The Climate Movement’s Last Stand?

Image by Li-An Lim.

The upcoming UN climate conference (COP 26) will happen amid an escalating climate crisis. After past conferences failed to prevent today’s unfolding disaster, it’s safe to assume that the 26th COP will follow in the ineffectual footsteps of the previous 25 UN climate summits.

Nevertheless, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attempted to influence COP 26 by releasing its report ahead of schedule. Because of the consensus-based process of the IPCC — and the direct influence that oil-rich governments exert during the process — the UN body is notoriously conservative in its projections and policy solutions (often referred to as “the lowest common denominator” in climate science).

The hamstrung IPCC, however, did its best to convey urgency by warning of climate catastrophe unless global emissions are cut in half by 2030 and/or net zero emissions are achieved by 2050.

The Historic Failure of the UN’s COP   

Nobody believes that emissions will be halved by 2030 (they’re actually on track to increase 16% by 2030). Nor is anybody likely to believe that new “pledges” from the coming COP 26 summit — touted as “humanity’s last chance” to avert catastrophe — will make a substantial impact.

Similar rhetoric was used in 2015, where the much-celebrated Paris Accords (COP 21) was packed with pledges but void of follow-through: since 2015 emissions have skyrocketed, setting several new records while pledges were ignored.

The COP’s ongoing failure is rooted in its composition, where a small group of rich nations — steered by the big corporations within their borders — have spoiled any climate progress for 30 years. In 1997 the “historic” Kyoto Accords (COP 3) eventually evolved into a precedent-setting failure, triggered by President Bush’s abandonment of the treaty in 2001.

The United States has been the biggest obstacle to COP progress, a shameful tradition that Biden seems dedicated to upholding. For example, Biden’s recent UN speech urged “strong” but vague action on climate change, though only months earlier he issued 2,500 new oil and gas drilling permits — including 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, making oil-obsessed George W. Bush look sheepish.

Thus Biden’s actions at the coming COP are likely to mimic Obama’s, who famously torpedoed COP 15 (Copenhagen) in 2009. Obama then mostly ignored subsequent COP conferences — another way of ensuring their failure — until COP 21, when he was applauded for the collaboration that became the Paris Accords.

But as the Parisian ink was drying, Obama signed a provision that unleashed a torrent of oil, removing the US oil export ban that helped dam-up oil and gas production. Consequently, the big banks that fuel the oil industry opened up their vaults and flooded trillions into Big Oil’s coffers — helping the US regain its gruesome title of #1 exporter of oil and gas, while making a mockery of Obama’s Paris “pledges.” When Trump pulled out of the Paris Accords he simply ended a farce.

For decades the UN’s COP process has been a series of political games and PR stunts, where rich nations greenwash their military and market competitiveness via the shallowest cooperation rooted in “joint statements” about fake pledges announced via platitude-ridden speeches.

Greta Thunberg was widely ignored when she denounced the COP conferences, reducing them as “opportunities for countries to negotiate loopholes” (big enough for the super-emitters to squirm through). The climate movement has mostly moved beyond the listless COP, using it as a reason to mobilize while expecting nothing substantive to emerge from it. The COP hasn’t been replaced completely only because the movement isn’t powerful enough, yet.

The global protests on September 24th proved, yet again, that the issue has massive, bottled-up energy. But no vehicle of its own. Unless the climate movement overcomes a series of political and organizational barriers the energy will remain handcuffed, in the backseat while the establishment continues driving society towards the cliff.

The Escalating Climate Crisis 

For 10+ years the more-alarmist climate scientists have been on an inglorious win streak, as most climate modeling has consistently underestimated the scale of the ballooning crisis. The book “Discerning Experts” explains why many climate scientists regularly make overly-conservative estimates, which manifest in the UN’s IPCC reports.

