Paris climate accord vs. humanity’s future

December 19, 2015

The Paris Accord on climate change, trumpeted as “historic,” reveals the limits of what the global capitalist order is prepared to do even in the face of incipient catastrophe. It was universally agreed at the Paris summit that the plans included in the agreement were nowhere near sufficient to avoid devastating effects, and that the terrible results of climate change have already begun, such as in the movement of millions of people displaced from their homes. And yet the nation-state leaders congratulated themselves for reaching an agreement in which even these insufficient national plans are not legally binding!

The French government attempted to ban climate justice demonstrations in Paris, and even put environmental activists under house arrest on the eve of the summit, belying the use of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks as an excuse for banning protests. This symbolizes the rulers’ drive to keep the power to decide humanity’s future out of the hands of the masses, the only ones who can halt the suicidal rush to climate chaos. The oft-heard excuse of “political realities” to explain the rulers’ exclusion from the summit of anything that would amount to serious change shows bluntly how the ideological pollution of “there is no alternative to capitalism” has morphed into “there is no alternative to climate catastrophe.”


Protests still erupted both inside and outside the official conference space. They included Indigenous people from all over the world, people from poor African countries, women, farmers, and even a Black Lives Matter protest organized by people from the U.S. Many protesters reiterated the slogan from the 2009 Copenhagen summit protests: System change, not climate change!

The emptiness of the summit’s achievements stands in stark contrast to the upsurge of voices questioning the UN process, the capitalist system, the whole notion of development involved—though the notion of development was, in the official negotiations, watered down into the diplomatic language of “combined but differentiated responsibilities” for “developed” and “developing” countries. Together, the summit and the protests show the todayness of Karl Marx’s exploration of the relationship between industrialized and non-capitalist countries as part of his whole theory of human development.

Consider the most touted purported achievements of the Paris Accord. First, it lays out the aim of keeping temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees” Celsius compared to before the industrial revolution, and even “efforts” to keep it below 1.5 degrees. That aim is not legally binding, at the insistence of the Obama administration, because that would give the Senate a chance to veto the agreement, and it would certainly do so. So the basic structure of the agreement is limited by the partial veto power that the fossil fuel industry has over the U.S. government, as it does in several other countries from Russia to Saudi Arabia.

That weightless aim is contradicted by the agreement’s lack of emissions reduction targets, of any reference to a carbon budget, or of any commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In many cases, the pledges submitted by nations before the summit actually project large increases in emissions, marketed as reductions by deceptive comparisons; while in other cases, such as the U.S., the projected reductions amount to about 1% a year. If all the pledges were actually carried out, which would be unprecedented, it would not be enough to keep warming below 3 degrees, and would risk far worse. And of course if a Republican is elected President in 2016 he would probably repudiate the agreement altogether.


Moreover, the earthy reality is that, at the very same time, key players are promoting fossil fuel extraction. The U.S. is pushing coal and oil exports, lifting the crude oil export ban, and trying to revive fracking and expand Arctic and other offshore drilling. The UK passed a law this year requiring itself to “maximize economic recovery” of its oil and gas industry. China is building coal plants across the world. While scientists have warned that, starting immediately, most coal and much of the oil and gas must stay in the ground just to keep to the 2-degree target, coal plants designed to last decades are still being built in many countries. Meanwhile, climate change accords are trumped by trade agreements with provisions allowing companies to sue governments that regulate or restrict fossil fuel production, import, and consumption. The highest law in the capitalist system is production for production’s sake, enforced by the imperatives of competitiveness and growth, always under the shadow of the next recession.

All this makes clear that the commitment to return to negotiations every five years is not such a great achievement but too little, too late. Emissions need to be reduced rapidly beginning now, not in 2020.

Instead the accord includes references to removal of carbon from the atmosphere, also known as “negative emissions,” which some scientists have pointed out are fantasies based on technologies that don’t exist. It opens the door to geoengineering, that is, vast, dangerous experiments with earth systems, such as spraying huge amounts of sulfur dioxide in the high atmosphere to reflect sunlight, with unknowable consequences for regional climates that could include exacerbating droughts due to global warming, and even the failure of the monsoons of India and West Africa.

