Climate action: Why only the most radical approach will work

November 22, 2019
An Extinction Rebellion protest in Brisbane on October 11.
An Extinction Rebellion protest in Brisbane on October 11. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

The climate crisis is the greatest threat ever faced by humanity. The survival of the human race is at stake. The reality of the heating of the planet can no longer rationally be denied.

Carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is now above 410 parts per million (ppm). This is the highest level in 800,000 years.

The planet is clearly getting hotter. There are now more extreme weather events — more devastating floods, more debilitating droughts, more catastrophic hurricanes and tornadoes, more searing heatwaves and more destructive storm surges in coastal areas.

We can expect to cross some key tipping points very soon, ushering in a world very different to anything we have ever known.

The burden of these events falls most heavily on poor people and especially on Third World countries where the infrastructure is much weaker.

Climate emergency

In their 2008 book Climate Code Red, David Spratt and Phillip Sutton raised the idea of a climate emergency, something which necessitates society going beyond a business-as-usual approach and recognising the existential nature of the crisis.

However, important as declaring a climate emergency is, a mere declaration is not enough. The key question is what should be its political and economic content? What do we want to see happen?

Climate Code Red cites the United States in World War II as an example of an emergency transformation of the economy.

Faced with a crisis situation, the US government and big business carried out a dramatic switch of production from civilian needs to war materiel. Within months, production lines went from producing washing machines and cars to producing submachine guns and tanks. Military production went from 2% of GDP in 1941 to 40% in 1943.

Stringent rationing was introduced in several areas, such as rubber, petrol, food and clothing.

There was a similar mobilisation of resources in Australia.

This example shows what can be done when there is a will. However, it is important to note the political-economic context in World War II: If the Axis powers, led by Nazi Germany, had been victorious, US capitalism would have been finished. For the US capitalist class this was a struggle for survival — and world domination.

All military contracts were made on a cost-plus basis so there was no risk. The new plants were either paid for by the government, depreciated very quickly and/or given big tax breaks. Being “the arsenal of democracy” (as they called it) was a huge profit bonanza for US big business.

Today, we need to carry out a transformation of the economy. But, while we need more houses and such, we do not need more consumerist “stuff” — in fact, we need to move away from it.

We need an economy that is sustainable, decarbonised, with as little waste as possible and focused on meeting people’s needs. The capitalists are not interested in this.

Capitalism is the problem

The climate crisis is not due to you and me — we may be forced to drive a car, use overpackaged products or use energy-guzzling air-conditioners to heat or cool poorly insulated homes. Ordinary people have no real choice.

Rather, the climate crisis flows from the insatiable drive of corporate capitalism for profits. Its only imperative is maximising profit — all the rest is simply window dressing.

In its drive for profit, capitalism externalises a whole series of costs; that is, it does not acknowledge them, let alone pay for them, but instead passes them on to society to bear the cost.

The capitalist economy produces greenhouse gases, pollution of all kinds and prodigious amounts of waste in the production process, by making products designed to wear out quickly and not be recycled, and by wrapping products in insane amounts of packaging.

Perhaps most importantly, it treats nature as an inexhaustible source of raw materials and a bottomless toilet for waste.

Some people in the climate movement argue or assume that capitalism can go green. This is wishful thinking that flies in the face of reality.

Even if it could happen, any positive changes made will be too slow, too late, too half-hearted and undermined by accommodations to huge vested interests. Capitalism has invested tens of trillions of dollars in the fossil fuel economy. It can’t and won’t just write these off.

Look at the hype around electric vehicles (EV). Though better than petrol or diesel vehicles, they do not tackle the real issue, which is the commodification of transport. A city full of millions of EV would still be a disaster — there would still be some 40% of land area given over to roads, parking and service facilities.

We need renewable energy, huge investment in public transport and individual car use pushed to the margins. This would enable cities to be redesigned in forms more suitable for human beings and community life.

When it comes to producing what is actually needed and ceasing to produce the current unsustainable consumerist torrent of stuff, capitalism is just not interested. Selling stuff is what it is all about.

We should push for stringent regulations and better recycling, but you can only go so far trying to control something that is intrinsically anti-social. Furthermore, recycling has its limits. We need to switch to a completely different economic model based on eliminating waste at the point of production and producing for people’s real needs.

Public ownership and planning

Comprehensive, society-wide planning is absolutely vital if we are to grapple with the climate crisis. This planning must be democratic and directly involve communities.

To plan we also need direct control of the economy. Capitalism lacks control. It uses indirect levers and everything is refracted through the greed of private capitalist interests.

The key thing we need is a huge expansion of public ownership, whether federal, state or municipal, particularly in the financial sector, which is at the heart of the economy. The energy sector also needs to be nationalised to facilitate the big switch to maximum sustainability as rapidly as possible.

The fundamental sectors of the economy need to be in the hands of society. These assets need to be not only publicly owned, but democratically controlled by the people — with workplace democracy, no huge inflated managerial salaries and forms of real public control and accountability.

Politically, we need a climate action government — a radical, anti-austerity, anti-capitalist government based on the mobilisation of huge masses of people — to carry through the necessary transformations.

Dealing with climate change will necessitate vast economic transformations. We will stop producing some things and have to produce more of others, and we will have to start producing everything in a different way.

A basic principle should surely be that working people should not have to bear the cost of this transition. It has to be as equitable and democratic as possible.

