Climate catastrophe demands a revolutionary struggle for democratic socialism

By Arne Johansson, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna — ISA in Sweden

The pitiful outcome of the Glasgow climate summit, COP26, has been greeted with anger and frustration by the world’s climate activists. Completely inadequate and ineffective market solutions mean a continued rapidly shrinking “carbon dioxide budget”. This has led Greta Thunberg to call the summit a “Global North greenwash festival” and the English climate debater, George Monbiot, to liken the Glasgow Climate Pact to a “suicide pact”.

According to researchers, the world is approaching irreversible tipping points at a marginally reduced rate. At best they threaten our children with a dystopian future unless there are revolutionary changes in how society is organized. This means we can expect an in-depth and radicalising discussion about programmes, tactics, and strategy for the resurrected climate movement. An element in this discussion that has caused some uproar is the new book with the provocative title “How to blow up a pipeline” by the eco-socialist, human ecologist and author, Andreas Malm.

The fact that for the first time in the COP-circus’ 25-year history, fossil fuels are even mentioned in the final communiqué of the Glasgow meeting has been seen by some in power as a success. But when “phasing out” coal was, at the last minute, replaced by “phasing down” the extraction of coal and the reduction of subsidies for new coal, oil and gas even the COP meeting chairperson, Alok Sharma, was close to bursting into tears.

The fact that just as much carbon dioxide has been released into the world during these 25 years as in all the years before that is absurd proof of the inefficiency of the capitalist COP-circus. “Yet here at COP26 world leaders collectively chose to sign a death warrant for many of our own children tomorrow and poorer communities today,” comments renowned climate scientist, Kevin Anderson.

The hypocrisy of world leaders is monumental. When it comes to the crunch, they have, just as before, proved willing to act to the contrary, despite verbally accepting the seriousness of the threat, if only to prop up the system for a brief period, at least until the next elections.

US President, Joe Biden, promised at Glasgow a carbon-neutral energy sector by 2035. But at the same time, he called on OPEC to increase oil production to counteract rising oil and gas prices. And just after Glasgow, in cyclone-ravaged New Orleans of all places, the largest ever auction of rights to pump oil from the seabed took place, in this case from a large part of the Gulf of Mexico’s seabed between Florida and Mexico. And in East Africa, French oil giant Total is planning to build history’s longest pipeline between oil and gas fields in western Uganda to the coast of Tanzania, which will cross a series of extremely sensitive rivers and nature parks.

COP26 has been called by some media as “the most important climate meeting of our time” where the aim was to check off and improve the promises made in the 2015 Paris Agreement to prevent the global average temperature from rising above 2 degrees, and preferably not above 1.5 degrees. But on the formal agenda, there were only really points about technicalities such as the Paris Agreement’s rulebook’s Article 6 on market mechanisms — such as how a party buys rights to emit by sponsoring emission reductions in another country.

The developed countries finally managed to agree that the $100 billion previously promised by 2020 for climate adaptation in poorer countries will be in place next year, but that is a fraction of the multiple amounts that would be necessary for them to protect themselves and the even larger amount necessary for a climate transformation.

Alongside the negotiations in Glasgow, 48 ​​countries promised to “accelerate a transition away from unabated coal power generation”, whatever that may mean. In that agreement, which is assumed to mean a decommissioning of coal, neither the largest coal producers — the USA, China, and India — nor the largest coal exporter, Australia, took part. Indonesia has agreed only if others pay for the conversion and Poland only with a prolonged deadline to 2049.

Even less confidence is instilled by the promise of 110 countries that deforestation will end by 2030. Among the signatories is Bolsonaro’s Brazil, which in reality is accelerating the devastation of the Amazon, by 22 percent this year alone. Even looser is the agreement of 100 countries to “jointly” reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

In advance of Glasgow, commitments were announced to achieve net zero emissions in the EU by 2050 and national promises were made by, for example, Sweden by 2045, the USA by 2050, China by 2060 and India by 2070. Together with India’s promise to reach 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, the EU’s “Fit ​​For 55” percentage reduction in emissions by 2030, and the national commitments (NDCs — Nationally Determined Contributions) of all countries, generous calculations from Climate Trackerhave claimed that if these goals are met, the commitments in Glasgow could mean that the estimated temperature increase by 2100 is limited from 2.7 to 2.4 degrees.

As Mattias Goldmann describes it on the Swedish blog “Supermiljöbloggen”, the trick to reaching agreement is by using chronically vague phrases such as “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities,” which one hopes will be realised by “those in a position to do so”. The consequence of this is, as an experienced sustainability manager is quoted on the Supermiljöbloggen: “I have signed an infinite number of agreements, but never experienced that anyone has checked that we live up to them.”

Leading politicians and the bourgeois media rely, against all common sense, on global financial interests whose “greenwashing” has become an increasingly important means of competition, and who are taking an increasingly prominent place in the inner “blue zones” of climate summits. Those who have signed up to The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) have promised net zero emissions by 2050 in what they finance. The Global Energy Alliance for People & Planet says it wants to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, while the First Movers Coalition wants to use large companies’ procurements to give a market push to technologies that are still too expensive for the market.

