On Friday, September 24, 2021, as students and young people mobilized around the globe to reprise the Global Climate Strike, one author of this piece was at a march in Manhattan led by groups like Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. While the action was impressive in size, systems like capitalism and socialism went undiscussed, and Biden was never criticized or even mentioned in chants.
After a year of record-breaking disasters that took lives throughout the world, it is more necessary than ever to name those responsible: the world’s largest corporations and their representatives in Washington. Throughout the United States many of 2021’s climate disasters were made worse by the lack of infrastructure in working-class communities. This can be seen in the freezing temperatures in Texas in February, which highlighted the failure of the state’s privatized energy grid, and in the summer heatwave that killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest. California wildfires set records again, and a tropical storm flooded NYC, killing some residents living in basement apartments. Such crises didn’t occur just in the United States. Brazil experienced its coldest weather in decades, massive fires swept through Greece and Turkey, floods ravaged Germany, and drought in Madagascar left 400,000 people on the brink of starvation.
July 2021 was earth’s hottest month on record. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center found that 30.7 million people were displaced by climate disasters in 2020, most of them from South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific. A study released in July found that more than 5 million extra deaths per year can already be attributed to abnormally hot and cold temperatures, which does not even include additional deaths related to disasters like floods, hurricanes, and storms. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released this summer soberly spelled out the urgency of the climate crisis. Such urgency requires a climate movement as international in scope as climate change itself. For this movement to successfully fight the climate crisis, it will need leaders from the most revolutionary sectors of the movement.
Capitalism Can’t Save Us. It’s the Root of the Crisis.
While the working class was forced to endure disaster after disaster, the capitalists and the world leaders that represent them made a mockery of the crisis. Biden began his presidency with completely insufficient plans to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, and his efforts only got worse as the year went on. Halfway into the year and just one month after the California wildfires set new records, Biden was encouraging greater crude oil production. In fact, just one year into his presidency, Biden is already on track to approve more oil and gas drilling leases than Trump did in the last three years of his presidency.
But the climate movement must understand that all capitalist world leaders exist to represent the interests of their national bourgeoisie. This was demonstrated at COP26 in October. Marketed as the biggest conference to address the climate crisis since the 2015 Paris Accords, COP26 was, in reality, a PR masquerade for the same world leaders who are enabling the wide-scale destruction of the planet. Rightly derided by many as COP-out 26, the conference gave world leaders an opportunity to greenwash their destructive policies.
Over 100 world leaders and tens of thousands of delegates attended COP26. They were joined by more than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists. According to Global Witness, the fossil fuel lobby at COP26 was “larger than the combined total of the eight delegations from the countries worst affected by climate change in the last two decades.” Meanwhile, Indigenous people, who are at the front lines of the climate crisis and are earth’s most unwavering protectors, faced massive barriers to entry. It’s no wonder that the resolutions of the already inadequate Glasgow Climate Pact were further reduced at the last minute, from “phasing out” to “phasing down” coal power and subsidies for fossil fuels. And as usual, the agreement reached was toothless; compliance with the requirement to tighten inadequate climate protection plans by the end of 2022 remains completely voluntary.
Conferences like COP26 have become greenwashing circuses. Even as the discourse around climate seems to be more broadly embraced by governments and corporations, the agreements and actions mandated since the Kyoto Protocol have become ever more permissive and business friendly, which is exactly why emissions have continued to rise.
More than anything, COP26 demonstrated that capitalism refuses to solve the climate crisis, because to do so would undermine the profits that drive the capitalist system.
The Limits of the Climate Movement
Already, the new year has begun with massive fires sweeping through Colorado and destroying hundreds of homes. This shows clearly that the disaster-packed year 2021 was not an anomaly but an example of the new world we’re living in. The state of the climate crisis will only get worse, and capitalist leaders have demonstrated that they will never take serious action on behalf of the working class and oppressed communities around the world that suffer most from climate change. This means that the climate movement must change its response to the climate crisis by fighting the capitalist system that is responsible.
At Left Voice, we see the youth movements around the world as an essential part of the vanguard of the climate movement. Young climate activists have shown on multiple occasions that they can organize mass mobilizations that force climate change into the spotlight and advance the conversation around the reality of the crisis. The youth vanguard has demonstrated a greater awareness of interlocking systems of oppression that share capitalism as a root, like the discussions of environmental racism that grew out of 2020 racial justice protests.
The impact of the youth climate movement can be seen in young people’s perceptions of climate change. At least 72 percent of young people saw climate change as a main concern in 2020, compared to 58 percent in 2015. This is in no small part thanks to the highly visible climate movements, energized by the Fridays for Future school strike movement founded in 2018 by then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg. In 2019, Global Climate Strikes took place across 4,500 locations in 150 countries, with somewhere between 4 million and 7 million people participating worldwide — the largest climate protests to date. The mobilizations were still far from the estimated 15 million to 26 million people who participated in the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the United States alone. Regardless, it’s safe to say that, before the pandemic struck, the climate movement was gaining serious momentum.
Yet the young activists who make up the climate movement are not without their limitations. Many of the young activists driving the conversation on the climate issue, including Thunberg, frame the problem as one of inaction on the part of world leaders, rather than as a result of a system based on maximum resource extraction and ever-increasing energy use.
