Monday, March 12, 2018

Can Divestment from Fossil Fuels Stop the Climate Crisis and Save the World?

By Kamran Nayeri, March 12, 2018

1. Introduction
In her essay, “How New York City Won Divestment from Fossil Fuels,” Nancy Romer (2018) celebrates the January 10th announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio that New York City will divest $5 billion of its pension funds presently invested in fossil fuels by recounting how the divestment coalition came together and worked for this end.  Thus, Romer provides a service to all of us who want to study how the local climate justice movements operate in the United States today, in particular, one that is organized around fossil fuel divestment.  The divestment movement is international in scope often originating by college students who demand their university divest from fossil fuel stocks and bonds.  One of the first such attempts was by the students at the Australian National University who have begun their campaign in 2011 and despite some partial victories are still fighting for a fossil fuel free university. The New York City divestment campaign also has benefited by the participation of college students.  A chronology of the City University of New York (CUNY) divestment campaign provided by Brian Tokar through the System Change not Climate Change (SCnCC) listserv is appended to Romer’s article republished on Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. 

The purpose of this discussion article is to consider the divestment movement and its potentials and limits in the fight to stop and reverse the climate crisis. By its very focus, Romer’s article excludes this central consideration.  Yet, her own discussion of the New York City experience points to the need for such discussion.  My own argument will be colored by my own understanding of the root-causes of the crisis and what I think would be necessary if the humanity is to overcome it.  I would be grateful for any critical response. 

In Section 2, I briefly outline what I consider to be the root-causes of the climate crisis, and in the process of doing so, define its scope.  In Section 3, I will argue the climate emergency is only one aspect of the social and planetary crisis caused by the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. These sections are necessary for proper consideration of the efficacy of the divestment movement in addressing the climate crisis.  In Section 4, I will take up the nuts and bolts of divestment policy and assess its efficacy to address the climate crisis.  A much-neglected issue in the discussions of divestment is whether it is a strategy or merely a tactic serving a strategy.  I will argue that it is a tactic without any clearly stated strategy.  Also, I will take up the claim that the fossil fuel divestment campaign in the U.S. is modeled after the 1980s divestment campaign against the Apartheid regime in South Africa.  I will show how the 1980s anti-apartheid divestment campaign was a tactic serving a revolutionary mass movement led by the African National Congress (ANC) that had a clear program and strategy in its struggle against the Apartheid regime. But if divestment from fossil fuels is a tactic, what strategy does it serve?  Oddly enough, the question of strategy is usually set aside in the climate justice movement.  Thus, I follow Romer by examining Bill McKibben’s thinking about “strategy” because as she says, he and Naomi Klein have “popularized” the divestment idea in the U.S. and that NY350 and national 350.orghave played a leadership role in the New York divestment campaign.  In Section 5, I conclude with an overview of the climate crisis, the capitalist class response to it, the “strategy” of the mainstream climate justice organizations such as, and the role played by the grassroots movement activists like Romer to highlight how ecological socialists can contribute to the climate justice movement.  I hope this discussion will generate further consideration of what is needed to stop and reverse the climate emergency and the social and planetary crisis we face. 

2. Root-causes of the climate crisis
The physics of climate change
As in medicine, any potential cure for the climate crisis depends on a correct diagnosis of its root-causes.  We know it is an anthropogenic (human-caused) crisis. But the humanity has been around for 300,000 years. Why is there a climate crisis now?  The history of the climate science itself is a good place to start. 

The development of the physics of climate change has been underway at least since 1896 when the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) published an article that suggested burning fossil fuels such as coal would add CO2 to Earth's atmosphere increasing the planet's average temperature. But for decades most scientists argued that puny humanity could never affect the vast global climate cycles.  Meanwhile, climate modeling was introduced and improved and newer studies showed that, contrary to earlier crude assumptions, CO2 might indeed build up in the atmosphere and bring about warming. In the 1960s, Charles Keeling (1928-2005) established that the CO2 level in the atmosphere was, in fact, rising year by year. Further improvements in climate modeling proved that the planet's climate system with its feedback effects can be surprisingly sensitive to human pollution. The environmentalist movement of the 1970s introduced a sense of anxiety about the health of the planet. New chaos theoriesshowed that in a complex system a shift might happen suddenly. Subsequently, ice cores arduously drilled from the Greenland ice-sheet showed large and disconcertingly abrupt temperature jumps in the past, on a scale not of centuries but decades.

