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Capital and Climate Catastrophe

by Paul Messersmith-Glavin

Capitalism is changing the weather.  More fundamentally, it is changing the climate.  This is the byproduct of an economic system that relies primarily on burning oil and coal to fuel production and enable the transportation of people and goods.  In looking at capitalists’ responsibility for the climate crisis, a central question is whether capitalism must impact the environment in this way, or if it is capable of changing its mode of production so its continued operation does not change the climate.
A new report estimates that before the year 2030, 100 million people will die as a result of the changing climate.  Ninety percent of these deaths will occur in poor countries.   The ‘climate crisis’ should now be spoken of as the climate catastrophe, because this is what it is for the majority of the peoples of the earth.  The droughts, melting icecaps, tropical storms, and bizarre weather we have been experiencing is just the beginning.

The dominant economic system is the driving force of climate change.  It is based upon the exploitation of oil and coal, which contributes greenhouse gases to the environment, resulting in increasing global temperatures.   The innermost logic of this economic system is the accumulation of capital.  Whatever serves profit thrives.  Currently a large part of the capitalist machine is fueled by oil and coal.  The vast majority of scientific investigation points directly to the burning of oil and coal as having already raised the temperature of the Earth by 1.5 degree Fahrenheit, with the possibility of raising it over ten degrees by the end of this century.  To do this would make life on earth unrecognizable, like something out of a science fiction movie. This may happen by the time today’s infants enter old age.

At one time reformists called for a Green Capitalism, for developing Green technologies and the like.  Major unions, who have reconciled themselves with capital, call for Green Jobs. Reformists and unions suggest that capitalism could be ecological, that it does not have to do things like pollute the air and water and change the climate.  This may be true.  It may be possible to have an exploitative economic system like capitalism, based upon renewable, alternative energy.  After all, the slave trade and early colonial conquest were based upon wind-powered ships and mills.  A central question then is whether the logic of capitalism is inherently ecologically destructive; will capitalism continue to play chicken with our future, or will it revolutionize its mode of production to not change the nature of the environment so much that the future of civilization is put into question?

There is a debate amongst members of the ruling class, the so-called 1%, about which way to go.  Some argue for the development of “carbon markets,” in which the right to put carbon into the environment is bought and sold, thus continuing to profit from the emission of greenhouse gases, while slowly decreasing them.  They argue for developing alternative energy, such as wind and solar, to replace coal and gas.  They promote ‘lifestyle changes’ and taxing coal and oil companies for their emissions.  Right now, this section of the ruling class is losing.  No real change is coming from above to respond to climate catastrophe.

It seems that if the fundamental driving force of capitalism is the further accumulation of capital, it would make sense not to change the ecology so much that you severely reduce the number of producers and consumers, threaten food production, and endanger the future of humanity.  Without civilization, how can capitalism continue?  Right now, the most potent anti-civilizational force on the planet is capitalism.

The same recent study that predicts 100 million dead in less than twenty years also estimates that future global economic growth will be cut by 3.2 percent of gross domestic product, which is about two and half trillion dollars.  One would think this would get capitalists’ attention.

Instead, capitalists confront us by driving the rate of destruction ever upward, while becoming increasingly irrational in seeking out the remaining oil, coal and gas supplies.  The tar sands extraction process in Canada, ‘fracking’ to get at natural gas reserves (which is causing earthquakes), mountain-top removal in Appalachia, oil drilling off the coasts and efforts to do so in pristine parts of Alaska, all for a form of energy which is literally killing millions of people, is simple madness.   To say that capitalism is irrational is an understatement.  Much of this insanity is done in the name of US ‘energy independence.’ And it is being done despite the fact that a recent study shows that the major oil and coal companies, and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, currently own five times as much future reserves as can be used without destroying much of human life on Earth, and yet they want to continue to search for more.  At today’s value, those future reserves are worth $27 trillion.   This is the economics of genocide.

