COP27: Capitalism has ‘no credible pathway’ to save the planet

COP27, the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference, will be held from 6 to 18 November 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

Mark Best, Socialist Party national committee, looks back at last year’s conference, what came from it, and why profit-driven capitalism finds itself unable to avoid climate catastrophe.

It has been a year since the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference was held in Glasgow. The Conservative Party, then led by Boris Johnson, was keen to use the event to show the world that it, and the capitalist system it acts to maintain, understand the anger and urgency working-class and young people feel when looking at the already catastrophic effects of climate change.

The ‘once in a lifetime’ heatwaves that have happened twice in Britain over the last five years. The forest fires, floods, droughts and storms that are occurring globally with increased frequency and intensity. The bosses feel the pressure on them as people across the world are drawing the conclusion that if the capitalist system can’t afford to provide us with decent jobs, decent housing, and even a safe planet to live on, then we can’t afford their system.

After all the trumpeting of their green credentials, what actually came out of COP26? The conference wasn’t defined by a new world plan to take the necessary steps to solve the climate crisis. It was defined by arguments over who would pay for the investment necessary – no one wanting to be green at the expense of finding themselves at a disadvantage in the competition for profits across the world. Pledges for investment, by banks and big companies, fell apart under closer inspection.

But was the failure of COP26 down to the individual failings of the politicians, CEOs, lobbyists etc who descended on Glasgow? Could more skilful, more pragmatic capitalist politicians have sorted out a better deal?

Reviewing the conference, its debates, and who was there, makes it clear: the barrier facing the needed action on the climate is the capitalist system itself.

Even the UN environment agency has said that there is “no credible pathway to [limiting the temperature rise to] 1.5C in place” and that the only option is the “rapid transformation of societies.” Of course, it cannot draw the conclusion about what type of society is needed – a socialist society.

One of the contradictions inherent in capitalism is that, although production is global, with supply chains going through multiple countries and companies owning subsidiaries all over the world – it is still based on nation states. Capitalists compete with each other for markets and for profit, so seek to drive down the cost of production as low as they can get away with.

You can see this in the disagreements over the plans on how, and how quickly, to move away from using coal to produce energy. Neither India, China nor the US were among the 40 countries that signed the pledge to end coal power by 2040. To do so would put their own capitalists at a disadvantage by limiting their ability to profit, losing out to others around the world.

A transition to net zero, removing more greenhouse gases than are being produced, is necessary to prevent climate change. But to do so would require a massive shift in the production of energy and its distribution. Those bosses in polluting industries currently making a profit from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels would lose that avenue for profit.

Banks and investment funds across the world have invested heavily into these industries because they make money. But a transition to net zero by 2036, would mean $11 trillion worth of assets becoming worthless, around the same as the loss of growth in the recession following the 2008 crash.

Here, the irrational logic of capitalism is on display. The necessary action to preserve itself is unable to be taken, in part because of the massive damage to profits it would cause!

Fossil fuel industry

It’s no coincidence that the largest delegation at COP26 was from the fossil fuel industry, there to fight for its own position. Its vast economic power, enormous profits, and extensive lobbying and financing of capitalist politicians, means it can have a large influence on the actions taken by governments – often conflicting with the interests of other sections of the capitalist class.

An example of this was the opposition from right-wing US Democratic Senators Manchin and Sinema to Joe Biden’s climate and stimulus bill. Heavily funded by the fossil fuel industries in their states of West Virginia and Arizona, the Senators won concessions for the oil and gas industries, holding up a key stimulus bill until they were included.

But does the race for profit mean there will be no action over climate change under capitalism? Environmental laws exist in countries across the world. In the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, capitalist states have taken measures to ban companies from excessively polluting the environment, for example, even if that limits the ability of a narrow section of the capitalists to maximise profits. The ability and willingness to enforce these measures is another thing – look at the inaction on the pollution from sewage and chemicals to British waterways in recent times.

Internationally, action has been taken as well. In 1989, due to mass anger and it clearly damaging the ozone layer, CFC chemicals were banned. Since, the damage has stopped and begun to reverse. The effects of this measure were spread relatively evenly across the capitalist states. But the scale of the shift away from fossil fuels, the unevenness of its impact and the need for democratic planning, make it impossible under capitalism.

That doesn’t mean no action will be taken, however. Capitalist politicians feel the pressure and can see how the impacts of food scarcity and natural disasters can lead people into struggle against their rule. One of the first things Sunak did when he became prime minister was to reinstate the ban on fracking, because of how unpopular this is for the constituents of many Tory MPs.

