“When the leaders speak of peace”, wrote the German socialist artist Bertolt Brecht while living in exile in 1937, “the people know that war is coming”. Brecht’s pithy epigram, from his German War Primer poem, should be kept firmly in mind as the representatives of the countries that agreed the 1992 Rio Earth Summit United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change gather this November in Glasgow for the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties to the convention (COP26).
Almost half of the atmosphere’s extra, human-made carbon dioxide has been put there under the watch of these representatives in the period since, almost thirty years ago now, they solemnly signed the Rio convention to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate”.
Of course, the personnel involved have changed but not the globally dominant economic and social system of organising human relations – capitalism – which they represent. As our article, Climate Talks: The Hot Air Years, explains, charting the years of climate talks since 1992, “often conferences are concluded with huge official optimism” – ‘greenwashing’, which only serves to obfuscate an inherent systemic failure that is imperilling all our futures.
And Glasgow will be no different. Before the delegates arrive it is clear that the summit will not achieve even the goals set for it at the Paris climate talks in 2015. Then 196 national state representatives signed up to hold global temperature rises to “well below two degrees Celsius” (2C), with an aspiration to limit rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
The different consequences of a 1.5C or a 2C warming are profound, with between a twelfth and a fifth of the earth’s land mass transforming from one to another of the different terrestrial biome types at 2C – tropical rainforest, boreal and temperate forests, savannah, grasslands, deserts and tundra – 50% more than at 1.5C.
But the pledges on greenhouse gas emissions brought to Paris, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), would have led to heating of at least 3C. So yet another promise was made, to bring new targets to Glasgow in 2020, deferred to this year due to the Covid pandemic.
No doubt congratulatory declarations will be made at the conference close in Glasgow – with Boris Johnson leading the fanfare – probably hailing the summit for ‘keeping 1.5C alive’. But the actual NDCs that will be pledged – never mind delivered – will fall well short.
To paraphrase Brecht, when the capitalist leaders speak of combating climate change, the people must know that climate catastrophe is coming – and that the struggle for the change of system necessary to save the planet, for socialism, must go on with ever greater urgency.
The problem with capitalism
Why is system change necessary to stop climate change? Why can’t capitalism itself reverse the inexorable momentum towards a future of catastrophic climate heating? Fundamentally, because of the two pillars on which the system rests.
Firstly there is the private ownership of the means of creating the goods and services we consume (capital); with the production of those goods and services for exchange (commodities) undertaken to realise a profit for the owners of capital, not to meet social and planetary needs.
This is ‘the hidden hand’ of the free market guiding society, as the first theorist of capitalism, Adam Smith, described it in his book, The Wealth of Nations, nearly 250 years ago, dominated in the modern era by an ever-concentrating circle of giant corporations.
Secondly, but equally integral to the system as it actually exists, there is the organisation of competing capitalist classes in nation states, the terrain on which capitalism first emerged in Britain and the Low Countries and then across the globe.
To move to a net zero carbon global economy would require a “massive reallocation of capital”, as the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney and the Banque de France governor, Francois Villeroy de Galhau, recently described it.
Their calculation is that to reach even the Paris 2C upper target, the ‘stranded assets’ of companies’ consequently unusable fossil fuel reserves and associated production patterns could total $20 trillion (£15.3trn).
A 2017 Schroders Fund analysis similarly argued that a carbon emissions price or tax of $100 a tonne, which they projected would meet the 2C target, would cut the total earnings of the top 12,500 global companies by an average of 20%, an overall $1.5 trillion (£1.2trn) profits hit.
While some sectors would gain from decarbonisation, others, however, including steel, construction and chemicals, would face a proportionately greater hit, by as much as 80%.
Attempting this ‘reallocation’ while the commanding heights of the economy remain in private hands would create a ferocious competition between different sectors of capital, including regulatory evasion, ‘investment strikes’ and direct sabotage, to avoid being the loser.
Splits in the ruling capitalist class create opportunities for the working class to assert its interests and build its forces to challenge capitalism but do not resolve the problem of the system’s anarchic, unplanned ‘hidden hand’ character. That is why public ownership under democratic working class control and management of the major companies that dominate the economy must be the first component of any serious programme to combat climate change.
