Climate politics after Copenhagen

Issue: 126

Jonathan Neale

The global economic crisis of the last two years has transformed the nature of climate politics in two ways. The turning point was Copenhagen.

First, the economic crisis has changed the nature of climate politics at the top. From 2005 to 2008 the most influential position on climate among world leaders was that greenhouse gas emissions must be slowly reduced by 60 to 80 percent over the next 40 years. This was to be achieved within the limits of the “free market”. With the economic crisis the pressure of competition between the different corporations and national blocks of capital became severe. The dominant position at the top became that in the next decade the different blocks of capital could not afford the cost of beginning those reductions. The result in Copenhagen was that the US, assisted by China, effectively wrecked the process of international negotiation towards slow but deep cuts in emissions.

But something else has happened as well. There has been a global movement for climate action for some time. The central thrust of that movement has been to lobby governments. That shifted in Copenhagen. The left and the social movements joined climate politics. We saw a mass demonstration, and then a coming together of the more radical NGO activists with anti-capitalists in direct action that not only challenged the police lines but demonstrated inside the corridors of power.

After Copenhagen that movement faces both a crisis and a great opportunity. The crisis occurs because much, but not all, of the leadership of the big NGOs has bent to the new “reality” and is moving away from serious engagement with climate politics. Among much wider layers of activists there is a debate raging between demoralisation and engagement with a more militant movement, which could unite radical environmentalists with the social movements.

The economic crisis has also transformed the political space for this new movement. Fast, effective reductions in greenhouse gas emissions require an enormous investment. On a global scale this requires something in the region of 100 to 200 million new jobs. Even two years ago this would have appeared visionary. But the economic crisis has discredited neoliberalism, making it clear that governments can intervene with enormous sums when they want to. Also mass unemployment has returned. It is now possible to campaign seriously in the unions and among workers for massive government intervention to create climate jobs and save the planet. This creates the possibility of averting catastrophic climate change in this generation.

In this new situation what the left does globally and in each country is suddenly critical. The left cannot effect these changes on its own. But we can mobilise old and new activists to take the argument for climate action into the unions and the working class. And the working class can change everything.

To do that we have to build a climate movement that does not argue for sacrifice but for decent living standards, jobs and growth of a very particular kind towards a sustainable planet. We have to persuade that movement that the main fault line is not between rich countries and poor, but between capitalism and workers in every country, north and south.

Causes and solutions

The global economic crisis has transformed the nature of climate politics. To understand how and why we need to start with the material causes of climate change and the possible solutions. These set the limits to all climate politics.1

Five different sorts of greenhouse gas emissions account for most of man made global warming: carbon dioxide (CO2) from energy use in industry; CO2 from energy use in homes and buildings; CO2 from energy use in transport; CO2 from changes in land use; and methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases.

The first three come from burning coal, oil and gas. When they burn the carbon within them mixes with oxygen to make carbon dioxide which is released into the air. Burning these fuels accounts for about 60 percent of man made greenhouse gas emissions. Just over a third of this comes from industry, just under a third from homes and buildings, and just over a quarter from transport.

The emissions from home and building energy come mainly from heating, cooling, lighting and electricity. Of these heating is much the most important. Almost half of transport emissions are caused by passenger cars and another quarter by trucks. Half of industry emissions come from just three industries: cement, iron and steel, and oil refineries. The problem in industry is not mostly machines. It is the great heat needed to make steel, cement and petrol.

The fourth main source of greenhouse gases is CO2 emissions caused by changes in land use. The most important is cutting down forests, especially tropical rainforests. Replanting trees makes little difference—preserving the old forests is crucial.

The fifth main source of warming is other greenhouse gases, mainly methane and nitrous oxide. To keep this simple, I will largely ignore these gases here. The solutions that will work for them are not different in principle from the sorts of solutions that work for CO2. Serious plans to cut emissions therefore have to focus on a few areas:

l Replacing coal and gas electric power plants with wind turbines and solar power;

l Insulating and retrofitting existing homes and buildings;

l Reducing car use, and petrol use, and increasing public transport;

l Reducing truck freight and replacing it with electric powered rail freight;

l Reducing oil refining and cement making to almost nothing, because there are alternatives;

l Manufacturing steel more efficiently, because other metals use as much or more energy;

l Preserving rainforests.

There are literally thousands of other things that have to be done. But these are the major changes. This is not just how it appears to climate activists. Corporate leaders and politicians who pay attention to the problem can also see that this is where the main changes would come.

These solutions pose different kinds of problems for different parts of capitalism. First, there are the corporations that would be deeply threatened by a low carbon economy—the companies in oil, coal, cars, electricity generation, trucking, cement and logging, plus the banks that have loaned them money. The most powerful players here are the oil and automobile companies. The ten biggest corporations in the world by sales in 2009 included seven oil companies and Toyota and Wal-Mart.2

It is often argued that these companies could switch investment into new areas, and BP, for instance, could run wind farms instead of oil wells. However, when technology changes under capitalism, what almost always happens is that new companies replace old ones. Ford and General Motors were not railroad companies, and when software came along it was Microsoft, not IBM, that grew.

Although some corporations would benefit from a low carbon economy, they would be new companies in different countries, not ExxonMobil and Toyota. The market leaders in wind now are in Denmark, Germany, Spain and India. The market leaders in solar are in Japan, Germany and China.

So the high carbon corporations have been organising to prevent climate action since the mid-1990s. The corporations leading this organising have been American: ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal. The leading politicians have been Dick Cheney and George Bush.3

That is one set of corporate interests in climate change. But energy corporations are only a part of capitalism as a whole. Most other corporations would not be affected that much by a low carbon economy. And from roughly 2004 onwards many within the capitalist class began to argue that it was in the interests of humanity as a whole to do something about climate change. The leading spokesmen here are all neoliberal politicians of the centre right: Al Gore, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

These people gained a hearing for three reasons. The first is that corporate leaders and politicians were reading the same science as the rest of us. They often had children and grandchildren. Perhaps more importantly they could see it would mean the destruction of large parts of the world economy. It could also mean popular revolts which they usually referred to as “security problems” or “anarchy”.4 They owned the world, and did not want to destroy it.

The second reason these leaders gained a hearing was that there was a vibrant anti-capitalist and anti-war movement, and a smaller, but real, climate movement. Governments and politicians felt under pressure to do something that looked at least “liberal”. Many thought that green climate politics was a fuzzy, low cost way to look acceptable.