A country being energy self-sufficient, and relying more on renewable energy, can mitigate the impacts of global events like the war in Ukraine’s effect on fossil fuel prices. And, on a purely economic basis, some ‘green’ moves are beneficial for the capitalists. Manufacturing the engines of electric vehicles requires fewer steps than combustion engines. It therefore presents the bosses with an opportunity to weaken the power of the organised working class in the car plants.

Owners and shareholders of, for example, wind turbine manufacturers have an interest in more ‘green’ policies. But they don’t make and sell these primarily because of the environment. They are produced to make a profit.

Any action put forward by the political representatives of the capitalist class will try to mitigate the impact on profits as much as possible. This means attempting to pass the cost on to the working class. It can mean austerity, justified by the need for investment in green energy. Or regressive taxes on consumption, like the fuel charges in France, which sparked the yellow vests movement. A shift away from polluting industries on the basis of capitalism threatens workers with being thrown on the scrapheap, without skilled well-paid jobs to go to.

Surveys of North Sea oil workers have shown that they do those jobs because of the pay and security, not because they like extracting oil. And the majority would want to use their skills to safely decommission the existing polluting infrastructure and instead build renewable energy infrastructure in its place. But a ‘green transition’ to renewable energy under capitalism would mean workers’ jobs, terms and conditions under threat to maximise profits.

However, the future doesn’t have to mean continued capitalist misery, green or otherwise. For socialists, ownership and control of how goods are manufactured and distributed is key to dealing with the climate crisis. Under capitalism, the capitalist class, making up a small minority of the population, own and control the means of production – the machinery, buildings and so on that are needed to produce goods, using the labour of the working class.

The working class, from its pivotal position in relation to production and distribution, has the power to run society, not on the basis of profit and competition – but democratic planning.

That’s why when we call for the nationalisation of the top 150 companies which dominate the economy, including those involved in energy production, distribution and fossil fuel extraction. This is to form the basis of a democratic socialist plan. That means the working class collectively, nationally and internationally, coming together to debate and decide on what we need to produce; what research and investment is needed; how we can produce what is needed in a way which doesn’t destroy the environment.

From this flows the demands we fight for, our slogans, and what sort of action is needed to win. At every stage, pointing towards the power of the working class when organised, and its potential to run society.

Workers’ struggle

Collective struggle of workers and young people to replace the current capitalist system with socialism is the only way to truly be able to fix the climate crisis and plan to end environmental destruction. Unfortunately, other groups and individuals put forward ideas and take actions which fail to unite the working class and can, in fact, do the opposite – creating the idea that the interests of workers and of environmental protesters are conflicting.

Blaming the development of the productive forces or fighting for “degrowth” will not be able to convince the mass of the working class to join the fight.

Nowhere in the world will workers be won to a programme which is seen to be promising a worsening standard of living. Even more so at a time when inflation of energy bills mean working-class people are forced to decide between heating and eating.

This winter, individual’s fossil fuel emissions will decrease as people struggle to heat and power their homes. Without linking the need to reduce these emissions to the wastage, inefficiencies and built in obsolescence that capitalism creates, the need to do so becomes abstract to most workers.

A key debate which needs to be had for those taking action over the climate is over what tactics can win.

Just Stop Oil, a campaign group calling for the ending of any new fossil fuel developments in Britain, has been in the news for actions involving small numbers of individuals blockading roads, bridges and petrol stations, and throwing soup on the (undamaged) Sunflowers painting by Van Gogh.

Actions which are disruptive are not bad in and of themselves. When rail workers go on strike, the cancelled trains and journeys mean the bosses lose millions of pounds in profit. But that is an act of collective struggle, one in which the inconvenience to travellers can be understood to be the fault of the rail bosses, not workers fighting for jobs or pay and conditions.

The rail strikes earlier this year have shown the way for other sections of workers to fight back against the cost-of-living crisis. Strikes and strike ballots have drawn in hundreds of thousands of workers, making the movement potentially more powerful.

The effect of small forces causing disruptions, or taking provocative direct action, can have the opposite effect; failing to build mass popular support, and risking suggesting that small groups of activists can replace the powerful potential of the working class acting for itself.

We fight for the maximum unity of the working class to be able to take the necessary action to end and reverse environmental destruction. That would mean a rational and democratically produced plan of production here and across the world.

Friedrich Engels in his 1876 unfinished work ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man’, writes how, with each leap in understanding and ability to improve our standard of living, “nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.

“And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature.

“In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities […] and so are afforded an opportunity to control and regulate these effects as well.

“This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.”

To do that requires taking into public ownership the commanding heights of the economy and drawing up a democratic plan of production, research and investment. And to do that requires getting rid of the bosses and their rotten system, and replacing it with socialism.

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November 2022