Global scientific monitoring has recorded 2023 as being almost certainly “the hottest in human history”. As the year nears its end, representatives of the world’s governments will again be gathering at the latest Conference of the Parties to the UN climate convention (COP28) to discuss what can be done to avert climate crisis.
This article is published in Issue 271 of 'Socialism Today'
Even the least cynical onlooker must already be wondering what can be achieved when the COP28 presidency has been awarded to the chief executive of the state oil company of the host state – the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Bitter experience of previous COP summits suggests that, while few serious capitalist politicians can any longer deny the threats posed by climate change, nothing will be agreed that matches the urgency required to deal with them.
The nature of capitalism dictates that the world’s capitalist powers will act according to their own short-term interests, particularly in an era of capitalist economic and geopolitical instability. In an increasingly multipolar world of competing regional blocs, competing nation states will be unable to agree and enact the necessary global transition.
The scientific understanding of the urgent steps that need to be taken to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions already exists. What is missing is the required socialist plan of investment and global collaboration that could allow those steps to be taken on a world scale.
2023 has been a year when the effects of accelerating climate change have become an increasingly visible reality, including in some of the world’s most advanced capitalist countries. Air and sea temperatures have reached record levels around the globe. Droughts, wildfires, floods and storms have taken place with increasing regularity and severity.
These extreme weather events are just what climate scientists have been predicting for years – unless global greenhouse gas emissions were urgently curbed. But, far from falling, their levels have risen yet further. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are now 50% greater than pre-industrial levels, the highest measured – including through paleoclimatic estimates – for 800,000 years.
This raises real fears that the various feedback mechanisms that have long concerned climate scientists could further accelerate global warming. For example, as sea ice melts, less sunlight is reflected, increasing the rate at which yet more solar energy is absorbed. This could also disrupt ocean circulation, radically changing global weather patterns.
This was the climate science that led to the COP summit in Paris in 2015 agreeing to seek to limit global average temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5 °C) above pre-industrial levels. But the latest analysis from the Climate Action Tracker research group suggests that even the most optimistic scenario – based on full implementation of the pledges made so far by global governments – would still result in a likely increase of 1.8 °C by 2100.
A rise of 1.8 °C would be disastrous enough. However, based on current government actions, rather than just their promises, that prediction becomes a doom-laden global temperature rise of 2.7 °C by 2100 – and with the world continuing to warm yet further after that. That kind of overall average rise would make much of the planet “unliveable” and seriously test humanity’s ability to adapt to it.
Capitalism will fail to tackle the crisis
It’s clear that urgent action is needed – but it won’t be delivered by COP28. The preliminary program agreed for COP28 by the UAE presidency provides an advance warning of how these talks will be directed into discussions that will inevitably fail to challenge the capitalist status quo – and so fail to tackle the impending climate crisis.
In typically corporate language, it states that “COP28 will focus on delivering climate and nature co-benefits through a range of financing mechanisms and packages”, seeking “to accelerate private sector commitments to nature-positive accountability frameworks”. In other words, COP28 will continue the approach of the previous COP27 talks in Egypt, putting the emphasis on mitigating rather than ending the effects of climate change, and on relying on the same kind of market mechanisms that have completely failed to bring about any real change over successive COP talks.
COP27 agreed to set up a ‘loss and damage’ fund to support countries hit by extreme climate events. But, with growing concerns across capitalist nation states about the state of their individual economies, the details of who pays what into the fund were not resolved. No doubt the wrangling and the fudging over the details will continue at COP28.
What could prove even more damning for world capitalism, however, is an ongoing failure to act on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. COP26 in Glasgow had agreed that governments should cut their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of such emissions in time for COP27. This was part of an agreed strategy to make sure global emissions peaked by 2025 before being halved by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, as the only chance to limit temperature rises to the 1.5 °C target. But only a minority of countries revised down their NDCs. Rather than demand nation states act to avert crisis, COP27 simply dropped the previous COP26 commitment to a 2025 emissions peak target altogether.
