The left’s belated, and bittersweet, victory on climate change

The urgency of tackling climate change seems, finally, to be sinking in.

U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid
Activists protest outside the venue of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain on December 13, 2019 [Susana Vera/Reuters]

Fear-mongering is understandably in fashion this year, with prophets of doom having no shortage of new material to draw upon. But amid the endlessly bleak portents of our collective future – birds falling out of the sky in the United States, hundreds of whales washing up on Australia’s shores, a succession of “worst-ever” natural disasters, set against a “worst-ever” US presidential election and a once-in-a-generation pandemic – there is at least one silver lining: the urgency of tackling climate change seems, finally, to be sinking in.

Joe Biden, a stalwart of the status quo and favourite to win in November, is campaigning on the most ambitious climate change package in history. Totalling $2 trillion, and injecting some much-needed vitality into his veteran candidacy, the plan promises a complete transition to clean electricity by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2050.

China, currently the world’s biggest emitter, has announced it will phase out fossil fuels by 2060. Much of Europe is on the same path. Boris Johnson, who has spent much of his career ridiculing wind energy, has now re-branded himself as a champion of the cause. The leaders who still refuse to follow suit – blindly clinging to the fantasy that free-market capitalism will correct itself – now sound less like the custodians of economic orthodoxy they could once claim to be, and more like the heirs of Homer Simpson: “Stupidity got us into this mess, and stupidity will get us out.”

Admittedly, the gap between rhetoric and reality is always hard to identify when it comes to climate change action, and so any optimism should come with caution.

Leaders and CEOs love to pronounce their deepest commitment to the planet in public, only to subvert climate change policy in private. The boom in “environmentally friendly” consumption has offered citizen-consumers a pastiche of political transformation, robbing the cause of its radical urgency, and proving far more effective at reducing the number of guilty consciences in the world than levels of carbon dioxide. According to a 2018 study, 70 percent of people in the UK and US believe that protecting the environment is primarily down to individual consumers – when just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of global emissions since 1988. As French sociologist Guy Debord once warned: “capitalism could appropriate even the most radical ideas and return them safely in the form of harmless ideologies.”

Yet there are signs that the ground is shifting. As governments across the world advocate the timed closure of the fossil fuel industry, a fundamental tenet of the neoliberal era loses its ascendancy: the belief that if markets are left unregulated society’s problems will solve themselves. Capitalism’s treasured reputation for dynamism and problem-solving sits uneasily with its plodding slowness on climate change, and should be forever tarnished in the eyes of many. In light of everything we now know, the fantasy of “trickle-down” economics would be better renamed “trickle-drown” economics: unfettered markets lead inexorably to rising seas, not prosperity.

Current action on climate change is still happening within the broad parameters of capitalism. Joe Biden, for example, has not abandoned the principles of profit and growth, and has controversially refused to ban fracking as part of his climate policy on this basis.

Yet these shortcomings should not cloud the progress being made. There is a plausible parallel universe where, in his battle to defeat Trump, Biden felt that it was only necessary for him to recommit to the Paris Agreement and undo all the damage that Trump has done. But through concerted pressure and a growing consensus, Biden is pitching something far more powerful. This should not be taken as a reason for complacency, but rather as motivation to keep on going.

These are confounding times. The outlook for our future becomes both more promising and bleaker, day by day. The scale of the climate movement has finally pushed the issue beyond the status of “true or false” debate. The sustained reckoning with racism in the US and Western Europe is remarkable in its scope and seriousness. And yet the political mood also feels more febrile, and more friendly to fascism, than ever before in recent memory. The extent of climate breakdown already set in motion – the destruction of the Amazon and the Barrier Reef, the plummeting levels of biodiversity – is devastating. As this atmosphere of uncertainty spirals, other trends implausibly persist. Amid the wreckage wrought by the pandemic, the wealth of US billionaires has risen by nearly a third.

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” the left likes to say, with the line variously attributed to Mark Fisher, Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson. This pithy formulation for capitalism’s ascendancy loses some of its punch in a world where the end is so easy to imagine: faced with a pandemic and a US president flirting with fascism, the real challenge, perhaps, is not imagining it. Yet if this dictum appears even more true today, the left can draw strength from the fact that more people are talking about capitalism in ways that even recently did not feel possible – if not to end capitalism, then at least to find a way in which capitalism does not end the world. At this point, we’ll take it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.