The UN Climate Summit—words versus deeds

Oct 4, 2014

PSL signs at the People's Climate March


Indigenous women lead procession of more than 400,000 demonstrators across Manhattan on Sept.21 in the largest climate march in history.

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. … From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.” — Karl Marx, Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859)

You may ask what the above quote has to do with the UN Climate Summit. Actually, quite a lot. In fact, one manifestation of the productive relations of capitalism turning into fetters is precisely global warming and climate change brought about by capitalist development itself. Chris Williams, a physicist and climate activist makes this very point in his 2010 book “Ecology and Socialism”:

“Marx wrote of once-productive social relations becoming a fetter to the further development of society’s productive powers. Here Marx was not arguing for unending expansion of production, for which he is commonly criticized. It is capitalism that expands production for its own sake, driven by the competitive pursuit of profit—the expansion of exchange value. Marx was arguing that outmoded social forms stand in the way of the further development of society’s powers to answer people’s real needs—the expansion of use value.

”Williams continues: “Nothing illustrates Marx’s point better than the incapacity of capitalist social relations to address the issue of fossil fuels.”

Therefore, the above observation of Marx helps to place the recent UN Climate Summit into its historical context. It also sheds light on the tasks to be taken up by the growing environmental movement that mobilized in a massive march of more than 400,000 two days before the summit.

What is a ‘fetter’?

The dictionary definition of fetter is “a chain or manacle used to restrain a prisoner, typically placed around the ankles.” Marx used the term metaphorically to describe a key law of historical materialism, the scientific view of history he founded: The productive relations of society start out as forms of development of the productive forces but eventually turn into their restraints, leading sooner or later to a social revolution.

Humanity has gone through a series of such revolutions in an uneven and complex process of social change over the past 10,000-12,000 years. Society first passed through a transitional stage—from pre-class primary communism to societies made up of distinct classes defined by their relationship to the means of production. Class society passed through the stages of slavery, feudalism and then capitalism more or less in the manner outlined above—driven, as Marx also explained, by the struggles of contending classes.

Beyond capitalism, Marx foresaw a return to a classless society—communism—in which the means of production are owned in common by the associated producers and organized to meet human needs rather than profit. But, he emphasized, based on the huge advances of the forces of production humanity has achieved, this communism will be immensely more advanced than the “primitive communism” that marked the beginnings of human society.

From forms of development to restraints

A strong case can be made that the relations of production associated with capitalism, those arising out of the Industrial Revolution (made possible by the development of steam power) and subsequent waves of technological change extending through the 20th century right up until today, are now turning from forms of development into restraints.

One manifestation is the regularly recurring capitalist crises of overproduction such as the “Great Recession” of 2007-09. Such crises not only destroy productive forces outright, they cause banks along with industrial and commercial businesses—through bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions—to become smaller in number but larger in size, with the majority of their shares owned by a diminishing number of increasingly wealthy capitalist families. Marx described this process as the concentration and centralization of capital, which he saw as an inherent law of capitalist development.

It was this process that brought about the transition from free competition to monopoly capitalism/imperialism in the last half of the 19th century. The general trend ever since has been a slowdown in the growth of the productive forces, which in the aftermath of the Great Recession appear to be even more restrained.

A related manifestation of restraint is the chaos and destruction wrought by civil wars in oppressed countries instigated from the outside combined with economic sanctions, military invasions and occupations, and bombing attacks carried out by the U.S. and allied powers—usually under the banner of “freedom and democracy” and/or on the basis of “responsibility to protect”—aimed at establishing client regimes that will follow the dictates of the U.S. empire.
Millions have been killed or turned into refugees as a result.

Material destruction has included factories, warehouses, oil refineries, grain silos, and transport facilities, as well as housing, stores, schools, hospitals, government buildings, and military defenses constructed at great cost by countries that had achieved some success in building up their economies on an independent basis.

Such independent development and resulting competition is intolerable for moribund monopoly capitalism/imperialism, which must for its own survival aim to eliminate or undercut all competition and take over all exploitable resources of oppressed countries. With few exceptions, any economic development allowed is solely to facilitate imperialist plunder.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria are recent examples of countries laid waste, on whose rubble and devastated populations U.S. imperialism with great difficulty and high cost is working to prop up or install client regimes. Iran, Russia and China remain on the target list, as well as Cuba, North Korea and others.

The biggest potential ‘fetter’

Another fetter to continued growth of the productive forces of capitalism is global warming and climate change. The “life-blood” of modern capitalist industry and transportation is carbon-based energy sources—coal, oil and natural gas (methane) plus, increasingly, crops grown not for food but for biofuel (ethanol). Therefore, as the productive forces have expanded—and profit-driven capitalism must expand or die—carbon emissions have soared.

