"Climate Justice" and the Left: The Necessity of a Mass Movement

— Nick Davenport

THE CLIMATE CRISIS -- a crisis not of civilization, as some commentators would have it, but of capitalist production -- requires a political response that is long overdue, and is finally stirring. Now that the movement against global warming is brewing, socialists must get involved.

Global warming represents perhaps the ultimate failure of capitalist planning. The fact of global warming has been known for decades – climatologist James Hansen first testified to Congress on the phenomenon in 1988 – yet the ruling class of the United States, the nation which emits the most carbon per capita, has been unwilling to allow anything even resembling a solution. This country effectively sabotaged the Kyoto protocol, grossly insufficient as it was, and has stalled at subsequent climate talks.

Despite the warnings of experts, global carbon emissions have continued to mount, bringing the global environment near a point of no return. Prompt action is necessary: according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions must begin to fall by the end of the coming decade, and must be reduced by 80-95% by 2050, in order to avoid the possibility of catastrophic warming.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss what will likely happen if emissions are not drastically reduced. Let it suffice to say that the predictions are not encouraging.

The insolubility of the climate crisis through diplomacy is a direct result of imperialist policy. Industrialized nations, especially the United States, are attempting to put as much responsibility for reducing emissions as possible on the developing world.

In July 1997, after a draft was released of the Kyoto protocol, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Byrd-Hagel resolution, which expressed that the Senate would not agree to any climate agreement which did not place binding emissions targets on developing nations as well as industrialized nations, or “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.” George W. Bush, too, attempted to turn climate policy into a weapon against emerging capitalist nations, giving Kyoto’s exemption of China as a reason for his rejection of the protocol.

An international mass movement against global warming is therefore necessary in order to force the ruling classes of the industrialized nations to subordinate their own interests to those of all humanity. Because of the United States’ particularly great responsibility for global warming, it is especially crucial that such a movement take place here.

Yet while street protests have blossomed in Europe, climate activism in the USA languished. For decades, the main response to global warming was from mainstream environmental groups, which retreated largely to a moralistic lifestyle politics. Finally, increased awareness of the urgency of the situation, combined with the importance of this December’s UN climate talks in Copenhagen at which the successor to the Kyoto Protocol will be conceived, have prompted a new activist layer to mobilize.

Obama’s Plan: A Trojan Horse

President Obama hopes to preempt a movement with his new energy bill, ostensibly a bold plan to fight global warming. The Democratic climate bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA), which at the time of this writing has narrowly passed in the House, is intended to grab headlines and sound impressive, while in fact advancing U.S. hegemony in world energy markets and offering copious loopholes to U.S. corporations.

Even the most basic feature of the bill, the much-hyped target of 80% less carbon emissions by 2050, continues the pattern of pushing responsibility onto other nations; though 80% sounds large, this country is the world’s biggest carbon polluter per capita, so its reduction should be at the high end of the IPCC’S 80-95% spectrum.

The mechanism for this planned reduction is to be the “cap-and-trade” system. The cap-and-trade plan would set emissions limits on corporations, but allow those producing less than the maximum to sell the difference as a carbon credit to other corporations wishing to pollute more than allowed. Cap-and-trade therefore represents the commodifying and financialization of carbon emissions, and would doubtless give rise to a large carbon securities and derivatives market.

Aside from the dubious aspects of putting the climate at the mercy of financial markets which are currently in acute crisis, all sorts of environmental and economic perversions will result from the packaging of carbon credits into securities. Moreover, cap-and-trade continues the overall trend towards private control over natural resources, yet would present a greater administrative burden and cost the state far more money than a tax on carbon emissions. And, of course, capitalists will simply pass on the cost of emitting carbon to workers and consumers.

Even if it is properly enforced, cap-and-trade is unlikely to really meet its emissions targets. Corporations would be able to buy emissions capacity not only in the form of permits unused by other companies, but also in the form of carbon offsets, credits created by projects which ostensibly reduce atmospheric carbon. This reliance on carbon offsets is a fundamental deficiency of the Obama energy plan.

