Capitalism can’t stop climate change

This article first appeared in The Anvil Vol 10 No 6, published 31 December 2021.


COP26, the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, was a monumental failure. It was supposed to be the forum where the world finally committed to emissions reductions sufficient to meet the target of the Paris Agreement: keeping the global temperature increase to only 1.5° Celsius. No less an establishment figure than the Prince of Wales described it as humanity’s “last chance saloon”, but the results fell a long way short of what is necessary. According to the prestigious scientific journal Nature (, global emissions must fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Instead, the commitments at COP26 will make emissions 14% higher by 2030.

The majority of the capitalist class recognises in theory that climate change is a grave problem requiring drastic steps, but each government wants to protect their own capitalists. The Australian Government is conspicuous by being on the list of bad guys at almost every point. Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison signed up to a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, but only after almost every other advanced country (and many others) had done so. However, its 2030 target is only a 26-28% reduction from 2010 levels. Even without lifting a finger it will definitely achieve 30% and possibly 35%, so the refusal to promise more is ferociously political.

In sectoral negotiations, 40 countries promised to phase out coal, but Australia was not one of them. More than 80 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, but Australia was not one of them. Neither were other big natural gas producers (and therefore producers of fugitive emissions) Russia and Iran. And the Australian Government’s zeal in funding expansion of fossil fuel exports is joined with almost matching enthusiasm by the main opposition party, Labor. Similar stances have been taken by other large fossil fuel exporters, including Canada.

There is a reason for this. Capitalist governments exist, first and foremost, to protect the interests of their own capitalist class. There is enormous sunk capital invested in fossil fuels and the industries using them as inputs. So mining and oil companies fund climate denialism, they promote political parties that oppose addressing climate change and, where necessary, they fight hard to establish loopholes for themselves from any general policy. If a political party proposing serious action against climate change comes to power, or even threatens to, they run vicious and mendacious campaigns to stop it. These companies may have been cutting jobs for decades, but they will cry crocodile tears over the threat to their workers’ jobs. And they may have undermined their local communities by introducing fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, but suddenly they’ll be backing community groups who think that the only way to defend their community is to oppose climate action.

Just to defend themselves, governments want to protect investments in fossil fuels to the maximum extent possible. So when a problem is identified and specific action is required to address it, the governments that could make the biggest difference are ones least likely to sign up to it. And on the rare occasion where a government that can make a big difference signs up (as Brazil has over attempts to stop deforestation), it is an attempt at fishing for international assistance that won’t have to be returned if targets aren’t met.

What is at stake?

The capitalists, being conflicted, can only move to address climate change at a glacial pace, but we need to move at emergency speed. As the world heats up, systemic tipping points will be passed – first the ice cover in the Arctic, then the Siberian permafrost, then the Antarctic ice cap. There are others. At each point, the world risks shifting into runaway global heating, where temperature rises release more greenhouse gases, which in turn fuel further temperature rises until all stored carbon is released and the world has warmed by 7°C or more. We can forget about polar bears and the Great Barrier Reef – these temperatures are incompatible with the survival of industrial civilisation. Droughts, cyclones and other climate related disasters would devastate agriculture and create billions of climate refugees. The tropics and, in summer, much of the sub-tropics would become simply uninhabitable because of the heat. And, without the infrastructure of an industrialised society, 80-90% of the world’s human population would die. The capitalists are playing Russian roulette and they’re not even spinning the barrel in between pulls of the trigger.

Credit: Japan Meteorological Agency

So what do we do?

Around the world, many organisations, large and small, have formed to push governments to do more on climate change. Most are doing good work, but so far it has not been enough. Not nearly enough. Faced with the implacable opposition of capital to suffering serious losses, we need to mobilise a force which is strong enough to override it.

There is one and only one force on Earth strong enough to beat the capitalist class when it comes to something of vital importance. That force is the working class, so the burning question is how to mobilise it. We are fortunate that many union movements around the world have taken half-way reasonable positions on paper relating to climate change, but this is only the first step on a long and difficult road.

The fundamental need is for workplace groups to form and start discussing climate change and how it relates to their workplace and their employer. As they develop, they can formulate action plans that will vary according to their situation. Groups in unsustainable industries will have the most difficult task, but also the most important. They can draw up plans for a Just Transition and campaign for them within their industry and the broader union movement.

Other groups could focus on their employer’s role in propping up unsustainable practices, or their links with fossil fuel producers. Public servants and other office workers could press for more energy efficient buildings to work in. Bank workers could object to their bosses financing fossil fuel companies. Construction workers could press for the use of zero carbon concrete in the buildings they put up. Almost any employer can be pressured to swap electric vehicles for their current fleet of internal combustion engine powered ones. The possibilities are endless.

Not every step that is necessary is suitable for solving at the level of the individual workplace. Cities need a massive expansion of public transport and improvement of facilities for active transport modes like walking and cycling. Mobilising public transport workers alone, however, would be insufficient to achieve the power necessary to get the system expanded to the degree required. These questions, and some others, would have to be resolved at the society-wide level by the labour movement as a whole.

Depending on the circumstances, workplace groups could be single-employer or multi-employer in the same industry. They should seek to be active in the unions, but they could be single-union or cross-union as necessary and needn’t be afraid to form in ununionised areas of the economy. Where a single unsustainable employer (e.g. a coal mine) is the economic backbone of an entire community, the group will need to work closely with its community. Big environmental groups can assist by putting their members in the same industry in contact with each other. What counts is flexibility of tactics and maintaining the autonomy of each workplace group.

Behind these groups and giving them their power is the possibility that workers could take the workplaces away from under the feet of their bosses and restructure the economy more sustainably by direct action. Think of it as the threat of green bans taken to the next level. Workers can challenge and ultimately defeat the logic of capital. And, in doing so, we will make a movement which can challenge the capitalists over not just the unsustainable practices of capitalism, but the existence of capitalism itself.

This is the program for which Anarchist Communists should fight. Are we up to it?