We need system change not climate change

February 1, 2022
A protest in Brisbane during COP26. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Socialists are well placed to make a strong argument for anti-capitalist solutions as capitalism is incapable of solving the crises of COVID-19 and climate change.

The long-term failures of rich, capitalist countries to take meaningful climate action were evident in the abject failure of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg used her speech outside COP26 to describe the summit as a “Global North greenwash festival. A two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”.

Australia’s dismal performance was on full display. While it ranked last in the 2022 Climate Change Performance Index, it stuck stubbornly to its inadequate global targets and refused to sign agreements to limit methane gas or stop investments in new coal mines.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that he would achieve net zero by 2050 “the Australian way” — through “technology not taxes” — was pure spin. The technology has not been tested on the scale necessary to make a difference, and the modelling is flimsy.

Talking up “technology” is intended to distract from the government’s intention to keep exploring for and mining coal and gas.

This is not a surprise, given the hold the fossil fuel lobby has over the major political parties, including the revolving door of lucrative “jobs for the boys” for ministers who serve their masters well.

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan accused Morrison of paying “lip service” to climate action. This champion of fossil fuel energy is hardly a lone voice within the Coalition. Morrison’s last-minute decision to attend COP26 came after public pressure and having Santos CEO next to him ensured no one was confused about his views.

He signed the Glasgow Climate Pact while also affirming his commitment to the coal industry and vowing to “take on the activist green lobby”.

While Morrison sounds bullish, the global market for fossil fuels is in decline. Renewable energy from wind and solar power is now cheaper than coal and more more than 130 countries are now committing to “net-zero”.

This shift means socialists have an opportunity to explain what a transition to renewable energy could look like: revenues from fossil fuel industries could be replaced by new publicly-owned industries and new jobs under workers’ control.

The federal government’s anti-worker COVID-19 recovery strategy, along with its single-minded pursuit of a coal- and gas-led “recovery” creates the political space to mount the argument that a just transition requires complete system change, not a greener form of capitalism.

Some think capitalism is just a bad idea. It’s more than that: it’s an unjust system in which a tiny ruling class is prepared to use violence to defend its power and privilege. Capitalism is incompatible with a sustainable planet.

Some believe in the fantasy of green capitalism. But “green” capitalism, like capitalism itself, is driven by capital’s demands for continuous growth and profit, in which the true cost of production is transferred to workers and the planet.

The climate movement in Australia is fragmented, ideologically and organisationally. The lobbyist non-government organisations, including The Climate Council and 350.org, as well as grassroots groups such as School Strike for Climate, Extinction Rebellion (XR) Australia, Blockade Australia and the Scarborough Gas Action Alliance (SGAA), have their strengths and weaknesses.

The failure of COP26 has, however, helped re-galvanise the climate movement in Western Australia. XR WA has organised many small, creative actions that have kept the shady operations of fossil fuel corporations in the public eye. XR Grandparents have garnered broader sympathy while giving the police some tactical headaches if they try to arrest the elderly.

The Climate Council of WA, with the help of 350.org, continues to combat the propaganda of the fossil fuel lobbyists. Reports, such as Runaway Train by NGO Clean State, into the damaging effects of the liquefied natural gas have also made a difference.

The WA Forest Alliance had a significant gain when, after 40 years of campaigning, the state government declared it would end native forest logging by 2024.

The newly-formed Scarborough Gas Action Alliance (SGAA) reflects climate activists’ growing sense of urgency. After two years of protesting Woodside’s proposed Scarborough gas field, SGAA quickly mobilised when Woodside announced in November the project off the Pilbara coast would proceed. SGAA activists locked themselves onto concrete-filled barrels and blocked access to the Burrup Hub industrial precinct.

SGAA has the makings of the united front we need to build. The Burrup Hub action involved XR, Socialist Alliance, 350.org and many unaffiliated activists. Most importantly, the action was taken at the request of Traditional Owners who say that their Country, Songlines and 50,000-year-old rock engravings would be damaged by the expansion.

A united front is necessary to beat back the fossil fuel industry and its supporters in Canberra.

This will only be possible if workplaces and communities become better informed and start to mobilise. We need to retrain and reeducate workers in renewable forms of energy. We need to work with First Nations custodians, climate action groups, students, workers, unions and churches to push for a just transition, starting with the workers in the fossil fuel industry.

It is not enough to simply end new fossil fuel projects. We need a fundamental restructure so the economy provides for our social and ecological wellbeing. This can start by bringing large, monopolised sections of the economy into democratic, community ownership. The way we farm, what we produce, how we transport and the infrastructure of our cities must be redesigned to suit our needs.

We need to place the big polluters under public ownership and control. This is because the transition we need to prevent catastrophic warming will only happen if workers lead the process. Nationalising the mines and taking infrastructure — electricity and transport — into public ownership is essential.

Continuing to build solidarity in a society that is divided by anti-worker attacks on our right to organise and protest is also important.

Building communities that help people weather crises also helps them glimpse the kind of society that is best placed to deal with the climate change challenges. We’ve seen how the ruling class’ “let it rip” approach has cost workers their lives and livelihoods; it’s the same approach they take to the climate crisis.

A better world is possible, but we need system change to get it.

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