By W. T. Whitney Jr.

November 5,  2021


Capitalism’s role in causing climate change now gains new visibility. Scientists advising world leaders present at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) on November 1-12 in Glasgow affirmed the association. To slow down climate change and mitigate its effects, they want action taken to reduce capitalism’s impact on the climate.

The climate crisis is worsening.  For Monthly Review magazine, the COP26 gathering represents “a last-ditch effort to achieve a global solution on behalf of humanity as a whole.” The COP is the decision-making body of the 1995 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of 230 climate scientists from 66 countries, monitors climate-change trends and effects. Their observations, analyses, and recommendations appear in the IPCC’s Assessment Reports, which are issued periodically. IPCC scientists, who “have spent the last 3 years reviewing over 14000 studies,” are in the process now of releasing their Sixth Assessment Report, with 4000 pages.

On August 9, 2021 they released the Report’s Part I on the “physical science basis of climate change.”  The IPCC will not release Part II, about impacts, and Part III, about mitigation, until early 2022, after all UN member states have reviewed the two sections. Key portions of the two have been leaked and, widely disseminated, they are the basis for this report.

Earlier Assessment Reports attributed climate change to human activity, unspecified.  What with IPCC scientists linking expanded industrial production and consumerism with rising greenhouse gas emissions, capitalism enters the picture.

As summarized by the Monthly Review editors, Part II asserts that “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot… We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviors at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments. We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”

An important finding of Part III, according to the editors, is that, “technological improvements that allow for relative decarbonization are not enough. Rather, what is required … ‘is fundamental structural changes at the global level’ … in production and consumption systems. Accelerated climate-change transitions require a shift to entirely new systems of sustainable development. ‘Transformative change’ must replace incremental changes favored by the status quo.”

Monthly Review indicated also that “for the first time in the IPCC process,” Part III called for a “turn to demand-side strategies, exploring cutbacks in energy use and across all economic sectors, as well as aggressively pursuing conservation and low-energy paths.”

Part III, crucially, “indicates at one point, referring to the analysis of Malm and others that: ‘The character of social and economic development produced by the nature of capitalist society [is] …ultimately unsustainable.’”

This is not a new idea. Advocates for environmental sustainability – Marxists, academic socialists, eco-socialists, environmentalists – have long concerned themselves with capitalism’s impact on the environment. Visionary Marxist scholar Kenneth Neill Cameron called for action almost 30 years ago. Concluding his book Marxism, a Living Science (International Publishers, 1993), he discusses global warming.

“Most Marxists write as though … social advance will take place in a social bubble shut off from nature. The scientific evidence, however, points to an era of environmental stress. The evidence was already strong in 1984 when this book first went to press … [It’s] a perspective beyond anything Marx and Engels had to confront … Clearly then the struggle for socialism will take place in a world racked by natural disasters of social origin.”

Cameron explores the curbing of fossil-based fuel and reliance on alternative energy. He suggests that, “there is only one way known to slow down and then eliminate these disasters, namely by phasing out the gases that cause them.” He declares that:

“[T]o fully replace the fossil-fuel-based corporate structure is beyond the capacity of capitalism and requires a socialist planned economy … As this struggle progresses it will become apparent that human survival will depend not just on clean energy but on a socio-economic system run by the people in their own interest. In short, a new dimension has been added to the struggle for socialism, which no longer aims only at universal “social justice” but at assuring human survival.”

Marxists like Cameron, however, realize that words and theory are not enough. From Marx, they know that merely to interpret the world falls short; “The point … is to change it.”

Marxists are able to frame climate-change action in a straightforward way. Inasmuch as their primary object is fighting capitalism, and capitalism causes climate change, and climate change endangers humanity, Marxists are duty-bound to involve themselves in the climate fight as learners, teachers and activists.

How would they do this, and what might the prospects be?

The opinions of the IPCC scientists, having circulated, constitute a kind of UN endorsement of fight-back against capitalism. To the extent that the UN position gains respect, capitalism becomes fair game for wider criticism within society as a whole. That’s helpful.

