From the May-June 2023 issue of News & Letters
IV. The climate emergency and the need to transform reality
As much as Putin might have welcomed Xi Jinping’s March visit to Moscow to buttress a facade of international support for his war, their meeting was light on substance. It marked no advance in coordinated action from a decade earlier, when Russia and China together would veto UN Security Council sanctions on the Syrian regime for bloody, unbridled suppression of protests.
CHINA DISAPPOINTS PUTIN
Putin got nothing on the two points most vital to him: a public announcement of military cooperation, and agreements on increased energy sales to China. If China does supply lethal weapons secretly to shore up Russian invaders bogged down in Ukraine, the need to channel them by circuitous routes like through North Korea with the aim of evading international sanctions sharply limits what Putin can hope for.
Xi rejected a commitment to a new gas pipeline from Siberia that Putin had proposed, choosing to expand China’s existing purchases from Turkmenistan instead. He is content to purchase oil and gas from Russia at going-out-of-business-sale prices. Shipping costs beyond what Russia incurred to European customers and now denominating sales in the yuan, which China can manipulate, threatens revenue not even meeting the cost of production.
BIG OIL GROWS RICH OFF OF WAR
However, not only does Russian oil and gas continue to flow, the big oil companies from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East are rolling in profits swollen by the war. Corporations and states give lip service to the climate crisis while opening up new oil and gas fields, coal mines, import and export facilities, pipelines, refineries and plastics factories. Europe and the U.S. conspired to ramp up liquefied natural gas production and export using the war and “energy security” as an excuse, though they are trying to lock in decades of future gas use.
The oil, gas, and coal industries—fossil capital—have long been implicated in support of fascist politics, including in the U.S. Republican Party. Their campaign of climate denial and attacks on climate justice movements gave impetus to the fascistic conspiracy theories that dominate discourse in a major section of U.S. politics. And yet the “normal,” “democratic” capitalist politicians also bow down to the power of fossil capital, despite pro-environmental rhetoric.
Capitalism is the basis for the contradictory policies in all the big economies that try to reduce emissions while at the same time blithely proceeding with more fossil fuel projects and ecosystem destruction. That contradiction is one of the main drivers of the growing militancy of climate movements.
The oil companies and allied capitalists and politicians admit the need for a transformation of economies in the face of the climate emergency, but have managed to frame it as an energy transition. That is a political and ideological victory narrowing the transformation down to a technological-centered change. This is combined with a concerted propaganda campaign to convince people that we need oil and gas now and forever.
BIDEN IS PART OF THE PROBLEM
Joe Biden plays his part. His State of the Union this year boasted that he took on Big Oil, but he only meant that he begged them to produce more climate-disrupting oil because of the price rise caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine. That is exactly the message they want him to repeat. He mentioned that he told them:
“‘We’re going to need oil for at least another decade.’ And that’s going to exceed—and beyond that—we’re going to need it. Production. If they had in fact invested in the production to keep gas prices down—instead, they used the record profits to buy back their own stock, rewarding their C.E.O.s and shareholders. Corporations ought to do the right thing.”
So no one should be surprised that his administration approved the huge Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope, which environmentalists call a carbon bomb and the frontline community of Alaska Natives strongly opposes. ConocoPhillips used what the environmental justice movement calls environmental blackmail to gain the support of Democratic and Republican politicians in the state. They include the first Alaska Native to represent the state in Congress, the Democrat Mary Peltola, as well as many Native political bodies, so that the company could claim to be doing what the Indigenous people want and label the opponents as outside green agitators.
Two powerful letters from leaders in the frontline community of Nuiqsut near the Willow project detailed the harms to their community and environment—in particular health risks to people and disruption of traditional subsistence hunting—and how people are silenced and pressured. They demonstrated how the government’s whole “consultation” and decision-making process was biased from the start toward approving the project and sidelining dissenting voices.
The bankruptcy of capitalist approaches to the climate crisis is seen in the selection of the United Arab Emirates, whose economy and politics are dominated by oil and gas exports, as the host of this year’s COP28 climate summit, whose president is Sultan Al Jaber, head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).
This august position did not deter ADNOC from pursuing a climate-busting expansion of oil and gas production far beyond what even the traditionally oil-friendly and conservative International Energy Agency says would be compatible with limiting the risk of catastrophe.
Echoing the Biden administration’s claims of promoting “responsible” oil production, ADNOC lied: “ADNOC will remain a responsible and reliable supplier of energy, laser-focused on reducing the carbon intensity of every barrel it produces and continue to contribute to global emissions’ reduction through its expansion into new energies.” It seems that every lucrative project is the “most responsible” way to race to the apocalypse without so much as tapping the brakes.
POLLUTING OIL SOLD AS ‘DEVELOPMENT’
The same kind of manipulation is at play in Africa, where projects like the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) in Uganda and Tanzania is sold as “development” helping the poor. But activists point out that such projects produce supplies exported to the rich imperialist countries and give nothing to the people but environmental destruction. Young Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate declared, “There is no future in the fossil fuel industry and we cannot drink oil.” Meanwhile nine student activists are awaiting trial in Uganda for a peaceful march against EACOP.
Thus the transition, as it is being designed, is a nontransformational transformation that will solve nothing—and climate militancy continues. Environmental defenders are harassed, arrested, labeled terrorists, sometimes violently attacked, even killed.
Precisely because this nontransformation is so obviously incapable of solving society’s fundamental problems, it leaves the door wide open for new flavors of fascism to falsely pose as the “revolutionary” solution—especially when so much of the Left fails to raise a truly liberatory banner of a society on new human foundations.
. As Robert Bullard wrote: “The promise of jobs (even low-paying and hazardous ones) and of a broadened tax base has enticed several economically impoverished, politically powerless communities of color both in the United States and around the world. Environmental job blackmail is a fact of life. You can get a job, but only if you are willing to do work that will harm you, your families, and your neighbors.” (From “Anatomy of Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement” in Confronting Environmental Racism, edited by Robert D. Bullard (South End Press, 1993), p. 23.)
. See “Police murder of Tyre Nichols puts U.S. civilization on trial yet again” on the killing of Tortuguita (March-April 2023 N&L), and see “Strikes and rage at murders in Amazon” (July-Aug. 2022 N&L) and “Maasai evictions” (Sept.-Oct. 2022 N&L).