Capitalism, climate and class power

BY:Marc Brodine| January 8, 2012
Capitalism, climate and class power

CHECK OUT: CPUSA teleconference on climate change and capitalism with Marc Brodine, Tuesday, January 17, 8 pm EST, 7 pm CST, 5 pm PST. Call (605) 475-4850 and dial 1053538# after the prompt. (In addition to this article see links to more background reading at the end.)

While conservatives win political arguments more often than they should, there are no winning arguments with the basic laws of physics. It’s like trying to argue with gravity-gravity always wins.

So no matter what political position wins the day temporarily, the continuing accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to increase global temperatures, continue to increase extreme weather events, continue to increase sea levels, continue to increase floods and droughts and forest fires.

This is not a short-term problem that will go away; it will only get worse for a long time to come. This requires us to understand that climate change is not an issue; it is a fact, a reality that will force changes in human societies.

Weak responses

The official worldwide response to this growing crisis is weak at best-the Durban Conference basically agreed to negotiate to maybe agree about something in the future. Canada is pulling out of the Kyoto Accords. The same arguments between developed and developing nations result in the same stalemates in negotiations, and in spite of some efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, emissions continue to increase. As one participant at Durban said, “The world has been talking about this for twenty years, and there is still no major progress.” So the problem is going to keep getting worse for the foreseeable future.

 Tipping points loom

As greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, the world is nearing dangerous tipping points. For just one example, average temperatures at the poles are increasing faster than elsewhere on the globe, resulting in more permafrost melting. As permafrost melts, it releases greenhouse gases that have been frozen for centuries, or even millennia. Once we reach a tipping point, the melting of the permafrost will release so much carbon dioxide and methane that it can overwhelm whatever modest reductions from human activity we manage to accomplish. We don’t know in advance exactly when that tipping point will be reached, but once it is passed, that is a disaster. The only sensible thing to do is to avoid reaching a tipping point. As prominent climate scientist James Hansen has said, if the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s tar sands goes through, the additional emissions of greenhouse gases means “essentially game over” for limiting climate change.

 Keeps getting worse

As proof of the continuing accumulation of scientific evidence, each Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, issued every seven years, shows that earlier optimistic projections are no longer realistic. In each report, summarizing the world consensus of climate scientists, the worst-case scenarios of the previous report become the most-likely scenarios-in other words, the news just keeps getting worse the more scientists understand and research the details and new evidence of climate change. The next complete report is not due until 2014, but interim reports on specific issues are continuing this trend, as the current draft on extreme weather shows.

Climate change is symptom of deeper problem

Climate change is related to many other environmental challenges, and exacerbates most of them. To mention a few examples, increasing water stresses, desertification, forest fires, droughts, and extreme weather events.

In the broadest sense, global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are just a symptom of an even deeper problem-the gross and growing imbalance between humans and the environment upon which humans depend.

We are using up fossil fuels, water, soil, agricultural land, and other resources faster than is sustainable. For example, the so-called “green revolution” in agriculture depends on massive increases of water-leading to the drawing down of aquifers in many parts of the world faster than those aquifers can be “recharged.” This is not sustainable-the overuse of fresh water for agricultural uses (along with fossil fuel-based fertilizers and intense extraction of the nutritional value in the soil) has already resulted in declining agricultural yields worldwide. Global climate change is just the most widespread imbalance.

There is a long list of ways in which human activity as currently constructed is destructive of the natural balance that human life depends on-ocean acidification, depleted and exhausted fisheries, rapidly expanding desertification, etc.

Opposition to taking action on climate change is not really opposition to the science, though it often presents itself that way. As Naomi Klein notes in her excellent article in The Nation, “Capitalism vs. the Climate”: “It is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.”

This all leads to two conclusions.

One, that global climate change and other related environmental issues and struggles will increase for many decades to come-this is determined by the natural laws governing nature.

Two, the problems are so far-reaching and fundamental that small fixes won’t solve the problems.

 Capitalism can’t fix it

Another crucial conclusion is that capitalism can’t and won’t solve these intertwined problems. Partly, this is because of the entrenched economic interests that profit from maintaining the status quo. But even more so, it is due to the basic assumptions of capitalism.

