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Climate Catastrophe and Socialist Strategy

Imperialist-era capitalism has created a climate emergency. The ecological Left needs to develop and put forward a socialist program as the only response capable of staving off the catastrophe.

Diego Lotito

March 8, 2020
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Illustration: Sou Mi

In September of this year, hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets in cities around the world as part of a student strike against climate change.

The movement was set in motion back in August, 2018, when the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg stood in front of the Swedish parliament holding a sign that read “School strike for the climate.” Inspired by this action, the “Fridays for Future” movement spread across European cities, with students skipping school and demonstrating against the global environmental crisis under the slogan “There is no Planet B.” The movement was bolstered in December 2018 by Thunberg’s powerful speech at the Climate Change Conference (COP 24) in Katowice, Poland.

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“Our civilization,” said the 15-year-old activist, “is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the suffering of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”

The movement is being spearheaded by millenial and Generation Z activists. Its program has so far been limited to demanding that the authorities take urgent measures against climate change. Its social and political impact, however, has led to a broad debate among young people and the Left around the world about how to confront the threat of climate change, its relationship with the intrinsically anti-environmental dynamics of capitalism and capitalist states, and what measures are necessary to avoid the catastrophe. And, above all, it has shed light on the perception of the environmental crisis among broad sectors of the younger generations, who have concluded that there is no future without a radical transformation of the capitalist mode of production.

Meanwhile, the global establishment is divided between climate change denial, the “green capitalism” and cosmetic reforms promoted at climate summits, and the social democratic proposals of a Green New Deal.

In this context, the mass movement of youth who expect nothing from capitalism other than inequality, precarious work, and the degradation of the planet has created an opportunity to debate a revolutionary strategy needed to end the cause of climate change and environmental devastation: the capitalist system.

A Catastrophic Phenomenon Called Climate Change”

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” said Debra Roberts, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Although the various climate summits have “sounded the alarm” about climate change, important scientific organizations have been alerting us about these changes for decades. The IPCC and prestigious scientific journals like Science have presented research indicating the possibility of truly catastrophic scenarios, arguing that if current CO2 emission levels continue, “the world would face the fastest rate of climate change in at least the past 10,000 years, [which] could potentially alter ocean current circulations and radically change existing climate patterns.”1Thomas Karl and Kevin Trenberth, “Modern Global Climate Change,” Science, December 2003.

These estimates may initially seem abstract. Their importance has, however, become increasingly clear as the world has witnessed their devastating consequences, such as the rise in destructive storms, tropical cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes; the transfer of heat from the equator toward the poles; reduced soil moisture; and rising sea levels due to melting glaciers and polar ice sheets, resulting in the flooding of farmland and the salinization of coastal aquifers.

Since 1880, the average temperature of the earth’s surface has risen 1°C, according to the IPCC. This is a drastic change that has already had devastating consequences, increasing the intensity of catastrophic climate phenomena, as well as their frequency and duration. These have included recurring hurricanes and increasingly destructive tornadoes in the Caribbean, such as Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries in 2017, or the cyclone that killed more than one thousand people in Mozambique in March. Wildfires have become more intense and frequent, ravaging entire cities across the globe. Extreme heat waves have spread, affecting 30 percent of the world’s population. In South Asia, 41 million people have suffered from the effects of massive floods. There has also been an increase in catastrophic droughts, like those that led to the forced displacement of 760,000 people in Somalia.

According to the United Nations, climate change has produced more than twenty million refugees, more than those resulting from war. And there is even increasing talk of “climate wars,” a term coined by German social psychologist Herald Welzer to refer to armed conflicts triggered by environmental changes, especially those caused by global warming.

As recently acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO), if the current trend continues, the consequences of climate change could lead to an additional 250,000 deaths each year from 2030 to 2050, according to a conservative estimate.

This devastation mainly affects the poorest peoples of the world, whose resources have been pillaged by the imperialist powers. But it does not only affect them. Even in the powerful and industrialized United States, climate change has led to incalculable disasters, like the recent fires in the West or the massive floods in the Carolinas. In all these cases, the environmental catastrophes have mainly affected the most exploited and oppressed. The “resources” made available by capital—technology, machinery, or money—have proved useless.

