Jason Hickel: Climate, energy and natural resources

June 15, 2024
emissions from power plant and inset image of Jason Hickel
'Solving the ecological crisis requires achieving democratic control over the means of production.' Inset: Jason Hickel. Photo: act.progressive.international/nieo50

Cuba hosted the 50th Anniversary Congress on the New International Economic Order in its capital, Havana from April 28 to May 1. The Congress — co-convened by the Progressive International and the Asociación Nacional de Economistas y Contadores de Cuba — brought together scholars, diplomats and policymakers to discuss, deliberate and prepare a Program of Action to secure peace through sovereign development in the 21st century.

Jason Hickel, Professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Visiting Senior Fellow at London School of Economics and author of Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World and The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, gave the following speech at the congress.

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Thank you to Progressive International for organising this event, and thank you to our Cuban hosts, who have kept this revolution alive against extraordinary odds. The US blockade against Cuba, like the genocide in Gaza, is a constant reminder of the egregious violence of the imperialist world order and why we must overcome it.

So too is the ecological crisis. Comrades, I do not need to tell you about the severity of the situation we are in. It stares every sane observer in the face. But the dominant analysis of this crisis and what to do about it is woefully inadequate. We call it the Anthropocene, but we must be clear: it is not humans as such that are causing this crisis. Ecological breakdown is being driven by the capitalist economic system, and — like capitalism itself — is strongly characterised by colonial dynamics.

This is clear when it comes to climate change. The countries of the global North are responsible for around 90% of all cumulative emissions in excess of the safe planetary boundary — in other words, the emissions that are driving climate breakdown. By contrast the global South, by which I mean all of Asia, Africa and Latin America, are together responsible for only about 10%, and in fact most global South countries remain within their fair shares of the planetary boundary and have therefore not contributed to the crisis at all.

And yet, the overwhelming majority of the impacts of climate breakdown are set to affect the territories of the global South, and indeed this is already happening. The South suffers 80‒90% of the economic costs and damages inflicted by climate breakdown, and around 99% of all climate-related deaths. It would be difficult to overstate the scale of this injustice. With present policy, we are headed for around 3⁰C of global warming. At this level some 2 billion people across the tropics will be exposed to extreme heat and substantially increased mortality risk; droughts will destabilise agricultural systems and lead to multi-breadbasket failures; and hundreds of millions of people will be displaced from their homes.

Climate breakdown is a process of atmospheric colonisation. The atmosphere is a shared commons, on which all of us depend for our existence, and the core economies have appropriated it for their own enrichment, with devastating consequences for all of life on Earth, which are playing out along colonial lines. For the global South in particular, this crisis is existential and it must be stopped.

But so far our ruling classes are failing to do this. In 2015 the world’s governments agreed to limit global warming to 1.5⁰C or “well below” 2⁰C, while upholding the principle of equity. To achieve this goal, high-income countries, which have extremely high per capita emissions, must achieve extremely rapid decarbonisation.

This is not occurring. In fact, at existing rates, even the best-performing high-income countries will take on average more than 200 years to bring emissions to zero, burning their fair-shares of the Paris-compliant carbon budget many times over. Dealing with the climate crisis is not complicated. We know exactly what needs to be done, but we are not doing it. Why? Because of capitalism.

If I wish to get one point across today, it is this: the climate crisis cannot be solved within capitalism, and the sooner we face up to this fact the better. Let me briefly describe what I mean.

The core defining feature of capitalism is that it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Yes, many of us live in democratic political systems, where we get to elect candidates from time to time. But when it comes to the economic system, the system of production, not even the shallowest illusion of democracy is allowed to enter. Production is controlled by capital: large corporations, commercial banks, and the 1% who own the majority of investible assets … they are the ones who determine what to produce and how to use our collective labour and our planet’s resources.