Since 1750, just prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have grown from 280 parts per million to today’s level of around 400 ppm, closely tracking the industrial development of capitalism over that period.

As the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere surge, the Earth’s average global surface temperature rises. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere must be reduced to at least 350 ppm, according to leading climate scientist James Hansen, to halt the global warming trend.

Despite claims by climate warming deniers to the contrary, average global temperatures are indeed rising. According to a 2013 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “the leading international body on climate change”: “Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years.”

James Hansen concluded a detailed scientific paper he co-authored, published in January 2010, answering climate warming deniers: “The bottom line is this: the Earth has been in a period of rapid global warming for the past three decades. The assertion that the planet has entered a period of cooling in the past decade is without foundation. On the contrary, we find no significant deviation from the warming trend of the past three decades.”

Once the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises above 450 ppm, research and historical evidence points to the possibility of an unstoppable increase in global temperatures that would make large areas of the planet uninhabitable. If the concentration of greenhouse gases continues to rise, scientists warn that tipping points could be triggered leading to irreversible, self-reinforcing and catastrophic climate change.

For example, continued melting of the Greenland and polar ice sheets could wipe out many species, raise ocean levels, and cause unstoppable and irreversible climate impacts. Global warming could also release huge quantities of methane (20 times carbon dioxide in its global warming effects) now buried in the permafrost areas of the Arctic, producing further warming via a feedback loop (less ice causing more absorption of the sun’s energy, releasing more methane, causing further warming).

Research continues on harmful effects already being seen of global warming on ocean acidification from increased absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, including widespread destruction of coral reefs and wiping out of sea life.

Kyoto Protocol and subsequent agreements

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement, negotiated in 1997, aimed at getting all the countries of the world to sign on to binding carbon emission reductions. This and subsequent negotiations and compromises—usually accompanied by great fanfare and dramatic interventions of the world’s environmental movement—cannot be considered successes.

Most governments, including the United States, never signed on to Kyoto or accepted mandatory reductions in carbon emissions. Prominent among the “solutions” adopted have been various “market-based” carbon trading schemes, called “cap and trade,” turning “pollution credits” into commodity-like instruments traded on newly created exchanges. The result has been to enrich speculators and crooked business interests while giving the public the false impression that something serious is being done to fight global warming.

Overall, carbon emissions have continued their rising trend despite cap and trade and other such band-aids. Whatever reductions have occurred have been temporary, owing to economic crises such as the Great Recession of 2007-09 and the even greater collapse of industrial production that ensued when a pro-capitalist faction led by Mikhail Gorbachev brought about the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The UN Climate Summit

It is within this context that a UN Climate Summit was held Sept. 23 in New York City. The purpose of the summit, which attracted heads of state from more than 120 countries, was not to reach new agreements on measures aimed at seriously cutting carbon emissions. Instead, the gathered heads of state used the occasion for grandstanding and high-flown rhetoric—producing a lot of hot air, as one commentator put it.

President Obama led the way with a speech that started out with a recognition of reality:

“In America, the past decade has been our hottest on record. Along our eastern coast, the city of Miami now floods at high tide. In our west, wildfire season now stretches most of the year. In our heartland, farms have been parched by the worst drought in generations, and drenched by the wettest spring in our history. A hurricane left parts of this great city dark and underwater. And some nations already live with far worse. Worldwide, this summer was the hottest ever recorded—with global carbon emissions still on the rise.”

He then went on to outline various measures over the past eight years the U.S. government and industry have taken to cut carbon emissions—by a promised 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. If accomplished on a world scale, that would be sufficient to reach the 350 ppm level called for by climate scientists and the environmental movement.

However, aside from the fact that Obama’s “promise” is not a binding commitment, it is unlikely this amount of reduction will be duplicated worldwide without another major global economic meltdown, which would only slow carbon emissions temporarily. Though China has implemented what is widely recognized as the most serious program to cut carbon emissions, its emissions continue to rise. These are now highest in the world in absolute terms, though falling short of the U.S. on a per-capita basis.

China’s representative at the summit, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, did promise that his country’s emissions would peak soon. In fact, he told the summit that by 2020 China would aim to reduce its emissions of carbon per unit of GDP by 45 percent, compared with levels in 2005—again a promise and not a binding commitment, though in view of China’s more serious efforts to develop renewable energy sources more credible than Obama’s pledge.

The ‘carbon budget’

It should also be noted that even in absolute terms, over the past century, the most carbon by far that has accumulated in the atmosphere has been contributed by the U.S. and the other “developed countries.” Also, as a Sept. 24 People’s Daily article pointed out, “one-third to one-fourth of China’s carbon emissions come from producing goods for trade,” most of which go to the U.S., Europe and Japan. (

As a result of the environmentally destructive “fracking” boom, the U.S. and Canada are now not only aiming at “energy independence” but are constructing pipelines and port facilities to export large quantities of gas and oil, along with coal, to Europe, China and elsewhere. As the environmental movement has insisted, and if global warming is to be reversed, most of this and other carbon-containing materials must stay in the ground.