The need to combat climate change with drastic measures is undeniable. According to the latest IPCC report, greenhouse gas emissions would have to be reduced by 45 percent by 2030—in less than twelve years—to avoid exceeding the critical warming threshold of 1.5 degrees, above which significant sea-level rises, extreme weather events, and food shortages would become widespread.

This scenario leaves no room for partial or “reformist” measures. Global warming is just one manifestation, perhaps one of the most devastating, of the capitalist system’s destructive power.

Denialism and “Green Capitalism”

Capitalism’s response to the global climate change crisis has fluctuated between two strategies: On the one hand, a campaign of denial of the scientific evidence, presenting it as a “ideology” rather than as fact. On the other, a strategy for the promotion of “green” or “sustainable capitalism,” which promotes international agreements and aims at a partial and limited reconversion of production systems, while preserving and strengthening the model of capitalist accumulation and exploitation.

The denialist camp is very broad. It includes Trump, the Republicans, and figures of the far-right in the United States, but at its core are the world’s big corporations. As Luciano Andrés Valencia points out, the main driving forces of the “denial industry” are oil, automobile, and metal corporations, as well as utility companies, which are primarily responsible for the greenhouse emissions.

These huge corporations, like BP, Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries, annually spend billions of dollars on campaigns promoting climate change denial. They have even created lobbies like the Global Climate Coalition, hiring scientists and public relations specialists to convince journalists, governments, and the general public that the warnings about climate change are inaccurate and blown up to justify regulatory policies limiting emissions.

This is the basis for the Trump administration’s position on climate change. This is unsurprising, coming from the creators of “alternative facts.” In short, their position is that “climate change doesn’t exist, or if it does, it’s not our fault, but a natural phenomenon.” According to them, all the scientific evidence, as well as the catastrophic consequences of climate change, are pure “ideology.”

Science is not unaffected by economic interests or class struggle. Under the empire of capital and big monopolies, there can be no neutral science. Even so, the overwhelming majority of the scientific community—and even, cynically, much of the world capitalist establishment—agrees that if the temperature on earth rises by more than 2 °C, we will witness a planetary catastrophe. In this context, ideology—in the Marxist sense of “false consciousness”—is what is advocated by the side that denies the environmental and social devastation produced by the capitalist economy, while promoting the false idea that climate change means only “hotter summers.”

On the other side of the debate, the “green capitalism” camp is no less diverse. The U.S. Democratic Party, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, various flourishing capitalist corporations, international organizations, and even environmentalists and NGOs all oppose the denialist view. Practicing a sort of syncretism between neoliberalism, neo-Keynesianism, and “green economics,” they condemn global warming and take part in expensive climate summits in which they agree to take measures to protect the climate and hit ambitious emission reduction targets, but these goals never amount to more than a series of written promises without any serious practical consequences.

Although they consider climate change a scientifically proven fact, they cannot offer a solution, because to do so, they would need to go beyond the frameworks of the capitalist system of production. Their policy for combating global warming has thus been mainly limited to promoting “mitigation” and “adaptation,” that is, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and measures to curb its devastating consequences.

The most significant global strategy of this kind was the Kyoto Protocol, ratified in December 2004. Despite the refusal of the Bush II administration to join, the agreement was considered a major step forward even though the protocol merely “recommended” minor reductions in CO2 emissions by thirty-four industrialized nations.

Even so, the protocol allows companies to evade meaningful carbon reduction targets by using “flexible mechanisms,” granting polluters the right to emit even more carbon dioxide through the purchase and sale of “carbon credits.” Yes, imperialist capitalism managed to create a new market from the crisis of global warming: a global exchange wherein tens of billions of dollars’ worth of credits are traded.

The Kyoto Summit (COP3, 1997) was followed by others that failed (COP15 Copenhagen, 2009) or merely revealed the stagnation of the discussions (COP19 Warsaw, 2013). The last major summit was COP21, which met in Paris. In 2015, representatives from 195 countries participated in what the then French president, François Hollande, referred to as the first “universal pact in the history of climate negotiations.”

However, “global summits on global warming are not truly effective but rather exercises in theatrical diplomacy,” philosopher and ecologist Jorge Riechmann points out. And the Paris Summit was just that: another performance orchestrated by the planet’s main polluters.

The text of the agreement established a target increase in global temperatures of 2°C compared to preindustrial levels, with the possibility of reducing it to 1.5°C. But the provisions for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are determined “at the national level,” that is, by individual countries. The agreement does not establish any commitment, plan, review mechanism, or sanctions in the event of noncompliance.

