Friday, July 3, 2015

1913. Discussion: Emissions Tax, The Climate Movement, and Radical Social Change

By Kamran Nayeri, July 3, 2015
Portion of the crowd in the Oakland, California, climate rally, September 2014
In “The Climate Movement Should Demand: ‘Tax Greenhouse Gases Emissions With Subsidies for Low-Income People” (June 26, 2015), a proposal for discussion and adoption by climate activists, I anticipated opposition to it.  In particular, I anticipated opposition from socialist or ecosocialist individuals and groups who make an educational slogan, “System Change, Not Climate Change,” into a policy proposal. 

The day after I posted my proposal on Our Place in the World James Plested published “Climate Change Cannot Be Addressed Without Breaking From Capitalism” in the REDFLAG, the voice of Socialist Alternative of Australia.  As the title sums it up Plested argues that it is impossible to stop catastrophic climate change without breaking with capitalism. He concludes that instead of building the climate movement one must build the labor and socialist movement, in particular, I suppose the Socialist Alternative in Australia.  

On the same day, Jonathan Rutherford (coincidently also from Australia) posted a comment under my proposal on Our Place in the World (see the third comment) in which he argues climate change is not a central problem facing humanity, it is just one of many problems we face. Addressing me, he writes:  
“You obviously don't see our predicament like I do. Part of the problem, I guess, is that I don't see climate change as THE issue. Its just one more problem, among many others, that the system is generating. Even if we could solve that one - plug one hole - other leaks would probably bring the system down (or, in any case, should lead us to reject it).” [emphasis in the original]
Thus, like Plested, Rutherford proposes his own vision of a post-capitalist society as the way forward instead of building the climate movement.  

Let us note that Plested and Rutherford start from diametrically opposed starting points but arrive at a similar conclusion—that is, abstaining from the climate movement.  The reason is that they employ the same approach to politics, to substitute their own utopia for actually living mass movement that is going on before our very eyes.  What matters to them is not the real movement but their own utopia. In my 44 years as a political activist, I have seen many manifestations of the same abstentionist approach to mass movements. It requires a discussion. But before I get to it let’s dispose of  Rutherford’s assessment of climate change as  “just one more problem, among many others, that the system is generating.”

Why have millions mobilized across the world to stop climate change? 
Rutherford does not bother to ask himself why then is it that millions across the world have mobilized to stop climate change.  The answer is well known to anyone who has paid attention. Climate change is an existential threat at least for the large part of humanity that live in the Global South and many low-income working people in the Global North.  It is an existential problem for untold number of species as it is a driver for the Sixth Mass Extinction. It is also causing ocean acidification.  

There are many sources from academic and policy research organizations as well as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that have provided facts and sciences of  the escalating threat posed by climate change.  Let me quote the February 2015 report from the Global Challenges Foundation that places climate change as the top threat to humanity among twelve threats its cites
“Feedback loops could mean global average temperatures increase by 4°C or even 6°C over pre-industrial levels. Feedbacks could be the release of methane from permafrost or the dieback of the Amazon rainforest. The impact of global warming would be strongest in poorer countries, which could become completely uninhabitable for the highest range of warming.
“Mass deaths and famines, social collapse and mass migration are certainly possible in this scenario. Combined with shocks to the agriculture and biosphere-dependent industries of the more developed countries, this could lead to global conflict and possibly civilisation collapse. Further evidence of the risk comes from signs that past civilisation collapses have been driven by climate change.”
A few months before that the IPCC  Synthesis Report (November 2, 2014) puts it is a more diplomatic language. “If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” (IPCC news release

The recently completed Lancet Commission Report on Climate Change concludes that climate change can erase public health gains of the past 50 years. 

Also, It is well known the global warming is the driver for ocean acidification and climate change is a key driver for species extinction and loss of biodiversity, both cited as other top threats to humanity.  On June 19, 2015, a report published in Science Advances by a team of scientists confirmed the onset of the Sixth Great Extinction and warned that it is a threat to human existence.