Some climate scientists predicted that an unprecedented global warming would become apparent around the year 2000. The summer of 1988 proved to be the hottest on record andJames Hansen, a computer modeler, told a Congressional hearing and journalists that greenhouse warming was almost certainly underway. And a major international meeting of scientists in Toronto called on governments to undertake active steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  In the same year, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is established (for a detailed discussion of the progress of the science of climate change, see, Center for History of Physics, 2017). 

Everyone in the climate justice movement understands and accepts this scientific explanation for the anthropogenic causes of global warming and climate change. However, the mainstream ecology/environmentalist movement generally stop with this technical/scientific explanation of the climate crisis.  

But the physics of climate change cannot tell us why fossil fuels have become so central to the industrial civilization. Coal, for example, was used in England at least since the Roman occupation. Why was it universally adopted as the energy source in the Industrial Revolution? 

Theory and history of capitalism
To answer this crucial question we must turn to the theory and history of the capitalist mode of production.  However, like the progress in the science of climate change, there has been significant progress in philosophy of history as well. 

In his lectures on “The Materialist Understanding of History,” the Russian Marxist philosopher Georgi Plekhanov (1901; 1856-1918) reviews two schools of theories of history, the theological and the idealist schools, with an eye on how successive philosophers of history improved on their predecessors. Thus, Plekhanov shows how Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), a French bishop, improved on St. Augustine's (354-430) philosophy of history by arguing that history cannot be simply explained as an act of God. He proposed “natural causes” must be sought in each historical case.  Plekhanov then explores the idealist philosophies of history that improved on the theological philosophies of history. Voltaire (François-Marie d’Arouet, 1694–1778) who “like all eighteenth-century philosophers, even those who, like Holbach (Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach; 1723-1789) and Helvétius (Claude-Adrien Helvétius; 1715-1771), were materialists in their understanding of Nature, ascribed the historical process to the evolution of ideas or, as was said at the time, of opinions.” (ibid., p. 607)

Plekhanov credits idealist philosophies of history as “relatively true since actual opinions exert a considerable influence on human behaviour.” (ibid.) But he argues that the historian must explore the root-causes of “opinions” themselves. How do ideas arise in the first place? He cites John Locke who argued that “1) no inborn ideas exist, 2) ideas arise from experience, and, 3) as for practical ideas, it is interest (social, not personal) that leads to some actions being qualified as good, and others as bad.” (ibid.) 

Plekhanov then considers the contribution of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) who tried to create the foundation of social science, the science of human society, which he believed would be as exact as the natural sciences. Saint-Simon pointed to the role of class struggle in history and tried to explain the French Revolution as the product of a century-old struggle between the industrialists and the nobility. Plekhanov also draws attention to Augustin Thierry (1795-1856) who in his Lettres sur l’histoire de France writes that “historians have stubbornly refused to attribute any spontaneity, and ideas, to the masses of people.” (cited in Plekhanov, 1901, p. 609).  Thierry’s Philosophy of history then focuses attention on “[t]he struggle of classes and opposing interests.” (ibid. p. 610)  Plekhanov reminds us that Theirry’s philosophy of history “was shared by all outstanding historians of the Restoration period.” (ibid. p. 611) Thus, Plekhanov concludes: “…since the early years of the nineteenth century, the sociologists, the historians, and the art critics have all referred us to the social system as the underlying foundation of the phenomena of human society.” (ibid. 613).  He then considers the contributions of two great German philosophers of the early nineteenth century Schelling and Hegel. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854) offered a solution to the problem of the relationship between human freedom and historical necessity. If history obeys certain laws then how can we reconcile human freedom of action with historical necessity? Plekhanov sums Schelling’s solution as follows: 
“What is a necessary action? It is one which a particular individual cannot but take in definite conditions. But whence the impossibility of not taking that action? That is conditioned by the man’s nature, which has been fashioned by his heredity and his previous development. His nature is such that he cannot but act in a certain way in the given conditions….Add to that the fact that the particular individual’s nature is such that he cannot but feel certain wishes, and you reconcile the concept of freedom with that of necessity. I am free when I act as I wish to, but my free action is at the same time a necessary one because my wish is conditioned by my nature and the given circumstances.” (ibid. p. 615) 
Plekhanov summarized the philosophy of history of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) as the development of the Universal Spirit over time. For Hegel, Spirit or Idea is the essence of everything that exists and matter itself is the manifestation of it. The unfolding of the Universal Spirit follows Reason which is an unconscious manifestation of all the laws that serve the movement of history. Hegel in most cases thought of these laws as conditioned by our way of life, that is, the social system. 

