Better Red than Dead: An Idiot’s Guide to Ecosocialism
*Extremely Shouting Into the Void Voice* I‘d rather not be swallowed up by the sea if that can be avoided, thanks
My first instinct is to jump right in with the numbers. Feet of sea level rise, anticipated days above 90ºF, acres of habitable land to be lost—these are the harrowing figures of the climate crisis, the numbers so often invoked to demonstrate the enormity of the challenges ahead. This is what’s going to happen to us, us climate-change-phobes shout, so why aren’t we—why aren’t you, in our less clear-headed moments—doing anything about it?
But I won’t start there, because I’m not convinced it would do anything other than expose my stubborn reliance on imperial units. Not only do such alarming data points do nothing to convince the skeptics who write them off as left-wing propaganda, they can often have the effect of desensitizing and demoralizing even the most climate-conscious among us. How do we even conceptualize what an estimated $54 trillion (,000,000,000,000) in climate-change-induced environmental damages would look like?¹ And how are we supposed to reckon with these daily reminders of our planetary doom when everyone expects us to keep showing up at work like normal?
Even I delete a half dozen breathless emails about carbon emissions and fracking setbacks every week, and I’m the one who’s about to tell you that immediately restructuring the global economy to address climate change is our only shot at preserving a (semi)livable planet. Don’t worry, we’ll work our way up to it.
Ecosocialism For All (Well, Almost All)
As an aside, the point of the activity here is not to sway your belief in the reality of climate change. If you’re not on board with the triple premise that greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere, that humans have done the bulk of the work in putting them up there, and that doing so is going to change our climate in ways we’re simply not equipped to deal with, then I don’t know what I can say that will make you think differently.²
Maybe that’s a failure of imagination on my part. Maybe it’s a failure of empathy. But at some point, all I can do is fall back on those numbers, or show you testimony from folks who are currently living with the consequences, or direct you to smarter people who have already done the work much more eloquently than I could ever hope to.³
So if you want to leave now, just remember that your friendly neighborhood ecosocialists are just that, and don’t want to fight you. Our enemies (and they are our enemies) are the ones who know full well that climate change is happening and yet continue to drill/cut/burn because it suits their profit motive. Don’t forget, Exxon knew anthropogenic (human caused) climate change was happening almost 40 years ago and has spent decades and millions since trying to convince you otherwise. We think you’ll find that you have more common cause with us than with them.
So I hope you’ll stick around anyway. I don’t know how to convince you that things are going to get worse, but I do have some ideas on how we can make things better—in ways that include but also span far beyond preventing our own extinction. Ecosocialism is a scary word, but it’s all about making a more livable world for everybody — except for the oil guys, of course. This probably doesn’t end well for them.
Ecosocialism Now (Please!)
Rather, this guide is for those folks who see the effects of climate change on the horizon—or for those a bit further ahead in the game, who recognize we’re already one foot over the edge—and who are looking to join in the fight before it’s too too late. Oh, for the days when joining the climate fight meant biking to work and starting a compost pile! Those are great places to start, but the science makes it clear that individual choices alone will not get us anywhere near the greenhouse gas reductions necessary to halt our momentum.
Meanwhile, you’ve likely come to the creeping realization that those with the power to make substantive change simply aren’t getting the job done. The Trump administration’s hostility to any green measures that would cost jobs or increase the regulatory burden on polluters has has been well documented. (A stunning recent report by the NHTSA went so far as to say that stricter vehicle emissions standards won’t put a dent in projected global temperature rise, so why bother setting them in the first place?) But that’s hardly an aberration. Previous administrations, as well as today’s Democratic party, should likewise be held to account for their nominal or partial commitments to climate-forward policy.
Meanwhile the 2015 Paris Agreement, the closest thing we currently have to a global climate plan, has been rightfully derided as insufficient. Not only would the guidelines in the document—which call for all nations to keep warming “well under” 2ºC from preindustrial levels—leave many coastal communities underwater, they also lack any binding mechanism to force signatories to comply. With the US set to withdraw from the agreement by 2020, there is no hope of achieving even those modest goals.
It’s a dire picture, one brought into even clearer focus by a report released this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Commissioned by the United Nations to advise policymakers in the wake of the Paris Agreement, the IPCC report is perhaps the bleakest assessment yet of our climate future, and the monumental project we must embark on in order to maintain a habitable planet.
