Climate change and class conflict

Feature by Chris Harman, July/August 2007

Global warming threatens all humanity, but fighting it requires more 
than individual action, reliance on government or dropping other 
concerns. Chris Harman explains.

In the past two years the question of climate change has moved from 
the margins of mainstream political debate to the centre. Hardly a 
week goes by without some international meeting discussing it. 
Politicians and corporations of all hues now declare their commitment 
to do something; even George Bush admits that there is a problem.

There is a mixture of motives here. Tory leader David Cameron's 
installation (and subsequent removal) of a rooftop micro wind 
generator, involves pure publicity seeking. But some of those who run 
world capitalism understand that the environment on which their 
system depends is in danger of disintegrating within a generation or 

There is no longer much dispute about what is happening. A buildup of 
certain gases in the atmosphere is causing the average temperature 
across the world to rise with potentially catastrophic consequences. 
New weather patterns will affect the crops we rely on for food. The 
likelihood of storms and droughts will increase. Ice caps will melt. 
Rising sea levels threaten to flood low lying regions such as the 
Nile Delta, Bangladesh and parts of Florida (and eventually central 
London and Manhattan).

Most of the gases responsible are produced by burning carbon (in the 
form of coal) and hydrocarbons (in the form of petroleum products). 
This is the source of nearly all the energy on which present day 
society depends.

There are various difficult calculations showing what may happen if 
the buildup of these gases continues, but there is now widespread 
agreement on a range within which global temperatures will increase 
and on the likely effects. Estimates are provided, for instance, by 
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and were 
contained in the British government's Stern Review last October, 
although some scientific research suggests these understate the 

The Stern Review and the European Union argue that temperatures have 
to be prevented from rising by any more than two degrees Celsius. A 
two-degree increase would cause immense problems for people in the 
poorest parts of the world and anything higher would be devastating 
for them. But present policies will not hold temperature rises below 
even this limit. The concentration of gases causing global warming 
can be measured in parts per million (ppm) of "carbon dioxide 
equivalents". At present this is 459 ppm. The IPCC estimates that if 
the level reaches 510 ppm there is a one in three chance of the 
temperature rise exceeding two degrees; if the level reaches 590 ppm 
there is a nine out of ten chance.

Yet the emissions target of the Stern Review is 550 ppm. That of the 
British government is 666 ppm (if all greenhouse gases and not just 
carbon dioxide are included). This, according to author and activist 
George Monbiot, gives a 60 to 95 percent chance of a three degrees 
Celsius increase in warming and a likelihood of very dangerous 
climate change.

Last month's G8 meeting in Rostock did not even accept these targets. 
After declaring there was a major problem, the world's leaders 
postponed even beginning to do anything about it for two years. Even 
then all they will consider will be an attempt to halve emissions of 
the gases leading to climate change by 2050, whereas an 80 percent 
cut in emissions would be required to have a chance of keeping global 
warming below two degrees.

The roots of the problem

Governments and businesses have a genuine interest in stopping 
climate change, just as their predecessors a century and a half ago 
had a genuine interest in dealing with typhoid and cholera in slum 
working class districts in order to stop the diseases affecting upper 
class districts as well.

What is at stake for them now is greater. Not just their lives are 
threatened, but the stability of global capitalism. But they cannot 
achieve their goal without trying to dampen down the momentum of 
competitive capital accumulation, the very basis of their system.

Environmental degradation has always been a consequence of 
capitalism. Karl Marx showed this in the chapter on machinery in 
Capital: "Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a 
progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing 
the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a 
given time is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that 
fertility. The more a country starts its development on the 
foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, 
the more rapid is this process of destruction."

In early 19th century Britain the damage to the health and fitness of 
the working class caused by the drive for profit posed more of a 
danger to the capitalists than the infectious diseases themselves. It 
threatened eventually to create a shortage of workers fit enough to 
be exploited. The interests of the capitalist class as a whole lay in 
legislation and state inspection to prevent the debilitation of the 
workforce. But individual capitalist interests fought tooth and nail 
against such measures. Most of them only understood that a healthy 
working class was more exploitable than an unhealthy one after the 
state imposed controls.

Capitalism has now reached out to envelop the whole world and it 
damages not only localities but the global environment on which it 
depends. The factory fumes causing bronchitis in working class 
tenements have now become greenhouses gases threatening to devastate 
the whole of humanity.

