Class struggle and the climate crisis

The facts are irrefutable. Rainforests burning, glaciers melting. “Once-in-a-hundred-years” floods are occurring with frightening regularity. 

No one can seriously argue against the prognosis of climate catastrophe.

The conversation that matters now is: Who is responsible for it — and who can fix it. Climate is one of the pressing topics that all union leaders should have been speaking about this past Labor Day.

The climate crisis is in every way, shape and form a working-class issue. The wild weather patterns and resulting unnatural disasters leave their heaviest mark on workers, the poor and communities of color. Only the rich have the means to escape the consequences.

Young workers have a lot to face — dead-end jobs, unpayable student debt, police abuse — you name it, they are dealing with it. 

But one of the gravest worries of young people is the climate crisis and what it portends for their very existence — and that of all beings on Earth. As protest signs often read, “There is no planet B.” This earth is the only life-supporting celestial body we have.

It is the capitalist class that calculates short-term economic gain without regard for the huge carbon footprint their profit-taking actions are leaving. 

Coal and oil barons want to sell the nonrenewable, carbon-burning products they extract from the ground. Auto companies want to make vehicles that draw the highest profit, not those with the lowest carbon emissions. Military contractors line up to get on the gravy train of the world’s biggest polluter: the Pentagon.

And how about the utility companies? First Energy lobbied the Ohio state legislature only two months ago for a bill that bailed out nuclear and coal-fired power plants (including its own), while eliminating incentives for renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. First Energy is a major campaign donor to the legislators who passed House Bill 6.

All of this points to what Marxists call irreconcilable class antagonisms. In “Anti-Duhring,” Friedrich Engels referred to “the antagonism, sharpening from day to day, between capitalists, constantly decreasing in number but constantly growing richer, and propertyless wage-workers, whose number is constantly increasing and whose conditions, taken as a whole, are steadily deteriorating.”

The climate crisis has exacerbated this contradiction towards dangerous and previously unimaginable scenarios.

One would be naive to think we can halt climate change by appealing to the profit motive. Capitalists caused global warming and they can hardly be trusted to reverse it, even if one makes arguments that a clean environment is good for business.

The working class, on the other hand, does have the power to protect life on the planet. It is labor who produces everything. Nothing moves without us!

Environmental activists, mostly youth, have called for “climate strikes” later in September. Student strikes may be far more widespread than worker strikes this time around. But the strike is best known as the weapon of labor, wielded at the point of production to force change. 

Strikes have won higher wages, pensions, union recognition and the like. But there are also political strikes, such as May Day 2006, that forced the defeat of an anti-immigrant bill in Congress.

We need to keep the climate strike tactic alive beyond the September 20-27 Global Climate Strike — not just in schools, but on the job and in unions. And the need to fight environmental racism must be part of the discussion.

The climate crisis has made these words of Engels more true than ever: “The colossal productive forces created within the capitalist mode of production, which the latter can no longer master, are only waiting to be taken possession of by a society organized for cooperative work on a planned basis — to ensure to all members of society the means of existence and of the free development of their capacities, in constantly increasing measure.” (Anti-Duhring)

Workers have the world to win.

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