Confronting Climate Change means Confronting Capitalism

Shiv Bose

Sheets arranged as signs with "System Change Not Climate Change" written on them

Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted today in response to the recent decision by Kinder Morgan that “Canada is a country of the rule of law, and the federal government will act in the national interest. Access to world markets for Canadian resources is a core national interest. The Trans Mountain expansion will be built.” Many progressives will argue that the national interest is instead in protecting the country from the impacts of climate change. But arguing about what is in the national interest isn’t really getting us anywhere.

What are we to do instead? Before we can discuss solutions to the problem of climate change, we need to ask how we got ourselves  into this mess in the first place. Sociologist Andreas Malm notes, “The spiral of climate change is set in motion by the act of identifying, digging up, and setting fire to fossil fuels: … For most of human history, the deposits were left untouched, safely locked out from the active carbon cycle. Then a qualitatively novel type of economy interrupted into them.” In the 19th century,  deposits of the resources were extracted on an unprecedented, massive scale by cheap labour commanded by an elite class of wealthy British landowners.

The first capitalists can be credited as the engineers of the climate crisis, but their extractivist nature was merely a reflection of their class interests; to acquire as much capital as possible regardless of the social and ecological consequence–something that has not remotely changed in the contemporary era (see former CEO of ExxonMobile and Secrectary of State, Rex Tillerson who says “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do.”). The British capitalists of the 19th century desperately sought out more coal to propel their steam boats to new, distant lands to acquire more land, where more resources could be extracted. However, much of this land was already occupied by indigenous peoples, who had to be violently dispossessed in order for their land to be acquired for further production of capital.

This is because the logic of capital is predicated on infinite growth and expansion.  The surplus profit generated by private firms is perpetually reinvested into new production, which requires more land, and land, historically, was acquired through any means necessary. This is why capitalism, colonialism, and climate change are inexorably bound up with one another: the three faces of a mutually reinforcing system of violence that is killing our planet. This continues in the  21st century through the violation of indigenous land rights as pipelines and other carbon infrastructure are created on ancestral lands without the consent of the first peoples. It is then fair to say that the climate crisis can be attributed to capitalism, an economic order that engenders imperialism and colonial land theft in pursuance of feeding the infinite appetite of the capitalist class.

It’s not uncommon to hear from self-professed liberals that “green capitalism,” can solve the climate crisis. That we can shop our way to a stable and clean environment, a prospect that appears to be increasingly untenable as the exponential increase in availability of “green” consumer goods has done little to prevent 2017 from being a record high year for global CO2 emissions. The reality is that the kind of radical, paradigm changing climate policy we need to protect the planet would also be a direct threat to the economic profits of corporations and the national GDP which politicians of every nation fetishize.

Capitalism, as it exists today, has no way of contending with the climate change crisis. World renowned climate scientist, Kevin Anderson, has spoken at length about how the economic growth imperative of capitalism is not compatible with reaching our Paris commitments. A recent study has stated that we have a 5% chance of reaching these goals under the economic statis quo. Anderson’s research indicates that we must radically change our economic paradigm to save our existence on the planet. The mainstream economic orthodoxy of economic growth cannot be reconciled with the most up to date climate projections, which say, in very clear terms, that we are on course to rocket past our 2 degree Celsius commitment outlined in the Paris agreement and on towards 4 then 5 degrees, creating a very dire situation for humanity to say the least.

Our current economic situation has proven to be untenable in the long run. Global food insecurity is on the rise for the first time in decades due to climate changeglobal water pollution is steadily increasingglobal air pollution is getting worsethere have been dramatic increases in exposure to toxic chemicalsthe worlds slums are growingthere are record levels of coral bleachingwe are facing unprecedented levels of biodiversity lossPollution kills nearly 15 times more people than all the world’s wars and violence combined, and is three times as deadly as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis all put together.