Just three years ago the conservative IPCC believed that the critical 1.5 degrees mark could be reached by 2040 — now they suggest it may happen as early as 2030. Regardless of when it’s reached, climate scientists mostly agree that 1.5 degrees is already “baked-in” to existing C02 levels, since there is a lag between peak temperature and CO2 levels, based on the time it takes for the atmosphere to adjust (C02 can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years).

Climate scientists have also underestimated arctic warming, which is now happening 3x faster than the global average, helping to melt trillions of tons of ice decades prior to predictions. Arctic heat is also thawing permafrost 70 years faster than previously predicted (releasing increasing amounts of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide— a greenhouse gas 300x more powerful than CO2).

Climate models also failed to predict the June 2021 “heat dome” event that torched western North America, killing 800 people and as many as one billion marine animals, while fueling enormous wildfires months before fire season. Most climate scientists believe the heat dome — and similar extreme weather events — was caused by a weakening polar jet stream, caused, in part, by melting arctic sea ice.

The July 2021 flooding events in europe also stumped modeling predictions, according to the Guardian:

“The intensity and scale of the floods in Germany this week have shocked climate scientists, who did not expect records to be broken this much, over such a wide area or this soon.”

Similar examples internationally suggest that we’ve already entered a period of rapid escalation of climate change leading us to an increasingly uncertain future.

Changes are happening so abruptly climate scientists and activists are scrambling to stay apace. Just two years ago David Wallace-Wells wrote “The Inhospitable Earth,” a book that was initially accused of “catastrophism” but already feels dated in its predictions and lacking in urgency, since the last two years have again shifted the climate calculus.

A Problem Bigger Than Carbon   

Equally unnerving is that reducing carbon dioxide — while critically important — isn’t the silver bullet it’s often portrayed to be, since other dynamics already unleashed by climate change — called “positive feedback loops” and/or “tipping points” — have started to warm the planet independently of greenhouse emissions.

For example “arctic amplification” causes more heat to be drawn into the Arctic Ocean as reflective ice melts (the arctic sun doesn’t set during the summer months, creating immense energy). This may have dire repercussions, since the Arctic exerts a global cooling effect that has the potential to transform into a global heating effect once Arctic summer ice disappears (some climate scientists believe this may happen by 2030, others believe sooner).

Climate writer George Monibot recently wrote about global climate tipping points:

“Other [climate] systems could also be approaching their thresholds: the West and East Antarctic ice sheets, the Amazon rainforest, and the Arctic tundra and boreal forests, which are rapidly losing the carbon they store, driving a spiral of further heating. Earth systems don’t stay in their boxes. If one flips into a different state, it could trigger the flipping of others.”

Another already-unleashed feedback loop is ever-larger wildfires that emit increasing amounts of C02 into the air — the massive Siberian wildfires burned 40 million acres in one month, much of it covering permafrost, while the western United States and Europe now become infernos every summer (the Australian wildfires of 2019-20 generated 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide).

The Establishment is Minimizing the Crisis 

The climate crisis was red hot when the recent IPCC report was released, but this “code red” was more opiate than siren. Media outlets focused on the “hope” in the report, cheerful that “we have 10 years to make changes” (the public is told every 10 years that they have only 10 years).

The IPCC report distracted from the current crisis by warning about the distant future, 2050 or 2100, far enough out of mind to dilute existing urgency. Governments and media alike have continually minimized the scale and severity of the climate threat, even while it proceeds to devastate ever-larger sections of the earth.

This is why the group Extinction Rebellion included as one of their core demands, “Tell the Truth,” while adding “governments worldwide are failing to act, consistently refusing to acknowledge the serious and imminent threat posed by this twin [climate] crisis.”

Another way the establishment isn’t telling the truth is via climate modeling scenarios. For example, the IPCC says it’s possible to keep global temperature from rising beyond 2 degrees celsius, but seldom mentioned is that these scenarios require “negative emissions technology,” which remains more of a concept than usable tool. Recently the “world’s biggest” carbon capture plant opened, which in one year has the capacity to negate 3 seconds’ worth of global emissions,’ and at incredible expense.  Thus, the UN’s ‘best case scenario’ climate modeling relies on fantasy technology.