In a nutshell, the report explains that we are well on the path to 1.5ºC (2.7ºF) of temperature increase within the next 20–30 years, having already caused about 1ºC of anthropogenic warming with an anticipated increase of 0.2ºC per decade at the current rate.
The effects of 1.5ºC warming, per the report, could plunge us into a full-blown climate crisis as soon as 2040. And allowing ourselves to reach the Paris-approved 2ºC standard, as leaders of at-risk communities have warned us for years, would be much, much worse (all emphasis mine):
Poverty and disadvantages are expected to increase in some populations as global warming increases; limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared with 2°C, could reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050 (medium confidence).
But the most arresting part of the IPCC report is its assessment of what would be necessary to limit warming to the still disastrous 1.5ºC level:
Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure…and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors…These options are technically proven at various scales but their large-scale deployment may be limited by economic, financial, human capacity and institutional constraints in specific contexts, and specific characteristics of large-scale industrial installations.
We’ll dig into the specifics a bit further down, but the upshot is clear; to halt climate change at (merely) critical levels—as opposed to extinction-level ones—we need to overhaul our established patterns of production and consumption, and we need do it s̶o̶o̶n̶ now. Depending on our ability to scale certain highly experimental carbon capture solutions, the report pins our deadline for completing this transition somewhere around 2030.⁴
So what might these “unprecedented” and “far-reaching transitions” look like? I can’t pretend to know for sure. But using system change to overcome the economic and institutional hurdles that are pushing us towards a warming planet sure sounds like ecosocialism to me.
I’ve been drifting towards ecosocialism for a little while now (everybody gets a little bit radicalized in their 20s, right?), but the the IPCC report has been a tipping point for me. If its conclusions are anywhere near accurate, then those terrifying outcomes will be a reality not for my children or my grandchildren, but for my lifetime.⁵ With twenty-odd years to go before things get really dodgy, this really could be my mid-life crisis. And remember, catastrophic sea level rise, deadly heatwaves, and species extinction are the best case scenario. How confident do you really feel that we’ll have weaned ourselves off of coal and oil dependence in a decade?
With the knowledge we have now, inaction is no longer a viable option. Nor, evidently, is continuing to push incremental changes like electric vehicle subsidies, carbon trading, or…banning plastic straws? Really? That’s our plan?
The fundamental assertion to be made here is that our current economic system isn’t equipped to respond to a threat like climate change. And before you argue that this or some future climate report will finally wake us up to the fact that our free market solutions aren’t working, just remember that the UN has been working to establish a comprehensive climate plan since 1992, and look at how far that’s gotten us.
So this is my attempt at outlining what I believe to be the most viable framework for meaningful, systemic change. I’m not a climate scientist or an economist by any stretch. I’m sort of a journalist, if we’re being charitable. I’ve only just dipped my toes into socialist thought. And I’ve been looking for full-time climate-related work but haven’t gotten so much as a nibble (though you can help change that, if you’d like). I’m basically just depressed AJ Soprano with a better bibliography.
Nevertheless, this is the best way I can think of to make myself useful, by repackaging some very smart thoughts by some very smart folks who have been thinking about this for a lot longer than I have. So here goes nothing.
The “Eco-” Part
I’d like to start by diving a little deeper into the IPCC report and its implications. This is about as clear-eyed a description of what climate change will look like as you’re ever going to find, so it’s worth your read if you have the time. (If not, just wait a decade or two and you’ll get a firsthand viewing.) I’m working primarily from the abbreviated summary for policymakers, but you can find the full document here if you like.
As stated above, human-caused climate change has already increased global temperatures by about 1ºC, though specific trends vary by region. The “good” news here is that emissions up to this point are unlikely to push us past the 1.5º threshold, and that reaching net zero CO2 emissions would effectively halt any further warming (though there would still be manifold other environmental effects to deal with, like ocean acidification). In other words, there is no scientific reason we can’t put a stop to climate change provided we can take the appropriate steps—for a bit longer, anyway.
That said, it would be ludicrous to think that we could reach net zero emissions right now, or even by this afternoon. Taking 1.5ºC as an ambitious but achievable goal, the report lays out a course toward 45% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050. Time is of the essence here: every fraction of a degree above the 1.5 target, known as “overshoot,” would require a heavy reliance on unproven carbon dioxide removal strategies to bring us back to that level, each of which comes with its own tradeoffs and failure risks.
