Can climate catastrophe be stopped?

by Brian Durrans

As socialists, we are committed to saving the planet from environmental disaster. Humanity has 11 years in which to do that: just over a decade to start getting global warming under control. Would socialism make the job easier? Undoubtedly. But since capitalism is unlikely to be eradicated on that timescale, there is no alternative for socialists but to work within it while trying to gather support for a socialist alternative. Could people mobilised across the country for, and ideally in, a programme of sustainable reconstruction be won for socialist values and help win or consolidate working class power? Certainly, if it were done right and the proper arguments made. 


From the late 1940s to the early 1990s, frustrating capitalism’s inherent drive to war by blocking a nuclear holocaust created opportunities for socialist advance, even if, in the advanced capitalist countries, the left was too divided to take them. But, aside from losing the socialist bloc that once kept imperialism in check, there are two very important differences between the Cold War and now. First, if a nuclear holocaust was and still is a potential catastrophe waiting to happen, global warming, according to the great consensus of scientific opinion, is a catastrophe already underway, which only swift, radical and practicable measures can arrest or reverse. Second, since the end of the Cold War millions of people have now experienced the warmongering, austerity and polarisation of neoliberalism and, at least in the UK and to some degree in the US, there are welcome signs of greater unity, confidence and engagement on the centre-left. 

In October 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s highest-level body for assessing the science related to climate change, presented evidence justifying a new target for mitigating the rise of ground-temperature from 2⁰ to 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels and revised its policy recommendations accordingly. (1) The difference of 0.5⁰C between the previous target and the new one represents a huge challenge but with solid justification. It represents, for example, the difference between retaining at least some coral reefs and losing them all; or between moderate and substantial migrations of species.

IPCC recommendations already take account of practicability, so for governments or other interested parties to ignore them or try to amend them to make implementation easier, affronts both reason and humanity. Whatever the target, for every country, sector of the economy, transnational corporation or private company that fails to meet that target in its own operations, others will need to do even more to compensate if the global goal is to be met. The moral argument is unassailable, and socialists must be to the fore in making it.

There is no guarantee, however, that most of the main players (nation-states, corporations) will willingly or even unwillingly do what is needed, however obviously it is in their own short- or longer-term interests. Some fractions of the ruling class in the US or Brazil (for example) appear indifferent to the longer-term consequences of withdrawal from climate-change consultation (Trump) or of accelerating the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest (Bolsonaro). We are encouraged to focus on individual or elite transgressions rather than on the unsustainable global neoliberalism they are locked into. Only powerful movements capable of deploying both at local and international levels, and very soon, might hope to bring neoliberalism to heel.   


One grassroots option is to push the issue to the top of the agenda in any organisation by treating climate change as an emergency requiring special powers at the highest level – an explicit recognition that it is too serious for ‘business as usual’. (2) The downside of merely bandying-about terms like ‘emergency’ is that the declaration ends up as an alternative, rather than a prompt, to what needs doing. Once such a declaration is made, which itself should involve mobilising opinion, those responsible must be held to account for acting on it.    

Another option is to apply pressure wherever votes can be cast, in debates, for motions, in elections, so that people who are concerned about this set of issues can make a difference, whether in trade unions, co-ops, political parties, community groups, etc.  One person might, for example, care most about air pollution, another about food quality, a third about housing or jobs. Provided campaigning is to the fore, the crisis encourages people to widen their knowledge of less familiar aspects of the global problem, grasp the logic of short-term profiteering and public austerity which connects them all together, and quickly appreciate why collective action is better than private moaning. No-one learns faster than an activist.

The best available campaigning tool for tackling the climate emergency is the Green New Deal, which links policies together so they can be easily understood. Labour is pledged to ensure all its manifesto commitments meet the climate change mitigation targets it would work towards in government and aims for more ambitious outcomes wherever practicable. For example, it is now looking to decarbonise the power sector by the early 2030s, nearly two decades sooner than the previous target date of 2050.

How this will be done, how our homes and other buildings will be heated and sustainable and carbon-neutral transport systems put in place are being planned in detail by specialists in the shadow environment and climate change team, working closely with expert advisors inside and outside the Labour Movement. That much might be expected, but lessons are also being learned from elsewhere, including the US where the Green New Deal has quickly turned into a mainstream issue for debate and activism, (3) and France, where the Gilets Jaunes are a reminder that the cost of shifting from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives cannot be borne by those least able to afford it. Importantly, the working class and others hard-hit by neoliberalism are vital allies in the fight for a green economy, provided the government is on their side.  

Labour’s Green New Deal is (optimistically) one general election away from becoming government policy, an ambition for other countries to share. It joins the party’s domestic strategy with addressing global climate justice by fixing a broken economy for sustainable jobs, fairness, security and a shared sense of purpose:  for the many, not the few, across the world and yet unborn.   

In order to meet its deadline, neither the US nor the UK version of the Green New Deal can be a socialist programme. It is nonetheless an implicit rejection of a politics of greed and indifference, and if it can muster the support it deserves, above all from the working class and its allies, who knows where it might point us? But first, we have a planet to save.