President Obama’s recently announced Clean Power Plan, which calls for a 32% decline in US carbon dioxide emissions (from 2005 levels) by 2030, and which will go effect in 2022, is being heralded as a bold step forward in tackling climate change. Yet for all the hype surrounding it, Obama's plan amounts to little more than, in the words of Shakespeare, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The 32% target reduction in CO2 emissions is the highlight of the plan, but that means very little considering that the increase in natural gas production at the expense of coal over the past decade has already reduced emissions by 16% from 2005 levels—seven years before the plan is even supposed to begin. Even assuming the plan is fully implemented, the US will still be pumping 1.7 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year by 2030, with fossil fuels still accounting for 60% of US electricity. Those figures are hardly inspiring, considering that climate models suggest the world should restrict total CO2 emissions to not more than 1 trillion metric tons by 2050, and there is a wide consensus that emissions need to peak and begin to decline by 2020 (two years before Obama's plan begins). The Clean Power Plan also fails to address other burning issues, such as acidifying oceans, potential tipping points that could leave us with melting ice caps and rising sea levels, and the irrational model of food production and distribution that leaves millions to starve to death each year while damaging the planet (e.g., industrial meat production accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions that either transportation or industry).
A far more realistic solution would involve shifting all or almost all energy production in the US to renewable sources (wind and solar) by 2030—something that is certainly possible on the basis of current technology—and planning the economy from top to bottom to eliminate waste and incorporate more environmentally sustainable modes of living. This could be done on the basis of public ownership of the energy industry and the democratic planning of the economy under workers’ control on a world scale. Of course, such a program could never be implemented under capitalism—even now we are subjected to an unceasing lobbying about Obama’s alleged “war on coal” and numerous state governors have already announced their resistance to the plan.
Further underlining the inability of capitalism to handle the climate crisis is the UK government’s recent backpedaling on its own climate programs. Even as the ruling class of one nation makes a token gesture in the direction of addressing climate change, the rulers of another country express their inability to seriously do so. As the next climate summit approaches, the rulers of every country seek to find a way to make their neighbors pay for the crisis: the Europeans demand that the US act, US politicians gesture towards their Chinese trading partners, and China appeals to Europe. So-called developing nations are told that they cannot rely on fossil fuels to increase living standards and expand their economies the way the advanced industrialized countries did in the past, yet when they plead for aid to install more expensive technology and avoid resorting to environmentally harmful methods, they are met with stony silence from the bourgeois of the great powers. All this diplomatic wrangling only serves to underline the need for proletarian internationalism if we are to cut the Gordian knot of capitalism and create, in Trotsky's words, “a United Soviet Republic of All Peoples.”
All the scaremongering about rising energy prices and the loss of jobs in fossil fuel industries is evidence of the bosses’ commitment to force the working class to bear the cost of any reforms, however moderate, that are made within the capitalist system. In short, the workers are being made to pay for inadequate measures in response to a crisis they did not create, and which will impact the poorest and most vulnerable layers of society the most. On top of that, we are told we must accept the domination of the bosses because there is “no alternative.”
This situation cannot long continue; the workers cannot and will not silently suffer the consequences of the irresponsible conduct of the capitalists forever. As demonstrated by last year’s People’s Climate March, the issue of climate change is becoming increasingly decisive for millions of American workers and youth. This is an issue, as even Obama acknowledges, in which “there is such a thing as being too late.” It is becoming a matter—quite literally—of saving the world. The long-awaited “tomorrow” is here. The present order, built on sand, is crumbling around us.
Capitalism—production for profit—will always incentivize the sacrifice of tomorrow’s world for today’s bottom line, and will always tend to produce political outcomes in favor of the dominant economic interests. Private ownership of the means of production means that genuine, democratic, economic planning is impossible. You cannot plan what you don’t control, and you cannot control what you don’t own. Mere words and a few tweaks are not enough. A serious climate policy means a break with capitalism and the building of socialism, and this is a task that only the working class can accomplish.