The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Environmental Catastrophe and Those Who Profit from It

Feb 6, 2022

The following article was translated from an article appearing in issue #219, November 2021, of the Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the Trotskyist organization in France.

Natural disasters have been coming one after the other: giant wildfires in California, heat domes in Canada and North Africa, violent storms in Belgium and Germany, and a record drought in Brazil. These events inspire anxiety and revolt among a growing share of the population, particularly young people, confronted with the rapid increase in global warming. Governing or aspiring politicians are making use of environmentalism, while the “green transition” has become a new pretext to make the population pay for the capitalists’ next investments.

Addressing a youth summit on climate change organized in Milan at the end of September, the young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg expressed a widely-shared feeling among young people: "This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises." Of the 157 countries who made commitments during the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in 2015, nine out of ten have not kept their promises. Everything indicates that the 26th Conference, which took place at the beginning of November in Scotland, will feature the same big speeches followed by no tangible effects … at least on global warming.

In 2018, after another summer of natural disasters, various French environmental organizations and individuals, like the former government ministers Cécile Duflot and Corinne Lepage and film director Cyril Dion, started a highly-publicized campaign called the "Affaire du siècle" [Case of the Century]. This was a lawsuit accusing the government of failing to respect its own commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. The administrative tribunal just released its decision, finding the government at fault and ordering it to "repair the environmental damage" before December 31, 2022, inviting it to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 million tons. The activists who started this campaign celebrated, as did Cécile Duflot, ex-minister under François Hollande and current general director of Oxfam, who declared, without laughing: "The next president of the Republic, whoever they are, will have this sword of Damocles hanging over their head." Oxfam and others called on candidates for the 2022 presidential election to supply "data supporting how they plan to get the state out of illegality and respect climate goals."

In reality, a decision like this, “inviting the government to reduce emissions,” does not force the government to do anything. In this economic system, the politicians are not the ones who decide how to produce the necessary goods and at what environmental or social cost. Fundamentally, those decisions are made by those who own the means of production and transportation.

The Capitalists Are the True Deciders

The main sectors of the economy that emit greenhouse gases—transportation, industry, construction, and agriculture—are ultimately controlled and organized by a small number of capitalist firms. Governments can pass laws, set stricter standards, or create new taxes, as they have done, but their decisions have all respected private property and the interests of the capitalists they represent. Whatever politicians decide, ultimately they serve the capitalists’ interests.

We saw this in France with the Climate and Resilience Law passed this June, which was supposed to embody the propositions that came out of the Citizens’ Climate Convention the previous year. Macron had promised wholeheartedly to accept the moderate measures proposed by the 150 citizens chosen at random to participate in the Convention. He began by discarding proposals that could cost auto manufacturers, like taxes on heavy vehicles, or those that could inconvenience airlines, such as banning flights under 2.5 hours when an alternative exists by train. Any laws that might have restricted, even marginally, the capitalists’ right to advertise products that pollute were put aside with the pretext that "this would mean denying businesses the freedom to invest where they want. This is really going too far!" This heartfelt appeal from the Macronist deputy Aurore Bergé sums up very well the mind set of those who govern the state: the smallest control over capitalists’ decisions would be a sacrilege.

The Energy Transition: The Latest Pretext for Lining the Bourgeoisie’s Pockets

This does not mean that governments are doing nothing about ecology and the environment. The transition to green energy, delayed for decades despite the urgent threat to the climate, suddenly has become the pretext in every country for subsidizing the bourgeoisie in many sectors. The trillions of dollars which the governments of the rich countries spent in recovery plans after the pandemic are all clothed in green. It was already a kind of Green New Deal. Macron’s latest plan, France 2030, has set aside eight billion euros for energy and decarbonization (promoting nuclear, hydrogen, and electric energy for industry), four billion for transportation (batteries, low-carbon airplanes), two billion for the development of a "clean, durable, and traceable food supply." Thus, the automobile, chemical, and energy industries are making everyone else pay for the heavy investments they need to replace combustion engines with electric engines and coal plants with other sources of electricity. They are also making consumers pay directly by massively and permanently raising gas, oil, and electricity prices.