Thus, as Plekhanov observes, by the time Karl Marx (1818-1883) appeared in the intellectual circle of Young Hegelians, theories of history faced the following contradiction: “ideas, sentiments, and opinions are conditioned by the social system; the social system is conditioned by opinions.” (ibid. p. 613) 

Marx’s solution to the riddle of the philosophy of history is to locate the primary role of mode of production in the formation of the social system and the process of history.  Thus, he writes: 
“My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term ‘civil society’; that the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy.” (Marx, 1859)
Political economy was the scientific work of bourgeois scholars of the capitalist economy that came before Marx who spent many years to study and critique.  Thus, here is Marx’s solution to the circular argument of the philosophies of history of his time.
 “In the social production of their existence, men [sic] inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (ibid.)
Earlier, in The German Ideology Marx and Frederick Engels (1845; 1820-1895) had argued how their philosophy of history is rooted in the empirical existence of humans as part of nature and their subsequent social production to support their existence. 
“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.
“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (Marx and Engels, 1845, my emphasis)
Thus, Marx did not invent the idea that society is made of social classes and that historical change is caused by class struggle. Marx’s contribution to the philosophy of history was that “the existence of classes is merely linked to particular historical phases in the development of production” and he predicted that class struggle in the capitalist society will lead to the conquest of political power by the great majority, the working class, who will lead the transition to a classless society, the Associated Producers mode of production. (Marx, 1852)  From the Paris Commune 1871 to the Russian revolutions of 1917, to the 1979 Iranian revolution, Marx’s prediction that the working class would be the leading force in the struggle against the capitalist system has been proven to be valid.  Why these working class movements suffered defeat is another important question that I briefly discussed elsewhere (Nayeri, October 2017, Sections 4 and 5). 

Origins of the fossil fuel economy
Now, we can turn to the question of widespread adoption of coal in the English industrialization.  As I noted earlier, coal was used in England for a very long time; blacksmiths and artisans used coal-burning ovens.  As the growing population consumed more and more of England’s forests for firewood, coal burning became widespread enough to inspire laws against its use due to the smoke and pollution burning it produced. Nonetheless, the demand for coal continued to grow. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen(1664-1729) invented a single-piston pump, the first machine that successfully directed steam (thermal energy) to the production process.  This, in turn, allowed coal mines to delve deeper to produce more coal and the coal industry expanded.  Meanwhile, capitalist development in England was proceeding along the lines that Marx called the manufacturing stage which he discusses in volume one of Capital. In 1784, James Watt (1736-1819) patented his steam engine that adapted the motion of the pistol in the steam engine to continuous circular motion making it applicable to all manufacturing purposes.  The steam engine was a critical invention for the English Industrial Revolution. However, as Andreas Malm (2016) meticulously documents how the use of coal in industrial production was motived by the desire for the capitalist control over the labor process, not because it was cheaper or more abundant than the alternative. Thus, the seeds of the crisis we face today were laid in the capitalist production relations 

Internationalization of capital and the industrial revolution
As Marx explains in volume one of Capital, capital is self-expanding value and a social relation. For Marx, the capitalist mode of production is characterized by generalized markets for capital good, labor-power, and commodities, and capitalist production is undertaken for profit which is then plowed back into the further accumulation of capital.  All these processes are deeply rooted in the capitalist social relations of production. Thus, the capitalist mode of production is an unending search for ever more profits to support extended reproduction and accumulation on ever-higher-scale.  Like all previous modes of production, the capitalist mode of production is organized to expropriate nature through the exploitation of working people to generate wealth.  Except, the capitalist system is the most dynamic mode of production in history which constantly develops the forces of production—scientific and technological knowledge and the labor power—that it then employs on an ever larger scale, with an ever-more intensity and speed.  There lies the reason that capitalism is the enemy of nature, including human nature. 

