By Philipp Chmel & Bill Hopwood-LSP/PSL (ISA in Belgium) & Socialist Alternative (ISA in Canada)
On June 2–3 the Stockholm+50 climate conference is taking place. The conference will be held in commemoration of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment. While the ruling class is meeting to “celebrate 50 years of global environmental action“, thousands of youth and workers will be protesting the hypocritical inaction of these international bodies.
The capitalist ruling class, their governments and international talk-shop bodies are driving the world to climate catastrophe. However, there is reason for hope. An international climate movement of youth, workers, Indigenous people, farmers and poor people would be capable of overthrowing this deadly capitalist system and replacing it with an egalitarian and democratic socialist system.
An international economy in which key sectors are publicly owned and democratically planned by the working class, would rationally plan according to the needs of the people and planet. This means to effectively curb global heating while also guaranteeing workers’ rights, and protecting and increasing the material and social living standard of all working people and the vast majority of humankind while limiting the excesses of the super rich.
International Socialist Alternative is dedicated to building the movement to end capitalism and provide a future for humanity. As part of this struggle ISA has mobilized over 300 climate and socialist activists to the protests around COP26 in Glasgow last year and is now helping to organize and mobilize for the climate protests taking place on June 1 and 3 in Stockholm, again including an international climate contingent from ISA sections outside of Sweden.
The 1972 Stockholm conference and the environmental movement of the 1970s
The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm was the first world conference to make the environment a major issue. The participants adopted a series of principles for sound management of the environment including the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment, several resolutions and established the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The conference was initiated by the Swedish UN delegation and was an expression of the growing environmental consciousness during the 1960s. Back then, the main concern was not climate catastrophe from global heating, but industrial pollution, nuclear radiation, and the destruction of entire ecosystems in different countries. An influential publication of that time was Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, published in 1962, which brought wide attention to the environmental damage caused by herbicides and pesticides and the potentially detrimental effects of uncontrolled technology more generally.
General critique of the economic system and its inherent growth imperative (in terms of GDP not human well-being) were an important feature of this early phase of international discourse on climate and environmental protection. The 1972 Club of Rome Report “Limits to Growth” was one of the key publications and influenced that phase.
In the context of the conference and the ensuing oil crisis starting in 1973, the report got a lot of attention in the first part of the 1970s. Social justice and the non-exceedance of physical limits achieved through public planning were central topics. However, the report also put forward the racist and false argument that population growth was to be a key factor in climate and environmental degradation:
“If the present rate of increase in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and exploitation of natural resources continues unabated, the absolute limits to growth on earth will be reached in the course of the next hundred years”Meadows et al. 1972: 17.
A wing of the environmental movement has for many years blamed “over-population,” an idea that goes back to the reactionary views of the 19th century economist Thomas Malthus. This not only ignores the reality that it is the decisions of corporations and governments that are the main drivers of environmental damage, but also the fact that the “richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest half of humanity” as Oxfam reported in 2020.
The authors of “Limits to Growth” pointed to the absurdity of endless growth — extract more resources, use more energy and produce more things (commodities) and waste — on a finite planet. However as their outlook was bound by capitalism, they drew pessimistic conclusions talking of “limits to growth.” They never envisaged a rationally planned cooperative economy where the ingenuity and skill of humanity would benefit all, while recognizing planetary boundaries and the laws of nature. This pro-capitalist outlook is not surprising as the report was commissioned by the Club of Rome, a gathering of senior government and business figures alongside some scientists, founded by the Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei.
Next to the elements of systemic critique, the Swedish organizers strove for more participation by civil society actors, which was in contrast to previous more rigid UN conferences. An unprecedented number of activists and NGOs tried to influence the conference delegates through demonstrations, petitions, and the Environment Forum. At that time, this approach was “something new” and around 10,000 activists participated in the Environment Forum. In the eyes of some, the success of the conference in achieving concrete results gave this approach a certain legitimacy and it became the model for activism around the following UN conferences.
Capitalist magic: turning economic growth from a problem into a solution
At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the protest march already counted 50,000 people. While the protest movement had grown, the small elements of systemic critique of the UN conferences and the international discourse on environmental protection had largely faded and protestors were met by police violence in Rio.
Since the 1970s, official language and discourse around climate and environmental protection has changed drastically. The Limits to Growth Report argued that endless economic growth in terms of GDP was detrimental to the environment and social justice. The 1987 United Nations Brundtland Report, however, presented growth again as the solution for environmental and social problems, also for industrial countries, and instead identified poverty as the actual problem.
With terminology like “sustainable development” or “Green economy”, the UN conferences increasingly pushed the idea that there could be an harmonious coexistence between economic growth, equity and the environment.
The neoliberal era also left its mark. There was a shift away from a more political approach that emphasized public planning to a technocratic ideology that pushed a reliance on markets. The “Green economy” is presented as politically neutral, and technocratic, market-based approaches and trade liberalization are put forward as the best and only means for environmental protection.
This emphasis on market approaches means relying on the very forces that have driven society towards an ecological disaster: the pursuit of profits. Capitalism is rooted in the exploitation of labor and expropriation (robbery) of nature. Whatever modest gains have been won, they were done so on the back of movements and mass pressure and not UN conferences. In the 1970s in Australia for example, building workers fought alongside local communities to protect the environment. A central achievement of their work were the over 100 ‘Green Bans’, which stopped socially and environmentally detrimental developing projects, often by strike action (here you can find more examples of the workers and trade union movement’s rich history of environmental struggles).