There already is a small market in carbon offsets, in which inherent weaknesses of offsets are evident. An existing project can easily be relabeled as a carbon offset, and the market would likely be flooded with offsets, lowering the price of carbon emissions. And even when they are not created by cheating, many common offsets, such as tree planting, are highly questionable in climatic value.

Trees store carbon only as long as they are living, and the tilling of fields to plant trees – or crops, for that matter – releases soil carbon into the atmosphere. Offsets are even sold to prevent existing forests from being cut down, which highlights the absurdity of carbon offsets, since in this case nothing is actually being done to offset the carbon emissions. (Mature forests do not absorb carbon; only new forests do.)(1)

There simply is no way to “offset” the vast amounts of U.S. carbon emissions; the only solution is an immediate, major reduction in emissions at the largest sources, such as power plants, transport and agriculture.

Obama’s energy plan relies heavily on the development of “clean coal,” the totally unproven scheme of capturing carbon from the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants and “sequestering” it deep underground. This brazen greenwash of an inherently dirty fuel is motivated by the necessity of strengthening the U.S. position in global energy markets. Obama aims to make this country the supplier of clean-coal technology, and the coal to go with it, to the developing world, while fostering an alliance in climate talks with coal-exporting emergent nations such as South Africa and Brazil.(2)

New Forces Mobilizing

In spite of these serious inadequacies, it is nonetheless a major shift that a climate bill is even being considered. The Democrats now represent the growing faction of the capitalist class which realizes that the long-term costs of doing nothing far outweigh the costs of climate regulation. But they also recognize that certain types of climate regulation can be used to extract profits, attack workers, and extend U.S. hegemony; the gross insufficiency of the bill stems directly from this ulterior motive.

Therefore, in order to become a force capable of winning anything resembling sufficient climate legislation, environmental activists must unite on the basis of common interest with workers and oppressed people.

Who, then, will start such a movement? Most environmental activists understand that the ACESA is seriously inadequate and that cap-and-trade is a fundamentally flawed way of stopping global warming. These activists have also begun to understand that political mobilization is necessary. The loose coalition constituting what is increasingly called the “climate justice movement” – primarily students, anarchists and liberal environmentalists – is cohering around the Copenhagen talks and associated protests.

The “movement” as it currently exists has serious limitations, and most climate activists have yet to consistently adopt a mass-action orientation, but it is moving towards mass demonstrations, and has the potential to give rise to a true mass movement.

Students, the most-publicized element of the climate justice movement, mobilized last February to lobby for climate legislation at the Powershift conference. Powershift was organized by the Energy Action Coalition, a cluster of middle-class environmental and progressive groups focusing on student organizing.

Ideologically and tactically, Powershift presented nothing new; it was devoted entirely to lobbying and was explicitly pro-Obama. However, what is important is that it mobilized people: a whopping 12,000 attended, more than the last national antiwar march, including a sizable (for the environmental movement) contingent of people of color. The turnout for Powershift suggests something of the urgency of the climate issue for student activists.

Though they came out to lobby, many of the students who attended Powershift want something more radical, and will be a core constituency for a mass climate movement. The conference itself did take an uncritical attitude toward Obama, and many student climate activists have taken to lobbying for ACESA; however, most also recognize its insufficiency and the necessity of fighting for a better bill. Many such activists are interested in a radical critique of climate policy; a number of workshops at Powershift focused on anti-oppression training and the magnified effects of global warming on poor people.(3)

The organizers of Powershift attempted to coopt the radical impulse; the conference ended with a mass rally on the White House green, with fake-stenciled “protest” signs. Students should turn out in droves to climate demonstrations that are political and not staged.