Industrial capitalism has therefore become international. Angus Maddison (1991, pp. 6-7) estimates that, in constant 1985 dollars, from 1820-1989, levels of GDP per head of population in the industrial capitalist economies increased from 8 times in the United Kingdom to 26 times in Japan with an arithmetic average of 14 times for the group taken as a whole.  During the same period, world population increased exponentially, from one billion in 1804 to  5 billion in 1987. Of course, per capita income does not tell us about unequal income and wealth distribution. In 2016, the richest 3.5 million people worldwide (o.7% of world population) controlled $116 trillion, or 45.6% of the world’s wealth, or more than $1 million each (of course, even in this group a tiny minority controls much of the world’s wealth).  The poorest 3.5 billion people (73% of the world population) controlled only $6.1 trillion of wealth, or less than $10,000 in wealth each (Of course, a majority in this group have no wealth or even have negative wealth, debt) (Credit Suisse, 2016).  These figures must convince anyone that the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization is a giant social system that is built to serve the tiny world capitalist elite and as I just argued, destroy life on the planet. 

3. Climate change as a systemic crisis
At least since 2000, scientists have increasingly argued, and now stratigraphers (scientists who study rock formations) tend to agree, that the geological epoch Holocene, that began 11,700 years ago which provided the hospitable climate for agriculture and civilizations that have arisen on its basis, has been given way to the Anthropocene, a new human-induced geological epoch (Gajanan, 2016, Angus, 2016, Davies, 2016). Most experts identify the start of the Anthropocene with the Great Acceleration that began about 1950 (Steffen,, 2015B). There can be no doubt that the Anthropocene is caused by the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization which has brought us the social and planetary crisis (Nayeri, 2013). 

While the climate emergency is much more in the popular consciousness as its impact on human societies is much more visible, it is actually just on aspect of the much larger planetary crisis as explained, for example, in a report by The Stockholm Resilience Center (Rockström,, 2009) and its extensive update (Steffen,, 2015A). They identified nine planetary boundaries ("thresholds for safe operating space for human societies"). Climate change and "biosphere integrity" (the Sixth Extinction) are designated as core boundaries “because they both are affected by and drive changes in all the others.” (ibid.) The nine boundaries are:

1. Climate change 
2. Change in biosphere integrity (the Sixth Extinction)
3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
4. Ocean acidification
5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
7. Freshwater use
8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)

9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).

However, the view that climate change is rooted in the industrial capitalist civilization is shared only by a small fraction of the climate justice movement that calls itself ecological socialist (ecosocialist).  In particular, the humanity and much of life on Earth presently face three existential threats: The Sixth Extinction, catastrophic climate change, and a nuclear holocaust.

If my argument so far is correct in its main outline then it follows that to overcome the crisis we must build a movement of billions of working people worldwide to transcend the "social system," to use the early nineteenth century term of philosophers of history, in the direction of a post-capitalist naturalist mode of production that assures human development and harmony with the rest of nature (for my discussion of this, see, Nayeri, July 2017). The climate justice activism will not succeed to stop the climate crisis and save the world no matter what “tactics” we choose if this strategic vision is not adopted.  Now, let’s turn to the fossil fuel divestment campaign in this context.

4. On the divestment campaign
Is finance the “soft underbelly of the climate monster?” 
Romer begins her account by acknowledging that the U.S. divestment movement was “popularized” by Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein in 2012, and, in New York City, 350NY in collaboration with 350.orgnational leadership has played a central role in it.  But she does not explain whether the leadership, NY350, or the larger coalition, or herself as an activist consider the divestment campaign to be a strategy or a tactic and if a tactic then what strategy it is supposed to serve.  Let us briefly consider these questions. 

Just three weeks before Mayor de Blasio announced the planned divestment from fossil fuel with Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein on his side, McKibben (2017) wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times where he recounted some positive news about divestment and financing of fossil fuel projects and he concluded:
"It’s true that no environmental action is possible in Donald Trump’s Washington. It’s also true that congresses and parliaments are not the only halls of power. Finance, not politics, may turn out to be the soft underbelly of the climate monster." (my emphasis)
In this writing, McKibben seems to elevate divestment to the strategic level.  I will return to what McKibben means by “politics” later. But what is the nuts and bolts of divestment campaign anyway? To explain the dire consequences of climate change with the goal of pressuring pension (or other types of) investment fund boards and managers to withdraw funds from fossil fuel stocks and bonds.  As Romer puts it, divestment is a “moral decision.” But pension fund managers are hired for, judged and driven by, the concern for the total rate of return on their investment portfolio, not to for their support of the moral views of investors.  Of course, if a sufficient number of pensioners press the pension fund board members they may exert some influence on the managers' decisions.  