Moreover, while these reforms were won through struggle, the capitalists can stomach granting improvements in environmental regulation so long as they do not stand in direct contradiction to the core imperative of capitalism — accumulation of private capital, which necessitates growth of production and therefore emissions and material usage.
Fighting the climate crisis, however, is an entirely different question, as capitalism is its root cause and driver. Reducing emissions on the scale and speed necessary to stand a fighting chance in preventing the worst outcomes of a climate catastrophe is simply not possible within the straightjacket of private profit, competition and imperialist rivalry.
Stockholm+50: an ill-fitting fig leaf
With the COP (Conference of Parties) climate conferences, which started in 1995 and flowed from the UN conferences on the environment, it has become increasingly clear that they are not the place for change. Despite the various Kyoto, Paris & Co agreements reached, global emissions have kept rising throughout except for the year of 2020. This dip in emissions is not a result of successful climate protection policies, however, but a direct result of the economic recession triggered by the Corona pandemic.
In 2021, “global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6%” according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In absolute terms this is an increase by over 2 billion tonnes, the largest annual increase ever. This was before the horrible invasion and war in Ukraine.
The fossil rollback – replacing Russian gas by increasing coal and liquified natural gas imports — spells full-on disaster for the fight against the climate crisis. The war in Ukraine is adding to ecological as well as humanitarian disaster. Scientists say there is a 50% risk that we will cross the critical 1.5°C mark of global heating within the next five years. To stand a remote chance to stay below 1.5°C in the long term, carbon emissions would need to be cut in half by 2030, but the opposite is the case, they are projected to rise by 14%.
Moreover, as a Guardian report reveals, the biggest “fossil fuel companies are quietly planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts”. Until 2030, the 12 biggest oil companies are on the path to spend $103 million every single day on exploiting new oil and gas fields. The US, Canada and Australia are among the countries with the highest subsidies for fossil fuels per capita and among those with the biggest fossil fuel expansion plans.
In the face of looming disaster and without any tangible plan on how to avoid the worst climate crisis scenarios, the international climate conferences are in a sort of cul-de-sac.
In order to keep face, the Stockholm+50 conference is trying to take the bull by the horns and give the appearance of action. The name of the conference — Stockholm+50: A Healthy Planet for the Prosperity of All — Our Responsibility, Our Opportunity — sets the tone. It implies the climate disaster is all humanity’s “Responsibility.” Yet, as mentioned above, it is the super rich and corporations who are responsible for the absolute majority of emissions.
On the website, they then claim that the
Stockholm+50 will commemorate the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and celebrate 50 years of global environmental action.
With this, they are unintentionally clear about the true nature of this forum as everybody can clearly see that the UN climate and environmental conferences have failed. There is no reason for “celebrating 50 years of global environmental action” and it doesn’t take much to see through this charade and recognize this event for what it is — “a global north greenwash festival“, to borrow a phrase Greta Thunberg used to describe last year’s COP26 climate conference.
Building a climate movement to win
Over the past years, the fact that the climate crisis cannot be solved on the basis of capitalism and that UN conferences are therefore not the place where the necessary change can happen has become increasingly clear to youth and workers around the globe. The mood at the protests around COP26 are a case in point, expressed pointedly by Greta Thunberg:
“Inside COP, they are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our future seriously, pretending to take our present seriously of the people who are being affected already today by the climate crisis. Change is not going to come from inside there. That is not leadership, this is leadership, this is what leadership looks like.
We say no more ‘blah blah blah’, no more exploitation of people and nature and the planet. No more whatever the fuck they’re doing in there. We’re sick and tired of it and we’re gonna make the change whether they like it or not.”
ISA strongly supports the climate demonstrations in the context of the Stockholm+50 climate conference to which we will mobilize across Sweden and also bring international supporters. However, we are also aware that simply putting pressure on international bodies is not the correct strategy to achieve the radical change away from capitalism so urgently required.,
Let’s make the demonstrations around the Stockholm+50 climate conference a point of crystallization to continue to build a climate movement that is clear on what is necessary. Amy Ferguson, an ISA and trade union activist from Northern Ireland, said it at the Fridays for Future demo in Glasgow in a nutshell:
“To overcome the climate crisis, we need socialist change with democratic planning of the economy and to achieve that, we need to build a militant workers’ movement and link up the climate and the workers movement.”
A publicly owned, planned economy with real democratic control by workers in those industries and society as a whole could create millions of well-paid and sustainable jobs and build a new green economy.
This is the only way to ensure that workers’ rights and past gains are protected, as part of a just transition for working people. Workers in fossil industries could be redeployed with no job losses or pay reductions, moving from environmentally damaging production toward projects that benefit society and the planet. In a democratically planned economy, greed, corruption and competition would be replaced by an economic system that is based on the needs of people. This is also a prerequisite to end wars and conflicts and give a real answer to people who are forced to flee from their homes as a result of the climate crises.
We therefore call on all the progressive trade unions in Sweden to support the climate demonstrations on June 1 and 3. ISA will mobilize for the demos in the coming weeks and we invite all climate activists in Sweden and internationally to support us in that, to join our bloc at the demos in Stockholm and to attend, in-person or online, our International Climate Rally on Friday June 3 at 6PM Swedish time (link fb event once ready).
Read our 8 POINT SOCIALIST PROGRAMME to see our proposal and demands for what is necessary to effectively fight the climate crisis.