So, taking for a moment the assumption that we can hit the brakes in time, what should we expect a 1.5ºC world to look like?
Climate models project robust differences in regional climate characteristics between present-day and global warming of 1.5°C… [including] increases in: mean temperature in most land and ocean regions (high confidence), hot extremes in most inhabited regions (high confidence), heavy precipitation in several regions (medium confidence), and the probability of drought and precipitation deficits in some regions (medium confidence).
Some of these impacts would be “long-lasting or irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems (high confidence).” The effects of these changes are far-reaching: worsening freshwater scarcity, failure of maladapted plant and animal species, and stronger storms are just a few of the secondary effects named in the full report. And the blockbuster feature, sea level rise, will continue “well beyond 2100…[in the] range of 0.26 to 0.77 m by 2100 for 1.5°C global warming,” (roughly 1–2.5 ft).
I won’t go into the figures for 2ºC temperature rise, except to say that they are orders of magnitude worse and more permanent.⁶ Attempts to make meaning of this report require a certain cognitive dissonance: the best-case-scenario is almost unthinkably bad, but the slightly-less-best-case scenario is almost unthinkably worse.
The report is also careful to note that adaptation is going to be a necessary consideration for any level of climate change, no matter how good a job of mitigation we do, and that the universe of adaptation strategies will have drastic effects on quality of life in our warmer world:
Adaptation options…can provide synergies and cost savings in most sectors and system transitions, such as when land management reduces emissions and disaster risk… Trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation…can undermine food security, livelihoods, ecosystem functions and services and other aspects of sustainable development.
In other words, we are going to face some painful choices (costing on the order of $900 billion per year through at least 2050). Add to that the enormous lifestyle changes involved in decarbonizing our society, and you can see why this is such an unwieldy political project. At the same time, well-thought-out redistributive strategies could actually end up improving the lives of millions and reducing global inequality.
Wouldn’t It Be Easier to Block out The Sun?
But before we talk about what those strategies might look like, I should mention one more concept you’re going to hear a lot about in the coming years: geoengineering. This is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of proposals to supplement or replace emissions cuts with other interventions for cooling the earth.
Broadly speaking, these interventions fall into two categories. The first is greenhouse gas removal, which should be pretty self-explanatory. The range of specific solutions, however, turns out to be fairly broad. Planting trees to capture CO2? Likely insufficient, but great. Fertilizing the ocean with iron particles to encourage the growth of carbon-eating plankton? Uh, maybe. The IPCC report includes varying levels of greenhouse gas capture in its projections, on the assumption that we can find sustainable and scalable models for doing so (reminding us of the above warnings about equitable choices).
On the other end of the spectrum is Solar Radiation Management (or Modification), which drives us right up to the limits of sci-fi territory. Want to spray the stratosphere with reflective sulfates to block out the sun? Launch ginormous mirrors into orbit? Cover the deserts with heat-reflecting white cloths? Then these are the climate solution for you. I can’t really do justice to the variety of semi-sensical solutions or the oddly incestuous world of techno-saviors who back them, so I’ll refer you to Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, which does an excellent job of sorting through the various proposals (and making a highly compelling case for ecosocialism in general).
Klein encourages a healthy skepticism of SRM and its proponents, and she’s far from alone in that regard. Even before we can evaluate the feasibility and functionality of the science itself, consider that it’s virtually impossible to model these proposals before putting them into effect on a global scale. To make what I’m sure is a flawed layperson’s analogy, think about how much trouble we have predicting the weather in one city even a week in advance. Now imagine modeling climate patterns around the globe, on a decadal scale, under experimental conditions.
The models we do have, and the natural analogues on which they are based (i.e. the Mt. Pinatubo Eruption, for sulfate spraying), offer additional reasons for caution. Volcanic eruptions may result in lower temperatures in nearby areas, but they have also been shown to affect rainfall patterns half a world away. Now consider that analogous experiments would likely be put into place by North American and European scientists; what effect might this have on agriculture in an increasingly vulnerable Global South?
Elsewhere in the ethical mire of SRM, one wonders whether emissions-independent solutions to climate change might disincentivize polluters from cleaning up their act. Not to mention we’d still be left to deal with our acidifying oceans and rapidly drying aquifers, among other peripheral effects of unchecked human use.
