If Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were writing the Communist Manifesto today, it is not inconceivable that they would begin with the sentence: “A spectre is haunting humanity—the spectre of extinction.” Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2019, humanity was facing a complex of interconnected environmental, ecological, socio-economic and political crises caused by the expansion and intensification of capitalist relations of production. The current confluence of these crises suggests that capitalism is experiencing what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci referred to as an “organic crisis”—one in which the system’s “incurable structural contradictions” reach maturity and threaten the ruling class’s hegemony.1 In contrast to “conjunctural” crises, which are less historically significant, organic crises arise when “the necessary and sufficient conditions…exist to make possible, and hence imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks. These tasks become imperative because any falling short before an historical duty increases the necessary disorder and prepares more serious catastrophes”.2 Although the environmental, socio-economic and political crises are deeply interrelated and exacerbate one another in complex ways, here we shall analyse capitalism’s organic crisis by focusing on the climate emergency.
This article begins with a brief overview of the severity and urgency of the climate crisis. It goes on to argue that capitalism both causes the climate crisis and is also unlikely to be capable of solving it effectively. This is despite the establishment of an international treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), designed for this very purpose. Signatories to this treaty (who are referred to as “parties” of the treaty) send delegates representing their states to formal annual meetings, called a “Conference of the Parties” (COP). There, they negotiate targets for reducing the greenhouse gases causing climate change. The 26th annual Conference of the Parties (COP26) is scheduled to convene in Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 12 November 2021. Distinguishing between climate action and climate justice, this article provides an overview of some of the contentious issues that will be negotiated at COP26. It also looks at the role of the COP26 Coalition, a Britain-based coalition of groups and individuals mobilising in favour of climate justice during the COP26 negotiations. The article concludes with a brief overview of Marxist responses to the climate crisis, offering some suggestions for further consideration and debate.
The severity of the climate crisis
As COP26 delegates prepare to meet for yet another set of negotiations, people’s lives in various parts of the globe are being disrupted and threatened by the effects of extreme droughts, wildfires and floods whose unprecedented severity is a result of anthropogenic climate change.3 These extreme weather events include the severe floods in Western Europe and China in July 2021 that resulted in hundreds of deaths, the displacement of millions of people and the destruction of infrastructure worth billions.4 Over the past few months, several severe, destructive wildfires have also burned across Europe, North America and Russia. Many of these fires were still burning at the time of writing, fed and exacerbated by persistent climate change-induced droughts and extreme temperatures that give rise to “fire weather”.5 Other symptoms of climate change are abundant. The last five years have been the warmest on record, and an unprecedented number of fires have burnt in the Arctic. Some 1 million tonnes of ice per minute were lost from the Greenland ice sheet in 2019, and 28 trillion tonnes of ice have been lost globally since 1994.6
As some Earth system scientists point out, however, the climate crisis is likely to be even more serious than these individual signals suggest due to the possibility of crossing “tipping points”. These could lead to a cascade of other environmental changes, shifting our complex, interconnected “Earth system” into a new state “with which humans have no experience of dealing”.7 There are already worrying signs that some important tipping points, such as the collapse of the Gulf Stream and the Greenland ice sheet, are in danger of being crossed. Meanwhile, the Amazon rainforest now emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, becoming a source of, rather than a sink for, greenhouse gas emissions.8
