Capitalism’s Climate COP-out

From the January 2014 PNL #830

by Ursula Rozum and Frank Cetera

Authors’ note: Our goal is to provide an analysis of recent local and global developments in addressing the climate crisis from an ecosocialist perspective, one that seeks an alternative to the current global model of capitalist exploitation—a model that respects democracy, cooperation, and a preservation of the commons.


Forward on Climate Rally in Washington DC, February 17, 2013. Photo: Mark Dunlea


“We’re in survival mode.” You’d expect those words to be part of a report from the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan last November. This was actually the mindset of golf course operators in Syracuse during the drought of 2012, which lasted for over a month.  

In the US, despite worsening conditions of resource scarcity, golf courses continue to operate during a drought because public policy and private behavior are tied to an economic model fueled by burning the fossils of dead dinosaurs. We live on a planet with finite resources. Capitalism, a system predicated on endless growth and consumption, is proving to be unsustainable and increasingly violent.

On November 8, Typhoon Haiyan’s 195 miles per hour winds left more than 5,000 people dead and four million displaced. “If Not Now, When?”  Those were the tearful words of Philippines’ climate negotiator Naderev Saño at the start of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland, known as COP19 (Conference of the Parties). Naderev was desperately pleading for an international agreement among the nations of the world to finally address the climate crisis.

Every year, climate negotiators representing the countries of the world gather to discuss the future of the planet. And every year, it’s more obvious that the richer countries—those who have polluted their way to economic growth and development and are responsible for the bulk of historical greenhouse gas emissions—are unwilling to adequately reduce their emissions to the levels necessary to prevent a rise in global temperatures.

Meteorologists point out that human factors, like weak infrastructure, high population density, and poverty contribute greatly to the level of devastation caused by extreme natural disasters. However, scientific research suggests that global warming is contributing to increased intensity of storms and to rising sea levels that can worsen a storm’s impact.

In the US, we’re far from immune to the negative impacts of a changing climate. Examples include Hurricane Sandy’s devastation on the Rockaways, increasing food prices related to the droughts hitting the midwest, and stronger winds and extreme wave heights during more frequent cold season storms. In 2012, the US government spent more taxpayer money on the consequences of climate change than on education or transportation—nearly $100 billion. When all federal spending on last year’s droughts, storms, floods, and forest fires are added up, paying for the effects of climate change accounted for one out of every six dollars spent on non-defense discretionary programs. Meanwhile, in 2012, the world’s five largest oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell—made a combined $118 billion in profits. The profits from extracting fossil fuels are largely privatized, and the burden of paying for the negative impacts of a warming planet falls on public coffers.

People of the world are desperate to see political action to begin turning the clock back on climate change. Fifty-four percent of respondents internationally (compared to only 40% in the United States) rank climate change as the top major threat to their country, above financial, political, and military instability. A difference is seen in New York, where 45% are opposed to hydrofracking and only 37% are in support, but then again, this is in our own backyard and the prevailing concern tends to be protecting our water rather than preventing runaway climate change.


Systemic Change vs. Piecemeal Reforms

Climate justice activists have our work cut out for us—greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, the clock is ticking, and there’s no agreed upon plan of action in sight. However, there are some solutions on the political horizon.

Ending fossil fuel subsidies. According to the International Energy Agency, the amount of support given to fossil fuel industries internationally by governments may be more than a trillion dollars per year. Why can’t we stop the giveaway of tax dollars to companies that are literally destroying the planet? US fossil fuel companies are currently getting $59 dollars in subsidies for each $1 they donate to election campaigns—a 5,800% return, that’s why.

Divestment. College students are demanding a withdrawal of fossil fuel investments from college endowments. Cities, states and the federal government also need to divest public pension funds for city employees, teachers, police, and firefighters from the coal, oil and gas companies. Why should the people’s money be used to fund a system generating violent and expensive disasters?

Carbon tax. Advocated for locally by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a carbon tax would apply to the burning of fossil fuels in order to discourage the production of greenhouse gas emissions. The tax would be refunded to rate payers so that fossil fuel companies aren’t passing off the costs to the public (especially the poor). While not dismantling capitalism, a carbon tax forces companies to pay for the negative impacts of their operations.

Planning. All levels of government must commit to emissions reductions and start planning for a clean energy future. This would include public investment in jobs transitioning to a carbon-free and nuclear-free economy, known to climate activists as a Green New Deal, that addresses the climate crisis with the same urgency that the US scrambled to put a man on the moon.

In order to keep global warming below the tipping point for climate catastrophe of a 2°C rise, 80% of proven global fossil fuels reserves must remain in the ground and unburned. It is inconceivable that 80% of fossil fuel reserves will remain unburned as long as they are controlled by profit-seeking corporations. It is therefore crucial that the climate justice movement also raise the demand to socialize and democratize the energy sector. Public ownership lets citizens, through elected local boards, decide on rates and sources. Across the US, there are now over 2,000 municipalities with public power where people pay less for heating their homes and businesses because they don’t have to pay shareholders. Municipal ownership of power utilities combines climate concerns with concerns about costs. Therefore, it has the potential to bring together diverse groups of people to take stewardship of our energy needs away from the profit-seeking corporations and into collective management for the greater good.

The people of the world are demanding climate action.  It’s not unlikely to think that water could be diverted from maintaining green golf courses to irrigating crops during a drought. It is entirely possible that the misaligned rootstock base of power will be enough to prevent the fruition of a sustainable tomorrow; without a switch to decentralized power rooted in democratic ownership and ecological wisdom, and an accompanying equalization of resources and labor, the economics of the 1% will suppress the just, peaceful and sustainable future we deserve. Advances in systemic political leadership and resource management are needed to ensure our collective survival.


A staff organizer with SPC, Ursula is passionate about organizing to build democracy and overcome corporate rule. Frank applies his personal mantra of “lion-hearted and thorn-pawed” to activism on issues of ecology, cooperative business, politics, and community.