Students and youth who desire a radical alternative to Powershift have been drawn to anarchism. Anarchists have been at the forefront of radical organizing against global warming, as well as of radical ecological theory; the primitivist (“green anarchist”) and social ecologist strands of anarchism present deep critiques of capitalist society and even civilization itself, which have attracted many young people.(4)

Anarchist ecological groups such as Rising Tide North America put their trust in “direct action” tactics, and organize actions in which protesters physically block operations of coal mines and power plants. Rising Tide and other direct-action oriented groups are attempting to expand their base through the Mobilization for Climate Justice, a coalition which has called for a nationwide day of “direct actions and educational events” on November 30th (a Monday).

Direct action has pushed the envelope tactically and offered students and young people a radical alternative to lobbying; these galvanizing actions are the most exciting prospect right now for many young radicals concerned by climate change. Direct action by itself, however, though militant, is not really radical, as it confronts the physical sources of climate change without raising questions about the social sources. And while direct action tactics can energize a demonstration (e.g. Seattle, 1999), they rely on the action of a small, committed group rather than mass participation.

Moreover, because of their ideological distrust of the state, anarchists are limited to making negative demands; they cannot introduce a counterprogram of their own that makes positive proposals for an energy transition. Despite these limitations, anarchists deserve respect as the most energetic radical current organizing against climate change, and their participation in the organizing of mass demonstrations should be encouraged.

The 350.org Campaign

A third initiative which is mobilizing people is the 350.org campaign. Founded on the premise that atmospheric carbon concentrations must be brought below 350 parts per million  (the concentration is presently about 385 ppm), 350.org calls for global actions on October 24th to put forth this idea in advance of the Copenhagen talks.

The actions are intended to spread awareness of the problem, rather than confront its sources; suggested actions include “rally” (not “demonstration”), “bike ride,” and “concert.” 350 lacks a political strategy; the logic seems to be that if the “350” slogan pops up in enough places, this target will magically go on the table at the Copenhagen climate talks.

Though not particularly developed politically, 350 is significant is that it is mobilizing environmentally-minded middle class people. Educated people have long been aware of the dangers of global warming, but for the most part have limited their action to ineffective and moralistic lifestyle changes like buying hybrid cars.

Such people have also been the financial backbone of mainstream environmental groups, and it is an enormous step forward to engage them in some form of political action. 350 promises to mobilize many; the site lists hundreds of planned actions throughout the US. Though it is more “action en masse” than “mass action,” 350 will activate people who are entirely new to political action, many of whom will be pulled leftward by demonstrations in December and beyond.

The disparate forces of the “climate justice movement” may come together through demonstrations in December. International demonstrations have been called for Saturday, December 12th, in the middle of the Copenhagen summit; these demonstrations would bring together the people who were mobilized at Powershift and the two fall days of action, as well as many new people.

Students, anarchists, and middle-class environmentalists of course are themselves not enough -- too bourgeois and too white -- to constitute a mass movement. But a nationwide day of coordinated environmental demonstrations would be a major political milestone and a necessary step towards the foundation of such a movement –- if, that is, the demonstrations come off.

While mass demonstrations are taking shape at across Europe, it is not clear who will organize them in the United States. The Climate Crisis Coalition, the U.S. affiliate of the international coalition which called the December 12th demonstrations, has organized “climate days of action” yearly during past UN climate conferences, but with very limited success.

The disorganization of the climate movement highlights the need for a national organization with the power to organize coordinated mass demonstrations. The left, along with others who understand the importance of building a mass movement, needs to help build demonstrations in major cities on December 12th.

Building the Movement and the Left

Global warming is already one of the most important political issues for young people, and will be an increasingly looming issue in world politics. Socialists must engage with the climate justice movement or risk becoming irrelevant, while the underdevelopment of the movement as it exists now has much to do with the non-participation of the organized left.