Net Zero is also a flexible phrase that gives them an opportunity to buy emission rights to pretty much carry out “business as usual” with coal, gas, and oil in their portfolios in exchange for financing other people’s climate-positive projects.

On the streets of Glasgow and at the countless fringe meetings in the “green zone’s” hive of 150 meetings, workshops, and panel discussions in parallel with the official summit, climate fighters from all corners of the globe gathered at the so-called People’s Summit, organised by the Scottish COP26 Coalition.

There, both older and newer environmental organisations and networks with roots in the globalisation-critical justice movement were united in a new way. Taking part were, for example, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Christian Aid, Climate Action Network, the international peasants’ movement — La Via Campesina, union representatives and fighters for indigenous peoples and newer movements such as Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. Among the socialists present, International Socialist Alternative was the most noticeable on the streets this time.

“We’re creating a movement of movements in order to deepen and reshape the understanding of the climate crisis in the global north through a climate justice lens”, explained Asad Rehman, one of the founders of the COP26 coalition in The Guardian. As a sign that the climate movements have started to recover again despite the pandemic, around 300 demonstrations were held around the world at the same time as more than 100,000 demonstrated in Glasgow.

Among the growing feeling that time is running out, there are also clear signs of increasing frustration, a harder choice of words in criticism and a number of different expressions of radicalisation. Both researchers and many environmental movements are today adopting slogans on climate justice and analyses that link the climate threat to the economic and political system’s exploitation of natural resources, racism, colonialism, and social injustices.

While the more radical parts of the climate movement had, already at the Copenhagen summit in 2009, gathered behind the slogan “System Change not Climate Change”, Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future set the tone for Glasgow with the sharpened slogan “Uproot the System”and a critique of the summit as a “greenwashing festival”.

Pandemic restrictions prevented many movements from participating. But as Ludvig Sunnemark reported in the Swedish newspaper Internationalen, activists from “Fridays for Future Most Affected Peoples and Areas” from Mexico, Bangladesh, Kenya, and South Africa gathered in Glasgow behind slogans such as “Climate justice is black, brown, and indigenous”, “Degrow the North and decolonise the South,” as well as “Climate struggle is class struggle.”

Some have noted that the mass protests in connection with climate summits have not met the kind of confrontational counter-demonstrations such as the globalisation-critical protests against meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, the G8 in Genoa in 2001 or the European Union in Gothenburg that same year. Even if confidence in those in power is low, it takes a lot to call for protests to stop a meeting that, at least on paper, aims to save the planet.

The kind of physical resistance to environmental destruction that Naomi Klein called “Blockadia” in her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” appeared in the existential protests against the construction of pipelines, mines, deforestation and other environmentally and climate-threatening projects, often with endangered indigenous peoples at the forefront.

The fight against the Keystone XL pipelines in Canada and the US, against Dakota Access at Standing Rock in the US, and Ende Gelände against the extraction of lignite in Germany are some of the most famous examples of what Naomi Klein called “a wandering transnational conflict zone” where, more and more often, people have been willing to use their bodies to protect themselves and the environment. The very first of about 70 such battles documented by researchers in the Blockadia Mapis the Ogoni people’s bitter opposition to Shell’s oil spills in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.

The high profile of the blockades against North America’s pipelines undoubtedly contributed to the success of the movement that resulted in the mass attendance of up to 400,000 at The People’s Climate Marchagainst global climate change ahead of the major UN summiton climate change in New York in 2014. It also paved the way for new policy proposals on a Green New Deal.

But it was with the movement of school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg’s solitary protest with a sign that said “school strike” in the late summer of 2018 that Fridays for Future grew, in a short time, into repeated global mass protests both in between and alongside the summits. More than six million people in 150 countries took part in the largest simultaneous school strikes and mass demonstrations to date during the global climate action week 20–27 September 2019.

In parallel with this — history’s largest coordinated youth movement — another international movement was launched in the name of Extinction Rebellion (XR) which, with direct but peaceful and short-term actions as a method, specialised in attracting attention. In the largest of these, tens of thousands of people took part in a shutdown of central London. The most recent in Sweden involved small-scale disruption operations of various kinds at a handful of airports.

In frustration over both the pandemic’s paralysing effects and the fact that neither mass mobilisations nor direct action have so far had a sufficient effect, the human ecologist, Andreas Malm, who is a big name among many eco-socialists, has caused a stir with his latest book with the provocative title “How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Learning to Fight in a World on Fire”(Verso 2021), where he argues for the need to supplement the mass protests with small-scale attacks on selected targets.

In the book, according to detailed reviews and interviews, Malm criticises the climate movement and especially XR for “moral” or “strategic” pacifism and wonders when it is time to escalate the struggle. “When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands?” he asks in words that point out both SUVs and other things as possible targets.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Malm says he is aware of the risk of being identified as a terrorist. Yet he also says that he is himself “in principle” prepared to blow up a pipeline, though only in a way that would damage infrastructure and property, not people — it would be something qualitatively completely different.