But capitalism is incapable of any real just transition. Look at what happened when Morwell’s coal-fired Hazelwood power station closed down in 2017. About 450 workers and 300 contractors lost their jobs.

The government provided some funds for “retraining”, but whether laid-off workers found jobs in the area was basically up to them and if private companies were hiring. Many workers had to move interstate for work. Many of the local jobs available are poorly paid.

The only way around this depressing result is planning based on public ownership and projects to meet community needs — houses, schools, hospitals and healthcare, public transport, sustainable agriculture.

Climate change ‘locked in’

Even in the utterly fantastic eventuality that climate virtue descends immediately over the entire planet — that is, we decarbonise our economy — drastic climate change would still be “locked in”. 

Already the US uber-rich have had private seminars on how to survive in the face of the catastrophe and the expected breakdown of social order. Some are buying islands or acquiring property in New Zealand.

They have some truly thorny questions to ponder: For instance, if you get away to your secure retreat by helicopter or plane, do you have to include the pilot’s family as well?

Elon Musk is pondering a move to Mars. Jeff Bezos is talking about moving production to the Moon, although he has yet to solve the problem of how to get all the stuff back to Earth.

The completely individualist “solutions” favoured by many of the capitalist oligarchy are not an option for the majority of us. The only solution for working people is collective action to try to change things at the source.

Climate action has to include people protection measures and these will have to be profound and on a truly unprecedented scale. There is simply no way that capitalism is going to consider these.

If we continue with capitalism into the climate change inferno, the rich will try to save themselves and the mass of people will be condemned to a hellish existence.

The 2005 devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina shows us how climate change will impact us if it is left to capitalism.

More than 1 million people fled the city. Hundreds of thousands never returned.

New Orleans city officials decreed that people who had not started to rebuild their homes after a year would have their property taken from them. Hundreds of properties were confiscated, resulting in a change in the class and ethnic composition of previously poor Black areas and a sharp decline in their overall population.

Black communities were broken up and much of their population moved out. Nearly 1 in 3 Black residents have not returned to the city after the storm.

Tens of thousands of the poorest never fled the city because they had no means of fleeing and no place to flee to.

Compare this to what happens in neighbouring Cuba. There, hurricanes cause a lot of infrastructure, and agriculture damage but very small loss of life due to the comprehensive mobilisation of resources that swings into place when disaster threatens — emergency workers, volunteers, community shelters and a well-rehearsed plan.

Protection measures

When looking at the kind of people protection measures we need, it becomes evident that the capitalist system is not going to address them in a remotely adequate way.

Protection from heat. Not only do all new buildings and dwellings need to be properly insulated to cope with rising temperatures, but millions of existing dwellings need to be retrofitted. People need to be able to keep cool and avoid ruinous power usage.

This needs to be a national mobilisation led by governments, overriding private interests such as landlords and developers. If, for example, landlords refuse to carry out the changes, their properties should be confiscated and incorporated in the stock of the government housing authority.

But look at the fiasco over flammable cladding. Tens of thousands of buildings around Australia were allowed to be clad with the equivalent of petrol-soaked rags. And now the authorities seem completely unable to rectify the problem, hopelessly dithering and passing the buck to the individual owners who are the victims.

Do we really believe these same authorities are going to deal with the home insulation problem, which is even bigger?

We need to end the problem of homelessness. Otherwise we will have poor people dying of exposure during heatwaves.

The solution is simple. Build tens of thousands of properly insulated, quality public housing units each year, with rents tied to income (10–20%). This would also decisively break the grip of speculators on the rental market and drive all rents down.

We need heat refuges funded by governments and with the necessary ancillary staff and facilities. The most vulnerable could be taken there in crisis situations and looked after.

Protection from bushfires. A lot of people live in bushfire-exposed areas in the outer suburbs. The Dandenong Ranges in outer Melbourne, home to 60,000 people, is a prime example.

Telling people to flee is not practical for those who have no money and nowhere to go. There need to be fire refuges. So far Victoria has a mere five refuges, although there are other safety zones.

Protect people displaced by climate change. What is going to happen to people who are forced to move by climate change; those who are forced to retreat from the bush and urban fringes; those who are forced to retreat from low-lying areas due to sea-level rise, storm surges and flooding? Are they going to be on their own, at the mercy of the market, or will there be a proper plan and resources directed towards helping them?

Protect water supply. Water supply needs to be guaranteed. The absolute priority has to be people’s food and basic needs.

The Murray-Darling water crisis shows that governments cannot be trusted to do this as they are completely in hock to agribusiness.

Protect food supply. Food supply needs to be guaranteed. Agriculture needs to be transformed away from industrial, high input monocropping to small, intensive eco-agricultural farms.

There will have to be less meat and we will have to be more vegetarian — it is a question of necessity.

We need to grow as much of our food as close as possible, reducing the distance food has to travel to a minimum. We need to promote urban gardens and local markets on the largest possible scale.

Food must be affordable for the poorest. The big capitalist supermarket chains (Coles, Woolworths, Aldi) must be nationalised so that everyone can get good, cheap, healthy food.

Capitalism’s drive for profit at all costs is responsible for the climate crisis. To have a hope of halting the damage and coping with what is already locked in — let alone drawing down the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere — we will have to move beyond capitalism to a society where the needs of the mass of people come first.

The future is uncertain. Collectively we have to rebel and force through the necessary changes, or face extinction.

There is no other way.

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