Just today, a team of scientists published a research report in Science (July 3, 2015) that warns “that our window of opportunity to save the oceans from major changes is in danger of slamming shut, bringing with it the risk that we will encounter planetary-scale tipping points in the behaviour of the climate.”  (Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, “Climate Change: The Window of Opportunity in Saving Oceans Is Closing Fast”). 

Mass movement is where revolutionary politics can unfold
So, Rutherford’s denial of the existential threat posed by global warming and impending catastrophic climate change as “just one more problem, among many others” has no basis in fact or science and, frankly, it is odd coming from a leftist.  

In fact, a gradual recognition of the centrality of impending catastrophic climate change has served as the basis of a growing climate justice movement around the world.  Unsurprisingly, the environmentalist movement has taken the lead in organizing protests demanding governmental action to mitigate climate change before it is too late.  Unlike some other problems “the system” generates, climate change can become self-sustaining through natural feedback loops—like release of methane with melting of permafrost or dying off of the Amazon tropical forest.  Just last September 12 (2014) some 400,000 people marched in New York City to demand governmental action as world leaders converged to discuss the issue. On the same weekend, 2,807 actions with the same message took place in 166 countries.   

In my assessment of the New York march (see, “People’s Climate March Was a Huge Success; What to Do Next?”) I supported the organizers’ strategy of ensuring broadest mobilization from across the political spectrum by focusing on the demand on governments, in particular the American government, to take immediate and effective action to stop and reverse climate change.  In the same assessment, I criticized the organizers of a small march on Wall Street that wanted to “escalate” the movement by mobilizing anti-capitalist forces to disrupt Wall Street. That march attracted only 3,000 people (less than one percent of the main march that had about 400,000 participants) and was immediately mired in fight with the police  (for an excellent critique of this ultra-leftist approach to the People’s Climate March see Jonathan Smucker's and Michael Premo’s “What’s Wrong With the Radical Critique of the People’s Climate March”).

On the occasion of the UN COP21 meeting in Paris November 30-December 11, the climate movement is organizing protest marches leading up to this event in many cities across the world as well as in Paris.  The question for any radical social change activist and organization is this: will you help build these protest actions?

Politics of sitting outside the mass movement
Unfortunately, both Plested and Rutherford have choosen political abstentionism towards the climate movement.  Plested who understands the centrality of the climate change would not help build the climate movement because he argues it can never stop climate change as long as world capitalism exist.  He argues that the fossil fuel interests will not give up trillion dollars of proven reserves and national governments benefit from economic growth fostered by fossil fuels will not give up their competitive advantage by accepting policies that can undermine their wealth and power. He concludes:
“No fundamental economic restructure [sic] is possible so long as the capitalist class remains in power. So the struggle for a socialist economy, which is the only basis for dealing with climate change, must be a struggle to strip the rich of their economic, military and political power.”
As a socialist Plested views the working class as the social agency that will strip the capitalist class  of its power and initiate a transition to a socialist society. He argues, however, that historically the working class has shown little interest in environmental issues. Thus, those seeking radical social change should look at other issues— “economic crisis, war, poverty, and so on”—that have historically moved the working class into political action.

However, to stop catastrophic climate change we need to meet two conditions. First, effective policies must be adopted by at least the top 10 polluters  that are responsible for more than 70% of the world greenhouse emissions: China, U.S., E.U., India, Russian Federation, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada, and Mexico.  Second, these policies must be adopted fairly soon—scientists differ on their estimates of how much time we have to act to stop the catastrophe, but they agree that the sooner the lesser the averse effects.  It is not unreasonable to say that we have no more than a couple of decades and the time to begin is NOW.  

The question for Plested and all thinking socialists and ecosocialists is this: given the historical record and the world political situation is it realistic to expect the working classes in these nine countries and the European Union to take power from the capitalist class in time to initiate a meaningful climate policy?  Plested, in particular, should consider that despite the worse financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression, despite the most extreme income inequality since the “roaring” 1920s there has been little working class resistance in the capitalist heartland. 

