Five Principles of a Socialist Climate Politics

August 23, 2018  •  

Democratic socialism is in the air. Since Bernie Sanders’s miraculous 2016 primary run – garnering 13.2 million votes and 23 state victories – the politics of democratic socialism has grown in popularity. I believe this popularity is based on its capacity to articulate clear and simple principles. As (Catholic Latina Socialist – yay!) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now famously said on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.” Who disagrees with that? It’s becoming clear that climate politics needs to catch up with these developments.

Many have recognized the need to articulate a “Medicare-for-all”-like strategy on climate change, where people could see how solving climate change could deliver direct improvements to their lives. But, at a more basic level, what does a socialist politics of climate change look like? This is obviously a debate (and I won’t claim to have definitive answers), but the following essay is an attempt to lay out five basic principles of a socialist climate politics. A core theme across all five is that a socialist climate politics is dramatically different than the ‘third way’ technocratic policy approaches that have dominated climate politics over the last three decades. I should first say, however, that obviously 20th Century socialism leaves much to be desired for ecological politics (although many see positive developments in Cuba once they were delinked from the oil of the Soviet bloc). This movement must put both democracy and ecology at the center of a 21st Century democratic ecosocialism.

#1 – Climate change is a class problem

This seems obvious enough. Rich people are responsible for causing climate change and the poorest bear the costs of droughts, rising seas, and floods. Yet, we are somewhat confused on this issue. The rallying cry of radical climate politics – “system change not climate change” – rightly blames the “system” of capitalism as the core cause of climate change. But how do systems change? While more liberal-minded “system change” theorists like Gar Alperovitz suggest we could incrementally move beyond capitalism via a “middle path of evolutionary reconstruction,” Marx and Engels are quite clear on how systems change: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Too often the notion of “system change” doesn’t emphasize that we are fighting a class of people rather than a vague, impersonal “system.” Class struggle entails a politics that directly confronts the interests of the class in power – whether it be strikes, regulatory policies, or movements to expropriate property (just recently the idea of nationalizing the fossil fuel industry has finally circulated into climate policy discussions – see below).

Yet there are some who envision a politics of system change that has nothing to do with class. Take this statement from Benjamin Fong’s otherwise excellent and surprising Op-Ed in the New York Times, “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid”:

“As an increasing number of environmental groups are emphasizing, it’s systemic change or bust. From a political standpoint, something interesting has occurred here: Climate change has made anticapitalist struggle, for the first time in history, a non-class-based issue.”

Now, how in the world is anti-capitalism (let alone climate) a “non-class based issue”? We need to go beyond vague notions of class as what Erik Olin Wright calls “gradational” upper/middle/lower) based on income (rich vs. poor). A socialist climate politics should revive a Marxian definition of class as those who own and control the “means of production.” Here the responsibility for climate change comes into clearer view: those who control profit-oriented production of all the goods and services used in modern life. First and foremost, this implicates the class of capitalists who dig up fossil fuel and sell it for profit. The climate movement, as its recent focus on fossil fuel divestment shows, clearly understands this enemy as such. But the capitalists responsible for climate change are much broader than this. There are vast amounts of industrial capital dependent upon fossil fuel consumption – the most climate-relevant include cement (responsible for 7% of global carbon emissions), steel, chemicals and other carbon-intensive forms of production. According to the Energy Information Agency, the industrial sector consumes more of the world’s energy than the residential, commercial and transportation sectors combined. If we include emissions from electricity consumption, the industrial sector exceeds all others (including agriculture and land use change) with 31% of global emissions (see IPCC report p. 44). While class analysts today usually seek to theorize class beyond the factory, a focus on industrial production couldn’t be more important for the climate crisis.

