How Climate Change Has Supercharged the Left
Global warming could launch socialists to unprecedented power—and expose their movement’s deepest contradictions.
The climate emergency is stirring radical politics across the world as a new spirit of environmental radicalism energizes left-wing politics. Most notably, the left wings of both the Democratic Party in the United States and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom have committed themselves to programs known as the Green New Deal. Across Europe, the Greens now rival right-wing populists in their political energy.
For the established environmental movement, this surge in attention has come as something of a shock. The original green movement of the 1960s and 1970s had strong radical elements in its social and economic vision. But for much of the 1990s and 2000s, “Big Green” went mainstream. When it came to climate change, government regulation and investment were unfashionable. Market-based solutions focused on emissions trading and carbon pricing were the flavor du jour. Global climate negotiations became a giant diplomatic roadshow.
The sudden mobilization from the left—with its calls for large-scale public investment in the green economy, bans on high-carbon industry, and nationalization of private energy interests—is a radical response to what is undeniably a dramatic situation. But the revived left faces both the old dilemmas of radical politics and the new challenges of a changed world.
The left’s reoccupation of environmentalism is no accident. It is driven by the urgency of anti-capitalist protest in the wake of the financial crisis and the protest movement against the lopsided austerity that followed. It is energized by the extraordinary escalation of the climate crisis, as was made clear by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018. A left-wing critique of capitalism and urgent climate activism are linked as never before.
In 2013, motivated by frustration at the limits of the Obama administration’s climate change policy, the writer and activist Bill McKibben’s climate campaign movement, 350.org, began to direct its fire against fossil capitalism. The huge climate protest in New York in 2014 developed a left-populist discourse, appealing to a public united against fossil capital. The denunciation of neoliberalism in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything gave a manifesto to the new green left. This movement includes the Fridays for Future campaign of school strikes and the Blockadia activist group, for which Klein is the figurehead, which seeks to coordinate blockades of key sites of fossil fuel development around the world.
The new green left restates the inconvenient truth that it is not humanity as such that is responsible for the climate crisis but profit-driven, fossil-fueled capitalism. The consumption habits of a small fraction of the most affluent people worldwide fuel much of this giant machine. The extreme inequality of our age is thus an environmental issue. So is corporate power. It was ExxonMobil and its partners in the fossil fuel industries that conspired to muddy the waters of the scientific debate about climate change, even though their in-house experts had given their management a clear view of the risks.
For 30 years, the basic logic of climate change has been well understood, yet emissions have continued to surge. At this point, radical action is not so much a choice as a necessity. It is conceivable that if there had been a giant push in the 1980s and 1990s, not just into nuclear but into the full bandwidth of low-carbon technologies, we might now be in a position to avoid radical choices. But that was the age of the market revolution; the stage was set for globalization and the giant boom in emerging market growth. A glut of oil, gas, and coal sent energy prices to historic lows. Government research and development on non-fossil energy collapsed.
The world has now left things so late that drastic measures are required. Even if we do not aim for radical social transformation, even if we aim for nothing more than to preserve the status quo, the environmental movement now argues persuasively that we must go beyond the hallowed toolkit of carbon pricing and cap and trade. The climate left argues, instead, for a broad-based push, led by government and backed by a popular coalition behind decarbonization. This push will not only price carbon but ban its use. It will require fundamentally reorienting the energy sector and curbing the excessive consumption of the superrich. If capitalism’s adherence to property rights and markets is allowed to dictate what is possible, the left argues, it will lead us all to disaster.
Not only are the affluent driving the crisis, but as the effects of climate change begin to make themselves felt, the impact will be most severe at the bottom of the social pile. This, too, is a driver for the new green left. After decades of neglect, the challenge is to reinvent the welfare state.
