Climate crisis, class struggle and the COP

Flooding in Pakistan 2022

By Charlie Wilson

“Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening” – Chico Mendes*

All we need to know about the Truss government’s stance on climate breakdown is that its chief representative at COP27 will be Jacob Rees Mogg. Mogg, a man held together primarily by money and condescension, opines that “2050 is a long way away” so we can afford to make a transition at the same lazy pace that he talks at. Perhaps he should take a trip to Florida, or Pakistan.

The paradox of this is that the faster we make the transition to renewable energy, the greater the economic gain, with a recent Report projecting global savings of $12 trillion by 2050 for the fastest possible adoption of wind and solar energy.

This has rather passed Rees Mogg by, as the consultation his Department has just launched subjects meeting the 2050 Net Zero target to the greater imperative of a “business friendly” approach. Profit first. Survival second. His approach to Oil and Gas reserves in the North Sea is “drill baby drill”, because British fossil fuels are so much less damaging than foreign fossil fuels. He is seeking ways to avoid local communities having a say on fracking because he knows there isn’t any support for it; despite pledges by both Tory leadership contenders that it would only go ahead with local support. Tory controlled East Yorkshire Council has just voted for a fracking ban as a rapid shot across his bows. Chris Skidmore MP, a root and branch neo liberal and joint author of Britannia Unchained with Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, but who nevertheless recognises that climate breakdown can’t be ignored and is heading up the Net Zero Review, similarly put Rees Mogg’s nose out of joint by pointing out that any investor putting their money into fracking was throwing it away on a stranded asset and they’d be better off putting it into renewables. While this argument is going on, Liz Truss, who used to work for Shell, is reported to be planning not to go to the COP in a deliberate gesture to show how unimportant she thinks it is, and has put a block on Charles III going too, just to rub it in. It’s not clear if she has told David Attenborough to stop making nature documentaries as well, but who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Labour puts forward a significantly better programme than the Tories, with a dash for renewables, long term and consistent investment in insulation and blocking new oil and gas exploration and fracking, but the pledge to float a publicly owned energy company alongside the existing private sector operators is a way of shying away from taking the sort of control of this sector that we need to make sure a Just transition can be properly planned and realised. We can’t leave it to big capitalist companies to politely arrange their own downsizing. The Conference backdrop “A Fairer Greener Future” was on a red white and blue background which emphasises the narrow national horizons that are now an orthodoxy punishable with expulsion if anyone challenges the US Imperial framework within which Labour is allowed to operate as a grudgingly accepted possible “Party of Government”.

Ed Miliband’s apposite remark in his speech at Labour conference that “it is cheaper to save the planet than destroy it” is underlined in a recent report pointing out that the costs of renewables are declining so sharply, about 10% a year, while the costs of fossil fuel extraction is static – as improved technique has to battle with reserves that are increasingly difficult to access – that a global saving of $12 trillion could be made if renewables are installed at the fastest rate possible from here on. When you add to that the horrific costs of the climate impacts of not making that transition, this begs questions like:

  • Why such large fractions of capital are doubling down and, literally, digging in on fossil fuels, with 425 carbon bombs – pending projects with a billion tonnes of CO2 consequence or more each, which, on their own would use up twice the remaining global carbon budget to stay below 1.5C- are being pursued not scrapped.
  • Why 3 large US banks – Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan and Bank of America -are threatening to leave Mark Carney’s Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero because tougher UN Climate criteria means they would actually have to stop investing in fossil fuels to sustain the greenwash; one executive stating that it would be “irresponsible and immoral” to put their shareholders profits at risk simply to save the planet. After all, you have to have a sense of priorities.
  • And why so many countries in the Global North are signed up to the Energy Charter Treaty that allows fossil fuel companies to sue them if they introduce climate related restrictions on their activities. This has been highlighted by a recent case in which Rockhopper energy – a UK based offshore oil outfit – successfully sued the Italian government to get $210 million in compensation for lost profits for a drilling operation they hadn’t even started. The use of the “rule of law” to protect the profitability of companies actively destroying the chances of human survival at the same time as putting people protesting at them behind bars for 6 months at a time makes the Green Party call at its conference this year for a legal process to prosecute those most responsible for the UK having failed to protect people and habitats from climate breakdown a timely challenge that should become a universal demand.

It is hard to argue, faced with this, that the global bourgeoisie doesn’t have a death wish. The question for working class movements around the world is how far we are prepared to let them take us with them.