Also rarely-mentioned is the political-social consequences of climate change, which have already caused massive climate-related migrations (the US border being one hot spot). Already crop failures are causing famine, especially throughout drought-stricken Africa. Already “historic” floods are occurring regularly throughout China, India, Europe, the United States, etc.

And already there are an estimated 5 million annual climate-related deaths across the globe. Social tensions are escalating while government budgets strain and global poverty worsens, making society especially vulnerable to these now-common climate disasters that promise to worsen (incidentally, 2020 and 2021 were “La Nina” years, known for bringing cooler temperatures than “El Nino” years).

The IPCC report thus warns of a future that is already here, while using nuanced word play to minimize the severity; for example, we are told that “the worst effects” of climate change can still be avoided, leading one to conclude, incorrectly, that climate change can be prevented, when actually the “worst effects” refers to the apocalypse that 2100 will bring if inaction continues — in effect minimizing the already baked-in effects wreaking havoc now and worsening each year.

Net Zero and Other Lies  

UN chief Antonio Guterres recently announced that even if countries reached their current climate pledges — which they aren’t on track to do — the temperature would still rise a catastrophic 2.7 degrees Celsius. His comments were ignored in the US media.

To blunt these and other hard truths the establishment has resorted to clever accounting methods, using the slippery concept of “net zero” emissions.

Reaching net zero relies on creating new, vast carbon sinks combined with technology that sucks C02 from the air (carbon capture) while assuming the world’s big polluters will simultaneously agree to foregore their massive profits in favor of a greener future.

But carbon capture technology is decades away from being “market ready,” while the earth’s major carbon sinks — like the amazon and boreal forests — are being rapidly destroyed. This hasn’t stopped the net zero fantasy from dominating the UN climate conference, readily promoted by the Climate-Optimism Industrial Complex.

The net zero hype that Greta Thurnbeg recently mocked at the UN is yet another establishment distraction, meant to fill the masses with fake optimism at a critical time. A trio of climate scientists wrote a devastating critique of net zero, calling it a “dangerous trap”:

“The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate.”

Often net-zero accounting methods include omitting key industries from the emissions math, such as aviation and shipping, while allowing emissions to be subtracted via “offsets” and other gimmicks meant to excuse the ongoing use of fossil fuel, all of which allows the definition of “zero” to get endlessly re-adjusted.

Sensing opportunity, many corporations jumped on the net zero bandwagon. Amazon, Walmart and others sent press releases to great fanfare, many promising “net zero by 2050.” Aside from being decades too late, the big corporations are rooted in huge supply chains that would cost trillions to retrofit. An easy bet is that corporate net zero is more PR stunt than action plan (perhaps the dumbest part of net zero is trusting corporations and nations to follow through on their “pledges”).

Net zero may be a useful concept in the future, but currently it’s being used — alongside “negative emissions technology,” geo-engineering, carbon tax schemes, etc. — to instill false hope in the establishment’s solutions while minimizing the urgency of the crisis, since otherwise people would demand real solutions, or revolution.

A cleareyed look at the crisis leads one to quickly conclude — as the IPCC even suggested — that a profound economic transformation is required to meet the challenge of climate change that must be completed by 2030, not just to prevent “the worst effects” of climate change, but to adequately respond to the existing, escalating crisis.

The barrier to this outcome is that billionaires control giant banks, Big Oil, and other corporations who benefit from the profitable status-quo. Until their economic power (the basis of their political power) is directly challenged, no amount of begging governments to take action will result in anything but more fake promises, extended timelines, and fancy gimmicks.

