report

Against this backdrop, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on 9th August 2021. The picture is necessarily alarming. The United Nations chief said the report “is a code red for humanity”. Anyone willing to look would see that the climate crisis has been here for years. The impacts of climate change are already being felt by ordinary people across the world.

Our world is a complex system that is constantly fluctuating. Climate change is a natural occurrence. What distinguishes past periods to the current situation is the pace of the changes observed. Natural climate change occurs over periods measured in millennia. For example when the earth exited the last ice age around 12,000 years, it took around 5,000 years for the global temperature to increase by 5°c. In contrast, from around 1850 to now (roughly 170 years) the average temperature has increased roughly 1.1°c. That means global increases in temperature are happening as much as 10 times faster than would normally happen.

It is now commonly accepted as fact that:

  • Warming is taking place everywhere. Normally changes in temperature are different by region.
  • The warming is happening more rapidly.
  • This warming is taking place after a period of global cooling for around 6,500 years.
  • The last time that the earth was this warm was roughly 125,000 years ago.

All of this indicates that what is happening now is unusual and highly unlikely to be naturally occurring.

The Role of Capitalism

The conclusion of the IPCC and the vast majority of scientists is that human activity is the driver of the climate change we’re currently seeing. There is a significant body of observed evidence to support this conclusion. The main driver of climate change at the moment is the increase of what are termed greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which trap heat within our ozone layer and cause heating of the planet. These greenhouse gases include CO2, methane and nitrous dioxide, which are by-products of modern human society.

The knowledge of the direct link between activities such as coal burning and climate change has been known about for over a century. Recently a clipping from a 1912 article in the New Zealand newspaper Rodney and Otamatea Times was circulated through social media. This in turn was based on a magazine article published in March 1912. So by at least 1912 scientists were already aware that burning coal would affect the atmosphere and cause warming.

The majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from the following industries/sectors:

  • Energy production – 35% (25% for heat and electricity)
  • Agriculture – 24%
  • Industry – 21%
  • Transportation – 14%
  • Residential – 6%

Everything we do directly or indirectly results in production of greenhouse gases. Whether its the food we eat, the energy we use to keep ourselves warm and dry, travelling to work. This is because under capitalism, the priority is to maximise profits. Therefore the system will use the cheapest methods possible to achieve results. This means exploiting the natural resources of the planet with no consideration of whether those resources are renewable or their extraction will have consequences.

Not only does capitalism seek the easiest method to profits, it will use its resources to block or undermine the release of information that can hurt profits. As mentioned above, scientists have known for over 100 years that burning coal, gas and oil would have consequences. And yet the companies that extract and use those resources have rejected that information for decades, including funding alternative scientific reports to suggest there wasn’t consensus amongst the scientific community. They have also used lobbying to influence politicians to block or amend legislation that would be harmful.

These types of actions have meant that actions that should have been taken decades ago have been delayed. Even the current Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level to ensure that global temperature increases are limited to 2°c this century are generally seen to be insufficient.

A ‘Just Transition’?

Despite the efforts of capitalism to ignore climate change, it is now forefront in the public eye and there are a number of groups that are seeking to tackle climate change. The Socialist Party can and does seek to work with these groups. But we also recognise the limitations of these groups and in particular the weaknesses of their demands. This is most clearly illustrated in the concept of a ‘just transition’.

The idea behind a just transition is that the burden of societal changes required to address climate change needs to fall onto the shoulders that are most capable of bearing the burden. What this means in practice will differ depending on the type of change(s) being sought. For example it is likely that all internal combustion vehicles will be to be abolished in the next decade. Alternatives, such as electric vehicles, are already available. However the price of electric vehicles means that they are unaffordable for most people. In addition, many people are forced to rent flats or multi occupancy homes and so it will be very difficult for them to be able to recharge their car at home. A shift to electric vehicles without any other changes would create a near impenetrable barrier for ordinary people to own a car. Under a just transition, the shift to electric vehicles would be done alongside improvements to public transport and price subsidies so that those who need to travel would still be able to do so.

Another example is food. An increasing number of people are going ‘flexitarian’ – going partly vegetarian but eating meat on some days. This may well be something that all people need to do in the future. Our fast food culture means that it is often cheaper (not to mention quicker) to feed a family with burgers, fried chicken or similar. A shift to a predominantly vegetarian diet would create a burden on those with the least free time available. Some vegan companies are seeking to imitate meat with vegetable products, looking to reproduce the look, smell, taste and texture of meat. Some of these imitations are now incredibly accurate, but the tone and effort involved comes with a cost that means they are outside of the price tag of ordinary people for their daily shopping. A just transition would require vegetarian fast food equivalents to be locally available and affordable.

A major flaw in the position of other groups is that they are looking for the capitalist system to be able to provide a just transition. Capitalism is incapable of addressing the current problems created by climate change. We’ve repeatedly seen the failures of capitalism to deliver for ordinary people. It’s ordinary people that see their homes destroyed by wildfires or so called once in a generation flooding. Its ordinary people that suffer droughts as existing waterways are redirected for agriculture or for bottled water. Its ordinary people that suffer famine as land is used for crops to be exported. We can’t have any reliance on capitalism to deliver a just transition for ordinary people as things get tougher due to climate change.

Socialist Change to Fight Climate Change!

As socialists we seek a society that provides for everyone, not simply the 1% and 0.1%. This means building homes for all that provide adequate space for families, that are energy efficient making use of solar power and rainwater to minimise their environmental impact. It means providing fully funded and resourced public services, especially the emergency services that are desperately needed to respond to the more frequent extreme weather events. It means flood defences, provision of shelters. It means vehicles that don’t rely on internal combustion.

But the individual impacts on climate change are tiny compared to the impacts of business. It is necessary to take control of the biggest businesses to make any noticeable differences. We would need to control finance to halt funding into damaging activities. We would need to control food production and retailers to halt competition that leads to waste, so that land could be freed up to be available for environmentally useful activity like planting trees. It means providing a healthier diet that isn’t reliant on fast food so that livestock production could be lower. It means control of UK utilities like water and electricity to make them less wasteful and to invest to modern standards so that we can maximise use of renewables. It means planned production so that reliance on transport of goods across borders is reduced.

Many people fear that these changes could cost them their jobs. This is likely to be true of their existing jobs, but experiences like the Lucas Plan have shown how many people have transferable skills that can be used to facilitate a more environmentally friendly society. Moving to this society would create highly skilled and fulfilling jobs, as shown by the 1,000,000 climate jobs plan created by the PCS union, led by Socialist Party member Chris Baugh, who was the then Assistant General Secretary of PCS. But this sort of radical planning and change won’t be possible or desirable under a capitalist system. Only a Socialist system is capable of delivering the dramatic changes required to address climate change immediately and permanently.

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