Socialists can contribute to the movement’s development by organizing demonstrations and pushing activists toward a mass action orientation, and by articulating a coherent counterprogram to capitalist climate policy. We can also use our connections with labor and other movements to help the climate movement break out of its class and racial isolation and build the alliances that it desperately needs. And ultimately, environmentalism needs the left because only through revolution can its goals be accomplished.

An effective climate movement will be able to put forth an alternative to the vastly inadequate capitalist energy proposals currently being debated. The movement should articulate a vision for a large-scale, nationwide transition to solar and wind power and a major reduction in overall energy consumption, managed democratically and in the public interest.

Such a program would by necessity have radical, if not revolutionary, content; it would include such demands as heavy taxes on industrial carbon emissions, development of publicly controlled alternative energy sources, sustainable development of depressed and deindustrialized areas, massive investment in public transit, reopening shuttered factories to manufacture the equipment of the energy transition (such as trains and wind turbines), and a reduction in the workweek with no loss of pay (which would represent an overall reduction of production, and therefore of energy consumption).

In every case these demands must be formulated in such a way as to build allegiances with other movements, particularly labor and movements of the oppressed. The forces currently mobilizing against global warming lack sufficiently deep ties with labor and social movements. It is crucial that such ties be built; otherwise, not only will the movement fail to break out of its narrow activist sector, but it will be actively opposed by workers in unionized, high-emission industries (e.g. steel, auto, coal mining) and poor people who cannot afford higher energy costs, whose immediate material interests will push them into the arms of the most extreme global warming deniers.

This danger is illustrated by the AFL-CIO’s recent press release on Obama’s climate proposal. Though it supported in principle the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the statement also advocated that an analysis of the effects on the capitalist economy be done before any climate proposal is considered, a demand that plays straight into the hands of anti-environmentalists, since any remotely effective climate plan will affect unionized sectors.

The left can forestall such a rift by pushing the climate movement to build an alliance with labor and the working class, perhaps through demands such as the reopening of closed GM plants to build public transit.

Wherever possible, socialists should involve themselves in organizing climate demonstrations, to grow the movement and push it towards a consistent mass-action strategy. In October and November, we can work with the forces already organizing actions, and advocate mass demonstrations with political demands. For December, we should work to bring about local coalitions to organize demonstrations during the Copenhagen summit.

Whenever possible, we should raise the concerns of labor and other movements within the climate movement; we should also integrate climate demands with the demands of other movements wherever applicable.(5)

Ultimately, of course, only in a socialist society can the ecological problems capitalism creates be solved. Though the climate movement will have to put forth demands which can possibly be realized within capitalism, socialists must also continually emphasize the necessity of transcending capitalism and creating a new society based on democratic control of resources and production. The features of capitalism – including the drive to expand, private ownership of natural resources, production for profit rather than social good, the inability to plan, and, ultimately, alienation of humanity from nature – make it inherently ecologically destructive.

The climate crisis presents an unprecedented crossroads for all humanity; it also presents an enormous opportunity for profound change. Global warming is becoming an issue of mass struggle, and the climate justice movement must become one of the left’s top priorities in the coming years. The inability of capitalism to manage the economy sustainably or in the general interest has never been clearer, nor has the relevance and necessity of socialism.

Nick Davenport is a student activist at Wesleyan University and a member of Solidarity.


  1. Usually the forests and tree plantations are in countries in the global South, again unfairly forcing the world’s developing nations to bear the consequences of US environmental destruction. A global cap-and-trade system, such as that which Kyoto was supposed to have instituted, would have further imperialist implications; for a fuller discussion, which is beyond the scope of this essay, see Daniel Tanuro’s report to the USFI International Committee on climate change, chapter 17. (http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1642).
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  2. For a more complete discussion of the inadequacy and foreign policy role of the Obama/Democratic energy plan, see Daniel Tanuro, “The energy climate plan of Barack Obama,” International Viewpoint online, December 2008 (http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1580).
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  3. Which were, of course, amply demonstrated by Hurricane Katrina. It will be important to build alliances between environmentalists and community activists before the next disaster hits.
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  4. See Ursula McTaggart’s article in ATC 141 on the anti-civilization current in contemporary anarchist thought.
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  5. See Tanuro’s Report on Climate Change for suggestions on integrating climate demands with those of various social movements.
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(web only, August 2009)