The capitalists who today extort society under the pretext of the transition to green energy are the very same ones who for decades used their considerable resources to deny the reality of climate change, funding “climate skepticism” studies that cast doubt on proven scientific data. What a height of cynicism! The journal Global Environmental Change published a study this month revealing the multiple maneuvers of the oil companies Total and Elf, which merged in 1999. Those companies have been aware of climate change since 1971, well before the general public! After having destroyed large stretches of nature, polluted the oceans and groundwater tables, plundered natural resources, heated up the climate, and suffocated hundreds of millions of people, the capitalists today are preparing to reap profits in the name of the environment!

One way that governments tried to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was by creating new taxes on those emissions and a “carbon market” in which emissions could be bought or sold. Someone who exceeded a limit could buy up the right to produce more carbon from someone who had emissions to spare! For a long time, governments had been so generous in assigning these limits to their own manufacturers that the price of carbon emissions barely moved. The restrictions which they gradually introduced and the speculation that gripped energy markets caused the price to increase. On the European market, a ton of carbon emitted reached 65 euros in October despite having rarely passed 30 euros since the market’s creation in 2005. Obviously, manufacturers are passing on these costs in the prices of their products, which has directly contributed to the increase in gas prices. In the end, again, the population pays.

The Laboring Classes Will Pay

The population pays in many other ways. Since 2013 in France, a carbon tax has been added to the existing energy consumption taxes. In reaction to variations in energy prices and protests, like the Yellow Vest movement in 2018, the government has adjusted the rates of these taxes. It has also modified the value-added tax, a form of regressive sales tax that even applies to energy taxes themselves—a tax on taxation. However, the total amount of this carbon tax has continued to increase over time—from a level of seven euros per ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2014 to 45 euros per ton in 2020—and it will sharply increase in 2022. In 2018, this tax brought in nine billion euros for the government, which gave it back to the capitalists through industrial recovery plans.

Even when the government changes existing real estate standards under the worthy pretext of fighting against energy waste, working-class households will pay the cost. Heating renovations and increased construction costs cause the price of housing to rise. This condemns an additional fraction of poor families to freeze in drafty, energy-inefficient buildings.

In any case, the working classes, who devote a large share of their wages or pensions to heating, lighting, and transportation, will end up paying for the big corporations’ energy transition plans. The intellectuals of the bourgeoisie realize and fear this fact. The director of the government’s Center for Economic Analysis declared: "The problem with the carbon tax is that it hits modest households harder as a share of their total income." In a recent column published in the newspaper Les Échos, Patrick Artus, the chief economist of the bank NATIXIS, worried about the "steep increase in energy prices … which could more than double in the next twenty years.... Modest households will therefore face this steep increase in energy prices as well as those of [electric] cars and houses with the latest insulation standards." Besides this skyrocketing of prices, Artus predicts "major job losses in the production and use of fossil fuels and the automobile industry," which he places between 120,000 and 150,000 jobs for the automobile industry. Another economist, Jean Pisani-Ferry, who is close to Macron, says the same thing. He forecasts an "adverse supply shock," with the disappearance of capital equipment, factory closings, and the accompanying job losses.

Patrick Artus dreads that such a shock might produce a “social crisis,” but—no surprise—he has nothing to propose other than providing better training for the unemployed and “encouraging” bosses to raise wages and subsidize new construction. He dusts off the same worn-out recipes used to face each new shock in the crisis of the capitalist economy over the past 50 years. But nothing else can be done besides taking power from the capitalists who ultimately are the only decision-makers.

The Green Vultures

All the candidates now make promises about the environment, but they each prostrate themselves before private property, even when they speak of environmental planning, as does Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his France Insoumise party. Some of them claim to favor “socially just” environmental measures. But in a class society, these are hollow words. Once in power, they will continue to create additional taxes and dole out subsidies and free credits to capitalists in order to accelerate the environmental transition. They will chase working-class households from urban centers by banning old cars that pollute too much, making it more difficult for workers to commute to their jobs in peripheral industrial zones.

For politicians, environmentalism has become what socialist ideas were for the Socialist and Communist Parties in the 1970s and 1980s: a stepping stone to win office by capturing the votes of all those worried about environmental disasters. The most shameless are the Green Party candidates, who use environmentalism as their main commercial capital. To listen to them, each new disaster justifies their ascension to power.

