At the end of September, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the oldest and largest centers for ocean and Earth science research in the world, published a blog post pointing out a grim fact: “It already seems safe to conclude that we won’t be seeing a monthly value below 400 ppm [parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere] this year—or ever again for the indefinite future.” Reported in the midst of a record year for temperatures, this milestone means the planet is approaching carbon dioxide levels not seen for three million years.
In short, according to Ralph Keeling, one of the world’s foremost experts on the matter, “we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds.” James Butler, Director of the Global Monitoring division at the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, drew a simple analogy in a comment to the Guardian to illustrate this qualitative step that will go unnoticed by many and be obfuscated by parliamentary charlatans and cretins in Washington: “It’s like lying in bed with your electric blanket set to three. You jack it up to seven—you don’t get hot right away but you do get hot. And that’s what we’re doing.”
To give a comparative idea of the rise, CO2 levels totaled about 200 ppm during the Ice Age and 280 before the industrial revolution, when industrial development started releasing greenhouse gases at unprecedented levels. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, a 400 ppm world means 50 to 82 feet higher sea levels, a 4 to 5-degree rise in temperatures, and huge stretches of land turned into marshes. Nature Climate Change has reported it will result in a drastic decline or extinction of two-thirds of all plants and animals on the planet.
This news also drives home what we have repeatedly emphasized: that the environmental movement as it currently exists has utterly failed. Bill McKibben’s 350.org stands as a stark example, as its very name refers to the 350 parts per million posited as a safe upper limit to avoid a climate change tipping point. We might humbly suggest Mr. McKibben and company consider a new name—and a new approach—following this news.
Although environmentalists have recently pointed toward the silver lining in the form of the United Nations’ so-called Paris Agreement, which has very serious shortcomings, only 60 nations have ratified it, representing countries that produce only 47.76% of global emissions.
What we pointed out in our 2016 World Perspectives document rings truer with every passing day: “Well-meaning reformers have urged world leaders to address the problems of inequality, discrimination, and social exclusion, as well as climate change and other pressing matters facing humanity. But how these miracles are to be achieved under capitalism is never explained. Summits and conferences come and go. Speeches are delivered. Resolutions are passed. And nothing changes.”
The historically exhausted structure of capitalist society and the material interests of the ruling class render the system incapable of addressing this existential problem. Society is organically constrained by two fundamental barriers to progress: the nation state and private for-profit production for the market.
Climate change is an international phenomenon. It is plain to see that ocean acidification and smog respect neither maritime law nor borders. Whatever provisional agreements are reached in the abstract, looming questions are raised. Who pays and who scales back production? Moreover, who enforces this? The political representatives who call the real political shots are bought and paid for by big business—including the enormously powerful fossil fuel emitting industries. As for the current crop of pro-capitalist labor leaders, they, too blatantly disregard the environment, most recently backing the Dakota Access pipeline. The labor leadership must break with capitalism and fight in the interests of all workers—which includes the need to fight for an environment that can sustain human life for many centuries to come.
Even more of a barrier toward fighting climate change is the anarchic market that inherently “externalizes” environmental damages to the extent that it is profitable. Indeed, it is institutionally obligated to do so. Famed monetarist Milton Friedman describes economic externalities as “the effect of a transaction between two parties on a third party who has not consented to, nor played any role in the carrying out of the transition.” He then unironically stated that “[this presents] problems in that area, no doubt about it.”
This is not a “moral failing,” any more than a tiger’s innate proclivity to eat meat is a moral failing. It is what capitalism naturally is, does, and will always find a way to do, in the same way that a tiger served cabbage will seek to pounce on the first available prey.
Many workers worry about losing their livelihoods if environmental protections are enacted. However, there is no need for a “jobs trade-off.” Workers constructing a pipeline, coal miners, oil industry workers, etc. should keep all their pay and benefits and be retrained for other work at no cost to themselves—there is plenty of money in corporate coffers to pay for this. Laborers, plumbers, electricians, and so on can build plenty of other useful things—housing, schools, recreation centers, hospitals, mass transit, and more. If the labor movement fought for all of this as part of a planned transition away from fossil fuels, it would put itself at the forefront of the movement to fight climate change. And by breaking with the two parties of big business and building a labor party, laws could be passed that protect all workers and the environment.
On the centenary of its publication, Rosa Luxemburg’s famous adage from the Junius Pamphlet has never rung truer. The choices facing humanity are “transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” Given the speed at which we are rendering the planet uninhabitable by the human species, it is perhaps more accurate to state: “transition to socialism or regression into extinction.” Humanity’s task is not merely to overthrow capitalism in order to build an international, sustainable, planned economy that can move society forward, but we must achieve this goal urgently if we are to mitigate the extreme damage that has been wrought and continues to be wrought every day that the system is allowed to dominate our lives.
Only the struggle for socialism and for a rationally planned economy can eliminate unemployment, raise production to unprecedented levels without destroying the environment, and fight climate change, thus preserving the planet for future generations.