Climate change, capitalism, and Trump

Climate change, capitalism, and Trump

Presentation to the Chicago Local of News and Letters Committees
By Franklin Dmitryev, August 27, 2018

“…the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown–all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.”
– G.W.F. Hegel

“The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own specialty.” – Karl Marx

“…Marx did not separate ideology and economics as if the latter were the only fundamental, and the former nothing but ‘show.’ Marx maintains that they are both as real as life….Marx castigates ‘the fetishism of commodities’ not only because relations of [people] at production appear as ‘things,’ but especially because human relations under capitalism are so perverse that that is not appearance; that is indeed what they really are: Machine is master of man; not man of machine.” – Raya Dunayevskaya (from the new book that will be off the press probably next month)

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Extreme weather linked to climate change has people reeling around the world:

  • wildfires across the U.S. and Canadian west, including the biggest on record in California, as well as in Europe, where over 70 were killed by one fire in Greece
  • deadly heat waves in numerous countries this summer
  • unprecedented flooding in places like Kerala state in India
  • Puerto Rico and Houston, especially the poorest residents and people of color, still suffering from Hurricanes Maria and Harvey one year ago.[1]

And yet the official responses are anemic at best, and at worst wildly irrational, like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s claims—backed up by his president—that “environmental terrorists” are to blame for the wildfires.

They do not reflect public opinion, as a large majority of people in the U.S. as well as in other countries recognize the dangers of climate change and the need to confront it.

In fact, multifaceted movements have sprung up across the world struggling to make that happen. Most dramatically, thousands of water protectors gathered at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline.[2] Their struggle energized both opposition to pipelines in the U.S. and Canada and Indigenous opposition to colonialism worldwide, including many already ongoing struggles against fossil fuel extraction and climate change.

With young people staring down the barrel of a nightmare future, various youth-led movements against climate change have burst out. The latest is Zero Hour, a group of teenagers led by young people of color and started by a young woman. They stress the urgency of addressing climate change and the impact of race, class, and gender. In July they held protests in a number of cities.

Just as anti-extractivism struggles are being carried on by Indigenous peoples and other oppressed minorities or by poor people in many countries, climate justice in the U.S. is inextricably linked to battles against environmental racism. The new Poor Peoples Campaign has recognized this by explicitly taking on the struggle against pollution and climate change as part of its key goals.

Science has clearly established that both direct pollution and the effects of global warming have worse consequences for people of color and for the poor. But frontline communities did not have to wait for scientific studies to find that out and to name it environmental racism. It is also true that ultimately everyone will suffer harmful impacts from toxic pollution and from climate change, but that the differential impact makes it easier for those who profit from it to sap the resistance of white people and of many whose paychecks depend on polluting industries.

Serious damage from global warming is not off in the distant future. It is not even off in the near future. It is already happening now. However, the death and injury toll and the disruption of people’s lives from crop failures, hurricanes, fires, floods, and heat waves is only the tip of the iceberg of the catastrophes that global warming will wreak if nothing more is done to prevent it than the pitifully small measures that have been taken so far.

Scientists have long pointed out that it poses an existential threat to human civilization. It must be understood that billions could die and society could be totally destabilized. The massive worldwide movement of refugees—from wars; from political, racial, ethnic, and sectarian repression; from economic failure; from climate disruption—is set to mushroom vastly with deepening climate chaos, and, if business as usual continues, climate refugees could amount to one billion in less than three decades. If Europe could tilt so strongly toward fascism in response to a much smaller number of refugees, what semblance of freedom, peace, or justice could survive that?

It must also be understood that that does not have to happen. It is not too late to take action. But nothing short of radical action will avoid catastrophic consequences. And the current political and economic systems dominating planet earth—all of which are founded on capitalist production—have utterly failed.

Politicians and pundits have pushed formulas to cover up inaction with a veneer of having done something. “No regrets,” advocated by some liberal economists, means taking only steps that are economically innocuous, as if some years down the line we won’t regret the descent into climate chaos that would lead to. “All of the above” and “energy independence,” advocated by, among others, Barack Obama, are excuses to keep using fossil fuels when science has made clear that is not safe.