Capitalism wants and needs constant expansion of markets and of commodities, so that profits can continue to grow. Endless economic growth, endless production of ever-increasing commodities, ever increasing development, ever greater burdens on the natural world which require more natural resource extraction at one end and ever-increasing absorption of wastes at the other end, all are part of the unsustainable system of capitalism.

Capitalism wants and needs the continuation of private decision-making over energy, production, transportation, and agriculture (and the ever-increasing concentration of that private control).

Capitalism wants and needs environmental problems to be “economic externalities” so that corporations don’t have to bear the costs of the wastes that they dispose of in water and air, nor the costs of disposing of the wastes generated by their packaging and marketing decisions.

Environmental problems affect all of humanity, and require social decision-making, social investment, and worldwide cooperation at the scale of all humanity. These are also antithetical to capitalism, and to narrow nationalism.

To make real progress on climate change means, as Klein writes, “Making a persuasive case that the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system-one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power. It would also require a shift away from the notion that climate action is just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention. Just as climate denialism has become a core identity issue on the right, utterly entwined with defending current systems of power and wealth, the scientific reality of climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives.”

She goes on to note that the fact that “the earth’s atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need, and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract. But it is not just the atmosphere that we have exploited beyond its capacity to recover-we are doing the same to the oceans, to freshwater, to topsoil and to biodiversity. The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal-and acutely sensitive to natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence.”

A matter of class power

The environmental problems we face are inextricably linked to the political problems we face. It is striking that Al Gore’s last book, “Our Choice”, starts by saying that all we lack is the political will to make the necessary changes, and then spends the rest of the book talking about all the potential technological fixes and ignoring what he already identified as the central problem! Why do “we lack the political will?” and who is this “we” he is talking about?

This is just a newer and amped-up version of the old question, “Who benefits?” Freedom for the wolf is not freedom for the sheep, and freedom for the capitalists to profit from resource extraction and to not pay for their waste is not freedom for the rest of humanity.

The majority of people in the United States have no more say in how many coal-fired electric plants are built than the majority of those who live in sub-Saharan Africa have to do with the economic circumstances that result in the destruction of forests to make charcoal so they can cook food. The vast majority of humanity makes decisions about what to buy, what to consume, and how to survive in circumstances not of its making or choosing.

The questions facing humanity about the environment are ultimately questions of class power; they are issues of class struggle.

The importance of the Klein article is that it links the necessary environmental change with the necessary fundamental transformation of our political and economic systems. She points out that progressives have to approach climate change and environmental crisis as not just another issue but as a crucial, central aspect of our critique of capitalism.

The real limitations of Klein’s article are not the reflexive swipes she takes at the “Stalinist” and “statist left,” nor her assumption that solutions all require “interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level.” (Some of them do but others require more centralization, even internationalization.)

The real limitation is her restricted view of the forces required to bring about the change she calls for. This is true as well of some other prominent writers about environmental issues, like Richard Heinberg. They see the problems clearly, they see the links between environmental problems and economic and political systems, but they are relatively blind to the social forces needed to bring about fundamental transformation. They don’t see the essential role of the organized working class as not just another in a list of social forces but as the crucial element without which fundamental transformation cannot take place.

What is needed is not just an amorphous “countervailing popular movement” but a broad coaltion with the organized working class at its core. While Klein points to positive developments around the Occupy Wall Street movement, she neglects to include alliances with the labor movement.

Social movements, including the Occupy movement and the environmental movement, are important, but without the organized might of the working class, the changes they can create will be limited, and will stop short of solutions.

Building international union alliances and joint struggles will be an important feature as countries around the world wrestle with climate change. Part of the problem with the international negotiations that have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations is that the top level negotiations take place between governments, each most often representing the interests of their own capitalist class, rather than the interests of the people of the world.

Movements such as, national environmental organizations, and NGOs play a role, but they struggle to have enough of an impact. The power of workers is needed to push through the competiting national and class interests to reach international agreements with teeth.

Klein’s bulleted list of solutions is a contribution to the discussion, but many versions of such lists exist, and none, especially none for short articles, are comprehensive.

For Communists, we can and should see Klein’s article as a challenge: to place environmental issues more squarely in the center of our critique of capitalism, and more squarely at the heart of our vision of a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.