The climate crisis caused by anthropogenic global warming is also exacerbating the extensive anthropogenic damage being done to ecosystems. We have witnessed an “exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way”.9 The predicament we face is neatly summarised by Earth scientist and palaeoclimatologist Andrew Glikson in his aptly titled article, “While we fixate on coronavirus, Earth is hurtling towards a catastrophe worse than the dinosaur extinction”.10 Glikson is one of many scientists who draw attention to the severity of the climate emergency—and the wider environmental crisis it is both embedded within and exacerbating—as well as the need for immediate action to stop the practices causing these crises. Such warnings about the climate crisis have acquired a new urgency with the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on the physical basis of climate change. Though AR6 largely confirms previous reports’ findings regarding the scientific evidence of global warming and the resulting effects, it is notable because this is the first time that an IPCC report states that this warming is unequivocally due to “human influence”.11
Institutional responses to climate crisis: the IPCC and UNFCCC
The IPCC was formally established under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1988.12 Public administration expert Larry Luton describes it as “a designedly political organisation”. Unlike the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases, which had been established by a group of scientists in 1986 as an advisory panel to guide climate policy, from its inception the US government played a leading role in shaping the IPCC.13 Indeed, the US delegation to the first IPCC meeting in November 1988 had a team of 24 members, greatly outnumbering the number of delegates attending from other countries.14 In contrast to the WMO and the UNEP, which were increasingly marginalised, US scientists, bureaucrats, and “special interest groups such as the fossil-fuel lobby…wielded considerable influence” in the IPCC’s subsequent development.15
The IPCC is organised into three discrete working groups: Working Group I reports on the science of climate change; Working Group II analyses the expected impacts of climate change on socio-economic and natural systems; and Working Group III reports on possible policy responses to the issues identified by Working Groups I and II.16 The US government’s decision to chair Working Group III—whose work is the “most contentious” since it involves selecting “policy-relevant” information—has also enabled it to work with its allies to control the policy narrative emanating from IPCC reports.17 This ensures that suggested policies favour the interests of US (and global) capital.18
The IPCC’s stated mandate is restricted to producing reports that are “policy-relevant” but not “policy prescriptive”.19 Determining policies for dealing with climate change falls under the auspices of the UNFCCC, which establishes the legal and institutional framework that underpins the COP conferences.20 Delegates representing nation-states that are parties to the UNFCCC meet annually at these conferences in order to agree on which measures they will take to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. There have now been more than two decades of negotiations at the COPs, which began in 1995, resulting in several accords, plans of action and declarations. These include the 1997 Kyoto protocol and, most recently, the 2015 Paris agreement. Yet, despite all of this, carbon dioxide levels and emissions of other greenhouse gases continue to rise relentlessly.21
“Civil society” responses to climate crisis: climate movements
Although traditional environmental groups were already alert to the issue of climate change in the 1980s, it was only one of several issues on their agenda. However, according to several analysts, the failure of governments and policymakers to institute measures that effectively deal with the deepening climate crisis over time has led to the formation of a distinct “climate movement”. This movement extends beyond the traditional environmental groups and is made up of a loose network of activists and grassroots movements that focus on climate change.22 The demands of climate movement actors range from moderate calls for “climate action” to somewhat ambiguous (but potentially radical) calls for “system change.”
Many climate movement actors point to the existence of a wide range of existing technologies that could be deployed to shift to a “zero carbon economy”.23 Some of these actors attribute the failure to shift to available renewable technologies on the required scale to a “lack of political will” and call for more “ambitious targets” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.24 However, arguments that attribute this policy failure to a “lack of political will” fail to acknowledge the power dynamics that present obstacles to such action. Moreover, they demonstrate a failure to understand (or perhaps an inability to acknowledge) that capitalism is incapable of being reformed in the ways required to solve the climate crisis. Other calls for reforms are more nuanced, emanating from activists who seek to use such interim reforms as a platform for more radical and fundamental change.
COP26: climate action, climate justice or greenwashing?
