Climate justice, system change and the working class

By Deirdre Griswold
October 1, 2019

Deirdre Griswold

The following is a slightly edited talk given by WW editor Deirdre Griswold at a Sept. 28 forum titled “The Climate Crisis, A Marxist View,” organized by the Boston branch of Workers World Party.

As you all know by now, a 16-year-old named Greta Thunberg recently crossed the Atlantic by herself on a solar-powered sailboat to dramatize the need to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Her anger helped inspire millions of other young people, who marched all over the world last weekend demanding action to turn back the climate crisis.

This is a global movement, because climate change is global. And it can affect people of all classes. But certainly not to the same extent. The poorest people face dying just for lack of water. They have to endure factory or field work in 115-degree heat with no shade or air conditioning. If they survive one of the terrible storms that are the new normal, like the ones that have devastated Puerto Rico and part of the Bahamas, they see their flimsy homes blown away.

But the better off can jet away from horrible weather, moving from one mansion to another.

Anger has grown around the world, especially toward the United States government and corporations, which have historically contributed by far the most to global warming and have done little to change.

This newly invigorated movement of young people versus climate disaster is very vocal and inspiring. They are the ones who will live long enough to experience this ominous future. But they are up against a system that will pat them on the head and sing their praises while knifing them in the back.

So they must be prepared not only for the effects of climate change, but for the huge political and economic struggle that is needed to turn things around.

How imperialists ‘opened up’ the world

Let’s go back in history several decades to the period of the early 1990s. It’s not too long ago, but it’s at least a decade before today’s fighters for climate justice were even born. That’s when scientists first began alerting the world to the dangers of climate change.

And it’s also when the promoters of capitalism used their powerful media to trumpet the victory of their system over the part of the socialist bloc led by the Soviet Union. They were predicting that the end of the Cold War would usher in a period of great world stability and prosperity, led by the self-proclaimed “democratic” capitalist countries of the West.

And they were saying that, with the downfall of the USSR and Eastern Europe, then China, socialist North Korea and Cuba would be next.

At the same time, they were pooh-poohing what climate scientists were telling them about global warming. The propagandists for capitalism were triumphantly declaring the beginning of a new era of “freedom.” But what it really meant was the freedom of the giant corporations to go almost anywhere and exploit the natural resources and the workers of the world.

The imperialist countries, the U.S. foremost among them, then proceeded to “open up” whole areas of the world, like prying open an oyster, to be devoured in one gulp.

And where there was resistance to being “opened up,” the imperialists invented excuses for unending wars, military occupation and so-called “police actions” for control of areas rich in carbon resources like oil and gas, particularly in southwest Asia and northern Africa. Think of the wars and attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya,  Syria, Yemen — most of which continue to this day.

All this has taken a terrible toll on the planet, but it seldom gets mentioned, including the fact that the Pentagon is the world’s biggest polluter — something our comrade Sara Flounders has written about extensively in Workers World newspaper.

But now that period of triumphalism is over. We’re living in a different time. Confidence in this system has been shattered by many things, including climate change, but also the precarious nature of capitalism itself, with its boom-and-bust cycles. For months now the stock markets have been jittery over an anticipated crash of the global capitalist economy. And investors are particularly worried about the impact of Trump’s trade war with China.

Imagine, the whole U.S. financial structure being dependent on the market in China for U.S. commodities! China used to be one of the very poorest of the large countries in the world. But it had a great revolution, and that has changed everything. I’ll get back to China again later.

The powers that be — in Marxist terms, the capitalist ruling class — are now trying to stay on top of this dynamic young climate movement that has sprung up. This movement is demanding action now to hold off and hopefully reverse the growing climate disaster — which threatens every living thing on this planet.

Ignorance is not the reason global temperatures are rising. Scientists and scientific agencies have been raising the alarm with the U.S. government for more than 40 years.

That’s how long climate scientists have been meeting with political leaders, briefing them and pleading with them to do something to stop this impending train wreck.

And it has absolutely been proven that the country responsible for the largest accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the U.S. It is also true that this country has done the most to sabotage and prevent any meaningful international agreements on climate change.

Conference after conference has been held involving many world bodies as the impact of global warming has become ever more alarming. Some 30 years ago, when George H.W. Bush was president, he actually signed into law something called the Global Change Research Act. It established a program to “understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.”

What happened after that?  Nothing.

A few fig leafs were pasted on to keep the scientists quiet, but business went on as usual. The fracking industry, which breaks up shale rock deep underground to extract oil and gas, became a new booming business in the U.S. And when Indigenous people and their allies tried to stop the Dakota oil pipeline from crossing their lands, they were violently attacked by local and federal police.

