Climate change and socialists

Fleeing New Orleans
Fleeing New Orleans

Jonathan Neale asks why does the environment matter to socialists?

This is a frequent question on the left, but it’s the wrong question, about the wrong thing. Talking about the environment lumps together many different things that have little in common, like the ugliness of litter and the deaths of millions each year from coal dust in the air. And this leads us to ignore the one environmental issue is of vastly more importance than the others – climate change.

So the important question is: Why does climate change matter to socialists?

There are bad answers to this question too. One of them is that socialists should care about the Earth. The problem is that this is guilt tripping. Shouldism makes people feel bad, but it doesn’t motivate them to action.

Another common answer is that climate change gives us socialists a space to argue how bad capitalism is and what a good thing socialism would be. This answer looks crudely opportunistic, because it is. It also often sounds offensive, because it betrays an ignorance of what serious climate change will look like. No one says that the good thing about the Holocaust or the Congo War is that they give us an opportunity to argue for socialism. Instead, we say that these terrible events motivate socialists to join other people in stopping such things happening.

The good answer is: climate change matters to socialists for the same reason it matters to kangaroos. It’s going to happen to you, and it will be bad.

In this article I will explain in a bit of detail why and how climate change will affect you, and your society. It may sound alarmist, partly because I am alarmed. But I also think that sometimes socialists talk about climate change without taking on board what is involved.


If we do not have comprehensive changes in global energy use, we are on course for rises of 4 degrees centigrade in average temperatures. The rises will be higher further north, higher in cities, and higher in the summer. So the average rise on a summer day in New York or Seoul will be about 8 degrees. Some days will be hotter. That means many summer days of 127 fahrenheit in Chicago, 45 centigrade in London and 50 centigrade in Shanghai. The electrical grid will often break down. That will mean no air conditioning, no lifts, and many people trapped undergound in subway systems.

The climate will also become much more unstable. Rainfall and storms will increase in intensity, and hurricanes and cyclones will move north and south. Some places will flood, and in others drought will spread. Crops will fail in many areas and decline overall.

Small rises in sea level will be magnified by hurricane surges – giant waves that carry all before them. Look at the damage done by a Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which had a surge 29 feet high (8.5 meters) when it hit land. Katrina was a small, weak hurricane. We can expect to lose many coastal cities.

As climate change intensifies, there will be many disasters, in many places, in the same year. Governments will be unable or unwilling to cope. The poor will be hit hard. The worst hit will be small farmers in poor countries hit by drought, working class people in coastal cities, and those disabled people in every country who cannot run or climb.

For example, old people living alone were the majority of the dead in the Chicago heat wave of 1995. People in wheelchairs were especially likely to die in New Orleans in 2005.

The impact of these “natural” events will be massively increased by the way society is now organised, aka “capitalism”. Crop failures will become famines. Disasters will lead to hundreds of millions of refugees. Those refugees will come up against armed borders. They may spend years in refugee camps, or the rich may become “tired” of feeding them. And there will be wars.

This is not just a prediction. Because of climate change the rains failed across the Sahel, south of the Sahara, in 1969, and have never really recovered. The long drought has led to a combination of famine, refugees and wars across Chad, Darfur, Mali, Chad, Somalia and northern Kenya. These situations are complicated, and many outside powers are involved. But there is also a simple dynamic – herders and farmers are killing each other for disappearing grass.

No one knows the precise form serious climate change will take. We can guess that hundreds of millions will die. How many no one knows. Two hundred million? Eight hundred million?

No one knows the timing either. A minority of you reading this are over sixty. You will probably avoid the worst. But not certainly, and your grandchildren will be there. But probably the majority of people reading this article will live through that time.

In a moment of global crisis, fear will possess the rich. Anyone who tells you that only the poor and the workers will suffer has not imagined what is coming. The rich own the world. What will they feel as they lose New York or London or Mumbai? Some of them will die, their electricity too will fail, the limos and helicopters will disappear, and they will fall to bitter fighting with each other over who survives and who goes broke.