The ruling class has decided that any threat to their economic hegemony is unacceptable, therefore it would be better to have the world become a scorched hell rather than to have their profits jeopardized. Even liberal leaders like Obama and Trudeau, who have paid plenty lip-service to climate change, only support climate initiatives insofar as they won’t disrupt the economic status quo, but sadly it is the economic status-quo that is  accelerating climate change to begin with. While the Republican party seems to deny the scientific reality of climate change, the liberal elite denies the economic and sociological realities of climate change. They want to have their cake and eat it too;  to advocate for environmental sustainability while also promoting economic growth and unregulated free trade, unaware or indifferent to the fact  that these things exist in contradiction. Neoliberalism and climate justice are mutually exclusive, as the former precludes the latter.

Here in Canada, the pseudo-progressiveness of Justin Trudeau is farcical; he puts on a great show of apologizing to various marginalized groups with teary eyes and feigned concern, while approving the construction of disastrous pipelines (Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, Enbridge Line 3) to the outrage of indigenous land defenders and environmentalists throughout the nation. Apologists for the Liberal party propagate the fairy tale that the government can still construct pipelines, and  “balance,” environmental goals with economic ones.

This appeal to moderation cannot be substantiated based on what we know about oil emissions. Many studies have shown (here and here) that constructing new carbon infrastructure is incompatible with reaching the  Paris accord commitments of 2 degrees C. Pipelines have lifespans of decades and we simply cannot afford to be pumping oil for decades. This is why Trudeau’s tweet today is so unsurprising. With Trudeau’s pipeline endeavours, he is merely continuing Canada’s long-held tradition, which started with John A. Macdonald, of appropriating indigenous land to consolidate Canada’s colonial power.

Trudeau’s politics of reconciliation is incredibly deceptive, obscuring indigenous demands for land restitution with the spectacle of televised, performative repentance, which, in material terms, does nothing to address stolen land. The reality is that it doesn’t matter which empty suit any of the political parties puts forward; it doesn’t matter how sad or guilty they might seem about past national transgressions; they will always be subordinated to the logic of the colonial-capitalist state: dispossession, accumulation, and expansion. That “rule of law,” that Trudeau refers to, is the colonial legal framework that has been designed to facilitate the extraction of natural resources from stolen land. It is this framework that needs to be dismantled.

This is why reformism is entirely inadequate in addressing the climate crisis; it is the socio-economic structure itself that is producing climate change. Therefore the changes we need have to be systematic, sweeping, and ultimately anti-capitalist in nature. But how can we get there? Only mass social movements can challenge the hegemony of neoliberal governments and corporations. Only through mass organization and mobilization can we begin to bring about a society organised along ecological principles. While the statistics may seem grim, there are reasons to be hopeful.

In the last few decades there have been several awe-inspiring, grassroots movements that we can draw inspiration from moving forward. For instance, the Ogoni protests in the 90s are a stunning example of collective, direct action that kicked out Shell oil out of their country. In collusion with the Nigerian government, Shell oil was responsible for the displacements of tens of thousands of Ogoni people, which gave birth to the Ogoni Peoples Movement, a grassroots social movements that succeeded in dismantling Shell’s corporate stranglehold over the region. Without receiving any help from their  failing and corrupt government, the Ogoni people used militant, non-violent direct action to shut down oil operations. The movement continues to battle a corrupt government while facing the environmental catastrophe of degraded and leaking carbon infrastructure left in Shell’s wake, and although their struggle continues, there is a commendable victory here.

Like the Ogoni, Indigenous people all over the world have been at the forefront of environmental protection. This was seen with the recent Dakota Access Pipeline protests, where the Standing Rock Tribe and other indigenous groups came together to protect water and ancestral burial grounds. This was perhaps the single most monumental environmental social movement in recent history, dominating the headlines at the time.  In October 2017, several energy activists dubbed the “valve turners,” shut down five separate pipeline in a coordinated act of fossil fuel resistance, a sophisticated and flawlessly executed example of the kind of direct action we need on an even larger scale.

It is necessary that we build upon these movements and work together in creating the kind of mass social movement that can challenge the capitalist system itself and replace it with a new kind of economic arrangement that is based on ecological sustainability and social equity, not private profit.  Without system change, climate change will continue to ravage our planet.

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