Many provisions would never have been recognized even as aims and principles without the agitation of small island states facing inundation by rising sea levels, together with the intensifying immediate impact of climate change on people’s lives, and together with movements like that of students calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies, the anti-fracking movement, and local struggles by Indigenous and other people against specific tar sands, oil, coal, and gas extraction and transportation projects. These struggles are also responsible for the Obama administration’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which, under the leadership of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it had previously maneuvered to approve. These movements are the reason Obama decided to make action on climate change one of the top goals of his second administration. And it is because of these movements that the following items are included in the Accord (quoted from the final text):

  • “equitable access to sustainable development and eradication of poverty”
  • “safeguarding…vulnerabilities of food production systems”
  • “just transition of the workforce” (meaning making sure workers in industries impacted by the transition away from fossil fuels should not be thrown into unemployment or underemployment)
  • “obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”
  • “the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice'”

However, these words are only in the preamble, which is not binding.

Finally, what has been praised as “historic” is that all 195 signing countries agree to reduce emissions, not only the rich, industrialized countries that were assigned obligations in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Accord expresses this as “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” This is bolstered by a yearly $100 billion fund to aid the poorer countries in taking actions to reduce emissions and adapt to a warming world. However, that amount is nowhere near enough and is not binding, and the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress will likely try to defund or otherwise neutralize this and other aspects of the Accord. And it is less than it seems, since what is specified is “mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds,” meaning that much of it may be in the form of loans and arrangements with private companies. As Jonathan Katz, a journalist who extensively covered relief projects in Haiti, wrote in The New Republic:

“…powerful countries rarely simply hand money to foreign governments or people. Instead, we pay ourselves to do projects, then evaluate them ourselves, with little meaningful participation from the people we nominally try to help. Oxfam has said that 85% of the U.S. ‘foreign aid’ budget actually goes to U.S. government contractors and U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations—despite the fact that study after study shows it’s more effective to support other governments’ budgets or better yet (surprise!) just give people money.”

Funding developing countries to adopt an economy based on renewable energy and adapt to climate change, according to some scientists, would need to be ten times what is suggested in the Accord. Even that amount is far less than the $5.3 trillion that governments annually spend worldwide subsidizing fossil fuel, and less than the murky amount spent on armaments and militaries. It is dwarfed by the estimated $14 trillion spent to bail out banks in the 2008 crisis.


Hand in hand with the vague promise of funding goes the disclaimer that “the Agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”—in case any countries get the idea that they have a right to compensation just because the most powerful countries emitted the vast majority of greenhouse gases and reaped the vast majority of the benefits while these poor countries are expected to suffer most.

But there is more to the issue than what can be put into terms of equity. The principle of “combined but differentiated responsibility” was enshrined in the first climate change treaty reached at the 1992 Earth Summit. It recognized that all countries have a right to development, and that poverty should be eliminated for all the world’s people. But “sustainable development” was immediately confined within the framework of capitalist development, which is the essential contradiction that makes the UN climate change process self-defeating.

The fundamental question is what kind of development can people in both industrialized, semi-industrialized, and non-industrialized countries achieve? It has been clear for years that if China, India, and the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were to follow the same path of industrialization as did Europe and the U.S., the carbon emissions alone, not to mention other environmental burdens, would be enough to guarantee climate catastrophe. But an argument between ruling classes of various countries took shape that posed an either/or between just such a path of capitalist development or continued marginalization and poverty. Climate negotiations have been stuck within that either/or. Humanity cannot afford to allow its thinking and imagination to be trapped within those narrow limits.

Thus, Marx’s study of human development in his last decade, including his grappling with the question of whether non-capitalist countries had to go through the vicissitudes of capitalism in order to develop to socialism, takes on a new importance with aspects he neverforesaw.[1]

A future allowing dignity for all without poverty must be based on sufficient abundance to meet the material needs of the whole population and at the same time based on relationships in labor, in consumption, in culture, in society at large that have transcended the alienation characteristic of relations in this society; where self-development and self-activity are the primary needs and experiences of the individuals who make up the society. The goal remains what Marx envisioned in his Critique of the Gotha Program:

“…after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

This is central to today’s problems, because it is the only real alternative to letting society be driven down a path to its own destruction by the inherent law of motion of capitalist production.


