Both capitalism and electoral democracy impede effective climate action. But while we have to defend and transform democracy, there is no possibility that capitalism can be made compatible with either global climate mitigation or social and economic justice.
Donald Trump plans to dismantle America’s already weak climate policy, potentially dooming not only this country but the entire world to runaway greenhouse warming. The day after Election Day 2016, star climate scientist Michael Mann was already saying he feared that it was “game over” for the Earth's climate.
But at the same time Trump is taking a blowtorch to climate action, he and his allies in Washington are taking a sledgehammer to our democracy. So what do we do when we face two simultaneous emergencies: a slide toward fascism and a descent into a greenhouse climate gone haywire?
Writing recently in Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster argued that given the threat we face, the necessary ecological-social revolution will have to be carried out in two stages, and that “The first would involve the formation of a broad alliance, modeled after the Popular Front against fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. Today’s Popular Front would need to be aimed principally at confronting the fossil-fuel-financial complex and its avid right-wing supporters.” But then, “the ecological revolution will have to extend eventually to the roots of production itself, and will have to assume the form of a system of substantive equality for all . . .”
The struggle must be taken to every front. Many continue to see the immediate struggle for civil and human rights and against fascism, racism, and economic exploitation as having top priority, given the all-out assault coming down from Washington, many state capitals, and law enforcement. Others continue to argue that we have to lead with an all-consuming effort to eliminate greenhouse emissions and ecosystem destruction if we are even to have a chance at keeping the Earth livable.
Then there are those, including those of us at Green Social Thought, who have long insisted that the two struggles be given joint top priority, because if we succeed in either one but not the other, catastrophe is unavoidable. And importantly, there is no contradiction between the two struggles; in fact, they energize each other.
Capitalism: can’t live with it, might live without it
The dramatic swerve down the road to fascism in the United States, Europe, and Russia has further hobbled our chances of prevailing in today’s struggle for democracy, humanity, and the Earth. I say “further” because the odds were stacked against us long before 2016. The chief threat was then, and still is, capitalism. A well-functioning capitalist economy depends on maintaining large, competing pools of vulnerable labor and on the continuously increasing throughput of energy and resources that feeds the climate emergency.
A few months before America’s political sinkhole opened up, Paul Cox and I put it this way in our book How the World Breaks: “From the point of view of those with vast wealth at stake, the cure for climate catastrophe—deep, ongoing restraint in production and consumption to limit greenhouse gas emissions—would be far more devastating than the worst earthquake, flood, or hurricane.” The same applies to a realignment of economic power in favor of today’s beleaguered majority.
In an article published by Nature Climate Change just fifty days after the US presidential election, two scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that if America does nothing to cut greenhouse emissions for the next four years, it is still possible that the Earth can avoid runaway warming, but only if we do launch drastic actions immediately after that hiatus, and only if the rest of the world ignores our slacker example and starts meeting its climate obligations immediately. That means our chances of maintaining a livable planet are clearly very slim. But they're not zero.
Also in December, Yale economist William Nordhaus published a paper in which he metamorphoses before our eyes from one of the world’s foremost climate optimists into a deep pessimist. Having updated his world economy/climate model with assumptions reflecting the new climatic reality, Nordhaus found that an “optimized” economy (one that, through cost-benefit analysis, carefully balances greenhouse emissions cuts with the need for economic growth) can now be expected to blow through the much-discussed 1.5-degree rise in world temperatures (a widely accepted threshold for global disaster) by 2030 and hit a cataclysmic 3.5 degrees by 2100. (Mann says we have already hit 1.5 degrees.)
More aggressive climate mitigation scenarios that could eliminate net greenhouse emissions by 2040 and keep the temperature rise down to a still-dangerous 2.5 degrees were characterized as “unrealistic” by Nordhaus. So in an eminent economist’s view, capitalism is incompatible even with climate strategies that would reduce emissions but still usher in runaway warming. (Economists would presumably view as worse than unrealistic a detailed, highly practical plan to keep the rise below 1.5 degrees that was modeled on the U.S. mobilization for World War II and published by The Climate Mobilization.)
Nordhaus’s conclusion is not the kind of thing climate optimists like to hear, especially now that they are under assault from retrograde climate deniers at the very top of the power structure. Back when technocrats were still in power, Paul and I characterized what we saw as optimists’ unrealistic view of climate catastrophe this way: “Disaster could be domesticated, soaked up by the economy, so we the people could all experience the event as something distant and manageable, canceled out on future balance sheets by its silver linings. . . . This type of optimism is, we believe, what we will have to worry about when we don’t have to worry about climate change denial anymore.”