While I have no crystal ball, the world political situation, including the state of the labor, socialist and ecosocialist movements do not give much confidence that revolutions in the capitalist heartland and countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico are around the corner.  

Thus, Plested’s policy conclusion proposing abstaining from a living mass movement to stop climate change in favor of a socialist utopia that does seem far into the future does not seem very alluring.  In fact, if we do not stop catastrophic climate change in due time there may be not much left of humanity to enjoy the coming socialist utopia.

Rutherford’s argument is similar to Plested’s except he upholds his own utopia—The Simpler Way-- which he outlines below:
“The point is we need to be working for a very different kind of society: - one based on a totally new steady state socialised/planned economy, frugal consumption, localised/self-reliant settlements, participatory democracy new cooperative cultures etc. I know this is scary and hard to imagine. I struggle with it every day of my life. But I am convinced that something like this is what we must have the courage to grope towards…” 
I am uncertain why Rutherford finds working for this utopia scary. I would argue as others have before me (see, Ted Trainer “The Case for Simplicity,” April 2015; Samuel Alexander, “Life in a ‘Degrowth’ Economy, and Why You Might Actually Enjoy It,” October 2014) that something along what Rutherford outlines is not only necessary but desirable (I am an ecosocialist critic of Limits to Growth way of thinking-see, for example, my "Limits of the Limits to Growth Perspective: A Discussion of Saral Sarkar's Explanation of the Great Recession," section 4; for an outline of my own theory of ecological socialism see, "Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: An Critical Outline, Part 2").  

For the purpose of our discussion here, the problem is that by adopting The Simpler Way vision Rutherford disregards the need to engage in real life mass movements, in particular the climate movement, to help build opposition to the capitalist “solutions” and provide alternative that will stop climate change.  In this process, there will be ample opportunity to talk about our utopia with fellow climate activists. If we do not build an effective climate movement there may be no real opportunity to successfully work for any alternative to the capitalist society, The Simpler Way included. 

I do not know how many people turn up in a climate protest actions in Australia, but in Oakland, California, last September there were 4,000-5,000 people and about 400,000 demonstrated in the main event in New York City.  Would you not prefer to be part of these crowds, not an outside agitator, but as a co-builder of the movement and offer your own utopia for discussion by fellow activists—and listen to theirs

On coalition politics
At the opening of the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels declared: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” By this they did not mean that all political struggles are class struggle.  In fact, unless the working class has become a self-conscious class and acts in its own interest and the general interest of humanity, the socialist or ecosocialist currents will have to function within mass coalitions together with currents whose political horizons do not pass boundaries of capitalism to fight for immediate and transitional demands while campaigning for their own program and utopia.  In the process, our current gains not only by winning over other revolutionary minded individual or currents but also through learning from the experience and from others.  Learning by doing is an essential part of revolutionary work. 

I do not know what experiences if any Plested and Rutherford have in participating in mass movement of any kind and in particular in building a coalition.  So, allow me to give a sense of how the North California coalition is being built for actions leading to the UN COP21 summit in Paris.  The initial meeting to form the coalition was held a few weeks ago called for by a number of leaders of the September 2014 action at the California Nurses Association offices in Oakland.  That meeting discussed and decided on the set of demands for the coalition they called “Northern California Climate Action Coalition.” (see Appendix for the demands).  

Notice the key central demand: “A global agreement to implement dramatic and rapid reduction on global warming pollution.” The next two demands reinforce this: “Keep Fossil fuels in the ground” and “100% clean, safe, renewable energy!”  Let’s call this Section 1. 

These are followed by ongoing campaigns in California and the United States to stop hydrofracturing (fracking), tar sands mining and pipelines, offshore drilling, arctic drilling, coal exports and “bomb trains” (shipping crude oil by trains). Let’s call this Section 2. 