Because, the backsliding of the Truss government is not unique in the Gobal North (AKA “the West”) even though Truss herself is peculiarly in thrall to “vested interests dressed up as think tanks” like the Institute of Economic Affairs, Global Warming Foundation and many more that all seem to be headquartered at 55 Tufton Street SW1 (a “London town house” from which “they take taxis to BBC studios” as go to talking heads ) that are financed by “dark money”, hold monthly meetings to set the line and talking points they want to project through our polity and held 40 fringe meetings at Tory Conference last week.

Following the latest Summer of intense heat – topped off with the floods in Pakistan that inundated a third of the country and displaced 30 million people, and the way Hurricane Ian devastated Cuba and Florida alike, shattering carefully built up human infrastructure with careless ease at terrifying speed – and the latest UN Report from September that spells out that we are “on a fast track to disaster” unless global targets for 2030 are increased sevenfold, countries have overall not increased their Nationally Determined Contributions from last year on any significant scale.

This is bringing the collision between the Global North and the rest of the world to a head; and this will be fought out at the COP in Egypt next month. The contrast between the failure of the world’s wealthiest countries to meet the minimal $100 billion a year pledge to the Global South to mitigate climate impacts is contrasted sharply by the £53 billion the US alone has put up to fuel the war in Ukraine in the last 6 months, with another $12 billion on the way. All the NATO countries are increasing their military spending sharply, even though, taken together, they already account for 62% of it. This is obviously not a “defensive” measure, except in so far as they are seeking to defend themselves from the consequences of their own negligence towards the global majority.

As Meehan Crist wrote in the London Review of Books in March, “One of the worst outcomes of the war in Ukraine would be an increasingly militarised response to climate breakdown, in which Western armies, their budgets ballooning in the name of “national security” seek to control not only the outcome of conflicts but the flow of energy, water, food, key minerals and other natural resources. One does not have to work particularly hard to imagine how barbarous that future would be”. That future isn’t hard to imagine, because it’s the world we have now, but just a bit more so.

The war in Ukraine is itself a concrete example of this. This recent Radio 4 programme flags up that the Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine that have now been absorbed into Russia are sitting on over $12 trillion worth of rare earths; essential minerals for solar and wind power. Being the BBC, this is framed more as a motivation for Russia to hold on to these areas than it is for the US and NATO to reconquer them, regardless of what the local population thinks. Given that most rare earth mining and processing is carried out in China, and part of the Reduce Inflation Act is an attempt to develop alternative American patents for renewable technology, its reasonably obvious how this is part of the economic drive behind the war; though the motivation is primarily political and military. Given the neo liberal dystopia the US has already planned out for post war Ukraine if it wins, its obvious who will benefit most from access to these raw materials – in the same way that large tracts of Ukrainian farmland were bought up by US agribusiness after 2014. Its also notable that, where “the West” is not in a position to either produce its own raw materials or seize those of others, which might be described as a form of imperial custom and practice, ideas about “sharing global resources fairly” start to get legs; albeit only likely to get hegemonic if “the West” suffers defeats and can no longer aspire to conquest and impose its “rules bound international order” on everyone else.

This is copper bottomed by the refusal of the world’s wealthy countries – together responsible for over 90% of historic emissions – to agree to Loss and Damage at COP26 – to compensate the developing world for the climate impacts of the CO2 emissions that made the rich world rich, or to agree to meet the $300 billion a year that UN Deputy GS says will be needed for adaptation by 2030; agreeing instead to an almost token $40billion. The impact of this is such that the African Union will be going to the COP demanding that, in the absence of aid on the level needed, Africa’s oil and gas should be developed. A lack of climate finance puts Africa in the position that not exploiting its natural resources would mean letting “our children and grandchildren die because we must protect the environment” as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s environment minister, Eve Bazaiba, put it. This is desperate stuff, because those children and grandchildren will also die if the environment is not protected.

Now that the US has passed the Inflation Reduction Act – which allows more fossil fuel development alongside a boost to renewables, but takes a protectionist stance to subsidising North American EVs and alternative technologies for solar and wind power to reduce imports from China – and can claim to be doing something, we can expect the usual media attacks on big developing countries in the Global South. However, the critique of China and India relying on coal has a bit less credibility when Global North countries are keeping their own coal power stations going for longer to make up for the loss of Russian gas. In the case of India, the per capita carbon footprint of the average Indian citizen was 1.77 tonnes in 2020. It is extraordinarily shameless for the UK, with a per capita carbon footprint of more than twice that, let alone the USA with a per capita carbon footprint of 14.24 tonnes that year, to get on their high horse about it and start pointing fingers. Which won’t stop them doing it. In the case of China, there are also three awkward realities.

