From the archives: Some notes on climate change from 2011

Mark Bergfeld


Climate change is fact
This winter Hurricane Sandy caused massive destruction along the East Coast of the United States.
Over the summer we have seen the biggest drought in states such as Oklahoma which famously was
labelled the ‘dust bowl’ of America in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Also in Britain we have seen the biggest drought followed by massive floods in some parts of the
As austerity and the cold bite in crisis-ridden Greece, people have turned to heating their homes
with firewood. This has caused a Smog-Alarm in the centre of Athens the first time since the 1980s.
In Egypt and Tunisia, structural adjustment programmes, dependence on the export of gas and oil,
and Foreign Direct Investment have had a massive impact on food prices. Twinned with longer
drought periods, the changes in climate in the Middle East and North Africa have been one of the
determining features as to why the initial demonstrations in December 2011 were so explosive.
In Syria, Assad’ neoliberal reforms after 2000 exacerbated the environmental degradation and left
ten thousands of peasants from the country side to to the brink of starvation. These peasants then
flooded into the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Daraa, the bastions of the resistance against the Assad
On the news we hear about immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa drowning in the Mediterranean.
Bill McKibben and other climate scientists are arguing that Arctic ice is melting at much faster rates
than expected. It is commonly assumed 2 Degree Celsius Threshold
We find ourselves at a critical stage with climate polarisation intensifying.
Runaway climate change

Climate Change summits are deadlocked
The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 at which more than 100 states participated was hamstrung by George
Bush Sr. The agreement on biodiversity a few years later wasn’t signed by the United States.
Rio established a charter to protect the environment but in the last twenty years carbon emissions
have steadily risen.
The infamous Kyoto Protocoll which George W Bush jr and the US again didn’t sign up was hailed as
a big advancement in the fight against climate change. What it however did was to enshrine market
mechanisms as the only way to fight the climate crisis. These protocols committed industrialised
nations to reducing their emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
The first problem is the woefully low target. Britain needs to reduce its emissions by around 80
percent if we are to have any hope of dealing with climate change. Yet the treaty did at least mark a
binding commitment to reducing emissions.
Many people hoped that the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit would bring about necessary
results and a change in political direction however it didn’t culminate in anything. Sir Nicolas Stern
called it the “most important gathering since the Second World War”. However, Obama just turned
up for a couple of hours on the last day of the summit, gave a twenty-minute speech and flew back
to the US again.
The agreement that was reached is a pure joke. It committed itself to reducing carbon emissions by
10% by 2020. However, the hook is that the treaty isn’t legally binding and
While Dubya didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocol he had introduced market mechanisms when he had
been Governor of Texas. He enabled companies to buy polluting permissions which turned Texas
from one of the cleanest states with the lowest carbon emissions into one of the most polluted
states with ever higher carbon emissions.
Market mechanisms to solve the climate crisis
The only way that states can possible imagine to solve the climate crisis is to continue to do what
they always do: impose market mechanisms in order to reduce carbon emissions.
Their assumption is if you give carbon emissions a price, then it will stimulate multinational
companies to invest in newer technologies which produce less carbon emissions. However, the
opposite has been proven to be true.
As carbon emissions are bought and sold on the market and also speculated with multinational
corporations can buy the ‘right to pollute’ at very cheap cost rather than investing into new
technologies which undermine their profits.
Following climate summits in Cancun, Bonn and Rio continued on a similar destructive path hailing a
new era of global emissions trading, REDD programmes and others which exacerbate the problem of
climate change rather than tackling the problems at the root.

Capitalism: The root of climate change
Twinned with the inability of politicians and world leaders to solve the climate crisis today we see
the environmentally disastrous practices of a system based upon profit accumulation.
For all the talk about ‘green growth’, ‘green enterprise’ or ‘green capitalism’ the logic of the system
based on profits means that one either stops being green, or one stops being a capitalist.
Already more than 150 years ago, Karl Marx summed up the attitude of capitalism as follows: ‘Apres
moi, le deluge. (After me, the flood) That is Moses and the prophets’. More precisely, Marx and his
collaborator went on to analyse the effect that using guana (birds’ manure) as fertilizers was having
on European fields. Much to our surprise today they discovered that the very young capitalist system
was at odds with the ecological system.
Never would they have imagined the kind of environmental damages that the horrible extraction of
oil from tar sands found in the Canadian forests of Alberta, to the nuclear power plants of
Fukushima, to the BP oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon of the Gulf Coast.
He identified the metabolic rift which meant that humans were at odds with their natural world.

The movements against climate change
Over recent decades powerful movements against climate change have emerged.
The Climate Justice movement has been a powerful political actor both inside the climate
negotiations as well as outside in the streets, in the indigenous communities of the Global South and
Black and Native American communities across North America.
They have consistently argued that environmental destruction and climate change are not natural
disasters but disproportionately impact depending on what class you belong to, or what colour of
skin you have.
For the climate justice movement it is not just about changing a few light bulbs or recycling but
ultimately about changing the whole system – whereas it remains ambigious whether they just see
neoliberalism as the problem; or rather capitalism as a whole.
The movements that have emerged across the Global South are inspirational.
In the case of Bolivia, President Evo Morales even organised a 20 000-strong People’s Assembly for
Mother Earth in 2010. It brought together indigenous peoples, trade unionists like the cocaleros,
radical NGOs from the Global North and the Bolivian government.
While Morales’ rhetoric remains radical, the recent construction of a highway (TIPNIS project)
through indigenous lands has exposed the limitations of a left-wing government committed to
saving the planet.
In the summer of 2009, we saw a different kind of movement against climate change emerge in
The Danish multinational windturbine company Vestas announced that it would close its only UK
factory. 600 jobs were to go. Soon after socialists, environmental activists and most importantly the
workers of the plant decided to occupy the windturbine factory on the Isle of Wight.
For more than six weeks, workers occupied the factory demanding that Gordon Brown and his
government which had promised ‘green jobs’ nationalised the Vestas windturbine factory. By
demanding the nationalisation of the windturbine factory they didn’t only raise the slogan of saving
their jobs but also did three other things which transformed the fightback against climate change.
1) The demand for nationalisation went against the neoliberal trend of privatising profits and
nationalising losses. If Vestas had won it could have set an example of how to beat the
neoliberal tide.
2) The demand also exposed the hypocrisy of Gordon Brown and the government which
consistently argued that ‘green jobs’ were needed. However when such jobs were under
threat the government didn’t do anything.
3) Most importantly, it was based on workers’ self-activity. The demand of nationalisation
wasn’t a hollow one because workers adopted the tactic of workplace occupation and thus
raised the possibility for workers’ control. This is what Trotsky-ists have traditionally called a
transitional demand
Even though the heroic occupation didn’t win and the occupiers were starved out, it did give a
brilliant example that workers’ interests and the planet’s interests are one.

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