The third reason was that Bush, Cheney and the oil companies were losing influence over other corporations and governments as the extent of their failure in the Middle East became apparent. Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and in that moment a majority of Americans turned against Bush. In the months after, people realised that they could see quite clearly what climate change might look like.5

However, Gore, Blair and the others are also neoliberals, and so confined themselves to framing the climate problem and its solutions within the logic of the free market. Unfortunately it was impossible for them really to slow global warming within those limits. Effective action will take massive government intervention and spending. Wind power and solar power are more expensive than coal, oil and gas. That means massive spending. Refitting public buildings is also very expensive, and a turn to public transport means the government taking over from private provision. So while the neoliberals wanted to act they could not solve the problem within the limits of neoliberalism.

The Kyoto Protocol is the best, and most important, example of their project, and it constituted a sincere attempt to take action on global warming. But it was so limited, so riddled with market loopholes and so devoid of enforcement mechanisms that global emissions rose after it came into effect.

From 2005 onwards the centre right protagonists of climate action became increasingly influential in ruling class circles. At the beginning of 2008 these neoliberal climate champions appeared dominant. The oil, coal and car companies had not stopped trying to prevent climate action but they were on the defensive, had gone underground, and were showing infuriating “greenwash” ads on television about how much they cared. That same year Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) won the Nobel Peace prize.

At the beginning of 2008 most commentators expected that a better agreement to replace Kyoto (which expires in 2012) would be reached at the Copenhagen meeting of the UN climate negotiations scheduled for December 2009. The idea was that agreement would be a continuation of Kyoto. Under UN auspices, the governments of the rich countries would pledge themselves to further cuts in emissions, and the governments of developing countries would edge towards accepting limits as well.

Critics and climate activists felt that the anticipated Copenhagen agreement would be crippled by market mechanisms, enforcement would be full of loopholes, and the cuts in emissions would not be enough to avoid runaway climate change. In other words, we expected it to be little better than Kyoto, but a little better than Kyoto.

Then the global economic crisis hit in 2008. Over the next two years this shifted the consensus among governments and corporate leaders on climate change. They had been, in the majority, convinced that there was scope for limited action on climate change. Now they did not think so.

On one level, the problem was cost. Nicholas Stern, in an internationally influential report to the British treasury on “The Economics of Climate Change”, estimated that the cost would be in the order of one percent of global GNP over 40 years.6 But he argued that would be far less costly than the destruction serious climate change would create. In 2008 many corporate leaders and politicians followed Stern in believing it was worth making moves on this level. By the end of 2009 most of them felt they simply did not have the money to spare.

But there was a deeper problem: the increased pressure of competitive accumulation. Competition has always been central to capitalism. In order to make better and cheaper goods, each corporation has to invest in cutting-edge research, machines and plant. The companies that invest more sell more. In order to invest more, they have to make more profits than the others. The companies that invest less fall behind, make less profits, have less to invest, and fall further behind.

In relatively good economic times this competition works more slowly, and less profitable companies like Chrysler and less profitable countries like Greece can scrape along. But now the world economy is in trouble, and suddenly each bit of capitalism is in increasingly desperate competition with the others. They know they have little margin for success. Corporations like General Motors, Chrysler, Toyota and British Airways are afraid of bankruptcy. Governments of countries fear devaluation, default and popular unrest.

At the top of the world system, the governments of the US, Japan, China, Germany, France and Britain began to think they had less and less room for manoeuvre. It is still unclear when economic recovery will come, and which countries will come out ahead in the recovery. Each government, and each corporation, is under increasing pressure to hoard what they have now in order to survive in a bleaker world. In this situation, all the major states have been moving away from spending serious money on climate change, and are particularly wary of international agreements that will cost them more than their competitors. This is the economic background to what happened in Copenhagen.

The Copenhagen “accord”

Delegations from 192 countries attended the talks in Copenhagen. The negotiations lasted two weeks. For most of the time the negotiations focused on two themes.

First, in the Kyoto treaty all the richer countries except the United States had agreed the level of cuts in emissions they would make by 2012. It was an average of 5 percent cuts on 1992 levels, a bit more for some countries, a bit less for others, but agreed by all. The idea was that Copenhagen was supposed to agree further cuts for each country in the period to 2020.

Second, after 2012 the poorer countries would also begin agreeing to limit their emissions. Most would not have to cut at all. But some of them, like China, would agree to limit the rate of increase of their emissions. In return, the developing countries were asking for a total of £200 billion a year from all the rich countries to pay for the changes they would have to make.

For most of the two weeks, it looked like the negotiations were stalled on both these key matters. The media, and most activists, understood that the central division was between the developing countries, which wanted more emission cuts by the rich countries, and the rich countries, which did not and were unwilling to pay money to help the poor countries.

It looked like there would be a failure to agree in Copenhagen, and talks would grind on until the next full UN climate talks in Mexico in November 2010.

What actually happened was worse than anyone had expected. Barack Obama flew in on the last day. He gave a rude eight-minute speech that promised nothing. He then met with Premier Wen of China for 55 minutes. Next the two of them met with Lula of Brazil, Singh of India and Zuma of South Africa. Between them those five men agreed the two and one half pages long “Copenhagen accord”.7 The US delegation issued the accord to the White House press corps immediately, with no further agreement from anyone. Prime minister Wen left. President Obama met with European and other world leaders, conceded nothing and flew home. The UN Climate Conference finished at three the next morning. The chair said they “noted” the accord and banged down the gavel.

In the Kyoto agreement all the countries had together negotiated by how much each would have to reduce its emissions. In the Copenhagen accord, each country will volunteer whatever figure it chooses for reductions to the UN by 31 January 2010. There had been a long debate about whether there would be legally binding targets after 2012, or just “politically binding” targets for emission reductions. In the accord there is nothing binding at all.

There will be a fund to help developing countries with emission reductions and coping with the effects of climate change. This will not be the $200 billion a year they had demanded but $30 billion now, rising to $100 billion a year by 2020. The rich countries will “commit” themselves to doing this, which means nothing, and the funds will be raised from public and private sources, bilateral and multilateral, including “alternative sources of finance”, whatever that means.

The way the accord was negotiated marked a break with the past. From 1992 there have been continuous attempts for all the countries of the UN to negotiate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The accord simply announced that the other countries did not count and the US and China could make the decisions. The key thing was not that the other countries did not approve the accord. It was that they were not asked to do so. It was a fait accompli, and they could sign up to it later, or do nothing.

The accord also provides for some continuing negotiations on forest protection and sharing of technological know-how. But it rules out any further negotiations on levels of emission cuts. Its provisions willl be reviewed in 2015.

No matter how cynical you were about Kyoto, this was clearly worse. The whole Kyoto and UN process had said to the world that the leaders, the scientists and the governments thought something should be done about global warming, and were negotiating what to do. The NGOs and the radicals then argued that the governments ought to be doing much more, and they ought to be doing it differently.

Copenhagen announced to the world that its rulers are not going to do anything about climate change now or in the foreseeable future. This was not a victory for those who had been arguing that Kyoto and the UN did not go far enough. This was not a failure to agree. It was a successful strike by those who did not want any action on climate change.