Finally, the call explains that fighting for these demands will help prepare for “A world united to repair the ravages of climate change,” “A world with an economy that works for people and the planet,” and “A demilitarized world with peace and social justice for everyone;where Black Lives Matter; where good jobs, clean air and healthy communities belong to all.”  Let’s call this Section 3. 

As you may have noticed those who drafted this initial agreement most strongly agree on its central demands in Section 1. Section 2 reflects campaigns various participating groups and individuals are active in or sympathize with most.  Finally, Section 3 includes a merging of utopias or images of a good society participators hold close to their heart.  What the coalition will focus on is the central demand on the U.S. and world governments: “A global agreement to implement dramatic and rapid reduction on global warming pollution.” 

Now, why would any socialist or ecosocialist want to sit outside this coalition except by their own sheer sectarianism? All groups and individuals are at perfect liberty to set up their own literature table at coalition events, distribute their own flier to propose their own specific analysis of climate change and what to do about it and link up these with their own vision of a “good society.” No one is excluded because of their political views as long as they adhere to the key demands and organizational norms of the coalition.  

On the proposal for emissions tax with subsidy to low-income people
My proposal for emissions tax with subsidies to low-income people was developed for individuals and groups who participate in such coalition and in the climate movement.  It is not all that I believe is necessary to save humanity but a set of ideas that I think the movement needs in order to advance at this juncture. Of course, Plested has not read my proposal.  But he is critical of earlier carbon tax proposals as schemes to “avoid any significant impact on business competitiveness, have tended to over-compensate polluters and/or allow for the passing on of costs to income-poor consumers” without citing any specific proposals. But my proposal certainly does not do any such things. It taxes the polluters to the full extent, subsidies low-income people and countries of the Global South that need assistance, and use emissions taxes to support a speedy transition to a low-emission post-carbon economy.  Rutherford views “taxes and reforms” of any kind “appallingly inadequate” because he believes nothing can be done unless his vision of The Simpler Way is well in the process of adoption on a large scale.  He writes: 
“A long way down the track, we will have to try and win power…to carry through the higher level changes…May be taxes might be part of the measures such a [ecosocialist] government might take in the distant future…”
Thus, again he places the cart before the horse—to tackle climate change by taxes or whatever other measures needed, we first need to “take power.” But he admits that will be “a long way down the track.” What if the planet fry before that?  That is apparently none of Rutherford's concern--he lives in his utopia not in real world. 

One would think Rutherford's comment does not address my specific proposal, its context (who it is addressed to and why), none of the facts it marshals, none of its arguments. Why? Because to him it does not matter what I say and why.  The world’s salvation is to adopt The Simpler Way. That is indeed a very simplistic way to thinking about radical social change.  Denounce other people's ideas without addressing them by affirming your own utopia. 

But my argument is simple and easy to understand for anyone with an open mind and a passion for engaging mass movement for social change. While I offer my proposal forcefully I would be happy to listen to all criticism of it and any better alternatives.  My goal is to stop climate change as soon as possible through mass mobilization of millions. 

Here is the gist of what I propose for the climate movement.  First, I argue that we need to go beyond the demand such as “A global agreement to implement dramatic and rapid reduction on global warming pollution.”  The reason is that governments in general, and the U.S. government in particular, are dragging their feet to take meaningful action and when they do take some action it turns out it is either ineffective (such as the Kyoto Protocol) or place certain capitalist interests above those of the climate (such as “cap-and-trade”).  For example, on June 23, 2015, thirteen environmentalist organizations wrote a letter to the White House protesting the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to substitute biomass fuel in place of coal they want to phase out. This is part of Obama administration's policy of using Clean Air laws to mitigate climate change. 

Meanwhile, time is of essence. The climate movement should not let politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, and corporations decide on “proper ways” of reducing greenhouse gases.  It is both empowering and necessary for us to decide which approaches have the best chance of success and protect those most vulnerable to climate change in the process.  