In addition, for the agreement to become effective in 2020, it must be ratified, accepted, or approved by at least fifty-five countries representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet any country can withdraw, providing prior notice “at any time after a period of 3 years from the effective date of the agreement.”

Like the Kyoto Protocol, it is an utter farce. This was confirmed by one of the world’s leading climatologists, NASA scientist James Hansen, who in an interview with the Guardian said:

It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2 degree warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned.

Even though the Paris Agreement is, by its very nature, completely incapable of reducing carbon emissions, the Trump administration—like Bush in Kyoto—refused to even accept that reduction rate. The decision, however, is logical. The COP21 document is an attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but the limits it establishes are absolutely incompatible with the capitalist system.

The essence of capitalism is the expansion of profit and accumulation at any cost—even the destruction of the planet. While China and the United States, together with the European Union, produce most of the greenhouse gases that are destroying the troposphere and capitalists respond with denialism or ineffectual environmental crisis management summits, the rest of the world continues to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change.

This is why the idea that “green capitalism” can sustain the planet, humanity, and all species is nothing but an illusion. The solution to the global climate crisis cannot in any case emerge from the very system that produced it.

Environmental Crisis, “Green New Deal,” and “Sustainable Capitalism”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto that

modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

While these words effectively describe and still describe the contradictions between capital and labor, they can also be applied to the contradiction between capital and nature.

Climate change, among other terrifying manifestations of the global environmental crisis, is a sign of the “powers of the nether world” generated by capitalism, whose first devastating consequences are now clearly unavoidable.

This situation, which is completely unprecedented in human history, is the logical—and not merely accidental—result of an economic system driven by the ruling classes’ thirst for profit, even if satisfying this thirst implies the destruction of the environment and the vital forces of workers and peasants around the world.

Since its beginnings, capitalism has had a contemptuous and exploitative attitude toward nature, as if the resources it provides to humankind are infinite and, above all, free of cost. “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature,” wrote Engels in his Dialectics of Nature. “For each such conquest takes its revenge on us … at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst.”

In his theory of the “metabolic rift”2For a more in-depth analysis of the Marxian concept of “metabolic rift,” see John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). in the relationship between the city and the countryside, between human beings and the earth, Marx clearly and critically recognized the destructive power of capital, arguing that the rift in nature’s universal metabolism inevitably entails the degradation of the material conditions for the truly free and sustainable development of human beings.

But what at the time was a distant scenario in the theoretical horizon of the founders of revolutionary Marxism has become, in our time, a patent reality. The irrationality of the capitalist-imperialist system of production and its patterns of consumption now poses a serious threat to the natural balance of the planet and, with it, the very existence of immense portions of the human species and millions of other species that inhabit the planet.

The members of the Fridays for Future movement against climate change that has spread throughout Europe and the world are increasingly aware of this reality. This is why they denounce the capitalist system as the cause of the ecological crisis. They even sense intuitively that behind the declarations of intentions made by world leaders at climate summits, there is nothing more than demagoguery. Yet they still lack a strategy to overcome it. Their current strategy is limited to vigorous condemnation and the demand that capitalist political representatives take urgent measures in response to the crisis. At best, they embrace the prospect of a Green New Deal (GND), as does a broad sector of environmental activists in the United States and Europe.

In the United States, this policy is promoted by some presidential candidates for the Democratic Party, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as the “democratic socialist” Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. According to Ocasio-Cortez, the GND would allow the United States to transition to 100 percent renewable energy within ten years, while creating millions of jobs linked to the construction of an efficient power grid across the country, based on renewable energy, among other measures.

This policy, however, in no way transcends the limits of U.S. capitalism. On the contrary, it would require the billionaire mega corporations that are responsible for the current ecological crisis to develop the infrastructure to get us out of this disaster. And to do this, they would be provided with substantial public subsidies.3For an in-depth critique of the “Green New Deal,” see Wladek Flakin and Robert Belano, “A Green New Deal Can’t Save Us. A Planned Economy Can,” Left Voice, Spring 2019.

The idea behind the GND or similar initiatives, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promoted by the United Nations, is that if the governments of the big industrialized countries of the world became aware of the situation, they would take drastic measures to preserve the environment, along with corporations. True “sustainable development” could thus finally be achieved.

