The recent summit on climate change called by Biden, attended by Xi Jinping and numerous other national leaders, aptly expressed the coming together of the two issues which will dominate the next years of global politics – the US cold war against China and climate change.
The cold war against China was launched under Trump from 2018 onwards but is being continued by Biden with merely a few altered tactics. This US cold war overlaps in time with the next years, particularly the next five years, which will be decisive in the fight against climate change. The two issues are developing in an interconnected way – indeed Biden called the summit precisely because he understood, from a capitalist viewpoint, the relation between the two. It is not a rhetorical exaggeration but an objective reality to say that the fate of humanity will, in the coming years, primarily be decided by the fight around these two global issues. They will touch every member of humanity.
The content of the new cold war
The real content of the “new cold war” is an attempt by the US to hold back the social development of China and to prevent the Chinese people from achieving the living standards of an advanced economy. This is considered indispensable by the US for two reasons. First, because the achievement of a high per capita GDP by China, a country of 1.4 billion people, would replace the US as the world’s largest economy and if this were achieved by a socialist state such as China it would fundamentally undermine the legitimacy of global capitalism.
The most immediate part of this US attack on China, which is already being carried out, is an attempt to block China’s development of a high technology economy – thereby preventing the Chinese people achieving the living standards comparable to an advanced country. Success in this, and the damage it would inflict on China’s economy, would also allow the US to maintain or increase its military threats against China. This is the real meaning of the urgent US attempts to suppress Huawei and other Chinese companies, the international attempt to create coalitions against China, the shift of US military forces into the Pacific, the sustained media campaign against China, the witch hunt against anyone in the West opposing this aggression, and all other features of the US new cold war.
The outcome of this struggle will affect the entire situation of humanity – both in the imperialist countries and the “Global South”, the countries oppressed by imprialism. It also interacts with every other major class issue which arises. Most immediately this can be seen dramatically in the totally different outcomes of the Covid crisis in China and in the imperialist and capitalist states – with already more than three million dead in capitalist countries and less than 5,000 in China. Still more powerfully, defeat of this US attack on China not only indirectly but in the most direct way overlaps with the struggle against climate change. China’s huge economic and manufacturing development has become the powerhouse for the vital means capable of dealing with climate change such as renewable energy and electrical vehicles, and in doing so has substantially reduced the cost of these climate solutions, making a green development path economically viable for the rest of the world.
This, in turn, has allowed China to take a lead in the fight for climate change. It was, for example, the combination of the demand for action by the US population on climate change, fed by the objective situation analysed below, and fear that China was taking the international leadership on this issue, that forced Biden to call his climate summit.
The interrelation of these issues with the general situation of humanity can be seen in the fact that the success of China’s socialism in the last seventy years has produced the largest step forward for the greatest proportion of humanity in human history. In 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was created, China was almost the world’s poorest country. By 2021, within a single lifetime, China’s socialism had raised 1.4 billion people to the threshold of becoming a high-income economy by international World Bank criteria, with all the immense improvements in human conditions that this represents. This will be achieved in either 2022 or 2023.
The measurable gains of the Chinese people in this socialist development are immense – more than 850 million people lifted from poverty, a socialist economic structure which allowed China to pass far more strongly through the global economic crises of 2008 and 2020 than any other major country, a life expectancy even higher than would be expected by China’s level of economic development. There is no necessity to engage in exaggeration or idealistic presentation – Marxist theory, as confirmed by China and other countries, shows that the creation of a socialist state is indispensable for the advance of the working class and oppressed. But even after this is achieved complex social struggle will be involved to remove all the forms of oppression that are the heritage of capitalist class society. But the huge advances made in China confirm that any defeat of the revolution achieved in 1949 would result in a catastrophic setback for the working class and oppressed of that country. It would also have disastrous consequences for the rest of humanity.
The rise of China as a powerful socialist state, which can trade with other countries and also give aid to them, also opens up new possibilities for success for other countries of following a path different to that desired by US imperialism – whether this is in a direct struggle for socialism or merely in greater economic independence from the US.