The standard scientific language for taking action refers to mitigation, meaning reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and adaptation to the world as it continues to be changed by global warming. Economists long argued that adaptation is enough, under the blinkered fantasy that technology eventually solves all problems and action taken in the future is cheaper than action taken today. They project endless economic growth as if the undermining of the environmental conditions necessary for today’s society would mean nothing. We have long passed the point where either mitigation or adaptation could be considered alone, although policies never include sufficient mitigation or else they put it off for tomorrow, when it will be too late. Official UN policy fantasies include negative emission scenarios, in which magic technologies yet to be invented in any feasible way suck the carbon out of the air, while the siren song of geoengineering keeps getting louder. Geoengineering means technologies to actively alter the climate, for example, by blocking the sun, and they don’t work but could have very serious side effects such as stopping the monsoons necessary for agriculture in South Asia.

Science also tells us of climate change tipping points, for example when the melting of the polar ice cap or the permafrost becomes irreversible, and shows how this can lead to not only positive feedbacks strengthening global warming but abrupt climate change, too fast for either society or ecosystems to adapt. None of this is taken into account in official policies and even many of the scientific models used to forecast future effects.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article the size of a small book called “Losing Earth,” which narrated developments from 1979 to 1989 around efforts by environmentalists, scientists, and politicians to tackle climate change. It ends with a big missed opportunity as the U.S. government sabotages any kind of action at a conference that had been meant to issue a binding international treaty.

The article naively and superficially blames human nature for the failure, without recognizing the role of capitalism—especially the restructuring that global capitalism carried out in response to the depth and persistence of the global capitalist economic crisis that broke out in the mid-1970s. That restructuring is often called neoliberalism, globalization, or Reaganism. It must be understood not as some contingent political choice but rather as a reaction to the failure of governments, corporations, and economic theories to restore the rate of profit, which had fallen in just the way Marx analyzed theoretically and empirically. He showed that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is an inherent part of capitalism’s law of motion.

Thus the restructuring—which included a big dose of privatization and deregulation—flowed out of the nature of capitalism in its period of prolonged crisis. In keeping with these imperatives, the Bush administration in 1989 was not going to allow a binding international treaty that would limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The pattern has continued ever since. Scientific findings pointed to harmful effects from global warming caused by human society, and every year the findings became more certain and more threatening, more clearly an existential threat to civilization. Helpful technological experts and social scientists churned out plans outlining how, technologically, emissions can be slashed in time to save us, and the economic costs would be feasible. (By the way, that doesn’t reflect how capitalism actually works. Economists typically add up costs and benefits on some geographic scale, but in reality that lumps together winners and losers. If I steal your car, then you lost the same amount I gained, so it’s a wash. Now if I’m the government and you’re a resident of South Side Chicago, then it’s okay. But if you’re a big corporation and I’m a desperate individual needing an emergency ride to the hospital, then it’s not okay. But I digress.)

According to the pattern, key corporations and governments, with the U.S. at their head, swatted away the information about a looming catastrophe and blocked any binding action.  And every year greenhouse gas emissions climbed even more, with a slight pause for the 2008-09 recession, reflecting how the commitment to reduce emissions was largely rhetorical, while the commitment to keep extracting and burning fossil fuels remains deadly serious.

At the 1992 Earth Summit, the first climate treaty was forged, and, as we reported then, the treaty “was supposed to reduce the threat of catastrophic global warming by limiting carbon dioxide emissions, but the goals and deadlines were removed due to U.S. arm-twisting.”[3]

At the 1997 Kyoto Summit, the U.S. delegation headed by Vice President Al Gore forced devastating compromises in the Kyoto Protocol that ensured its ineffectiveness, but even then the U.S. never ratified it and the Senate by 95-0 approved a resolution essentially opposing any treaty that might realistically have been negotiated.

The 2009 Copenhagen Summit produced a fig-leaf Accord whose emptiness was forced by the U.S. in league with China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. Mohammed Nasheed, president of the island nation the Maldives, cried, “How can you ask my country to go extinct?”[4]

The apparently final product of the UN’s climate treaty negotiations was the 2015 Paris Agreement, whose pathetic lack of ambition is manifested in its inclusion only of voluntary goals to be decided by each country for itself and not enforced. Even those voluntary goals, if met, would lead to much more warming than could reasonably be expected to be less than catastrophic.[5] And of course those goals are not being met.

Never did any of these treaties or agreements recognize the necessity of a carbon budget, as worked out by climate scientists. That is, in order to set a reasonable limit to the amount of warming, we must set a specific limit to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In order to limit the emissions, we must limit the amount of carbon emitted by fossil fuel burning. To do that we must set specific limits to each specific type of fuel. Those limits have been worked out in theory, and they include immediately eliminating whole categories of fuels–including coal, tar sands oil, and fracked oil and gas.