Meanwhile, the Sunrise Movement, one of the largest groups mobilizing young people around climate issues, endorsed Biden’s presidential campaign, despite initially giving his climate policy an F grade. Endorsements from Sunrise and other climate groups gave Biden cover for his well-established record of environmental destruction.
Now in office, Biden has been continuing some of Trump’s worst climate policies, not because he is some uniquely two-faced politician, but because as a representative of the capitalist class, the U.S. president will always do what is in the best interest of capital. Without an understanding of how class interests shape climate policy in the United States, newly politicized climate activists may risk making the same mistake of collaborating with the Democrats, just to be betrayed, burn out, and become nihilists.
Limitations of the youth movements also come in the form of the demands that these groups put forward. In the United States, climate groups and reformist tendencies on the Left still present the Green New Deal as the most ambitious plan for the U.S. Left to mobilize around. While a Green New Deal would absolutely include reforms that the Left would be wise to accept, it is not nearly ambitious enough to be a demand that the climate movement should put all its resources into fighting for.
In fact, emphasis on the Green New Deal as the main approach to fighting the crisis risks reinforcing capitalism because, rather than advocating a complete restructuring of how humanity interacts with the world’s resources, the Green New Deal seeks to use the existing capitalist system to incentivize corporations to “go green.”
Some sectors of the Left have begun to rethink how they engage with their resources on a local scale by putting forward the strategy of mutual aid, especially since the Covid pandemic starkly displayed the U.S. state’s failure to provide for people’s needs. As socialists, we absolutely encourage people to engage with their communities in a mutually supportive way, but we discourage the idea that revolutionary energy should be directed to localized actions. As Left Voice writer Ezra Brain has written, mutual aid is a strategy that seeks to treat the symptoms of capitalism rather than cure the disease. The power of the capitalist class is held and enforced primarily through the state. Since the capitalist state makes the decisions that fuel the climate crisis, it should be the primary task of socialists to build our own organizations, including a party of the working class, to seize power. Only in this way can we achieve a socialist system that can produce the goods we need in a sustainable and rational way.
The limited ambitions and tactics of the youth movements should not be seen as a reason to disregard young climate activists. Rather, revolutionaries should work in the youth movements, fostering genuine socialist perspectives: greater class independence, internationalism, an understanding of capitalism as the root of the crisis, and the need for a centralized planned economy democratically controlled by the working class and the oppressed.
For a Socialist Perspective in the Climate Movement
Uniting the climate movement and the working class is easier said than done. But it can be done. At the very start of 2021, French oil workers and climate activists united in struggle against the oil and gas multinational Total. This struggle demonstrated how — despite what capitalists will say to divide workers — the interests of the environmental movement and the working class are aligned. The climate movement must demonstrate this to workers by showing solidarity with labor struggles. The climate movement cannot expect workers to show up for actions around climate struggle if climate activists do not show up for labor struggles.
Socialists within the climate movement and within the labor movement have an important role to play in pushing the perspective of unity between the climate movement and labor movement. It is also essential that such leaders foster internationalism within the climate movement. While our demands are often national in scope, this must be understood as part of the larger effort to unite the international working class around a socialist program to fight the climate crisis with a revolutionary socialist perspective.
Along with uniting with the working class, the larger climate movement must show unconditional solidarity with Indigenous land defenders and water protectors throughout the world. These struggles are the planet’s front line of defense, in which Indigenous peoples often face off against the state’s violence and the advance of multinational industries. Some estimates indicate that Indigenous people protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. That said, even the most militant movements of the oppressed, including Indigenous struggles, are not without misleaders who are willing to compromise with capital. Just as we encourage the most advanced elements of the youth movements to lead their sectors of the climate vanguard, we also believe that the most advanced elements of Indigenous movements can provide the leadership necessary for such struggles to win.
For socialists and climate activists in the United States, an internationalist approach to the climate movement must emphasize unconditional opposition to U.S. imperialism. This is not only a moral obligation but also a strategic one. There are few threats greater to the planet and international worker solidarity than the U.S. military, which drives environmental destruction across the planet by contaminating land and water, massively consuming fossil fuels, and violently repressing frontline Indigenous struggles.
The Left and the working class in the United States and in other wealthy countries in the Global North must also understand that climate change-driven forced displacement will be one of the main crises that socialists will need to respond to both before and after we seize power. Socialists in wealthy countries must be prepared to mobilize in defense of climate refugees from the Global South, who will no doubt be used as targets of the Far Right to stoke nationalism within the working class.
Leaders of the Left must be unequivocal in calling for immediate and unconditional defunding of the Pentagon and opening of the borders as part of an anti-imperialist response to the climate crisis. Of course, these are two demands that will never fly within the capitalist Democratic Party, hence the need for the U.S. Left to immediately begin the task of building a revolutionary party built on complete independence of the working class.
2022 needs to be the year that the most advanced sectors of the climate movement take the lead and push the movement past the limitations of the NGO misleaders, reformist tendencies, and localized attempts to respond to the global climate crisis. It’s time that climate leaders fight for class independence, internationalism, and a socialist perspective at the forefront of the movement.