Of course, the climate emergency is not confined to national borders. It is, quintessentially, a global issue. And here, too, the left claims leadership. The left is the only political tendency in the West that has consistently stood for cosmopolitan solidarity and has worked to recognize the legitimacy of the interests and demands of indigenous peoples and the interests of small island and least developed states. Nor is this a matter of altruism alone. If you are going to insist that the Amazon rainforest is not only a Brazilian national asset but a carbon sink for the world, how are you going to avoid the charge of ecoimperialism? Given humanity’s mutual entanglement, building a platform of credible internationalism and solidarity is a political necessity.
What is to be done? The left has thrown itself with new vigor into the environmental struggle with a sense of both crisis and historic opportunity. The question is what tensions this new engagement will expose.
Framing the climate challenge as one of capitalism and deep structures of social inequality has given the contemporary environmental movement a powerful intellectual grip on the problem. It calls on both politicians and the public to think beyond technical fixes and gee-whiz pricing mechanisms that will properly align incentives. But it also raises the question: If the problem is capitalism, what on earth can you do about it? As the saying goes, we live in an age in which it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
It is not for nothing that the historical imagination of the climate left, at least in the Anglosphere, circles around the 1930s and 1940s. The Green New Dealers situate themselves in the narrative that spans the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the trans-Atlantic war effort of World War II, Bretton Woods, the postwar welfare state in Britain, and the Marshall Plan. This history evokes a moment in which progressives answered a historic set of crises, from the Great Depression to fascism, with a concerted program of domestic reform, economic mobilization, and international cooperation. For a spectrum that stretches from the radicals of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 to a Democratic Party centrist like Al Gore, the midcentury moment demonstrates that the left can lead in devising a response to the climate crisis.
Of course, Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, and the postwar Labour government in Britain were not revolutionaries. They did not end capitalism. Indeed, the midcentury moment gave birth to our modern fixation on growing gross national product. But they are also rightly credited with redistribution and a rebalancing of national priorities.
In this same spirit, the left-wing activists who captured the attention of Corbyn’s Labour Party during its annual conference last September advocate their version of the Green New Deal not just as an environmental program but as a vision of a comprehensive industrial and social reconstruction. Cutting emissions will go hand in hand with ending poverty. Limiting gasoline-fueled cars will be offset with free public transport. They will address the entrenched problems of a fuel-inefficient housing stock by building green public housing projects. Likewise in the United States, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her cohorts present their version of the Green New Deal as a program to address the multiple cleavages of inequality and racism that divide American society, linking the climate agenda to the demand for health care for all.
Given prevailing beliefs on the limits of public action, these proposals are radical. But what they amount to, in fact, is a form of social democracy reborn—social democracy with all its temptations to both compromise and mission creep.
The German Greens, the most important environmental party in the world, are a case in point. In the 1980s, a basic conflict between radical “fundis” and pragmatic “realos” animated the party. Today, the realos have triumphed. At last fall’s party conference, they adopted a three-pronged approach to climate change, including stepped-up public investment, which involves modifying the cap on public debt; carbon pricing of 60 euros, or $67, per ton (one-third of the price demanded by Fridays for Future); and tougher regulations. The mere mention of the word “bans” (Verbote), such as on gasoline-fueled cars, was enough to set editorial writers clucking. The climate agenda was flanked by a demand for rent controls, tenants’ rights, and a 12-euro ($13) minimum wage. It is a worthy progressive agenda but hardly one suitable for a revolution—if anything, it’s designed for coalition negotiations with the center-right Christian Democratic Union come the next election. And, by that measure, the compromises have worked. The Greens are riding high in the polls, attracting above all younger, college-educated, white-collar, and self-employed voters.
The political vision of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is quite different, at least if we take its original manifesto at face value. It appeals to an impressive array of disenfranchised and marginalized groups that it dubs “frontline communities.” Both the left-wing of the Democratic Party and the U.K. Labour Party also gesture toward the well-paid, highly skilled blue-collar jobs that will be created by an energy transition.
