A socialist perspective on climate change Eric Chester and Susan Dorazio, two comrades from the Socialist Party of the USA visited Scotland recently, lived in Glasgow and joined the Maryhill branch of the SSP. They became very involved in the party’s activities and debates, as well as making new friends. Here we print Eric’s thoughts after he and Susan attended the protests at the Global Warming Conference in Copenhagen in December.

Capitalism is destroying the planet. A system based on individualistic greed, and dominated by huge transnational corporations focused on making the most profit possible, is bound to undermine the environment. The issues we confront are acute, and pervasive. Emissions of carbon dioxide have already caused a significant increase in the planet’s average temperature, with further warming in store.

Climate change has generated the most media attention, but it is far from the only crisis that confronts us. Accidents at nuclear power plants have already led to a dangerous increase in radioactive particles dispersed through the air. Chemicals that were used in air conditioners have seriously damaged the ozone layer. Water flowing in streams and lakes has been contaminated by industrial pollution. Factories and mills spew toxic gases into the air, threatening the health of the workforce and those who live in the vicinity. Species become extinct as animals are hunted and fished without regard to the future.

Worker and community control

Underlying capitalism is the naïve belief that individuals can act to satisfy their desire to acquire goods without taking into account the welfare of others. The result has been disastrous. All of us, wherever we live, have to act in ways that safeguard our environment. A market based economy can not be an environmentally sustainable one. Furthermore, efforts to regulate the market are bound to fail. Only a democratic socialist society based on worker and community control can provide the framework within which these problems can be resolved. We need to replace the ethic of individualistic materialism with one that focuses on the necessity for cooperation and community to provide a decent living for all.

I was one of thousands of activists who descended on Copenhagen during the recent climate change summit. I joined a march of 60,000 demanding that the official conference forge a binding agreement that would immediately and dramatically reduce carbon emissions. In the end, nothing was accomplished and the entire venture became yet another milestone in diplomatic futility.

Young and enthusiastic

Most of those who came to Copenhagen to protest were young and enthusiastic activists. Although the energy level was high, little was done to formulate a concrete program to reverse global warming. Democratic socialists have been slow to recognize the critical urgency of the environmental crisis. The time has come to address these issues and to develop a specifically socialist agenda.

To start, we need to clarify the goal. Scientists have generally agreed that a further increase of two degrees Centigrade (3.6 Fahrenheit) in the world’s average temperature will lead to catastrophic and irreversible changes. These findings have forced mainstream politicians, including President Obama, to accept as a target a reduction in carbon emissions consistent with a limit of two degrees in further global warming. Yet the rise in the global temperature that has already occurred has had serious consequences for the ecology. We must reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to decrease the world’s temperature to where it was before the burning of fossil fuels began markedly altering the environment. Such a goal would require a drastic reordering of current patterns in consumption and production.

Reaching this goal will require coordination and planning on an international scale. Setting an overall target of say a 75% reduction in carbon emissions within twenty years would be a good start, but it would still require an immediate program of specific and necessary steps to make this pledge meaningful. Free mass transit, government construction and operation of a network of high speed railroads, massive investment in subways and buses in urban areas, and bicycle paths on all streets, all of these are essential if we are to move people out of private cars and into energy efficient mass transit. We also should be demanding a ten-year phase out of all coal burning power plants and a moratorium on the exploration and exploitation of new oil and gas deposits, in combination with public investment in wind, water and solar power as renewable energy sources.

Devising new technologies

These are all measures that can and should be implemented now, on the basis of existing technology. We also need to generate a whole wave of innovations by redirecting the tens of thousands of engineers and scientists who now devote their talents to devising new methods of killing people to productive tasks such as devising new technologies to produce non-polluting and sustainable sources of energy. This can only be done by sharply reducing military expenditures and putting an end to the United States as an imperial superpower.

Inventions designed to overcome the climate change crisis should be transferred to the less developed countries without cost so that they can rapidly industrialize without jeopardizing the planet’s environmental stability. Innovations that are vital to the world’s wellbeing are the heritage of everyone, and not the intellectual property of a favored few. This can only occur when the energy industry is placed into the public sector, without compensation to the corporate owners, and then operated by its workforce for the benefit of all.

As socialists, we should understand that the environmental crisis extends well beyond the problems caused by climate change. Measures that are taken to resolve this problem need to be formulated so that they do not add to the other issues we confront. The governments of some countries, such as the Labour Party regime in Britain, are citing the climate change crisis as a rationale to build a raft of new nuclear power plants, thus exchanging one potential environmental disaster for another. We should demand a moratorium on the building of new nuclear power plants and a commitment to phasing out the existing ones within ten years.

These proposals are the outlines of a program of initial steps to reverse global warming. Achieving even a significant part of this program will require a militant mass movement to confront the corporate rulers and the governments that act on their behalf. Entrenched vested interests, the energy corporations and the automobile corporations in particular, will use their enormous power to stall and disrupt any meaningful measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Still, the underlying problem extends far deeper. Only a society that is premised on a radically different ethic will be able to implement the drastic changes that are required. Only a social system that recognizes the interconnectedness of human interactions, and that acts to overcome the alienation and powerlessness working people experience, and that fuels the desire to acquire an endless array of consumer goods, can provide the popular consensus necessary for the implementation of the measures needed to restore ecological sustainability.

We need to move rapidly toward a socialist revolution. Still, such a break with capitalism is only the beginning of a lengthy process. In the past, socialists have projected a future society as truly efficient, liberating the vast potential inherent in the existing technology and thus enabling a rapid growth in useful output, and a sharp increase in personal income. Such a perspective is no longer viable since it runs directly contrary to the goal of ecological stability. Instead, we should highlight another strand of socialist thought. Radicals have always called for a shorter work week and longer vacations. A century ago the Industrial Workers of the World were organizing for a six-hour day. This demand should be at the forefront of our program for the future society. In general, the emphasis should be on improving the quality of life for working people, rather than increasing the material standard of living.

Raising the quality of life

Furthermore, in a socialist society production will shift from individually owned consumer goods to the provision of high-quality social services. Free health care for all and free education through college, and held in small classes, are two critically important components of a socialist future, and both will require substantial resources to put into practice. Housing should be a public good, produced in the public sector and then distributed on an equal basis without cost to everyone. Thus, moving people out of cars and into mass transit would be consistent with a more general shift away from privately owned goods. Socialism will thus raise the quality of life for all while dramatically reducing carbon emissions and restoring ecological sustainability.

Creating a truly ecologically sound society will not be a simple task. Capitalism has left us all with an array of devastating problems. It will take time and an unswerving commitment to overcome these problems while creating a truly just world. The tasks are immense, and yet only democratic socialism can provide the basis for drawing back from the abyss of a global environmental catastrophe and moving forward to a classless society.