Now, it’s certainly not so cut and dried; SRM may well become a viable part of the mitigation mix as the science continues to advance. And with every passing year that emissions targets remain unrealized, these sorts of creative solutions will become more and more necessary. But given their uncertain side effects—and the existence of proven, widely available clean energy alternatives—we should be careful to treat them as the plan B that they are. The IPCC report concurs:
Solar radiation modification (SRM) measures are not included in any of the available assessed pathways. Although some SRM measures may be theoretically effective in reducing an overshoot, they face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks, institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development.
The “Socialism” Part
Knowing what needs to be done to halt climate change and what a monumental undertaking that project is sure to be, how do we get there? I’ve danced around the C word and the S word for a little bit, but if you’ve made it this far then you’re ready to hear them:
Capitalism can’t solve climate climate change. (Eco)socialism can. Might. At least it gives us a chance. Again, I don’t pretend to be an expert on any of this. But, dogma aside, the evidence against capitalism is pretty compelling.
Capitalism and the Climate
Under capitalism, corporations have an imperative to create value for their shareholders, by way of constant growth. Going green, then, is only justifiable if it a) cuts costs or b) increases profits. That’s not an ethical critique, it’s just good business. If making factories more energy efficient reduces overhead or a green PR effort boosts sales, for example, companies will gladly make those efforts. But if the savings associated with dumping waste into the ocean are greater than the expected penalty for being caught, you better believe they’ll do that too.
The problem—as it relates to climate change—with how capitalism measures value, is that harmful externalities (i.e. asthma-inducing emissions from fracking) aren’t factored into the bottom line. Never mind that no one makes a profit in an overheated world; oil companies would much prefer to make a buck—or a few billion bucks—today and take their chances a century down the line, when future generations are on the hook for the costs. And they’re economically justified in doing so. Congratulations, you just learned about discounting!
This is where political interventions enter the conversation. Why couldn’t the government just impose a carbon tax on polluters, to make these costs real? They could! And in fact many countries—the US and China notably excluded—do. But the question of incentives sneaks in here again; powerful coal and oil lobbies pour millions of dollars into allied campaigns, dissuading would-be climate-friendly challengers from threatening their investments or their lucrative subsidies. That said, numerous new groups like the Sunrise Movement are doing good work to support candidates who swear off these donations.
Carbon taxes are a great idea, and an important part of any viable climate plan, but they’re not going to happen current system. Not when the IPCC estimates that rates could reach as high as $27,000 per ton of CO2 by the end of the century. The Trump administration, by comparison, estimates the damage of a ton of CO2 at $7.
Another World is Possible
If only there were an alternative system, one that could restructure these incentives and political entrenchments so that we might have a chance to slow the rising seas. Enter ecosocialism.
Don’t be afraid! An ecosocialist world looks different, sure. And I guess, if you’re a billionaire, maybe your fear is warranted. But you’ve had your chance to fix this and, frankly, you pretty much blew it. Thanks for giving Amazon workers $15 an hour, at least.
Let’s be clear though, saving our own bacon is going to have its costs. Own a beautiful house in the suburbs? Love flying to Sun Valley every weekend? Can’t stand the idea of public transit? Sorry about it, but you’ll have to adapt. That’s not really socialism’s fault though, it’s a legacy of our insatiable hunger for growth. Those luxuries are going to be gone soon either way.
So here’s your choice: keep enjoying your mansion for another couple of decades until it’s violently wrestled away in a struggle over the last remaining habitable land, or help to build sustainable, livable, transit oriented communities that your grandchildren will live to enjoy. Ecosocialism or barbarism has become something of a rallying cry for the movement, and it’s not hard to understand why.⁸
Merely safe, affordable, and sustainable living may be a tough sell for a certain segment of the population, but it would certainly be an upgrade for many more. Ecosocialism calls for a global movement, improving the living and working conditions of billions (and we haven’t even talked about the immediate health benefits of cleaning our air and water).
Like any good plan, ecosocialism has just three steps. First, seize the means of production.⁹ It’s a socialist mainstay, and for good reason. For the reasons outlined above, consolidating political power is objective 1A. (Whether this is to be done by revolution or by electoral politics remains a matter of debate.) With leaders free to operate outside of oil/gas/coal influence, control of energy producers can be brought under public control. Public-owned utilities and corporations are accountable to all stakeholders (i.e. you!), and can be made to respond to their preferences (i.e. not being cooked alive!), regardless of the profit outcome.