The capitalist class is neither blind nor unresponsive to the dangers that the current moment presents to its wealth, power and privilege. However, different factions of the ruling class favour different tactics for achieving their common overall strategy of ensuring the survival of capitalism as a system. Of course, powerful vested interests continue to lobby against taking any action to address climate change, at least for now. However, proponents of “green capitalism” have embarked on a variety of projects aimed at saving the capitalist system while getting the working class and the poor to pay for these projects.25 The green capitalist agenda often represents different corporate interests to the dominant fossil fuel sector. On the opposing side, powerful factions of the ruling class such as the oil and gas industry and large-scale agricultural corporations are sabotaging attempts to “decarbonise” the global economy and are aided in this by capital’s most powerful financial institutions.26
Both these ruling class responses are dangerous to the working class and threaten the future of humanity and all life on Earth. Fossil capital’s response is dangerous because it is on a collision course with reality. It could ultimately lead to dubious large-scale “geoengineering” experiments that deliberately attempt to “rebalance” the Earth system, such as solar radiation management, carbon sequestration and ocean fertilisation.27 Yet, although the global expansion of capital has inadvertently altered the Earth system—changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the operations of its major geochemical cycles—it is foolish to believe that humans can control the Earth system. Geoengineering experiments on a planetary scale are highly likely to have unforeseen, unpredictable and potentially existentially threatening results.28 It is important to be aware of this issue when reviewing the outcomes of COP26 (and future COPs); as some analysts point out, article 4 of the Paris agreement permits states to use technical geoengineering “solutions” to meet their “nationally determined contributions” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.29
“Green” capital’s response to the climate crisis is dangerous because it too is unlikely to address the climate crisis effectively. Moreover, it is simultaneously implementing what climate justice activists refer to as “false solutions.” This term refers to policies that exacerbate existing inequalities and intensify the challenges faced by most of the population of the Global South—the people who are least responsible for causing this crisis. Some of the important issues that will arise in the COP26 negotiations are discussed in a series of online presentations organised by the COP26 Coalition.30 These points of contention, conceived in “Global North versus Global South” terms, include both efficacy and equity issues. For example, the “net zero” greenhouse gas emission target being promoted by many influential Global North policymakers and corporations, who plan to establish carbon markets, is identified as a form of“greenwashing”: a delaying tactic that is susceptible to fraud and speculation and is deeply unjust. Pointing to the historical failure of previous attempts to establish carbon markets, climate justice activists argue that market solutions are unlikely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon markets are also likely to lead to large land grabs in the Global South to serve as carbon sinks, displacing many people and depriving them of their means of subsistence and their livelihoods.
Another important point of contention that will arise at COP26 is the demand by Global North negotiators that Global South countries commit to equal (rather than equitable) reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. This is despite the fact that the advanced capitalist countries are responsible for the vast majority of cumulative emissions up to the present day. According to one of the COP26 Coalition climate justice presenters, COP26 is really about finance. Powerful Global North negotiators are not only demanding equal greenhouse gas emission commitments from the Global South; they also oppose providing the financial and technology transfer assistance needed for the Global South to develop their use of renewable energy and adapt to the effects of climate change. Many of these effects are already taking a toll through prolonged droughts, unprecedented wildfires and floods, and other “extreme” weather events.
In summary, ruling class efforts to address the climate crisis in order to save capitalism focus on false solutions. These include technical targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as market mechanisms such as carbon trading schemes and “payment for ecosystem services”. Dubious technological solutions are also put forward, including carbon removal, carbon sequestration and other geoengineering schemes. According to Gramsci, during an organic crisis, “the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure…the ‘incurable structural contradictions’, within certain limits, and to overcome them”.31 In the context of climate change, the phrase “within certain limits” is particularly apt—the reformist path of “green capitalism” has, to date, patently failed to address the climate crisis. It has only managed to use various market instruments and promises of future technologies as smokescreens for delaying decarbonisation.32 As the green capitalist project is implemented, it progresses capital’s inherent drive to privatise everything and incorporate all of life into its spheres of circulation. The more it does this, the more it will exacerbate existing inequalities and sabotage chances of preserving Earth’s habitability.33
Marxist responses to the climate crisis
Many climate justice activists point out that there is no reason to expect COP26 to result in effective climate policies. However, they also emphasise the great importance of joining the school students’ climate movement, Extinction Rebellion and other social movement actors in mobilising for protests during COP26 in order to advocate meaningful interim reform policies and socially just alternatives to the official policy responses. In the short term, Marxists can adopt the tactic of joining with social movement actors mobilising around the conference. In the longer term, it is also important to support community campaigns at the intersection between ecological issues and the existing fault lines of capitalism: exploitation, inter-imperialist conflict and oppression. These struggles include anti-war movements and fights over access to housing, public transport and clean water. Indigenous communities’ resistance to the building of pipelines transporting fossil fuels through their land is also a key site of struggle.
