Their solutions are our problems.
On December 1, 2018: riots in Paris, four hundred people in custody, nearly 150 injured. Two days later, UN Secretary-General António Guterres evokes a different Paris, taking the stage at the UN Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland: “Katowice must ensure that the bonds of trust established in Paris will endure.”
The first Paris, the city of riots, is the site of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, a popular movement against a fuel tax levied to encourage a transition to renewable energy. The second Paris is the Paris of the 2016 Agreement on Climate Change. This agreement set out a road map to reduced carbon emissions, slowing global climate change. The fuel tax of the Paris rioters is precisely the sort of mechanism specified by the 2016 agreement.
Fuel tax or none, there’s a general feeling that something has to be done to prevent climate change. “It is hard,” Guterres continued, “to overstate the urgency of the situation.” He is right. Things are bad. But the protestors who fill the streets in France refuse to be hailed by this urgency, facing more immediate struggles. Their unwillingness to accept this urgency forces us to ask how, precisely, we might build the political will to confront the problem, and who will be forced to bear the consequences.
A month before the Paris riots, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report outlining the current consensus on climate change. The report’s authors state that the world has already warmed about 1 degree Celsius from preindustrial levels. Doubling this warming, the report warns, will have disastrous and irreversible consequences. To minimize future warming, and keep temperature increase below 1.5° Celsius, the IPCC projects that the global economy must decarbonize—go cold turkey from fossil fuels—by 2050.
Current climate change patterns will continue even if CO2 emissions cease. These patterns include permafrost melt, sea level rise, and extreme weather events. Buildings in Alaska and Russia are crumpling as the melting permafrost liquefies below their foundations. The recent polar vortex that swept through the Midwest US claimed at least eight lives. A handful of the Solomon islands are already underwater. The feedback loops behind those events won’t stop for a long time, even if all carbon emissions cease tomorrow.
“Large wildfires caused by climate change can create their own weather patterns that act to spread the fire even faster. Everywhere, the effects of climate change feed back on themselves.”
The magnitude of climate change is already enormous: the future effects of current emissions, combined with the time lag before the cooling effects of even the most rapid replacement of fossil fuel infrastructure, ensures we are due for at least 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by around 2040. Ecologists estimate this level of warming will cause the extinction of one in every twenty species on earth.
Large wildfires caused by climate change can create their own weather patterns that act to spread the fire even faster. Everywhere, the effects of climate change feed back on themselves. If the whole world doesn’t immediately decarbonize, the Earth will warm a total of 2 degrees Celsius by around 2050. At 2 degrees of warming, we might see the extinction of one out of every six species on earth. This feedback, left unchecked, will make the Earth 4.2 degrees warmer by 2100 (one out of every two species extinct). Once set in motion, such processes might be essentially impossible to stop, like a wildfire creating its own weather.
To limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the IPCC estimates that, in addition to total decarbonization, as much as one hundred billion tons of carbon will need to be taken out of the atmosphere. The techniques needed to accomplish this task, described as carbon sequestration, require extraordinary material and labor inputs. These new economic sectors are already seeing massive growth, as investment capital pours in looking for high rates of return. Rather than restricting capitalism and its will toward incessant growth, these responses to climate change reinforce it.
Solar radiation modification is one of the most widely-proposed geoengineering techniques. It would work by releasing billions of tons of sulfur into the stratosphere, blocking incoming radiation. Proponents of the technique haven’t made it clear where they imagine this sulfur coming from. Will it be mined in Indonesia’s open-pit sulfur mines, where workers have a life expectancy of fewer than fifty years? Or, maybe it will be extracted in the United States, one of the world’s largest sulfur producers, where 80 percent of sulfur is a byproduct of oil and gas production. Neither of these scenarios provide a meaningful alternative to capitalist exploitation. Indeed, both are predicated on its continuation.
While solar radiation modification may be a ways off, technologies like Direct Air Capture are coming online this year. Direct Air Capture works by sucking air through big fans, and then filtering out CO2. The carbon is then buried, used as fuel, or employed to amend soil for agriculture. Many more carbon-capture processes are expected to be developed in the coming decade but viability is long ways off. At present, the cost per ton of removed CO2 is around eight hundred dollars, eighty times what it costs to offset a metric ton of carbon emissions by planting trees. This sort of massive infrastructure appeals to techno-utopian investors, primed to expect gadgetry to solve the climate crisis. Such an approach has significant traction with leftists, even though the proposed gadgets require massive material and labor inputs—the sort made possible only by global capitalist exploitation.