Here is where the element of “luck” which Romer notes in her article enters into the analysis.  Romer does not take notice of this important fact, but luckily for the divestment advocates, total returns on investment in the energy sector which is dominated by fossil fuel companies was a bottom perfumer from March 9, 2009, through March 8, 2017, with 98% rate of return.  In comparison, the benchmark, S&P 500, provided 314%, rate of return over the same period. In a word, fossil fuel investments underperformed far below the broad market. Thus, the financial incentive of the pension fund managers and the moral imperative of the divestment campaigners have aligned to help produce the favorable result. To be sure, no investment board or manager would like to be influenced by political pressure about their investment decisions. Thus, it took five years of campaigning in financially favorable conditions to arrive at the Mayor de Blasio announcement.

But the limits of this “win” for the climate justice movement must be made crystal clear.  First, what if the direction of sectoral profitability would change making the energy sector (dominated by fossil fuel companies) a more profitable investment?  Anyone familiar with the financial markets knows that underperforming sectors would most likely be the over-preforming sectors in the next period.  Would pension fund managers give up higher total returns (financial incentive) for moral incentives?  Would the pensionaries accept a lower income? 

Second, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2013 (the latest data I was able to find quickly but it would do just fine for our purpose here) pension coverage stood at 78% for the public sector, but only about 15% of the 143 million employees were in the public sector. In the private sector, 67% of the unionized workers had a pension, but only 6.7% of the private sector employees were in unions.  And an additional 13% of the private sector employee who was not unionized had a pension.  Thus, workers enrolled in a public or private pension plan were about 40 million out of 143 million, or about 28% of the U.S. working class. Thus, divestment campaign cannot involve well over 100 million, or about three-quarters of the U.S. working class.

Further, New York City is probably one of the most fertile grounds for the divestment movement because it has large private employers, has a significant number of public employees who have pension plans, and labor unions that have traditionally been left-of-center in the American politics.  Thus, the New York City example is hard to generalize across the United States. 

Third, Romer herself reports: “Already there is pushback from the NYC Teachers, Police, Firefighters fund trustees, either rejecting outright the calls for divestment from the mayor or asking for further studies, delaying the process.” The fight to win divestment is far from over. 

Finally, and most importantly, regardless of the activists’ best intentions, the divestment campaign miseducates the working people and the youth by focusing on the false premise that we can use the capital markets and rely on the “climate-friendly” capitalist politicians like Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, to make meaningful, lasting progress to stop the climate crisis.  It actually runs counter to the dire need to explain the social roots of the climate emergency—why we have catastrophic climate change and why is it that for three decades the world capitalist ruling classes and their governments have not done enough to stop it.  

Romer seems undeterred by such concerns.  Instead, her focus is on the comparison of the capital markers as she considers without criticism the NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and the NY State Comptroller di Napoli “shareholder activism” argument that it is better for pension funds to own fossil fuel stocks and bonds as they can affect the decisions made at the corporate boards in contrast to the divestment argument.  She simply notes that “shareholder activism” approach has failed to be effective.  Effective in what sense? As we just saw, she also seems to admit that the “win” registered by de Blasio’s divestment announcement is far from assured.  

A cue from the anti-apartheid divestment campaign?
I hope I have made it clear to the reader that a divestment campaign is really a tactical option and a questionable one at that.  But how about the claim which Romer cites with any comment that the fossil fuel divestment is modeled after the divestment campaign in the 1980s against the South African apartheid regime, which Romer also repeats without critical assessment. 