It is precisely because this is a global problem, that those who 
support the system find it difficult to deal with. The drastic 
measures needed to reduce emissions will present opportunities for 
other firms and states to intrude on markets. Capitalism is in the 
situation of destroying the very ground on which it stands. Our 
futures - or at least our children's or grandchildren's futures - are 
also at stake.

How should we respond?

There are those who say that the only possible response is to see 
climate change as the issue that overshadows all others. Everything 
else has to be subordinated to building a campaign such as has never 
been seen before in an effort to force governments and firms to take 
the necessary action.

But campaigns focused purely on climate change will not be the answer 
to the problem. They can raise awareness of what is happening, but 
this is not the same as providing an organised force capable of 
imposing solutions. The most successful single issue campaigns, such 
as the anti-war movement, mobilise tens, sometimes hundreds, of 
thousands of people. In this way they can exert pressure sometimes 
sufficient to force governments to retreat from unpopular measures, 
or even, on occasions, to force the adoption of beneficial measures.

This is shown by the way the anti-war movement has increased the 
difficulties the US and British governments face waging war on Iraq. 
But for deep-seated change more is needed - there must be a power 
capable of imposing its will on strong capitalist interests. The 
people who have twice bombed Baghdad to defend their domination of 
the world's oil supplies will not be beaten simply by public opinion.

This is especially the case with climate change. The carbon economy 
is intertwined with every aspect of the system's functioning, 
including the lives of those of us living within it. Recognition of 
this leads many environmental activists to the conclusion that the 
only solution is for people to change their individual lifestyles. 
Since we all depend on carbon based energy, we all seem to be part of 
the problem.

But solutions based on this way of thinking cannot work. It is not 
just a question of people individually being selfish. For the great 
mass of people there are no other ways to fulfil our basic needs at 
present. You can think (as I do) that is irrational that individuals 
go to work encased in a tonne of metal propelled by pumping out 
carbon dioxide. But there is little choice but the private car for 
workers without access to proper public transport.

There are brilliant designs for carbon neutral homes, but hundreds of 
millions across the world do not live in such homes and cannot afford 
to buy new ones. In practice the easiest means for individuals to 
avoid using carbon-derived energy - low energy light bulbs or 
remembering to turn the computer off - have almost as much effect on 
combating climate change as spitting on the soil in dealing with the 
effect of a drought.

Recognition of such realities leads people who once looked upon 
individual actions as the solution to look to the state for action. 
This is what George Monbiot does in his generally excellent book 
Heat. He shows that only the world's states can bring about the 
reduction in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to end climate change 
without a fall in people's living standards. What he does not show is 
how to create the agency, the active mass force, that can compel the 
governments of the world's most polluting states to implement such 
measures. He puts forward a generally excellent political programme 
for a political force that does not exist.

Can such a force be created through the usual forms of electoral 
politics? The effort to create it comes up against the same powerful 
obstacle that makes individual solutions impossible. Environmental 
activists can end up tailoring their demands to what they think can 
be achieved without too great a disturbance to the present system. So 
they lobby for countries to sign up to the Kyoto agreement on the 
grounds that "at least it is a beginning", even though it has not 
stopped greenhouse gas emissions soaring. Or they join governments 
that have no intention of taking serious measures against climate 
change, as the Irish Green Party has just done.

What are governments up to?

The G8 meeting showed different governments taking apparently very 
different approaches. Even some of the most committed neoliberals, 
such as Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair claimed to want 
the controls which George Bush vetoed.

This reflected the fact that some capitalist economies are marginally 
less dependent on carbon energy than others. The western European 
states, for instance, are less profligate in carbon use than the US 
because historically they have not had oil supplies of their own and 
have sought to keep consumption low. France has massive nuclear 
energy facilities. Britain's greenhouse gas emissions were declining 
because of the halving of manufacturing industry. So European states 
can press for limited controls knowing it will hit their global 
competitors - the gas-guzzling US or the rapidly expanding Chinese 
economy - harder than themselves. But they still shy away from the 
far-reaching controls necessary to prevent climate change. Instead 
they favour "emissions trading" and "carbon offset" schemes which 
allow the big polluters to continue as before, providing they 
encourage some emission-reducing scheme somewhere else in the world.

