It’s a do-or-die moment for humanity as it comes face to face with a looming ecological catastrophe. Yet there is a great silence when it comes to seeing the root cause of the crisis:the rule of capital.
“We’re going to lose everything,” said Dr. Peter Kalmus, a NASA scientist. He and other scientists had chained themselves to a JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles, protesting the bank’s financing of fossil fuels. “And we’re not joking,” he said, “we’re not lying, we’re not exaggerating.” Scientist Rebellion, a collective of scientists, organized this and a wave of other civil disobedience protests in April in more than 25 countries. The protests came after release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warning that the planet is “firmly on track toward an unlivable world” unless CO2 emissions peak by 2025 and rapidly fall thereafter and gas and coal plants shut down within ten years. Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, sounding like a climate justice activist, accused leaders of “lying” and said the report “is a litany of broken climate promises” and “a file of shame, cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.” In addition, scientists warn that the chance of surpassing the 1.5°C temperature limit in the next five years is now 50%, up from 20% in 2020 and zero chance in 2015. 1.5°C is the point at which it becomes no longer possible to avoid dangerous breakdown of the planet’s life support systems.
There has been a slew of other reports since the IPCC report in April. One report indicated that the last seven years were the hottest ever recorded; the concentration of CO2 had reached 413.2 ppm globally in 2020, or 149% of the pre-industrial level—indeed, on 11 May, a new world record was set at 421.37ppm of CO2—indicating that we are continuing on the same perilous path with maximum speed;. The upper 2000m of oceans have shown strong warming rates in the past two decades; ocean acidification is the highest it has been in 26,000 years, causing a decline in the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 emissions (the ocean absorbs about 23% of anthropogenic emissions to the atmosphere); global average sea level reached a new high in 2021 due to the accelerated melting of ice sheets; devastating heatwaves, floods, and drought have hit multiple regions of the world. Back in February, the IPCC reported that the atmospheric CO2 levels in 2019 were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years; that in no other 50-year period in the last 2,000 years did the earth’s average surface temperature rise faster than during the period 1970–2020; and that in no other century in at least the last 3,000 years did the global average sea level rise faster than it did during the 20th century.
Glimpses of a frightening future are already upon us. Large areas of central Asia have been hit by record-breaking intensive heatwaves with temperatures reaching 50°C in Pakistan. In parts of India people are rescuing “exhausted and dehydrated birds” falling from the sky and animal doctors are treating thousands of birds. If the nightmarish scenes of birds falling from the sky won’t focus the mind, nothing will.
It’s heartening to see a collective of scientists taking to civil disobedience and going beyond writing reports for policymakers and publicizing scientific findings. The rest of us should join them and disrupt politics and business as usual. Needless to say, disruptions alone won’t get us to an ecological society that regulates its relation to nature rationally and with care. For that we need to build radical labor and ecological movements that combine their forces. A green-worker alliance is indispensable to the making of a livable world.
Liberal environmentalism betrays its professional class bias when it assumes that what’s needed the most is spreading awareness of the science of climate crisis. But the problem is not that the public is unaware of climate science—even when only one in five persons know that more than 90% of climate scientists agree that we are on the path to an unlivable world. In fact, the proportion of the US population who express concern about the warming of the planet has reached an all-time high of 70%. Isn’t this enough support for the political class to effectively address the climate emergency?
A major problem is that the political system is captured by capital, particularly fossil capital, rendering politics dysfunctional from the standpoint of ecology and the common good. Spreading awareness about the scientific consensus on the climate crisis is more a feel-good liberal approach than an effective counter to the deadly perils awaiting us all. Environmentalism without class analysis and solidarity with workers ignores capital’s role in the making of the climate catastrophe. It ensures that capital will successfully employ a policy of divide and rule and frame the crisis as one of jobs vs. environment rather than, what it really is, ecosystem vs. profits.
The logic of capital is accumulation-without-end—a cancer-like hunger for endless growth. Slowdowns or reversals usher crises and set off panic, while climate breakdown is ignored. Capital’s “egotistical calculation” of commerce wins the day every time and sets the system on a tragic collision course against Nature. The failure to challenge this logic means capital will continue its offense against both nature and labor. (For example, even as the IPCC warned humanity of “code red” and urged a rapid moving away from fossil fuels, Exxon is building its biggest drilling project ever to pump 10 billion barrels of oil right off the Caribbean Sea, home to endangered turtles, whales, and other precious marine life.)
Rarely mentioned is that a politics constrained by capital generates growing feelings of despair and anguish, especially among the younger generations whose lives will be most affected and unfairly burdened by climate disruptions. An international survey of 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 in 10 different countries, including the US, India, Nigeria, Australia, and the Philippines, found that 60% believe “The future is frightening,” while 45% are experiencing “high levels of psychological distress” from climate disruption and lack of governmental action to deal effectively with the growing crisis. If cynicism were to replace despair among the youth, a likely outcome, all hope would be lost.
The corporate media will not be of help either. They have paid scant attention to the most recent reports, including the IPCC report, likely the last major report issued in time to avoid climate breakdown.
The political system on the other hand may at best respond in a fragmentary fashion to symptoms only of the ecological emergency. This should be a damning indication of its dysfunctionality. The US response to the Covid-19 pandemic is hardly reassuring in this regard. The US focused on rolling out a vaccine in the global north, mostly ignoring the global south. It failed to consider the sources of the pandemic, such as the economic structures that propel deforestation. The number of Covid-19 deaths in the US has now surpassed one million. Perhaps, the ruling class is not aware of the root causes of this or the climate crisis; certainly, it has no serious ideas about how to manage the system’s trajectory, let alone stabilize the climate. It’s clear that a significant section of the ruling class does not take the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion about climate change and its catastrophic consequences seriously. Perhaps they think there is no certainty that what science warns will come to pass. If so, we should remind them of the logic of insurance:one doesn’t require 100% certainty in order to take out insurance against the remote possibilities of catastrophes such as traffic accidents, home fires, and so on. Or the precautionary principle:if a high risk is suspected, one should take protective measures even before complete scientific proof exists. But, to repeat, the problem isn’t lack of awareness but the rule of capital.
In sum, the window of opportunity is closing and is confined to the present decade only. We need first and foremost to mobilize the public to engage in disruptive mass actions against the business-as-usual politicians and corporate practices, especially those of the fossil fuel industry. Beyond this, we must break the great silence about the rule of capital and its historical role in bringing about the end of organized human life if left unchallenged. We need to organize movements to challenge capital’s unrestrained logic of accumulation-without-end and put an end to the exploitation of labor and nature. That includes liberating science and technology from state capitalist destructive ends, think militarism and wars, to serve human needs instead.
To place people and the planet above profit demands nothing less.
Faramarz, a native of Iran, teaches politics at Moravian University. He is the founder of the Beyond Capitalism working group of the Alliance and the editor of its publication Left Turn. He can be reached at email@example.com.
An extended version of this essay appears on Countercurrents.org and is also available in the Voices of the Valley section of the Alliance website.