Which brings us to today. Again the existential threat is looming and the first disastrous consequences of climate change are making themselves felt, while both scientists and movements are pointing to a radically different direction. And yet consider the reactions of leading countries:

  • Germany, long seen as a leader in climate and environmental actions, is going to badly miss its Paris Agreement targets because of its increased use of coal.
  • Canada’s liberal darling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nationalized the Kinder Morgan pipeline to protect it from challenges by Indigenous Canadian peoples and environmental activists. The pipeline carries tar sands oil, one of the most carbon-intensive ways to produce fuel and one that top climate scientists say must be left in the ground to keep within the carbon budget.
  • China, the world’s biggest coal consumer, aims to slash its coal use eventually, but at the same time is pushing poorer countries like Kenya to pay Chinese companies to build coal-fired power plants.
  • Australia’s official inquiry called for by the Senate warned in May of this year that climate change is a “current and existential national security risk.” And yet last week, four months later, the slight nod to climate change in an energy plan caused conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to fall and be replaced by an even more conservative Prime Minister who is opposed to any restriction on coal or emissions whatsoever.
  • I think we all know where the U.S. is. The Obama administration took a baby step or two, nowhere near enough to heading off catastrophe, but the Trump administration has reversed all of that and more. As leader of all reaction, Trump presides over destruction of as many environmental, health, and safety regulations as possible, has been opening previously protected areas to oil drilling and other industrial extractive processes, and, as Bob McGuire put it recently, has turned “cult climate denial into White House policy.”

It is worth looking at how climate denial became a fanatical cult influential enough to help block climate action. In her book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, the science historian Naomi Oreskes shows what happened after economists started getting involved in 1980 in writing the official reports on global warming. (A fair amount of the history recounted in the “Losing Earth” article in the NY Times Magazine could have been cribbed from Merchants of Doubt, but neither the book nor Oreskes are mentioned in it. In any case, a very different interpretation of history is shown, with the seeds of denial appearing in 1980, according to Oreskes, and with roots even earlier, going back to the same core of ideologically motivated pro-capitalist scientists pimping themselves out first to the tobacco industry and later to the fossil fuel industries.)

Anyway, the economists downplayed the risks involved with climate change, emphasized the uncertainties in the science—uncertainties being inherent in scientific knowledge and therefore not a valid excuse for inaction—and imported from the ideology of bourgeois economics the principle of “discounting” the future to argue that action to restrict emissions is not worth the cost. Officials in both the Carter and the Reagan administrations seized on this threadbare argument to downplay the actual science.

Right-wing think tanks like the Marshall Institute took this ball and ran with it. Eventually it was expanded to outright denial of climate change and construction of feverish conspiracy theories in which evil environmentalists conspired with crooked scientists and Communists or other enemies of America who want to destroy its economy. This was infamously reflected in Trump’s 2012 tweet that global warming was a hoax invented by China to undermine U.S. manufacturers.

Right-wing think tanks had since the 1960s sought to transform the political discourse away from technocratic policy discussions and toward more openly ideological and emotional arguments. They incorporated the science of manipulation that had been expansively funded and researched by capitalists for the purposes of marketing products and services as well as redirecting worker and citizen discontent. One aspect of this is the manufacturing of artificial identities centered on consumer choices and cultural and political dogmas.

Of course, the influence of the right wing does not come from ideology alone but depends on the political might flowing from economic power, and the ideology flows from not only the class structure of society but the fact that the machine is master of humanity and not the other way around, as indicated in the quotation from Raya Dunayevskaya at the beginning of this talk. Here I want to explore the problem of ideology as false consciousness and the uses to which propaganda is put in the service of ideology and power.

Merging climate denial into right-wing identities was useful both in solidifying the artificial identities and in fending off fossil fuel regulation as well as economic regulation in general, so it was heavily funded by oil companies. The science of manipulation was seen in the use of facebook for the 2016 election, where the portrayal of climate science as an anti-American conspiracy was effectively deployed along with racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, homophobic, and transphobic propaganda and delirious horror stories about plots for the destruction of Christians, whites, males, etc. Incidentally, the fact that facebook is a fertile ground for manipulation should be no surprise considering that its business model is first and foremost to sell its users to marketers who want to manipulate us as consumers.

Climate scientists were totally outmatched by the science of manipulation. Natural scientists are generally steeped in an implicit Enlightenment philosophy, according to which the discovery and announcement of truth by rational (scientific) methods inherently leads to its dissemination and its conquest of ignorance, at least in policymaking circles. And scientists seldom grasp the difference between ideology on the one hand and, on the other, ignorance, disinformation, and propaganda, and seldom do they grasp the infuence that ideology has on their own thinking. It is not that ideology has seriously distorted the actual findings of climate science. But it has undermined the way those findings are communicated, or miscommunicated, and even are allowed to be distorted and misrepresented by professional politicians and ideologues.