The Climate Movement at the Crossroads 

A strategic misstep of the climate movement has been its inability to give the issue urgency, resulting in a demobilizing approach similar to what the establishment achieves via propaganda. Many in the movement still talk about the future crisis rather than the parachute-less freefall already underway.

The movement has shied away from a more agitational approach for fear that people will be immobilized by the fear generated by science. The urge not to “scare” people and to be “hopeful” only dillutes urgency, which is a critical ingredient of organizing (false hope is arguably more dangerous than no hope).

It’s true that fear can lead to inaction, but only when proposed solutions seem ineffectual, combined with a strategy that doesn’t include a path to victory.

Ultimately it’s the job of the climate movement to examine the sedated recommendations of the IPCC and the media’s fake optimism while explaining “why” governments are incapable of drastically reducing emissions, while also proposing concrete demands capable of mobilizing the broader public towards real solutions.

New climate goals pursued with new demands must be discussed that, if realized, can pivot the economy sharply so that future climate shocks can be absorbed rather than devastate.

An action plan starts with a goal. Too often the climate movement adopts the fantasy goals of the establishment, including “fixing” climate change; pretending that the evil genie actively terrorizing millions was still safely sealed in its bottle.

By accepting that climate change cannot be prevented — since it’s already here and guaranteed to worsen — we are freed to do the important work of actually preparing for the worsening effects, such as large-scale human-focused adaptation, while putting forth an anti-capitalist political program capable of quickly steering the economy to eliminate fossil fuels and other greenhouse gasses, in order to prevent the wholesale destruction of the earth by 2100, or sooner.

The Capitalist Path to Extinction  

Among the biggest challenges of the climate movement is its economic-political ideology that limits effective, transformative demands.

The most popular solutions to “fix” climate change — from think tanks, media, the UN, etc. —  involve rich entrepreneurs in one way or another. In 2021 it remains taboo to state the obvious: that the corporations that dominate the global economy — whose purpose is to increase shareholder value — cannot be a credible part of fixing the problem they created.

Academia, journalists, climate scientists and activists alike have been captured by a free-market mindset, trying to conjure-up climate solutions that are also profitable — since how else does one attract the rich investors hoarding the majority of the earth’s wealth? This is the essence of the problem. Every new climate innovation attracts much optimistic media attention while failing to attract the capital investment that might make the innovation meaningful.

Even the UN’s IPCC is consumed by free-market ideology, reflected in their Working Group 3 that advises governments on policy solutions. Many of the authors of Working Group 3 include free market economists from elite universities while others are employed by companies such as Chevron, Toyota and Saudi Aramco.

Chapter 15 of the Working Group 3 report is entitled “Investment and Finance,” which includes sections such as “Climate-Related Investment Opportunities and Risks” and “Linkages Between Finance and Investments in Adaptation and Mitigation.”

There’s little hope of transformative change if you believe there’s a central role for Wall Street and other billionaire investors, who have a strong self-interest in changing nothing.

Capitalist economics cannot adopt a climate-first approach because doing so is overwhelmingly unprofitable — and profit is the motorforce of capitalism, not simply a byproduct. All “economic activity” of capitalism depends on capital flows — and capital only flows when rich investors release it from their death grip, which they only do when they expect a return (profit) on their investment.

Endless proposals to create “markets” to attract eco-capital have resulted in symbolic success, but investing in the climate’s destruction remains vastly more profitable than the risky, low-profit projects meant to save it.

It’s true that market schemes like “cap and trade” or carbon pricing have had some positive effects, and if they had been implemented on a broad scale in the 80’s perhaps it wouldn’t be a lie to call them solutions in 2021.

Even Bill Gates — who the establishment regularly goes to for climate solutions —  acknowledges that we are nowhere near using market logic to create an economy of net zero emissions. Gates admits that the nearest industry to the goal — and still a long way off— is the automobile industry, whose very existence would be threatened by what the climate actually needs: massive investments in public transit.