Yet, many would counter: don’t “we” consumers end up consuming all this cement, steel, and other products of industrial capital? Well, other industries actually do a lot of the consuming, but carbon footprint ideology has led us to believe that all our consumption is entirely our own responsibility. Yet, as I have argued (along with others), your carbon footprint is not really the problem. Even when you drive a car the emissions coming out of the tailpipe are not yours alone. Auto, oil, steel and other companies profit from the production of the commodities you consume. For the vast majority of us who who lack ownership of the means of production, our choices are severely constrained: we commute to work by necessity, we buy processed food due to exhaustion; we try to navigate our life with a strapped budget and a limited set of for-profit firms who offer us the things we need for sale. In fact, every commodity has users and profiteers along the chain: a socialist climate politics would place the bulk of responsibility on those profiting from production – not simply people fulfilling their needs in an alienating world of consumerism.

A class approach simplifies climate politics in way that makes our political tasks clearer. It is not “all of us” who are to blame (or, as the recent New York Times megastory, “Losing Earth” put it, “ourselves” or “human nature”), but rather the (small minority of) capitalists who control and profit from the production. If socialism could be summed up in one slogan it might be this:  democratize production. Production could be geared not toward profit, but the social needs of human life – and a recognition of the ecological systems that make all human and nonhuman life possible in the first place. Yet, getting there will require a monumental struggle against those who currently control production for profit. How can we win this struggle?

#2 – Climate solutions need to appeal to the material interests of the working class.

History shows that overcoming entrenched power requires vast numbers of ordinary people: a mass movement where the state or other forces cannot ignore popular demands for structural change. So how can we mobilize the mass of people to the climate fight? We need to start by recognizing that the working class is the majority of the population. When I say “working class” I do not only mean white male coal miners or factory workers. At the broadest level, we could define the working class as those who must work to survive. As Sarah Jaffe and others have pointed out, the American working class of today is to a large extent female and disproportionately people of color. It includes not only industrial workers but nurses, teachers, warehouse workers, and retail workers. In the United States, there are more people that work at Arby’s than in coal mines. Kim Moody roughly estimates that after subtracting the 1% of capitalists who actually direct and control major corporations and various professional, managerial, and small business occupations, the working class constitutes 63% of the employed population. If you add all the millions who are currently “out” of the workforce due to disability, unemployment, and care responsibilities, it is closer to 75%. Moody’s first number overlaps with another jarring statistic: 63% of households could not afford a simple $500 emergency payment for something like a ER visit or car breaking down. If climate politics wants to win, it must learn how to better speak to the interests of this 63%. In fact, it is impossible to imagine we are building a democratic movement without doing so.

Of course, saying “system change” requires a mass working class movement is not new, it’s Socialism 101. In his classic essay “Why the Working Class,” Hal Draper lays it out: “The Marxist socialist believes that when the working class, and its associated allies from other sections of the people, are in their massed majority ready for the abolition of capitalism, it is their social power which will determine the result in the last analysis.” At the very least, this majority matters if a goal is to simply build an electoral strategy on climate change (any left politics will be won on mobilizing the largely poor and working class communities who don’t bother participate in an electoral process built with all kinds of exclusions). But, socialists see a deeper source of power in the working class. It’s not merely a simple numbers game (the “massed majority”), but also the crucial dependence of capitalists on workers to produce goods and services, transport commodities, and maintain critical infrastructure. Without compliance of the working class to perform this necessary work, the entire system grinds to a halt. As Vivek Chibber more recently argues, “Workers are therefore not only a social group that is systematically oppressed and exploited in modern society, they are also the group best positioned to enact real change and extract concessions from the major center of power — the bankers and industrialists who run the system.” We need to start thinking how working class power – including the strike – could be deployed in climate struggles. The climate movement already uses the power of disruptive action to block the expansion of fossil fuel industries, but has rarely harnessed the power of the workers inside those industries themselves (although see Paul Hampton’s book for examples of trade union climate struggles).

