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As Leftists, we usually approach our work with a long-term view, understanding that unjust social systems are completely reversible. Even if current conditions are difficult, we know our work sows the seeds for revolutionary change over the course of various generations.
Yet a new dynamic is at play that could become irreversible. Environmental destruction and the burning of fossil fuels are impacting the global carbon cycle in such dramatic fashion that they may change the face of the planet. Median predictions project global average temperatures by the end of this century as the warmest in millions of years. Understanding this catastrophic threat and other related pending ecological crises and working to prevent them needs to become one of the Left’s political priorities.
The climate crisis also provides a unique opportunity. By drawing links between ecological crises and the irrational profit-driven system standing behind it, we could bring our political vision into relationship with large sectors of the US population and reinvigorate the US Left in the process. Addressing the current ecological reality could set the stage for the revolutionary reinvention of society that we have historically called for.
All of us depend on nature for our survival, but that relationship is more apparent for poor and rural people in the Global South. Currently, half of the world’s population lives directly off the land and engages in subsistence agriculture. That’s why many revolutionary movements in the Global South—like the MST (Landless Workers Movement) in Brazil—wage struggles around securing access for all to land, food, seeds, and water.
Indigenous and land-based people globally have maintained the understanding that our collective survival is deeply dependent on our relationship to the Earth. This implies maintaining balance—with each other and with the animals, plants, and watersheds around us. The art of growing food has been based on weather patterns that have been relatively stable for thousands of years. What happens when you throw that all up in the air with dramatic climate change?
As humans, we have always manipulated our environment. What has changed is the scale and intensity. Humans have always fished, for example, but today’s industrial fishing fleets have reduced the world’s fish stocks by 90 percent in the last 50 years. Today, industrial mono cropping, damming rivers, large-scale deforestation, and industrial chemistry are progressively destroying our ability to meet our basic needs for the long term.
Colonialism, industrial production, and capitalist globalization have taken us wildly out of the bounds of nature’s ability to maintain and restore itself. This has driven us towards multiple human and environmental catastrophes. These include:
Science is telling us that currently all ecosystems are in decline: oceans, river basins, the tropics, rainforests, temperate forests, and the arctic zone. If things continue unabated for the next 50 years, we will have experienced the sixth largest global extinction in the history of the planet.
This past summer alone, extreme weather events left one third of Bangladesh under water, and displaced 30 million people across South Asia. Torrential rains displaced 3.5 million people in China. Australia faced its worst drought in 1000 years. Germany had the driest April since 1901 followed by the wettest May on record. As we write this, 80 percent of the state of Tabasco in Mexico is under water due to extreme flooding. While ascribing any single weather related event to climate change is hard to justify, a clear pattern has emerged: extreme and unpredictable weather is on the rise. And when bad weather happens, low-income people and people of color are the most impacted.
In the US, the destruction of New Orleans made this massively evident. And while much of the attention during the recent wildfires in Southern California went to communities like Malibu, Latino immigrant workers near San Diego were forced by bosses to stay put in the shadow of the fires, or were caught by fire in the canyons as they crossed the border. Currently, exceptional droughts in the South Eastern US have placed the region’s water supplies in serious jeopardy, painting a bleak picture for poor folks in cities like Atlanta.
The fact is, three billion people are expected to live under permanent water stress by mid-century, if climate change continues unabated. Most of these people are expected to be residents of the Global South. Mass migration, displacement, and resource wars are all but certain if carbon emissions continue to grow at projected levels.
As global warming intensifies and climate crises ensue, race and class are central to the unfolding drama. The imperial powers of the last two centuries are responsible for the problem and they are in the process of creating an Eco-Apartheid world where they push the consequences of ecological destruction off on others.
Only a bold, swift, and fully comprehensive plan to drastically cut back carbon emissions will avert planetary disaster. Worldwide CO2 emissions must peak no later than 2015. After that, emissions need to decrease by a few percent every year. We need worldwide reductions below 1990 levels of at least 30 percent by 2020 and at least 80 percent by 2050. As Leftists and radicals we must fully recognize that a firm plan to curb runaway climate change needs to be up and running within the next five or ten years. No amount of shutting our eyes and hoping for another reality will change this fact.
So what does this all add up to?
2. The extremely short timeline to deal with fossil fuel emissions implies that any Emergency Climate Plan will be executed under the parameters of capitalism. It’s an imperfect scenario where hard choices will have to be made to avoid disaster.
3. Rapid changes in the economic order imply big changes on the political front as well. Social forces are realigning; new alliances are forming; others are possible and necessary. The struggle against Climate Change is creating fissures in capital; it is also laying the groundwork for new alliances across a wide swath of an increasingly concerned civil society. Many, many different forces will be engaging in this fight, and the Left will need to be sophisticated to navigate this well. A visionary Left is needed to make this front as principled, strong, and forward-thinking as possible, but we also can’t afford to behave in a marginal way—the stakes are simply too high.
At this point, much of the US Left has sat this one out. The time has come to decide whether we can realistically afford to let the capitalist class and the mainstream environmental movement craft the “solutions” to this crisis and the impending reorganization of the economy. Decisions are about to be made that will determine where, why, and how huge amounts of money are funneled to create the infrastructure for a post-carbon economy. Who gets access to these “solutions” will be a central political battle, as will be the quality of this access—both of which relate directly to our work.
The fact of the matter is that the battle against climate change, if framed correctly, quickly unmasks the serious contradictions within capitalism. In fact, we are probably staring at the Left’s biggest political opportunity in a generation. Capitalism and the consumer culture it perpetuates is facing its biggest public relations crisis ever—constant profit requires infinite growth, resources, and merchandise yet the Earth is finite, has limits, and needs balance to regenerate.
A liberatory narrative is necessary as more and more people come to understand the need for an economic system that respects the limits of nature. People who interact with the issue of climate change (or the other related and increasingly evident ecological crises) are a quick step away from connecting some serious systemic dots. Already, many people within the nascent US Climate Change movement are seeing the links between fossil fuel use and unbridled consumerism, the global flow of goods, and corporations’ insatiable thirst for growth and wealth accumulation. Folks are hungry for a new narrative. The Left could easily inspire millions by boldly articulating a new menu of egalitarian social choices that speak to these concerns.
The reality is that we are all currently fighting hard as hell on issues that are crucial. But the question remains: can we afford to sit this one out? Despite the complications with the environmental movement and despite the challenges of connecting our existing work to issues like climate change, the time has come to step up to the plate.
We must start by getting up to speed on the issues and taking leadership from our comrades in the Environmental Justice and Global South Environmental Rights movements as well as our real allies in the Ecological and Environmental movements. Their knowledge will help us figure out our role in the fight. Then we must get broad, get grounded, face the future and build the Left.
About the Authors
Jason Negron-Gonzales & Mateo Nube co-coordinate the Movement Generation Crossroads Project. The project aims to link organizers and trainers in the Bay Area Racial and Economic Justice movements with ecological and environmental justice analyses and struggles.