My proposal for emissions tax with subsidies to low-income families comes in this context.  It targets all polluters whether those that burn fossil fuels or cut forests or employ land use practices that cause GHGs.  Low-income families and individuals will be protected from higher prices through subsidies.  The tax would also be used for subsidies to speed up transition to a post-carbon economy. 

GHGs emissions should be taxed because for 250 years emitters have polluted the atmosphere without including the cost to the health of the planet and people and not because of the damages thy inflict on the current generations but for future generations as well.  It is also effective as it demonstrated by cigarette tax  in the United States which has resulted in lowering the rate of smoking in the population.  Emissions tax can be calibrated to lower GHG emissions enough to stop and reverse climate change in a reasonable time frame.

I have also drawn attention to the fact that the climate movement must focus on the 9 top countries and the European Union that are responsible for over 70% of the world’s emissions.  The UN meetings give the appearance that the entire 194 countries have to agree on a plan in other to effectively act against climate change.  The idea of the Climate Club is that we can safely focus on a much smaller groups of governments to get results.  Not only we should mobilize millions in China, U.S., E.U., India, Russian Federation, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada, and Mexico to form a Climate Club by cutting GHGs emission through taxations, we should ask for import tariff on major polluters who do not join the Club by refusing to cut GHGs emissions. Money raised through the tariff should be placed in a Climate Change Assistance Fund to help countries of the Global South that need assistance to cope with climate change and to move to a post-carbon economy.  

Of course, this proposal is only a reform. It will not change the capitalist character of any country or the world economy. However, to fight for taxing lethal levels of greenhouse gases and a victory for the climate movement can help raise more consciousness about the fossil-fuel based capitalist industrial world economy and the need to transition to a socioeconomic system where humanity can live in peace and harmony with itself and with the rest of nature.  I would like to think that would be an ecocentric ecological socialist world with a much smaller human population with a culture of being instead of a culture of having.  One that would live more along the lines of The Simpler Way that Rutherford prefers.  But I would be happy to listen to anyone else’s utopia and to any other proposal to make the climate movement face this historic challenge.   

Appendix

From Call for the Northern California Climate Action Coalition

Challenging climate catastrophe the Northern California Climate Action Coalition demands:

A global agreement to implement dramatic and rapid reduction in global warming pollution

Keep fossil fuels in the ground!

100% clean, safe, renewable energy!

End all fracking, tar sands mining and pipelines, offshore drilling, arctic drilling.
Wind, solar, geothermal power now.
No coal exports or bomb trains in Northern California.

           These are pre-conditions necessary to create:

*     A world united to repair the ravages of climate change
Industrial countries and polluting corporations of the global north need to pay their ecological debt to society and to the global south by providing funding for developing countries and vulnerable communities worldwide to adapt to the impacts of climate change and convert to sustainable economies. 

*     A world with an economy that works for people and the planet
Billions of dollars for conservation and a just transition to a sustainable economy based on renewable energy, clean transportation, and jobs for all at union wages. Convert polluting factory farms to sustainable organic agriculture. End corporate personhood; end "money equals free speech"; end billionaire purchase of elections.


*     A demilitarized world with peace and social justice for everyone; where Black Lives Matter; where good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities belong to all
End all forms of oppression and discrimination. No to environmental racism and pollution of indigenous, low-income, and frontline nations and communities. No wars. No nuclear weapons. No more Fukushimas. A true ecological approach must integrate questions of justice to honor the earth and lift all people out of poverty.

1 comment:

Michael Gasser said...

Kamran,
You say, about the Northern California Climate Action Coalition, "Now, why would any socialist or ecosocialist want to sit outside this coalition except by their own sheer sectarianism?" In fact, this coalition, like the one behind last fall's rally in Oakland, was initiated by ecosocialists, specifically the Bay Area chapter of System Change not Climate Change. The point is that there are lots of us ecosocialists out there who do not agree with Plested or Rutherford on the role of reforms and coalition-building.