Why does this matter for climate politics? Because, for the most part, our entire political strategy on climate change as it exists now does not appeal to working class concerns. On the one hand, many climate policies are largely “technocratic” fixes that aim to tweak market incentives in ways opaque to working class sensibilities. Try explaining a “cap and trade” system to your average person (I have a hard enough time teaching this material). More problematically, one could argue climate policies often appear antagonistic to struggling workers. Taxes, fees, and “internalizing costs” are the language of the policies. If anyone in the climate debate appears to be advocating for working people it is the right who often claim climate policies will “cost” everyday people dearly. Take arch climate villain, Charles Koch, who framed his critique like this: “I’m very concerned because the poorest Americans use three times the energy as the percentage of their income as the average American does. This is going to disproportionately hurt the poor.” A reason for this is that many of the advocates of carbon taxes and fees are themselves middle to upper class professionals. It is this rather narrow slice of the population who have an oversized voice in climate debates (for example, the entire New York Times megastory on climate focuses on professional class men – scientists, politicians, and environmental non-profit ‘activists’). For this class, the “excesses” of modern consumption are seen as the problem – but the 63% struggling to make ends meet do not feel excessive. We will not win on a program of less, limits, and reductions.

Climate activists are waking up to this and attempting to frame policies that speak to issues of economic justice and inequality.

These programs can help build a wider base of support for climate action. They are the kinds of programs that have allowed democratic socialism to rise to political importance in the first place. As it invokes one of the most popular ones, Medicare-for-All is a great organizing slogan because it clearly conveys how it would improve people’s lives immediately.

The climate movement as currently constituted has done some incredible organizing and grassroots mobilization. Yet, one could argue that in class terms the movement is quite narrow – a mixture of highly educated professionals (scientists, academics, journalists, government workers, etc.) and those most impacted on the “frontlines” of climate disaster (indigenous, peasant, and other marginalized populations whose livelihoods are directly imperiled). This coalition will be the core of any effective climate movement – and racial and environmental justice must be front and center – but professionals and the marginalized on their own are not enough. A mass movement will need to speak to working class interests in ways that cut across the many geographical, racial, and other divisions that often hinder mass politics. For example, a national green jobs infrastructure program could combat poverty in inner city San Francisco and rural Appalachia

#3 – Climate politics cannot only be about “knowledge” – and the belief or denial of “the science” – and must be about material control and power

To deny the science of climate change in 2018 is preposterous. But, too often, our politics makes the struggle about knowledge of the science itself. Those who oppose climate action are “denialists.” A naïve version of this story says that we need to simply better “communicate” the science to the masses, and this will automatically lead to political action on climate change; as if the lack of climate action is due to the lack of knowledge of the masses. Yet, as Jonathan Smucker argues, “right does not equal might.” It is not at all clear that if we convinced the 47% of the country that questions the truth of climate change we will also overcome the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry.

Yes, it is awful that the fossil fuel industry funds “denialist” pseudoscience. But it is more awful that they are still given total freedom to dig up fossil fuels and sell them for profit day after day. It is ridiculous that an appointed EPA administrator (Scott Pruitt) went on television and denied the science of climate change, but it is worse that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel interests during his campaign for Attorney General. One must often wedge their subjective beliefs into ideological frameworks that justify their own power. I would hazard a guess that when Scott Pruitt lays his head on the pillow at night, he knows anthropogenic climate change exists. He also knows his power depends upon serving the material interests of the fossil fuel industry. The climate struggle is less about knowledge and more about a material struggle for power.

As Principle #2 suggests, socialist politics will not only mean “awakening” the working class to the truth of climate change, but also convincing them that climate solutions will directly improve their lives today. Climate change is often presented as an “abstract problem” – emissions today mean stronger storms in the future somewhere else on the planet. So the challenge of climate politics must make climate politics concrete: not only the concrete and disastrous effects of climate change, but the concrete benefits of climate solutions – good unionized green jobs, cleaner and cheaper energy, and more democratic control over life itself. These kinds of solutions link the abstract planetary level to peoples’ direct livelihood interests. Moreover, these solutions counter the right wing arguments that climate policy will “hurt” economically.

