From Climate Crisis to Solar Communism

David Schwartzman

The proposals elites are offering at COP21 wouldn't halt climate change. What would a socialist solution look like?

Installation of solar photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the Hongqiao Passenger Rail Terminal in Shanghai, China. Jiri Rezac

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Leaders from 147 countries have assembled in Paris for COP 21, the most important climate summit since the 2009 Copenhagen meeting. But climate justice activists worry the result will be the same: platitudes and handwringing, with no firm commitment from Global North countries to drastically curb carbon emissions.

What, then, would a just solution look like?

David Schwartzman, a biogeochemist and professor emeritus at Howard University, has been thinking and writing about climate and energy issues for many years. He recently spoke with Jacobin about the state of the climate crisis, the connection between global warming and the military-industrial complex, and why “the communist horizon in the twenty-first century, if there is to be one, will be solar communist.”

What is the current consensus on the climate crisis?

David Schwartzman

According to Climate Interactive — a major monitor of climate change — based on public commitments from the major carbon-emitting countries, projected warming by 2100 will be 3.5°C (6.3°F), or 1.5°C above the 2°C warming limit (above the pre-industrial global temperature) agreed upon at the 2010 Cancun Climate Change Conference. The United Nations now gives a somewhat lower projected warming of 2.7°C (4.9°F).

Moreover, some leading climate scientists now think that even the 2 degree limit is too high. For example, NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen describes the 2 degree limit as a “prescription for disaster” because of projected impacts such as sea level rise and acidification of the ocean. His assessment is reinforced by a newly published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This evidence reinforces the long-term demand of many poor countries for a 1.5 degree limit.

What about fossil-fuel reduction? Is that making an impact?

David Schwartzman

Roughly 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil-fuel use, with coal, natural gas (due to methane leakage into the atmosphere), and tar sands oil having the highest carbon footprint. Conventional liquid oil has the lowest carbon footprint, about three-fourths that of coal. (The other greenhouse gases derived from human activity include nitrous oxide, the breakdown product of nitrate fertilizer, with methane also coming from agriculture.)

China is the world’s leading carbon emitter, almost double that of the second-place United States.

The big three — China, the US, and the European Union —produce 55 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. China has committed to leveling off its emissions by 2030 (using carbon emission trading), while the US promises to reduce its greenhouse emissions 26–28 percent by 2025 relative to 2005 emissions.

As Naomi Klein has recently argued — citing the assessment of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research — the US goal falls far short of what is required for even the 2-degree goal, which would require reductions of at least 8 to 10 percent per year.

Projected warming, in combination with lackluster efforts to cut emissions, has created an imminent crisis. This is the reality check for serious activists. Any remaining possibility of keeping warming below 2°C will require rapid and radical cuts in global carbon emissions — starting with the fossil fuels with the highest carbon footprint — and the simultaneous creation of a viable global wind and solar power infrastructure.

Why do you think COP21 is unlikely to facilitate progress in the fight against warming?

David Schwartzman

The dismal prospects of COP21 stem primarily from the most recent commitments of the two largest carbon emitters on the planet, which fall far short of the required cuts. As such, an agreement to implement rapid cuts of the necessary magnitude is a very unlikely outcome of COP21.

But the problem is larger than COP21; unless the climate justice movement succeeds in broadening its scope by first identifying the biggest obstacles to implementing a prevention program in time to avoid catastrophic climate change, humanity will face a very bleak future, with only partial adaptation left as an option.

The global climate justice movement is growing as more and more people become aware and active in the fight against climate change. What are your suggestions for the movement?

David Schwartzman

To map out an effective prevention program to avoid catastrophic climate change, it is necessary to address both the message of the climate justice movement and its stated goals. This includes identifying the potential blind spots and even the bad prescriptions being offered by both climate groups and individual climate activists.

One of the major blind spots of the climate justice movement is its insufficient attention to how fossil-fuel combustion and the lack of clean energy are killing millions of people across the globe every year, especially in Asia. As a result, recent estimates point to 3 to 7 million people per year dying from air pollution, with 1.6 million in China alone.

In the US, numerous epidemiological studies have found a strong linkage between air pollution and childhood asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Indeed, it’s difficult for even climate change deniers to dismiss the harmfulness of air pollution. Connecting the dots between fossil-fuel consumption and adverse health impacts from air pollution is a fertile strategy for highlighting environmental injustice and strengthening the movement against climate change both in the US and especially in the Global South.

Even more important is grappling with the critical obstacles posed by militarism and imperialism, both of which are integral to actually existing capitalism in the twenty-first century. Aside from the “No War, No Warming” initiative during the Iraq War, the climate justice movement has overlooked the central role of militarism and imperialism in both contributing to climate change and blocking the implementation of a prevention program.

