Many socialists think about the struggle toward socialism along gradualist lines: It requires the building of a mass movement, democratic reform, the election of a growing number of socialists in local and federal bodies, the spread of worker cooperatives, the elimination of patriarchy and racism, and the socialization of healthcare, education, utilities, etc. Many socialists also hold that capitalism with its imperative of continuous growth and wealth accumulation, its profit maximization and corresponding neglect of the value of nature and future human well-being, and its huge investment in fossil-fuels is the main driving force behind climate change and blocks effective mitigation of greenhouse gases (GHGs). A green economy must be red.
The two views are in tension with one another in light of the short time left to avoid disastrous climate change. In its Special Report Global Warming of 1.5 °C (October 2018), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that in order to have a good chance to keep global warming within 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, CO2 emissions must be reduced by about 45% by 2030 (as compared to 2010 levels) and reach net zero by 2050, while a warming within 2 °C requires a reduction in emissions of 25% by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2070. Steep emission declines of other GHGs (such as methane) are also necessary. The harms of 2 °C global warming are much worse than the already significant harms of an increase of 1.5 °C, both for humans and in terms of biodiversity, but current efforts and national mitigation commitments (if kept) fall short of keeping global warming within either one of these limits. It is clear that we are moving in the wrong direction considering the fact that it is projected that in 2018 there will be an acceleration of the yearly increase of global carbon emissions since 2010. The very recent Fourth National Climate Assessment and Arctic Report Card of 2018 add to this bleak and urgent picture.
Socialism as a long-term project means that socialists should support progressive movements seeking to address climate change within an overall capitalist framework. Consider the Plan for a Green New Deal (GND) advocated by the Sunrise Movement and Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It calls for the creation of a House Select Committee (composed of nine Democrats and six Republicans) with the task of drafting by early 2020 climate change legislation guided by seven goals that must be realized by 2030. The goals include “100% of national power generation from renewable sources,” “decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries,” “decarbonizing … transportation,” greatly increasing the energy-efficiency of all buildings, massive investment in GHGs capture, and making the United States a major exporter of green technologies and expertise as well as a prime supporter of “bringing about a global Green New Deal.” A defensible premise of the GND is that the basic technologies are in place for the realization of its goals; the real problem is political will and financing. The GND primarily proposes federal financing so that the huge necessary investments will be able to reduce economic inequality, benefit marginalized groups and communities, and promote job security and a living wage for all. In short, the GND attempts to combine carbon mitigation and justice, not through socialism, but through replacing neoliberal capitalism (focused on privatizing public services) by green Keynesian capitalism (the state must regulate capitalism). Still, socialists should support the GND because its realization is more feasible within a short time frame than seeking to address climate change through the realization of socialism.
This does not mean that we must set aside our socialist convictions. Socialists should support the GND and try to push it more to the left. The GND allows for both private enterprises and cooperative and public companies to execute the greening of the economy, and socialists should seek to prioritize the latter. Socialists should also argue that the electric grid should be under public ownership and democratic control, and they should insist that the United States becoming a green world citizen requires ending the militarization of our economy, federal research funding, and foreign policy.
With the election of more progressives to the House and the growing awareness of the urgency of sharply reducing the global emission of GHGs, there is a certain momentum behind the GND – indeed, dozens of members of Congress signed onto the call for a House Select Committee within weeks after its initial proclamation by Ocasio-Cortez. Massive public support and a return of the Presidency and the Senate to the Democratic Party might lead to the adoption of GND legislation in early 2021. However, considering the environmental record of the Democratic Party and the strength of the fossil fuel lobby, we must also face that the end result might be a much weakened and diluted GND. Local success is unlikely to offset such a federal green failure, and the inadequate global mitigation measures of the Paris Climate Accord might also not become more stringent. How should socialists then respond?
Within the socialist tradition, the gradualist vision is countered by a revolutionary vision of socialism emerging in a time of capitalist crisis. On this account, a deep crisis provides the motivation to overthrow the existing state of affairs and socialists should organize and prepare for such a revolutionary moment. Climate disasters might eventually threaten and even overwhelm the neoliberal capitalist system, leading to a socialist revolution. However, we should not wager on this possibility and fail to fight right now for steep GHG mitigation. Revolutions have a mixed track record in terms of long-term success. Moreover, capitalists might try to prevent a revolutionary crisis by creating some totalitarian global mitigation schema, one that prevents the worst climate disasters and favors the rich in terms of the costs of mitigation and adaption to climate change. Most importantly, we should try to avoid the road toward capitalist climate crisis because it is a road of great human suffering and environmental degradation.