If we make the climate story all about knowledge and denial, we risk alienating the masses we need to win. As Joan Williams put it in her viral piece post-2016 election, the working class “resents professionals but admires the rich.” This is because professional class people – the very scientists, academics, and journalists at the core of the climate coalition – are often the ones telling working class people what to do and why they’re wrong (think: doctors, lawyers, professors, social workers). Telling the 47% of people who do not believe in anthropogenic climate change they are ill-behaved and ignorant falls directly into the right wing populist trap that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a liberal elite. Winning the climate struggle will no doubt entail mobilizing masses of people who don’t know what 350 refers to or even (gasp) how the greenhouse effect works. 

#4 – Don’t Tax Molecules, Tax the Rich…A lot!

The local International Socialist Organization branch in my home city, Syracuse, recently made posters with this slogan: “Tax the Rich a Lot.” This sums up the socialist approach to fiscal policy quite nicely. While many climate policy wonks think we need to use the tax system to correct a “market failure” and internalize the costs of “externalities,” socialists believe we need to tax the rich to fund vital public services for the masses of people. A carbon tax is often framed as a measure applied on an entire economy – a working class commuter needs to ‘internalize’ the costs of emissions as much as a steel plant. It is a tax on a molecule (CO2), not specific people. A socialist approach needs to intensify the antagonisms – we need to tax them (the real polluters) to fund us (the working class).

One example is Bernie Sanders’s policy of a tax on Wall Street speculation to fund free college for all. Similarly, the striking West Virginia teachers made a direct connection between taxing the fossil fuel industry and funding better teacher salaries and benefits. Not only do most carbon tax policies fail to highlight these class dimensions – and thus it is not surprising when they fail, as a proposal did in liberal Washington – but they play into the right’s anti-tax populism by proposing policies that appear to tax “all of us.” Funding “us” also means socializing the revenue to build the massive public energy infrastructure needed to transition away from fossil fuels. Long term infrastructure is almost always funded by the public, not the private sector. Yet, proposals such as the Citizens Climate Lobby’s “fee and dividend” policy attempt instead to appeal to the right by advocating “revenue neutrality” (despite our need for a ton of revenue to solve the problem). The policy wrongly individualizes the returns through “dividend” checks to households. This might cynically address the “appeal to the working class” issue (who doesn’t like a check?), but it will not provide the public resources needed to solve what is a very public crisis.

#5 – Climate Change Requires Planetary Solidarity

Socialism is internationalist. Two slogans are at the core of socialist politics: “Workers of the world, unite!” and, from the socialist anthem The Internationalé: “The international ideal, Unites the human race!” These slogans understood workers had a shared global interest against a global capitalist class, but the idea of uniting the human race resonates differently today as humanity faces the prospect of “hothouse earth. Although this ideal was distorted by the Stalinist maxim of “socialism in one country,” Marx and the socialist movement always imagined a global “revolution in humankind” (as Hal Draper described it). Similarly, we cannot solve climate change working remotely in our individual countries. Climate politics will require a kind of planetary solidarity across borders as workers, peasants, and indigenous peoples come together to see their shared interest in maintaining a livable planet. This planetary solidarity must understand global climate change is a criminal atrocity perpetrated by a small minority of capitalists mainly located in the Global North. This international solidarity movement must also reject the elitist top-down United Nations Conference of Parties (UNFCCC), where political and corporate leaders have failed for nearly three decades to forge the international solidarity required to address the crisis.

