by Richard Smith
After decades of empty promises, backsliding, and failed cap and trade and carbon tax schemes, we now find ourselves facing a climate emergency: either we drastically suppress global CO2 emissions, and soon, or global warming will soar beyond any human power to restrain it, ecologies, farming and fishing will collapse and then civilization itself, perhaps before the century is out. To date, all efforts to suppress emissions have foundered on the contradiction between the need to prioritize economic growth over saving the environment. Given capitalism, climate change will kill us in the long run but reversing economic growth will kill us in the short run – and so we keep kicking the can down the road until now we find ourselves at the precipice. This paper proposes a four-point Emergency Plan to suppress both emissions and economic growth in the United States without precipitating economic collapse – by nationalizing the fossil fuel industrial complex with buyouts to phase out fossil fuels, creating WPA-style jobs programs to guarantee re-employment for redundant fossil fuel workers, launching an emergency system-wide transition to renewables, and downsizing the U.S. industrial economy, reducing our “carbon footprint” on planet earth by closing and retrenching superfluous and harmful industries. While this process must of course begin within the framework of capitalism, we envision the from-below struggle to “decarbonize” the economy leading to increasingly radical demands for popular control over economic and political decision-making across the economy tending in the direction of ecosocialism.
- The 2018 IPCC Special Report and the imperative to immediately suppress fossil fuel production
Thelong-awaited IPCC Special Report “Global Warming of1.5°C” (October 7, 2018) described the enormous gap between where we are and where we need to be to prevent dangerous levels of global warming, painting a stark portrait of how quickly the planet is heating up and calling on governments to take immediate steps to suppress emissions:
“If emissions continue at current rate, atmosphere will warm by as much as 2.7° Fahrenheit, or 1.5° Celsius, above preindustrial levels by between 2030 and 2052. Further, warming is more extreme further inland of large water bodies. [To] keep temperatures from rising beyond 1.5° degrees] anthropogenic CO2 emissions [must] decline by about 45% worldwide from 2010 levels by 2030 … [This] would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems … These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale … and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upswing in those options.”
Preventing ecological collapse requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that “has no documented historic precedent.” What would this take? Myles Allen, Oxford University climate scientist and an author of the report said “It’s telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime.” To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming “greenhouse emission must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and by 100 percent by 2050. Use of coal as electricity source would have to drop from 40 percent today to 1-7 percent by 2050.”Drew Shindell of Duke University, another author of the report said: “It would be an enormous challenge to keep warming below a threshold of 1.5 degrees… What might that look like? In part, it would include things such as no more gas-powered vehicles, a phaseout of coal-fired power plants and airplanes running on biofuels,”he said. “It’s a drastic change,” he said. “These are huge, huge shifts… This would really be an unprecedented rate and magnitude of change.” In response to the report, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned world leaders to“Do what the science demands before it’s too late.”
- Capitalist priority to growth and profits over people and planet
Given this unprecedented existential crisis one might expect governments would responsibly meet this climate emergency with emergency plans to prevent ecological collapse, bold proposals for “deep emissions reductions in all sectors,” “far-reaching transitions in energy, land, infrastructure, and manufacturing” and so on. After all, the IPCC 1.5°C Report makes clear that on present trends we could be facing the collapse of agriculture in California, the Great Plains, India, China much of Africa, mass famine, submerging cities, destruction of the world’s last forests and worse, possibly as soon as 2040, well within the lifetimes of many leaders today and certainly their children’s and ours. On February 5th U.K. Met Office meteorologists warned that the climate is warming so fast that global temperatures could exceed 1.5°C, the lowest of the Paris targets set for the end of the century, in five years.
But governments have taken no such steps. Everywhere, suppressing emissions continues to be subordinated to maximizing economic growth. In the longer version of this paper, I explained why, given capitalism, governments have no choice in the matter, whydespite the manifest failure and inherent contradictions of all such efforts at tech fixes (eg. carbon capture) and market fixes (eg. cap & trade and carbon taxes) to date, still they cannot help but continue to promote such doomed strategies.
Halting global warming requires degrowth and substantial de-industrialization in the over-industrialized economies
This paper contends that if there are no tech or market fixes then phasing out fossil fuel consumption has to mean shutting down or at minimum, drastically retrenching companies, beginning with the fossil fuel producers like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Peabody Coal and so on but continuing down the petrochemical food chain through the fossil fuel dependent industries. As this table shows, fossil fuel emissions are generated across the entire economy.
Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2018
Commercial & Residential 12%
Source: EPA: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions
III. The ecosocialist path to 1.5°C sustainability
We ecosocialists have a practical answer. We accept the science that to prevent runaway global warming “greenhouse emission must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and by 100 percent by 2050.” We agree with the IPCC that this will require “deep emissions reductions in all sectors.” We agree that it will require “far-reaching transitions in energy, land, infrastructure, and manufacturing,” that it will require “systems transitions” (indeed, far more than they imagine). And we understand that this must all be done at “unprecedented speed and scale.”
But we also understand that imposing drastic cuts in fossil fuel production has to translate into industrial shutdowns and retrenchments across the economy. Six of the ten largest companies in the Global Fortune 500 are oil companies and auto companies. Given capitalism, how can they suppress their emssions without going bankrupt? But if we don’t phase out the fossil fuel industrial complex, how can we suppress emssions? There is just no way around this contradiction.
I contend that we (society) can radically and rapidly suppress emissions in the U.S. without inducing economic collapseif we launch an emergency plan along the lines of the following:
AN EMERGENCY PLAN TO MEET THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY
- Declare a State of Emergency to suppress fossil fuel production and consumption: ban all new extraction, ration gasoline, ban production of new fossil-fuel vehicles. Nationalize the fossil fuel industry to phase it out. We propose to do this by means of a government buyout at fair value (fair to both owners and society). Nationalize downstream fossil fuel industrial consumers from pipelines, refineries, distribution networks to autos, aviation, airlines, shipping, petrochemicals, some manufacturing, some tourism and others whose business is irreversibly based on fossil fuels and which without a government buyout would be bankrupted.
Of course, many on the left would say why not expropriae the fossil fuel capitalists? But I propose a federal buyout instead because a) With just a decade or so to suppress emissions by 50%, speed is of the essence. We don’t have decades to wage a class war to expropriate fossil fuel capital, b) Roughly a quarter of fossil fuel stocks are held by workers’ pension funds and as socialists we’re not interested in expropriating workers. The path of least resistance, therefore, is to buy out the corporations– a hostile buyout perhaps, but a buyout nonetheless, c) A buyout is surprisingly cheap — and we can make them pay for it themselves. Even if the government paid face value for companies as claimed in their annual reports for 2018,it could buy out the ten largest oil and gas companies (accounting for more than 90% of U.S. production) the two major coal companies (accounting for nearly all coal production), all the airlines, Boeing, all the auto companies, the largest chemical companies (Dow, Monsanto, and 3M), all the privately owned gas and electric utilities – in short, the entire fossil fuel industrial complex and the bulk of the downstream fossil fuel industrial consumers – for just $2.26 trillion. A bargain. As it happens, this total was a just bit less than President Trump’s outrageous and needless $2.3 trillion tax cut for the rich in the same year.And these numbers are based on 2018 stock values. Today, oil companies, coal companies, Boeing and many other fossil fuel dependent industries’ stock values have dropped sharply.Of course there are many ways to pay for public buyouts. But if a Biden government simply rescinded that shameless giveaway to the rich, it could buy out the fossil fuel capitalists with their own money and have billions to spare. What’s not to like about that, from the standpoint of the working class?
- Institute new federal Public Works Administration-style jobs programs (on the model of the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Core and other programs set up under FDR) to re-employ every worker in the fossil fuel-related industries at equivalent pay and benefits in other useful but low-emission work. Those workers in coal, oil, plastics, toxic chemicals and so on, deserve jobs, just not the jobs they have now.
- Launch an emergency state-directed program to phase-in renewable electric generation, replace fossil-fuel powered transportation with electric propulsion, discourage individually-owned vehicles, and encourage public transit, shared vehicles, bicycles and other non-fossil fuel modes of transportation.
4.Develop emergency plans to phase out wasteful, destructive and polluting industries from arms production to needless toxics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals etc, disposables like single-use plastics, designed-to-be obsolesced iPhones, cars etc., and useless inventions. Develop emergency plans to shift from fossil fuel-dependent factory farms to fully organic agriculture.
That’s the plan, or at least one possible, plasusible, not crazy plan. So how could we get there?
- From FDR to AOC: The Green New Deal Decarbonization Strategy
In January 2019, Congressional Representative-elect (D. New York) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC), the whip-smart self-confident 28 year-old DSA-er who won office on the Democratic ticket, rose to the occasion, drafting a proposed Plan published in early November for a Green New Deal she put before Congress. The Plan called for the achievement within 10 years from start of execution the following:
- 100% of national power generation from renewable sources,
- building a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid,
- upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety,
- decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries,
- decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure,
- funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases,
- making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to a completely carbon neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.