Within two months the scale of the damage was clear. By 31 January 55 countries, responsible for 78 percent of global emissions, had sent in their proposed cuts to the UN and in effect signed up for the Copenhagen accord.8 This meant the international negotiation process had been badly damaged, and perhaps smashed. Most of the governments of the rich countries, however, added that they would only meet their promised levels of emissions cuts if there was an internationally agreed binding treaty. Because Copenhagen was precisely not that, they meant they would not meet the promised cuts.

By February climate negotiators in many governments thought there would be no further agreement at the UN climate talks in Mexico in 2010, although some still hoped for a deal at the talks in South Africa in December 2011.9 But the word from the NGOs was that the UN process was so badly damaged it was unlikely to work again.

At the same time there was a massive renewal of press coverage of “climate sceptics”. These “sceptics” had been around for years, and shown by environmental journalists like George Monbiot and Ross Gelbspan to be mostly funded by the oil companies. Still, until about 2005 the press in the US and Europe had largely reported climate change as a controversy with two sides: the believers and the sceptics. By 2008 they were reporting climate change as a serious global problem and the stories focused on whether the world leaders could fix it. But after Copenhagen suddenly the press was back to constructing the climate story as a debate between believers and sceptics.

Some activists worried that the sceptics were becoming more confident because the scientists had made mistakes or the public was unreceptive to the climate “message”. But the sceptics and the public had not really changed. It was the press that changed, and very rapidly.10

This included not just the Daily Mail, but the Guardian and Channel 4. A controversy over temperature records for China was referred to everywhere as “Climategate”. One sloppy source on the melting of the Himalayas in the thousands of pages of the 2007 IPCC report led to wide coverage of calls for the resignation of Rajendra Pachauri, the director of the IPCC. Back in 2008 Pachauri had shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

The media were rehabilitating the sceptics. The public, who read and watched and half trusted the media, began to think that maybe there was something in this scepticism. It didn’t look like the scientists were honest.

It is, of course, important to rebut the case of the sceptics and their accusations, detail by detail. But it is even more important to realise that a simple thing is happening. The leaders of the world have decided not to do anything about climate change. And we are now being told that’s all right, because the scientists have been telling lies and maybe climate change is not real anyway.

This is an important change in climate politics. It does not mean the fight is over because the movement for climate action is also changing. But let us first look a bit more closely at why the key governments in Copenhagen did what they did.

The dirty five

The main theme in the media, and among most activists, had been that the Copenhagen meeting would be a contest between the rich countries and the Global South: Asia, Africa and Latin America. Many had hoped against hope that Obama would be the saviour on the last day.

In fact the leaders of destruction were the rulers of the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Those five were not there by accident. Among other things, this was the triumph of King Coal. Of the 29 billion tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere by oil, gas and coal each year, 12 billion tonnes come from coal. Half of the emissions from coal come from China, with two billion from the US and one billion from India.11

Three countries—China, the US and India—consume three quarters of the coal used in the world. The CO2 emissions of these three countries from coal alone are almost one third of the global total of emissions from all fossil fuels. South Africa is the sixth largest coal consumer in the world and the government’s industrial strategy is dependent on cheap energy from coal.

Coal is critical for simple chemical reasons. Oil and gas are hydrocarbons—mixtures of hydrogen and carbon. Coal is about 90 percent carbon. This means that coal has much larger CO2 emissions than oil or gas for the same amount of energy, so countries dependent on coal have to pay far more to switch to renewable energy. Gas fired power stations have about half the emissions of coal fired power stations. That in turn means you have to build twice as many wind turbines to replace a coal fired power station. If an economy is largely dependent on coal to make electricity it will cost that country far more to cut its emissions.

The US also uses far more oil for passenger transport than all other major powers. There is less public transport, cars use far more oil per mile, and journeys to work are longer than in most countries. Coal and cars are the main reasons why US CO2 emissions per person are double those of almost all other rich countries (Australia and Canada are the only ones similar to the US).

That’s why the US, China, India and South Africa were in the room at Copenhagen. They were the countries that stood to lose most from a global agreement to limit emissions. The pressure of competitive accumulation bore most heavily on them in Copenhagen.

Brazil is also a minor coal and oil producer. It has also recently discovered considerable reserves of offshore oil. It is unclear how large these reserves are, but the Brazilian government is putting a lot of hope in them. And Lula’s government has done little to protect the Amazon forest because it regards Brazil’s natural resources as an essential part of its ability to compete on the world stage.

South Africa and Brazil were in the room for another reason too. Until the Friday of the accord the debate at the negotiations had been presented as a contest between the rich countries and the developing world. Now those five countries included the largest industrial producers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The unity of the developing world had been very publicly smashed.

This had a political effect. But the leadership of Obama had even more impact. There is understandably a lot of confusion among climate activists about why Obama did what he did in Copenhagen. So we need to pause a moment here and look at Obama’s choices more generally.

Obama’s election represented a great deal of hope in the world, and not just in the US. He was not Bush. He promised “change” and “hope”, and an African-American had been elected president because white Americans voted for him. I grew up in the American South, and I cried the night Obama was elected, for joy and for the long struggle. I was not alone. But when Obama came into office in the middle of an economic crisis, he had two choices: back the bankers or back the workers. The latter would mean massive spending to create jobs, plus laws and financial support to stop evictions. Obama knew this was the choice, and so did all commentators in the Democratic Party and the media. They sometimes phrased it geographically, as Wall Street or Main Street, and sometimes historically, as Herbert Hoover or Franklin Roosevelt.

Obama chose the bankers, Wall Street and Herbert Hoover. His three major economic appointments were all neoliberals. Two of them were holdovers from Bush and one from Clinton. Joseph Stiglitz, in his recent book Freefall, has elegantly and angrily demonstrated that there was almost no change from Bush’s economic policy to Obama’s.12

Obama’s supporters often say that he presided over a stimulus package that created millions of jobs. Here we need to look at the details. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 authorised $787 billion in expenditure. A bit less than a quarter of this, however, went into creating new jobs. The main budgeted expenditures were as follows (tax cuts were included as expenditures because they cost the government money):

l $288 billion for personal and business tax cuts.

l $144 billion for health and education. This money made up for expenditure cuts by states and local government, mostly on Medicaid for the poor and on schools.

l $83 billion for payments to the vulnerable, mainly on unemployment insurance, food stamps and social security payments.

l $81 billion on infrastructure.

l $61 billion on energy, much of it welcome investment in a green economy.

