Friday, April 24, 2015

How to Change the Climate

Back in 2005, in the aftermath of the disastrous, Indian Ocean tsunami, The Militant coined a phrase that shouldn't need to be said: "Geology indisputably played a role." As though anybody argued with that. But The Militant thought geology played a rather small role, as the rest of the paragraph makes clear.
The staggering loss of life produced by the tsunami’s wrath, though, was largely due to the absence of any warning system—including in places such as India where the waves struck the shores four hours after the quake. Resources on hand—from communications, to roads, transportation, electrical grids, medical care, and food supplies—have also been scarce to respond to the disaster in its immediate aftermath. These are the products of the plunder of the region’s resources and labor over decades by the wealthy imperialist states—whose governments are now tripping over each other to paint themselves as generous benefactors—aided and abetted by the local capitalist regimes.
The claim--that capitalism bears most of the fault for the disaster--is silly. I argued as much in this blog's past incarnation, here. Still, at least The Militant granted some role for geology, or more generically, for acts of God. Not every problem can be laid at the feet of capitalism.

Not so with Socialist Action. They have gone from the plausible hypothesis that human activity has some influence on the climate, directly to the claim that the climate is completely within human control. It is only because of the greed of the bankers and capitalists that we have bad weather at all. The opening sentence of Andrew Pollack's article on Hurricane Sandy makes the point. "By now the scientific consensus is clear: the fury of Hurricane Sandy was greatly magnified by human-caused climate change." No room left for natural causes.

Far from being a scientific consensus, the sentence is a crackpot idea, arrived at by taking literally the most exaggerated fever dreams of extremist climateers. But our task here is not to argue with them, but rather to take the statement as a given. Assume, therefore, that the future climate (and not the distant future, either) depends sensitively on how we as a society organize our means of production.

The relevant question then becomes How do we change the climate?

That brings us to the speech by the South African activist, Patrick Bond, delivered in Tunis in March (reprinted in Socialist Action). The event was an organizing meeting in preparation for the COP21 United Nations shindig to be held later this year in Paris. Mr. Bond discussed different strategies that the Left might pursue. Socialist Action makes it clear they don't agree with either of his alternatives, and instead in a lengthy preface propose a third.

The first option (which I'll dub the reformist strategy) is to work "inside." That means collaborating with governments and NGOs to find practical solutions to curb CO2 and methane emissions, ideas such as carbon taxes, carbon capture, or more nuclear power.

Both Mr. Bond and Socialist Action reject the reformist strategy. First, it in no way rises to the urgent challenge of rescuing the planet from imminent disaster. Minor fiddling with CO2 output is drastically insufficient. Second, reformists will inevitably get bought off, making deals with the capitalists for small (albeit lucrative) favors that don't benefit the climate. Trotskyists have always opposed reformism as being class-collaborationist, which in their view always fails. (No doubt in terms of making revolutions it always does fail, but then so does Trotskyism.)

Mr. Bond supports the second alternative, that I'll dub the ultraleft approach. It can be summarized as shut the mother down. The template is the protests in Seattle around the WTO conference in 1999. Those did manage to short circuit the WTO meetings, but otherwise seemed to have rather little impact. It is not clear how similar events in Paris are going to modify the climate. Throwing a temper tantrum is rarely a constructive solution.

Socialist Action poses a third solution, which I'll call the mass movement strategy. This is always Trotskyists' favorite solution, since ultimately organizing the masses is the only way to effect revolutionary change. Their model is the People's Climate March in New York, last Fall, in which 400,000 people marched for--just what exactly? Socialist Action raises the slogan System change; Not climate change, which presumably is the modern analog of the Vietnam war era slogan, Out Now.

But the slogan is completely empty. First, system change is much more ambitious that simply changing the climate (though that seems hard enough). It requires a root and branch change in the very way we organize everything. Climate activists--i.e., people who are actually seriously interested in problems related to climate change--will be unwilling to make their task oh so much harder and more complicated. Rather than simplifying the problem for them, Socialist Action's slogan makes it sound impossible.

Second, system change is not obviously connected to climate change. What guarantee is there that changing the system will improve the climate? Certainly it didn't work in the former Soviet Union or Maoist China. The only evidence that it will work in the future are vague promises from Andrew Pollack, Bill Onasch, and Carl Sack. And activists are supposed to stake their cause on that? Not likely.

And finally, system change is completely disconnected from any individual effort. This, too, is a Trotskyist theme, because they maintain that all social problems are because of capitalism, not because of any individual cupidity.

So, for example, Socialist Action never asks how Patrick Bond got from Durban to Tunis. Presumably he took an airplane, which is not very environmentally conscious of him. Socialist Action will claim that this is irrelevant, because until we change the system, nothing Mr. Bond can personally do will change the climate. But after system change, then the airplane ride will be OK. Because--don't you know--pilots working for the working class pollute much less than pilots flying planes for capitalists. Go figure.

The problem with Socialist Action is they moralize everything. The climate is a moral issue, capitalism is immoral, and therefore capitalism must be bad for the climate. The argument doesn't even work as a syllogism even if you're willing to grant the premises. It's completely nutty, as I suspect the folks at Socialist Action realize. Their involvement in the climate fight is merely tactical--to recruit members to their cause--rather than any heartfelt seriousness about the urgency of climate change.

The climate movement is ultimately doomed. First, the catastrophe predicted by the likes of Socialist Action is unlikely to come true. So facts will eventually prove them wrong. But more importantly, solving the climate problem ultimately means forcing everybody into poverty. The marchers in New York believe themselves exempt from that fate. They are all part of the rich world, comfortably middle class, even by American standards. They can afford to ask other people to forfeit their comforts and livelihoods.

But poor people--people in China, India, Bangladesh--depend much more directly on world trade and fossil fuels for what little prosperity they have. The climateers--unwittingly to be sure--are condemning billions of people to utter destitution, forced back to scratching out a living as subsistence farmers. Poor people are smart enough to realize that the climate movement does not have their back.

That's why India, for example, is simply rejecting the whole movement. PM Narendra Modi speaks for the vast majority of his countrymen when he refuses to accept poverty as an outcome. I agree with him.

Down with poverty!

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