Unlike the fight against the social and planetary crisis of which catastrophic climate change is just one part, the struggle against the apartheid regime was for a much more modest goal of a “one person, one vote” democratic South Africa.  Still, the African National Congress (ANC) encouraged the divestment campaign as a tactical aspect of its decades-old revolutionary mass struggle, including armed struggle, to implement the ANC ’s revolutionary democratic program (see the 1955 Freedom Charter). Moreover, the revolutionary struggle in South Africa was itself embedded in the larger military conflict between the Apartheid regime and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) that was fighting for independence for Namibia.  The Cuban internationalist military intervention in support of FAPLA (the armed wing of MPLA) was decisive in the strategic defeat of the Apartheid army at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-88 (Gleijeses, 2013).  To pluck the anti-apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s from this context and to claim that the activities of the divestment coalition of climate activists, labor unions, and Democratic Party politicians to move billions of dollars of pension funds from fossil fuel stocks and bonds is modeled after it is a caricature.  The ANC was fighting for a democratic revolution, never claiming that “finance was the soft underbelly” of the Apartheid regime.  And when after its historic victory that revolutionary perspective was lost and the ANC leadership opted for neoliberalism instead of implementing the Freedom Charter in full, the formal equality that was won never ended the misery of the vast majority of the South African black population. The revolution was betrayed.  Thus, the revolutionary movement was the essence of the anti-apartheid struggle and the divestment campaign an adjunct tactic to that fight. We still need a radical (in the sense of going to the roots of the crisis) climate justice movement before we can talk about divestment campaign as a useful adjunct tactic if we want to be true to the 1980s anti-apartheid divestment campaign as an example to emulate. But where exactly are we in building such an independent, self-organized and self-mobilized movement of the working people to stop the climate crisis? 

So what is the strategy? 
The truth is that the leadership of dominant organizations in the climate justice movement do not aspire to build a grassroots movement of working people independent of the capitalist system; they, in fact, think working within the system is the only way to address the climate crisis. 

Let’s us return to McKibben who by almost all accounts is the poster child of the movement.  In his major policy essay “A World at War,” McKibben (2016) reduces the climate crisis to its simplest natural terms: “Carbon and methane now represent the deadliest enemy of all time, the first force fully capable of harrying, scattering, and impoverishing our entire civilization.” It is like the plague or a natural disaster. But we already know that the rise of fossil fuels as the energy source of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization was rooted in the capitalist relations of production and that the climate crisis is just one aspect of the social and planetary crisis.  And if McKibben truly views the climate crisis as historic, why is he reluctant to speak about the “social system” responsible for it, something that philosophers of history since Saint-Simon have focused their attention on?

Once McKibben defines the climate crisis so narrowly, the solution can be surgically narrow as well.  In the same article, McKibben endorses Stanford University professor Mark Z. Jacobson’s claim made purely from an engineering point of view that renewable technologies could replace fossil fuels in the United States by 2050. (see, The Solutions Project; for my discussion of McKibben’s essay, see, Nayeri, September 2016).  If the problem and its solution are so defined outside of the reality of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization, then McKibben “strategy” can be anything he deems pragmatically “sensible” at any given time.  Let me cite the zigzags in his “strategic” thinking. 

You remember that last December McKibben thought “finance, not politics, could be the soft underbelly of the climate monster.”  During the 2016 presidential campaign, he thought “politics,” that is electoral politics, is the “strategy” to follow. So, he supported Sanders’ campaign in the Democratic Party primary and on his behalf he sat on the well-known to be useless Democratic Party Program Committee. When Sanders was denied candidacy at the convention and came out in support of Clinton, McKibben and switched allegiances to her even though she publicly supported fracking (Food&Water Watch organized a rally in front of the convention denouncing Clinton’s support for fracking).  Without any democratic discussion, the national organization was turned into the Clinton election headquarters and many local chapters followed. Of course, was not alone; most other environmental/ecological NGOs did the same.  In this, they followed the lesser evil politics of the supporters of the U.S. capitalist two-party system.  

Before turning to the 2016 presidential campaign politics, however, McKibben and leadership worked on the vanguardist “strategy” of “Break Free from Fossil Fuels" which targeted the "dirtiest" sites for "direct action" in May 2016 (see, for a discussion of this, Nayeri, July 2016).  The largest protests took place in the Philippines with 20,000 and in Germany with 4,000 people. 

In April of 2016, while organizing for the “direct action” campaign, McKibben gave a candid interview to an Australian website (Mitchel, 2016) in which he recounted the earlier evolution of his “strategic” thinking: “I spent a lot of years getting it wrong…I thought we were engaged in an argument” with the fossil fuel industry. “We waited far too long to realise what a fight it was and that there was an adversary on the other side.” Now, however, McKibben told the website that politicians are “pawns” in the hands of the fossil fuel industry and he has decided to go after the “real bosses” (the fossil fuel industry).  Was that an honest political conclusion? No, it was not. It was simply expedient to justify the “direct action” in May 2016.  By June McKibben was up to his eyebrows involved in electoral politics, peddling Sanders and then Clinton.

