Climate change is real, and so is climate hysteria.
Anthropogenic climate change is generated by emissions of carbon dioxide (and some other gases) through human economic activity, mostly by the burning of carbon-based fuels in industry and transportation. The resulting accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts in the same way as the glass in a greenhouse, trapping solar heat that would otherwise dissipate into space, and causing the average temperatures on the surface of planet earth to rise. There are now very few climate scientists who would deny either the fact of generalised warming, or the fact that human activity causes it, or the potentially catastrophic consequences for human life. It is a reality that humanity has to face, a problem that must be tackled.
Climate hysteria is a fact of class politics. It is generated when a particular class of capitalist society, the petty-bourgeoisie or middle class, recognises the problem of climate change, but at the same time is confronted with its utter inability to solve the problem. The collision between these two incontrovertible facts of the capitalist reality produces moods of anxiety and panic on a mass scale, which can spill over into mass hysteria.
Climate scientists are generally members of this middle class, and their increasingly urgent warnings about the problem of climate change have been largely ignored by capitalist governments for thirty years and more. Scientists are thus confronted by their own powerlessness in a very direct way, and often get swept up in the hysteria. In its own way, climate hysteria can be as dangerous as climate change. At the very least, it is an obstacle to solving the problem of climate change.
I use the word ‘hysteria’ advisedly. The word is an objectionable one; it has reactionary, sexist origins, and has not entirely shaken off those associations. It is no longer in use in clinical psychology for good reason, and it will be a great day when it disappears from the language altogether. But for now, there is no other word which adequately conveys the sense of social contagion.
The moods of fear and panic have been most eloquently expressed by Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist who inspired the widely-supported ‘climate strikes’ that took place in many countries in September. Speaking in January at the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of global political and business elites in Davos, Switzerland, Thunberg said, “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day [my emphasis – JR]. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
“People feel very guilty when a child says ‘You are stealing my future.’ That has impact,” Thunberg told the Washington Post, assuming the role of the child herself.
At the United Nations Climate Summit in September, once again speaking as a child addressing adults, Thunberg said, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”
This call “to panic,” “to feel the fear” and “to feel very guilty” has been taken up by broad sections of bourgeois public opinion, often in ways that explicitly reject rational thinking in favour of acting on the fears of children. “With their rationalizations, and their armour against anxiety, they [adults – JR] have failed to grasp the greatest threat of them all, the warming of the planet,” writes Franklin Foer in The Atlantic. “You and me, we’re a team,” former US President Barack Obama told Thunberg when she met him at his office in Washington in September.
The stunts pulled by the organisation Extinction Rebellion also reflect the moods of desperation and despair, especially their most spectacular action, the blocking of bridges in central London in November 2018. The general character of these actions is of an impassioned appeal to “the politicians” to act in the common interests of humanity, in the first instance by declaring a ‘climate emergency.’ Extinction Rebellion’s particular means of getting the ear of the rulers is mass arrests and jailings. “Letters, emailing, marches don’t work. You need about 400 people to go to prison. About two to three thousand people to be arrested,” says Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion. He tells a police officer, “We don’t really want to block the roads. We just want to get a load of people arrested. And then we can say to the politicians, you know, a thousand people are happy to lose their liberty because we want some change.” One might ask Roger Hallam what is the next tactic to adopt when this one fails to capture the attention of the politicians – self-immolation? Cyanide-laced Kool-Aid?
Because it is absolutely excluded that the publicity stunts of Extinction Rebellion will produce the slightest step towards mitigating climate change. Not a single serious, meaningful reform.
Nor will mass actions of the kind seen around the world last month accomplish anything better, despite their adopting the terminology of the labour movement and being dubbed ‘general strikes.’
The reason that capitalist governments around the world, liberal and conservative alike, refuse to take any serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not because they are unaware of the problem of climate change. They are neither ignorant nor stupid. These governments are beholden to a class which places its narrow, short-term class interests first in all matters. Forced to choose between the threat of long-term harm to all human life on earth, and a threat to their immediate profit interests, the capitalist class will prioritise their profit interests every time.
In the early revolutionary phase of the capitalist epoch, the bourgeoisie spoke in the interests of all humanity. Today, that class approaches its own extinction. It cannot plan for the future, because as a class it has no future; it can only fight, with increasing deafness, desperation and violence, to hold on to its power and privileges in the present.
Thus, the question of climate change and protection of the natural environment, like all other political issues, is a class question. Only when it is fought along class lines – not young people against adults, but class against class – will there be any progress. Meaningful reforms will be won only as a by-product of the struggle to dislodge the capitalist class from power. The only class which has a clear class interest in protecting the natural environment – as one of its conditions of labour – is the working class. To be effective, climate scientists and activists must stop pleading with the capitalists and align themselves with that class.