Steps two and three, degrowth and decarbonization, flow naturally from there. That’s everything we’ve just talked about, a just transition from cars and coal to trains and trees, buses and bushes, bicycles and…more bushes, I suppose. Ancillary benefits of ecosocialism include millions of clean jobs as we restructure our economy, vastly improved labor conditions, and the continued existence of our species. I’m just going to breeze right on past this for the sake of continuity, but there are many more extremely compelling cases for socialism, if you care to look.
Does that sound as good to you as it does to me?
Hope and Hopelessness
Sadly, we are still far from our fully automated luxury gay space communism destiny, and getting farther. Systemic change is hard to imagine when mainstream political positions on climate change span from “okay, but what if the CEO of Exxon was a woman?” to “renewable energy is a myth because of thermodynamics, dumbass.”
The lack of substantive action on climate change, before and after the IPCC report, is deeply discouraging. Nothing I can think to do feels like enough, and there are plenty of days when I wonder if there’s a point to doing anything. The climate-conscious community seems split on this point, having generally dismissed despair as a viable option but remaining divided between hope, courage, and blind seething rage as appropriate responses.
I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m not particularly interested in the semantic differences between those options. My tentative plan is to work as hard as I can for the next five years—insofar as writing lightly researched treatises and handing out pamphlets can be considered work—and then re-evaluate whether it’s time to go on a goodbye tour of our coral reefs.
I hope you’ll consider getting involved as well. Individual actions are a start, and have at least helped to clear my conscience. Until we’re ready for full-on revolution, immerse yourself in electoral politics. Give your time to local candidates and ballot measures that make substantive commitments to cleaning our earth. And let’s be clear, you haven’t done your work for the day by reading this. I haven’t done mine by writing it. This is a project unlike any we’ve seen before, and it’s going to take a whole heckuva lot of sweat to do it.
If you’re interested in socialism as a solution, DSA is worth your look. They’re not perfect, but they are the biggest socialist organization in the US (50k and growing), and collective action demands a collective. I’ve been pretty impressed with what I’ve seen so far.
I guess my takeaway is this: if ecosocialism seems like a radical solution, remember that we are are living in radical times with radical consequences. It’s much easier to shut out the harsh realities of climate change — after all, the 20-odd years the IPCC marks until likely environmental and social breakdown is just another one of those alarming figures that pushes us away from meaningful action. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to look away any longer. It’s time to stare into the sun, as it were. Things are not going to stay as they have been. That can be a bad thing, or it can be a good thing. It’s up to us to decide.
If all this was helpful, I hope you’ll share it with your other impressionable friends! If it wasn’t, please reach out so we can talk about how to make it better.
- Projected cost of 2ºC warming, roughly 3x the United States GDP, via: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/climate/ipcc-climate-report-2040.html … which is roughly A Whole Fucking Lot
- I suppose the fourth premise here, which I should really not take as assumed, is that this would be a bad thing.
- Please consult your local newspaper, any number of peer reviewed sources, or this rather unscientific source that nonetheless does a great job of putting the matter in perspective if you have any further questions.
- It’s worth noting that some climatologists have even critiqued the IPCC report for understating the magnitude of this crisis
- Okay, just one figure: “A reduction of 0.1 m in global sea level rise implies that up to 10 million fewer people would be exposed to related risks, based on population in the year 2010 and assuming no adaptation”
- And remember, our current national conversation isn’t about the difference between 1.5 and 2ºC, it’s between 1.5 and 4, or more.
- I wouldn’t call the IPCC statement a “rigorous backing,” but I would argue (am arguing) that the sort of transitions they recommend are incompatible with capitalism.
- Many/most mansion-owning, private-jet-flying, transit-not-taking folks are going to pick option A, let’s be clear about that. That’s why socialism requires a massive popular movement to take that choice away.
- To debunk a common misconception, socialists don’t want to abolish personal property (i.e. your house, your car, your dog), but rather private property (i.e. factories, infrastructure, land). Private property is what we mean when we talk about the means of production; we should all be owners of these structures, and we should all have say in how they are operated.