Oct. 2019 Climate Johannesburg (CNN)
Climate protesters march in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Sept. 20, 2019. (CNN)


We are living through a planetary emergency. Climate change, caused primarily by emissions of greenhouse gases, is moving toward a dangerous tipping point. Sea level rise and biodiversity loss could reach catastrophic levels as interaction between different systems accelerates the crisis. The 21st century has seen extreme weather on an unprecedented scale. New climate patterns have created zones of drought and flood, and massive wildfires and superstorms are annual occurrences. This will only become more intense as warming increases.

The 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a dramatic deadline. It projected that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require a reduction of emissions to 50% of their 2010 levels by 2030, and a further reduction to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Failure to meet this target would “lock in” warming of more than 2°C, with attendant horrors. Worse, some climate scientists consider this view too optimistic.

Mass extinction, nitrogen pollution, and ocean acidification are other signs of the broad planetary emergency. The current epoch has been dubbed the Anthropocene, characterized by how humans have reshaped the world in the industrial era. The cost of this change is severe. The first climate migrations have already begun as millions are displaced by severe weather, drought, and other intolerable conditions. While most carbon emissions have come from imperialist countries, it is the underdeveloped world that suffers the most from climate change.

Protest movements around the world have pushed for dramatic action in response to the crisis. Mass climate marches in 2014 and 2016 drew hundreds of thousands of participants. School strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, have spread across the globe since 2018. Climate activists have linked up with Indigenous activists fighting against fossil-fuel pipelines, such as the protest by the Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and the Wet’suwet’en people fighting the Coastal Gas pipeline today. The price of inaction has created an urgency that reaches deep, particularly among the youth who see ecological disaster in their future.

As climate has taken center stage, politicians in the Democratic Party have put up the call for a Green New Deal. The most dramatic proponent has been Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Representative who identifies as a democratic socialist. Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sunrise Movement in protesting outside Nancy Pelosi’s office in 2018 and demanding that a Green New Deal committee be created in Congress. Since then, several candidates for president have also taken up this cause, particularly Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

While the specific details vary, the Green New Deal is a plan that would create a large-scale jobs program to build out renewable power generation throughout the United States, replacing most fossil-fuel use. It would also involve building electric-ready infrastructure, since most transportation and transit rely on fossil fuels, and some of the more detailed plans also involve housing and other sectors.

The Green New Deal is put forward as an alternative both to market-oriented solutions to the climate crisis, such as carbon credit schemes and carbon taxes, and to unproven technological fixes like carbon capture and sequestration. The central premise is that it can solve the climate crisis within capitalism. This is clear in its framing as a “New Deal.” It harkens back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies during the Great Depression. This is celebrated as a period of liberal reform, but in reality it saved capitalism in its worst crisis.

It is easiest to see this when we look at what the Green New Deal would not do. What is never questioned is the continuity of capitalist production.

Exuberant claims that the Green New Deal would pay for itself assume that the jobs plan will bolster the economy and boost private sector profits. This implies that the consumption-oriented economy will continue to grow unabated. And there are no plans for strict allocation of resources or energy. Bernie Sanders even touts that energy would be “virtually free” after 2035.

This should ring alarm bells for ecosocialists. The root of the ecological crisis lies in capitalism’s imperative for accumulation. Capital has two sources of value: the exploitation of labor and the robbery of nature. The earth and its resources enter the ledger of capitalism as a “free gift.” This is voraciously consumed to keep accumulation going, along with the imperialist system that enables it. The wealth of the richest 1% is wrenched from the earth.

Much of what is produced today is useless or will be shortly. Products are disposable or planned for obsolescence to keep the sales cycle moving. There is constant, senseless waste as products that cannot be sold for a profit are thrown away. Relentless advertising and marketing push products onto the consumer so the mechanism of accumulation can continue to run.

Chasing cheap labor markets means that cod caught in Sweden are shipped to China, where they are prepared, and back to Sweden to be eaten, on container ships that alone produce 3% of the world’s carbon emissions.

We cannot defeat climate change while leaving production and distribution to the market. Capital sees regulations as obstacles to overcome, not limits to its ability to accumulate. When production is made more efficient, it results in an aggregate increase in energy usage, not a decrease. This paradox was first noted by William Stanley Jevons in the 19th century, but it remains true of modern capitalism. This is not even considering the stiff resistance that capitalists would make to stop a Green New Deal from being implemented.

The transition to an environmentally sustainable economy would require extensive planning, far beyond the scope of a jobs and infrastructure program. Production would emphasize human need rather than capitalist profits. This would be unacceptable for a capitalist government. Only a workers’ government would be able to make the decisions democratically and in a way that forwards human needs.

In the United States, the Green New Deal also suffers from being a policy demand of the Democratic Party. In power, the Democrats are controlled by their right wing. This is made up of conservative politicians in “swing” districts who hold an effective veto on any legislation.

It is easy to see how a well-meaning demand for a Green New Deal could come to fruition as a corporate-friendly package of tax breaks, research subsidies, and contracts that amount to a huge transfer of wealth to the “green” sector of capitalism.

What is worse, this is something of a best-case scenario; it is entirely possible that long-term gridlock in the Senate would prevent any legislation at all.

Still, some ecosocialists have chosen to endorse the idea of a “radical” Green New Deal. This has ranged from the Democratic Socialists of America’s ecosocialist working group, to leading ecosocialist John Bellamy Foster, to activists like Naomi Klein. This notion merits extreme skepticism, though.

The entire logic of the Green New Deal is precisely that it is not radical. For instance, the DSA Ecosocialist Working Group’s “guiding principles” put forward a complete vision for a post-capitalist society. Yet in practice, the same working group was very quick to embrace the plan put forward by Bernie Sanders.

This is the real significance of the radical Green New Deal. At best, its advocates can lobby Democratic politicians to make a better policy. But for others, like Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal is a wedge to gain influence in the Democratic Party. As long as the movement remains dependent upon these politicians, it cannot make the changes needed to handle the climate crisis. The radical version of the Green New Deal is only a political fantasy.

Socialists work within the climate movement to fight against pipelines, fracking, and expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure. But this movement cannot depend on a Green New Deal to save the world. It needs a bold program to change the very nature of economic activity, which must prioritize sustainability and meeting human needs.

Agriculture, production, and distribution all require revolutionary changes to end the ecological crisis. This is implied in the slogan, “System Change, Not Climate Change,” which has been used by ecosocialists and endorsed by leaders such as Greta Thunberg. Resources must be allocated by democratic plan instead of the market, and decisions must be made based on sustainability instead of business or political considerations.

Climate change is the most important fight that socialists have faced, and we have a crucial decade ahead of us. We need mass-based organizations that will build mass actions to confront these problems. They will need to organize workers, students, and Indigenous and oppressed peoples in an alliance to end capitalism’s war on nature. And we need a revolutionary socialist party that can work to bring down the capitalist system itself.