What we didn’t know back then was that from 2017 onward, we’re still going to have to worry about climate denial and many more dangers all at once. For years to come, as seas rise and landscapes shrivel, America could remain immobilized within the iron triangle of climate denial, climate optimism, and economic “realism.”
Democracy: might not live with it, can’t live without it
It has been obvious for more than four decades that we can have either capitalism or a livable planet but not both. We’ve known even longer that we can have either capitalism or economic and social justice but not both. For most of us, there’s no dilemma there; only for capitalists themselves does the need to preserve capitalism warrant ruining the Earth for human habitation or having the majority of our fellow human beings live in misery. But in coming years we will have to face a question that should terrify us all: have we reached the point at which we can we have either effective climate action or representative democracy but not both?
With every updated run of global climate models, it becomes clearer that only an immediate, steep decline in greenhouse emissions can give us even a fighting chance to avoid catastrophic warming. That will require a hard ceiling on fossil-fuel burning and other emission-generating activities, a ceiling that must be ratcheted down year by year. In a further tightening of the belt, a big slice of that declining resource budget will have to be set aside for building renewable energy generation capacity and other emission-reducing infrastructure. These moves will constitute a rationing of production.
Struck by this one-two punch—the ceiling on resource use and the diversion of much of what’s left into green conversion—the economy will see an inevitable decline in production of consumer goods and services.
Most of the past year’s proposals for a World War II-style climate mobilization are based on a comparison involving only the second punch, that is, a parallel between the walling-off of resources and human power for war production in the 1940s and the necessary walling-off of resources for renewable energy development now. The consequences of that wartime mobilization—most prominently, conversion from civilian to military production and rationing of consumer goods—were broadly accepted by an electorate that was facing an existential threat. American democracy rose to the occasion. Presumably, we could handle a green conversion of similar scale today, were it to be attempted.
The parallel between climate and World War II mobilizations breaks down, however, back on the first punch, with the immediate, steep decline in fossil-fuel use that is necessary to prevent climatic calamity. In the 1940s, by contrast, America had enough resources and pent-up industrial capacity to boost total production and achieve full employment and higher wages. For the sake of fairness, civilian consumption had to be limited by rationing, and there were shortages of some imported items, but people knew that those conditions were temporary, and consumption soared once the war ended.
Now imagine an America of the 2020s that is weighing whether, better late than never, to declare a climate emergency that includes the necessary steep decline in emissions, production, and material consumption. If that succeeds, it will mean that (1) a majority of politicians have turned their backs on Big Business and have committed to severe limits on resource use and (2) American voters are willing to support them in that effort.
But in a society designed so that its basic working parts are individuals, each acting to their personal benefit, a candidate doesn’t get into office by telling voters what is essential for the common good. You get in by promising voters that they will be harmed personally if your opponent wins but that each voter will benefit personally if you are elected.
So if you’re a candidate wanting effective climate action, you might declare in a stump speech, “If you folks elect my opponent, the consequences will be terrible. Within a couple of decades, millions of people around the world will have lost their homes to flooding, and others will be going hungry because of crop failures.” So far, so good. Voters may think to themselves, “Oh, we wouldn’t want to see that.”
But then you continue: “On the other hand, if you elect me, there will be a much narrower range of goods available to you, and you will be buying a lot less. You will have a smaller house and will be tightly limited in how much you can drive and fly, and you can forget about that new boat. Don’t worry; the government will ensure that you have access to sufficient food, basic goods, a cleaner, healthier world, and your Constitutional rights, but a large share of the nation’s resources will have to go toward building up our renewable energy capacity and reworking our infrastructure—not into the consumer economy. And we’ll never go back to today’s levels of production and consumption.” At that point, you might as well step from behind the lectern, turn around, bend over, and moon the audience. You’re sunk.
Given that, given our history, and especially considering our recent experience, getting American voters to approve sweeping climate policies is a hard thing to imagine. That has led some (including me at times) to wonder if saving the climate is even possible in our electoral system. But we simply cannot afford to indulge in that sort of speculation. We have no choice but to reject and condemn any calls to jettison our democratic institutions, however inadequate they are. On the contrary; we must first defend democracy against the current authoritarian onslaught and then set about transfoming it.
Both our form of government and our economic system are throwing hurdles up between us and climate action, but while we can work to improve and transform politics, there is no possibility that capitalism can be made compatible with global climate mitigation and justice. We have to use what’s left of our democracy (inside and especially outside of electoral politics) to simultaneously fight the fascism that threatens humanity and the capitalism that threatens the Earth as a whole.
Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor of Green Social Thought and author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing. Write to him at cox(at)howtheworldbreaks.com.