Andreas Malm does not advocate vandalism as an alternative to the mass movement, but rather as a compliment. Slightly pressured in the said interview, he says that if a Green New Deal had a real chance of success and was about to become an umbrella concept for social movements in the US, he would be the first to warn climate activists from going ahead with impatient actions.

He finds it difficult to say when a militant escalation of the struggle would be best, in the event of complete paralysis and absence of movement or at the peak of mobilisation, but finds in the next breath a situation: “If, during the Australian wildfire inferno, an activist group had gone into a coal mine and somehow dismantled part of the mine infrastructure, some equipment, blown it up or picked it apart or whatever… that would be a moment for the movement to say, ‘Yes, an action like that has risks. But are we taking the climate crisis seriously?’”

The first question he as a socialist should ask himself is of course how that would facilitate the participation of the working class in the climate fight?

Andreas Malm has otherwise raised important issues. He rightly argues that the term ‘Anthropocene’ should be replaced by the ‘Capitalocene’, as it is capital and not humanity that has brought us to the brink of disaster.

His second most recent book “Covid, Climate, Chronic Emergency” (Verso 2020) is subtitled War Communism in the 21st Century. In it, he rightly argues that the climate emergency demands measures that cannot be implemented by social democratic small steps nor with an anarchist distancing from state measures. “Social democracy works on the assumption that time is on our side…But if catastrophe strikes…then the reformist calendar is shredded.”

Against those who have argued for a capitalist transformation in the style of the American arms races of the 1940s, he, like Lenin during the First World War, emphasises the need for a revolutionary struggle for power to conduct a rapid transformation of the whole of society.

Malm is absolutely right that climate transformation will require drastic and government measures, in terms of both production and consumption, including coercive measures against the rich’s luxury consumption of, for example, SUVs and air travel. Exactly what class character that state must have, he seems to want to avoid, but says in any case that the danger of bureaucratic degeneration must be kept in check by “popular forces from below, with social movements having power over the state bodies driving the transition.”

His parallel with the war communism of the Russian Revolution, however, leads to equally unnecessary and erroneous associations with the civil war and extreme hardships “in sackcloth and ashes”, which were in fact caused by the defeat of the revolution in Germany and the rest of Europe. What Lenin argued for in, for example, the State and Revolution in the summer of 1917 was revolutionary and democratic socialism.

In advance of Sweden hosting a new global summit on 1–5 June 2022 marking the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day, both the Social Democrat government and not least the Left Party will pay tribute to the “green industrial transformation” in light of today’s new plans for hydrogen-produced steel, battery factories, wind farms and mines in upper Norrland as well as Volvo’s ambitions for a rapid transition to electric cars.

But as the British climate debater, George Monbiot, writes in an assassination of electric cars, the extraction of the material required for their steel, batteries and electronics is already destroying communities, tearing down forests, polluting rivers, littering fragile deserts and, in some cases, forcing people into almost slavery. “Our ‘clean, green’ transport revolution is being built with the help of blood cobalt, blood lithium and blood copper.”

The battle will not least be fierce over the mining projects that can be expected to spring up like mushrooms out of the ground. It is the task of socialists to instead explain the necessity of carrying out a democratically planned transformation into a circular, resource-efficient, and ecologically sustainable production and consumption, which from the outset contradicts capitalism’s unrestrained and competitive demands for profits and capital accumulation. But gaining an understanding of this also requires a policy that can respond to ill-conceived ideas of, as an alternative to capitalist “growth”, only demanding “degrowth” or, for example, as the eco-socialist author, John Bellamy Foster, advocates, economically “stationary” societies.

What is necessary and what can arouse faith in the future is, least of all, a stationary society, but instead, a rapid transformation and regrowth, where the “wear and tear” — economy of capitalism is replaced by sustainability, circular recycling and the development of common welfare and culture at the expense of, above all, the material luxury consumption of the rich.

Clearly, for example, a new traffic infrastructure must be developed that includes replacing unnecessary domestic flights with train traffic, the banning of large SUVs and replacing fossil fuel-based car travel with free public transport. Correspondingly, a social housing policy needs to be developed that favours climate-smart, multi-family houses over expensive villas.

For such a change, the broad masses of workers and wage earners must also be won over. This can never happen without strengthening labour laws and social insurance and offering new green jobs where old ones are wound up in accordance with several of the ideas in the most progressive proposals for a Green New Deal.

All this is a struggle that must be started here and now, but which, to be fully implemented, requires a working class-led revolution to overturn both the current power relationships and take into public ownership the banks and large corporations. Only a new democratic and socialist state can realise this.

Rather than running the risk of being paralysed by pessimism, which can increase with a prolonged pandemic, it is important to understand that not only the climate can be affected by tipping points and domino effects. So too can social and political consciousness, as Fridays for Future, Me Too, Back Lives Matter have already shown, as well as the uprisings that swept through the world in both 2011 and 2019. Nothing can revolutionise young people’s consciousness of the necessity of socialism more than that today’s capitalist system now actually threatens their future opportunities for a civilized life.

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