After the worst year yet of climate disruption, 2021 closed with another failure of international negotiations at COP26 and the slow death of President Biden’s meager legislative climate agenda.
North America faced heightened levels of drought, heat, fire, flooding, wind, climate-enhanced migration, and crop failures. Yet the climate movement’s support and campaigning for Biden and Democratic Party achieved little. Expectations are even lower for the next three years.
To respond to this impasse the climate movement, particularly the predominant organizations in the U.S., needs to reorient away from the over-emphasis on electoral politics, and toward protest and struggle as the priority strategy.
Fortunately, there are some glimpses at how to expand this potential, but the central question remains, what socialists and the Left, in general, can do now to best catalyze more disruptive, sustained, and mass-based climate action.
COP26 and Biden
It’s inaccurate to imagine the annual United Nation Conference of Parties (COP) summits as peaceful diplomatic gatherings, where our leaders work diligently in tandem to solve an urgent crisis. It’s far more accurate to imagine them as the twenty-first-century equivalents of the Wannsee Conference, the 1942 meeting in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee where Nazi leaders plotted swift extermination of European Jews. The deaths of millions were calmly negotiated as an acceptable price to pay for the maintenance of an insane utopia–in today’s case, endless capitalist expansion. While there was plenty of sanity in Glasgow the first two weeks of November, all of it was outside the walls of power, in the demonstrations of 100,000 in the streets. Within those walls, there was nothing but genocidal insanity masking itself as pragmatism.
A similarly grim assessment is forced upon us domestically. Despite 2021 being a year in which the impacts of global heating should have been obvious for all, the federal government’s response has been pathetic. Biden has said that the IPCC August 2021 Assessment Report, which repeats previous years calls for “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” universally appreciated as a “code red for humanity,” “does not present sufficient cause” to alter our destructive practices, from record expansion of offshore drilling, to continued exploitation of public lands, to urging expanded oil production in the Middle East. Hopes of signature climate legislation in the extremely weak, underfunded, and inadequate Build Back Better package are now dead, falling victim to Biden’s own party.
The net result of all of this is that keeping warming to below 1.5 ° C (the U.N. benchmark to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown) is increasingly unlikely. The goal was effectively abandoned at COP26 last year. Despite lip service being paid to keep warming under 1.5 ° C, the “nationally determined contributions” put forward in Glasgow will only keep warming to 1.8 ° C if they’re kept. Considering the track record of countries’ actual accomplishments since the Paris Agreement in 2015, expecting warming to stop there if there are no fundamental changes to the way we do things is little better than a pious wish.
How is it that capitalism has made no emission reductions for 30 years despite the well-understood ecological and social impacts of global heating? We need to have a basic answer to this question.
The power and self-interest of the fossil fuel industry explain some of this. One study shows that 25 fossil fuel producers account for 50 percent of all planet heating emissions. The state and corporate fossil majors hold enormous power over government policies. They are the target of divestment climate strategies—in hopes of turning off the spigot of capital for extraction. Divestment campaigns focussed on banks haven’t dented the $3.8 trillion the world’s largest banks have invested in fossil fuels in the last five years.
But the root of the system’s antagonism to emission reductions extends deeper beyond the fossil fuel industry. Fossil capitalism helpfully describes the structures we are up against. As described by Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective in White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Dangers of Fossil Fascism, there are two parts of fossil capitalism. Primary fossil capital and fossil capitalism as a total system.
Primary means the oil, gas, and coal companies that have amassed riches and are dedicated to continuing their business and profits from extraction indefinitely. This is not surprising and their power over investment and public policy must be broken. Left green new deals recognize this and call for nationalization of the fossil fuel industry, itself a herculean task.
Fossil capitalism as a total system encompasses more. It is the economic and technological blood and bones of capitalism that has developed around primary fossil capital, and the fossil fuel and raw materials that materially feed business growth at every level. This includes transport, tourism, manufacturing, retail, entertainment, health care, military, education, finance, etc.
