From the January-February 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
The climate emergency made itself felt like never before in 2021, giving us a taste of the future. The numerous disasters—droughts, famine and hunger, fires, heat domes, floods, storms—as well as hair-raising scientific and economic reports, had political leaders like President Joe Biden and UN Secretary-General António Guterres stepping over each other to shout the loudest that it is “code red for humanity.”
The UN climate summit called COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Oct. 31-Nov. 13, 2021, was labeled the world’s “last best chance” to head off the most catastrophic prospects of climate chaos by Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry, among others. He followed this with his hope that “in Glasgow the private sector will be front and center.”
That is, in a nutshell, the imperative for a capitalist class that is now generally convinced of the need to deal seriously with the climate crisis, and yet strives above all to keep control in the hands of the rulers and capital, even at the cost of immense suffering and death.
CLIMATE JUSTICE MOVEMENT SPEAKS
The opposite attitude showed itself in the vibrant protests and alternative meetings in Glasgow, at times inside the summit building, and supporting events across the world, which began before the conference and continued afterwards. At times they blocked roads, disrupted corporate events and sat-in outside energy corporation offices.
An estimated 25,000 people—mainly youth, including many local schoolchildren—participated in the Fridays for Future strike in Glasgow’s streets on Nov. 5, with Indigenous women and girls from Latin America at the head of the march. They were addressed by Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, who asked, “How many more of these [UN summits] should they hold until they realize that their inactions are destroying the planet?” They also heard from Greta Thunberg and activists from South and Central America, Africa and Asia.
Protesters called attention to systemic issues intertwined with the climate emergency, such as inequality, poverty, racism, sexism and exploitation of previously colonized nations. Alejandra Kopaitic of Chile said, “We need a whole system change. If we don’t change business as usual and how we are producing things, taking resources from the ground and overconsuming, it is going to be difficult.”
Grainne McGinn, 22, a Glaswegian who uses a wheelchair, held a sign reading, “sustainability requires accessibility,” and said, “Climate change is so important but youth voices, especially disabled youth voices, are not being heard. We’ve seen in the news how inaccessible COP has been for delegates. That’s the day-to-day experience for all disabled people and it’s so important that our voices are heard in the conversation on climate change.”
The following day, 100,000 protesters came out in Glasgow, with 300 other events across the globe. The Scientist Rebellion group blocked the King George V bridge. One of them, Tim Hewlett, declared, “There have been 25 previous COPs with no measurable impact on GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. In fact, about half of the GHG emissions have been released since COP1 in 1995.”
The following week, Nov. 9 saw a rally for murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, with witnesses from the Amazon to Canada. Sii-am Hamilton of British Columbia asked of the crowd, “Remember my face. Remember because it’s not if, it’s when you will go missing, if you are involved in land rights.” In 2020, Global Witness recorded 227 lethal attacks on people defending their land, rivers and ecosystems such as forests.
FEMICIDE LINKED TO ECOCIDE
Delee Nikal, a Wet’suwet’en activist, added: “The femicide is directly linked to the ecocide.…There needs to be more awareness that these extractive industries, all that is affecting our climate and destroying our territories, is intertwined with violence against our women and girls.”
The following day, a protest outside JPMorgan Chase headquarters in Glasgow included about 30 frontline Indigenous activists holding “Air back” and “Ice back” banners. “We are fighting against the pipelines, against the capitalist institutions,” said Nikal.
Guiquita, of the Waorani people in Ecuador, told the crowd her ancestral territories are “being destroyed by oil companies that continue to destroy and cut down trees, and they’re destroying the last rainforest we have left.”
RADICALIZATION OF IDEAS
As always there was a People’s Summit confronting the official summit of nation-states and their corporate partners. This time it was organized by the COP26 Coalition, with 200 events such as workshops, forums, artistic presentations, rallies and a people’s tribunal. The tribunal found the UN framework guilty of failing to address the roots of the climate crisis, and the colonizing industrial countries and China plus agricultural, mining and food corporations, guilty of destroying the Amazon rainforest. Participants demanded that action to fight the climate crisis be effective and just, eliminating fossil fuels, and entwined with decolonization, reparations, feminism, anti-racism, agroecology, free trade unions, peasant-led struggles, disability rights and Indigenous rights, and opposing—in their words—false solutions, climate capitalism, neoliberal agendas, green colonialism, militarism and criminalization.
