by Franklin Dmitryev
The climate crisis hit so hard in 2023 that the “2023 state of the climate report” by 12 scientists began, “Life on planet Earth is under siege. We are now in an uncharted territory.” It was a year of broken climate records, often broken by leaps, including what was thought to be the hottest day in 100,000 years (by global average surface temperature). Hundreds of high temperature records were broken, including sea surface temperatures.
Climate disasters were too numerous to list here, such as the tropical cyclone Freddy that lasted over a month and repeatedly bashed Mozambique, the deadly fire in Hawaii, extensive flooding in China, and the wildfires that burned three times as many acres in Canada as in any previous year, sending toxic smoke through Canada to the U.S. and Europe.
One quarter of the world’s population lived under drought in the last two years. The world food crisis continues. Climate disruption interacts with economic disruption and armed conflicts, with the world’s worst acute hunger crisis in Gaza. And millions of people are driven out of their homes by flooding.
As the climate emergency rolls on, scientists have released even more alarming reports, warnings, and commentaries, and some have turned to protest and direct action with a message of urgency. Some 70 scientists and scholars issued an open letter in support of climate activists.
MOVEMENTS DEMAND: HALT FOSSIL FUELS AND DEFORESTATION
Scientists and climate movements have highlighted the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels entirely, as well as stopping destruction of forests and other vital ecosystems. That in turn requires far more than building up renewable energy, which politicians often pretend will solve the problem by itself. It requires what the official UN climate scientist body calls “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” including the physical infrastructure, buildings, materials, and transportation and energy systems, but also farming and fishing, how and where people work, the social relations that determine what we can consume and how, and a halt to wasting resources on militarism, the cancerous prison-industrial complex, marketing, cryptocurrency, and luxuries of the 0.1% such as private jets, superyachts and space tourism.
Or, as Greta Thunberg and seven other teenage girls put it in their manifesto for the first global climate strike back in 2019, when we had five more years to work on it, “We need to change the system if we are to try to act on the climate crisis….The kind of changes that need to happen mean everyone recognizing that this is a crisis and committing to radical transformations. We strongly believe that we can fight off the most damaging effects of climate change—but we have to act now.”
Climate movements and some scientists also pointed to the need for the rich countries—which have profited from colonial exploitation unseparated from exploiting fossil fuels and thereby filling the atmosphere with climate-heating greenhouse gases—to aid the “developing” countries in a rapid transition from fossil to renewable energy such as solar and wind, and also in adapting to the effects of the already changed climate and recovering from the damage it causes. Countries like the U.S. want to give dribs and drabs of aid in the form of charity, or more often profitable loans, and reject any idea of reparations, which would commit them to much greater aid than they are willing to part with.
Climate justice movements have not yet returned to the peak of mass action attained in the global climate strikes of September and December 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic undercut such actions. However, they continue to attract new participants, young and old, in many countries across the world, with growing militance. Their thinking is seldom reflected in media reports, but close to half of youth climate groups in a survey identify capitalism/colonialism as the root cause of climate and ecological breakdown. Young activists are overwhelmingly aware that poor countries and poor and working-class people within countries suffer the most from the crisis while the rich and powerful bear the lion’s share of responsibility, and they make addressing it a principle of their actions and demands.
The same is true of Indigenous peoples’ movements, and it is true of small island nations at risk of being decimated by rising sea levels.
CAPITALISM’S WAR AGAINST HUMANITY AND NATURE
These movements find themselves in a war that they did not start. On the opposite side are the capitalists in the fossil fuel industries and interdependent businesses, and the nation-states that they dominate. These are the enemies of humanity and its future, who have time and again lied to people and obstructed effective climate action. The top priority is always production and more production, to keep the process of capital accumulation going, and the emissions of greenhouse gases keep rising along with that motion. And they are the ones who control the UN climate process, including its annual summits called conferences of the parties, or COPs.
So it was fitting that an oil company executive, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, headed COP28 in the petrostate United Arab Emirates. After it ended on Dec. 13, some politicians and media hailed its unprecedented achievement of finally getting the phrase “fossil fuels” into the final agreement.