In other words, almost half of the stimulus went into payments to businesses, taxpayers and the poor. This put money into people’s pockets which they could spend and thus stimulate the economy. But they did not see it as creating jobs. Just less than a fifth went on subsidising states and local government. This protected existing jobs, which would otherwise be cut because of falling state incomes, but did not create new jobs. Just under a fifth went on infrastructure and energy, and this did create new jobs.

The Democrats argued that many more jobs would have been lost without the stimulus. This is true. But unemployment and evictions rose on Obama’s watch. The lived experience of working class people was that they were worse off after a year under Obama than they were when Bush left office. The Democrats’ argument for the stimulus was about things that have not happened and that people cannot see. They are more persuaded by what they can see.

They can also see that the banks, finance houses and insurance companies have been rescued by a far larger stimulus and are now in rude health. Those who still have jobs and homes are now anxious, afraid and angry. That is the key fact underlying all American politics now. It’s why opinion poll support for Obama is eroding. His strongest supporters feel increasing doubt and confusion. The right, and the Republicans, are correspondingly increasing in confidence. Moreover, the liberals and the left have largely collapsed into support for Obama. The main anti-war coalition, United for Peace and Justice, has effectively folded in the middle of a major war. The climate movement, the unions and the other causes are focused on lobbying for bills on Capitol Hill. The activists doing this are sick at heart. But they feel, for the moment, that they have no choice.

Obama’s current trajectory is constantly pulled to the right. This is seen in his foreign policy where he has opted for extending the Afghan war and gambling for American imperial power. In domestic policy, he is more and more boxed into defending American corporations and banks. He is fighting for America’s place in a situation of increased global competition, with little room to manoeuvre.

Obama’s behaviour in Copenhagen is of a piece with that. But it is also notable that the European leaders did not fight him. This was not because they were poodles. In 2003, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Germany and France challenged American power. And at Copenhagen the governments of Germany, France and Britain were leading the EU in pushing for deeper emissions cuts than the US wanted. Their motivations were mixed. They knew the US and China would have to pay more to cut, and that would give European firms a competitive advantage. They also wanted to do something about climate change.

However, the European governments were under pressure from their companies to pull back. Earlier in the year Merkel tried to push for tighter gas mileage rules for European cars. Volkswagen and Daimler, the largest corporations in Germany, forced her not to. Brown in Britain was leading a chorus calling for severe cuts in public expenditure within the year. When Obama challenged the European leaders they had no stomach for a fight because they too were looking to their bottom line.

The movement born in Copenhagen

At the same time as the governments put the accord in place, a mass climate movement coalesced in Copenhagen. People came to Copenhagen from all over the world as part of NGOs and campaigns. About 25,000 had passes for the Bella Centre where the negotiations were held and about 10,000 more did not, and spent much of their time at the alternative Klima Forum. There were three main political strands among these.

The largest was the mainstream NGOs, mostly environmental and development campaigns. NGOs are largely funded by governments, foundations, churches and the affluent. They see their core task as lobbying governments rather than mass mobilisation. At Copenhagen they came with many agendas but what united them was a push for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

The more radical NGOs were loosely organised in a Climate Justice Now network, including Friends of the Earth International, Via Campesina (the peasants), Jubilee South (debt campaigners), Focus on the Global South, and Attac France. Beyond this they also involved many younger activists who worked in other NGOs but supported the network as individuals. In Climate Justice Now many people with a background in anti-capitalist activity, and in the World Social Forum, came together with young, radical environmentalist full-timers. Inside the negotiations, they also worked closely with official government delegates from several countries in the Global South. Climate Justice Now focused on two things. One was social justice by which they meant primarily a fair deal for the Global South. The other was opposition to market solutions to climate on the grounds that they harm the poor and do not work.

The third strand, Climate Justice Action, came mostly from Europe and the largest single group was the Climate Camp from Britain. Their politics came mostly from anarchism and the autonomist tradition in anti-capitalism. Their central argument in Copenhagen was that capitalism is destroying the planet, the world leaders cannot stop climate change and we have to abolish capitalism. Their method was direct action.

The real activity began with a magnificent demonstration on Saturday 12 December 2009 halfway through the talks. The official police estimate was 100,000 marchers. The march was long, loud, cold, bouncy and energetic, about half Danes and half foreigners. No one had expected 100,000. For most of the activists gathered from around the world, this was by far the largest climate demonstration they had ever seen. It mobilised way beyond the ranks of the environmentalists. There are only two million people in metropolitan Copenhagen and this was the largest demo in Denmark for 30 years.

The largest contingent on the march was the block for “System Change, not Climate Change”, which included both Climate Justice Now and Climate Justice Action.

During the first week radicalism had also been gaining ground inside the UN’s Bella Centre. By the second day, African delegates were demonstrating in the halls, chanting, “We will not die quietly.” There were regular small outbursts, and security began interrogating and banning people. The authorities started clamping down. From the big Saturday demonstration on, the Danish police were holding large groups without charge for 12 hours, about 2,000 in all. They also arrested, charged and refused to bail the main leaders of Climate Justice Action.

With a direct action demo looming on Wednesday 16 December, the UN expelled most of the NGO delegates from the Bella Centre. In the event, 200 people demonstrated inside. Outside, around 3,000 marched towards police lines. The numbers were small because it was nine in the morning on a freezing cold working day and people were afraid of the police. There were several rows of police, pepper gas in the face, beatings and no chance of getting through. It was disorganised, chaotic and frightening. But it was an enormous success. The world saw police brutality, outraged delegates, and a serious and brave resistance.

On Friday, when Obama came, the UN allowed only 80 of the 25,000 delegates from the NGOs and campaigns into the centre. The reason given was overcrowding. The real reason was they didn’t want anyone able to shout or, god forbid, throw a shoe.

Copenhagen marked the point where the anti-capitalist movement joined the climate movement. The joint work by the autonomists and the radical NGOs made both feel stronger. The size and spirit of the big Saturday demonstration showed it was possible to construct a far wider alliance than that.

The main sign that Copenhagen has not broken this movement is the Conference on Climate Change called by Evo Morales and the Bolivian government for April in Cochabamba. Bolivia was the most radical of the governments in Copenhagen. This is no accident. Evo Morales heads the most left wing existing government in the world and his party, the Movement towards a Socialist Alternative (MAS), springs from many years of mass movements against neoliberalism by workers, small farmers, indigenous people and the urban poor.

The conference is a direct challenge to the power of the United States. It is explicitly billed as a coming together of the global social movements, not only environmentalists. The social movements and left parties of Latin America will be there in force, and they are the strongest and most advanced part of the global movement. Crucially, this is a rallying point for all the forces in the world that want to keep fighting to stop climate change. The conference is also explicitly aimed at drawing up a detailed strategy for fighting to make the powers of the world act. Most activists will not be able to go to Bolivia, of course. But those who go will carry back the call, and it will be a beacon. It will also be a beginning for a climate movement whose heart is in the Global South, in the social movements, and in resistance and struggle.

