I recently wrote this piece, titled “The Three Climate Strikes”, for The Trouble, a blog/magazine focusing on climate politics. I compare the 2019 Global Climate Strikes with two other events that took place right around the same time: the Houthi/Iranian drone strikes against Saudi oil infrastructure, and the civil insurrection of the indigenous working-class in Ecuador in defense of fuel subsidies.
The initial, obvious point is that radical changes – like those necessary for decarbonization – will require the masses to actually build and exert power, rather than continually holding polite and legal street protests that whine at the elites to change things. Both the Houthis and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) understand this, which is why they have typically carried out very militant campaigns (and in the case of the Houthis, up to and including full-scale military mobilization).
The less obvious, and perhaps more interesting point, is that building “real” power in the context of the climate crisis will require serious working-class organization, and must be embedded in working class interests and working-class mobilization. This lesson is drawn out from the fact that both the rise of the Houthis in Yemen and the more recent rise of CONAIE in Ecuador were driven in part by rising fuel costs; indeed, there has been a large number of violent uprisings across the world in recent years that have been at least partially triggered by increases in the price of carbon energy – notably, in France, with the rebellion of the “Yellow Vests” against a tax on fuel. Given the present state of global political economy, still mired in a decades-long regime of neoliberal austerity, the masses have little room to bear further cuts to their living standards or increases in the cost of living. As such, any attempt to decarbonize the economy by imposing the costs onto the working class will likely be met with fierce backlash, even as this is the only strategy that the capitalists will be willing to take to bring carbon emissions and the climate crisis under control. It is thus a precarious situation for the climate movement, given how it has tended to side comfortably with elite-driven projects, rather than embed itself in the working class; continuing such a habit in this era will risk a wholesale popular backlash against climate crisis mitigation efforts in general. The necessary alternative is to craft a program and practice of decarbonization that attacks the elites, and ensures that the costs of transition are paid for via the expropriation of capital, not through regressive taxation on workers. This is the paradoxical beauty of the events in Ecuador: an ecologically-minded indigenous coalition rose up to fight for continued subsidies for gasoline and diesel, even while maintaining its opposition to domestic fossil fuel extraction, thus fighting to ensure that the costs of overcoming economic and ecological crises will be borne by the elites.
Another point, that needs to be expanded on more in some future essay, is that elites won’t take such an attack lying down: historically, especially in the context of struggles around carbon energy, elites have responded to powerful revolutionary movements with violence and lawlessness. Thus, it will do no good for the climate movement to continue to have blind faith in the sanctity of laws and stable governance – these will be thrown out the window if capital decides that profits can be better protected without them. The slow genocide in Yemen by the West and the GCC, in particular, is today’s best example of just how savage global capitalism can get in its quest to safeguard its property against upstart popular movements.
And this is not a separate issue from that of building a working-class climate movement; if the left is not present, then popular reaction against neoliberal decarbonization initiatives will be the fuel that feeds the rise of fossil fascism. I had to cut this analysis out of “The Three Climate Strikes”, but we saw a glimmer of this potential future recently in Oregon, when an armed bloc of rural workers and paramilitary groups, in conjunction with the Republican Party, blocked a cap-and-trade bill from being voted on. The popular sentiment at the time was that this was an undemocratic and cynical attack on legislative norms – which is true – but the hidden undercurrent is that this was precisely a case where a neoliberal solution galvanized unrest among a largely working-class population, which has long suffered under neoliberal austerity, and accelerated its fall into the clutches of far-right/neo-fascist bloc revolving around rural extractive industries. And the main reason this process seems so smooth is because the left is absent from the field, restricting itself largely to the coastal metropoles, and content to tag along behind Democratic Party politicos and operatives in the non-profit-industrial complex.
To summarize (vaguely):
We need a movement which can cohere and coordinate existing networks (tenant associations, unions, direct-action collectives, student groups, environmental justice advocates, left-wing gun clubs) and different segments of the working class (nurses, teachers, truckers, taxi drivers, coal miners, fast food workers, IT technicians), and which dispenses with any illusions that we can peacefully and politely ask the elites to undermine their own wealth and power. The struggle for climate justice and decarbonization must ultimately be a manifestation of class struggle, and a leading front in the battle to overthrow the rule of capital.