In the face of the growing evidence of the climate disaster that faces the world, logic states that COP28 needs to adopt a radical change of course. But the logic of capitalism places short-term profit and the interests of individual nation states above that of the future of humanity.
Some sections of the capitalist class are beginning to recognise how the accelerating pace of climate change threatens the stability of their own system. They also see the development of green technology as a way to promote economic growth. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is an example of this. However, this is not being done as part of an agreed global plan but as part of a protectionist trade war with China.
On the other hand, pursuing the rapid transition required to even have a chance of meeting that 1.5 °C target would leave some of the world’s most powerful corporations, and the individual nation states and financial institutions tied to them, facing losses of trillions of dollars. As well as the obvious fossil fuel interests, the profits of other sectors like construction and chemical industries would also be hit.
Increasing protectionism and pressures on global supply chains, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, have seen fossil fuel producers making record profits. The ‘big five’ – Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP and TotalEnergies – alone made a combined $200 billion in profits in 2022 – over $6m every hour for Exxon!
So, whatever prettifying words are put into the draft texts for discussion at COP28, behind the scenes these powers will be striving might and main to make sure no binding commitments are agreed. Even if they are, left to operate as private capitalist concerns, these firms will seek to sabotage real change, so as to protect their own narrow interests. Only their nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management, as part of a socialist global plan, can ensure that genuine commitments are made, whilst also ensuring their workers’ employment is transferred to the millions of new ‘green jobs’ that would need to be created. Such a socialist plan is therefore fundamental to successful action on climate change.
What strategy for climate activists?
The strategy for climate activists to adopt has to be guided by an understanding that only a complete change of system, to a democratic socialist planned economy, offers a solution. To win that, requires winning the support of the organised working-class and poor, who, taking mass action together, alone have the power to bring about that change.
Unfortunately, that is not yet understood by the leadership of groups such as Just Stop Oil (JSO) in England and Wales. In the build up to COP28 they are again planning a series of actions such as ‘slow marches’ and other ‘non-violent direct action’, calling on their supporters to be ready to be arrested for their participation. There is no doubting the honest determination of many of these activists, but the strategy is based on an incorrect model of what brings about change.
JSO meetings often refer to the fall of apartheid and the success of the suffragettes as examples of where the actions of heroic individuals brought about change. In reality, neither universal suffrage in Britain nor black majority rule in South Africa were brought about in this way. They were the result of mass collective action from below, combined with capitalism recognising the need to grant reforms from above in order to safeguard its own rule.
In essence, JSO tactics rely on the false premise that if sufficient arrests are made, and sufficient disruption caused, politicians will have to start to act. But they will only take serious steps if they feel that their system itself is under threat. Lobbying the political representatives of capitalism to ‘see sense’ – even if through the form of direct action – will not achieve that.
Civil disobedience – for example as part of strike action – certainly has a role to play in any mass movement for change. However, the ongoing JSO emphasis on seeking arrest risks putting off all but a small core of climate activists from taking part, whilst also giving the capitalist state an excuse to bring in further repressive legislation to be used against mass protest. Tory and Labour politicians alike will also attempt to use the frustrations of those affected by activists’ protests to try and divide the force that actually has the power to really bring about change – the united working-class. Instead, what is needed is an emphasis on mass protest, linked to the need for socialist change to end both capitalist exploitation and climate change.
The inevitable failure of COP28 will further expose the complete inability of world capitalism to take the measures required to act to prevent an impending climate crisis. But, at the same time, the economic and political crises facing capitalism will also expose their inability to offer a decent future of any kind to a new generation of workers and youth. The task of socialists is to bring together those drawn into action over climate change with those fighting back over low wages, housing, inequality and all the other failings of crumbling capitalism.
A mass movement built on those forces would have the strength to force the world’s capitalist politicians to actually enact some of their climate pledges – but, above all, it would have the strength to take decision making out of their failed hands and into the hands of the workers of the world. That would at last bring about a genuine global collaboration, utilising the world’s resources for the benefit of all, not for the short-term gain of a wealthy elite who have put the future of our planet at risk.