The recurring use of this concept is significant. For decades, this idea has been a constant in political, economic, and environmental literature. It is even used by sectors of the self-proclaimed anti-capitalist left. Although there are many definitions of the term sustainable development, the most characteristic one was first formulated in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, which defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”4Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission): Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Under capitalism, however, under which even “the needs of the present” are not met, it is even more unlikely that the needs of future generations will be addressed. Both the GND and the 2030 Agenda, which are supported by a large portion of today’s “progressive” political forces, are based on the idea that “sustainable capitalism” is possible and that the corporations that have created the current crisis can be the ones to ultimately save the planet. This idea is clearly contradictory.

Workers’ Hegemony, and a Socialist Perspective

Against the absolutely irrational outcomes to which we are condemned under capitalism, it is increasingly clear that drastic and urgent measures need to be taken. But these cannot depend on the goodwill of those governing the imperialist powers that are primarily responsible for the current disaster, or on the “new progressive and green agendas” promoted by the big corporations of “green capitalism.”

It is necessary to take the present and the future into our own hands by the rational planning of the global economy or, as Marx would say, by “introducing reason into the sphere of economic relations.” And this is possible only if economic planning is in the hands of the only class that has an interest in avoiding the catastrophe, because of its objective situation and material interests: the working class.

In opposition to the farce of climate summits and the promises of a “green capitalism” led by imperialist corporations, it is necessary to implement a transitional program aimed at a complete rational and ecological reorganization of production, distribution, and consumption.

To do this, it is first necessary to radically reorganize the energy sector, expropriating big corporations to place companies under workers’ democratic control and under the supervision of consumer committees. The energy sector could thus be completely restructured, allowing a rapid transition toward the exclusive use of renewable energy sources aimed at meeting the needs of the population.

At the same time, it is necessary to nationalize all transportation companies, without compensation and under workers’ control, as well as the auto manufacturers, to achieve a massive reduction in automobile production and private transport, while developing public transportation at all levels.

The nationalization of these industries under direct workers’ management would only be the first step toward the nationalization of all strategic economic industries with the aim of establishing a truly sustainable general plan.

This program, along with other essential measures, is obviously impossible to achieve within a capitalist framework. To carry it out, we need a revolutionary strategy to firmly confront those responsible for the disaster. The young people who have taken to the streets around the world to fight for “climate justice” now face the challenge of advancing in the radicalization of their program to propose the only path toward a real alternative to this crisis: the intensification of class struggle to end the capitalist system and put the levers of the global economy in the hands of the working class.

At the same time, the working class needs to position itself as the hegemonic subject of this struggle, taking up these demands not only as part of its struggle to improve its living conditions, but also to find a progressive solution to the civilizational crisis created by capitalism.

This is the indispensable precondition for establishing a system based on solidarity that could restore the natural metabolism between human beings and nature and reorganize social production, respecting natural cycles without depleting our resources, while putting an end to poverty and social inequality. Only a socialist system can achieve these goals.

In the context of the looming environmental catastrophe, the dilemma of “socialism or barbarism,” as expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, acquires new meaning. On the eve of the imperialist carnage that was World War I, the great Polish revolutionary warned that “if the proletariat fails to fulfill its class duties, if it fails to realize socialism, we shall crash down together to a common doom.” In Luxemburg’s view, socialism was not a predetermined outcome for humanity. The only “inevitable” scenario was the collapse to which capitalism would lead and the calamities that this process would entail if the working class failed to prevent it.

In our century, a declining and decaying capitalism presents the working class and the peoples of the world not only with the barbarism of war and misery, but also with the potential destruction of the planet. A truly ecological project to avert the environmental catastrophe to which capitalism will otherwise lead us is necessarily anti-capitalist and, as such, must be led by the working class and imposed by revolutionary struggle.

Translation: Marisela Trevin


1 Thomas Karl and Kevin Trenberth, “Modern Global Climate Change,” Science, December 2003.
2 For a more in-depth analysis of the Marxian concept of “metabolic rift,” see John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).
3 For an in-depth critique of the “Green New Deal,” see Wladek Flakin and Robert Belano, “A Green New Deal Can’t Save Us. A Planned Economy Can,” Left Voice, Spring 2019.
4 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission): Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
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Diego Lotito

Diego is a journalist from Madrid. He is a member of the Revolutionary Workers Current (CRT) and an editor of IzquierdaDiario.es.


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