But here is a major contradiction: The market capitalization of the giant energy monopolies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell, along with their profits—and therefore shareholders’ return on investment—depend not only on maintaining current levels of production from known reserves of oil and gas but continuing exploration to expand them further. This is not a recipe for reduced carbon emissions but their continued rise.

According to a report issued last year by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, part of the London School of Economics, the amount of carbon dioxide that can be put into the atmosphere if global temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C, the most that climate scientists deem prudent, is about 1,000 billion tons between now and 2050. The report calls this the world’s “carbon budget.”

Existing fossil-fuel reserves already contain far more carbon than that, the authors say. According to the International Energy Agency, in its “World Energy Outlook,” total proven international reserves contain 2,860 billion tons of CO2—almost three times the carbon budget.

According to a May 4, 2013, article in The Economist, the proven reserves of oil companies listed on stock exchanges contain 762 billion tons of CO2—most of what can prudently be burned before 2050. Potential reserves of these companies, the same article states, have another 1,541 billion tons of CO2 embedded in them. Most of these reserves—more than half of the world’s total proven reserves—as well as the even larger proven reserves of state-owned entities must be left in the ground if we are to avoid disastrous global warming and climate change.

Key demands

Obviously, these and newly discovered reserves will not be left in the ground if the huge energy monopolies continue to exist as privately owned, profit-driven corporations. And so a key demand the most conscious component of the environmental movement can raise in the course of the struggle is nationalization of the energy monopolies, under worker and community control. Profit must be removed from the extraction, refining and transportation of energy resources if the public good is to prevail.

The environmental movement has come up with various lesser demands and proposals, many of which target the consumer rather than the producer. Pro-capitalist elements have come up with “market-based” solutions such as cap and trade, which many in the movement now recognize as non-solutions or band-aids at best.

James Hanson, in a Sept. 20 statement entitled “Speaking Truth to Power—and to Friends,” relates how he characterized California’s new cap-and-trade system when speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco with Governor Jerry Brown in the front row: “half-baked” and “half-assed.”

“I admit to being tactless,” he said, “but it got his attention, which was my intention.”

Recently, Hanson among others have proposed as an alternative to cap and trade a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax. The tax would be imposed on producers and be entirely rebated (less cost of enforcement) to each family of the country regardless of income—to compensate for the increased cost of living resulting from the tax. The problem for the polluters is that competition would likely prevent the increased cost of the tax being passed on by the biggest producers of carbon and biggest carbon emitters through price increases.

The tax would therefore cut most deeply into the rate of profit of the industrial capitalists most responsible for carbon emissions—which of course is the point of the tax. Despite the social benefits, these impacts make this carbon tax proposal dead on arrival as far as major corporate interests and the politicians who serve them are concerned. The effect, however, of raising this demand could be to expose the worst polluters and if fought for correctly help to dispel illusions in capitalism and build the environmental movement as an independent force.

According to Chris Williams, the means now exist to end society’s dependence on fossil fuel altogether through the rapid replacement of carbon-based energy sources with non-polluting, renewable solar, wind, wave and geothermal energy. Technology has been developed in recent years, he argues, to make this possible—including ways to even out the fluctuating energy output of wind turbines and solar panels—which he spells out in his book.

Need for independent mass movement

Real gains in the battle to save the planet will require continued building of a people’s movement carrying out mass actions independent of the parties and politicians that serve corporate interests. The massive march of more than 400,000 in New York City two days before the UN Climate Summit pointed in the right direction. This was the case even though the coalition that organized it included many non-profits and other groups that seek solutions within the framework of capitalism and hope that the millionaire politicians in Congress and the White House will heed their appeals.

Also imperative is for the environmental movement to link up with the anti-war movement, since the wars and preparations for wars carried out by the U.S. empire, aside from all its other crimes, contribute in a major way to carbon emissions and global warming.

Ultimately, the issue of global warming must be seen as a working-class issue, recognizing that the continued existence of monopoly capitalism/imperialism is incompatible with definitively resolving the approaching climate crisis and the other major evils of capitalism plaguing society. As this crisis demonstrates, capitalist social relations—private ownership of the means of production by a small minority—have become a fetter on the productive forces that continues to tighten.

As Marx anticipated more than 150 years ago, a new social revolution will be required to break these chains and replace the current system with one based on turning the powerful means of production that now exist into the common property of the associated producers—with democratic planning to meet in a sustainable way people’s needs rather than private profit.