Britain after Copenhagen

After Copenhagen a movement began to come together but the picture was not simple. Many of the bigger NGOs seemed to be falling into line behind the governments. Their traditional strategy is influencing governments. At Copenhagen it was made clear to them that they had gone too far, been too radical and associated themselves with the social movements. They now face a choice. They can fall back into line or they can mobilise outside the corridors of power. This choice is dividing each NGO internally and dividing the hearts of many NGO full-timers.

The results of this split have not been decided. But the signs are that the managements of the major NGOs are going for “realism”. Their argument now is that there can be no effective global deal without the support of the American and Chinese governments. The UN negotiations have not worked. It is necessary, they feel, to have a seat at the table or, as they would put it, “civil society must have a voice”. For the moment this means concentrating on influencing the government of each country.

The NGOs in Britain provide a good example. On 5 December 2009, the Saturday before Copenhagen, between 50,000 and 100,000 people marched for the climate on “The Wave” in London. The organisers were Stop Climate Chaos, a coalition with Oxfam, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at its heart. Everywhere The Wave was lively and full of chanting. The NGOs which led Stop Climate Chaos, however, saw their role as mobilising support for New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and environment minister Ed Miliband in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen has had a contradictory impact on that movement. On the one hand the NGO leaders have been deeply demoralised. The leading NGOs effectively dissolved Stop Climate Chaos in January. At its final meeting the NGOs introduced their strategy for the next few months. They will concentrate on hustings in marginal constituencies during the general election in May, which the Conservatives will probably, but not certainly, win. These hustings are intended to influence the Conservative candidates. This is not a strategy that will deliver what the planet needs. But it reflects the priority the NGOs give to lobbying governments.

Luckily, the effect of Copenhagen on the NGOs has not been one way. Many of the full-timers and the activists are furious about Copenhagen. They saw the numbers, and the spirit, on The Wave and know a mass movement is possible. This is creating tensions, arguments, soul searching and bad consciences at all levels of the NGOs. Some of the NGOs will break with the consensus. And many of their activists and full-timers are looking to keep a movement together. There are discussions in private and in meetings across the different wings of the existing climate movement about how a new alliance can come together.

In the Climate Camp many were heartened by the way Climate Justice Now and Climate Justice Action came together in Copenhagen. Many also saw that the Saturday demonstration in Copenhagen had 100,000 marchers and the direct action had 3,000. They want to bring the two strands together.

Beyond those two wings there are many more people who were just appalled that the world leaders failed in Copenhagen, like the 4,000 bird watchers who marched on the Wave. Those people understand that Copenhagen failed, they have been angered by the sceptics and they still want something done. The task of any new movement is to bring those people into action.


The new movement will be significantly different from the old. It will focus much more on mobilising from below because lobbying makes less sense. And it will have more of the spirit of anti-capitalism, resistance and social justice. In this new movement the left and socialists will have a special, and important, role to play.

To understand why we must begin with the material problem we face. The starting point is the threat of what scientists call “abrupt climate change”.13 If we do not stabilise greenhouse gas emissions soon, we are very likely to hit a “tipping point” where climate change accelerates fast and extreme weather events are common.

Scientists are pretty sure that is coming because it has happened in the past when the world warmed. They are not sure which feedback effects and tipping points will be crucial, and so they don’t know what the timing will be.

We do know that in the past such “abrupt change” often happened over 20 years or less. The best guess, and it is only a guess, is that we may have ten or 20 years before what scientists call “abrupt change”. But it could be 50 years or more, and it could be less than ten years. The problem with abrupt change on anything like that scale is that it will happen in existing human society—global capitalism.

In that system abrupt climate change will create famine and refugees on a massive scale. It will also mean war. Change the balance of economic and geographical power, and governments will use military might to grab it back. If you want to see that future, look at Darfur.14

However, if we act quickly enough we have a real chance to avoid abrupt climate change. This means jobs. The reasons are rooted in material reality. Neither the market nor individual lifestyle choices will make enough difference in the time we have.15 Without government regulation and massive government action we cannot avert abrupt change. Government action will mean covering the world with wind and solar power, renovating all the existing buildings, filling the world with buses and trains, and a thousand smaller projects. From the point of view of capitalists, this is a cost they now think they cannot afford. From the point of view of working people, what capitalists call costs translate into millions of new climate jobs.

Luckily we already have all the technology to make the material changes we need. We have wind turbines, solar cells, concentrated solar power, buses, trains, insulation materials, new boilers and many other technologies. And we can do it in ten years.16 A rough estimate of how many jobs it would take to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions is one to two million new workers in Britain over ten years. On a global scale that would be 100 to 200 million jobs over ten years.

Even three years ago almost everyone would have regarded a demand for a million climate jobs immediately in Britain as a nice idea, but impossibly visionary in a market-dominated economy. The global economic crisis has changed this in three ways. First, everyone now knows that the money is there. We know that the Federal Reserve Bank in New York can find four hundred billion dollars on a Tuesday, by lunchtime, when they want to. We know that if the planet was a bank they would save it.

Second, most people now know that the market won’t solve the problem of climate change. When the market was in trouble the marketeers screamed for government intervention.

Third, there is now mass unemployment worldwide. The world economies may be “recovering” or there may be further disasters ahead. But even if the recovery does come it will only mean a slow rise in GNP from a low level and productivity increases can eliminate jobs as well. It will be years before we return to the employment levels of 2005, if we ever do.

The argument becomes simple. The money is there. The market won’t save the planet. Only government action can. We have millions of jobs that must be done and millions of people without jobs. Put them to work.

Campaigning for jobs has three advantages for the climate movement. One great difficulty is that we are trying to stop something which will mostly happen in the future. Luckily (it’s terrible to say luckily) people need jobs right now so they have a good reason to fight now.

Second, campaigning for jobs can get climate activists out of the environmental ghetto. Environmentalism is heavily middle class. Environmentalism is a big enough ghetto, maybe, to save the whales. It is not big enough to stop climate change.

Fighting for jobs will get us out of the ghetto because we have to base that fight in the unions. Working people, blue collar and white collar, are the great majority of people in all richer countries and many poorer countries. In almost all countries the majority of workers are not in unions. But everyone has a friend or relative in a union. If union members are mobilised in a great cause to save the planet, they can talk to the great majority of people as equals, with respect, in words they would use themselves.

Third, the unions give us an organised force that has a tradition of looking for collective solutions and government action, which is what we need to stop the climate threat. Moreover, although strikes are rare in the life of any worker the union tradition is that when absolutely necessary we act together in great numbers. We will need that tradition too.