The Economic Basis of Cooperation

Another capitalist barrier to climate action is the competitive DNA flowing through the market economy. Such genes are good for aggressive fighting — up to and including war — over global market share, raw materials and labor exploitation, but a different animal is needed to address climate change — one bred for collective action.

Everyone agrees that collective action between nations is a critical element to address climate change, but after decades of failures this problem is still unsolvable, having sunk dozens of COP conferences and dooming the upcoming one in Scotland.

The rich nations that dominate the COP compete among themselves over who gets to dominate the poorer ones, in an endless fight over markets and resources steered by large corporations. Because it’s obvious that nothing productive will emerge from the coming COP, some have proposed that a better option is reducing the parties to two — China and the US.

These two nations alone actually could steer the globe in a new, greener direction, but instead they’re on the warpath: Biden completed an anti-China military treaty between the US, UK, and Australia — prior to his speech to the UN about cooperatively tackling climate change, surpassing the hypocrisy of his predecessor.

A Capitalist or Socialist Climate Movement? 

Because confronting climate change requires a transformation of the economy, any serious climate movement must be a revolutionary movement, i.e. an anti-capitalist movement. Too often the  movement recognizes the transformative task it faces while failing to connect the dots from rhetoric to goals, to demands.

The US corporate sector has long known that the climate crisis is a capitalist crisis, and for decades strategically directed their propaganda against socialist solutions. The origins of this story is told in “Merchants of Doubt,” where Big Oil and rightwing media waged a relentless PR campaign, demonizing the only effective economic solution to the problem of climate change.

The middle-class academics who led the climate movement matured amid cold war hysteria, and were thus susceptible to Big Oil’s anti-socialist talking points. This dynamic steered the movement towards establishment politics, market-based solutions and individual responsibility — carbon footprints, eco-consumerism, etc. — helping to kettle activists into today’s cul de sac.

The challenge of capitalism can’t be tiptoed around, since doing so results in mis-diagnosing the problem, leading to false solutions. For example, academics often shift the focus from capitalism to its manifestations, such as the “monetary system,” “neoliberalism,” “extractivism,” or “unfettered capitalism” — all of which can be conveniently addressed, say reformists, within existing capitalist property relations, where billionaires retain their grip over the economy, and thus politics.

Capitalism is not simply a mindset that can be shifted from greed to cooperation, it’s a relatively new system of production and distribution, where corporate ownership of society’s key industries are inscribed into law and enforced by the police, and military — a dynamic that is assumed to be “good” within the COP conference.

Organizing for Transformative Economic Demands  

To win a ‘just transition’ and/or revolutionary Green New Deal requires targeted death blows against the big polluters: oil, gas, coal, cement, transport, Big Ag, etc. — in an effort to pivot the economy swiftly towards climate justice.

The quickest and most effective way to tame the big polluters is nationalization — via either government investment or expropriation. This demand is still marginal in the US but its popularity is increasing, since it would enable major polluters to be swiftfully and planfully drawn down and/or retrofitted, while using the massive income from these industries to fund various climate goals — rather than have the profits continue to go to billionaire polluters.

In her book “Overheated,” journalist Kate Aronoff writes convincingly about the need for nationalization:

“…Do we trust the companies that have spent decades delaying action on climate and spreading misinformation about its existence to steward a transition off fossil fuels, as they claim they will? To value the urgency of the climate crisis and the needs of their workers over the interests of their shareholders? If the answer is no, nationalization is our best option to decarbonize as quickly as is needed to avert catastrophes both economic and ecological.”

Nationalization of industry — under workers control — is also needed to prevent these industries’ profits from corrupting the politicians who’ve prevented climate progress for decades. Only 100 mega-corporations are responsible for a super majority of global emissions; they cannot be allowed to exist as planet-destroying playthings for the super wealthy, no matter their empty net zero rhetoric.

