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Climate Change: What Role For Reform?

Christian Parenti is a professor at the SIT Graduate Institute and Director of the Climate Change, Food, Water, and Energy Program. His essay “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis” appeared in the Summer 2013 Dissent, and was mentioned in Monthly Review (Notes from the Editors,” November 2013)—to which Parenti’s comments here are directed.

It was an honor to have my essay “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis,” from the summer 2013 issue of Dissent, “read with interest” by the editors of Monthly Review, even if the editors took issue with my argument that the timeframe of climate science indicates that getting off fossil fuels must happen starting immediately and be completed in only a few decades.

As Marxists, the editors of MR should be as radical as reality itself, even when that offends intellectual sensibilities and requires a new flexibility. Anyone literate in climate science must admit that the short-term struggle to mitigate carbon emissions is an essential precondition for achieving any other larger, longer-term goal. The science on this is clear: there is no time left to wait, carbon emissions must come down as soon as possible and as fast as possible. By some estimates half of all anthropogenic carbon emissions have happened since 1980, and the rate of emissions continues to increase. Civilization is precariously close to dangerous climatic tipping points. The compressed time frame of climate change forces me to think about emissions reductions in a pragmatic, short-term, and reformist fashion. In other words, first things first.

In the Dissent piece I laid out a number of things that the U.S. capitalist state could do immediately—without passing new laws or begging approval for new funding from the GOP denialists—that would have a significant impact on emissions. Those included using government purchasing (government is more than a third of the U.S. economy) to buy clean energy, electric vehicles, and retrofit buildings for energy conservation—all of which would achieve massive economies of scale, lowering clean energy prices, and thus aiding a transition in the private sector. I also suggested demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) impose a de facto carbon tax (raising costs of fossil fuels) using the post-Mass v EPA expansion of the Clean Air Act.

These measures could be realistic and effective in the short term. They are not my preferred version of social change, nor do they solve all problems. And achieving even these modest emissions reducing reforms will require robust grassroots pressure.

If capitalism can transition off fossil fuels over the next several decades, that will merely buy time to continue struggling on all other fronts; most importantly, on all other fronts of the environmental crisis. The left needs to have credible proposals for dealing with the short-term aspects of the climate crisis as well as having a systematic critique and vision of long-term change. Both should be advocated simultaneously, not pitted against each other. We are compelled by circumstances to operate with multiple timeframes and at multiple scales. Reforms and reformism is an important part of that.

Given the state of the left globally, which outside of Latin America is largely in disarray, achieving socialism will take a very long time indeed. Thus, the struggle for climate mitigation and adaptation cannot wait for revolution.

As for invoking socialism as the cure-all, I am writing this from Bolivia where building socialism—which I fully support—is the official state project. But, as with other such attempts, the process here is extremely difficult: partially blocked at every turn by right-wing opposition, and hampered by five hundred years of imposed underdevelopment. And because the Bolivian Revolution takes place within the framework of constitutional democracy and does not use state terror to consolidate its control, the process is maddeningly slow, plagued by ugly compromises with racist ranchers, concessions to foreign capitalists, and distorted by an economic dependence on exploiting natural gas.

Yet, the Morales government—having re-nationalized natural gas, and imposed an eighty/twenty revenue split on foreign firms operating in Bolivian gas fields—is reducing poverty, infant mortality, and illiteracy, while expanding rural electrification, access to education, health care, and employment. The Morales government’s timeframe for achieving socialism is fifty to a hundred years!

This is one of the most effective and ambitious experiments the socialist left has mounted anywhere on the globe since the collapse of most “actually existing socialism” in 1991. And still, it is incapable of dealing with the climate crisis, nor is it on a fast track to solving all social problems.

My point is this: sometimes class struggle can only achieve reforms. But the relative humanization and taming of some features of capitalism, in some parts of the globe, and the continual rescue of capitalism from its own self-destructive tendencies—though ideologically inadequate for many Marxist and socialists—is actually one of the socialist left’s greatest achievements. For people who receive the benefits of reform—Social Security in the United States, Bolsa Familia in Brazil, a higher standard of living in Bolivia, a massive reduction of poverty in Venezuela—these little victories, though inadequate when measured against the desideratum of socialism, are quite meaningful. So, too, are the environmental reforms which have been forced upon capitalism in the United States. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act (all passed under Nixon due to massive grassroots pressure) have had profound impacts and allowed for significant environmental remediation and recovery at the local and regional level.

A reformed, restrained, rationalized capitalism is not my version of a perfect society—but it is a better system to live under than capitalism with the gloves off. Short-term reformist victories that could mitigate carbon emissions should be taken as seriously as the dire warnings, observations, and predictions of climate science.

There was also a larger point to my essay that the MR editors did not address. By describing policies that the U.S. capitalist state could undertake right now to start euthanizing the fossil-fuel industry, I was also attempting to start a conversation about the state. Once upon a time the state was the heart of the socialist project. But neoliberalism’s anti-statist rhetoric has almost “disappeared” the state as an intellectual object—even on much of the left.

The capitalist state is not just a tool of capital’s rule. It is also an arena of class struggle. As such it is an institution that can solidify and enforce popular political victories over capital. If the struggle for climate justice is to get anywhere it will have to think more deeply about the contradictions of the capitalist state, and how such contradictions can be exploited in the short term. On that point, I hope you would agree.