Don’t just get mad at politicians – get to the root problem behind climate change

Another Earth Day has come and gone, but what have we really learned? The more evidence accumulates that humanity is facing a veritable emergency as a result of global climate change, the more it seems our political leaders are unable or unwilling to act with the necessary urgency.

This paradox was on display last week as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited France and pledged allegiance to the Paris climate agreement, while at home he’s been pushing ever-more aggressively to ram through Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline against the steadfast opposition of local governments and First Nations here on the west coast.

Trudeau, along with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, has now gone so far as to enter negotiations with the Texas-based corporation to offer billions of dollars of public money to ensure the construction of the pipeline. All this despite the fact that completing Trans Mountain would mean an accelerated expansion of the Alberta tar sands, which is incompatible with Canada meeting its Paris agreement targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Trudeau is far from the only politician who, while using the right words about climate change in general, has failed to stand up to the fossil fuel juggernaut that remains central to the global economic system.

Justin Trudeau in Paris last week | Photo courtesy of Mike Bloomberg

B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan, whose government is only in power because of an agreement with the Green Party of B.C., has stood his ground against Trudeau on the Kinder Morgan issue but has been a major disappointment on other environmental files. Most notably, last month Horgan announced up to $6 billion in tax breaks to help persuade liquefied natural gas companies to make a final investment decision. An expanding LNG industry will bring with it more fracking — a dangerous method of gas extraction that has been linked to water contamination and even earthquakes and which has been banned in many other jurisdictions — and more climate change causing emissions. Like Trudeau, Premier Horgan’s support to expanding a major fossil fuel industry contradicts his professed commitment to taking tough action on climate change.

So, what gives? Basically, no elected politician in Canada has yet been able to articulate let alone confront the real source of the climate emergency and the wider ecological crisis – namely, the capitalist economic system and its growth imperative. If we start to debate and discuss this assertion, we’ll be much better able to finally implement policies that start to properly address the climate crisis.

Capitalism requires not just growth in general, but specifically accelerated growth of capital accumulation – a faster rate of return on investment. For all the much-hyped “green” initiatives of individual companies, many of them no doubt sincere, the system requires the maximization of profit and for at least the near future that will still include digging up and burning as much of the trillions of dollars of fossil fuels beneath the earth and the ocean floor as possible.

Trudeau illustrated this reality by saying, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” This points to the terrible collective action problem that climate change represents. If every country and every government follows this selfish line of thinking, the future will be grim indeed.

There is an alternative, however. The best and perhaps only solution to the global climate emergency is a revival of an international socialist movement. No, I don’t mean anything like the old blocs of so-called “socialist” states, many of which followed models of industrialization and production equally as ruinous as most capitalist states. I mean a return to the idea that working people all around the world have interests in common and enemies in common, and that greater equality of outcome – not just equality of opportunity – is a desirable thing and is best pursued by expanding political and economic democracy.

The revival of explicitly socialist politics will help us confront the climate emergency because we know that inequality is a major driver of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. A 2015 study by famed French economic Thomas Piketty found that the rich and super-rich are overwhelmingly responsible for climate destabilizing emissions, with the top 10% contributing about 45% of global emissions. He advocated new luxury taxes to curb inequality and reduce emissions. In other words, taxing the rich isn’t just the right thing to do in order to fund public services and increase equality, it’s also a key mechanism for surviving the climate emergency and beginning to transition to a fairer, more rational society.

When we start to think and talk about climate change as a product of capitalist inequality, new policies once thought of as radical will become common sense. Why not have a maximum income, for example, or higher taxes on large inherited fortunes? And why not plan to phase out entirely the huge sectors of the global economy that, because of the imperative for maximizing profit, produce huge amounts of waste rather than useful goods and services?

Until we start asking these questions seriously, and acting on the answers we come up with, politicians of all stripes will continue to disappoint all those looking for real climate action.