How organized labor will respond is by no means clear. Labor unions may prefer the devil they know to a gamble on a decarbonized economy. At the Labour Party conference in September, the general secretary of the GMB trade union, Tim Roache, warned that a crash program of decarbonization would require the “confiscation of petrol cars,” “state rationing of meat,” and “limiting families to one flight for every five years.” He concluded: “It will put entire industries and the jobs they produced in peril.” To which Tony Kearns from the Communication Workers Union offered the rejoinder: “There’s no jobs on a dead planet.”
In the meantime, what is clear is that coupling climate change politics to demands for comprehensive social restructuring will create powerful enemies. If linking climate politics to health care brings in blue-collar support for the green cause, it also makes the private insurance industry into an opponent. And this leads environmental activists to ask: Can the climate afford a policy agenda as expansive as the Green New Deal?
When the new U.S. Congress sits in 2021, according to the IPCC we will have nine more years to stave off climate disaster. Given that timeline, does it make sense to start by linking action on decarbonization to the intractable issue of American health care reform? Not if you take the experience of the Obama administration as your guide. In 2009, implacable Republican opposition in Congress forced the administration to sacrifice its environmental program to the legislative priority of health care. Cap and trade, the totemic policy of the centrist environmental movement since the 1990s, was dead on arrival.
This experience points to the deeply ambiguous logic of crisis politics. Summoning the urgency of the climate crisis gives the left a new energy. But if the evocation of crisis is more than a rhetorical device, it must also impose constraints and choices. In a foxhole, survival is paramount, and radicalism fades. Against the backdrop of decades of neoliberalism, it is easy enough to see the attraction of World War II as a historic example of government action. In both the United States and Britain, the left played an important role in the war effort. But it would be naive to imagine that this was a moment of radical opportunity. Labor union activists and social democratic promises were always subordinate to the immediate demands of the war and the entrenched influence of big business. The radicalism of the early New Deal was buried in the war.
The climate emergency is apocalyptic in its implications. Does it leave any room for other agenda items? The militants of the Extinction Rebellion movement deny that anything else matters. Their cause, they declare, is “beyond politics.” They call on their followers to start by mourning the world that is slipping away before our eyes. In Britain, they have taken to sabotaging commuter trains, and in return they have felt the fury of irate passengers. Although individual activists associated with the movement are avowedly anti-capitalist, the movement as a whole is distinctive precisely for its refusal to engage with broader political questions. Extinction Rebellion activists demand people’s assemblies, not specific political commitments. They demand decarbonization by 2025 without offering a program to get there. In this way, they take the logic of emergency anti-politics to its extreme conclusion.
Not surprisingly, there are some on the left who regard them as a millenarian sect. In the midst of a general election in which Labour was campaigning for full decarbonization by 2030, the rebels, as they like to call themselves, launched a hunger strike outside the party’s main office. “This is the first truly shared global crisis,” declared Ronan Harrington, the coordinator of Extinction Rebellion’s U.K. General Election Strategy Group. “It can’t have a left-wing solution.”
Not only do extreme crises force invidious choices. They also make strange bedfellows. In an emergency, you cannot afford to be choosy. Your enemy’s enemy is your friend. Despite the fond imaginings of Ocasio-Cortez and her cohorts, World War II was not won by the New Deal or by digging for victory. The effort on the homefront in Britain and the United States was modest in comparison with that of the other combatants. The dirty work of winning the war against Nazi Germany was done by the Soviet Union and its Stalinist regime at a cost far greater than anything the West has ever experienced.
If the American and British advocates of a Green New Deal are inspired by Roosevelt’s demand to deliver tens of thousands of warplanes, who, one must ask, will win the carbon war on the ground? The basic lesson of the mid-20th-century crisis is not that Western capitalist democracy rose to the challenge. The lesson is that whatever progress was achieved was enabled by an alliance with the protean violence of the Soviet regime, with which after 1945 we found ourselves in a lethal standoff, dividing the world and threatening nuclear annihilation.
The obvious question for the present is the relationship of the new climate left in the West to China. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Popular Front gave shape to relations between socialists, social democrats, communists, and the Soviet Union. What is the relationship of the Western left to the Chinese Communist Party regime today?