The climate justice movement is already an important example of this kind of international solidarity. Climate justice internationalism pushes us to overcome the boundaries that divide us as a species – borders and the arbitrary divisions of racialized categories – but also respecting vastly different cultures and livelihood models on the planet. Planetary climate solidarity can stitch together food sovereignty movements in the Global South with public power struggles in the Global North. Further, climate solidarity cannot only be forged in reaction to the devastating effects of climate change (“front lines” communities from Bangladesh to New Orleans are already forging powerful linkages on their own). Planetary solidarity must also be about a more positive story: “a world to win.” This means connecting struggles across the globe that seek to decommodify the critical necessities of life: food, housing, healthcare, and, for climate, most of all, energy. As socialist feminists argue, this also means radically valuing the low-carbon care work that capitalism devalues and degrades.

The goal is to democratize control over providing for our basic needs. As Shawn Gude recently put it, “democratic socialism, at its core, is about deepening democracy where it exists and introducing democracy where it is absent.” Today much of what we need to survive is produced by firms, “private governments” only seeking profit. But, as explained above, democracy also means appealing to the needs of the vast majority of people who crave a decent, secure and comfortable life. Socialism would gear the entire economy toward “care,” and the needs of the many against the profits of a few. The struggle for decarbonization cannot be cast as purely technical or economistic “energy transition;” it must be about exerting popular control over life itself to veer us away from irreversible disaster.

Overall it is quite surprising how well the challenge of climate change overlaps with some classical principles of socialism. The heart of the issue is that we can no longer trust private capitalists to solve the problem on their own. Hal Draper put it perfectly, “the operative contradiction is between the rights of private property…and the organized proletariat’s inevitable insistence on social responsibility for all vital aspects of life, including economic.” If the demise of a habitable earth weren’t an obvious sign that we need to take more democratic social responsibility over the “vital aspects of life” I’m not sure what is. Yet, in terms of building a socialist climate politics, we have barely begun. We not only have a world to win, we have a home to rescue. •

This article first published on the The Trouble website.

Matthew Huber is an Associate Professor of Geography at Maxwell School, Syracuse University.

A Plan To Nationalize Fossil Fuel Companies

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Climate change cries out for ambitious solutions. All progressives recognize that climate change is a serious long-term risk which could cause devastating damage around the world. There is not, however, consensus on which policy options could seriously mitigate the effects of climate change.

One strong option: bringing fossil energy under majority public ownership. It is being proposed by the Labour Party in the UK and is already the case in Norway. Such ownership could bring major benefits if tried here.

The Trump administration’s repeal of the Clean Power Plan last year has taken the country in the wrong direction. But the Obama administration policies before him were very underwhelming. The Clean Power Plan, instituted under Obama, was already facing serious legal troubles and would have been insufficient to achieve the U.S. pledges under the Paris Agreement, which themselves would have been insufficient to meet the proportional contribution required to limit global warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Free-market solutions and incentives are not capable of dealing with a major economic transition of this type on a quick enough timescale to avoid environmental disaster. The use of workers in the fossil fuel industry as a cynical bargaining chip by the owners of those firms represents a massive political obstacle to a real energy transition, as does the valuation of these firms based off an expectation by investors that much or all of their underground assets will be developed — which, if we are to avoid climate catastrophe, will not.

What we should do instead is have the state buy a controlling stake in all major fossil fuel firms.

This could be quite costly — Alperovitz, Guinan, and Hanna recently estimated “the price tag to purchase outright the top 25 largest US-based publicly traded oil and gas companies, along with most of the remaining publicly traded coal companies” at $1.15 trillion — but there are ways to minimize this cost while still obtaining all of the benefits.

The mode for gaining public control of these companies should involve making the federal government’s final intentions well known to investors from the outset. Control over these shares would be given to a new Social Energy Fund, which would be chartered to use its stake in the firms to achieve key priorities, including national compliance with ambitious decarbonization targets and building up publicly owned renewable energy firms. This means stating from the outset that huge quantities of oil and gas will be left in the ground. The state would vote for resolutions and directors that will ensure its social goals are met.