In addition to supporting activist groups, it is important to follow Marx and Engels’s habit of reading about the major scientific discoveries of the day and understanding their socio-economic implications. Like Marx and Engels, we should be updating our knowledge and understanding of emerging issues in both climate and Earth system science and the politics of climate change. We should also be drawing links between the many current crises and how these relate to the climate crisis. This entails reading broadly; indeed, many of these links are often reported in scientific journals. For example, a recently published article in Science of the Total Environment found evidence of a relationship between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. The authors argue that “climate change has shifted the global distribution of bats” and that this “may have played a key role in the evolution or transmission of SARS-CoV-2”.34
As shown by some Marxists who have been focusing on ecological issues since the 1990s, Marxism is a powerful analytical tool capable of understanding the complexities of the current moment—particularly as it relates to the planetary emergencies we face.35 Writers such as John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark have also highlighted the substantive contribution that Marx and Engels can make. Our current understanding of climate change and environmental breakdown can be usefully informed by their concept of “metabolic rift”. This is the idea that the capitalist mode of production generates ecological crises that manifest “as a ‘rift’ in the metabolism between society and nature”. This rift deepens as capital’s needs “are imposed on nature, increasing the demands placed on ecological systems”.36
Committed to the long-term project of building a socialism that is based on sound ecological principles, a number of Marxists have revisited Marx and Engels’ work in order to identify its ecological content. These writers have developed a large body of literature to inform our understanding and responses to the ecological crisis. The many books and texts they have been written provide excellent resources for Marxists and labour movement activists. Though far from exhaustive, an introductory reading list of Marxist works that prioritise ecological issues would include Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster, Marx and Nature: A Red-Green Perspective by Paul Burkett, The Political Economy of Global Warming: Terminal Crisis by Del Weston, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm, Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History by Martin Empson, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis by Chris Williams, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System by Ian Angus, and The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture by Stefano Longo, Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark.
However, as Marx famously wrote in “thesis 11” of his Theses on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.37 Though the long-term strategy is a socialist society that collaborates to repair the damage capital has wrought on the Earth’s biosphere, the question of how to achieve this is, as always, concrete and tactical. Our challenge is how to build the foundations of an ecological, cooperative and radically democratic society while simultaneously doing all we can to contribute to socially just ways of mitigating further environmental destruction in the here and now. Marxists who are prioritising the climate crisis in their research and activism have engaged in several important debates regarding tactics, some of which are summarised in my own book, Ecosocialism and Climate Justice: An Ecological Neo-Gramscian Analysis.38 In the immediate future, it is also important to think about how we can help our communities and the wider world adapt to the effects of the anthropogenic climate change. These effects are already unfolding (and will continue to unfold) because of the cumulative nature of greenhouse gas emissions.
Throughout all our discussions and actions, we need to clearly distinguish between the concepts “climate action” and “climate justice.” Everyone, including liberal defenders of the status quo, pays lip service to “climate justice”. Nevertheless, the structural inequalities inherent in capitalist relations of production prevent the adoption of measures that would really support the working class and vulnerable groups as the climate crisis unfolds. This becomes clear when one considers, for instance, the “conundrum” about what to do with “climate refugees”, a term that is itself rejected by the leaders of the advanced capitalist economies.39 This rejection is undoubtedly motivated by the fact that recognising climate refugees might put pressure on governments and policymakers to act. One cannot, therefore, rely on governments and policymakers to provide true climate justice. Instead, Marxists must work with working class communities and vulnerable groups to establish organisations and practices (based, for instance, on mutual aid) to defend against environmental catastrophes. We must also continue to talk about the root causes of these calamities at every opportunity. These tasks are difficult, but we have no choice. We must tackle them head-on. Failure to do so will result in unimaginable consequences as the integrity of our biosphere unravels.
