Climate change can seem ill-suited to mass politics. It’s complicated and hard to understand. Its causes are so embedded in everyday life that it can be hard to see until disaster strikes. It encompasses the entire planet: decisions made on one side of the world wreak havoc with people’s lives on the other. Meanwhile the rich and powerful corporations and people responsible for the problem run the institutions tasked with solving it.
In fact, it sounds a lot like capitalism.
But for as long as climate change has been on the political agenda, neoliberalism has been ascendant. Which means the discussion among elites today is filled with pseudo-solutions to the problem: guilt-laden appeals to individuals to take personal responsibility for their consumption; green technologies developed with public funds by private companies that hold the patents; market mechanisms designed by the industries they ought to be demolishing; executive orders that propose to keep the tides at bay without causing too much of a fuss. Meanwhile, austerity measures are starving public goods and services just when we should be expanding them and resurgent nationalist movements are closing borders as we should be reaching across them.
Those who have the least to lose from global warming are leading us down a road to disaster that will hit black and brown, poor and working-class people first and hardest — both the literal disasters that will strike more sharply and frequently, and the social catastrophes that will follow if right-wing movements are able to successfully turn understandable fear into xenophobic reaction while the wealthy retreat to their luxury bunkers.
But the silver lining of the gathering storm clouds is that after years of liberal vacillation dominating the climate discussion, the tide is starting to turn left. Whether it can outpace the rising seas is another question.
If capitalism is driving climate change, does that mean we need a revolution to stop it?
We should hope not. The Left’s vision of radical transformation can seem like an obvious match for the climate challenge. But the Left remains historically weak and a return to real power on the scale required isn’t likely anytime soon — certainly not on the timescale we need to start taking serious action. We can’t shortcut the long-term project of building socialism — but nor can we sideline climate action along the way. Otherwise, even in the best-case scenario, the Left will win power only to manage a state of increasing climate breakdown.
So no matter how necessary a break with capitalism is, for now we’ll have to settle for addressing climate change as best we can within it. That means pushing hard to decarbonize as rapidly as possible in ways that set the stage for a sustainable socialist society.
We’ll only be able to do that if our movements have a strong anticapitalist core. Fortunately, climate movements have been steadily moving left, foregrounding climate justice and building alliances with communities on the front lines of both fossil fuel extraction and climate impacts. Indigenous movements have led the way in waging battles in places like Standing Rock that have called global attention to the rapaciousness of fossil fuel companies and articulated connections between the wellbeing of human communities and the ecosystems they depend on. Socialists must join these struggles fighting the inequalities that prefigure eco-apartheid while continuing to build a mass movement fighting to lay the foundations we’ll need to go beyond fossil capitalism.
Climate change more than any other issue demonstrates the need for socialism. It points to the need for more democratic political control over industry, technology, and infrastructure; more conscious intention about how we build our world, why, and for whom.
Embracing conscious planning of wide sectors of the economy and the power of technology is part of a decidedly “Old Left” vision — but the old hubris about “mastering nature” isn’t. Our socialism is about creating a sustainable politics of joy and abundance for the many. Give us bread and roses — and parks and oceans.
Of course, even those classic demands get more complicated when drought threatens wheat crops and flower gardens, as forests burn and oceans acidify. Climate change must be a spur to the Left to think creatively, organize expansively, and act quickly.
This is an edition about climate change, but climate change isn’t just an issue to talk about every few years — it has to be at the center of how we mobilize and organize going forward. From now on, every issue is a climate issue.