They will fight with us too. Read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine to get a feel for how the ruling class intervene in a crisis. They will come, on the day after the storm, with machine guns and armoured cars, and a plan to radically restructure society so we are much more unequal.

The politicians who send in the tanks will talk in a language that sounds like radical environmentalists soung today. The politicains will speak of Mother Earth. They will tell us how we are greedy and have consumed too much, and how we need to tighten our belts and forswear fossil fuels, and how we need a firm hand or our civilisation will collapse. And they will shoot anyone who does not follow orders. Because the rich and powerful they will be terrified of the people’s anger, of the blame for the catastrophe, of our rage.

They will be particularly afraid if we start to band together to help each other get through the disaster.

If you want a little feel, a tiny taste, of what that will be like, read Sheri Fink’s book Five Days at Memorial. It’s about something that happened at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans five days after Hurricane Katrina.

The hospital had been flooded, and the electricity was not working. The national guard and army had occupied the city. The white nurses and doctors in the hospital were increasingly afraid of the black people they could see out the windows, wading through water up to their waists.

The army ordered the evacuation of New Orleans. They said no one was safe. But twenty of the patients were too old, too frail, or too fat to be evacuated in the small boats – and also too healthy to die. The corporate management could not imagine leaving any staff behind. Nor could they contemplate leaving live patients without staff. So someone gave twenty patients lethal injections, and the bodies were left behind.

Sheri Fink has talked to many people who were in the hospital. It seems likely that the managers in Texas gave the order, and one particular doctor and two nurses gave the injections. But while it is clear what happened, there is no certain proof who did it.

Reading that book will help you imagine what catastrophic climate change will be like. Of course Hurricane Katrina was only partly caused by climate change, and it was a small hurricane, and only about two thousand human beings died. It was also in the richest country, and the killings happened after five days of disaster, not years of repeated disasters.

So there is no comparison, really, to what you are going to live through. But the book will give you a feel for how people slip across lines, step across lines, or are pushed across lines. You probably cannot imagine yourself as the doctor who gave the injection, or the nurse who, crying, not knowing what to do, held the patient’s hand. But you could be the other doctor who overheard the plans, and stormed out of the hospital in a rage, and left it to happen. You could be the nurse who stood at the other end of the ward, not knowing what to do. You could be the man driving the small boats that evacuated the patients, who asked no questions. Or the woman who stayed with her sick mother for four days before she left the old woman in the care of the kind nurses, and has never forgiven herself .

You could be any of those people, with almost no sleep for five days, frightened, thirsty, out of your depth. Or you could be on the people on the grand jury who decided not to prosecute the doctor who probably gave the injections, because she was only a cog in the system.

But of course it won’t be exactly like that for you, or for your grandchildren. It will be quite different, and worse, and it will happen many times, and each of those times will be different, and hard to imagine from where we are now. The process will change you for the worse, and the society you live in for the worst too.

It won’t be the end of the world. Humanity will survive, even if half a billion people die. Civilisation, cities, and high-tech capitalism will continue. All those dystopian novels and films about people living in small bands in the ruins are pernicious – they disguise or avoid what it will really be like.

On the other hand, the guesses are that somewhere between a quarter and three-quarters of the species on Earth will die out.

So why should socialists care about climate change? Because you don’t want to go there. And you don’t want anybody you love to go there. You, me, and lizards – we don’t want to go there. Nothing special about socialists.


However, there is one way socialists can be special. We can be especially useful in the fight to halt climate change. To understand why, we have to begin with what has to be done to cut emissions. We have to use no more than 20% of our known reserves of gas, oil and coal, and leave all the rest in the ground.

To do that we have to use energy differently. Most warming greenhouse gas emissions come from three sources. One is oil burned for transportation. The second is oil, coal and gas burned to make electricity. The third is coal and gas burned to heat homes and buildings.