Consider a report released this month called “What Lies Beneath: The Scientific Understatement of Climate Risks,” by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop. Listen to this excerpt from its introduction:

 

The planetary future is hostage to myopic national self-interest. Action is delayed on the assumption that as yet unproven technologies will save the day, decades hence. The risks are existential, but it is “alarmist” to say so….

Since 1992, short-term economic interest has trumped environmental and future human needs. The world today emits 50% more carbon dioxide from the consumption of energy than it did 25 years ago, and the global economy has more than doubled in size….

A fast, emergency-scale transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change. But this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive. The orthodoxy is that there is time for an orderly economic transition within the current short-termist political paradigm. Discussion of what would be safe –– less warming than we presently experience –– is non-existent. And so we have a policy failure of epic proportions.

Policymakers, in their magical thinking, imagine a mitigation path of gradual change to be constructed over many decades in a growing, prosperous world. The world not imagined is the one that now exists: of looming financial instability; of a global crisis of political legitimacy and “fake news”; of a sustainability crisis that extends far beyond climate change to include all the fundamentals of human existence and most significant planetary boundaries (soils, potable water, oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity, and so on); and of severe global energy-sector dislocation….

Scientific reticence — a reluctance to spell out the full risk implications of climate science in the absence of perfect information — has become a major problem….

It is clear that existing processes will not deliver the transformation to a carbon-negative world in the limited time now available.[6]

 

The report shows how scientific projections of global warming and its effects have been systematically underestimated by the UN’s official climate science body, the IPCC. Each IPCC report ratchets up the projections but still lags the best current science. “What Lies Beneath” points out:

 

A recent study of climate scientists found “a community which still identified strongly with an idealised picture of scientific rationality, in which the job of scientists is to get on with their research quietly and dispassionately”. The study said most climate scientists are resistant to participation in public/policy engagement, leaving this task to a minority who are attacked by the media and even by their own colleagues….

Prof. Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester says there is “an endemic bias prevalent amongst many of those building emission scenarios to underplay the scale of the 2°C challenge. In several respects, the modelling community is actually self-censoring its research (focus) to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm…”

 

So even many scientists shy away from confronting the extremity of risk faced by humanity, while the extreme risks are unthinkable to leaders of governments, corporations, media, and educational institutions. But unthinkable events keep happening, just as the 2008 economic crisis was an unthinkable event to most economists, politicians, pundits, and business leaders. The famed Fed leader Alan Greenspan had to admit that he was shaken to his core, that it was indeed an unthinkable shock to him that forced him to question fundamental beliefs.

And we have seen supposedly “unthinkable” climate-linked disasters again and again, from the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina[7] to towns and cities running out of water, like East Porterville, Calif., and, possibly next year, Cape Town, South Africa.

A sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in the face of the magnitude of climate change risks helps make people in general not want to think about it. TV shows don’t like to talk about it because, as MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes admitted, climate change is “a palpable ratings killer.”

Even a Marxist like Erik Olin Wright could write cluelessly:

 

…if, as some environmentalists claim, global warming will ultimately make human life impossible, capitalism would also be impossible. But short of such apocalyptic outcomes, it is not obvious that climate change poses a mortal threat to capitalism as such….[T]he irrationality and undesirability of capitalism do not imply its unsustainability.…[T]here is a huge amount of money to be made out of the massive public works projects needed for climate adaptation. Climate change may threaten the specific neoliberal form of capitalism, but it is much less clear that in and of itself it renders capitalism as such unsustainable.

 

The hopelessness of the many, the reticence of scientists, the denialism of economists and other ideologues—none of this can be separated from the underlying toxic ideology that there is no alternative to capitalism. As I have shown, capitalism over the last 40 years has again and again shown itself incapable of adequately, or even rationally, confronting climate change.

The “no alternative” ideology can trap even those who recognize the catastrophic prospect of climate change in the business as usual scenario. That is true even of some who name capitalism as enemy and point to the need to reject “there is no alternative,” such as Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Many of today’s socialists reject revolution and put forward a “democratic socialism” that is really a wish to democratize capitalism. Klein in particular writes with an ambiguity that appears to oppose capitalism but in reality opposes neoliberalism, as if that had been a contingent political choice, and accepts the fundamental relationships of capitalism. In criticizing “Losing Earth” for not mentioning the role of neoliberalism, Klein writes:

 

But we have to be honest that autocratic industrial socialism has also been a disaster for the environment….