Anyone who has been watching McKibben should know that he really does not have any strategywhatsoever in the fight against the climate emergency. He is merely trying to appeal to and push if he must, those in the position of power “to do the right thing,” and if unsuccessful he throws a tantrum as in the May 2016 “direct actions." Given the's leadership role in the New York City divestment campaign would it not be prudent for Romer to inquire about the strategy McKibben who “popularized” divestment?  Moreover, Romer does not report of any discussion about strategy in the New York City divestment movement.  As far I can tell, the question of strategy is like the forbidden fruit in the climate justice movement; almost everyone has a tactical preference but nobody reveals what strategy it serves. 

5. Daring to Hope: Wishful thinking or revolutionary optimism? 
Of the three existential crisis we face, the climate crisis has generated an expanding grassroots movement because of its visible impact: extreme weather conditions, rising sea-level threatening shoreline and island communities, and adverse effects on the food and water systems, and undermining sectors of the capitalist economy in the United States and worldwide. In the United States government agencies, including the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies tasked with “national security” have warned about catastrophic climate change.  

Yet, the world governments, especially the U.S. government, have dragged their feet for decades to adopt any effective world policy to confront it.  Contrast the bipartisan policies of the Obama administration and Trump administration have both signed on a plan to spend well over $1 trillion to upgrade the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal, including building new “tactical nuclear weapons” that would make their use much more likely (hence increasing the threat of nuclear holocaust), to their policies toward the existential threat of climate change.  

The 2015 Paris Agreement signed by almost all the world governments, that even McKibben sarcastically called "a good accord for 1995," is based on the voluntary commitment of individual governments. By all accounts, even these modest promises have not been followed as hoped.  Known as the free rider problem, individual capitalist ruling classes and their government has no incentive to limit greenhouse gases pollution while benefitting from burning cheaper or more accessible fossil fuels as long as it does not they do not shoulder its costs.  There is no moral consideration either for the sections of the world population, typically the poorest and most vulnerable, that is already suffering from the crisis or would soon be, or for its impact of the world ecosystems that further undermines their degradation by the anthropogenic Sixth Extinction. 

Yet, the capitalist ruling class is far from united in its response to the climate crisis as the contrast between the Obama administration and Trump administration shows.  A key contributing factor is the social and planetary crisis itself.  The backward-looking faction of the U.S. and world ruling class is retreating to protectionist measures, combined with ultra-nationalist policies, which undermine a global response to the climate emergency.  The more forward-looking sectors of the U.S. and world bourgeoisie, that happen to be the neoliberal globalists, increasingly have been promoting various technological “solutions” to the crisis, which they also promote as business opportunities, through a number of market-based or regulatory policies that individually or in combination are supposed to resolve the climate crisis.  Geo-engineering is their choice to “cool-off” the planet if all else fails. The Paris Agreement was built on such basis. 

The mainstream, dominant climate justice organizations that work closely with the “enlightened” sectors of the capitalist class also share the view that the crisis can effectively be addressed by the market or regulatory reforms and existing and new technologies.  None has ever accepted or much less explained that the crisis is rooted in the very nature of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization. In fact, they have shunned all attempts to introduce the discussion of the root-causes of the climate crisis in the climate justice movement.  Their “leadership role” is limited to criticism of the backward sections of the capitalist class and mobilizing the movement to pressure the “climate-friendly” policymakers to act quicker.  

The grassroots of the climate justice movement is more open to considering systemic change. Understandably, they begin their activism with trying to reform the existing anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.  Thus, Romer concludes her article with the suggestion that “loosening” $5 billons of the New York City pension funds and $6 billion from the New York State pension funds would “create an opportunity” for the labor movement and the climate justice movement to “to provide the capital to contribute to a just transition…” She proposes “publicly owned renewable energy, public transit and public housing” that “could be invested in through publicly-traded bonds with guaranteed returns.” The problem with her visions is clear. Nowhere in her article does she mention the “social system,” capitalism, as being responsible for the climate crisis. And, her attention is focused, perhaps even more than McKibben, on using the capital markets, not just to stop the crisis, but also to affect a “just transition.” The question of what kind of transition we need, who decides what is "just," who is going to lead it, and how it may deal with the exiting the anthropocentric industrial capitalist crisis, do not seem to be her concern.  There is no role for “class struggle” in this perspective, which had been central to prominent philosophers of history since Saint-Simon. 