And for capital, the purpose of production is not to meet human needs or achieve social and ecological objectives. Rather, it is to maximise and accumulate profit. That is the overriding objective. So we get perverse patterns of investment: massive investment in producing things like fossil fuels, SUVs, fast fashion, industrial beef, cruise ships and weapons, because these things are highly profitable to capital … but we get chronic underinvestment in necessary things like renewable energy, public transit and regenerative agriculture, because these are much less profitable to capital or not profitable at all. This is a critically important point to grasp. In many cases renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels! But they have much lower profit margins, because they are less conducive to monopoly power. So investment keeps flowing to fossil fuels, even while the world burns.

Relying on capital to deliver an energy transition is a dangerously bad strategy. The only way to deal with this crisis is with public planning. On the one hand, we need massive public investment in renewable energy, public transit and other decarbonisation strategies. And this should not just be about derisking private capital — it should be about public production of public goods. To do this, simply issue the national currency to mobilise the productive forces for the necessary objectives, on the basis of need not on the basis of profit.

Now, massive public investment like this could drive inflation if it bumps up against the limits of the national productive capacity. To avoid this problem you need to reduce private demands on the productive forces. First, cut the purchasing power of the rich; and second, introduce credit regulations on commercial banks to limit their investments in ecologically destructive sectors that we want to get rid of anyway: fossil fuels, SUVs, fast fashion, etc.

What this does is it shifts labour and resources away from servicing the interests of capital accumulation and toward achieving socially and ecologically necessary objectives. This is a socialist ecological strategy, and it is the only thing that will save us. Solving the ecological crisis requires achieving democratic control over the means of production. We need to be clear about this fact and begin building now the political movements that are necessary to achieve such a transformation.

Now, it should be obvious to everyone at this point that for the global South, this requires economic sovereignty. You cannot do ecological planning if you do not have sovereign control over your national productive forces! Struggle for national economic liberation is the precondition for ecological transition, and it can be achieved with the steps that my colleagues Ndongo and Fadhel have outlined: industrial policy, regional planning, and progressive delinking from the imperial core.

So that is the horizon. But at the same time we must advance our multilateral bargaining positions. This is what we need to do:

First, we need to push for universal adoption of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. This treaty overcomes the major limitation of the Paris Agreement in that focuses squarely on the objective of scaling down the fossil fuel industry on a binding annual schedule. The objective here is to do this in a fair and just way: rich countries must lead with rapid reductions, Global South countries must be guaranteed access to sufficient energy for development, and those that are dependent on fossil fuel exports for foreign currency must be provided with a safe off-ramp that prevents any economic instability.

Second, global South negotiators must collaborate to demand much faster decarbonisation in the Global North, consistent with their fair-shares of the remaining carbon budget.

Third, we must demand substantial resource transfers to the global South. Because the Global North has devoured most of the carbon budget, it owes compensation to the global South for the additional mitigation costs that this imposes on them. Our research shows that this is set to be $192 trillion between now and 2050, or about 6.4 trillion dollars per year. Conveniently, this amount can be provided by a 3.5% yearly wealth tax targeting the richest 10% in the global North.

Of course, we should be clear about the fact that Western governments will not do any of this voluntarily. And it is not reasonable for us to place our hope in the goodwill of states that have never cared about the interests of the South or the welfare of its people.

The alternative is for global South governments to unite and collectively leverage the specific forms of power that they have in the world system. Western economies are totally dependent on production in the South. In fact, around 50% of all materials consumed in the global North are net-appropriated from the South. This is a travesty of justice but it is also a crucial point of leverage. Global South governments can and should form cartels to force the imperialist states to take more radical action toward decarbonisation and climate justice.

And, by the way, speaking of South-South solidarity, global South governments should negotiate access to renewable energy technologies by establishing swap lines with China so that these can be obtained outside of the imperialist currencies, and thus limit their exposure to unequal exchange.

Comrades. We stand at a fork in the road. We can stick with the status quo and watch helplessly as our world burns … or we can unite and set a new course for human history. The Southern struggle for liberation is the true agent of world-historical transformation. The world is waiting. This is the generation. Now is the moment. Hasta la victoria siempre.

[First published at Progressive International and reprinted with the permission of the author.]

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