During the conference, the head of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) warned member countries with “utmost urgency” to reject “any text or formula that targets energy, i.e., fossil fuels.” OPEC countries, joined by China, India, and others, succeeded in watering down calls for a “fossil fuels phase out” that came from more than 130 countries and many climate justice and other groups.
COP28 REJECTS FOSSIL PHASEOUT
Instead, the final agreement “calls on Parties to contribute…in a nationally determined manner [to]…
“(b) Accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power;…
“(d) Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science;”…
Not only did this compromise substitute the vague “transitioning away” for “phasing out,” it limited “fossil fuels” to “in energy systems,” which excludes plastics, petrochemicals, agriculture, and, arguably, transportation systems. Even coal power is not phased out, but rather “down,” and only if it is “unabated,” which is undefined. If 10% of its emissions are captured, that could be called “abated.”
The agreement even “Recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security,” which is widely understood to refer to methane gas, which is 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide at heating the planet. Gas was once called a “bridge fuel,” but it is a bridge to hell, since it leaks from the wells, pipelines, ships carrying liquefied natural gas, and the homes and businesses where it is burned. The only reason to use it now instead of solar or wind power is to boost the profits of the oil and gas companies.
ISLAND NATIONS BYPASSED
Days into COP28, when a draft first dropped the call to phase out fossil fuels, Cedric Schuster of Samoa, the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), said: “We will not sign our death certificate.” In the end, al-Jaber gaveled consensus on the final draft, to a standing ovation, just before the 39 AOSIS countries returned to the room.
Samoa’s lead delegate Anne Rasmussen, representing AOSIS, then delivered a statement intended to be heard before the decision. “We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step-change in our actions and support,” she said, and she warned about “a litany of loopholes.” Another standing ovation met her remarks, but the “consensus” decision was left unchanged. As always, the intergovernmental process is dominated by the most powerful countries’ governments.
COP28 fans waved away the emptiness of the vague and unenforceable promise to “transition away” from fossil fuels in energy systems. They hailed the “signal” sent by finally enshrining the words “fossil fuels” in an agreement, 28 years after the first COP.
COP28 SIGNAL THRILLS OIL COMPANIES
What kind of signal was sent can be measured by the welcome the agreement received from major oil companies. “Dictating things has been buried,” sneered Saudi Oil Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman.
Big oil companies all carried on their plans to increase oil and gas production, regardless of planetary boundaries being crossed, while abandoning some of their renewable energy projects. They showered record amounts of money on their shareholders to celebrate. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, launched an eight-figure ad campaign to promote global dependency on fossil fuels, since their biggest fear is losing what they call their “social license,” that is, acceptance by society at large of the legitimacy of their functioning, which is already dropping.
Al-Jaber proclaimed that his oil company would continue its record investment in oil and gas. The U.S., Canada and the UK merrily proceeded with plans to expand production well beyond the carbon budget required for the 1.5-degree goal written into the COP28 text. And oil companies continued to push the criminalization of climate activists in multiple countries.
The other main achievements of COP28 included:
- Setting up the “loss and damage” fund to help poor countries recover from harms from the climate crisis. This fund was put in the hands of the U.S.-dominated World Bank, and about 2% of what is needed was pledged—some of that is not even new money. Will the funding continue to be mainly loans that countries are hard-pressed to pay back, so that debt service eats up their social service budgets? This is the substitute for reparations from the countries most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry assured Congress that the U.S. would “under no circumstances” pay reparations. The U.S. made sure that the 2015 Paris Agreement stipulated that it “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”
- A framework for funding adaptation to climate change was agreed but the funding itself is lacking.
- Food was on the agenda for the first time, but it failed to address the main agricultural sources of climate-changing emissions: industrial livestock farming and chemical fertilizers. Similarly, the massive carbon emissions from ocean bottom trawling escaped attention.
Without the mass pressure from climate justice movements and the alarms raised for decades by scientists, we would not have seen even the baby steps that have been achieved in the UN process and by national and local governments.
