Reaching for the emergency brake at Endgames? Capitalism and the climate emergency

The last year or so have seen a dramatic shift in the way that both the left and the broader public understand climate change in Western countries. Climate crisis and biodiversity loss are now not just threats for the future – they are happening as we speak. Millions worldwide have been inspired by activists demanding urgent action, such as young people involved in school strikes and campaigners from Extinction Rebellion (XR) taking part in non-violent direct action. On 26 October, rs21 hosted a day of discussions in London about the politics that can take the movement forward, and how we can connect up climate politics with a Marxist understanding of the world and how to fight for change. Over 120 people attended, heard from a genuinely diverse range of speakers, and took part in lively debate.

Photo: Steve Eason

The second session of the day examined the current scientific and political debates around decarbonisation, as well as existing left programmes towards sustainability in a roundtable discussion format. The panellists discussed degrowth, green new deal initiatives and grappled with questions around the role of the state, consumption, the necessary and realistic timelines of zero-carbon emissions and just transition. Taisie Tsikas from rs21 introduced and chaired the roundtable.

Hazel Graham from rs21 addressed some of the issues referring to the work of the Centre for Alternative Technology, which has developed plans to make changes as fast as possible using existing technologies. They calculate that we need to reduce our power consumption by 60%, which can be done by building insulation into new homes and retrofitting it into existing ones; reducing travel – by making more use of Skype, for example – and by making more use of renewables. CAT promotes proposals from groups around the world about how to get to zero carbon. They call for the nationalisation of energy and transport. They identify neoliberalism as the cause of the climate crisis – but not capitalism as such. Here the politics of the One Million Climate Jobs campaign are better – they call for secure government employment in renewable energy, insulating homes and public buildings, providing cheap public transport and education in ‘green skills’. This will involve major social change, but it can be done and has to be – we can’t rely on everyone taking individual action.

Angus Satow from Labour for a Green New Deal, a campaign of Labour Party members and trade unionists, stressed that a Green New Deal (GND) can mean various things. LGND want massive investment in an ecosocialist society for the many, not the few. Their principles are democratic ownership of economy (more so than proposed by Corbyn); universal services; public luxury and internationalism. The free market is not going to lead to decarbonisation. So we need to mobilise the full resources of the state, starting with a Corbyn government – that’s the way forward towards decarbonisation and further, when, as now, revolution just isn’t on the agenda. We also see the growth of a new imperialism around access to resources. So it’s crucial for GND to be pro-migrant, supporting the right of people to move – we support open borders. We can win people to decarbonisation if we start by attacking the rich and the ruling class, naming the polluters, corporations and 1% as the problem. We need to ban cars and domestic flights, for example, but if at the same time we make all public transport free and electrify all trains, we can win mass support for decarbonisation and also enrich people’s lives. The same is true of a 4-day week.

Lola Seaton, author the article Green Questions in New Left Review, raised a number of those questions. As capitalism itself is based on fossil fuel extraction and the nation-state and capitalism are inherently linked, is decarbonisation at all possible within capitalism? She has raised some of the key questions of the current debate, interrogating what is meant by ‘realistic’ targets for emissions both technologically and politically, could these targets be achieved by switching to renewable energy sources only, or is a decrease in energy use and thus an end to economic growth is needed. She also interrogated the aims of existing programmes to tackle the crisis and the efficacy of individual lifestyle changes.

Speakers from the floor then raised lots of points, among which several highlighted the necessity of confronting the power of the state itself, rather than attempting to raise demands to it, using the example, among others, Britain’s negative role in international climate negotiations, as well as the worst single polluter of the world – the US military.

The vital role of trade unions was also mentioned, as a key player in leveraging power in the monumental task in front of us, which is transforming the economy of the UK in just a decade. Some unions already support the Green New Deal, but unfortunately not all of them. Several contributors raised the necessity of international solidarity and cautioned against solutions that reinforce imperialism.

You can read reports on other sessions of the day here, here and here.


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