How do we build a climate movement that can win?

By Lisbeth Latham.

The unprecedented glacial melting, diminishing sea ice shelves, and extensive fires globally have fuelled growing existential angst around the looming climate catastrophe. This angst has been a major source of the emergence and growth of the climate strike movement globally which has seen millions of people drawn onto the streets with the strikes on September 20 and 27.

Growing numbers of people – particularly young people – have become aware of both the depth of the crisis and the refusal of state actors or the fossil fuel industry to take serious steps to address climate change. This has given rise to the urgent question of how and in what circumstances the necessary changes can be made, particularly around energy use, to halt the planet’s slide into irreversible and escalating climate change.

Yes, socialism is the solution, but so what?

Arguing for ecosocialism is not enough

The response to this crisis from many revolutionary organisations has been to make arguments against the capacity of the climate crisis to be addressed within the framework of capitalism. Of course, the Anthropocene began with the start of the industrial revolution and has been driven and accelerated by capitalism’s inherent drive to constantly expand and increase profits.

It is also the case that an environment-focused socialised economy would be able to mobilise both the population and the economy to meet the challenges confronting the planet in ways unimaginable in our current context.  However, as Marx argued, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

In almost no country do we have a revolutionary government. As a consequence of the betrayals of social democracy and Stalinism, and the social defeats in the face of triumphant neoliberalism, almost nowhere on the planet are there the social forces or leadership required to carry out the necessary revolutionary process to achieve such governments.

Given this reality, arguments that capitalism can’t address the crisis give the impression that the task of combating climate change is utopian and something that has to be put off to some unstated future – something that ends up sounding a lot like capital’s dominant response to the crisis.

Can the climate crisis be addressed under capitalism? Frankly, who knows, and it doesn’t matter. Capitalists and their representatives in government act to defend their interests, which is primarily achieving constant growth in profits, but ultimately is about maintaining a stable system within which capital accumulation can occur.

Divisions on climate action among capitalist class

This means that sections of capital, particularly those not tied to the fossil fuel industry, have the potential to view action to address climate change as being in their own interests – hence the thousands of companies encouraging their staff to participate in the climate strikes. Obviously this action has a range of motivations, including for some cheap greenwashing PR.

However, a number of capitalists may actually be confronting the reality that the climate crisis will disrupt capitalist accumulation. They too may see the planet dying and might come to the conclusion that there is no planet B, or they may see ways in which they can profit from transformations in the economy.

The current solutions gaining traction internationally around combatting climate change are notions around a Green New Deal, alluding to Roosevelt’s New Deal response to the Great Depression, and the reproduction of the Second World War industrial mobilisations that massively expanded productive forces in war industries to support and sustain, particularly the US war effort.

While both these examples highlight how the economy can be mobilised to transform and defend the economy and society, they are also examples of capitalism and capitalists mobilising to defend the capitalist system from an existential threat.

In both historic examples, working people played a key role in seeking to ensure that saving the system had some benefit for the popular classes in society – rather than simply re-securing the conditions for capitalist accumulation. This resistance took the form of building and renewing unions, fighting for improvements in wages and conditions, in government projects ensuring that workers were paid union rates, and attempts to shift some of the war profiteering into improved wages and conditions for workers in war industries.  

More importantly, what can be achieved under capitalism can’t be prejudged. It is a consequence of the conjunctural balance of forces – between what the ruling class believes is necessary to concede to maintain order, and the consciousness and confidence of the popular classes to carry forward the struggle.

In the wake of the mass strike and protest wave in France during May and June 1968, employers offered massive wage increases to help enable the ending of the strikes. While these wage rises would have eaten considerably into company profits, it was a small price to pay for saving the capitalist system.  

During the development of his Transitional Program, Leon Trotsky held discussions with US Trotskyists about the intents and purpose of the program. Part of this discussion focused on the extent to which the demands, particularly the transitional demands contained within the program, were achievable under capitalism. In addressing this point, Trotsky made it clear that what could or couldn’t be achieved could not be prejudged, but also that what does or doesn’t seem possible is a consequence of the march of events and dynamics of consciousness and working-class power.

This approach is also consistent with Lenin’s discussion of the development of class consciousness through the lived experience of workers and poor peasants during the Russian revolution of the unwillingness of pro-capitalist forces to deliver on the Russian revolutionary forces’ demands of peace, bread, and land rather than the specific limitations of the capitalist system itself.

Formulating immediate demands

The real and immediate challenge facing socialists (and anyone who genuinely is concerned about the environment) is not the struggle to convince people of the necessity of socialism, or even the need to change the system – but the need and possibility of achieving immediate concrete action to confront the climate crisis.

After decades of inaction and backsliding, this may feel impossible, and as the climate moves closer to tipping points it may mean even more rapid transformation than the movement’s current demands of no new coal, oil and gas projects; 100 per cent renewable energy generation by 2030; and funding a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and communities. 

These demands appear radical and potentially impossible at the moment, but they are more likely inadequate and too slow given the urgent need to not only stop the release of more carbon into the atmosphere but to massively increase the planet’s capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere – and to reverse the other practices destroying the biosphere, particularly the massive waste of water and the use of toxic chemicals associated with both mining and industrial agriculture.

It is in this struggle for such demands that the limitations of capitalism in the struggle to save the planet will be highlighted, particularly in confronting market-based solutions aimed at creating new speculative markets rather than achieving serious reductions in carbon emissions and extracting carbon from the atmosphere.

There is also a pressing need for industrialised countries to fundamentally address our consumption patterns (which are promoted and encouraged by the capitalist system) to more accurately reflect the resources available to the planet as a whole, at the same time as the living standards of the global south need to be uplifted to overcome poverty caused by centuries of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism.

More important than the development of demands that could potentially address the climate crisis is the development and escalation of the movement. Although this youth-led movement is remarkable and extremely inspiring, it still remains far too small and intermittent in its mobilisation to build the level of pressure necessary to force action by governments on the climate.

A focus on the struggle to build the movement and achieve immediate demands to address and redress the crisis confronting us – rather than simply posing abstract arguments for socialism – is far more in keeping with the socialist tradition and is the only way to build a movement that can win.

Lisbeth Latham is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow her on Twitter @grumpenprol.