While some capitalists are perhaps better positioned than others, there is no significant part of the capitalist economy that would be spared restructuring, lost investments, and/or elimination, if fossil fuels were phased out. Fossil capitalism may have produced misery for billions of people, and the threat of extinction—however, for each particular enterprise, the rapid elimination of fossil fuels is not in the budget, or the strategic plan, or in the shareholders’ interests. Capitalist managers can no more imagine union demands for wages, retirement, and healthcare cutting into projected profits than they can stop plastics manufacturing or the rejigging of the travel industry from jet setting to low carbon alternatives.
There may be a few sectors of capital that are enthusiastic about wiping out primary fossil fuel businesses. But capital as a whole opposes transition to a sustainable future because the character of existing technology and economic relations need to be democratically, intentionally, and rapidly changed. And as with working-class demands for dignity and secure livelihoods that undermine expected profits, capital won’t agree willingly without a fight, and will continue to use up our lives and the earth in the meantime.
The U.S. government may happily see-saw between the denialism of Trump and Biden’s capitalist climate governance. Capitalist climate governance and all the blah, blah, blah (the unadorned denunciation popularized by Greta Thunberg) accompanying its dedication to fossil capitalism and lack of emission reductions will not retreat willingly through moral suasion or better public policy. Only through a fight can we get concessions. They will be temporary until we can push for fuller democratization of the economy to extend and make permanent the commitment to social and ecological needs, or until fossil capitalism re-stabilizes itself securing the apocalypse.
The State of the Climate Movement
There is an impasse in the climate struggle in the U.S. Many people voted for Biden in hopes of some climate mitigation and small steps toward a Green New Deal.
But with the recent record-breaking sale of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico Biden has established both his credentials as a liar and a climate criminal. This move was so subservient to oil corporations that environmental groups successfully challenged the sale in federal court. There is no sign of life for a Green New Deal delivered from above. The protests and disruptions and public campaigns over the last decade to reign in emissions have not as yet had the power to force significant concessions from businesses to restructure away from greenhouse gas emissions.
As the climate crisis escalates, calls for throwing more resources into the Democratic Party that delivers nothing will certainly rise in volume as the mid-terms approach. But where is the fight?
In a lot of ways, the high watermark of the climate movement was 2019 when the enormous student climate strikes, involving millions of people, with six million in 185 different countries coming out onto the streets on September 20th. There was also some important movement from organized labor, with the Trade Union Conference in the UK declaring a 30-minute work stoppage in solidarity, thousands of Amazon workers walking out to protest their company’s inaction on climate, and hundreds of maritime workers in Australia organizing a four-hour work stoppage.
After 2019 in the U.S., the demobilizing effect of the pandemic was compounded as groups like Sunrise and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) put their energies into the 2020 election and towards getting rid of Trump, expressing optimism about potential gains from a Biden win and a Congressional Democratic majority.
U.S. climate politics is now most defined by an over-investment in electoral politics. This has yielded little to nothing and doesn’t adequately take into account the resistance of fossil capitalism to restructuring.
The main climate campaign for DSA has been passing the PRO Act, and a scaled-back Green New Deal for Public Schools. Neither of these efforts had a chance of success and gravitated around organizing defined by electoral practice–phone calls and lobbying politicians like Joe Manchin–where success was claimed.
In late 2021 DSA released a fundraising letter touting its main successes including logging over a million calls and flipping two Senators [including Joe Manchin] to bring the PRO Act to the Senate floor and building pressure to include pro-labor and green infrastructure provisions in the now-dead Build Back Better Act.
This is emblematic of both the limits of their strategy and the failure to critically reflect on this fact.
Class and Social Struggle
Given the structural resistance of fossil capitalism to climate mitigation, working-class climate politics and the capacity to disrupt business through striking are key, both in the U.S. and internationally, including in the centers of fossil fuel extraction.
Nationally, major unions have divergent public positions on climate issues such as pipeline infrastructure, a Green New Deal, and just transition proposals. Positions tend to overlap with sector (construction versus healthcare) and bureaucratization of the union leadership and posture toward the Democratic and Republican parties. The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) recently denounced the canceling of the Keystone XL pipeline using the corporate greenwashing rhetoric we expect from ExxonMobile.