The scientific community and global political leadership have come to the conclusion that it is both inevitable and acceptable for the Earth’s temperature to rise by two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  To put this in context, with the current rise in temperatures being less than half this amount, we have already seen a third of the summer sea ice in the Arctic disappear, with all of it possibly gone in several years, and 400,000 people die a year.  With an increase of 3.6 degrees, over a third of all species would become extinct.  Putting this amount of carbon into the atmosphere will make the oceans, which act as carbon sinks, so acidic as to be largely inhospitable for marine life.’   These are some of the dimensions of the best-case scenario that the powers-that-be find acceptable.

In order to keep temperatures to a 3.6-degree increase (2 degrees Celsius), the economies of the world can only put another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At the current rate we will reach that limit in 16 years, about the same time the planet’s dominant economies will have one hundred million more dead on their hands. So this show can go on for another 16 years, then all bets are off.  And even then, things will not be pretty and the ecology of the planet will be drastically changed.

Perhaps members of the ruling class simply do not care about the future of civilization, or what kind of future their children or grandchildren will have. Perhaps they think they will be dead before things get too bad.  Perhaps today’s continued profit is more important than the future disintegration of society, and the end of civilization as we know it.  Perhaps they think they have enough money that the devastation that awaits will not really affect them. Or perhaps they just think they will adapt to a changing environment.

Rex Tillerson, the Chairman, President, and CEO of Exxon Mobile Corporation, and a true criminal, best expresses this last view. Tillerson “told a New York audience that global warming is real, but dismissed it as an ‘engineering problem’ that has ‘engineering solutions.’” In response to the objection that changes to weather patterns will severely affect crop production, he said “… we’ll adapt to that.” Most telling, Tillerson says, “The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say, ‘We just have to stop this,’ I do not accept (that).”  So for Tillerson, and presumably other members of the 1% who control the huge oil and coal corporations, we will simply adapt to a much hotter, less hospitable planet.

Regardless of the thinking of capitalists and the ruling class, and whatever debates they may be having about how to respond, we must confront the realities of the climate catastrophe and develop a movement to create a society that does not change the weather. It is really up to us, and what we do in the next decade.  To not act is to allow millions of people, primarily poor people of color in impoverished nations, to suffer and die.

The climate crisis offers damning evidence that capitalism is madness.  The situation offers the opportunity for us to argue for the fundamental transformation of society as the only alternative to a barbarous future.  Almost every aspect of modern life is contributing to the changing climate, from air transportation, to our reliance on cars, to how goods are produced and transported, how our food is grown, and how we light and heat our homes.  The common theme that runs through all these things, and what must be changed, is that they are all aspects of a capitalist economy and ideology.

The majority of the people of the US understand the necessity of drastically reducing carbon emissions.  We need to take this further and talk about how if we maintain capitalist and statist control, we are truly doomed and that the directly democratic control of the economy, organized along ecological lines, can slow, and begin to reverse, climate catastrophe.   By fundamentally reorganizing society we can avert further catastrophe and create a world worth living in.  We need a ‘movement from below’ and a social revolution to do this. And we need it soon.

Further Information: parasolpdx.wordpress.com

Further Reading:
Late Victorian Holocausts:  El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, Mike Davis (New York: Verso, 2001)
Six Degrees:  Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas (Washington, D.C., National Geographic, 2008)
Imperiled Life:  Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe, Javier Sethness-Castro (Oakland: AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2012)

Paul works with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, the editorial collective of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, the Parasol Climate Collective, the Hella 503 Collective, and the IWW.  He wrote the Foreword to Imperiled Life:  Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2012) and “Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Philosophy,” in The Philosophy of the Beats (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).  He is a bicycle enthusiast, an avid softballer, and a community acupuncturist. 


[1] DARA: “Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet (2nd Editon). http://daraint.org/climate-vulnerability-monitor/climate-vulnerability-monitor-2012/findings
[2] “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three Simple Numbers that add up to Global Catastrophe – and That Make Clear Who the Real Enemy Is,” Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone, July 19th, 2012
[3] Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas (Washington, D.C., National Geographic, 2008); Two Degrees chapter.
[4] Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, Bill McKibben
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rex_Tillerson
[6] http://americablog.com/2012/10/climate-criminal-number-one-exxon-ceo-rex-tillerson.html
[7] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/documents/global-warming-poll.pdf

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