Even without active carbon removal, quitting fossil fuels has its own material limits. A recent report from the Netherlands shows that critical materials—metals like neodymium, terbium, and indium—essential to solar and wind technologies aren’t being mined in sufficient quantities for solar and wind to replace existing oil and gas production.
Alongside these technical efforts, government policies are also being drafted to ameliorate some of the worse effects of climate change. These efforts are often regressive, accentuating already vast income inequality.
As Guterres wined, dined, and opined at the climate conference in Katowice, city workers in Paris scrubbed and power-washed from public buildings graffiti that read “the climate crisis is a war against the poor.” If administrative or market-based solutions can reduce climate change, it will only be by ratcheting down on poor and excluded populations. This is the reality that mobilized the gilets jaunes.
Solutions to climate change as a global phenomenon are well-suited to nations and markets, since they can exploit the labor and resources to actualize such solutions. The IPCC report also notes the importance of local strategies, lumped together in the climate change literature as efforts in “resilience” and “adaptation.” The IPCC suggests these local strategies can address specific, place-bound realities of climate change, lessening their impact on the most vulnerable groups. It is with this set of strategies that the revolutionary left might find the most success.
Climate change is not a singular, homogeneous process. It will cause massive species loss in the Andean cloud forest while increasing forest productivity in Sweden. Changes in temperature and precipitation mean that agricultural productivity in South Africa may rise by up to 30 percent while decreasing in Sudan by about the same amount. While there are general trends, the effects will manifest differently across latitude and longitude, complicating global and national organizing against climate change.
A real response to climate change must adapt to its regional effects while also resisting market-based solutions that will intensify capitalist expansion. Rather than joining the hue and cry for global solutions, anticapitalists in France are combining this refusal of top-down solutions with regional ecological struggles, like the ZAD commune, near Nantes, established to stop the building of a regional airport. The patchwork of ecological activists, feminists, workers, and the workless that filled the streets of Paris suggests the constituency of future climate rebellions.
These networks are important for adapting to the effects of climate change already upon us. Outside of urban centers, these networks are being built in response to natural disasters. Autonomous groups like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, offering solidarity rather than charity in the wake of Hurricane Maria and the Camp Fire in Butte, California, are inspiring examples of this.
Social struggles build adaptive capacity but, by preventing the flow of capital, they can also prevent carbon emissions. The economic output of an industry is directly correlated to its carbon footprint, as established by the majority of carbon footprint models. France’s National Center for Shopping Malls reported that two billion euros in sales were lost during the gilets jaunes riots. Using a leading carbon footprint model, we can estimate that this damage to the economy prevented at least half a million tons of carbon emissions, equivalent to removing tens of thousands of cars from France’s road for a whole year.
Social struggles against circulation can prevent carbon emissions and ecological struggles to protect biodiversity can sequester carbon that has already been emitted. Worldwide, old-growth forests represent the second-largest carbon sink (after peat bogs). Struggles to protect intact forest areas could have effects equal to geoengineering. And unlike geoengineering, which will likely have negative effects on ecological systems, forest defense struggles protect existing biodiversity.
In Germany, collective efforts to protect the Hambach Forest have prevented a coal company from clearing the ancient oak and hornbeam forest to extract the coal deposited beneath it. Their struggle is protecting biodiversity, building local adaptive networks, and preventing the expansion of a local coal mine. Legislation in Germany won’t phase out coal until 2038; direct action to protect Hambach’s forest is preventing emissions now.
The current discourse on climate change is predicated on a false choice that leaves no room for bottom-up struggles. The spirit of the gilets jaunes can help us navigate the false choice between unchecked climate change and top-down market-based solutions: social struggles can simultaneously reduce emissions and build adaptive networks to cope with existing climate change.
Presently, groups like the Sunrise Movement, co-authors of the Green New Deal, are trying to capture the groundswell of climate activism in order funnel it into electoral and legislative campaigns. There are alternatives, however. Direct struggles against resource extraction and ecosystem destruction avoid the contradictions of these top-down strategies. They address the crisis while refusing to make those least responsible for ecological destruction bear the consequences.