Hurricane Harvey, which has all but devastated Texas, is on record to be the worst “natural” disaster in U.S. history. I put “natural” in quotation marks, because while the storm itself cannot be blamed solely on climate change, there is little doubt the warming oceans and wetter atmosphere caused by global warming, augmented Harvey’s strength and power.
Harvey has left 50 people dead, 30,000 Texas residents seeking shelter, and about 100,000 homes damaged or destroyed by flooding. Indeed, the storm is almost Biblical in the amount of rain it has produced: 24.5 trillion gallons of water, according to the Washington Post.
We are seeing many of the same socio-economic discrepancies playing out with Harvey as we did in Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked a similar path of destruction in New Orleans in 2005, and New York’s Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The rich and those with the means to evacuate have managed to escape the worst destruction, while the poor, the infirm, and people of color have been left to drown.
(In a twisted irony of Trumpian nationalism, many undocumented immigrants in Houston and other flooded areas are afraid to seek out help and shelter for fear they will be deported.)
In the end, it is the poor and working class who will bear the brunt of climate catastrophe. The wealthy will escape into their sheltered enclaves, in a scenario reminiscent of the Neil Blomkamp sci-fi film, Elysium.
And it is not just Texas that is underwater. Less reported on in the corporate media have been the equally horrific monsoons in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, which have left more than 1,200 dead.
Welcome to life in the Anthropocene. And, unless we take action now to radically reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, climate-charged hurricanes like Harvey are only going to become stronger, deadlier, and more frequent.
Climate scientists warn we are perilously close to reaching key planetary “tipping points.” Passing these thresholds could trigger a procession of warming “feedback loops,” wherein warming increases, thus further exacerbating the climate crisis. The most alarming of these tipping points is the potential release of methane gas stored in the permafrost of the rapidly melting Arctic. Methane has about 30 times the heat-trapping potential as carbon dioxide.
Additionally, because greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, any warming beyond two degrees Celsius—itself widely regarded as a “catastrophic” increase in planetary warming by the scientific community—would be “locked in” for at least a century—perhaps longer.
And all of this—the melting Arctic, the rising sea levels, the increase in cataclysmic storms like Hurricane Harvey—is happening much faster than the climate models predicted.
As Naomi Klein warns in her latest book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, “We are almost at midnight on the climate clock.”
But, as important as it is that those of us on the left are clear about the science and the urgency about climate change, we must also be unambiguous about its cause: Capitalism.
While liberals tend to point to the excesses or the short-sightedness of the system—arguing those excesses could be tamed through market-oriented solutions like cap-and-trade legislation, or with more “capable,” “enlightened” leaders in government—this view fails to accurately account for the nature of capitalism. It is an economic system that views everything—including human lives, and the ecosystem that supports all life on Earth—as a commodity. Exploitation and unceasing economic expansion are built into capitalism’s DNA.
As such, there is no harmonious balance where capitalism and a sustainable, habitable environment can co-exist. There is no such thing as “green” or “ethical” capitalism. Indeed, the choice humanity now faces is quite stark: We can, in the words of eco-socialist, Fawzi Ibrahim, “Save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet.”
Does this mean we must wait for a working-class revolution before we can adequately address climate change? Of course not. Given the current weakness of the U.S. left and its overall lack of organization, this is simply untenable. The urgency of the crisis demands that we push for whatever environmental gains we can get out of the system that currently exists, in the here and now—however minimal they may be.
But pointing out both the scope of the climate crisis and its primary driver (capitalism) is not meant to disempower or overwhelm citizens concerned about the future of the planet. It is merely to illustrate the task we are up against.
“If we are to save our world,” writes Chris Williams, author of the book, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, “it will not be enough to chip away at the walls; the people of the world must take a hammer to the entire foundation.”
Yet all is not lost.
I, for one, am encouraged by the degree of radicalization the environmental movement has undergone within the last decade. Many of the leading environmental advocacy groups (The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and 350.org, to name just a handful) have largely dropped the individualist-oriented approaches to combating global warming that have characterized much of the environmental movement for the last two decades.
These individualist “strategies” for fighting climate change include using energy efficient lightbulbs, driving less, biking to work, eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, and the ultimate petit bourgeois con—shopping local. These are all noble endeavors in and of themselves, which nobody concerned about the environment or just living a healthier lifestyle should be discouraged from undertaking. But, given that oil companies and corporations are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, even if every U.S. citizen ditched their cars tomorrow, it would still make little overall impact.
In place of these individualist lifestyle measures, groups like Greenpeace and 350.org have engaged in more militant, activist oriented campaigns aimed directly at the fossil fuel industry—and oil giants like ExxonMobil, and the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, in particular. Leading environmental activists like Bill McKibben have even been arrested, protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House, in 2014.
Obviously, the left still has a lot of work to do. But this burgeoning radicalization—much of it encouraged by the young people and college students that constitute a major part of the environmental left—is certainly an encouraging sign.
We have the technology to begin the transition to a green economy right now. What we lack is not the “political will” to tackle global warming, as liberals often claim.
It is, rather, the fact that working-class people have no control over implementing the transition to wind, solar, and tidal power, and other forms of renewable energy on the mass scale needed. Such decisions are instead in the hands of a tiny group of wealthy business executives and CEOs–the very people who caused the climate crisis, in the first place. And the nature of the profit-driven capitalist system demands they focus more on maximizing profits than on saving the planet. Yet we are routinely assured this warped way of organizing society is the “best we can do”–that there is “no alternative.”
As Paul D’Amato writes in his socialism primer, The Meaning of Marxism:
The very advances made in human productive powers under capitalism that have brought us the possibility of a world without want are also altering our environment in ways that threaten the future viability of life on planet earth. As the renowned environmentalist and activist, Bill McKibben notes, “We’re moving quickly from a world where we push nature around to a world where nature pushes back–and with far more power.”
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