The recent news about the lack of ice in the Arctic has “shocked” mainstream climate scientists even if a few have been predicting such abrupt changes for years. Paul Beckwith is one of the latter. His work focuses mainly on the Arctic only because the changes there are critical to whether we can stop a climate death spiral or not. As he says “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic, unlike Las Vegas.”
So, we face a climate change emergency that could end the existence of the human species. Why is it an emergency, and why is Beckwith’s Three-Legged Barstool strategy a logical response? Will it work? Who can say until it is tried. But it won’t be tried until we have overthrown capitalism and created a new society based on restoring a harmonious relationship with nature.
Now that climate science is catching up with events, it is time to look more closely at Beckwith’s proposals on how to stop it. It becomes clear that even to try to implement his geoengineering solutions, we have to overthrow the capitalist system which has no interest in spending the billions needed to try out these solutions. So, let’s assume that everyone now agrees that abrupt climate change is upon us and we are about to “fall off the cliff”.
We should all know by now why the Arctic ice is critical to climate change. If not watch Beckwith’s video. Beckwith “builds the scientific case for being in a climate change emergency.” The build-up of CO2 and Methane in the atmosphere and oceans is occurring at an increasing exponential rate”. The consequences are the slowing of the jet streams that allow warm air to reach the pole in winter which melts the ice and creates a positive feedback system that creates more global warming. He predicts the end of Arctic ice by 2020. The resulting breakup of climate patterns around the globe is what is causing the dramatic increase in extreme weather events.
Can we stop it?
Responses to the threat of climate change are now less about whether it is happening, and how fast, but what to do about it. These responses fall into three broad categories:
(1) The dominant capitalist discourse, of leave it to the market. A good example is the shift from coal to Natural Gas (methane). Far from a ‘clean’ alternative Methane is several times worse than coal in rapidly raising global warming. Under market rule, not until the costs of climate change threaten already weak profits will any significant shift from burning carbon take place. China is a case in point. Now a global capitalist power competing on with other imperialist powers, China has moved to cut coal burning. But this is far short of what is needed to stop rising CO2 in time.
(2) The second response is to recognise that climate change is abrupt (posing the possibility of human extinction with decades), and that short of a total collapse of industrial/capitalist society, cannot be stopped. Those who take this view divide into those who pin their hopes on such a collapse and those who hold no such hope. Guy McPherson (currently touring NZ) is an example of a ‘maverick’ early-warning scientist who thought that the GFC of 2008 might bring about a collapse of industrial society. When the banks were bailed out he gave up that hope and now argues that there is nothing we can do to stop human extinction, so it is best to prepare ourselves for the inevitable ‘going dark’.
(3) The third response is that abrupt climate change can be stopped by emergency geoengineering techniques that slow down and reverse global warming before it is too late. Of those who think this is possible there are those who look to capitalist society to leap into action to implement urgent solutions, and those who think that capitalism is part of the problem and will have to be removed before any solutions are tried. Beckwith falls into the first category but has doubts about how capitalism can respond in time. Let’s look at his ‘Three-Legged Barstool” metaphor for a geo-engineering strategy to see if his pessimism is justified. For Beckwith, the three legs of the stool each stand for a major intervention to (a) stop carbon/methane emissions; (b) restore Arctic (and Antarctic) ice in winter; (c) reclaim carbon from the atmosphere and oceans. If you want to know what these interventions involve, check Beckwith’s explanation here.
Reform or Revolution to fix the climate?
Like Beckwith there are those who share his optimism that such interventions could work, and that they would require a major transfer of GDP from military and other budget items into emergency climate rectification programs. They also share his pessimism about whether they can be funded in time by the existing capitalist economies. Marxists understand that the capitalist market does not produce commodities unless it can make a profit. The market cannot respond to a global climate emergency, nor can capitalist governments which serve the capitalist ruling class act collectively for humanity when its own class interests are paramount.
Beckwith argues we need a new Manhattan program or Marshall plan to mobilise the resources. But war is not a good analogy because of its proclaimed defence of national interests from which the arms industry profits. So, it is not a question of fatalism of the ‘doomers’ or the pessimism of climate activists like Beckwith that is critical. The question becomes, if not capitalism, what social system can be created in time to act against climate collapse?
Let’s see what would have to happen to stop climate change in time. The capitalist ruling class will not allow their profits confiscated to fund climate action. Its motivation is to protect and increase its historic accumulation of capital. So not only are capitalists living off centuries of stolen wealth, they will risk the destruction not only of the climate, but the habitability of the planet necessary for the working class to survive to create the surplus-value needed to maintain and increase their wealth.
Would a social- democratic majority government make any difference compared with those of right wing deniers like Trump? No. The political program of social democracy is to nationalise the private property of capitalists only as a subsidy to all capitalists. What social-democratic government would implement taxes against the rich or against polluters to raise the billions necessary for emergency climate action? Even if such a government was elected it would be on the basis of defending a threat to private property posed by a rising mass workers’ mobilisation to take power.
This is why more and more Marxists, and leftists in general, see socialism as the only road to human survival. First, to stop abrupt climate change bringing a destruction of nature and society and with it human extinction within decades, it will be necessary to expropriate the wealth of the ruling class, in particular the big banks and corporations, to pay for climate correction.
Second, since the ruling class will not agree to expropriation by legislating higher taxes etc., and will stage coups to remove leftist governments, it is necessary for the vast majority of workers to mobilise as an organised movement to take power; removing the capitalist ruling class and creating a workers’ state. A workers’ state that is based on the democratic will of the working people would immediately use the expropriated wealth to fund the massive geo-engineering interventions that are necessary.
Even if these desperate measures do not work in time, or only mitigate climate change partially, a socialist society is the only way to prepare for meeting the challenges of living in a post-capitalist world by prioritising what is necessary to ensure the conditions for human survival over the interests of warring nations and gangs of mercenaries, collapsing economies and social destruction. Better Red than Dead!
Comrade Dave Brownz is TDBs guest Marxist blogger