As Green Party candidate Yannick Jadot repeats: "It is our turn—the time for environmentalists has come." All throughout the Green Party primaries, Jadot presented himself as a responsible candidate, constantly repeating: "We cannot go against businesses to change society." After winning the municipal elections in Lyon, Green Party leaders repeated the same defense when they were accused of being ideologues hostile to business and the economy. They repeatedly declared their love for the corporations: "Environmentalism is not the enemy of the economy—it is its best ally," or "We want to make the ecological transition alongside business owners." The big bosses of the construction, pharmaceutical, chemical, and metal industries were reassured. If their projects are labeled “sustainable” or “carbon neutral,” they will continue to receive millions of direct and indirect subsidies from the rich city of Lyon.

Sandrine Rousseau, Jadot’s rival in the Green Party primaries, claimed to represent a more radical form of environmentalism concerned with the social consequences of the transition. But she puts herself forward to govern the state without questioning the corporations’ private property. Her radicalism consists of raising carbon taxes on companies and campaigning for European-wide taxation. However, as long as the capitalists run the economy, each additional tax will be passed on in the prices of goods, which again will cost the working classes. Rousseau’s discussion of Europe remains an empty gesture, since the European Union imposes nothing that is not accepted by each of its member states. And if she extends her horizon to Europe, she does not go so far as to reason at the level of the planet. But it is only at this level that climate questions can be resolved.

Many other environmentalists argue for de-growth and call for a break with industrial production altogether, like the former Socialist Party minister Delphine Batho, another candidate in the Green primary. However, the capitalists can accommodate themselves to such policies. Their social organization already condemns much of humanity to enforced frugality. Capitalism, particularly in its senile phase, does not mean production at any cost, but the search for the greatest profits.

For example, auto manufacturers, confronted with the current shortages of parts and raw materials, have chosen to restrict production to the most expensive models. Lower production did not reduce their profits—just the opposite. The auto company Stellantis announced a profit of 5.8 billion euros for the first half of 2021, even though it made 700,000 fewer vehicles. In the pharmaceutical industry, Sanofi halted production of certain vaccines and drugs that do not make it enough money, even though these are very socially useful. The green transition under the regime of capitalism might very well mean production declines that could be disastrous for a whole section of humanity.

Cures Just as Dangerous as the Disease

The capitalists’ green transition has led to contradictory and absurd choices that replace one danger with another. German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to close nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster, under the pressure of public opinion. But to compensate for the energy lost when they shut down, Germany continued to use coal-fired plants, which emit more carbon dioxide, at least until 2038. Due to the current rise in gas prices, "coal has become more competitive for producing electricity than gas despite the price of carbon emission credits," according to one energy brokerage specialist. As of November 2021, 19% of electricity production in Europe comes from coal, compared to 14% at the beginning of the year. After China committed to reducing the number of its coal-fired plants, the jump in gas and oil prices forced it to open new ones. Once again, every environmental policy comes up against the madness of the capitalist economy and speculation.

While Merkel closed Germany’s nuclear power plants, Macron presents himself as the champion of nuclear energy, to which he attributes all kinds of environmental virtues. The contradictory choices of these two countries have little to do with environmental reasoning and everything to do with the interests of their respective industrial giants.

The great shift toward electric motors has been launched in the name of the energy transition. But it actually means going from the frying pan into the fire, given all of the unresolved problems involved. How to produce and above all to recycle batteries that contain heavy metals and other dangerous substances? How to produce enough electricity to charge these engines? With what consequences for the environment? These are just some of the questions without answers, just some of the many future environmental disasters on the horizon.

To resolve the question of global warming, we must take coordinated and coherent measures at the level of the planet. The pros and cons of each technology must be evaluated, not in the short term and not to defend the interests of a few private companies, but in the long term, with the whole of humanity in mind. This requires taking stock of humanity’s needs and planning production. It means putting an end to unrestrained competition and to the wild laws of the market that result in speculation.

In order to “save the planet"—as the young people who are protesting rightly demand—there is no solution other than to place industry under the direct control of workers and the population. Business and industrial secrecy must be suppressed. Each worker, no matter their position or responsibilities, should be able to make public all dangerous schemes they are aware of without having to risk their job. This can only be a preliminary step toward collectivizing all capitalist companies in order to place them under a common plan for production responding to the needs of the population, a plan which would avoid destroying the planet while economizing resources to the greatest possible extent.

Yes, there is an urgent need to stop the environmental disaster, just like the social disaster. The two are not opposed. They are both linked and require the same conscious intervention of the working class, which produces everything.

End of 2021