The Soviet Union was spectacular in its manipulation of nature. China is even more extreme. The present incumbents in Beijing are the inheritors of the Great Leap Forward, the one-child policy, the most spectacular burst of economic growth and the largest dam-building program in history, an agenda of abolishing poverty for all 1.4 billion of its people, the most complete surveillance system the world has ever seen, and the most serious effort to engineer our way out of the climate crisis. It is not too much to say that the future of humanity depends on the success of Beijing’s climate politics.
Since it inherited the title of the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter from the United States around 2007, the Chinese government, unlike the George W. Bush and Trump administrations, has recognized the need to act unilaterally to cut emissions. Lethal levels of air pollution and crippling congestion in rapidly growing cities have created political pressure to act. The industrial policy advantages of seizing the initiative in solar-, wind-, and electricity-powered transportation are obvious. But in China, too, the energy transition has costs. China’s heavy industrial workforce is gigantic. More workers have been let go from China’s steel mills in recent years than work in the entire steel industry of the West.
In a new era of geopolitical competition with the United States and fears of economic slowdown endangering national stability, the latest round of five-year planning places a new emphasis on energy security over decarbonization. In the first half of 2019, China’s renewable energy investments dropped by nearly 40 percent compared with the previous year, and the next few years will see 148 gigawatts of Chinese coal energy—close to the European Union’s entire output—come online. Coal may be dirty, but it is also cheap and local.
Meanwhile, U.S. and European liberals, faced with China, are divided between a desire to uphold a commitment to human rights, fading hopes of economic and political convergence, and the tug of realpolitik. What is the position of the climate left? History suggests it does not have an alternative to detente with China.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Europe and the Soviet Union built a network of gas pipelines running east-west across the continent. They did so in the face of protests from Washington and warnings that it would leave Europe dangerously dependent on a Cold War enemy. The Europeans argued that energy was if not beyond politics, then aside from it. It was a policy hedged with moral ambiguity. The gas not only flowed through states under repressive one-party rule but earned them precious hard currency. But the Europeans made the investments nevertheless. They wanted the cheap gas, and alternative sources of energy, whether shipped in from the Middle East or generated by domestic nuclear reactors, came with their own risks. And in the long run, the Europeans trusted that the balance of influence in their relations with Moscow would tilt their way. In 1989, West Germany reaped the benefits when Moscow acquiesced to German unification.
The sources of potential conflict between the West and China are obvious and can no longer be put aside as transitional tensions. They extend to the fields of energy and climate. Were China to resume a high-carbon, coal-based growth path, it would be cataclysmic. If it opts for relatively low-carbon imported oil and liquid natural gas, this will force the issue of maritime security. And if it plunges headfirst into renewables, given its size, this will create fierce competition over rare-earth deposits and dwindling copper supplies. But faced with the existential threat of the climate crisis, there are also obvious possibilities for cooperation. A short list would include helping to green China’s international investments as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, cooperating on the administrative procedures necessary to make international carbon pricing work, and defining common standards for green finance. This is humdrum stuff, but it is what a green detente could be made of. For the climate left, there is surely no other option. China today already emits more carbon dioxide than the United States and Europe combined. The West is a junior partner in whatever collective climate solution Beijing and the other emerging Asian powers can live with.
Socialism will always be defined by efforts to tame and overcome capitalism. In the 20th century, it was reshaped by total war, the struggle over decolonization, anti-racism, and the battle for women’s rights. If socialism has a future in the United States and Europe today, it will be defined in relation to these twin challenges: the struggle to mitigate and adapt to climate change while adjusting to the West’s junior position in a rebalanced world. None of the West’s major political ideologies—conservatism, liberalism, or socialism, shaped as they are by the history of the 19th century—are particularly suited to such a future. The only sensible alternative for tomorrow may be the ideology most commonly dismissed as radical today.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 print issue.