slight correction

I stated that, according to the IPCC, global emissions would have to fall 80-95% by 2050 to avoid major damage. In fact, the least damaging of the various scenarios which the IPCC tested entailed a slightly less daunting global reduction of 50-85%, including a reduction by developed countries of 80-95%, because these countries have contributed the most to global warming and have the most access to cleaner technologies. This may seem like a minor correction, but it's important to be precise and avoid exaggeration in these matters.
-Nick Davenport

about the critique of direct action and anti-statism

This is article is, overall, excellent. Very useful indeed. Thanks for writing it.

But I'll comment on some points about which I disagree.

You say that "Direct action by itself...though militant, is not really radical, as it confronts the physical sources of climate change without raising questions about the social sources."

First, let me ask: Were the sit-down strikes used in organizing the auto sector "radical"? Would such a tactic be "radical" if some young environmentalists did basically the same thing? More importantly: Is that even the right question? Also: do mass demonstations always (or usually) "raise questions about the social sources" of climate change (i.e., capitalism)? I don't find this stuff convincing.

Second, who says that 'direct action' groups like Rising Tide North America do not "raise questions about the social sources" of climate change? I have no affiliation with that group, but clearly they believe in (as they put it on their web site) "connecting the dots between oil, war, capitalism, coal, and the destabilization of the climate."

Moreover, Movements are complex, multi-tactic processes, and in any powerful movement there are, and should be, a wide array of tactics, modes of participation, and entry-points for engagement. Suggesting, in the manner of the old SWP, that the only valid tactic is mass demonstrations doesn't fit with all that we know about the complexity and internal differentiation that is characteristic of any mass movement.

You add: "And while direct action tactics can energize a demonstration (e.g. Seattle, 1999), they rely on the action of a small, committed group rather than mass participation."

Yes, but the same could be said about many of the most effective protests in the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement, etc. Someone could say: "Stonewall should never have happened. It was ultra-left. They should have planned a mass demonstration on a Saturday afternoon three weeks later, and sought labour movement participation." But, again, is that really what social movements look like? Should they look like that?

You continue: "Moreover, because of their ideological distrust of the state, anarchists are limited to making negative demands; they cannot introduce a counterprogram of their own that makes positive proposals for an energy transition."

Although I'm no anarchist, I share their distrust of the capitalist state. But I don't agree that this makes it impossible to "introduce a counterprogram of ... positive proposals for an energy transition." For instance, the Mobilization for Climate Justice group DOES offer some very specific proposals for such a transition, here: http://www.actforclimatejustice.org/ (Scroll down to "Some Key Solutions..."), and so does Rising Tide. It may mean that one has little confidence that the 'counterprogram' will be adopted and implemented by a state that is under the sway of a profit-motivated ruling class. But is that actually wrong? Here I would underline the parts of your article that emphasize the need for an anti-capitalist, revolutionary environmentalism.

Again, though, this is an excellent article that makes many very important points.

In solidarity,

Good point

Hi Steve,
You're right that I drew the division between direct action and demonstrations much too sharply, and adhered too rigidly to certain assumptions about how movements are built. My purpose here was to convince my fellow socialists to get involved with the movement, not to write an overall strategic piece directed at the movement as a whole; therefore, I adopted some basic premises about movements that are common in the Trotskyist tradition (you have to hold mass demonstrations, make demands on the state, etc.). But one can't hold such assumptions too dearly, since there's no formula for how to build a movement, as you correctly suggest.

Incidentally, it's been brought to my attention that I entirely neglected environmental justice organizations. I wonder if someone who has experience with these could comment on their present or potential role in climate justice organizing?

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