I don’t question the sincerity of the majority of those who participated in the September climate actions, nor the need to engage them in discussions about the road forward. But those discussions have to start from a frank recognition of the futility of those actions themselves. Otherwise, they will merely point back into the swamp of capitalist politics. Because at this point in the class struggle, all roads lead back into that swamp – of supporting one or other ‘progressive’ or ‘lesser evil’ party or faction of the bourgeoisie in power.
Thunberg spells this out when she tells the capitalist politicians at the United Nations Summit, “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe” [my emphasis – JR]. This is a very revealing thought; it accurately expresses the class orientation of the climate strikes, appealing to “good people” among the ruling class. When Obama tells Thunberg, “You and me, we’re a team,” he is not mistaken.
My criterion for appraising the ‘climate strike’ is the same as for any other political action: to what degree does it raise the class-consciousness, self-confidence and combativity of the working class, and point towards its political independence from the capitalist parties? Measured against that yardstick, it must be admitted that despite the massive turnout, the ‘climate strike’ achieved nothing at all. On the contrary, it could actually smooth the way to attacks on workers’ rights and broader civil liberties, thereby weakening the one class which actually has it in its power to confront the problem of climate change.
Here is how that has played out in the weeks since the climate strike in New Zealand. With minor alterations in details, much the same appears to apply in other countries.
Over the course of the past year, many local governments have taken up the call by Extinction Rebellion and ‘declared a climate emergency.’ In practice, nothing changes except this: by invoking an ‘emergency’ these agencies give themselves increased powers to ride roughshod over workers’ rights. Reflecting this thinking, Professor Tim Naish, a glaciologist at the Antarctic Research Centre, said “If we’re going to solve this problem, the scale is enormous. We have to be on almost a war-time footing. That invokes a whole lot of legislative change and in some cases, losses of liberties.” [my emphasis – JR]
Labour Party Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded favourably to a plea by 1300 scientists for her government to make a similar declaration. This government is currently occupied in pushing through legislative changes designed to increase internet censorship, vastly expand powers of government spying on individuals, and undermine the presumption of innocence, all in the guise of ‘fighting terrorism.’ Since the Christchurch rightist massacre in March, Ardern has been heading up an international campaign along the same lines. So “losses of liberties” are right up their alley.
The centrepiece of successive New Zealand governments’ response to climate change has been the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), initiated in 2008. Set up as part of New Zealand’s commitment to the Kyoto protocol on climate change, the ETS created a market in ‘carbon credits.’ Industries were allocated a baseline of carbon emissions on the basis of their historical emissions, and if they exceed those, they must buy ‘carbon credits’ for every ton of CO2 emitted above the historical rate, either at a fixed price from the government or at auction from other participants in the scheme. Industries that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, such as by planting trees, can gain income by selling credits for carbon removed. This supposedly creates economic incentives for industries to decrease emissions of greenhouse gases. These carbon units can be traded on an international market. No actual cap on total emissions was ever adopted.
The chief result of all this has been to establish a new market in fictitious capital, which is traded internationally, enlarging the massive speculative trade in paper tokens sloshing across the globe every day, adding to the financial instability of the capitalist economy, and fuelling trade wars through its integration into the system of protective tariffs. The initial capital for this trade has been gifted to the various industries by the government.
The ETS has been tinkered with many times by various governments, but its basic character remains the same. It is in fact a gigantic, multi-billion-dollar scam, which has nothing to do with actually reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. It has been compared to the feudal institution of ‘indulgences’, in which the wealthy classes, by making money donations to the church, could buy absolution from their sins and a ticket to heaven. The ETS has been about as effective in reducing emissions as indulgences were in reducing sin: greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise since its introduction.
An interesting article by Charlie Mitchell in Stuff reveals a little of the true nature of these “incentives to reduce emissions” – the article is worth reading in full, especially for anyone who still has lingering faith in the ETS. Under the most recent raft of changes to the ETS, Mitchell reports, free carbon credits worth billions of dollars will continue to be paid to the top corporate polluters for decades to come. “The reasoning is that these companies are particularly exposed to international competition, meaning a carbon price here could unduly disadvantage them globally. The recipients together provide thousands of jobs, many of which are outside major cities,” he writes.
Among the largest recipients of this government aid is the mining giant Rio Tinto, which operates the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point, and which last year reported a net profit of $21 billion. Every few years Rio Tinto delivers another blackmail note to the government: give us more subsidies or we will close the plant. The largest recipient is BlueScope Steel, which operates the steel mill at Glenbrook in south Auckland, and which has received credits worth $172 million since 2010. The top four polluters receive about 75% of these free credits.