Asad Rehman of War on Want proclaimed: “Even today in the corridors of power, in the negotiations, our governments are making decisions which basically say the lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous people, of the poor and of women, are not worth saving…and the priority is the extraction of profit.”
Many participants pointed out that this was the least inclusive COP ever, with the pandemic, vaccine apartheid, travel restrictions, and high costs preventing many country delegates, scientists and activists from attending. Most who got to Glasgow were shut out of the negotiating rooms, while fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered any country’s delegation.
How much the movement has developed is reflected not only in the predominance of youth among participants and leaders—especially young women, people of color, and people outside of gender-sex norms—but in its development in ideas. It emphasizes system change not climate change, or #UprootTheSystem as the call of the Sept. 24 climate strikes. It has brought to the fore what they call MAPA—Most Affected People and Areas—the differential relations of power, exploitation and oppression between nations and between classes and social groups within nations.
ENERGY TRANSITION AS SUBSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION
In the face of multiple movements from below, the rulers tightened their grip on the UN process and the discourse around climate. A great deal of their rhetoric and action aims to limit the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” that scientists have been saying for years is needed. Even the International Energy Agency—a brainchild of Henry Kissinger that is close to the oil industry—dramatically warned last May that there must be “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants,” and internal combustion car production must be quickly phased out.
This is what the rulers want to confine to an “energy transition,” a technical change from one set of energy sources to another. Even that is kneecapped by their tender concern for the welfare of fossil fuel capital—not for its workers, however, as much as they are used as pawns to justify continuation of the status quo.
For governments and businesses, the overriding need is to keep decisions in their hands, and not allow any real self-determination from below. One key part of their approach is to frame the issues around supposedly keeping our hallowed “way of life,” without allowing us to ponder how we have been forced into this alienating way of living dependent on oil, private cars, long commutes to punishing work weeks, social isolation, an explosion of plastic materials containing toxic substances, and subjection to constant surveillance and systematic manipulation built into social media, entertainment, education, “smart” devices, and so forth—let alone the specter of falling wages, job loss to automation, increasing weather disasters, famines, mass displacement, more pandemics and supply chain breakdowns.
Oil companies are waging a concerted campaign to convince us all that we need them, they provide the oil our lives are engineered to depend on, they are the experts on energy, they have the capital, so we should leave it up to them to transition us.
In circumstances of ongoing destruction of the environment on which society depends, at most the “way of life” of the wealthy can be preserved for a time at the expense of the billions who will suffer increasingly.
This approach to COP26 yielded plenty of rhetoric and grand announcements with little actually accomplished. What complicates the negotiations is competition between the U.S., China, Europe and other countries, characterized by what Karl Marx called “the most fundamental right under the law of capital…the equal exploitation of labor-power by all capitalists.” In keeping with this right, climate agreements lack any kind of enforcement mechanism. In contrast, trade agreements contain draconian enforcement tools, some of which are being used right now by energy companies to stop governments from restricting oil drilling. Repealing that sacred right was, of course, not even suggested at COP26.
The last-minute change to the Glasgow Climate Pact, rammed through by India and China, got a lot of press—changing the aspiration of a coal “phaseout” to “phase-down”—but that press attention gave short shrift to the larger problem: that what was missing from the Glasgow pact, the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, and in fact everything from the UN climate process, was a complete, rapid elimination of fossil fuel production and use, and the global construction of the infrastructure and other conditions needed to make that feasible without turning numerous countries into sacrifice zones.
Instead, nation-states and corporations have showered the world with lies. While the summit was underway, the Washington Post reported “a giant gap between what nations declare their emissions to be vs. the greenhouse gases they are sending into the atmosphere,” amounting to billions of tons a year, plus huge exaggerations of how much carbon dioxide trees are absorbing.
