by Güney Işıkara
The report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in September 2018, immediately followed by the UN COP24 climate change conference in December of the same year, immediately resulted in a flurry of discussion around the world, including within the United States. As the environmental crisis looms ever more as an existential crisis in the popular imagination, it is increasingly reflected in policy proposals. The “Green New Deal” proposed by the Green Party in the US has been taken up by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), including some, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who sit in prominent offices through the Democratic Party. The fact that corporate greenwashing, along with the propagation of a “green capitalism,” has been organized around the concept of sustainability should not drive the left. The main task is to frame the question in correct terms, putting our fingers on the systemic aspect of the crisis— namely capitalism as a totality.
However, this does not simply mean providing an abstract criticism of capitalism as responsible for the crisis, while standing aloof from the specifics of the environmental crisis. The initial consciousness of the system as the source of the crisis cannot be equated with the posing a concrete solution. On what grounds can Marxists analyze the environmental crisis, and what distinctive political prescriptions follow from this, that might differ from social-democratic reforms?
In this short piece, we will mainly focus on the deadlock which solution proposals that do not problematize the capitalist market mechanism find themselves in, and suggest the blueprints of a radical, socialist response that the crisis itself is calling for. Particularly taking up the question of growth vs. degrowth, we are aware that the piece leaves many important issues untouched.
Growth and current historic juncture
Climate Change has diverse causes and effects, and is accordingly subject to extensive scientific inquiry which this short piece cannot justly summarize in its totality. Therefore, we must focus on the most pressing aspect, which itself gives us the most immediate and concrete grounds to incorporate this question into the contradictions of capitalism and the struggle by socialists against it.
Everything we consume has to be produced, and all production consumes energy. Globally, economic growth is approximately proportionately linked with energy consumption, such that an increase of approximately 1% in global GDP requires an increase of approximately 1% in global energy use. Under current technology and production, the energy consumed is overwhelmingly (over 90%) produced through the combustion of fossil and biofuels, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Obviously, given our current technologies, and assuming current patterns of production and consumption, it follows that this economic growth is itself part of the cause of the carbon footprint which is raising average global temperatures and is already changing climate patterns.
Today, however, growth on its own only part of the problem. If, relative to pre-industrial levels of global average temperatures, we intend to remain within the limits of an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius (the limit provided by most experts, beyond which the effects on the environment according to models become dangerously non-linear, catastrophic, in short, apocalyptic), we have a remaining global carbon budget of 420 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or, put in terms of our actual current levels of emission, roughly 10-11 years (depending on the reports consulted). This approximate timespan refers to a business-as-usual scenario under which no significant change takes place in energy use, its carbon intensity, and/or the way our social production and consumption is organized.
Although predictions and prescriptions vary, there is a growing consensus in scientific literature that in order to avoid the predicted catastrophic effects of climate change, by approximately 2030, we must have decreased our greenhouse gas emissions by 50% of the projected levels; and furthermore, by 2050, have effectively transitioned to an economy which does not produce any new carbon dioxide.
The environmental crisis and the political response
This reality goes far beyond mere academic interest: this is a ticking time bomb for our species, biodiversity, and sustained life as we know it on our planet. Therefore, as a political issue, it appears at first glance to go beyond the question of class and national politics. Indeed, this is precisely how the problem is presented in the media and in much of the scientific literature. We are presented with the concept of an “Anthropocene” epoch, a geological era in which “humanity” is said to affect the primary change on the climate and environment. This is impossible to deny on one level, but unfortunately, like so many truths, it can be used to conceal as much as it reveals. What it conceals is that, like all human activity in our era, the effect of humanity on the environment is unequally distributed across national boundaries, and on a more fundamental and essential level, unequally distributed across social class. The fact is that the problem itself is an outcome of a class society that organizes production for the market under the guide of the profit motive, and cannot be solved without recognizing this fact.
Were this an academic publication, there are countless references we could make to studies detailing global patterns of consumption and their relationship to carbon emissions, most of which articulate similar patterns, differing mostly in extent. It suffices here to mention one particular overview found in the 2015 Oxfam media briefing on “Extreme Carbon Inequality”. According to the estimates in this report, basically half of global carbon dioxide emissions associated with private consumption are attributed to the richest 10% of the global population, whereas the poorest 50% emit only 10% of the global carbon dioxide emissions. To help imagine the extent of horizontal (cross-country) inequality in terms of per-capita emissions associated with consumption, it suffices to mention that consumption emissions of the richest layers of Chinese and Indian population are literally dwarfed by their counterparts in advanced countries such as the US. The former are only comparable to the per-capita consumption of rather poor sections of the population in richer countries.
When one consults mainstream media sources in English-speaking countries concerned with this problem, it is not difficult to find a picture painted of countries like China and India developing in such a way as to massively exacerbate global carbon dioxide emissions. By contrast, these same authors might praise the United States or EU countries for some relative improvement (which may be as much a result of a decline in growth as it is of any commitment to reducing emissions in these countries). This is because they (likely purposefully) rely on production-based emissions, according to which the Global South is rapidly increasing its emissions. However, it is nothing short of self-delusion to ignore that a substantial share of the commodities produced in these countries are consumed in advanced countries. We can see that the increase in living standards in the more advanced countries still directly relies on the same carbon dioxide-heavy production which is outsourced to other countries; the very same countries to which capital is exported to superexploit labor are also those countries in which global capitalism is able to exploit the environment to its fullest.