This development is therefore unacceptable to the imperialist powers, and in the first place the US, not only in its direct but its indirect consequences. Not only China’s direct success but the overall threat this would pose to imperialism explains the ferocity of the cold war assault currently being undertaken by the US against China.
Naturally, even when China achieves the level of a developed high-income economy, the great majority of humanity will still not have achieved adequate living conditions – two thirds of people will still be living in developing countries. The most decisive tasks of socialists will be to achieve the same step forward for the majority of humanity that China will have achieved. But to indicate the stakes for humanity, the population of high-income economies, overwhelmingly in imperialist countries, is 16% of humanity. China, by itself, is 18% of humanity. China’s entry into the ranks of high-income economies will therefore more than double the proportion of humanity benefitting from such economic and social development. This is being achieved by a socialist state.
This situation means that China is the country in the world in which the next decisive step forward for humanity can be taken – and in doing so it can help take the whole of the rest of humanity forward. China is a huge practical demonstration to other countries of an alternative socialist path of development to capitalism. China is simultaneously a powerful partner for the great majority of humanity which still lives in developing counties.
In contrast US success via a cold, or hot potentially nuclear, war in preventing the Chinese people from attaining a standard of living equivalent to an advanced economy, which would require imposing a massive defeat on the Chinese people, would therefore in its direct and indirect consequences be an equivalent giant setback for humanity.
The overlap of this situation with climate change, a fundamental threat to humanity, is immediate. The US is not merely by far the world’s highest major per capita carbon emitter, but it is not even guaranteed that US present inadequate proposals to reduce carbon emissions will be maintained. A return to the path of catastrophic unbridled carbon emissions of Trump remains possible in 2024 or after – the dominant forces in the Republican Party deny even the existence of human made climate change and any effective policies to control it. In contrast China’s path of restrictions on carbon emissions remains set by the entire orientation of its policy – even if more is still needed to be done, in particular to ensure peak emissions by 2025 and rapid elimination of coal.
What would be other consequences for humanity of the defeat of China in a cold war with the US can be seen clearly in the catastrophic response of most capitalist countries to Covid. More than three million people have died in capitalist countries from Covid, as capitalists fought to keep their companies open to make profit – this is death on the scale of a major war and vividly shows capitalist contempt for human life. In comparison less than eight thousand have died in socialist countries (China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Venezuela).
More generally the defeat of China by the US would unleash reaction on a global scale. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 loosened the fetters of the US to launch imperialist wars in which millions have since died (Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan to name only the largest). Simultaneously the most reactionary ideologies and movements in the world – the supposedly progressive role of “liberal” imperialism, numerous forms of racism, attacks on the rights of women – were rehabilitated. The defeat of China by the US in either a cold or hot war would similarly unleash an even greater carnival of reaction globally.
This global situation confirms the point made by Lenin that it is a fundamental error to conceive of the class struggle as being waged by the working class of a single country against the ruling class of its own individual country, instead: “the socialist revolution will not be solely, or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie – no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism.” The situation in every country is therefore connected with the outcome of the US aggression against China.
Five years to deal with the issue of climate change
This outcome of the struggle to defeat the US cold war against China, which is already being waged, will exactly overlap in time with the next five years which will be decisive in the fight against climate change. Climate change constitutes a general crisis for humanity which is capable of threatening the foundations of human civilisation in the form in which it presently exists. This crisis of humanity is created by unregulated development of capitalism – its chaotic carbon emissions which now threaten a global catastrophe.
Climate change has now become the second issue in which capitalism has created an existential threat to the basis of human civilization – the first being the threat of nuclear war. Science shows that well within a decade decisive action must be taken to deal with climate change or humanity faces risks which would become uncontrollable. Its consequences at a minimum would fundamentally affect the condition of life of billions of people and in the most extreme developments would gravely threaten human culture and civilization.
Within or during the next five years, if sufficient action is not taken, there will be an inevitable crossing of the line of the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold of warming compared to pre-industrial levels which is considered catastrophic for humanity. Despite some recent partial positive moves, global ambition and action plans for this decade still fall short of what is required, especially in the countries, that is the main capitalist states, historically responsible for climate change. The world will stay on a path towards three degrees of warming unless countries significantly scale up their goals to deal with climate change in the next five years.