This is not to say that the capitalists and their political representatives will do nothing in the face of the developing climate crisis. The Covid pandemic has shown how far even the most ideologically committed free marketer capitalist politicians will go in mobilising the state to protect their system from the mass anger that would have been unleashed – and threatened, at the least, their own positions – if they had not intervened to ameliorate the impact of the virus on economic and social life.
The capitalist state, famously described by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto as a committee “for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, has also in the past been compelled to take measures to protect the environment, even against the immediate interests of one section or other of the capitalist class.
It was the 19th-century Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, for example, who introduced the Rivers Pollution Act of 1876 against the solid waste dumping practices of capitalist manufacturers, and the 1878 act protecting Epping Forest, responding to the pressure of the urban working class (with one third of adult males newly enfranchised by the 1867 parliamentary Reform Act).
But such actions to protect the environment were within the boundaries of the nation-state, not global measures, and in a period when British capitalism as the dominant world power felt able to incur any ‘first-mover disadvantages’ that it might suffer against its international rivals.
Combating global climate change is a qualitatively different matter – even compared to dealing with Covid which, moreover, has provided a poor augury for international collaboration – in which the continued organisation of capitalism in competing nation-states, the second pillar on which the system rests, is an obstacle on par with private ownership of the means of production.
It too must be overcome – not through denying the existence of nations and their right to self-determination, but through workers’ socialist internationalism.
The nation-state and climate action
Global capitalism today is still organised on the basis of nation-states as economic and political entities, even where different capitalist nation-states are grouped together in regional blocs like the European Union (EU).
Even multinational companies, as they stride the globe, are still linked to a national base and ultimately reliant on it. This integral feature of ‘actually existing capitalism’ has shaped all the attempts to achieve international action against climate change.
In 2013 Nicholas Stern, author of the definitive 2006 UK government-commissioned report on climate change, produced a further study examining the distribution of the ‘carbon asset bubble’ that would be created if climate targets were to be met.
Calculating that fossil fuel companies were valued in 2013 on the basis of reserves equating to 2,860 billion tonnes of carbon emissions, the study argued that just 31% of these reserves could be burned for an 80% chance of keeping below the 2C temperature rise target.
The US was estimated as holding 18% of these reserves – would US imperialism quietly agree for these assets to be written off? A later International Energy Agency report showed that, with the explosion of shale oil and gas production in the US, the USA’s capacity was growing at a greater rate than Saudi Arabia did in the 1960s and 1970s, giving it a new advantage in world economic relations.
Meanwhile, while renewables surpassed coal on a world scale as the biggest source of generating capacity for the first time in 2015, global investment in wind, solar and other renewables is being led by China, as the regime attempts to end its dependence on imported oil and gas.
A third of global wind electricity-generating capacity is in China and 25% of the world’s solar panels in use. The Made in China 2025 plan also includes a strategy to dominate the electric vehicle market, with its battery-making expansion programme three times greater than the rest of the world combined.
Rather than collaboration to re-organise the world economy on a net zero carbon basis, the perspective is for heightened tensions between the world’s major powers, including a struggle for market advantage in new green technology and possible energy trade wars.
The nation-state is not only an economic grouping of capitalists based within a single jurisdiction but a social and political formation too, with historically rooted features such as territorial boundaries, language, religion, culture, etc, a national consciousness that remains as an organic element of capitalist society to this day.
In the period of capitalism’s historical ascent, the struggle to create a nation-state allowed the rising bourgeoisie to mobilise the masses to break down the old feudal system, and national movements can still today reflect the aspirations of workers and the poor to take control of their destiny.
But national consciousness can also provide the basis for capitalist politicians to attempt to maintain their rule, particularly in times of economic rupture when the need to justify ideologically a system in which a small minority exploits the majority becomes most acute.
This has consequences for international climate negotiations, which involve contemplating economic rupture of enormous proportions – ‘a massive reallocation of capital’ – not just between different sections of capital but different nation-states.
Inevitably the interests of one or another section of the capitalist class in a particular country will not be met and there will always be pro-capitalist politicians prepared to make a right-wing nationalist appeal who will reflect that.