Eve Croeser is the author of Ecosocialism and Climate Justice: An Ecological Neo-Gramscian Analysis (Routledge, 2020), a university associate at the University of Tasmania, and a fellow at the Global Centre for Climate Justice.
1 Gramsci, 2012, p178.
2 Gramsci, 2012, p178.
4 Kreienkamp and others, 2021; McGrath, 2021.
5 Climate Central, 2021; Melanovski, 2021; Sullivan, 2021.
6 Trewin and Canadell, 2020; Thomas, 2020; Carrington, 2020; Davis, 2020.
7 Marshall, 2020. For analyses of the concept of “tipping points”, see Steffen and others, 2018 and Lenton, 2013. The existence of tipping points within the Earth system is particularly problematic because, according to Joachim Spangenberg and Lia Polotzek, all four policy scenarios presented in the IPCC’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C” foresee temporary overshoots of greenhouse gas emissions and temperature increases above the 1.5°C threshold. Yet, “Physics doesn’t negotiate… In dynamically evolving, self-organising systems such as the environment, society and the economy, systems changes emerging during the overshoot period are irreversible and initiate path-dependent developments: you never cross the same river twice, and you never visit the same town twice.”—Spangenberg and Polotzek, 2019, pp202-203.
8 Carrington, 2021.
9 Bradshaw and others, 2021; Ceballos and others, 2015.
10 Glickson, 2020. See also Brimicombe, Sainbury, Powell and Chain, 2020.
11 Many of the scientific findings regarding anthropogenic climate change have been summarised in the six major IPCC reports published so far (in 1990, 1996, 2001, 2007, 2014 and 2021). The IPCC also publishes special reports on specific topics, including the threat to the world’s oceans and cryosphere, and the impact of climate change on land— see IPCC, 2018, 2019a and 2019b. The IPCC’s 2018 “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C” concludes that effects on the Earth system and humans will be less severe if anthropogenic global warming is limited to 1.5°C than the original “target” agreed at official climate negotiations of 2°C.
12 Luton, 2015, p153.
13 See Croeser, 2021, chapter 4, for a detailed discussion of the US’s role in shaping the IPCC and the UNFCCC, which has sought to render them effectively powerless.
14 Boehmer-Christiansen, 1995.
15 Agrawala, 1998, pp622-623.
16 For an overview of critiques of the IPCC, refer to Croeser, 2021, chapter 4.
17 Hecht and Tirpak 1995, p385; Corbera, Calvet-Mir, Hughes and Paterson, 2015.
18 Low and Boettcher, 2020; Spangenberg and Polotzek, 2019.
19 IPCC, 2010.
20 Bodansky, 2001.
21 For an overview of a scientist’s assessment of the Paris agreement, see Anderson, 2016.
22 Croeser, 2021, chapter 5.
23 For example, see Hawken, 2017.
24 Figueres, 2018.
25 Kenis and Lievens, 2016.
26 Oil Change International and others, 2020.
27 Greenfield, 2021; Lawrence and others, 2018.
28 Cziczo and others, 2019; ETC group, 2020; ETC Group and Biofuelwatch, 2017; Kawa 2016; Williamson, 2018.
29 Craik and Burns, 2016.
31 Gramsci, 2012, p178.
32 Low and Boettcher, 2020.
33 Kenis and Lievens, 2016.
34 Beyer, Manica and Mora, 2021.
35 Croeser, 2021.
36 Foster and Clark, 2016, p16.
37 Marx, 1845.
38 See Croeser, 2021, particularly chapters 3, 5 and 6.
39 Royle, 2021.