The difference between even 1.5 degrees and two degrees of global warming, let alone three degrees, is the difference between a future with the potential for prosperity, natural abundance and sustainable development, and a future where much of the world is threatened by scarcity of food and water, frequently battered by climate induced extreme weather events and increased disease and suffers from more frequent pandemics.
It is not that 1.5 degrees is “safe”. The effects of climate change are not something for the future, although their most disastrous consequences will accumulate with time. Already today, with the world having warmed 1.2 degrees above the pre-industrial average, almost half a million people have died from climate related extreme weather events since 2000. Himalayan glaciers and Antarctic ice are melting, sea levels are rising, and catastrophic fires and life-threatening heatwaves and other extreme climate events are already developing. However, by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, climate events that trigger further temperature rises outside of human control should be able to be avoided – caused by climate tipping events such as the melting of Artic Ice and Siberian permafrost, or uncontrollable wildfires, and adaptation to the future climate impacts humanity has already caused should be possible.
The impact at two degrees on human development is far greater. Up to several hundred million more people become exposed to climate-related risks and poverty, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). At three degrees of warming impacts worsen again. To give one example, heatwave exposure rises from 3.9 billion people impacted at 1.5 degrees, to 5.9 billion people at two degrees, to 7.9 billion people at three degrees. This also reduces the amount of arable land. The number of people globally impacted by lower crop yields would increase tenfold from 35 million people at 1.5 degrees, to 362 million people at two degrees – and impact 1.8 billion people at 3 degrees of warming.
In short climate change threatens accumulating catastrophic changes for humanity. The indirect consequences of this in wars and other events are clear. No country would escape their consequences and their effect would constitute a general crisis of human civilization.
The imperialist countries are doing everything possible to conceal their responsibility for this threat to humanity. They refuse to accept the consequences of their responsibility for the carbon emissions which now threaten catastrophic climate change. They present the issue of climate changes in ways designed to conceal their responsibilities. This is why, for example, they present targets on carbon emissions in terms of “percentage reductions” concealing the fact that because of their extremely high level of such emissions their percentage reductions would leave them, and particularly the US, as by far the world’s highest per capita carbon emitters. They attempt to prevent carbon emission targets in terms of “country targets” instead of per capita targets – concealing the fact that the overwhelming majority, 86%, of the world’s population lives in developing countries.
Instead, any way to tackle the issue of climate change must be based on “carbon democracy” or “carbon equality”. On the basis of best available scientific evidence, the necessary limiting of global warming to 1.5 degrees means that global carbon emissions must be limited to 2.3 tons per capita. All countries must therefore align their per capita emissions on this level. This means, for example, that even without taking into account its historic contribution to climate change, the US must reduce its carbon emissions by 85% from its present level of 17 tons per capita – the present commitment of the US to reduce carbon emissions by 50% is therefore entirely inadequate and indeed would leave its carbon emissions at a per capita level still above the EU and China let alone most developing countries. Russia must also reduce its emissions by 79% from 11.1 tons per capita. Japan must reduce its emissions by 74% from 8.7 tons per capita. China must reduce its emissions by 68% from 7.3 tons per capita. The EU must reduce its emissions by 48% from 4.4 tons per capita. In contrast India, on the basis of carbon democracy/equality, still has room to increase per capita emissions by 15% from its present level of 2.0 tons, and a country such as Uganda can almost triple its emissions from its present 0.8 tons per capita. A strict policy of per capita “carbon Democracy” or “carbon equality” must be pursued.
It should be noted that even this approach, based on current emissions, is not “just”. Based on their percentage contribution to carbon emissions the imperialist countries should make even greater reductions. For example the US would have to reduce its carbon emissions rapidly to below zero if its historical contribution to climate change was taken into account.
Any approach which is not based on per capita emissions, but instead merely on percentage reductions, is an attempt to conceal the role of the imperialist countries in their responsibility for climate catastrophe.