The most important thing we need to do is to cover the world with enough renewable energy, mainly wind power and solar power, to provide electricity for all three uses. Then we can leave 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

There are thousands of other things we have to do, and many government regulations we will need. But renewable energy for everything is the key. And that means massive government spending. The market cannot solve the problem fast enough.

Everyone who has thought about the matter knows these things. This explains the different kinds of opposition to making the switch.

First, there is the power of the carbon corporations. In 2013 the ten largest corporations on the planet were six oil companies, two car companies, the Chinese National Grid, and Walmart. These corporations would disappear in a renewable energy world.

The second kind of opposition comes from neoliberals, which means almost all politicians and government leaders. The ruling classes in most of the world have laboured for over thirty years to convince us that government action is pointless. If there is a massive program to save the planet, people will want to do the same for hospitals, schools, rivers, pensions, and everything else. Neoliberalism will be dead in the water.

The third kind of opposition arises because of the cost of action. Every national capitalism is competing with all the others. The competition has become much fiercer since 2008. No one government or national ruling class wants to fall behind by spending more on stopping climate change.

Altogether, this is formidable opposition. Moreover, we have to stop something terrible happening before it has really happened. So the odds against climate activists, and humanity, are long. We will probably fail, and horror will come to pass.

But our failure is not certain. To stop the worst, we will need a mass movement to make governments do the two things necessary:

Leave the oil, coal and gas in the ground.

Hire about a hundred million workers to cover the world with renewable energy.

Socialists can be important to such a mass movement out of proportion to our numbers in several ways.

One reason is that the climate change is an environmental issue, and the environmental movement is concentrated among affluent people in the global north. The scale of movement we will need will have to reach far beyond such people, into all of the 99%. And the movement we need will have to reach beyond the conventional ideas that now seem like common sense in the green movement.

An area where socialists can be particularly useful is in fighting for climate jobs. There are already climate jobs campaigns in South Africa, Britain, and Norway, one starting in Canada, and similar union efforts for green jobs across the world. The idea is to bring together trade unions and environmentalists to fight for massive government programs to hire workers to decarbonise the economy. Socialists of many kinds have been important in these campaigns.

Climate jobs campaigns are key because most environmentalists argue for degrowth. That will never build a mass movement among working class people or in the global South. Instead, a climate jobs movement argues for more jobs now.

Another reason socialists can make a difference is that we can imagine mass action, direct action, and political strikes. We have a tradition of moving beyond the limits of normal protest. We also know how to organise from below, against the politicians, not to lobby them, but to force them to act and get rid of them if necessary. We can also imagine collective government action to solve problems. All these are strengths the climate movement can use.

I am not suggesting that radical socialists can lead a mass climate movement. For one thing, there are nowhere near enough of us. But what we can do is persuade large numbers of activists of the virtues of certain alternatives and courses of action.

Finally, if our efforts fail the ruling classes and governments of the world will move, fast, to push all of us, the 99%, into a far more brutal, cruel and unequal world. At that moment radical socialists can argue, everywhere, for renewable energy, democracy, total equality, and taking care of all our neighbours on this planet. To do that means revolution – ordinary people taking power.

In that crisis radical socialists may be listened to, but only on these conditions:

We have already been an important part of the climate movement for years, so people have already heard of our ideas;

We can move quickly, because the ruling class will try to force through decisive change in days;

We are organised to act together;

And there are a lot more of us than now.

  1. Jonathan, great critical insights! Great summary of future human impacts. Note that Andrew Guzman (Overheated) predicts millions of premature deaths by subsistence people in Africa starting in 2025.

    As far as a mass movement achieving meaningful objectives. Erica Chenoweth’s EMPIRICAL dataset of past international citizen movements shows that when 3.5% of a country’s population (11 million pro-climate Americans) is actively involved in a movement, 80% of those movements achieve their objectives. Likely sources of US mass movement members: 250K Green Party members, 350K Occupy members, 8M members of enviro groups (Sierra Club, 350, NRDC), 14.5M union members, 17M high schoolers, 19M college students, a portion of 63M Americans who regularly attend church. Details:

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