The people, Wall Street, and the planetary emergency

The growing planetary emergency brought on by climate change is placing the future of humanity and nature at stake. Awareness of the climate crisis has been growing rapidly and is reflected in the broad, grassroots movement in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and the coalition emerging around the People’s Climate March, which is expected to be the largest demonstration on the climate crisis ever.

This movement has the potential to embrace the overwhelming majority of humanity, crossing class, race, gender lines and national boundaries.

Solutions to the climate crisis inevitably collide with the capitalist system and its inherent need for endless expansion based on a ruthless drive for maximum profit. The system’s existence is incompatible with a planet of finite resources and ecological balance.

It is significant then that a section of the U.S. ruling class has rung the alarm bells and is calling for urgent action to radically lower greenhouse gas emissions. It puts this section of capital at odds with oil, coal and other carbon producing industries chiefly responsible for blocking federal policy in the U.S. and global agreements to reduce emissions.

This section of Wall Street is no doubt motivated by the existential threat to humanity. But they are also motivated by their own class interests and prospects of deepening economic instability, rising social costs and the threat to capital investments due to the climate crisis. Their concern extends to the stability of the entire realm of U.S. imperialism. As Al Gore recently noted, “A Pentagon advisory committee described the climate crisis as a ‘catalyst for conflict’ that may well cause failures of governance and societal collapse.”

In addition to Gore, the call to action comes from Wall Street luminaries like George W. Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer and others involved in the Risky Business Project, along with capitalist economists and former government officials and EPA administrators under Republican administrations. 

Presumably, they speak for a much broader section of capital. Insurance and agricultural industries are also raising similar concerns.

“We see it and we know that it can be catastrophic. We must act and yet we’re not acting, except in a limited way,” said Rubin in a recent interview on CNN. “What is the cost of inaction?” asked Rubin. “In my view – and in the view of a growing group of business people, economists, and other financial and market experts – the cost of inaction over the long term is far greater than the cost of action.”

As they see it, the more delay in addressing the climate crisis, the harder it will be for the capitalist economy in the long run.

The report issued by the Risky Business Project outlines dire threats to coastal cities, properties and development from extreme weather events and rising sea levels; disruption of agriculture and energy demands from prolonged droughts; threats to public health and to agricultural, construction and other workers who will have to work under dangerous heat conditions.

The report warns that enormous amounts of social resources will need to be diverted to address the threats posed by climate change. The study cites a cost of $20 billion to protect New York City from catastrophic flooding such as was seen with Hurricane Sandy. And that’s just one city on the East Coast.

This mirrors the recent report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) on the rising cost associated with delaying action.

The emergence of these Wall Street voices marks a fissure in ruling class circles that needs to be taken into account when developing strategy and tactics to ameliorate the climate crisis. Building the broadest possible alliances is essential for stopping and reversing greenhouse gas accumulation. Including alliances, no matter how temporary, between the multi-racial working class, scientists, environmentalists, city, state and federal governments, small business with sections of big capital who share similar goals.

Immediate reforms are possible

Of course, Gore, Rubin, Bloomberg see a future of capitalism, but one based on a low carbon energy system. Gore calls it “sustainable capitalism.” They also see these changes largely driven by capitalist market forces and technological fixes. In the words of Gore, “While governments and civil society will need to be part of the solution to these challenges, ultimately it will be companies and investors that will mobilize the capital needed to overcome them.”

Many see growing investment opportunities in the transition to solar, wind and geothermal. The costs to produce sustainable sources are plummeting and now rival coal and will rival natural gas. This could lead to what are called “stranded assets,” the devaluation of fossil fuel assets resulting from rising relative costs of production including the costs of growing regulation due to environmental degradation that comes from methods of fossil fuel extraction, e.g. mining, fracking, coal slurry pits, etc.

In addition, there are big changes coming to the electric power grid. Power generation from a single source will increasingly compete with renewable generation like homes and buildings with solar panels plugged into the grid. According to Gore, a growing number on Wall Street are becoming uneasy over these prospects.

No doubt market forces will have a profound effect on the transition to new forms of energy production, only natural in a capitalist dominated economy. But market forces cannot be relied on alone for this transition, nor are technological fixes the only solution.