  1. Last month, China’s emissions were 8% down on the same month last year; while its economy was growing at twice the pace of the USA.
  2. China’s 2030 target for renewable energy generation is set, on current trends, to be met by 2026, which indicates a much more rapid transition and earlier emissions peak than had previously been planned for.
  3. And it is also worth pointing out that China is investing one and a half times as much in transition to what President Xi calls an “ecological society” than it is on its military. If the United States was doing that, would we ever hear the end of it?

Running through the conflicts between states and overlapping with it, is class struggle within them; as it is the over consumption not so much of wealthier countries as such, but of the wealthiest people within them, that is driving up carbon emissions and setting us on a path to catastrophe. In the last year reports from Oxfam, and this one in Nature Sustainability have pointed out some stark realities.

  • the per capita emissions of the top 1% grew by 26% between 1990 and 2019,
  • the top 0.01% saw growth of 80%.

Moreover, in 2019,

  • the wealthiest 10% were responsible for 48% of global carbon emissions.
  • The poorest 50% for just 12%.
  • The upper middle 40%, that’s most working class people in the developed countries among others, were therefore responsible for 40% of emissions.

The Oxfam Report went further in pointing out that the rapid increase in both wealth and emissions of the top 10% would bust us through 1.5C on their own, even as the carbon footprint of the bottom 50% stays negligible and the upper middle 40% is declining. That means that the lifestyles of the rich and famous are neither the image of the future consumption patterns of the rest of us, as the Tony Blair institute still seems to think, let alone an aspiration; they are actually socially suicidal. Drastic redistribution of wealth within and between states is essential if we are to transform our societies to allow us to survive. To put it in a simplistic slogan, “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! The ruling class has got to go!”

This is also the case in the Global South. In the case of India, despite increasing investment in renewables, coal fired power stations are subsidised at a greater rate and still produce 70% of India’s power. 15 out of the 20 worst polluted cities in the world are in India and it’s the urban poor that suffer the most. Next month we will see the annual stories about the appalling November smog in Delhi – in which seasonal climactic conditions combine with diesel and petrol fumes from traffic and smoke from coal power to produce air that is considered as dangerous to health as smoking 60 cigarettes a day. It was so bad a couple of years ago that a Test Match had to be stopped because the players were vomiting on the ground. Just not cricket. India’s natural resources are being depleted at 5% a year and there is a rapidly worsening water crisis, with rationing now common in many cities and water tables dropping dramatically. India is considered the third most likely country to suffer ecological collapse, after Australia and South Africa, in Swiss Ree’s global Index.

This poses a challenge for an environment movement that necessarily involves very wide forces. The call by John Bellamy Foster – in his brilliant and terrifying article Notes on Exterminism for the 21st Century Ecology and Peace Movements – for a more consciously Socialist Climate Movement is a challenge to currents that have been prepared to line up with the US, providing green cover for the NATO war drive in Ukraine, or the overthrow of Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2019, even after the failure of the Copenhagen COP in 2010 had led to Bolivia’s Socialist government convening an alternative people’s summit in Cochabamba, which may have helped concentrate minds at Paris 5 years later. We need an alliance between the working class movements in the Global North with countries in the Global South demanding reparations and a recognition that socialist countries are part of the solution and this has to be forged in the struggle.

Specifically, and immediately, as these debates rage, socialists in the UK will want to get climate movement speakers on every cost of living rally and demo, as well as support the actions around the COP up and down the country on Nov 12th.

* Chico Mendes was a Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist. He fought to preserve the Amazon rainforest, and advocated for the rights of Brazilian peasants and Indigenous peoples. He was assassinated by a rancher on 22 December 1988. In the last ten years 1700 climate campaigners have been murdered around the world – with a very high proportion killed by the Right in Brazil and Columbia.

Image: An aerial view of Shahdadkot, Khairpur Nathan Shah, Mado, Faridabad, Mehar and other cities of Sindh covered with flood water in 2022. Flood in Sindh. Flood In Pakistan, 3 September 2022, Photo by Ali Hyder Junejo, Licensed under the CreativeCommons Attribution2.0Generic(CCBY2.0) license, Photo cropped.