Delegations of nurses from National Nurses United on the other hand deployed to the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access pipeline. Many rank and file union organizers have labored in union climate caucuses for years, and have introduced “common good” climate demands into union bargaining. There are large gaps between the good public positions of some unions on climate issues, and their actual fighting capacity to help win demands. Local unions leadership may be more open to coalition work with climate “extremists” than national–for instance, regional representatives from the LIUNA backed a Green New Deal resolution (introduced by the author) at the 2019 Vermont AFL-CIO convention. The Labor Network for Sustainability has worked with local unions, partnered with climate NGOs, and supported union education and mobilization around climate and climate justice issues.
The whole picture is complicated and often contradictory. Clearly, we need more ecosocialists working in labor organizing. The impacts will likely overlap with contributions for wider and more effective working-class struggle. The 2019 climate strikes showed some of this potential. In Montreal, climate activists in a teachers union won an actual strike vote and joined a mass protest. Minneapolis custodial workers struck, winning worker safety, environmentally responsible practices, and demanding on-going climate action from corporate employers. They were joined in a coalition of Minneapolis students in an instructive alliance.
There are many other examples of working-class organizing and strikes raising and winning common good environmental demands. When Los Angeles teachers successfully walked out in 2019, one of their strike demands was for more green space. The Wet’suwet’en First Nation led a struggle against the Coastal GasLink pipeline and employed blockades shutting down rail service across Canada in early 2020. Large sections of U.S. agriculture primary production and processing depend on migrant, often undocumented labor. Many migrants moved to the U.S. from regions where global heating has caused agricultural collapse. From dairy farming to harvesting fruits and vegetables, there are both bad labor conditions and damaging environmental impacts. Workers will have a central role in transforming agricultural production. Campaigns for migrant justice, such as the New England Milk With Dignity campaign are important worker-led fights that deserve wide solidarity in the climate struggle.
The beginnings are here for a working-class and mass-based climate struggle.
When the lifeblood of fossil capitalism is at risk in the fight to mitigate emissions, it’s improbable that the world’s ruling classes will stand by while democratic institutions (parliaments and their laws, or governmental rules) are enacted to stop the extraction and combustion. Usually, the normal capitalist party control over the state is sufficient, as in the U.S. But all the institutions to protect the status quo can come into play–the courts, Constitutional protection of property rights, police. U.S. imperialism has shown no reservation about employing the U.S. military and security apparatus to advance control of oil in the Middle East and elsewhere. Capitalist business, shaped by competitive and profit requirements, has no necessary interest in climate mitigation since climate breakdown extends beyond planning horizons or outside the scope of permissible business factors–what economists call an “externality.”. The social power exercised by labor, and class and social struggle, with independent leadership, will be necessary to resist and force change.
The Terrain of the Fight
Given that any Green New Deal is a nonstarter under the Biden government, it’s unlikely to provide a rallying point for mass organizing. It’s also the case that a Green New Deal framework–centering on a relatively rapid but orderly green transition led by a progressive government to a low carbon future–is dubious given the historical resistance of capital to the types of changes needed. Additionally, climate and other crises are accelerating along with political polarization and the growth of the far-right. The over-investment in electoral politics by DSA and Sunrise Movement, hoping for climate mitigation and steps toward a Green New Deal, has little to show. While the notion of a Green New Deal holds an important kernel of the need to transition, provide jobs, radically remake production and provide for working-class security through this process to maintain a majority of the working class support, the actual path to transition will likely be highly volatile and unpredictable, and moved forward by crisis and mass struggle more than election campaigns.
We are in an era of crises. One thing this means is that the climate crisis will broadly intersect with the post-2008 era of sluggish growth and sharp inequality, imperial rivalry centered on the U.S. – China competition for global dominance, mass migrations, and intensifying border regimes, and disease and pandemics resulting from zoonotic spillover. These crises are also unfolding in a historic wave of international struggle. We can ask where the potentials are to connect struggles around elements of these interacting crises?
While awareness of the climate emergency is wide (though thin in terms of understanding of sources of emissions and remedies), the climate movement has very little power to change things. More ideological agreement among movement organizers on the causes and general solutions as expressed in ecosocialist manifestos is a necessary part of strengthening our hand, and, of course, inadequate.