The major culprit in climate change is not only the fossil-fuel industry but also the military-industrial complex, which sits at the center of capital reproduction on the planet. The phenomenon Dwight Eisenhower warned of in 1961 is a hundred times bigger now; more than a mere lobby, as Eisenhower conceived, it is a globally integrated system of production, powered largely by fossil fuels — even as the American military goes “green” by adopting solar power in its global bases.

The importance of the military-industrial complex in climate change is largely ignored by leaders in the climate justice movement like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. While Klein’s This Changes Everything is a very valuable contribution, especially as a critique of neoliberal capitalism, it fails to identify and map out a plan to overcome the military-industrial complex and its imperial agenda, which prevents the establishment of a global cooperative regime to rapidly curb carbon emissions and create a wind and solar power infrastructure.

Klein briefly alludes to the imperial obstacle when she identifies the US military as the biggest consumer of petroleum on the planet and points to its budget as a potential source of revenue for a prevention program to avoid catastrophic climate change. But she fails to confront why the military-industrial complex is such a huge roadblock.

OK, so the US military uses a lot of petroleum. How is this different from, say, global corporations? Why should the climate justice movement focus more on the military-industrial complex as the major obstacle to preventing climate catastrophe?

David Schwartzman

Global corporations are the main fossil-fuel producers (in a world deriving 85 percent of its energy from this source), and their carbon footprint is far greater than the military’s. However, the military-industrial complex is responsible for a colossal waste of energy and material resources that should be going to meet the needs of humans and ecosystems around the world. Annual military spending around the world is nearly $2 trillion, with US expenditures accounting for about half the total amount.

Furthermore, the nuclear industry is integrated into the military-industrial complex, and the threat of nuclear attack is a longstanding instrument of imperial policy. The possibility of a nuclear war persists, with nine nations in possession of these weapons.

That the military-industrial complex holds the predominant role in setting the domestic and foreign policy agendas of the big capitalist powers is a stunning realization of Eisenhower’s prophetic warning.

But most relevant to the threat of catastrophic climate change is the role of the Pentagon as the “global oil-protection service.” The US’s imperial agenda actively blocks the global cooperation and equity required for a successful prevention program.

This is why the peace and climate justice movements must be integrally linked; a shift to global demilitarization is a necessary condition for both robust cuts in carbon emissions and a transition to renewable energy on an adequate time scale. And of course demilitarization will open up the possibility of a vast reconversion of global production and consumption.

Other than focusing on these blind spots, what should the climate justice movement be doing differently?

David Schwartzman

More attention and energy should be focused on framing. For example, today key players in the present climate justice movement present misleading prescriptions for change like the slogan “keep the oil in the ground.”

This prescription ignores energy poverty and presents an unrealistic framework for change. Instead the movement should argue first for rapid phasing out of the fossil fuels with the highest carbon footprints (coal, natural gas, and tar sands oil), and using the minimum necessary amount of conventional liquid oil reserves to replace all fossil-fuel consumption with a sufficient global wind and solar power infrastructure. Yes, keep most of the oil in the ground, but not all.

What is sufficient in this regard? An amount that is capable of terminating the energy poverty that now affects the majority of the world’s people, while simultaneously facilitating climate adaptation, the sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil and crust, and bringing (and keeping) the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below 350 parts per million.

We will likely need more energy capacity than we currently have to realize these objectives. At present, primary global energy consumption is equivalent to 18 trillion watts. Meeting the requirements listed will require at least double this consumption level in the twenty-first century (although efficiencies gained by solarization will ultimately lower this level).

Some climate justice activists accept the collapse of civilization and call for a radical reduction in global energy consumption regardless of its impact on humanity. For example, Derrick Jensen — an extreme anti-extractionist — calls for an immediate shutdown of all oil wells (taking “keep the oil in the ground” literally).

This strategy is extremely problematic. It prevents a solar transition with the capacity to both eliminate energy poverty and work through the climate crisis. Only a global clean energy infrastructure supplying more energy than is produced now can allow for ongoing climate adaptation and the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil and crust.

A global wind and solar transition replacing unsustainable energy supplies must be parasitic on these supplies, just as the industrial fossil-fuel revolution was parasitic on biomass (plant) energy until it replaced the former supply with sufficient capacity. Liquid oil, which has the lowest carbon footprint of the fossil fuels, is the preferred energy source to make this renewable energy transition.

A rapid phase-out starting with the most carbon-heavy fossil fuels, coupled with a full transition to a global wind/solar power infrastructure, should be a global objective. If it begins robustly in the near future, this could keep overall warming below 1.5°C.