We already have the beginnings of a climate jobs campaign in Britain. The trade union group of the Campaign against Climate Change has held three annual conferences of up to 300 union activists. The second one set up a Climate Jobs Commission which is supported by four national unions and a range of distinguished academics. That commission has
produced a 50 page report, which sold 7,000 copies within three months, the great majority in the unions.17 This is a beginning. And there are other groups of trade unionists and socialists in many countries beginning to seriously agitate for green jobs.

Climate justice

There is also a wider resonance for climate jobs in the environmental movement. But there is more to fighting for climate jobs than this. We have to begin to think about a radical climate movement in a new way. Instead of thinking that any solution to climate change must include social justice, we have to think that we will not have a solution to climate change without social justice. Socialists and the broader left in the climate movement have to start from carbon.

There were times at Copenhagen when I wanted to make myself an angry little sign that said “It’s the Carbon, Stupid”. Many different activists from different political backgrounds have come into the climate movement. In Copenhagen, whenever they were uncomfortable or unsure, they would begin talking about the importance of diet, or socialism, or capitalism, or open borders, war, food sovereignty, anti-racism, social justice, forests, rivers, reclaiming power, sustainable ecology, local communities or indigenous people. All of these things matter, and most of them are causes worth spending all your life fighting for. All of them are also intimately connected to climate change, for it touches every area of our lives. But they are not the solution to climate change. The solution has to be burning much less carbon. It’s the carbon, stupid.

This now becomes more important, because the mainstream and the top of the climate movement are retreating. Previously many radical climate activists have been leaving it to the mainstream NGOs and the scientists to carry the central fight over carbon. The radicals, meanwhile, were fighting against carbon markets, or for rivers or open borders. Climate justice has felt like a bolt-on, an extra. There is a trade union version of the same thing. Unions campaign for a “just transition”, arguing that a change to a low carbon economy is coming but that workers should have retraining and well paid union jobs.

But now that the big NGOs are retreating the more radical activists are finding themselves, willy-nilly, in the mainstream of the struggle. We are all lost now if those who want to fight for social justice and a just transition don’t fight on carbon. But reality is dialectical, and it is also true that we will not have a carbon transition without a just transition. The capitalists do not intend to spend the money to solve the problem. So if workers and unions do not fight for and win climate jobs there will be no low carbon economy. To put it differently, we cannot cut carbon without a movement based on social justice.

If we are going to make social justice central, however, the movement also needs to begin thinking about growth and sacrifice in a new way. Until now the dominant idea in the climate movement has been that growth is the problem. Many environmentalists have long argued that humanity is exceeding, or soon will exceed, the carrying capacity of Earth. There are too many people, they say, and industrial society grows relentlessly but there are limited resources. We have too many things now and must learn to accept a lower standard of living. Climate change is the most pressing problem created by growth. To deal with it, we are going to have to learn to sacrifice some of our greed and live with less.

This is the traditional deep green argument, but many socialists, anti-capitalists and anarchists have also developed their own versions of this “limits to growth” argument. It is mistaken for several reasons. Again it’s the carbon. Climate change and “environmental crisis” are not the same thing. They are related, but they are not the same. A general environmental crisis is chronic, but not yet acute.

The time scales are different too. It may be that we will approach the limits of sustainable life on the planet. No one has produced a detailed argument, backed by maths, measurement and observation, that tells us how long we have before we hit those limits. Those are big questions but meanwhile we can stabilise the amount of carbon dioxide in the air in ten years, if humanity collectively does the necessary work.

When I say this to people many of them immediately reply that it will take more energy and consume more resources to do that work than the Earth can sustain. This is not the case. Wind turbines return about 30 times the energy used up in their manufacture and installation. Solar cells return about four times the energy used up. Different forms of concentrated solar power return more energy than solar cells and less than wind. It takes energy to manufacture buses, but they use far less energy than cars. It takes even more energy to build rail roads, but they use even less energy than buses.

It takes energy to insulate houses, and manufacture and install very efficient boilers, but they use far less energy. This is what is meant when people say that insulation and new boilers “pay for themselves” in two to five years. This is only true, of course, in the beginning when all climate technology is manufactured using carbon burning fossil fuels. Towards the end of the transition the situation will be much better. A wind turbine manufactured with electricity from wind power and transported on vehicles run on renewable electricity will involve very little burning of carbon.

There is another problem people raise, however. They allow that we could, in theory, stabilise carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or even reduce it. But we will still have relentless economic growth, they say, and eventually run up against limits of supply.

There are three answers to this. One is that we have to solve the problem of climate change now to avoid abrupt climate change. If we can reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that will buy us time. There may be trouble eventually, down the road, but if humanity has solved a problem on the scale of climate change, we will have the experience to tackle the new problem, we will have changed our understanding of our relationship to nature, and we will have changed much about our economy and society.

The second answer is that on a global scale sun and wind are, for many centuries to come, in effect resources without limits. It may be that certain small countries, like Britain, at some point find they have to look to their neighbours for energy help, but the world has enough sun and wind to be going on with.18

The third answer is that many people get confused because they think we have to move to a zero carbon economy. If we did, we would be in very serious trouble. We do not. Unless and until we hit a vicious feedback, the “carbon sinks” in the ocean will continue to absorb 40 to 50 percent of the carbon dioxide we put in the air. That is why we only have to cut global emissions by 60 percent, and why 70 percent cuts would lead to a steady reduction in levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

All this means that the material reality is that we can solve the problem of climate change within the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth. But there are also other, political, reasons for being careful not to identify growth as the central problem in dealing with climate change. This is because green arguments about growth almost always come with a call that “we” in the rich countries will have to give up much of our bloated standard of living, and that people in the poor countries should not aspire to it.

We cannot build a mass climate movement with such calls for sacrifice. We are going to have to force the governments of the world to act, or replace them with other politicians, or change the whole system. Any of those changes will require the enthusiastic backing of workers and peasants in China, India, Africa and Latin America. It is not possible to build a climate movement in these countries on the basis that they should sacrifice.

The same is true in the richer countries. In the last 30 years most people in Europe and North America have heard people in suits explaining to them that times are hard and we will have to sacrifice for the common good. Working people have learned that this means they will sacrifice and the man or woman in the suit will not. They have learned the hard way, and deep to the bone, not to trust calls for sacrifice.

Moreover, in the current economic crisis there is a strong argument coming from the top of society that everywhere people will have to sacrifice living standards, jobs and public services because “we” are in debt. Many people are already making sacrifices, and some in the poorest countries are making the ultimate sacrifice. If environmentalists and climate activists join our voices to these calls, we will be rejected.

The opposite, however, is also true. We can build a movement based on sharing, equality and jobs. We can argue in the rich countries that stopping climate change will create more jobs, more job security, less fear and better public services. In the poor countries we can argue that industrialisation based on renewable energy can help to make poverty history. At the same time, and of equal importance, we will have to argue that climate change, if we do not stop it, will impoverish us all.