Marxists, self-described “scientific socialists” and prone to theorizing, analyzing problems, and strategizing, are prepared. As materialists, they embrace scientific inquiry and study of the natural world. The intersection of science and politics is familiar territory.

Marx himself modeled that approach. For example, he made the association between diminished productivity of soil in Britain and burgeoning industrialization. Having consulted with German scientists, he concluded that the movement of small farmers away from the land and into British factories, as industrial workers, had led to crops being under-fertilized. Because farmers had left the land, fertilizer in the form of animal and human excreta was in short supply.

Marxists are versatile. Having theorized, strategized, and acted in widely varying situations, they’ve shown that they probably would be able to confront the climate crisis. They’ve studied and defended waged labor laid low by the extraction of surplus value, small farmers displaced or oppressed by landlords, women (mostly) laboring in social reproduction for no pay, and those whose bodies, land, or subsoil resources have been plundered.

But capitalism won’t disappear quickly. After all, preparation for the way capitalism looked in the 1800s required a couple of centuries. As long as capitalism lasts, formation of a mass movement ready to defend environmental sustainability, and the climate, won’t happen soon, especially in the industrialized world.

For the sake of their jobs, wages and salaries, working people employed by entities dependent directly or indirectly on the market economy require economic stability and predictability. Under capitalism, that means an economy that produces and grows, always – one that, along the way, aggravates climate change. Working people, therefore, may find it more compelling to preserve the status quo than to pursue goals realizable only in the future, virtuous though they may be.

Relatedly, many wage workers, unemployed people, unionists, and seniors are leery of the environmental movement. They may resent the seemingly disproportionate involvement there of activists with comfortable life styles or object to the scarcity of black and brown people in such campaigns. It’s not yet clear how these twin projects, replacing capitalism and coping with climate change, are ultimately going to come together.

The possibility does emerge, however, that crisis-ridden capitalism, loaded with contradictions, will face some sort of a collapse.  Waiting in the wings are disasters like pandemics, wars, massive default on debt, underproduction due to climate-caused catastrophes, oil shortage, and more. In chaotic situations like these, the building of a mass response to the climate crisis, one that is collective, anti-capitalist, and necessary, might come about.

The stimulus would derive from fears and perplexity. These, of course, could also lead to the authoritarian solutions of fascists and their like. Such a potential outcome adds to the urgency of preparing for the great mobilization of a socialist nature that we need.

Meanwhile, socialists and Marxists have promoted programs directed at protecting the environment and climate. These are the multifaceted programs often referred to as Green New Deals, as outlined in Mark Brodine’s book Green Strategy, in John Molyneux’s article in Climate & Capitalism, and by Sean Sweeney writing in New Economic Forum.  As envisioned, they would accompany far-reaching proposals for progressive social and political change. Such undertakings are at risk of cooptation by corporations and other capitalist forces.

As the fight to ameliorate climate change proceeds, Marxists should take advantage of the teachability of their message. The idea that phenomena are connected – capitalism, expanding production, and rising emissions – is fact-based and logical. Lesser explanations blame the perversity of individuals. Exclusive focus on short-sightedness, disregard for the truth, ignorance, heartlessness, and/or immorality distracts from societal factors at work.

Class struggle will undoubtedly intensify in the years ahead. Faced with climate chaos, the upper classes, with their money, properties, and connections, will seek to wall themselves off from turmoil and victims, perhaps even hire enforcers to protect their remaining privileges.

Undone by climate change and its fallout – desertification, drought, floods, no homes, no livelihoods – people on the run worldwide become the rejects of resourced societies. Easily stigmatized, they serve as pawns for dividing and immobilizing the working class. And like nothing else, their plight calls for redistribution of wealth and resources, that is, if notions of the common good mean anything at all.

The object of this report has been to raise the consciousness of Marxists, socialists, and anyone else. Marxists ought to realize that they can contribute to and even lead collective efforts to head off climate change and to mitigate adverse effects. They have two major resources: the chain of causation from capitalism to climate change and anti-capitalism, which is their foundational tenet.

We are facing “the tragedy of our times;” and countries are “now so perilously close to the edge.” (Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley) Time is up; revolutionary socialists of all kinds need to set priorities. Let the discussion and work begin.