Let’s acknowledge this fact, while also pointing out that countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition — like Denmark, Sweden, and Uruguay — have some of the most visionary environmental policies in the world….

These are the stakes in the surge of movement-grounded political candidates who are advancing a democratic eco-socialist vision, connecting the dots between the economic depredations caused by decades of neoliberal ascendency and the ravaged state of our natural world. Partly inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, candidates in a variety of races — like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Kaniela Ing in Hawaii, and many more — …whether or not they identify as democratic socialist, are rejecting the neoliberal centrism of the establishment Democratic Party, with its tepid “market-based solutions” to the ecological crisis, as well as Donald Trump’s all-out war on nature. And they are also presenting a concrete alternative to the undemocratic extractivist socialists of both the past and present….In the nick of time, a new political path to safety is presenting itself.[8]

 

 

It is important to grasp that capitalism has not only failed in relationship to climate change. Look around the world at the billions without clean water, over 800 million undernourished, wars and refugee crises fueling fascism, hundreds of millions toiling in inhumane conditions for pittance wages, 40 million trapped in modern slavery.

Or look around the U.S. to see many of those same phenomena, from Flint to the militarized border.

Or look right here at Chicago, a segregated city with pressure cooker conditions of poverty, racism, sexual violence and sexism, police brutality, slumlords and evictions, pervasive noise pollution as well as toxic air pollution and lead paint, gutting of public schools and mental health clinics, all contributing to police and gang violence in many neighborhoods.

Even on its own terms, capitalism has been unable to restore its prime moving force, the rate of profit, contributing to its own lack of faith in its future and consequently a narrowed focus on the short term. As News and Letters Committees pointed out in our 2014-15 Perspectives Thesis,

 

A society that fails to maintain its infrastructure, that throws away the creative abilities of working-age and young people, that drifts toward genocide and war, that normalizes extreme anti-human thought, that races toward destruction of its environmental basis, is a society that no longer believes in its future. What it reveals is the decline of the old capitalist world and the potential for a new human one. Hegel captured it over 200 years ago:

“…the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown–all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.”[9]

 

To repeat, capitalism over the last 40 years has again and again shown itself incapable of adequately, or even rationally, confronting climate change. Only the sense that another world is possible, where workers’ control of production halts the built-in destructive direction of capitalism and overthrows its seemingly unbreakable law of value, and the sense that such a world can in fact be built by transformative movements from below, and that we see now only the tip of that transformative iceberg but its potential to erupt is fermenting—only that sense can merge with the inevitable eruptions from below and set the stage for a unity of philosophy and revolution that can set afoot a whole new society with a new direction away from self-destruction of humanity and toward total liberation.

[1] See “Puerto Ricans suffer as Donald Trump plays to his racist base,” Nov.-Dec. 2017 News & Letters, https://newsandletters.org/puerto-ricans-suffer-donald-trump-plays-racist-base/.

[2] See https://newsandletters.org/standing-rock-struggle-continues/, https://newsandletters.org/editorial-stop-the-dakota-access-pipeline-now/, and https://newsandletters.org/solidarity-with-standing-rock-water-is-life/.

[3] See “Ideological Pollution at ‘Earth Summit,’” July 1992 News & Letters, https://newsandletters.org/earth-summit-20-years-on/.

[4] See “Copenhagen Climate Summit Sabotages Future,” Jan.-Feb. 2010 News & Letters, https://newsandletters.org/PDF-ARCHIVE/2010/2010-01-02.pdf.

[5] See “Paris climate accord’s suicidal complacency spurs protests,” Jan.-Feb. 2016 News & Letters, https://newsandletters.org/paris-climate-accords-suicidal-complacency-spurs-protests/.

[6] https://www.breakthroughonline.org.au/publications

[7] See “New Orleans: The Human Cost of Capitalism’s Brutality,” Sept.-Oct. 2005 News & Letters, http://newsandletters.org/PDF-ARCHIVE/2005/2005-09-10.pdf.

[8] Naomi Klein, “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not ‘Human Nature,’” https://theintercept.com/2018/08/03/climate-change-new-york-times-magazine/.

[9] “From the U.S. to Ukraine, crises and revolts call for philosophy,” May-June 2014 News & Letters, https://newsandletters.org/capitalisms-political-and-economic-degeneracy/.

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