No climate future without system change

When the global climate strike movement turned two with strikes on 19 March 2021, it was, despite the acute situation, a struggle that does not dominate the news. Covid-19 has pushed all other political questions into the background when millions have died or become seriously ill. The pandemic triggered an economic crisis for capitalism that has been the worst since the 1930s. Yet the new coronavirus is in itself a judgement on the capitalist mode of production which destroys ecosystems and creates biological and environmental dangers that threaten the development of our entire biosphere – life on earth.

Jonas Brännberg // article from Offensiv

Warnings about how the capitalist mode of production is putting pressure on the earth’s ability to handle all forms of strain have continued to come at an increasing pace. Over the past year, we have seen record numbers of tropical storms in Central America and South-East Asia, extreme heat in Siberia and fires in Australia and North and South America. 2020 was, despite the cooling weather phenomenon, La Niña, the warmest year on record (the same record temperature as 2016 as a result of the warming phenomenon, El Niño).

It is far from just climate change that is the cause of these serious warning. Other examples are rapid species death, over-fertilisation and the explosion of plastics and other pollutants. According to climate researchers, we have already left the safe zone for four of the nine “planetary boundaries” that hold the earth in the stable state that we have had for the past 11 700 years (the so-called Holocene).

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as the founders of modern socialism, studied capitalism, they were already then able to see the contradiction between the system and nature. Marx expressed it as capitalism had created a metabolic rift between human beings and nature. He gave an example of how nutrients in food were transported from the countryside to the cities to later be washed into the sea as waste products, with soil depletion as a result.

Marx and Engels could, however, only see the first glimpse of what would become a complete transformation of mankind’s relationship to nature. In the hunt for ever greater profits, the earth’s ecosystems and natural resources have been treated as free resources, where raw materials, food products and other resources have been vacuumed up from nature while pollution has been vomited back out into the ground, sea, and air. With the help of fossil fuels, the photosynthetic barrier has been broken – capitalism has quite simply, in order to increase its expansion and hunt for profits, used more “production” from nature than it has been able to give without serious consequences.

It is not always easy to see when gradual changes go from quantity to quality (a completely new state), especially while it happens. It is only in the past few years that researchers have been able to reach the conclusion that the earth, by the middle of the 1900s, already left what is known as the Holocene – the 11,700-year long era with very stable conditions in the earth’s systems.

We are now living in what is called the Anthropocene (the age of humans), even if “Capitalismocene” is a better description. What that means is that we are living in an era where humankind under capitalism has become the most important force in the changing of life on earth. The equilibrium in the earth system (which has, for example, held temperatures between -5 and +2 for 2.6 million years compared with the time before industrialisation), created by balance and feedback from a variety of life forms, is now seriously threatened.

Throughout human history, the earth or rather – the part of the earth where life can exist – has probably been perceived as more or less infinite. In fact, it is an extremely small fragment of the world we live in. In the universe there are at least two trillion galaxies, and in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, there are up to 400 billion stars. Around one of these stars, our sun, the Earth spins, with a thin layer of life of only 20 km on and above its surface.

The nine planetary boundaries. Green zone means no risk, yellow uncertain/increased risk while red means big risk of passing what is safe for humanity. Several areas still need to be defined what the risks are. (Graphics: J. Lokrantz/Azote based on Steffen et al. 2015.)

With a capitalist system that has gone into turbo-mode in recent decades, this biosphere of life has been severely damaged. It is not just temperature changes that threaten to dramatically change the state under which our civilisation exists. Life on Earth is also shaped by the circulation in the atmosphere (such as the jet streams whose recent changes caused the extreme cold snap in Texas), by the circulation of water through water vapour, precipitation and ocean currents, the extent of the ice caps, the soil, the extent of the ozone layer, nutrient circulation, and so on. With our entry into the Anthropocene, human society affects not only the dynamics of all life on earth but also the entire earth system: the oceans, the ice, the earth, the atmosphere, and the climate. 

Never in the history of the planet, since it was created 5 billion years ago, has the diversity of life been as great as the most recent geological epoch. This is dialectically linked to climatic conditions. Stable climatic conditions have created the conditions for life to develop and diversify – but the diversity of life has also stabilised the earth system and created an elastic biosphere – which is able to handle change and uncertainty.

With capitalism, this diversity has been rapidly eroded. Since 1970, capitalism has wiped out 60 percent of mammal, bird, fish, and reptile populations (according to the WWF). On average, every fourth animal and plant that has been investigated is under threat, indicating that about one million species are threatened with extinction (” Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change ”).

This loss of biodiversity threatens us directly, for example in the reduction of pollinating insects that has led to a reduction in food production. But it is also a threat that risks accelerating climate change and making it more difficult to adapt to change. Due to the capitalist agricultural industry, for example, 90% of local crops, which can adapt to climate change, have been lost when large multinational companies introduced their high-yield crops.

The capitalist globalisation we have seen in recent decades has thus not only created fragile global production chains, but also made our more intertwined planet more fragile from a biological perspective as well.  

In recent decades, 50 percent of the earth’s land has been converted into agriculture, cities, road, and other infrastructure. Today, land use change accounts for 14 percent of greenhouse emissions. An example of this is the report that recently stated that only a third of the world’s rainforests remain untouched.

To exemplify the importance of humans for the biosphere and ecosystems, it can be mentioned, for example, that the weight of the current human population is 10 times greater than that of all wild mammals. If we add the weight of livestock made available for human consumption, wild mammals account for only 4 percent of the total weight.