Marxism, capitalism and growth

There is, however, a related but rather different argument about capitalism and growth with its roots in Marx. This argument has been developed in different ways by James O’Connor, Paul Burkett, Joel Kovel, John Bellamy Foster and Minqi Li.19 These writers are not identical. Li has developed perhaps the most uncompromising version of the argument, Foster the most subtle and Kovel the most eloquent and moving. But taken together, they have established an “ecosocialist” argument widely accepted on the left. This basic argument about capitalism and growth is also now the orthodoxy among autonomist thinkers, and has become very influential in the Climate Camp in Britain.20

This argument holds that there is a basic contradiction in capitalism. Competitive accumulation means endless growth. Corporations and national capitalisms cannot slow down because they will not simply lose the race, they will crash. This means that endless growth is built into the system. The only way to stop that growth is to stop capitalism.

Up to this point, I agree with them, and with Marx. However, there is then a leap that says the contradiction means that we cannot stop climate change under capitalism. It may well be true that we cannot. But the reason is not that capitalism insists on growth and growth will wreck the planet. As I have argued above, it is possible to rescue living things from the threat of abrupt climate change well before we hit the limits of sustainable growth. Again this is because the environmental crisis and climate change are not the same thing.

The drive of competitive accumulation is relevant long before we hit the buffers of growth. The problem the world faced in Copenhagen was not the eventual limits to growth. It was that the pressure of competitive accumulation right now meant that capitalists are now unwilling to invest in climate safety because they fear it will give their competitors who do invest an advantage. Moreover, it may well prove true over the next generation that capitalism and climate safety are incompatible.

However, there is a serious political problem if socialists and autonomists start and finish their arguments about climate with the question of growth. This is for several reasons. One is that we are not the only voices people hear. The environmentalists argue for sacrifice. On a global level, the ruling class in each country is also arguing that sacrifice will be the only solution to climate change.21 The media echo them relentlessly.

Moreover, the loudest voices we hear proclaim the ruling class consensus that serious sacrifice by ordinary people is the only way to rescue the world economy. These voices are all louder than the Marxists and autonomists. They condition what people hear when you talk about growth. Moreover, the only way to build a movement is to argue that it will mean more jobs, more work and better lives. This is not a peripheral question for the climate movement. We have to win the argument against sacrifice by ordinary people if we are to stand a chance of stopping climate change.

Many Marxists and autonomists understand this and insist they are not arguing for poverty. Rather they are arguing for a world where everyone has enough, where people do not measure themselves by comparing their things to another person’s things, and where we no longer have to pay for the enormous waste of capitalism. They are right in all these respects. But that argument can sound, in a world dominated by calls for real sacrifice, like yet another voice in the chorus.

There is another political problem too. Some people in the Climate Camp, and some socialists, now in practice start by telling people that the only way to halt climate change is to get rid of capitalism. The problem here is that most people don’t believe a revolution is possible, so they hear you saying that we can’t stop climate change.

We may well need a revolution before we can stop climate change. It may also be possible to change to a low carbon economy under capitalism. I doubt it, but I wouldn’t rule it out from the start. It would certainly be far easier to deal with climate change if we already lived in a world democratically controlled by workers, one where work was done for need, not for profit. These are not trivial points. But nor are they the right starting point for building a mass climate movement.

The place to start is the carbon. The central argument has to be that government regulation and climate jobs are the only way we can stop climate change, whatever system we have, and that it is possible for people to both stop climate change and have better lives.

Then there is an argument for socialism as we struggle together to cut the carbon. This argument is that the present system, and its representatives, will not allow us to do what must be done, soon, and on a massive scale.

Climate justice, North and South

We have to rethink the idea of growth, but we also have to rethink the idea of climate justice. In much of the movement this now means the idea that the Global North has grown rich from two centuries of industrialisation and greenhouse gas emissions, and that the Global North now owes a carbon debt to the Global South, where poor people will also bear the brunt of climate destruction. This argument construes the main conflict over climate as one between rich countries and poor countries.

This version of climate justice reflects a deeply felt bitterness and idea of fairness. It is still, however, a trap for the movement, particularly inside the Global South. This is because there is real class conflict over climate change within the developing countries. Sometimes ruling classes from North and South are allied against the interests of workers. The most obvious example is Copenhagen, where the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa joined the leader of the United States in trashing immediate hope for even slow and moderate climate action.

Moreover, there is a conflict in every developing country between the ruling class on the one hand and the workers and most peasants on the other. This is obvious when it comes to most everyday economic issues. But it is also true of climate. There are now more workers in developing countries than there are in rich countries. They too need jobs, and so do poor peasants, agricultural labourers and marginal street traders. In a situation of global economic crisis, they need their governments to hire workers and stimulate the economy just as American or British workers do.

If we need 100 to 200 million jobs globally to hold back climate change, most of those jobs will be in Latin America, Asia and Africa. That is where the majority of people live, and where most of the wind and sun is found. Moreover, almost a third of global emissions now come from these countries, and in the not too distant future it will be half. These jobs can help to industrialise the poor countries, to warm their homes and to transport them wherever they want.

So there will be a conflict in the poor countries too over the cost of these jobs. Aid from the rich countries will not make up anything like all the difference. In any case, workers in India and South Africa, like workers in Britain, need their governments to spend money to create jobs. But in India and South Africa, as in Britain, there will be struggle about who pays.

When the effects of climate change hit, in the South as in the North, we see immediate, acute conflict between capitalists and their governments on one side and workers and peasants on the other. The question is always who will pay and who will sacrifice.

The idea that climate is the scene for a battle between rich countries and poor countries also confuses and disarms people in the Global North. Northern climate activists who thought the Copenhagen negotiations were about rich and poor countries had trouble making sense of what happened there. Dividing the world that way also blinds you to the fact that there is a class struggle over paying for climate change inside each rich country.

This confusion tends to go along with the idea that it is only the poorest in the poor countries who will suffer from climate change. The first city lost to climate change, however, is New Orleans. It was not only the poorest who lost there—half the city was driven out permanently. And while the majority of New Orleans was African-American, the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi that were hit at least as badly were largely white. Shanghai, Bangladesh and Haiti are particularly vulnerable to floods and hurricanes, but so are Miami, New York and the Netherlands. And we will all be engulfed in the wars and economic collapse that will follow abrupt climate change. The poorest in the poorest places will suffer disproportionately, but the suffering will spread far and wide.


A radical climate movement is now coming together. I have made an argument about how that movement needs to think and organise if we are to be in with a chance of avoiding climate catastrophe. For several very particular reasons, activists with socialist ideas can play a key part in developing the movement in those directions. First of all, we can be a bridge from the environmental movement into the unions and the working class. This is what we do. Many different sorts of socialists, in many times and places, have brought together radical causes and the working class movement.

