Toward an anticapitalist
 climate justice movement

The long reign of knuckle-dragging climate deniers is finally ending. After harassing scientists for the mildest assertions that global warming is real, corporate front groups like the State Policy Network have finally been exposed as employees of the infamous Koch Brothers, taking in $61.3 million since 1997 to turn reality upside down and distort public discourse about the gravest threat humanity has ever faced.1 While Fox News might still question whether global warming has been caused by human activity, the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in three parts between September 2013 and April 2014, concludes with 95 percent certainty that humans are responsible for all global warming over the past 60 years.2

So much for winning the argument. 

The IPCC report is a sobering yet cautious document. Mounting evidence of potentially catastrophic sea level rise, soaring temperatures, droughts, and more powerful storms like Haiyan, Sandy, and Katrina have forced scientists to make a stronger case to policy makers regarding the threat. The report notes that average temperatures have risen .8º C since 1900, most of it since 1990. An increase beyond 1–2º C would profoundly alter life on the planet. The report’s projected worst-case scenario, where policy makers continue to do nothing, is 3–5º C temperature rise by 2100. Other climate experts say 2–4º C rise by 2050 is more likely. With the oceans absorbing 90 percent of excess warming, accelerating ice melt will push sea levels up by a full meter or more this century, according to the IPCC. But researchers studying the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet fear that a rise of 3–5 meters is more realistic, which would submerge every major port city and all of southern Florida, displacing 300 million people.3

With the scientific debate essentially over, and with much stronger policy recommendations being made by climate scientists, why hasn’t more progress been made toward reducing emissions? One could argue that common sense and reason have little say in a world run by the logic of capital. Given the choice of saving the planet or keeping American business competitive, our elected leaders will always choose the latter unless forced to do otherwise. The Obama administration has perfected the Democratic Party tradition of using progressive rhetoric to assuage a voter base hungry for change, while privately and sometimes publicly calling for the opposite, as in Obama’s “All of the above” energy strategy. Obama might be critical of older coal plants that cheap natural gas has already made obsolete, but at the same time he has promoted offshore drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas to give American corporations the competitive advantage of cheaper energy and to reassert strategic US dominance in energy production. According to a recent report from Oil Change International, “The value of fossil fuel exploration and production subsidies from the federal government have increased by 45 percent since President Obama took office in 2009—from $12.7 billion to a current total of $18.5 billion,” a policy which it describes as equivalent to “climate denial.”4 Only the groundswell of opposition to tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline has forced the administration to tread more lightly when green-lighting fossil fuel projects. The overwhelming scientific evidence of human-induced climate change hasn’t seemed to matter.

This calls into question the beltway strategy of informing and persuading DC elites pursued by established environmental organizations for more than three decades. According to InsideClimateNews.org, the ten largest green NGOs have a collective annual budget of $525 million and over 2000 staffers.5 With the exception of 350.org, which has been far more focused on grassroots struggle, one could legitimately ask if these groups have made any progress with their insider strategy and focus on progressive legislation. Conversely, what could the grassroots do with that amount of cash if we used it to put people on the streets to raise hell and build a culture of solidarity? 

Much has changed since the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. Climate justice has taken center stage for many radicalizing greens, while indigenous struggles in North America and resistance throughout the Global South have countered the corporate plunder of natural resources. The radicalization of the past few years has driven more activism, direct action, and mass demonstrations, and has thereby been far more effective in shifting public opinion on climate issues and the need to drastically reduce emissions. Yet this is not enough. The business class continues to block any meaningful reforms, and the fossil fuel industry is ruthlessly defending its interests and even expanding production. 

So where does that leave the movement? 

The climate justice wing of the movement is growing. Many have also lost faith in the Democrats, seeing Obama’s track record on fossil fuels as little better than the oil administration of Bush and Cheney. More than at any point in recent memory, activists are now pointing a finger of blame at capitalism as the root cause of environmental destruction. This trend needs to continue and the movement must gain political depth quickly, but condemning capitalism is only the beginning. 