THREATS FROM WAR AND THE FAR RIGHT
What none dared mention is the fragility of the COP28 decisions and its signal, in the face of an election year when the far right threatens to make major strides in numerous countries in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Seeing victory within reach, Donald Trump plans an all-out attack on climate science eclipsing even his vicious first term. The far right looms also in the European Union, and as everywhere it plans to stop and reverse any kind of serious climate action. The center-right and center-left are already, like Biden, walking back their climate commitments as they cower before the surging far right.
The other huge threat the UN process is structurally unable to confront is war. Russia’s war on Ukraine caused a major upheaval in energy markets, in some cases speeding up adoption of renewable energy. But at the same time it served as the excuse for locking in fossil fuel infrastructure such as liquefied natural gas terminals in the name of fictional “energy independence.” Ineffective in the near term, they promise to extend the lease on life and “social license” of the fossil fuel industry.
The greenhouse gas emissions due to Israel’s war on Gaza are immense, exceeding in its first two months “the annual carbon footprint of more than 20 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations.” That is, of course, eclipsed by the immediate human toll of devastation on the millions of people living or dying in Gaza, amid starvation, epidemics, and destruction of homes, hospitals, bakeries, schools—the very fabric of society. And the war is spreading. Like most countries, Israel neither reports the emissions caused by its military, nor counts them in its official accounting under the UN process, but the world’s militaries cause over 5% of total emissions, exceeding the emissions of all but three countries.
THE NEEDED, AND POSSIBLE, TRANSFORMATION
What is needed is the kind of transformation demanded by climate movements and backed up by scientific analysis, beginning with the rapid phaseout of fossil fuels. The actions needed are still possible and are technically and financially feasible. What blocks them is above all the capitalist system that grants great power to vested interests that dominate politics and exploit the system’s intrinsic ideology, which flows from the alienation inherent in capitalism, in which the machine and the economy are masters of humanity and not the other way around.
Fighting that requires a movement from below, armed with a philosophy to fight that ideology. Time and again we have seen politicians, administrators, billionaires or corporations impose “solutions” from above that turn into their opposite to become part of the problem. And they often create backlash because the solutions are fashioned as burdens on the backs of working people, like the tax that sparked the yellow vest movement in France. Their ideology measures “development” by the accumulation of capital. They pose science and technology as the answer—and these can help, when the masses of humanity take control over their advancement, direction, and use, but they are not the answer. Unfortunately, these ideas have a pull on parts of the movement and on theoreticians associated with it.
Marxist-Humanism argues that the path forward must be built on the movement from practice and its reason, and must pose the liberation of working people from capitalist exploitation and the release of full human development as the way to break the anti-environmental direction of modern society. A totally new relationship of theory and practice is needed, which starts with listening to workers and climate movements—as well as those most affected by the climate crisis, including women and people of color—as thinking and acting subjects of revolt, unseparated from a vision of liberation and climate justice that grasps human development as the absolute opposite of the inhuman law of motion of capitalist accumulation.
There are two worlds of rulers and ruled in every country, and the oil companies and the governments, police, and militaries that support them are part of the class war against most people. What is needed is to defeat this enemy, not to beg it to do the right thing, but to remove its power, for the masses to take control of everything it owns and controls, as part of a revolutionary transformation. Nothing less will succeed, although fighting for partial reforms is worthwhile, since every fraction of a degree of global warming greatly increases the damage to humanity.
That is the kernel of why the state-centered, oil-soaked process of the UNFCCC and its COPs is bound to divert humanity from real and adequate solutions. The fact is that, despite the heating and destruction that is baked in from emissions already made, it is still not too late to make a huge difference, to pull away from total catastrophe. That would require overturning existing class relations and turning society in a new human direction. That process would improve the lives of the vast majority of humanity in a number of ways.
The climate crisis is not separate from all the other deep crises and the movements they are spurring. A time of crisis opens the door to a revolutionary transformation of society. We—humanity, the masses and their freedom movements—have to drag society through that door. And the ideas that move us—raised to the level of a philosophy of revolution that can act as a pole of attraction—if fused with these movements, are what can give us hope that we can eliminate fossil fuels and all the other millstones hanging around the neck of humanity. But more than that, the fusion of philosophy and revolution is needed to find our way to a transformation that achieves climate goals while creating a world with new human relations and better ways of life.