Role of working class and allies

The working class and its allies are also motivated by their own class interests and will not be idle in this process. Their activity and initiative will be key in this process, helping rally the broadest forces and championing an anti-corporate agenda that will insist on far reaching government regulation, investment in renewable energy production, infrastructure and other social and economic reforms while defending the economic interests of working people and their communities.

Eventually, progressively curbing the power and property rights of capital will also emerge as an important demand, including expanding the public domain to include the vast natural resources of the country and radically regulating the energy industrial complex, eventually making it public as well.

This sets up a dynamic interaction within the far broader coalition of unity and struggle between the working class and its key allies and sections of capital. The aim is for the working class and its allies to put its decisive stamp on the outcome without rupturing the temporary alliances.

Confronting capitalism

Ultimately, the changes driven by the people’s movement will increasingly confront capitalism’s drive for profits and lead in the direction of peaceful, democratic and sustainable socialism as the means to heal the planet.

But action on climate change can’t wait on a socialist reorganization of production. It is a dire threat today and any delay in taking concrete steps to radically reduce emissions increases the danger to the planet, perhaps irreversibly so. That means winning victories where the capitalist economy and market forces predominate.

Any measures that curtail emissions, even if it doesn’t go as far as needed, should be seen as positive. Each victory broadens and deepens the movement and lays the basis for more far reaching advances.

In addition, massive public resources must now be redirected to protect our communities from the effects of climate change and address disaster relief occurring on a mounting scale. Who will pay for this expense? It must come from the wealth of the 1 percent and wasteful military spending. Again, the multi-racial working class, communities of color, women, youth, environmentalist and other allies will be decisive in determining this outcome.

Isolating Big Oil, the ultra right’s bulwark

Broad coalitions and alliances, not without their own sharp internal antagonisms and contradictions, are necessary to defeat the power of the fossil fuel industry, which form the bulwark of the political ultra right. This right danger includes the Koch Brothers, oil barons who are flooding the airwaves with millions of dollars in ads to buy the 2014 elections, and Exxon-Mobil, the world’s largest oil company, which is pouring millions of dollars into casting doubts on climate science.

Currently the Republican dominated U.S. House of Representatives has obstructed all reforms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, forcing the Obama administration to takes steps through executive order. The Republican caucus is full of insane climate deniers backed by the fossil fuel industry.

Would those sections of capital who see the need for action on the climate crisis, many of them Republicans, back congressional and presidential candidates who favor action, including within the Republican Party? Recent polls show 41 percent of Republican voters think climate change is caused by human activity, and 77 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents support using renewable energy more.

Steyer, a Democrat, has been active funding campaigns to defeat climate deniers, mainly tea party nuts. Bloomberg said he hopes this work “will mobilize the business community and forge a consensus for leadership across the aisle.”

A defeat of tea party climate deniers in Congress in 2014 would help remove the major obstruction of President Obama’s EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, lowering fuel emission standards, and create possibilities to go further.

Secondly, it could accelerate the shutdown of burning fossil fuels and coal powered electric generating plants. Paulson, Rubin, Gore and others see doing this though a carbon tax and eliminating subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Passage of this kind of legislation will mean a fight with the fossil fuel industry.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders have introduced legislation to tax carbon and methane emissions directed at the largest polluters. Revenues would be returned to taxpayers and invested in weatherization, sustainable energy sources and worker retraining.

Program for mining and other working-class communities

Those voices on Wall Street who support moves toward a low carbon economy have little concern for the economic impact on working-class communities. The CPUSA supports conversion to a peaceful, sustainable economy but recognizes that while millions of jobs will be created, there will also be tremendous dislocation and job loss in the old polluting industries. Therefore we advocate a guaranteed social wage for all unemployed workers, especially those displaced by the conversion, until they are retrained in new skills and trades and attain employment.

The transition to a sustainable, peaceful, democratic economy and society will not occur overnight. It will be a prolonged fight, marked by various stages of struggle, shifting alliances and contradictions within the movement arising from class and social interests. It requires flexible tactics and strategies to assemble the broadest movement possible to preserve a future for humanity and nature.

Photo: Protester at White House shows handmade sign saying, “Business as usual kills,” to seek a decision against the Keystone XL pipeline, during the February 17, 2013, Forward on Climate March and Rally. (CC)




John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.