Fossil capitalism is resilient. But it is also crisis-prone, and systematically fails to meet the needs of billions of people. Climate crises will create conditions for organized struggle and resistance pitting needs and addressing climate deterioration against the capitalist status quo. Extra-electoral fights are imperative.
We should also be clear on what not to advocate. With the climate catastrophe unfolding, a sense of desperation and lack of the necessary immediate options can lead to counter-productive tactics like sabotage. The provocative book, How to Blow up a Pipeline, is getting a wide reading at the current impasse. It provides an important historical corrective to dogmatic nonviolence strategies, and opens up a broader discussion on tactics to undermine the continuing extraction of fossil fuels. But as the book emphasizes, sabotage only has a place in auxiliary to mass, popular struggles. Mass struggle must be primary.
The central issue though is how to build our fighting capacity to challenge and overcome the resistance of fossil capitalism to emissions-reducing reforms–and to continue that struggle to its revolutionary conclusion. This, of course, pertains not only to climate struggle, but to every other fight against oppression as well, and climate issues can’t be successfully addressed without a general upsurge of class and social struggle. We need to work to rebuild the infrastructures of struggle on the Left. Ecosocialists have an additional contribution to make helping to focus on what’s necessary for climate mitigation and meeting the survival needs of climate refugees. So, what can we help build fights around?
We need campaigns, short and longer-term fights for demands to advance climate mitigation. Fights educate, train, bring more people into struggle, and can win some important concessions. The daunting problem is that there are no convincing campaigns on the horizon to significantly challenge fossil capitalism and achieve substantial national or international emissions reductions. The Sanders presidential campaigns in the U.S., Corbyn in the U.K., and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Markey Green New Deal resolution all projected large-scale changes. That is helpful. But we also need to recognize the wishful thinking embodied in them: that a primarily electoral strategy can be successful, and that major and effective climate reforms can more-or-less smoothly mesh with fossil capitalism. We don’t want to get trapped in long-term, bureaucratic, ineffectual, and demoralizing capitalist climate mitigation planning.
Local, democratic elements of struggle, for instance, workplace and union committees, school climate groups, and community Green New Deal committees can all be building blocks. Rank and file organizing in unions to achieve more militant strategies will overlap with what’s needed for climate struggle. We need forms open to wider participation. Campaigns can be locally or internationally focused. International solidarity campaigns with Indigenous resistance to oil and gas development in tropical forests, for example, are important, and winnable. Working-class and community needs for clean air, water, public transportation, food, gender justice, housing, jobs, and environmental safety in the face of extreme weather leads to fights for class and climate needs over profit. Increasingly, every struggle is a climate fight also.
We are in a global period of heightened protest, struggle, and political revolution. This will influence what we are going to do now and in the coming years. We have to look at the possibilities as much as the obstacles. The historic protests against police violence in 2020, the climate strikes in 2019, and the mass and often illegal teacher strikes before that in 2018 are recent history. All of the conditions that led to those are still in place, and in many instances worse.
The new book World Protest: A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century summarizes this epoch of struggle:
There are times in history when large numbers of people protest about the way things are, demanding change. It happened in 1830–1848, in 1917–1924, in the 1960s, and it is happening again today…. During the period 2006–2020, the world has experienced some of the largest protests in its history…. The overwhelming majority of the large protests relate to progressive issues/demands, such as: more and better jobs, wages, and pensions; investments in health, education, and public services; protection of farmers; action on climate change; racial justice; women and civil rights; against austerity cuts, corruption, and inequality.
As crises deepen, including those of pandemic, economic, climate, and migration, the right-wing will also be protesting—and that needs to be confronted as well. This adds more urgency to our breaking with over-investment in electoral and lobbying strategies, opting instead for the politics of independent struggle, protest, strikes, and disruption. This builds our organizations, the democratic practices of struggle, and the full meaning of eco-socialism and transition, which is both about our struggle and the social justice and climate goals we need to achieve.
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Paul Fleckenstein is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont and the Tempest Collective. He is a labor and environmental justice activist.