We can argue inside the working class for the importance of climate change, and inside the environmental movement that only solutions that mobilise workers will succeed. We can argue in both the North and the South that the climate movement cannot succeed if we do not realise that there is a basic conflict between the interests of capital and the interests of the vast majority. And we can link the fights for jobs and against public spending cuts that are happening in many countries now to the fight for climate jobs and the planet.

Socialists will not be alone in making these arguments. Because they fit reality, they fit people’s experiences, and many other people will take up our arguments or find their own way to similar thoughts. In most cases we are talking to people who have green ideas in their heads about climate change and socialist ideas about economics. Our job is usually to bring the two sides of their heads together.

As socialists we cannot change the world on our own. That job is done by vast movements. But at our best we are seeds, or signposts on the road. This does not mean that we try to build a socialist climate movement. Rather we organise where people are, on what they want to fight for now, with the alliances and confusions we find. We learn as much from other activists as we teach, and we all learn far more from the living struggle.

I know what this means in practice because I have seen it. In the summer of 2009 the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight was threatened with closure and the loss of 600 jobs. The workers had no union, but socialists from different parties talked to them and encouraged them to occupy; 18 of the workers did it and held the plant for 18 days.

Those 18 inspired the majority of their fellow workers to stand outside the factory the first few critical nights in solidarity with them which is why they held the occupation. From there the feeling spread outwards. They galvanised support from socialists, environmentalists and trade unionists across the island and across the country. In the months afterwards many people told me that the Vestas occupation persuaded them that workers could fight for the planet. And they changed the debate over wind power in the country as a whole.

The Vestas workers were still evicted and lost their jobs. Afterwards, the occupiers were clear about the reason. They moved too late, after the factory stopped production and most workers had accepted that their jobs were gone. Had they moved three months earlier, on the day closure was announced, they could have taken two or three hundred workers into occupation and won. As it was, they nearly did so. The reason they did not move was that socialists with the idea of occupation and workers fighting for the planet were too late in finding and talking to them.

That was what happened with an occupation of 18 people. What we need is hundreds and thousands of workers fighting for their jobs and for the planet. In the end, we need the Isle of Wight on a global scale. Then the fight against climate change will work.

There is one last reason why socialists matter to the climate movement, and it is the most important one. There will be a struggle over climate in the years to come. If we win a million climate jobs in any country, the example will spread and we can win them in many. If we do not win before we hit abrupt change, if we reap the whirlwind, the climate will destabilise across the world in a matter of years. In each country, though, the decisive moment will come very quickly. In the wake of catastrophe, the ruling class will move in fast, backed by armed men.22 They will have new political representatives, who will blame the old ones and argue for austerity, sacrifice, fear of refugees, racism, order, population control and dictatorship. Their language will sound populist, angry and much like the many environmentalist arguments we hear today. If they win, the boot will go in, environmental devastation will intensify, and workers and the poor will suffer and suffer.

That is one possible result. There is another. It requires that a different set of ideas about climate and society is widely known. It is not necessary that the day or the year before the crisis a majority agree with those ideas—sharing, equality, kindness, internationalism and socialism. But it is necessary that everyone knows that those ideas exist, and what they are. The majority of people will not pay attention to those ideas if they have not been part of the climate struggle. Nor will they look kindly on people who have stood on the sidelines and say, “See, I told you so, it’s capitalism.”

But if socialist ideas about climate and environment are known, and respected, we have a chance, even in the most grim circumstances, of persuading the majority to take democratic control of their society, their economy and their jobs, to rebuild the world decently, to care for the wounded, the vulnerable and the grieving. We will need, however, one thing as well as ideas. The ruling class will move quickly. Look how the armed forces moved into New Orleans, or how the US Marine Corps moved to take control of Haiti. In that situation the working class will also need organisation, and enough socialists linked together who can talk to people in every neighbourhood, school and big workplace and convince them to act together.

If we can do that, we can create a new world out of the rising waters, the famines and the cruelty of the old. We need to prepare consciously and collectively for that moment. We cannot be sure, but the best estimate is that it is likely to happen in the lifetime of the majority of the people reading this article. We cannot hope for that moment. The suffering will be too deep and the risks too great. We must hope, and organise, to make that moment never come, either because we have cut the carbon enough within the system or because we have changed the system. But we must also be ready.


1: The discussion of sources of emissions and solutions that follows is based on Neale, 2008, pp58-120. See also Metz, 2010, and MacKay, 2009.

2: Fortune, 2009.

3: For Bush, the oil companies and climate politics see Gelbspan, 1998; Leggett, 1999; and Schneider, 2009.

4: See, for instance, Observer, 22 February 2004, Burke and others, 2009; and Lee, 2009.

5: See Neale, 2008, pp223-233.

6: Stern, 2007.

7: Available at

8: See UNFCCC, “Appendix I-Quantified Economy-Wide Emissions Targets for 2020” at> and “Appendix II-Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions of Developing Country Parties, at

9: EU Observer, 23 February 2010; and Guardian, 1 February 2010.

10: The attack had begun just before Copenhagen, but the avalanche came after.

11: “CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion, Highlights, 2009 edition”, pp44-50, available at

12: Stiglitz, 2010. See also Trudell, 2010.

13: For abrupt change, start with Neale, 2008, pp13-25; Alley, 2000; and Pearce, 2007.

14: For the complex relationship between climate change, war and imperialism in Darfur see Neale, 2008, pp233-247; Mamdani, 2009; de Waal, 2005; and Prunier, 2007.

15: These arguments have been made at great length elsewhere. Start with Lohman, 2006; Neale, 2008, pp203-223; and MacKay, 2009, pp114-115.

16: Neale, 2008, pp49-120; Campaign against Climate Change, 2009; von Weizsacker and others, 2009; Zero Carbon Britain, 2007; Monbiot, 2006.

17: Campaign against Climate Change, 2009.

18: For a careful, honest and hilarious but sometimes overstated argument about the limits of renewable energy in Britain see MacKay, 2009. I have also relied on an unpublished paper by Dave Elliott.

19: O’Connor, 1998; Burkett, 2009; Kovel,2007; Foster, 2000; and Li, 2008.

20: Russell, 2009; and Wolf and Mueller, 2009.

21: There are two variations on this argument. The liberal variation simply agrees with the environmentalist argument. The right wing variation, from ExxonMobil, says just listen to the environmentalists: they are saying that doing anything about climate change will cost you your job and your standard of living. You know we can’t afford it, so we can’t do anything.

22: Klein, 2007, shows brilliantly how the ruling class can move quickly and brutally to reshape politics and economics after a disaster.


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