Faced with this fundamental threat to humanity, and the inadequate proposals for those countries most historically responsible for carbon emissions, China’s commitment to “develop a new model of modernisation with humans developing in harmony with nature,” which needs to be practically embodied in net-zero emissions, and in the immediate term a peak in emissions by 2025 followed by sharp reductions, will have a powerful impact on the global development. Confronted with the literally catastrophic consequences of climate change for humanity such a new model is vitally important.
Two interrelated struggles
As already shown these two decisive global issues, the US cold war against China and climate change, are inseparably interrelated. A defeat of China by the US in the cold war, in addition to its numerous other reactionary effects, would roll back the international gains in the fight against climate change created by China’s leading role in the creation of the technological and economic means to fight climate change and its orientation to an ecological civilisation, and instead leave the way free for US capitalism’s disastrous path of carbon emissions. A cold war threatens the global action and collaboration needed on climate change. It risks directing even further resources to military build-up and conflict rather than climate and development, it makes substantially more difficult international cooperation, which is needed to tackle climate change, and in the worst case it threatens to create hot wars which would make it impossible for countries to deal with climate change. Furthermore, if the US were to succeed in holding back China’s economic and social development, China would be unable to develop in its project to create an ecological civilisation.
Of course, this situation does not mean that there will not be innumerable other class and social struggles in the coming period – some/many of which will become interrelated with these two most ongoing fundamental issues. Therefore, around and alongside these two global issues other vital class and social struggles will develop. These will include, but not at all be confined to:
- Covid-19 has been used by capitalism to launch a major attack on both the working class and oppressed of the imperialist countries and the population of the developing countries. The number of deaths is currently doubling every three to four months and is already equivalent to the deaths in a major war. In addition to the number of deaths, disproportionately concentrated among the most oppressed in society, this crisis is being used to attack the living conditions of the working class, and imperialism is showing its ruthless character in blocking the most effective means for developing countries, which contain over 80% of humanity, in fighting this pandemic.
- Imperialism is continuing its offensive against other countries than China which have already created socialism, such as Cuba, or are attempting to enter onto a path of socialist development – such as Venezuela or Bolivia. In the Middle East, the US is attempting to buttress the alliance of the ethnic cleansing state of Israel with reactionary anti-people Arab regimes. Imperialist sanctions, and the continual threat of imperialist wars, are being maintained against countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Iran and others. The threat of “hot” imperialist wars, of the type waged against Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries is entirely present in this situation.
- In particular in imperialist countries, but also in capitalist countries such as India, use of numerous forms of racism or reactionary religious or ethnic movements are being intensified as a key campaign to attempt to divert attention away from capitalist offensives being launched against the working class and oppressed, the majority of the population. As imperialism steps up its offensives the range of targets of these racist attacks is systematically widening – with the long-established forms of anti-Black and antisemitic racism being reinforced by Islamophobia and a resurgence of anti-Chinese racism.
- There is a struggle to defend and advance the position of women against the continuing and intensifying attempts by imperialism to reverse limited improvements in the position of women won over past decades. Covid-19 has disproportionately negatively impacted on women, taking advantage of the fundamental features of women’s oppression rooted in the family system – where women do on average three times as many hours of unpaid labour in the household than men. Internationally, the gender pay gap is 16% with much higher gaps in certain countries and sectors, younger women are 25% more likely than men to live in extreme poverty and 70% per cent of women work in the informal economy. Women have still not acquired the right to control their reproductive lives. The UN predicts: “a prolonged dip in women’s incomes and labour force participation, with compounded impacts for women already living in poverty,”
All these, and many other vital issues, have to be fought, and for periods struggles around these issues will be the most urgent and dominant in the class struggle – as was seen, for example, during the fight against Covid, or in the Black Lives Matter actions in the US following the racist police murder of George Floyd. But there should be clarity on the most fundamental features of the global situation and the international class struggle over the immediate coming years and for a prolonged period: the US must be fought and rolled back in its cold war against China, decisive action must be taken to deal with climate change. The overall progress or retreat of humanity, and the outcome of all other issues, will be influenced and determined by the outcome of these two interrelated struggles which will touch the whole of humanity.