Large marches of hundreds of thousands of people demanding the phasing out of greenhouse gases have come and gone — but the huge energy corporations continue to dominate the political agenda on both a federal and local level. They have blocked any meaningful efforts to limit global warming. They have also conspired to spread outrageous lies in the mass media, pushing climate denial and pooh-poohing environmentalists.

Boston climate protest, Sept. 20.

With disasters, mass movement grows

Climate change has become more and more destructive. Hundreds of thousands of people around the globe have lost their lives — from drought; from killer hurricanes, cyclones and tornadoes; from landslides and flooding; from raging wildfires. Species are disappearing. Indigenous peoples, who have contributed the least to global warming, are feeling its effects most.

So it was inevitable that a mass movement would eventually take to the streets over this life-and-death question. And it has, with the very young now in the spotlight, after the recent global demonstrations.

In the U.S., the big corporations and financial institutions keep an iron grip on the government and state power in order to guarantee that nothing interferes with their private profit. They see with alarm these changes in mass consciousness. Their response?

They undermine anything that would hurt their profits. But at the same time many give lip service to going green. How many polluting energy companies have added some green or a cute bug or flower to their logos? How many expensive ads have they taken out patting themselves on the back for doing so little?

And then there is the billionaire president of the United States, Donald Trump, who promotes climate denial and has packed his cabinet with the worst polluters. That’s what he should be impeached for!! That and his racism, sexism, bigotry and torture of immigrants.

Of course, he’s an easy target for the progressive movement. But once he’s gone —  and he will be gone eventually — the class of billionaires who put him there will still control the economy and the government.

That is, until there’s a huge working-class upsurge, bigger than anything we’ve ever seen in this country. And it’s coming.

What can we do to help develop this upsurge?

Class unity and social change

We are revolutionaries. We are for the overthrow of this capitalist system, root and branch, and the establishment of a new, socialist order where the working class holds the power and makes the decisions about the economy.

We know that one of the biggest tasks in preparing for any revolutionary movement among the workers is to overcome the divisions that demagogues like Trump use to divide the working class. Every issue he harps on — whether it’s blaming immigrants for the broken-down system of social welfare, or attacking people of color while defending racist, fascist elements like the neo-Nazis — everything is aimed at keeping our class from uniting and fighting billionaires like him.

Why does he focus his anger so much on im/migrants? We should never forget that it was immigrant workers, mostly Latinx, who revived the fighting spirit of May Day back in 2006, when a million demonstrated instead of going to work that day. That scared the pants off the bosses. Immigrants have been organizing low-wage workers all over this country, showing what real unions can do. Trump wants vulnerable whites to blame immigrants for their problems, instead of uniting with immigrants to fight their real enemy:  the bosses.

By the way, many of the migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. and in Europe are doing so because their home countries have been devastated by imperialist wars, by right-wing repressive governments put in power by the imperialists — and by climate change, which is already making vast areas of the world uninhabitable, from Central America to central Africa.

And when Trump isn’t blaming China for the loss of jobs here, he’s blaming the environmental movement for the layoffs of coal miners and other workers in polluting industries. We can’t let Trump and his ilk make a show of bonding with coal miners who are losing their jobs. We have to demand that any program for cleaning up the environment must include a guarantee of jobs and retraining for any workers who are displaced.

We also need to point out that the coal companies which have pulled out of Appalachia and left mining families struggling to survive didn’t just fold their businesses. They started laying off thousands of coal miners when they discovered that mountaintop removal was cheaper and required less human labor than underground mining. And many of these U.S. coal companies also moved their operations to Australia and other countries where they could rake in even bigger profits.

The environmental movement has in the past been regarded as mainly a middle-class movement, not a working-class movement. In fact, demagogues like Trump claim to be friends of workers who could lose their jobs in a green economy.

That’s ludicrous coming from this boss who became famous on television for firing people. But we have to remember this very important fact: Many workers in this country are having a really rough time. Even as the costs of housing and education and health care have soared, and the incomes of the super-rich have hit the stratosphere, real wages for workers have declined and many newer jobs are just part-time and extremely precarious gigs.

So the first consideration for many workers is: Will I have a job? How can I think about what might happen to the planet tomorrow when I have to think about paying my bills today? About putting food on the table today.

Global Climate Strike march, NYC, Sept. 20.

Make the bosses pay, not the workers!

In the climate justice movement, we have to struggle for solutions that don’t put the financial burden on the working class. Can we be for a carbon tax, for example? It’s the billionaires who got us into this mess. They must pay, not the workers.

