Masses vs. capitalism: Climate chaos hangs in the balance

September 28, 2018

From the September-October 2018 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

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

  • Wildfires in Australia in winter and 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.

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. 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.


Rise for Climate march Sept. 8 to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., led by Puyallup tribal members, calling for climate justice, no liquid natural gas terminal in Tacoma, no jailing immigrants here, abolish ICE, honor treaty rights, and end violence against Indigenous women. Photo: 350 Seattle (click on photo for original)

In fact, multifaceted movements have sprung up across the world struggling to make that happen. On Sept. 8, “Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice” protests were held in 800 cities around the world. In San Francisco, 30,000 marched, opening a week of protests and a blockade confronting the Sept. 12-14 “Global Climate Action Summit” in that city, demanding more serious action from the governors, other politicians and business leaders attending the summit. (See “30,000 march in S.F.”)

Their demands for a quick end to fossil fuel extraction and use and their opposition to President Donald Trump’s toxic agenda were not separated from protests against the housing crisis—which is dire in the San Francisco area—poverty wages, the criminal injustice system and attacks on immigrants.

Climate justice actions are not limited to protests. Most dramatically, thousands of water protectors gathered in 2016 and 2017 at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline. Their struggle energized 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 how race, class, and gender are involved. 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. This has spurred the new Poor Peoples Campaign to explicitly take on the struggle against pollution and climate change as part of its key goals.

Science has clearly established that 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 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 waiting for the future. It is already happening. 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. 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 tiny fraction of that number of refugees, what semblance of civilization 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.

In August, the New York Times Magazine ran an article the size of a small book called “Losing Earth,” narrating developments from 1979 to 1989 around efforts by environmentalists, scientists, and politicians to tackle climate change. It ends with the U.S. government sabotaging any kind of action at a conference that had been meant to issue a binding international treaty.


Members of Zero Hour in the Sept. 8 Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice march in San Francisco. Photo: Zero Hour (click on photo for original)

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—whether called neoliberalism, globalization, or Reaganism—was not some contingent political choice. It was 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.

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 did not allow a binding international treaty that would limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The pattern has continued ever since, from the 1992 Earth Summit, through the 1997 Kyoto Summit and the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, to the 2015 Paris Agreement. At each one, key corporations and governments, with the U.S. at their head, downplayed information about a looming catastrophe and blocked any binding action as greenhouse gas emissions keep climbing.

Today, with disastrous consequences of climate change making themselves felt, both scientists and movements are pointing to the need for 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 tar sands oil pipeline to protect it from challenges by Indigenous Canadian peoples and environmental activists.
  • 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 this year warned that climate change is a “current and existential national security risk.” 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 opposes restrictions on coal.
  • The Obama administration took a totally inadequate step or two, but the Trump administration has reversed all of that and more. Trump presides over destruction of as many environmental, health, and safety regulations as he can, has been opening previously protected areas to oil drilling and other industrial extractive processes, and 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 got involved in 1980 in writing the official reports on global warming. Oreskes shows roots of climate denial in the 1970s, going back to a core of ideologically motivated pro-capitalist scientists pimping themselves out first to the tobacco industry and later to the fossil fuel industries.

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 to 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 since the 1960s had sought to transform the political discourse away from technocratic policy discussions and toward openly ideological and emotional arguments. They incorporated the science of manipulation that had been 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 inculcation of artificial identities centered on consumer choices and cultural and political dogmas, as well as race, sex and nationality.

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 in capitalism the machine is master of humanity and not the other way around.

Merging climate denial into right-wing identities was useful 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.

Climate scientists were outmatched by the science of manipulation. Natural scientists are generally steeped in an implicit Enlightenment philosophy, where the discovery and announcement of truth by rational (scientific) methods leads to the spreading of truth 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. Seldom do they grasp the influence 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 by the Breakthrough Institute in August called “What Lies Beneath: The Scientific Understatement of Climate Risks,” by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop. It warns:

“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….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.”

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, and that climate scientists gravitate to “an idealised picture of scientific rationality” and even self-censor research.

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 unthinkable to most economists, politicians and business leaders.

We have seen supposedly “unthinkable” climate-linked disasters again and again, from the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina 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 catastrophic risk of climate chaos helps deter people from thinking 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.”


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. Over the last 40 years capitalism has again and again shown itself incapable of adequately, or even rationally, confronting climate change.

The “no alternative” ideology can trap even some who intend to reject it, 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 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 touts “countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition—like Denmark, Sweden, and Uruguay” and “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…are rejecting the neoliberal centrism of the establishment Democratic Party [and] 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.”[1]

Capitalism’s abject failure to confront climate change makes urgent the sense that another world is possible. A world where workers’ control of production halts the built-in destructive direction of capitalism—and overthrows its seemingly unbreakable law of value—can in fact be built by transformative movements from below. Now we see 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] Naomi Klein, “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not ‘Human Nature,’” The Intercept, Aug. 3.

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