On top of this horizontal inequality, it suffices to mention that the consumption-based per-capita emissions of the richest 10% of the US population is 3 to 5 times (estimates vary from study to study) that of the poorer half of the society.
Two conclusions follow from this: first, just like it is a small class of capitalists who appropriate the wealth resulting from social production, it is again the same class who uses up a disproportionate share of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases without regard to the risk of an end to life on Earth. As the point of departure for a socialist response, this very capacity, as well as the environment more broadly, must be perceived as common property. Second, the class division of society and the inherent expansion motive of capital does not only result in exploitation, domination and inequality within nations, but also gives rise significant to asymmetries between nations on a global scale. This global character of the problem renders merely individual nation-based responses ineffective.
The “Green New Deal”
Let us then speak about the current en vogue solution in the United States, the so-called “Green New Deal”. This proposal has many supporters in the US— from the academic left, to the Green Party of the United States, who popularized it, and now, increasingly, in the DSA and in other socialist or socialist-leaning progressive political organizations. It attempts to gradually diminish greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time creating new jobs to avoid an increase in unemployment (resulting from the closure of factories, mines, energy plants, and so on). Mechanisms for this might include subsidies for corporations willing to transition to clean production, price incentives through carbon taxes that would push firms to reduce their emissions, and cap-and-trade or cap-and-dividend schemes.
The seemingly most progressive measure in this framework is a “cap and dividend” system by which across the board, a limit would be placed on the national level of carbon dioxide emissions by the government, and permits to emit carbon dioxide (incrementalized in the amount of, for example, one ton) would be sold to firms. This imposes a supply-side control on total emissions, while at the same time it constitutes a substantial source of revenue for the government, which is distributed to all citizens in the form of dividends, leading to a redistribution of income in favor of the poor. However, it is totally timid on the question of the level of national permits. Given the fact that there is a relatively small global carbon budget left, a primary issue to be addressed is its distribution to different countries with different standards of living.
The issue is clear: the environment is our common, global heritage, and it is a common, global property. The combined share of the US and EU-28 countries in total (cumulative since 1750) CO2 emissions is around 50%. Thus, given the small amount of remaining carbon budget, no country from the Global South will abide by a ‘deal’ where the aforementioned rich countries will keep using up a substantial portion of it. Again, bourgeois ideologues in the West will tell you that, for instance, China is emitting more carbon than the US and EU combined. This is true. But if we adjust the emissions for population (China has a population that is more than 1.5 times the combined population of the other two), in other words, if we look at per-capita emissions, we see that the US still more than doubles Chinese levels— despite the fact that these numbers are derived from a production-based approach!
(For those some examples of this fixation on China’s contribution to climate change in the western mainstream press, we provide here some examples of pieces which border on announcing that we have entered a “Sinanthropocene” era.)
By no means are we attempting to salvage China. As a capitalist country, all points raised above hold for China as well. Our point however, is that in advanced countries it is particularly important to develop a political narrative and mobilization that questions and dispenses with the fixation on growth under current circumstances, which is concomitant with emphasizing the need for conscious, democratic planning that puts environmental and human well-being above all. This is not to dispense the concept of growth as such, but growth in a capitalist setting that is no longer reconcilable with the aforementioned ecological goals on the one hand, and does not essentially benefit the working classes, on the other.
This implies a political program that, on the one hand, promises to do away with coal-fired plants as soon as possible, be rid of the massive oil and gas industries, shift to electric power generated by solar, wind, and water sources, and even reorganize urban life to decrease reliance on automobiles, increase the accessibility and extent of mass transportation. It demands measures to immediately increase energy efficiency in buildings, industry, and transportation. Given the extent and speed with which this massive transformation has to be carried out, the case for democratic planning is much stronger compared to the erratic market mechanism full of uncertainties and lags.
On the other hand, popular support for such a program can only be obtained by ensuring that the poor and working classes will not be harmed by an eventual suspension of growth (not that they reap its current benefits anyway). The most immediate and simple way of doing this is to facilitate their access to essential goods and services such as housing, education, healthcare services, basic food and clothing items, and the like. In the immediate short-run, this can take the form of a combination of public provision, subsidies, price controls, and so forth. Recent public discussions indicate that even in the US the broad masses are much more sympathetic than expected to substantial increases in the tax rates imposed on the rich. Already we have an answer to the usual suspect question: where are the resources for such a program?
All of the points mentioned above are in direct contradiction with the chaotic nature of the market resulting from decision-making by atomized, myopic entities whose interests conflict with one another. What is instead required is a planned intervention in the way our production and consumption is organized. The name of this planning is socialism, an economic system which does away with the profit motive and the exploitation it begets, an exploitation which is not only the exploitation of our collective labor, but also of our common heritage in the form of environment in which we live. This exploitation of the environment which the ruling classes under capitalism cannot propose a means of escaping now threatens the very future of life on the planet. Socialists must emphasize this as an urgent rallying cry and a means of organizing the broad masses against the system which degrades and destroys without regard to the present and the future.
As much as it is an enormous threat, the current environmental crisis also represents a great opportunity for the case for a democratic planning mechanism that puts use-values (including a livable environment) at the center. They know it as well as we do: carbon-producing fossil and biofuels are built into the heart of our economic system, and we have very little time left to change it. This cannot be done without disrupting the current economic system. And it is in our hands to use this opportunity to push for a green, egalitarian, democratic, and planned socialist economy!