Despite these rather glaring facts, the central discussion on climate change in New Zealand in the last month has been the question of bringing farmers under the purview of the ETS. New Zealand is somewhat unique among industrialised countries in that the big majority of its electricity comes from hydroelectric generation, and there are few coal-burning heavy industries. For these reasons, a relatively larger percentage of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from methane emitted by ruminant animals, especially dairy cows. The rapid expansion of dairy farming in recent decades, especially on unsuitable dry lands where it is supported by large-scale debt-funded irrigation schemes, has led to the despoliation of rivers and underground aquifers.
In late October the government decided against bringing farming into the ETS, opting instead for a system whereby farmers calculate their emissions and offsets ‘at the farm gate.’ This scheme will begin in 2025. The decision was slammed by Russell Norman, executive director of Greenpeace and former co-leader of the parliamentary Green Party. “They’ve made a decision not to put agriculture into the ETS, even though it’s Labour Party policy, it’s Green Party policy, even though it was in the coalition agreement with New Zealand First. There is no plan to make agriculture pay for its emissions… [Climate change] is the greatest issue facing us at the moment, and the government has just chosen to do nothing about the most polluting industry.”
Back in 2009, when the ETS was adopted and Russell Norman was Green Party co-leader, the Party itself described the ETS as “the sort of emissions trading scheme you have when you still think climate change is a hoax.” Today, Norman fights to impose additional taxes on family farmers, under this very same ETS, in order to “make agriculture pay.” All roads lead back to the swamp.
At this point in my argument, I can feel the frustration and anger of some readers rising. If the ETS is a scam, if declaring a climate emergency merely paves the way for attacks on workers’ rights, if Extinction Rebellion’s stunts achieve nothing, and if even mass actions like the climate strikes achieve nothing, then what can be done to address the problem of climate change? Is there nothing that can be done short of the working class taking power?
The problem of climate change is undeniably a global one, and solving it definitively will require a level of international solidarity and co-operation that will never be achieved under a system of competing nation-states. Capitalist rule cannot supersede the nation-state – two bloody world wars in the last century prove that beyond doubt – and therefore solving the problem is inextricably tied to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Yet there are things that can be done, climate actions that can be joined, here and now, that lead in that direction. They come into view as soon as you take your eyes off the rulers and orient towards the working class.
On October 22 a fire broke out at the construction site of the nearly-completed International Convention Centre, which is attached to the Sky City hotel and casino in downtown Auckland. The fire sent black clouds of toxic black smoke billowing over the Auckland CBD, as workers on the construction site as well as casino workers, hotel guests and workers in neighbouring buildings were evacuated. Fortunately no one was killed in the fire. It took hold in a bituminous roof and straw insulation materials, and proved extremely difficult to extinguish. Firefighters instead kept the fire contained to the top storey of the building and let the roofing material burn out. It was not finally extinguished until three days later. Smoke particles drawn into air-conditioning systems of neighbouring buildings during the fire continued to circulate long after the blaze was extinguished.
As soon as the worst of the emergency had passed, Sky City bosses called in the hotel and casino workers, to get the roulette wheels spinning and profits flowing again. The casino workers protested. Some 40 workers reported symptoms of smoke inhalation, including “burning eyes, throats so sore that they can’t swallow and dizzy spells, with three cases of fainting,” according to Unite Union organiser Joe Carolan. The union challenged the company’s claim that the government workplace health and safety agency Worksafe had inspected the site and declared it safe for workers to return.
About 50 workers joined a picket line outside SkyCity on Friday 25 October protesting the way workers were being pressured to resume work before it was known to be safe. “This is by far the most densely populated area in New Zealand, with well over 100,000 people working there daily, yet many central city workplaces kept their employees working throughout or only closed after hours of exposure.
“When private sector employers did eventually close, many reopened before it was possible for the buildings and air conditioning systems to have been cleaned and checked,” Carolan said.
This picket by fifty workers was, of course, much smaller than the massively attended ‘climate strikes,’ and received less media attention. Yet it accomplished more towards bringing an end to the pollution of the atmosphere than all the climate strikes across the globe put together. It brought into leadership of the fight the class that has both the class interest (and the union involved was not only speaking for its own members, but all the smoke-affected workers in the city), and the economic power to bring about change. It brought to the fore the fact that ending the pollution and despoliation of the natural environment is part of working people protecting their own conditions of work, an integral part of the fights for healthy and safe conditions on the job, for shorter hours and for a living wage. (It is not a coincidence that this same union of workers has already been waging a ‘back to the weekend’ campaign, demanding adequate compensation for the anti-social hours they are required to work.)
When the best elements of the middle class – not just its technical and professional layers, but above all the petty-bourgeois producers of wealth, such as the debt-oppressed farmers and fishers – ally themselves with this class and with these struggles, climate hysteria will dissipate and a real fight against climate change can begin.