But the problem has now become so huge that these so-called “solutions” to the climate crisis are totally inadequate, less than a bandaid on a gaping wound. And that’s why, in recent years, slogans for “System change, not climate change” and signs that denounce capitalism have become increasingly popular, especially with young people.

Is it so difficult to guarantee coal miners that they will get help finding other jobs, and thereby win them over to the need to shut down the coal mines? China didn’t think so. It did close down most of its coal mines, and it did help the miners resettle and be retrained for new jobs.

So let’s talk about China and what it has been able to accomplish in greening the environment.

But first, let’s dispel some of the lies about China’s record on combating climate change.

We hear again and again that China is the world’s worst polluter. What’s completely left out of the equation is that China is the world’s most populous country. When you look at greenhouse gas emissions per person, China drops to number 16 in the world, not number one.

What are the top polluting countries per person? Saudi Arabia, which has a very small population, Australia and the U.S., which continues to contribute the lion’s share of global emissions per capita.

But there’s another huge factor that must be considered in order to evaluate what China has to do to be sustainable. China is now the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods. U.S. corporations have moved a lot of their factory production to China and other countries where wages are lower. That is the main reason that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as a whole are now slightly below China’s. But per capita, the U.S. emissions are still almost three times those of China.

Reducing emissions requires the ability to plan and control production, which China can do, and a capitalist country like the U.S. just can’t do.

If a profit can be made from something, big business will go for it. If that something also helps the environment, the bosses will be sure to get the government to throw them some extra money. But capitalist business is driven by the bottom line — by how much profit can be made. There is no meaningful planning for the future. Each day corporate decisions have to be made to please the investors and stockholders, or the company is allowed to die and the capital behind it goes elsewhere.

Economic planning is the key

It is impossible to reverse the momentum toward disaster without economic planning.

In order to have sustainable development, a country has to have a plan for its economy. There are only a few countries today with planned economies, i.e., socialist economies. Most notable are China and Cuba. Cuba’s tremendous achievements in sustainability are well known. But what about China?

People’s China is not capitalist. It is a socialist country born out of a great, earth-shaking revolution. It started out extremely poor and underdeveloped. But after much internal struggle, the leading Communist Party in recent decades has allowed capitalist enterprises to operate there in order to stimulate the growth of its economy. Since then, according to the World Bank, China has lifted more than 850 million people out of extreme poverty — more than two and a half times the entire population of the U.S.

It is now a much more powerful and developed country. And while this development of capitalist relations within China has brought significant internal problems, it has not overwhelmed the state, which continues to be controlled by the Communist Party, a party with 90 million members. What this means is that Chinese economic development, especially the infrastructure, continues to be centrally planned, which accounts for its enormous successes.

It is not the U.S. but China that now leads the world in scientific-technological development. By 2016, China exceeded the U.S. in the number of scientific papers released, according to the Nature Index. China develops five-year plans for economic development with built-in mechanisms to reduce greenhouse emissions.

These plans are not wish lists. They are carried through, and they have made a huge dent in pollution. China leads the world in production of solar panels — one of the imports now taxed heavily by the Trump administration. It is electrifying its cities and has become the world’s biggest producer of electric cars.

But we are still left with a world that is mostly ruled by capitalists and that is headed toward even greater destruction.

The great thing about the growth of a movement is that it shows there is hope — that we don’t have to accept a fate that would mean the end of everything. No matter how dire the situation is, we can’t give in to pessimism. Changing conditions do change people’s consciousness, and that new consciousness is moving in the direction of revolution against the powers that be.

There is an historical analogy I want to bring up. It’s a grim one, but it shows how great disasters can be the spur to needed social change.

In the 14th century, from 1347 to 1351, Europe was ravaged by the bubonic plague.

In just those four years, one-third of Europe’s population at the time — some 25 million people — died of the plague. This terrible disease had already wiped out a similar proportion of the peoples of east and southeast Asia.

Europe had been stagnant for centuries under the oppressive system of feudalism. But so many people of all classes, especially the peasants, died from the plague that the manor system, the structure of feudalism, fell apart.

It must have seemed like the end of the world. But many of those who survived left the manors, looking for work. And because there was such a shortage of laborers, they were able to demand higher wages. It was the beginning of the end for feudalism. Eventually, upheavals brought to power a new class system, capitalism, which revolutionized the means of production and produced the working class on a world scale.

We are faced now with a tremendous existential crisis, even bigger than the plague. We shouldn’t underestimate the suffering it will bring. But we cannot lapse into despair and passivity. Let it be the spur to a revolutionary transfer of power to this great worldwide working class, which must take place if we are to bring human economic activity into harmony with life on our beautiful planet.

(Photos: Liza Green)