Nationalization of the big banks is also a necessary step to transform the economy, since the banks have thousands of financial ties to the oil, gas and other polluting industries (an oil industry that shutters means Wall Street loans don’t get paid back). The big banks have always been the motorfore of economic-political conservatism in US politics.

Ironically, the US financial system is already defacto partially nationalized: since 2009 the federal government has propped up the financial industry with an endless series of bailouts and trillions in “quantitative easing” (printing money) — tactics that amount to a China-level involvement of the financial system, yet without the giant public infrastructure — like high speed rail — that China has to show for it.

Bringing Wall Street under public control would help consolidate the funding needed to begin to transform society, since decarbonizing the major industrial sectors of the global supply chain will cost many dozens or hundreds of trillions of dollars.

For the same reason the wealth of the superrich must either be highly taxed or expropriated; capital simply cannot be recruited or organized effectively to perform the movement’s historic task without nationalization/expropriation, while the concept of “just transition” is laughable with the current, historic levels of inequality.

Nationalizing core sectors of the economy will also allow for economic planning, without which no effective climate action plans can be created. Only economic planning — as opposed to disorganized free market capitalism — can swiftly pivot the economy in a new direction. The painfully slow market approach has achieved very little in 30 years, nor do we have 30 more to risk this capitalist fast track to apocalypse.

China’s ability to pivot economically is — while imperfect because of capitalist market integration —  the result of economic planning, made possible by having large sectors of its economy nationalized, especially finance.

It’s so obvious by now that the market economy cannot address climate change that even the Financial Times — among the most influential voices in pro-capitalist thought — acknowledged this defeat in an article advocating central planning:

“Tackling climate change requires transforming at least five provisioning systems: energy, transport, buildings, industry and agriculture. The price mechanism [the market economy/capitalism] struggles with coordinating rapid transformation at this scale.”

By admitting this the Financial Times undermines a 100 years of its own propaganda.

A key demand of the “climate strike” movement implies the need for economic planning, in order to “Transform our economy to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2030 and phase out all fossil fuel extraction…”

Transformative demands like these require the necessary economic demands — like nationalization/planning — to make them realistic, since otherwise we might as well demand that US capitalism manufacture unicorns.

Successful Movements Mobilize Society 

A key organizing weakness of the climate movement has been its sepratist mindset — detached from other social movements and the broader working class. Rather than struggling against the establishment, many in the climate movement attempted to seduce it, since “climate affects all of us.” But not equally.

Those with more resources are less affected when disaster strikes. The wealthy believe that they will outlast the rest as the climate crisis deepens, eventually escaping to floating cities or even space (yet another reason to nationalize Amazon).

Nationalization, economic planning and other structural demands can be popularized by linking them to existing movement demands. Expropriating Wall Street, for example, can be linked to forgiving student, credit and housing debt — and to fund a socialist Green New Deal.

Peace must also be a key demand of the climate movement. Not only because the US war machine is a massive polluter and unaffordable, but because without international cooperation — especially with China — there can be no global climate progress. Peace is fortunately a populist demand with existing movement energy to connect with.

The climate movement could also engage the broader public by mimicking  the “World People’s Conference on Climate Change” that brought social movements together last year in Bolivia, and that in 2010 created the Cochabamba Accords (the climate plan of the global south written in explicit opposition to COP 15).

A similar conference — or perhaps a series of mass meetings that act as emergency climate summits — could engage with US labor and community groups and help educate, organize and bring broader layers into the movement. These kinds of spaces have the ability to discuss and vote on platforms capable of mobilizing the public in the fight for the future.

A movement that focuses on climate change resilience also has the potential to engage the public in struggle: insistenting that everyone has healthcare, safe housing, transportation, and other resources needed to survive not only the climate but the challenges of daily life.

The climate movement must make itself indispensable, now, to the needs of millions of people in order to build the power capable of winning the necessary, revolutionary demands needed to repel the beast of climate change currently breaking through global society’s front door.

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at