With the creation of a cooperative global regime on climate change, each nation will have an opportunity to fully benefit from this transition, while contributing resources compatible with their naturally existing oil, wind, or solar resources.

The drives of capital accumulation foster competition rather than cooperation. How is a cooperative global regime on climate change possible within capitalism?

David Schwartzman

The struggle to create this regime must begin in a world dominated by capital. In her book, Klein outlines the radical reforms necessary to avoid climate catastrophe, including components of a Global Green New Deal, a UN proposal from 2009. This is a good start.

But she fails to name a real alternative to unsustainable capitalism — ecosocialism, the only viable socialism of the twenty-first century. Nor does she provide a concrete vision of the “other world that is possible” after capitalism is eliminated on our planet; neither ecosocialism nor its leading thinkers are even listed in the index.

Perhaps Klein’s omission is strategic. She may be fearful of stepping too far ahead of popular consciousness, even within the broad climate justice movement.

Suren Moodliar, who wrote one of the most perceptive reviews of This Changes Everything, argues that Klein leaves out the importance of class struggle. While the book doesn’t engage much with Marxist theory, I disagree with Moodliar’s assessment. Klein vividly describes the myriad climate justice movements whose struggles constitute class struggle — multidimensional and transnational — even if they don’t self-identify, yet, in that way.

Only when that class consciousness emerges will we have a chance to avoid climate catastrophe.

How should the climate justice movement exercise class power and build this consciousness?

David Schwartzman

Many people are thinking about this question today. Peter Frase conceptualizes class power in relation to the workplace, arguing that “the strengthening of the working class both inside and outside the workplace becomes the force that pushes us toward the utopian ideal of a post-scarcity society and the abolition of wage labor.”

Meanwhile, in an essay on Marx’s “Fragment on Machines,” Jim Davis discusses how capitalism evolves into a production system that largely eschews human labor as the productivity of technology overwhelms the production process. He writes, “The end of Value is not automatic, but a conscious act by class forces born out of the new conditions . . . This is how Value will end — as a political act, the exercise of class power.”

People like Jeremy Rifkin see the ongoing increase in productivity growing out of both high-efficiency renewable energy and information technologies as a potential basis for a post-capitalist system. But only global class struggle has the capacity to realize this potential for all of humanity and not simply a privileged elite living in gated communities.

Jodi Dean reasserts the vision of a radical materialist utopia that she says has been buried and reburied, yet never extinguished. But the communist horizon in the twenty-first century, if there is to be one, will be solar communist. As I argued a few years ago:

[The] exercise of class power is a prerequisite for the possibility of ecosocialist transition, which can only be carried out with the historic dissolution of the [military-industrial complex], coupled with increasing social ownership and governance of the means of production as well as the modes of consumption — the entirety culminating in the creation of global solar communism.

Why solar communism?

David Schwartzman

Solar is by far the most abundant source of energy, and the technologies needed to harness it are already available. And, given a robust social management process during its lifecycle, the negative health and ecological effects of solar are very low.

Moreover, a global transition to solar is actually achievable in the time frame needed to avoid catastrophic climate change, and under actually existing capitalism solar is the energy source most compatible with decentralized, democratic management and control, relatively free of the dictates of the military-industrial complex compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

But to simply say capitalism must be replaced by socialism is a conclusion, not a strategy, and to claim that capitalism must be first replaced by socialism to prevent catastrophic climate change is a cowardly rejection of responsibility to both the living and future generations.

At the same time, relying on green capitalism to implement a prevention program using the usual market-driven mechanisms is a recipe for disaster. Global carbon emissions continue to climb while market-led renewable energy growth is much too slow to replace fossil fuels in such a short window.

Solar communism is thus a viable vision of a global civilization realizing Marx’s aphoristic definition of communism for the twenty-first century: “from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs” — in this case referring to both humans and ecosystems.

This vision has nothing in common with the stereotype of one-party dictatorships; it is the realization of bottom-up struggles for ecosocialist transition, a profoundly democratic process.

Yet socialist and Marxist political economy cannot map out the transition by themselves. The natural, physical, and informational sciences — in particular, climatology, ecology, biogeochemistry, and thermodynamics — must be fully engaged. These sciences will inform the technologies of renewable energy, green production, and agroecologies, whose infrastructure is to replace the present unsustainable mode.

That vision of a knowledge-based, democratic, and socialist transition is building in passion and intensity, but it must confront its blind spots and weaknesses. In particular it must focus on forcing the dissolution of the military-industrial complex — a goal which is simultaneously a requirement for preventing catastrophic climate change and removing a major barrier to an ecosocialist path and the end of capitalism on our planet.