However, it is capitalism that is the problem, not people or humanity. The richest one percent are responsible for more than twice as much greenhouse gas emissions compared with the poorest half of the world over the last 25 years. The poorest half of the world’s population have basically not increased their emissions at all during the same period (The carbon inequality era). At the same time, there are a few large companies that are exploiting nature’s resources. For example, only 13 giant companies account for 20-40 percent of all marine catches of larger and more valuable fish. (Transnational Corporations as ’Keystone Actors ’ in Marine Ecosystems)

Share of increased green house emissions from 1990 to 2015, with the poorest 5% to the left and richest 5% to the right. The line shows increase per capita while the bars show the groups total increased emissions, as percentage of total emissions. The poorest half of the population have hardly increased their emissions at all during the last 25 years. (data from The Carbon Inequality Era)

What is particularly threatening about climate change is that it will probably not be a gradual change with rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Just as with mass protests or revolutions, we will see tipping points – where ecosystems due to the rise in temperature change their state quickly and forever. 

Examples of this are the melting of the Arctic ice and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, the transformation of the Amazon into a savannah, thawing of the permafrost or reduced circulation in the world’s oceans. Recently, there was a worrying report that thawing of the permafrost is going faster than estimated with large emissions of the greenhouse gas, methane, as a result. If this is true, it means that a third of the greenhouse gas budget that keeps us below 1.5-degree warming is already gone. 

These tipping points in turn create self-reinforcing feedbacks that risk provoking new tipping points, for example when melting ice sheets stop reflecting heat away from the sun or when burning forests are transformed from carbon sinks to emission sources. The result can be a cascade of tipping points that transform our earth into a ”hothouse earth” – even if carbon dioxide emissions are reduced. This will of course take time – maybe hundreds of years – but the problem is that when we reach a tipping point, we do not know if there is any way back.

That is why the call to stay below a 1.5-degree temperature rise is so important. New research shows that the risk of tipping points is much closer than previously thought. Some have probably already passed, such as the melting of the ice in the Arctic or that at least half of all coral reefs will die. Nevertheless, today’s emission levels point to more than a three degree increase in global temperature increase by 2100.  

The ability and willingness of the ruling elite to cooperate and change is limited by a system that is in crisis at all levels

The climate crisis cannot be seen separately from the other crises of capitalism; the economic, social, or political crises. They all point to a system whose contradictions have grown stronger and stronger and which creates crises that all interact with each other.

For example, climate change is fuelling conflicts that can lead to war and refugees, while climate change itself creates climate refugees. According to Oxfam, 20 million people were forced to flee each year during the last decade due to climate change. If society does not change course, the future will be much worse. Depending on different scenarios for population growth and warming, it is estimated that in 50 years, 1-3 billion people could experience Sahara-like conditions – outside the climatic conditions that humans have lived under so far. Already today, climate change, just like the Covid pandemic and other crises, is leading to increased class and gender inequality. 

The explosion of injustices with the privatisation, deregulation and austerity of neoliberalism has undermined the position of the bourgeois elite in society, and with the economic crisis the antagonisms between the great powers in the world, especially between the United States and China, have increased. This means that the ability and willingness of the ruling elite to cooperate and change is limited by a system that is in crisis at all levels. 

Although the shutdown as a result of the pandemic meant reduced climate emissions of around 7 percent by 2020, there is very little to indicate that this is the beginning of sustainable change. On the contrary, the stimulus that states have poured over capitalists to keep the economy afloat has gone to a much greater extent to the fossil fuel industry than to renewable energy. By November 2020, G20 governments had provided $233 billion in support of activities that support the production or consumption of fossil fuels, while only $146 billion went to renewable energy, energy efficiency and low-emission alternatives (Production Gap Report 2020). Instead of the necessary reduction of fossil fuel production by six percent per year, an INCREASE of two percent per year is planned for 2030. 

The realisation of the existential threat we face, the depth of the metabolic rift that Marx only saw the beginnings of, makes it easy to understand that the problem cannot be solved by ”just” switching to electric cars, installing solar panels, or eating less or no meat. It does not come close to the change that is needed.

Just as they have done until now, the representatives of capitalism will at best act too late and too little. A new report shows how the rate of emission reductions must be increased tenfold compared to the period 2016-2019 in order to achieve the goals in the Paris Agreement (“Fossil CO2 emissions in the post-COVID era”). Incapacity is not about lack of competence or knowledge, but about the capitalist system, where profit and growth always come first, which means that nature is treated as a free and infinite resource.

We need a complete transformation of society to stay within the planetary boundaries that keep the Earth system and biosphere in a state that is secure for our future. This means an immediate halt to new oil and gas extraction and a democratic plan to reduce to zero emissions within a decade or two. It involves a transformation of agriculture, forestry, mining, transportation, energy production and other activities to protect biodiversity and convert sources of emissions into carbon sinks. It also means using minimal natural resources and at the same time redistributing wealth and resources as part of a green investment plan.

All this is not possible within the framework of capitalism. Humankind is embedded in and has its future intertwined with the future of nature and the biosphere that surrounds us. Capitalism, on the other hand, sees nature as an external resource, to consume and exploit, just as with workers. The profit motive that drives that development cannot be stopped either by pious calls or insufficient laws by politicians who defend the same system. For real change, democratic socialism is required: that private profit interests are abolished through the nationalisation of large companies and banks under democratic control, in order to suspend or reorganise environmentally harmful activities, while at the same time satisfying other needs in society. 

Regardless of the inevitable decline that the climate movement is now experiencing, more and more people, especially young people, will conclude that the climate fight needs to be anti-capitalist in order to succeed.

Just as the crises of capitalism are closely intertwined and interact, the struggle against the capitalist system and its defenders must be organised and gathered across all borders. The climate movement can only, in international cooperation with the workers’ struggle, the women’s struggle, the fight against racism and other movements, challenge the system which, if not stopped, threatens to destroy the conditions for life and civilisation on this planet.

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