The biggest accomplishment of COP26 was the opposite of helpful: detailing rules for a global carbon offset market, oriented toward expansion of profits based on false solutions, some of which cause harm, while benefits of others are exaggerated. Countries take credit for “solutions” like burning wood pellets for energy and claiming it as “carbon-neutral.” In Robeson County, North Carolina, a predominantly Black and Indigenous population is suffering from the pollution of a factory turning trees into these pellets, which are sent to the UK to be burned, with the process subsidized by both countries’ governments.
The European Union proposes to add nuclear power and natural gas to its list of allowed “sustainable investments.” Indonesia proposes to redefine palm-oil-driven deforestation as reforestation.
In fact, as soon as COP26 was over, the Biden administration promptly held a record-setting auction of leases for 308 oil and gas drilling tracts in the Gulf of Mexico. China ramped up coal production on the eve of the summit. The UK backtracked from plans to phase out natural gas home heating. Germany, even with the Greens now in a coalition government, undercut its goal to eliminate coal by weasel-wording it to: the phase-out will happen “ideally” by 2030.
Watching what they do, not what they say, we can see that the world is headed for two and a half to three times as much global heating as we have already had, which would be far more than three times as disastrous as the 1.1°C warmup we are already suffering under. Emissions keep rising, and so does the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. U.S. emissions from energy and industry rose 6.2% last year.
WHAT PATHS OF DEVELOPMENT?
The summit’s biggest issue of all, loss and damage, was unresolved at the summit. Essentially, the countries suffering most from climate change, which in general contributed the least to it, want reparations, which the imperialist countries refuse to discuss. Instead, they grant miserly aid, mostly loans to already debt-saddled nations and repackaging of existing aid, and most of it is geared toward profit-making projects for multinationals. In place of reparations, the term “loss and damage” was invented, so that the poorer countries could beg for help surviving the mounting destruction of climate change. Even that, however, is still up in the air.
The African revolutions of the mid-20th Century posed a non-capitalist path of development, but that was undermined by neocolonialism from without and, at the same time, the separation between masses and leaders weighed down by lack of technology and capital, who turned to one of the two poles of world capital and ended up treating the masses as mere labor power.
Just at the moment when creative new actions and thinking are raising the possibility of alternative, anti-capitalist paths of development, the powers that be are working hard to reduce that too to a mere “energy transition.” Consequently, they would limit aid to grants and loans from states, state-controlled multilateral lenders and private banks, and head off solidarity from below.
The masses of the previously colonized countries are portrayed as a threat to jobs and borders, rather than the ones with whom the masses of the industrialized countries could join together to create a totally new way of life, determined by freely associated human beings—in which, as Marx put it, wealth exists to satisfy human beings, as opposed to the worker existing to satisfy the need of existing values to increase themselves.
The overall approach of keeping control in the hands of capital, at a time when militant movements are challenging it and demanding much more radical action, is part of the impetus for the global trend of attacks on democracy and criminalization of social movements. That fact makes all the more unrealistic the capitulationist attitude of so many anti-capitalist theoreticians and activists whose thought is depressed by the urgency of the climate crisis and the ascendancy of counter-revolution, so that multiple ones—from Noam Chomsky to Andreas Malm—say there is no time to overthrow capitalism, so we have to work within it. This leads to appeals to use democratic institutions at the very moment that they are being drained of democracy, and they have already proved completely incapable of any serious action with regard to climate other than ramping up militarism, closing borders, letting climate migrants die in the Sonoran Desert or the Mediterranean Sea.
Giving up on revolution means capitulating to capital’s control.
The only practical approach is a revolutionary one that is part of the struggles from below and raises the banner of a new society where the human relationship with nature and technology is not determined by capital but by freely associated human beings.
. See “The African Revolutions and the World Economy,” chapter 7 of Philosophy and Revolution by Raya Dunayevskaya.
. Chomsky: “The time required for succeeding at such efforts is simply too great for addressing this crisis. That means we need to solve this within the framework of existing institutions, which can be ameliorated” (“Noam Chomsky: ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way,’” Jacobin, Oct. 27, 2021). Malm: “No dual power of the democratic organs of the proletariat seems likely to materialise anytime soon, if ever. Waiting for it would be both delusional and criminal, and so all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always” (Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, Verso, 2020).