Climate activists debate how to reach zero emissions in time

jan. 2019 climate boy (loretta florance - abc)
Climate protest in Melbourne, Australia, in 2015 (Loretta Florance / ABC)


In early December, the Global Carbon Project published statistics showing that global emissions of CO2 rose 2% in 2018 to a record high. As Sean Sweeney and John Trent from Trade Unionists for Energy Democracy summarized in a Dec. 31 article, “When ‘Green’ Doesn’t ‘Grow,’ “ the market-focused approach to climate protection that governments around the world have been half-heartedly pursuing has left humanity in a situation in which there is no real decline of fossil fuel production and use.

Emissions will fail to peak—as science deems necessary—in 2020, and government subsidies to private investors to create renewables have produced far too little. The gap, Sweeney and Trent argue, between what science says must happen and what is actually happening grows wider every day.

A special 2018 report, “Global Warming by 1.5 ” by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that any hope of limiting warming to a level that might prevent catastrophic changes to our environment would require unprecedented shifts in land use, energy production, industrial output, building, transportation, and the organization of city life.

COP24, the most recent climate summit of global elites, which took place in Katowice, Poland, last month, agreed upon no measures truly capable of tackling this emergency. According to the climate justice lecturer Nadja Charaby, the U.S. and Russia, with the help of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, managed to prevent even a symbolic acknowledgement of the truths of the IPCC report.

In addition, the human rights plans developed at the previous Paris climate summit, planks that call for funding to the poorest nations, have become bargaining chips in a lose-lose game.

The industrialized nations have pledged to begin contributing an inadequate $100 billion a year to the economically victimized nations most severely impacted by climate change in 2020 but are delaying talks on a necessary increase in this kind of funding (“COP24: No Response to the Crisis,” Dec. 24, 2018).

With scientists producing almost daily reports on the unexpected speed at which glaciers are melting, species nearing extinction, the oceans acidifying, and feed-back loops kicking in, the clear refusal of global elites at Katowice to agree to stop fossil-fuel production and use has kicked into high gear the climate movement discussion about what to do next.

The introduction of an outline for governmental action by the new Democratic Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has become a focal point for debates about what the movement should be fighting for. Her proposal, the so-called Green New Deal, has popularized the notion that the necessary emergency transition to the goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030 and a just transition for workers, can (1) only be successfully carried out by the federal government and (2) that public financing will be key to its success.

The mainstreaming of these key ideas, once only talked about in a small wing of the environmental movement, has stimulated and given confidence to new layers of activists.  The movement discussion now includes critiquing the specific and limited GND proposal put out by Ocasio-Cortez.

First to challenge the ambiguity of the GND proposals to end fossil fuel production was Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch. In “The Lessons from a Burning Paris,” she argued, “Any Green New Deal that includes carbon pricing isn’t green, isn’t new, and isn’t much of a deal.” Regressive carbon taxes or fee and dividend schemes don’t work; they only penalize the working class. The real path to getting rid of fossil fuels, she said, is simple. It means a moratorium on new fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure.

Activists from global climate justice groups, the Green Party, and the peace movement noted the failure of the GND to even mention the Pentagon, which is the single largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels and the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Wars for fossil fuel resources are soon to become intertwined with wars to keep climate refugees out of the richest nations. The billions flowing to the Pentagon are an obvious source for funding an emergency transition. Posing warming as a “security issue,” as does Ocasio-Cortez, opens the door for terrifying elite solutions to the economic disruptions and mass migrations that climate change is producing.

One of the goals in the GND that has sparked the most disapproval is “making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products, and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely greenhouse gas neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.” That is, Ocasio-Cortez is proposing a solution in which U.S. corporations produce unspecified types of technology and make a profit selling them to the less developed world. This goal makes all the passages in the GND that are ambiguous about the means of achieving the transition look ominous. To what degree is the public financing in the GND going to go to give incentives to private industry rather than using the money to efficiently and directly carry out the emergency transition?

The very title of the project, “Green New Deal,” suggests that this is the course imagined. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, despite the mythology, was designed to prop up, not replace, the private banks and industrial enterprises that were responsible for the Great Depression. Very few incursions against capital ever took place and the aid to unemployed workers was actually quite stingy. (See: “The Real Deal on the ‘New Deal,’” Socialist Action, December 2005,

Trade Unionists for Energy Democracy has proven that public private partnerships have failed to achieve climate goals even in the energy industry. Only public ownership and democratic control of the entire energy system can begin to give us the power to transition quickly and completely enough. In truth, given that equally dramatic changes in agriculture, transportation, and most industry will be necessary to truly achieve carbon neutral emissions in the next twelve years, an unambiguous drive to push beyond the prerogatives of capital must be the orientation of the climate justice movement.

This points to the most fundamental weakness of the Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal project. John Qua, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, a youth group carrying out direct action in support of the Green New Deal, has explained clearly that current promotion of the GND and the mobilizations directed at getting legislators to sign on, are designed to lay the groundwork for the campaigns of progressive candidates in the 2020 elections.

The practical activity proposed by the Sunrise Movement to other climate activists is calling legislators. Later, these same activists will be asked to campaign for Democratic candidates. The whole project is designed to convince activists that their energy should be directed toward preparing for the coming elections. Dramatic social change on the scale required to save humanity and the planet however, has never come through electoral activity. The abolition of slavery and other dramatic social transformations have only come through mass independent mobilizations independent of the big business political parties.

That this will be true in the face of climate emergency should be clear by looking at the record of the Obama presidency. According to Carol Dansereau, author of “Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave” (Nov. 13, 2018), under the supposedly climate friendly Obama regime, government facilitated the biggest increase in oil production in U.S. history, dramatically expanded natural gas production, avidly promoted fracking, expanded pipeline construction by 20%, opened up more than 75% of U.S. potential oil resources offshore, allowed coal leases that are equivalent to 200 new coal-fired plants, and increased U.S. oil exports by 1000 percent.

The reforms of the Roosevelt New Deal that actually benefited working people, including the implementation of Social Security, were only put in place because millions of workers and farmers undertook militant action in industry, against landlords, and for social services and aid.

Today, we are not only faced with an impending economic downturn but with a serious threat to the planet and human life itself. The Democratic Party has never taken on private profiteers in the manner needed today. The only way forward is the construction of a massive movement—reliant only on ourselves.

We must use the power of labor, the power of community organization, and create new institutions in which the movement can strategize to defeat the most powerful economic interests that have ever existed. Let’s take the discussion stimulated by the Green New Deal into these as yet uncharted waters now.

Related Articles

The International Food Crisis and Proposals To Overcome It

[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


CLIMATE CRISIS STRIKES PAKISTAN — To aid the millions of Pakistanis suffering from the catastrophic floods: send donations through ESSF (Europe solidaire sans frontières)