Avoiding climate collapse requires ending capitalism

By Mark Dunlea, author of Putting Out the Planetary Fire

The need to end capitalism to avoid climate collapse has been stated by such disparate voices as Pope Francis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), and Greta Thunberg.

It is long past time that ending capitalism becomes a central demand of the climate movement. Naomi Klein made this point a decade ago in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. “We have been told the market will save us, when in fact the addiction to profit and growth is digging us in deeper every day. We have been told it’s impossible to get off fossil fuels when in fact we know exactly how to do it—it just requires breaking every rule in the “free-market” playbook: reining in corporate power, rebuilding local economies, and reclaiming our democracies.”

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, is increasingly desperate in his criticisms of world leaders for failing to take the needed climate action, highlighting that we have 7 years or less for the radical action needed to avoid climate catastrophe. He points to a “litany of lies and broken promises” by business leaders and governments. He points out that we have long passed the point where incremental changes like those advanced in the U.S. can be tolerated. The IPCC added, “half measures are no longer an option.”

Seven years after the Paris climate accords to stop burning fossil fuels, 2022 reported the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions ever. The world is on the “highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator” reported the UN Chief at the opening of COP 27.

We need to end the drive to maximize wealth and profits, along with continued growth, as the central driver of our economic and political system. Solving climate change means embracing a world based on sustainability and equality. Providing for the common good needs to be the critical factor in determining how to allocate resources as we transition to a clean renewable energy future. 

We also need to democratically control and plan the transition to a sustainable economy. Having hedge funds and other investors get rich by building renewable energy won’t solve the climate crisis.

Global warming is the result of fewer than three centuries of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. It has been driven by the enormous wealth and power accumulated by a few. It is a result of capitalism, as a handful of individuals rapidly exploited and depleted, mainly for free, natural resources that took millions of years to create. Such resources were often stolen from indigenous and other poor communities. The wealth and political power created have enabled the fossil fuel industry to inflict enormous social, health, and financial harm on the rest of us.

Few US-based mainstream climate groups and virtually no elected officials publicly raise the call to end capitalism, While Republicans engage in climate denial, most Democratic officials continue to promote tinkering with the “market” as the most pragmatic way to curb global warming. It will not work, other than to further enrich the wealthy and other corporate interests. 

At least there is a growing grassroots movement, especially among youth, to support public power and socialism.

More groups do embrace the concept that solving climate change requires system change. Climate activists need to make common cause with other movements for social and economic change such as the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter. As Pope Francis pointed out, “we cannot ad­equately combat environmental degradation un­less we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.”

The pope also challenged the ‘idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. The econ­omy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its poten­tially negative impact on human beings.” The IPCC report released during COP26 in Glasgow also made clear that to avoid climate collapse we must end capitalism’s perpetual economic growth model.

Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future have recently begun to highlight the need to end capitalism. Their call for a global climate strike on March 3 stated that “the capitalistic system continuously puts profit over people. Corporations’ greed for more profit is driving the destruction of ecosystems and the climate. The Global North’s fossil finance is the cause of the climate crisis, neocolonial exploitation, wars, and human rights violations. In its capitalistic system’s thinking of everlasting growth, the money of the historically largest emitters of greenhouse gasses is funding the destruction of the planet by making fossil fuel extraction possible.”

Kohei Saito’s Capital in the Anthropocene, the Japanese best seller on combating climate change, makes a similar point: Capitalism’s demand for unlimited profits is destroying the planet. The climate crisis will spiral out of control unless the world applies “emergency brakes” to capitalism.

As I wrote last year, we need a revolution.

Futurists outline two major paths. One is to continue to build a world based on increasing economic inequality, with billionaires becoming ever more prevalent and powerful. That leads to a world of heavily fortified biospheres for the select few and cutthroat competition for survival for the rest of us. The other path is one based on equality and mutuality, where every human is a respected member, whose needs are to be met. That path – such as an ecosocialist Green New Deal as the Green Party first proposed back in 2010 – gives us the best chance of not only survival but also a decent living for future generations.

It is too late to stop climate change since it is already occurring. We are already suffering from ever more powerful and extreme weather. But we still have a chance of avoiding total civilization collapse. We need to act like it is a climate emergency, which requires not only bold action to halt fossil fuels but a recognition that we must reject the economic and political system – capitalism – that in less than three centuries has become an existential threat to humanity.

Mark Dunlea is chair of the Green Education and Legal Fund.