While full nationalization would be preferable under an ideal legal regime, the Supreme Court case law under the Takings Clause requires market value compensation for compulsory purchases. Instead, having made its intentions to annihilate the fossil fuel industry known, the government would offer to voluntarily purchase up to 51% of shares. It would also announce that it intends to compulsorily purchase any shares required to obtain its majority stake at some point in the future — say, one year afterwards.

This guarantees to investors that if they do not sell stakes, they will be left holding an asset worth far less than they paid for with no available buyer. The price of fossil fuel shares includes both their immediate profits and a speculative value based on the expectation that firms will continue to have a stranglehold on the political system and ensure their ability to extract and sell fossil fuels for a long time to come. We would therefore expect the value of the stocks to collapse just as shares in private prisons collapsed in 2016 due to Obama’s promise to phase them out.

The state could add a further incentive to sell now by stating that it will include a discount accounting for environmental externalities in its “just compensation” for compulsory purchase. It is likely that this would not persuade America’s right-wing judiciary and the state would eventually have to pay market value. But the prospect of holdouts having to fight an extended legal battle with the federal government should depress the stock price further.

If we assume Alperovitz, Guinan, and Hanna’s figures are correct and a conservative discount of 30% on the current prices, and only purchase 51% of the shares, the total cost works out at $410 billion. A similar plan by David Hall of the University of Greenwich put the cost of nationalizing half of the UK’s major fossil fuel companies at market value at around £36 billion ($50.2 billion), or £44.4 billion ($61.9 billion) if one includes the transmission and distribution grids. The U.S. economy is about seven times larger than the British economy, so the figures are roughly comparable.

In truth, this would be worth doing even if the sticker price was far higher. The long-term costs of climate change to the U.S. economy and society will dwarf any capital investment we need to make right now.

Economists largely agree that nationalization does not have a direct impact on the government’s balance sheet due to the acquisition of public assets, a fact recently acknowledged by the Financial Times in reference to Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to nationalize the energy network. The ability of the government to plan energy transitions in a way which does not require them to pay off fossil fuel barons with subsidies and tax incentives will no doubt improve the government’s financial resources over time, and the revenues from fossil fuels will provide a stopgap until a large public clean energy sector begins to pay dividends.

An undeniable consequence of decarbonization will be job losses in the fossil fuel sector. The fund should address this through a gradual downward trend in employment which can be absorbed through hiring freezes, voluntary redundancies, and active labor market policies rather than through large-scale immediate layoffs — especially where largely concentrated in a single area. The Wilson Labour government in the United Kingdom reduced employment in collieries by a similar absolute number to the Thatcher government, but its cooperation with unions, focus on full employment, and active industrial policy ensured this did not cause a social catastrophe.

The welfare state and union-run retraining schemes should also fill the gap here. We should aim to smooth out the transition for people as much as possible. The liberalized market is a massive obstacle to decarbonization because it polarizes the interests of energy workers against everyone else’s compelling interest in energy transition. This is not inevitable, and a large social-democratic welfare state would significantly reduce these divisions.

Norway’s social wealth fund recently suggested divesting from privately held fossil fuel firms, and its state energy company Equinor is seeking to diversify away from oil. The fossil fuel industry in America already exists, and state management is much better suited to planning a fair and viable transition that will avoid catastrophic climate change.

How should we pay for such a plan? Climate change poses a grave risk to global security in the long run. Even major oil producers have recognized this. Norway’s Climate and Environment Minister noted that “studies have pointed out that the record drought that ravaged Syria in 2005 to 2010 was likely stoked by ongoing manmade climate change,” and that this “helped push conditions over the threshold” of civil war.

If offsets are required to pass this proposal, funding it by cancelling planned military spending increases makes sense. We should not need excessive spending on the military if we are living in a safer world, and a publicly controlled energy transition whose profits finance a secure, collectively-owned clean energy industry will do more good for America, and the world, than any spending on F-35s or foreign interventions.