Communist also have to understand that building environmental consciouness into our vision of the future challenges some of our traditional views. Nature’s limits mean that production can’t be endless, and so a future in which there is more than enough of everything for everybody, no matter how many people there are, is not a vision based in reality. We need to adjust our vision to our current knowledge of nature’s limits.

I’d like to end with a few questions:

1.   How can we (and should we) make environmental challenges more central to our critique of capitalism?

2.   Can we help the labor movement place environmental issues more to the fore? What changes in the labor movement have already happened, and how can we build on them?

3.   How can we prepare ourselves now, so that as global climate change and other environmental crises escalate, we are ready with a program to address them, a program that places organizing workers as the most crucial aspect of creating fundamental change?

Background reading for teleconference:

Capitalism vs. the climate by Naomi Klein:  

Six reasons to oppose the Keystone Pipeline:

Photo: CPUSA poster


    Marc Brodine is Chair of the Washington State CPUSA. A former AFSCME member and local officer, he is currently an artist and guitar player. Marc writes on environmental issues and answers many web site questions. Marc is the author of an extended essay on Marxist philosophy and the environment, titled Dialetics of Climate Change.

Comments (11)

anonymoius | April 23, 2014 at 12:06 PM

the power in the United States of america, they do not respect the rights of the public, they respect only, their own rights, those rights are, to take liquor, fornicate, to kill, to steal, and they has laugh so much of that, like real crazy, the power of the United States, should to be handled by lawyers, yes they know which are your rights, from the public, plus the lawyer people know how to respect their rights, many know, the president washington he studied advocacy, many president must to study laws, the power should not to be handled by farmer people, they don’t know how to respect the rights of the public, the power should to be handled by diplomats, exambassadors, with laws studies. some military power in the States, those have taken as a strategy since 1963, in installing to farmers, inside the power of the United States, for those nasty farmers once they are up, in that power, for using their low instincts, to steal and murder to the capitalist power.

Joseph Stalin | October 26, 2012 at 9:26 PM

The main people who speak of “Climate Change” are the United Nations,the same people created by the British Empire,French Empire,the American “Empire”,and what is the goal of an Empire ? To dominate others,stage events,and exploit the Proletariat.Also,the land donated to the United Nations were from the Rockefellers,an oil company who makes millions,maybe in the trillions of dollars off of Exploitation and Enviornmental Destruction ,so since when the U.N. suddenly decided to have a heart and cared about the people ? This whole global warming myth was created by the Bourgeosie to implement Carbon Regulations on an already dying american economy ,leaving millions unemployed,however that unemployment is send jobs to the Trecherous Chinese who’ve betrayed the Communist Revolution for selfish sweatshop profits.Also they’re using as an excuse to put people in Facsist style ,corporate tenements,which are small in size all for “Saving the Earth” when in reality it’s forcing people into Prison like cities. Also ,this whole Imperialistic Green Movement is to Lower population so we’ll be easier to maintain at more managable levels. The CPUSA is a traitor to the Socialist Cause ,and a stain on the Marxist Science that have once sought to liberate the Proletariat.

Brett Conway | February 26, 2012 at 4:28 PM

Republicans have a track record of environmental destruction due to being in bed with big oil and big businesses at the expense of the working man. It has concerned me greatly what is happening to our environment and after reading multitudes of research, the only way I can describe what they are doing is through a phrase I coined that I believe describes the problem to a “T:” Premeditated Environmental Homicide. They should be brought to justice.

flora | February 04, 2012 at 12:50 PM

In ITALIA non e’ che c’e la passiamo meglio:prima il governo Berlusconi che si e’ mangiato tutti i soldi dello stato italiano,ora il governo Monti che sta creando precariato e nuova poverta’,ma io sono ottimista poiche’ presto lo manderemo ha casa e il popolo italiano votera’ noi comunisti del partito comunista dei lavoratori poiche’ il popolo non e’ stupido e sa chi sta dalle sue parti:lavoro fisso in prtimis,difesa degli immigrati e dei piu’ deboli(pensionati;alienati e precari).Negli stati uniti state facendo voi del comunist party usa un bel lavoro e spero di incontrarvi.Ciao compagni da Flora!

