For social foresight against profit priorities: workers’ climate action!

Submitted by AWL on 2 November, 2021 - 11:18 Author: Editorial
"System change not climate change" placards

The COP26 talks (Glasgow, 31 October to 12 November) are an embarrassment for the capitalist class. On the one hand they cannot simply ignore the reality of climate change. On the other hand, they are aware of years of failure, the fossil fuel industries’ current plans for a multi-trillion dollar expansion, and the complete absence of a carbon drawdown infrastructure.

In 1992, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was established, leading to the COP process, 78% of primary energy generation was from fossil fuels. In 2019, twenty-four COP summits later, it was 79%. And 79% of a 60% bigger total.

The share of wind and solar had risen from almost zero to 3%; of hydroelectric, stayed at 6%; of nuclear, dropped from 5.4% to 4%.

In the absence of any strategy to limit emissions the capitalist class are sounding increasingly unhinged. The voice of bourgeois respectability, the Financial Times, ran a headline “Extinction” over a picture of an primate skull. Boris Johnson compared the picture to a football match: “humanity as a whole is about 5-1 down at half-time”.

None of them can explain the problem, still less a solution. Who does Johnson think “humanity as a whole” are playing against? What is this unstoppable force that is driving us to catastrophes?

The capitalist class has spent the 26 years since the first COP meeting in 1995 organising workers to do specific jobs, mining, drilling, refining, logging, etc,, rather than working on renewables, nuclear, and energy economies. Capitalist decisions have resulted in an extra 700 plus gigatonnes of carbon in the atmosphere.

We have over 400 new coal mines underway or announced as of June 2021. 118,500 new oil and gas wells projected in 2021-2, 468 new oil and gas pipelines or pipeline-expansions in active development as of February 2021.

The world leaders have been powerless to even halt the expansion of fossil capital, let alone curb and replace it. How are they going to cope with escalating numbers of climate refugees, food shortages, and sea level rise?


Despite appearances, capitalists do not run the economy by free individual decisions. Economic life runs according to its own mindless dynamic, the endless pursuit of profit. Workers have to follow the bosses’ orders or face destitution; bosses have to maximise profits or they go out of business. Left to its own devices, unrestrained profit-seeking wreaks human and ecological havoc.

Capitalists do not create profit. Profit is a part of the new value produced by workers in our daily labour. It is the difference between the new value we produce and wages we take home. That surplus belongs to the capitalist class. They distribute it among themselves and their lackeys (politicians, top media people, consultants, top public officials, etc.), whether via swindling and corruption or “above-board” payments is secondary. The fossil fuel industries are undoubtedly deeply corrupt and corrupting, but that is not the cause of their growth.

They have grown because they produce profit. Constructing fossil-fuel infrastructure and vehicles yields profits, and reduces short-term costs compared to lower-emission alternatives.

There are three main ways to increase profit: minimise costs, maximise turnover, and expand. Everything that is produced under capitalism is produced according to these principles. In the physical world, this means the waste products of capitalist production are dumped as cheaply as possible, renewable resources (including human workers) are exploited to the point of exhaustion, and the scale of destruction grows with time.

William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” were a consequence of the unrestrained profit seeking of early industrial capitalism. In 19th century England rivers were thick with sewage, and children worked for 12-14 hours a day handling chemicals that left them facially disfigured. Working-class pressure, and the reluctant awareness of capitalists that they were fouling their own nests, forced state action in the form of legislation (the Factory Acts, environmental regulation) and public services (sanitation, healthcare). Capitalists tend to resist regulation and taxation, knowing it eats into their profits. It is class struggle that forces the state to act.

But piecemeal state actions imposing costs on capitalism’s most wasteful practices do not solve capitalism’s tendency for ecological destruction. So long as the rule of profit dominates, those state actions often push crises onto new terrain, and often at a greater scale. The world is now home to 900 million slum dwellers without basic sanitation, two billion sweatshop workers, and 40.3 million slaves.

Atmospheric carbon has amassed because fossil capital is still largely unregulated.

Almost all the scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists that limit warming even to 2 degrees Celsius (let alone the 1.5 C Paris target) require a massive and rapid deployment of carbon drawdown infrastructure. Yet there is still not one large gas or coal-fired power station anywhere in the world that is capturing and storing its emissions. “Direct air capture”, taking CO2 from the atmosphere, is still a small-scale infant technology.

Carbon drawdown and storage produces no sellable commodity. For capitalists, this is a waste management problem that can only be paid for out of general taxation. The 192 national governments that meet at COP have no idea how to fund this work, so it is simply not happening.

Without curbs on fossil capital and public resources building carbon drawdown infrastructure, the crisis will worsen. Climate crises will escalate and compound one another and at the same time the resources we need to deal with those crises dwindle.

Workers’ power

The solution is to build a social force that can replace the rule of profit with common ownership and rational democratic planning, which can organise the work of halting and reversing climate change and building resources to adapt to the climate damages that is now already locked in.

History provides many examples of mass workers’ movements taking over workplaces, seizing productive wealth, and reorienting to “social production controlled by social foresight”, as Marx put it. Those episodes of workers’ control were often short lived, but they show a latent social force capable of organising human work on a rational basis rather than by the priority of profit.

We call on environmentalists to join with Workers’ Liberty supporters for political struggle inside the trade unions and Labour Party, and labour movements internationally, to win the mass organisations to these perspectives and to sharp, definite policies in place of greenwash or vague “do-something”-ism.

At the Labour Party conference on 25-29 September, we helped win a majority for a bolder green policy than ever before. The Labour leadership wants to override the conference policy, for example to delete common ownership of the energy industries. The outcome depends on political battles in hundreds and thousands of workplaces, trade union branches, and local Labour Parties, and their equivalents in other countries.

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