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 two.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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