At this juncture, the movement remains strategically nearsighted. In her article on “Marxism and Ecosocialism” in this issue, Hadas Thier addresses the need for political education. Activists are courageously confronting the fossil fuel industry, but too often immediate action trumps any theoretical debate or discussion of how our current struggles could lead to a world with full climate justice. How can we bring about an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and create a society that operates in harmony with the natural world? Despite the criticisms of capitalism, many in the environmental movement still believe that something like our present economic system is a near permanent form of human society and that, for better or worse, solutions must conform to its logic. If that is granted, then the Democrats are likely to be seen as the only “realistic” political option. At the opposite extreme are those who have concluded that most of society is already doomed and that the response must be decentralized, autonomous resistance to fossil-fuel extraction and the creation of nonhierarchical, decolonized spaces which will both prefigure a nonoppressive, sustainable society and in some unspecified way, eventually displace capitalism. Often people embrace contradictory ideas from across this spectrum, resulting in an eclectic and incoherent set of politics.

Socialists also need to develop greater theoretical clarity. In the past, when middle-class liberalism dominated green politics, many socialists neglected environmental issues in order to focus on issues such as fighting oppression and war. Today, the severity of the climate crisis has come into focus as consciousness among the young is moving to the left, and climate justice has taken center stage. 6 Socialists should fully immerse themselves in environmental issues and bring Marxism to bear on strategic and such tactical questions as the effectiveness of carbon taxes, divestment, and a green new deal, as well as sharpen arguments about why green capitalism doesn’t work, as Thier does in her presentation. It is also necessary to connect the climate crisis with the growing conflicts and rivalries between the United States and the world’s other major powers, including China and Russia, and the intensification of regional conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

As the global environmental movement prepares for its next mass mobilization, during the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City in September,7 how can the movement advance? Demonstrations and civil disobedience are essential for any struggle, but they are not enough. The fossil fuel industry and the politicians who back it are the most entrenched advocates of the status quo and the use of state coercion and violence to enforce it. They have more to fear from revolution than from climate change, and the most powerful capitalists consider any substantial environmental or social reform to be a direct threat. They will use every resource available to them to block real change and to nullify their opponents. Serious environmentalists must be powerful and organized enough to withstand their counteroffensives and resolute enough to build a movement capable of initiating a democratic transformation of society that will replace our current rulers and their so-called free market economy.

As Thier notes, we need a more unified, sustained mass movement that will bring together a range of forces including liberal organizations. But within that mass movement, the anti-capitalist wing must grow stronger, building on the basis of working class solidarity. Marx noted that the organized working class, by virtue of its role in the economy, is the only force in society with strength to counter the power of the capitalist ruling class. If workers strike en masse, the whole system grinds to a halt. The best sections of the US labor movement see climate change as a class issue that threatens not only its members but also working class people generally and the poor globally. Many unions will join the demonstrations in New York in September, and groups like Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and the Labor Network for Sustainability could play an important role in countering the jobs-before-climate position taken by the more conservative construction unions and the leadership of the AFL-CIO. 

All this is taking place at a time when the US working class—after years of falling living standards, coupled with rising debt, stress, and general instability—is beginning to show small signs of revitalization, from the successful Chicago teachers’ strike to the campaign for a $15 minimum wage. The solidarity of various environmental groups during a recent strike by bus drivers in Burlington, Vermont, made a powerful statement and helped to transform picket lines and demonstrations, forcing management to back down. Environmentalists must see labor activists as crucial allies, and envision campaigns for unionized climate jobs, aimed at a full transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, and eventual climate strikes as movement goals.

