Capitalism has no remedy for the climate emergency


— BOSTON — Geologists measure time quite differently than we do. For us, 10 years make up a significant segment of our lives, when for the Earth hundreds of millions of years are but a chapter in its lifecycle. As such, scientists break up and define portions of the Earth’s life into geological ages based on significant climatic events such as the appearance and disappearance of polar ice caps. For the last few decades, several scientists have proposed that we are in a new age—the Anthropocene, named after ourselves as our interactions with Earth’s ecology and geology begin to have effects that will be noticeable on a geologic timescale in the mineral record.

Here in Massachusetts, the entire state has been covered in a drought so severe that it has rained the least amount from June through August in recorded history. In fact, the National Weather Service reports almost half (46.9%) of the United States is either in a severe, extreme, or exceptional drought.

It is important to remember that we are not the only things that heat and lack of rain can affect. In a world where our development has caused widespread habitat destruction while what is left has been fragmented apart from each other, human-caused drought is yet another stressor that the plants and animals around us have to deal with. It is not so easy for a tree dealing with invasive insect pests or an endangered bird to simply turn on the tap when in need of a cold glass of water.

We are berated with the message from news pundits and politicians that “capitalism is a rational system,” and the “best method to efficiently allocate resources.” One would think, then, that after hearing the alarm ringing of our scientists that we as a species are potentially facing an extinction-level event over the next several centuries, that it would be almost trivial for such a gifted system to plan for our own survival. After all, newspapers have been talking about climate change due to CO2 emissions for 110 years, and companies are supposedly run by rational human beings.

Unfortunately, reality fails to live up to those basic assumptions about capitalism. As we continue to get closer to the oft-touted 2030 goalpost year for climate initiatives, Forbes (March 4, 2020) reports that American utilities are set to spend upwards of one trillion dollars on expanding natural gas fired power plants by that landmark. Contributing to this development is the fact that, in most states, utilities are regulated by state government commissions. And even though the majority of utilities are private investor owned, their actions require government rubberstamps. This means that when the company wants to raise rates, they usually need to justify the hike to the commission. The easiest way to do so is to have large construction projects with big price tags and say “look at how much we have spent on expanding infrastructure, we need to recoup that expenditure”. While emissions continue to mount, energy companies are incentivized by the state to build bulky new fossil fuel infrastructure in order to increase their profits. Industry then is unable and unwilling to change tack, and the state is similarly stubborn.

The Democrats laud their recently passed environment bill, yet all is not as it appears. The bill requires the Department of the Interior, the U.S. bureau responsible for managing our national parks and wildlife refuges, to open up 2 million acres to oil and gas drilling. Further, the bill mandates that the federal government cannot move forward with the solar and wind provisions in the bill before those 2 million acres are leased out.

One of the pillars of the bill is a carbon tax system. Companies that utilize technology and procedures that sequester carbon get a tax write-off come April. This means that instead of shutting down fossil fuel combustion, the bill incentivizes the construction of additional fossil fuel powered plants and fossil fuel extraction. The more oil rigs that BP builds, the more tax write-offs it can claim. The “climate change bill” gives oil companies a green flag to ramp up production.

Far from being some sort of errant political move to reach compromise with Republicans, this is fully in accord with the Democratic Party line. For example, following zero pressure from Republicans, Biden outpaced Trump in his first year in office on the question of approving drilling permits on federal land. We see that the response of the capitalist class and their political representatives is not a “rational” strategy to halt the environmental catastrophe, but to more or less ignore it. With each seeming “win” that we get, such as the climate bill, they ensure that each measure that gets through is so full of holes and exceptions it is almost worse than no action at all. This is not some bug of capitalism, but a feature of it.

Even all the way back in the mid-1800s, before anyone considered the ramifications of fossil-fuel combustion, Karl Marx remarked on the tendency of market-based agriculture to extract more crops from farmland than it could sustainably produce in order to maximize profits. By utilizing extractive farming practices, the soil degrades over time, leading to less ability to produce food over the long term. If capitalism cannot handle running a simple farm, tackling something as complex as our current trend of environmental degradation is far beyond its capabilities.

That leaves only us—working people and their allies. We need to organize for our future. We need to organize workers in energy and utility companies and call for nationalization; we need to stand for Indigenous land rights, as fossil-fuel projects overwhelmingly end up furthering the settler colonial process; we need to end toxic waste dumping in communities of color. A sober look at the world around us easily leads to a feeling of impending doom, but it is far from hopeless. Scientists and workers in our energy sectors know what we need to do, we are simply held hostage by capitalism from doing so. But like a smoker’s health outlook improving rapidly the day after quitting cigarettes, our own outlook can actually be quite bright if we can transition from fossil fuels in a substantial way and center ecology in our society.

Photo: Due to the multi-year drought in the Western U.S., Lake Oroville in California is dangerously low. (Ethan Swope / AP)

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