Thus, it falls on the very small ecosocialist current in the climate justice movement to (1) explain the systemic nature of the crisis and how it is part of the social and planetary crisis generated by the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization, (2) to propose that only a self-organized and self-mobilized movement of millions of working people in the United States and billions of across the globe, in particular in the industrial capitalist countries, can begin to solve the crisis (Nayeri, October 2017; Nayeri, June 2017), and, (3) to provide an action program which will include immediate and transitional demands and can be realized in full only with the assumption of political power by such a movement in conjunction with other social and ecological movements. Only such the massive movement of the working people can begin the process of transition from the present-day crisis-ridden civilization—to an ecocentric socialist society that would provide for the basic needs for human development and effect a much needed retreat of the humanity from much of the globe to allow for the rest of nature to heal itself (Nayeri, July 2017; for my discussion of the Sixth Extinction, see, Nayeri, May 2016; for my discussion the nuclear threat, see, Nayeri August 2015).   

Tactical considerations
Unfortunately, we are still at the very beginning of this world-historic process if it ever unfolds before the impending collapse.  Ecological socialists are a tiny minority.  However, the fact that there is a mass climate justice movement and it is active on many fronts is encouraging.  We must be the best builders of “resistance” to the crisis wherever it takes form, and whatever form it takes in the climate justice and other ecological movements, as well as the social justice movement, as long as it provides the opportunity to build an independent working peoples' movement from below. Let’s remember, ecosocialists are not simply climate justice activists; we are part of the most conscious layers of the working class.  The divestment campaign in New York City and elsewhere is no exception.  As I have explained, it is important to discuss potential and limits of each of such grassroots movements and help figure out the best way forward, including by suggesting alternative, more effective tactics. 

What about the ticking doomsday clock?
The enormity of the world-historic task we face in the twenty-first century is made even more challenging given the existing world political situation.  The widespread turn to populism and neo-fascism in the Global North and increasing authoritarianism in the Global South have convinced some ecosocialists that it is impossible to build the kind of working people’s mass movement that is necessary for resolving the systemic crisis in due time.  

While their sense of alarm is understandable, they commit a crucial logical and political error.  Even if we accept that the U.S. and the world working people will not organize and mobilize independently in sufficient numbers in a timely manner to save the world, it does not follow that the social and planetary crisis which climate change is a part of can be resolved by the very same anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization that has caused it.  Systemic crisis can only be resolved through system change.  

Furthermore, it is not a foregone conclusion that the kind of mass working class radicalization we badly need cannot develop in a timely manner. No one knows when the collapse may come and throughout history, when working people’s radicalization has occurred, it has always surprised the theorists and political strategists from the 1848 European revolution to the victorious West Virginia teachers strike.  Take the case of The West Virginia teachers. As The New York Times reported: 
“With no collective bargaining rights, no contract, and no legal right to strike, the teachers had managed to mount a statewide work stoppage anyway, and make their demands heard, marshal public support, and stick together until they won. And the rank and file, not union leaders, came to call the shots.” Already, teachers in Kansas and Oklahoma are talking about emulating their West Virginia coworkers.” (Bidgood and Robinson, March 8, 2018)
The 1979 Iranian revolution which I had the good fortune to participate in was also a surprise even to those of us who were rooting for it.  That revolution also showed the revolutionary potential of the working people (Nayeri and Nassab, 2006). Not only the Iranian working class was key in overthrowing the U.S.-back Mohammad Reza Shah dictatorship, it also initiated the council movement.  All across the country, in addition to the workplace councils that emerged out of the strike committees during the mass struggle against the dictatorship, peasant councils, oppressed nationalities councils, students councils, and neighborhood councils emerged. These provided a basis for a potentially winnable fight for a government of the working people that could have open the road to socialism in Iran and the Middle East.  A key problem was a lack of confidence in the working class even among the Iranian socialists who in the great majority supported the assumption of power by Ayatollah Khomeini who promptly imposed a clerical theocratic Islamic Republic.  Today almost four decades later, Iran working people are facing the social and ecological crisis as the recent uprising showed and the Middle East is burning in part because of the defeat of the 1979 Iranian revolution (Nayeri, January 2018).

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that summed up the problem we face: “Climate is changing faster than the people.”  The main obstacle to saving the world is our own illusions in the social system we have been born into and must change if we are to save the world. 

Dedication: This discussion essay is dedicated to the activists of the New York City divestment campaign and West Virginia teachers who staged a wildcat strike and won. 

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