Planting trees as supposed "carbon sinks" which absorb carbon dioxide 
is a favourite - even though trees die and decompose, releasing 
carbon gases. The market in this case, as in so many others, is not 
an effective mechanism. Firms that are expert at fiddling their books 
to avoid paying taxes can easily find ways to fiddle their emissions.

Particular governments promote the alternatives that are most 
advantageous to their own specific capitalist interests. One reason 
for Bush's sudden conversion to biofuels is that they open up the 
prospect of immensely enhanced profits for US agribusiness. Millions 
of acres which were making only average profits by producing food now 
stand to make superprofits by turning out an alternative to petrol. 
Multinational corporations that control vast swathes of land in 
tropical Third World countries are looking forward to producing 
diesel from oil seed plants.

This is already having an important impact. It is raising food prices 
worldwide at the fastest rate since the 1970s, according to the 
Financial Times, even though biofuel use is only equivalent to 1 
percent of petroleum use. In the medium term it can do much worse 
than this. It can lead to a depletion of the world's grain and oil 
seed reserves just as changing weather patterns due to climate change 
increase the likelihood of harvest failures in some of the major food 
producing regions. The result would not only be price rises but 
famine, affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Class conflict

There is an important general conclusion to be drawn from the biofuel 
example. By damaging the very environment on which the capitalist 
system depends for its continued expansion and accumulation, climate 
change is going to open enormous fissures within the system.

Sudden changes in climate impinge on people's lives on a massive 
scale and create immense social and political tensions. All the class 
and racial contradictions in US society came to the fore with the 
destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. In Darfur the 
combination of drought and imperialist meddling caused 
agriculturalists and herders who had coexisted peacefully for 
generations to turn on each other in civil war.

Climate scientists rightly warn that we cannot say with certainty 
that a single weather event like Katrina or the Darfur drought is a 
result of global warming. But what we can say with certainty is that 
climate change will produce many, many cases like those.

Earlier this year Mexico City saw an enormous protest - the "tortilla 
march" - over the cost of the country's staple foodstuff. Its price 
was soaring as the maize from which it is made is increasingly turned 
into biofuel. Filling SUV fuel tanks in California was causing hunger 
in Mexico. We can expect many similar protests in the years 
ahead-battles pitting class against class and also, it is to be 
feared, state against state and ethnic or religious groups against 
one another.

There have been previous instances of civilisations collapsing due to 
ecological devastation as did the Maya civilisation that flourished 
in southern Mexico around 1,200 years ago. Over-farming of the land 
led to a decline in fertility until starvation threatened the mass of 
people. But the upper classes did not suffer in the same way, and 
bitter class struggles erupted which tore society apart as people 
were forced to abandon their old way of life.

It will not be any different as climate change takes effect. There is 
unlikely to be one great movement, but there will be 1001 struggles 
as different classes respond to the impact. The real issues in these 
struggles may often seem complex. Capitalists and states will react 
to the need to do something about greenhouse gases by price and tax 
measures that inevitably hit the living standards of the poor (just 
as Ken Livingstone's congestion charge allows the rich to drive more 
easily through central London).

So there will be protests, strikes and uprisings whose immediate goal 
will be to reverse such price rises. The underlying motivation could 
be a strong sense of class grievance, yet these movements can also be 
manipulated by sections of the ruling class to advance the 
capitalists' interests in producing greater emissions. And there will 
be many, many cases when states and capitalists take measures to hurt 
the living standards of the mass of people, but disguise them as 
methods of addressing climate change.

Faced with these struggles, there will be a particular onus on those 
who see climate change as resulting from the blind advance of 
capitalist accumulation to understand their class dynamic. That means 
trying to give struggles a direction that protects people's living 
standards and conditions while at the same time presenting real 
alternatives to pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The only sure protection against climate change is the replacement of 
a society based on accumulation for profit with one based on 
production for need. But that will not come about if we wait for it. 
The impact of climate change will cause an intensification of all the 
struggles bred by capitalism, just as it will cause spasmodic 
protests over particular climate change issues. There is only one way 
to build the forces needed to put an end to the system that creates 
climate change. That is through participation in all these struggles, 
pulling them together into a force that can challenge capitalism as a