VJ Proton | January 16, 2012 at 10:51 AM

1) Capitalism is a road block in the path of common good for all, since capitalism is for the benefit of the individual. The real wool pulled over the average American’s eyes is that “Capitalism” and linked with “freedom.” The average American citizen views being “green” as a lifestyle and not a necessity for life. Capitalism is for individual profit and not collective gain. Corporate science… which is horrifying thought coming from a scientist… leads the way of research and development.

Corporate energy companies all pander to the “green” side, but the net result is no change, since profits continue to come in. The base argument that the “market” will lead the way is flawed. The capitalist market is lead by the law of supply and demand. Since fossil fuels are limited the demand will increase as supply decreases thus creating more profit. Solar, wind, and magnetic energy which is cheaper and renewable will increase supply and reduce demand, thus lowering profit. Capitalism lives and breathes on profit.

Another myth that exists that keeps the masses fooled is the logic of profit creates jobs. In the since of mathematics it is logical that when companies increase gains, that work force can expand to provide more gains. However in the corporate states of America profit means better dividends and not increased jobs, in fact this quarter’s profit must be exceeded in the next quarter to insure stock holder gains.

The answer I give to the question one is: Yes. The citizenry must view that “green” is good for us, and not profit. The government must lead the way in acting on this by requiring all buildings to be totally green by either wind, solar and magnetic energy which would reduce the carbon foot print, lower the cost of the operation of the building (the pandering to the conservatives on that one), and create jobs as green companies will be needed to develop, install and support the government green initiative. Sounds good, unless you are a corporate giant which would take a huge hit on profits if all US Government buildings go off the grid. For years the people have been lead astray of the “cost” of green… sure it’s going to cost now, but the dividends multiply over the years. Therefore the increase in tax revenue to take up this measure would be returned in less taxes needed in the future to funnel into the corporate machine.

Question two: This is much harder with the labor movement since keeping a job, and trying to survive the slow death of the American worker is the leading issue. Capitalism is grinning from ear to ear right now in America since workers have to work to survive, and corporations understand this and exploit it. Even in the government sector with the freezing of pay, and decreased benefits are not showing any improvement of the state of economy or the quality of life. Just another act of appeasement to the blind conservatives that really doesn’t help anyone’s cause.

The labor movement needs to dig in on improving the quality of work life by making companies turn green so that money can be saved by not paying for the dirty fossil energy and using renewable lower cost energy. This would allow for increased benefits and more employment of citizens. Until we can win the battle and open the eyes to an alternative to corporate capitalism like worker ownership, and community collective initiatives it’s going to be a very uphill battle.

Question 3: To bring about change begins in the fields with the workers. We must require the corporate and government entities to view global climate and environment as a right or entitlement of all people. By allowing profit to dictate policy it will only lead to the demise of the ecosystem of the earth. We can continue to allow the corporations and government to use the profit/loss bottom line and face the reality that there is a tipping point, and the losses from ignorance are much less that cost of compliance.

jesse leamon | January 10, 2012 at 5:48 PM

Carl Sagan was was warning about man-made global warming in 1965, I have the book, he called global warming the Venus Effect, and he warned about the point of no return. Carbon Dioxide leads to global warming, it does not only follow in the wake of it, read Sagan. American scientists have known about this for over half-a-century, the problem is that we lack the will to do something about it. The problem is that their exist powerful vested interests who tell us to go shopping while Rome burns down around our ears.

I can remember the very moment I became a Communist. I was discussing issues of labor and environment and economics with a wealthy educated scientist friend of mine who said, “Well if you want to help Third World Countries invest in stocks.” Ostensibly that is literally the stupidest thing my ears have ever heard, but then I realized this snake-oil is being pettled daily from the nations capitol. This is the WTO, and the IMF, and NAFTA in a nutshell. My mind jumped ahead, okay so let me get this straight, money has such metaphysical properties that it solves all. Maybe I don’t get it, but how exactly do yacht sales in Palm Beach County keep the polar ice caps from melting?

This is Mitt Romney, this is our America people, these people honestly believe that their economic activity can raise the dead and make angels sing. Hey CO2 it just shows up after the planet super-conducts, somebody should have explained that to Carl Sagan. What Carl didn’t realize is that you’re not a true scientist in America unless you modify your statements according to how the Oligarchs feel about the implications of your science.