Technology is very important for achieving the kind of abundance needed, without destroying the environmental basis of civilization. In fact, the technology we need for that purpose largely exists—one question is why it has not been deployed. Answering that question requires recognition that we live in a state-capitalist age when technological development and deployment are both very much shaped by the drive of fossil-fuel-dependent industries for profits and their influence on the state, and also by competition—both economic and military—between the various nation-states. However, it is even more important to reject the usual picture of sustainable development as revolving around technology alone.

Our vision of the future must have at its center the need to transcend the alienated character of this society. Marx clarified that alienation in his writings: with capitalism the object (dead labor in the form of capital) dominates the subject (the living human being, in particular the worker). This dialectical inversion, which is a form of alienation inherent in capitalism’s law of value, sets the direction of our society. That direction has proved itself to be suicidal. To establish a new, opposite direction, we must overcome the alienation and achieve real self-determination that allows people to control the direction of the economy, rather than the economy’s autonomous motion determining the direction of our lives.

It is crucial for real human development to displace capitalist development. Growth for growth’s sake demands ever greater energy production; and while replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is necessary, vital, and urgent, no energy source is completely harmless. Even solar and wind require mining of rare metals, concrete and steel infrastructure, and space, so that endless growth is impossible. The design of urban and rural civilization needs to be freed from capitalism so as to focus on human needs instead of the needs of the car, oil, and construction industries. Food production and distribution needs to be freed from capitalism, whose industries seek ever greater growth of food consumption, factory farming, chemical inputs, instead of what is needed for human health and happiness. We need a society where alienation does not make people vulnerable to marketing of useless, wasteful, and harmful products.

Even where developing countries are drawn into the business of carbon offsets, it takes place within the framework of capitalist “sustainable development.” The Paris Accord envisions expansion of markets in greenhouse gas emission allowances and in emissions reduction credits, which tend to extend the commodification of nature with harmful side effects. Cases in point are joint ventures of corporations, states, and NGOs in “debt for nature” swaps, which expel Indigenous people and peasants from ecosystems that they have long managed sustainably, often replacing them with tree plantations or ecotourism operations, both of which increase carbon emissions.


So today it is not a question of whether the “less developed” countries must go down the path of capitalist industrialization. They must not, and the “developed” countries must jump off that path. But so long as the vision of an alternative, liberatory path of development is not made concrete as the energizing principle of a movement, a vacuum is left for false alternatives—including, in extreme, the ISIS-style response to “modernity.”

Just as Marx decided that the peasant commune of his day could be a regenerating element for the future, but only with a revolution, today an important part of facing the climate problem and the needs of development does involve defending and learning from Indigenous forms of sustainable interaction with nature. We can’t just copy traditional Indigenous forms and ignore their dualities like stereotyped sex roles and social hierarchies, yet these forms and Indigenous peoples as Subjects of revolution have a role to play in resisting capitalism and working out a revolutionary alternative.

One vital thing to take from Marx is his multilinear view of human development—meaning there are no fixed stages or paths of development, that different countries may develop in quite different ways. His concept included a critical view of the Man/Woman relationship. Raya Dunayevskaya stresses the dialectical nature of his way of following the empirical facts and relating transitions to revolutionary upsurges both past and projected, where “the determining concrete was the ever-developing Subject—self-developing men and women.”

It’s important to take this deeper than multilinearity per se. To Dunayevskaya, Marx’s late writings provide a new view of the totality of his work that enabled her to make a category of his whole body of ideas as a philosophy of permanent revolution. This involves the depth of the needed uprooting of class society and the breadth of the forces of revolution as part of the vision of “continuous revolution in transition to a classless society….How total, continuous, global must the concept of revolution be now?”

But that view of Marx’s totality, of Marx’s philosophy of permanent revolution, and even of what it would mean to work on the ground Marx laid out in relation to pre-capitalist societies and women’s liberation, was missing from post-Marx Marxists, and still is. It remains true that even writings dealing with Marx’s last decade and his studies of anthropology and non-capitalist societies, still view them just as “writings” rather than as a philosophy of revolution, at best reducing Dunayevskaya’s conclusions to sociological and political positions denuded of philosophical content.

The point remains the struggle in both thought and activity to create a new society on totally human foundations.

–Franklin Dmitryev, for the Resident Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees, December 16, 2015

[1] See Rosa Luxe mburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution by Raya Dunayevskaya.

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