The broader environmental movement should also continue to place greater emphasis on indigenous struggles and issues. Idle No More is a powerful symbol, forged out of historic and recent resistance to the Canadian state’s abrogation of treaty and land rights. NGOs could spend fewer dollars in DC and more to support First Nations and native environmental organizing throughout Turtle Island. Similarly, communities of color are always the first victims of industrial pollution. Projects like the construction of a massive incinerator in South Baltimore and the dumping of petcoke on the shores of the Calumet River on Chicago’s South Side have elicited strong community resistance. More must be done to support these efforts as key social struggles against racism and corporate polluters. 

The global environmental movement is now in position to make demands on the state. The People’s Agreement of Cochabamba8 that Thier mentions is the shining example that we in the Global North should unite around. The agreement spells out the harm done to Mother Earth in the name of capitalism, and seeks to forge a new system based on the principles of harmony, equality, and solidarity. The agreement should be elevated into a united global campaign, like the BDS movement against Israel or the South African antiapartheid movement, making relentless demands on politicians and corporate polluters:

  • Ban all coal, fracking, and tar sands extraction
  • Stop all fossil fuel infrastructure projects like pipelines and liquefied natural gas export terminals
  • Establish 100 percent renewable energy with democratic control by 2030 
  • Create millions of unionized climate jobs to transform our energy-intensive infrastructure and way of life
  • Tax the rich and defund the military to pay for the transition to a green economy

The list could get very long, and it should. To address the threat of climate change, the majority of the movement must break with political “realism” that limits our demands to what the market will tolerate. We have been abiding by the rules of capitalism and in return have been given only bogus solutions—cap and trade, “clean coal,” carbon sequestration, geoengineering, and a lot of hot air. Effective solutions will not be profitable for those who currently control the world economy, but only if their power is broken can we create the new world envisioned in the Cochabamba Agreement.


  1. “Koch Industries: Still Fueling Climate Denial,” Greenpeace, available at http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaig....
  2. “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, at http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/.
  3. Dady Chery, “Antarctica’s accelerating ice collapse: Massive sea level rise in decades,” News Junkie Post, May 19, 2014, at http://newsjunkiepost.com/2014/05/19/ant....
  4. “Cashing in on All of the Above: U.S. Fossil Fuel Production Subsidies under Obama,” Oil Change International, July 2014, at http://priceofoil.org/2014/07/09/cashing....
  5. “Infographic: A field guide to the U.S. environmental movement,” Inside Climate News, April 7, 2014, at http://insideclimatenews.org/news/201404....
  6. ‘Young people are more positive about “socialism”—and more negative about “capitalism”—than are older Americans. Among those younger than 30, identical percentages react positively to “socialism” and “capitalism” (43% each), while about half react negatively to each.’ (“‘Socialism’ Not So Negative, ‘Capitalism’ Not So Positive,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, May 4, 2010, at http://www.people-press.org/2010/05/04/s....
  7. See http://convergeforclimate.org/ and http://peoplesclimate.org/.
  8. Available at http://pwccc.wordpress.com/2010/04/24/pe....

Issue #90

july 2013

Will the revolution be tweeted?

Mass struggles in an age of social media
Issue contents

Top story

Features

Interviews

Debates

Reviews

  • Ireland's uneven development

    Shaun Harkin reviews Ireland’s Economic History: Crisis and Uneven Development in the North and South by Gerard McCann; Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development by Maurice Coakley and Towards A Second Republic: Irish Politics After the Celtic Tiger by Peadar Kirby and Mary P. Murphy
  • Uncovering Black Marxist feminism

    Keegan O'Brien reviews Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism by Erik S. McDuffie and Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones by Carole Boyce Davies
  • The struggle of farm workers

    Avery Wear reviews From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement by Matt Garcia
  • Redistribute the wealth

    Danny Katch reviews Billionaires’ Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks
  • The democratic deficit laid bare

    Lance Selfa reviews The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba and Henry E. Brady
  • Consolidating the narco-economy

    Gabriel Chaves reviews Cocaine Death Squads and the War on Terror: US Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia by Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle
  • Struggle in the fields

    Alexander Schmaus reviews Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California by Bruce Neuburger
WeAreMany.org