And if working and middle-class voters feel powerless, subject to economic and political factors beyond their control, they will be open to calls to ‘put our country first’, unless a viable force can offer a real alternative of workers’ solidarity and decisive socialist action against big business.
It was not accidental that withdrawal from the Paris agreement was part of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda in his 2016 presidential campaign, a policy he stood by to the end, hectoring his last G20 summit of world leaders at the end of November 2020 that “the accord was not designed to save the environment. It was designed to kill the American economy”.
These are the underlying contradictions on which the climate negotiations have floundered for nearly thirty years. Capitalism is a system of political economy, not economics alone.
International solidarity and international planning will be necessary to save the planet. But that does not mean that the working class should give one ounce of credence to the ‘internationalism’ of any one set of capitalist politicians negotiating climate agreements – or clashing with – another set, but seek its own independent road in order to save the planet.
Brecht’s German War Primer also includes the lines that “when it comes to marching, many do not know that their enemy is marching at their head. The voice which gives them their orders, is their enemy’s voice; and the man who speaks of the enemy, is the enemy himself”.
With the climate crisis now a permanent and increasingly critical feature of economic, social and political developments, in each country and globally, such advice to preserve an independent class approach is ever more important.
Socialist change to stop climate change
The Glasgow jamboree may be viewed by some climate campaigners as showing how far away humanity is from the socialist change that we argue is necessary to stop climate change. But it should not be overlooked that COP26 could well have taken place under a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.
Labour’s manifesto for the 2019 general election did not have a clear programme of nationalisation of the banks and major companies necessary to counter the capitalists’ sabotage that a Corbyn-led government would have met and which, as argued earlier, is essential to a serious programme to combat climate change.
But the manifesto commitments did include “bringing our energy and water systems into democratic public ownership”, and proposals for a £250 billion investment in renewable energy, public transport, biodiversity and environmental restoration, billed as a Green Industrial Revolution. They were rated by the Friends of the Earth as being ahead of those of the Green Party, and completely dwarf the proposals of the Johnson government.
Imagine the impact they could have had if they had been presented in Glasgow. Not on the assembled dignitaries and big business lobbyists, but on millions across the globe who would have been inspired to make the same demands on their governments and organise to achieve them.
Halting climate change, tied as it is to end the rule of the capitalists, is a process of struggle, not one act, in which victories in one country will have a profound pull across the globe.
But of course, despite polling over ten million votes for the second time – more than that achieved by Tony Blair in 2005, and Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband in 2010 and 2015 – Corbyn did not win in 2019. And it was his mistaken approach to international negotiations – in this case, Brexit, the renegotiation of Britain’s relations with the 27 member states of the EU club – that was largely responsible.
Instead of boldly striking out at the neoliberal character of the EU treaties and institutions, and declaring that a government he led would take whatever socialist measures were necessary to safeguard the interests of workers and the environment regardless of the current EU rules – and that would be the basis on which he would negotiate, thereby transforming the whole debate – he did everything possible to conciliate with the pro-capitalist, pro-EU right-wing of the Labour Party.
This included retaining Sir Keir Starmer as the shadow Brexit secretary, even as Starmer sought to effectively commit Labour to reversing the 2016 referendum result, in a foretaste of his role now in reviving Tony Blair’s New Labour pro-capitalist politics.
As Peter Taaffe explains in his review (Socialism Today, November 2021) of the newly-published autobiography by the former Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, recording the feedback from shop floor workers that the union was receiving on Brexit, Corbyn’s pro-working class, anti-austerity message was being fatally blurred. All this has lessons for how to conduct the struggle against climate change.
The subsequent defeat of Corbynism within the current framework of the Labour Party is a setback, necessitating the unions to act to establish a new mass vehicle for the political representation of the working class, along with socialist organisations like the Socialist Party and our allies in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and social movements including climate campaigners.
But it gave a glimpse of what is possible. And the multiple crises that will confront capitalism in the years ahead – economic, social and environmental – will create many new opportunities for the working class to organise its forces to take power into its own hands, in Britain and internationally.
Brecht concluded his War Primer with another epigram, defying the seemingly unchallengeable power of the capitalist leaders and their state: “General, man (sic) is very useful. He can fly and he can kill. But he has one defect. He can think”. And draw all the necessary conclusions.