Yep, I am very damn definately a Communist because like Mao, I seek truth from facts, not the Dow Jones Index. We can juggle the facts however we like, but capitalist-made climate change is the truth of it, and we’re heading toward the day when only sun-bathing January Eskimos are going to be standing alongside Wall Street and their pseudo-science lackeys seeking tenure. -Jesse Leamon

E.E.W. Clay | January 10, 2012 at 10:19 AM

In the St. Louis metro area, we have been so, so, fortunate to have two of the foremost contemporary environmental scientists, Virginia Warner Brodine and Barry Commoner.
Communist Virginia Brodine has done much to expose environmental racism and the urgency of international coordinated action to stop this genocide for the sake of a healthy human posterity, with all its hosts of complementary life forces and forms(and capitalism’s diminishing life forces).
We communists must all master the brilliant, sound, understandable work of Barry Commoner, whatever we do, however we have to do it.
Mass communications and mass transportation, its control and use, has to be by workers, for workers and of workers. Unionists must learn and practice this control and teach it to their children as war, and especially nuclear war planning, has already done much to diminish humanity and is threatening us more and more, each day.
Workers and communists must own and manage all natural resources, and nuclear resources, in order to promote safety in the post atomic age, with the war atrocities in Japan and the monstrosities of nuclear testing and its effects on our environment.
More on this later, but thanks for continuing the just and august struggles of your mom and pop, for ours and posterity.

Jesse Leamon | January 09, 2012 at 6:11 PM

Regarding the question of how to yoke labor issues with environmental issues, take the example of NAFTA and other free trade agreements, the lack of tariff protections for American workers, the inability of American workers to keep their factories at home….a product which used to be made here at home is now made half-way around the world. Shipping a low-wage product to the US domestic market requires fuel. Free trade instead of fair trade leads to a vast increase in petroleum usage. It’s bad management of a natural resource and has dire consequences for the global climate.

Another issue is redundancy of services, if ten companies, say lawn companies, are all driving in circles around each other competing for the same customer base, they’re wasting gas in the name of profit. That’s a waste of labor and of energy, and quite obviously, that kind of hokey-doke we’re all used to is not sustainable. That may be the way its always been, but when Canada is over 60 degrees in January, thinking people know something has to give.

Bringing natural resources under democratic control of the people will become the only possible alternative if we are to survive as a species. If that happened workers would actually end up spending far less on fuel, and we could also develop technologies less dependent on fossil fuels. None of that will happen while oil barons run the Oligarchy in Washington DC.

Class conflict produces consequences, one of those consequences is global warming to the extent that working people fail to bring privatized waste to boot. Yes we can and we should make environmental arguments central to our critique of capitalism because the global profiteering we are currently engaging in is not sustainable, and every Texas farmer who has experienced drought, every Iowa family who has lived through tornado alley, every auto worker who lost their union job and is now working in retail gets it….what capitalism is doing does not work, at all. It is not sustainable.

-Jesse Leamon

jim lane | January 09, 2012 at 11:40 AM

terrific exposition. Terrific conclusions.

Leebar | January 09, 2012 at 11:37 AM

Hi Marc,
Keep in mind that C02 follows temperature increase, not the other way around. This is something even the man-made global warming supporters agree with:

Also, the relationship between government (wanting more control) + profits (government-subsidized green companies and carbon trading schemes) + junk science influenced by government = an unholy alliance that is many times worse than any free-market solution to climate change, assuming we could do something about it.

I’m just saying that your facts and ideas are fatally flawed and should really check into this stuff before regurgitating the standard left-wing global warming garbage.

Rhonda Balzan Bastow | January 08, 2012 at 8:12 PM

answer to Q1 give up the ‘continual growth’ model of capitalism. It is a finite world; we need to start ghetting the mass of the population of the world (mainly the rich part) used to it.
answer to Q2 the link between population control and saving the planet is now bnecoming fairly well documented, but is unpopular because of fear of racism. The reality is the if India and China population were to achieve the west’s level of (discusting) affluence, the world environment will collapse. This needs to be explained in simple terms. Find a way to do that and in a hurry please. The labour movement is also in serious need of controls on their spending/wasteful use of pwer generated at the environment’s expense.
answer to Q3 see answer to question 2

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