“The Plan … shall recognize that a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.”And more.
To be sure, the process of “decarbonization” outlined above was abstract, lacked specifics, and was far from fully worked out. There is no mention of industrial shutdowns, drawdowns, buyouts or nationalization. Perhaps the biggest weakness of AOC’s GND from an ecosocialist perspective is that it’s not based on the fundamental understanding that an infinitely growing economy is no longer possible on a finite planet. There’s no acknowledgement of the imperative need to “de-grow” the overproducing resource-overconsuming economies of the industrial North including China. There’s no acknowledgement of the imperative need to abolish entire unsustainable industries from bottled water to toxic pesticides to disposables to arms manufactures and others.
“Decarbonization”: a self-radicalizing transitional demand
And yet, the audacity and breadth of the technical and socio-economic transformations AOC envisioned call to mind nothing so much as the economic and social revolution that FDR’s New Deal brought about (albeit within the framework of capitalism), and goes beyond it in some respects. With this Green New Deal she is taking the global warming discussion to a new level, changing the conversation, and challenging the political economy. She’s not calling for cap and trade or carbon taxes or divestment or any other market “solutions”. She issued a full-throated call for “decarbonization” — in effect throwing the gauntlet down to capitalism and challenging the system because, as we know, there’s no way to decarbonize an economy based on endless growth, endless resource consumption, and thus endless pollution and CO2 emissions.
I contend that the push for decarbonization must inevitably raise the question of nationalization because, how else can government enforce the retrenchments and shutdowns needed to suppress emissions without precipitating economic collapse? The nationalization of the coal and oil producers, the obvious first targets, would in turn raise the question of what to do about all the industries that are based on fossil fuels – autos, aviation, petrochemicals, plastics, construction, synthetics, manufacturing, shipping, tourism, and so on. And consideration of how to decarbonize those industries would in turn raise larger questions about what society should or should not produce, and who should decide such questions – private companies or society as a whole through democratic processes. Thus as I see it, the push for decarbonization is simultaneously a push for an increasingly radical democratization, and that in turn could open the way to a transition to some form of ecosocialism because at the end of the day, that’s the only way to reconcile the jobs vs. environment dilemma.
There is no Planet B
AOC also made a powerful and explicit case for state planning: She called for a new Select Committee “with a 360° view” to serve the specific function of “examin[ing] emerging issues that do not fit clearly within existing standing committee jurisdictions or cut across jurisdictional boundaries.” The Select Committee requires “a mandate to develop a plan for the transformation of our economy to become carbon neutral.” This was not yet FDR’s Planning Board. It did not even demand the power to order companies to stop producing, say, cars, and shift to producing wind turbines, let alone nationalizing them. But as the environmental crisis deepens, as it becomes more and more urgent to effect radical change, fast, it will soon become apparent that nationalization with buyouts is the only way to force the pace of decarbonization and reallocate capital and labor to the sustainable projects we need while also preventing economic collapse. Of course all this still sounds as wildly utopian today as it did in 2019 under Trump. But it won’t seem so extreme in a few years when the Western states burn up, when Florida sinks under the waves, when food production across the Great Plains and California begins to collapse, when temperatures reach Saharan levels in the Southwest, when people everywhere look for government to “do what the science demands before it’s too late.” There is no Planet B. Let’s hope with a developing vision and monumental mobilization around this Green New Deal we can derail that dystopia and build an ecosocialist civilization to save the human race.
 This is a short version of a paper I published in 2019. The full version is available at http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue87/Smith87.pdf.
 IPCC, “Global Warming of 1.5°”(October 7, 2018): http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_headline_statements.pdf. (italics in original). See also the followup report
 Ibid. Also Coral Davenport, “”Major report describes a strong risk of crisis as early as 2040,” New York Times, October 7, 2018.
 Davenport, “Major report” op cit.
 Mooney and Dennis, “Climate scientists struggling,” op cit.
 Somini Sengupta, “Projection on climate is ominous. Now what?” New York Times, October 10, 2018.
 Jonathan Watts, “Met Office: global warming could exceed 1.5C within five years,” Guardian, February 6, 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/06/met-office-global-warming-could-exceed-1-point-5-c-in-five-years.
 David Rogers, “POLITICO analysis: At $2.3 trillion cost, Trump tax cuts leave big gap,” POLITICO, February 28, 2018: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/02/28/tax-cuts-trump-gop-analysis-430781.
 “Alexa has 80,000 skills and none you need,” Bloomberg Business, March 18, 2019, pp. 22-23.