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Capitalism, Environment, Socialism

Global Heating and Socialism

The author formulates alternative long-range scenarios for human survival or extinction in the context of global heating. What are the prospects of ‘green capitalism’? What does the climate crisis imply for our thinking about socialism?

by Stephen Shenfield



10 min read

Extreme weather events in the first half of 2013 included another summer heat wave with bush fires throughout Australia (in January), recent temperatures of 40 degrees C + with forest fires in the American West, and numerous forest fires in Russia, eastern Canada, and Indonesia. In Alaska snow in May was followed by temperatures of 30 degrees C + in June. Meanwhile, floods swept several regions in Central Europe, western Canada, the Philippines, Thailand — and also Nepal and northern India, where several hundred people died in mudslides. And it is going to get worse. Much worse. 

Scientific Thinking About Global Heating

Leaving aside the shrinking fringe of ‘skeptics’ who still deny the growing reality of global heating,1 two broad trends can be discerned in scientific thinking on this issue. There exists an officially recognized mainstream, represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Mainstream thinking acknowledges that global heating will create serious problems and cause extensive damage, but does not view global heating as a possible threat to ‘civilization’ or human survival or the biosphere. Nevertheless, outside this mainstream there are a significant number of independent scientists who do discuss global heating in precisely such terms and are often criticised as ‘alarmists’ or ‘catastrophists’.  

Why this divergence?

Like the United Nations of which it is an offshoot, the IPCC is not an academic but an intergovernmental institution. It strives for a consensus among national governments. This in itself makes for an extremely cautious ‘lowest common denominator’ approach to the interpretation of evidence.

There is no reason to suspect serious bias in most of the detailed studies on which the IPCC relies. However, the process by which it assesses the results of these studies and aggregates them every few years into a general ‘Assessment Report’ is influenced by political pressures to tone down conclusions and avoid ‘alarmism’.2 What this means is that governments do not want to be placed in the position of having to acknowledge a scientific assessment that would imply the urgency of far-reaching action that they – and the business interests they represent – are not prepared to take.

An excessive reliance on computerised mathematical modeling creates a bias in the same direction, because it leads to a tendency to neglect effects that cannot as yet be measured and modeled.

The most dangerous of these neglected effects is the release into the atmosphere of methane previously immobilised as methane clathrates (a lattice structure also known as ‘fire ice’) in the permafrost and on the continental shelf. In many places clathrates ‘cap’ deposits of gaseous methane. All this methane may escape into the atmosphere as permafrost thaws and as ocean temperatures rise. Methane is a very powerful and unstable greenhouse gas. It is also flammable and poisonous.

Methane is already being released on a substantial scale in the Arctic – over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, for instance.3 We do not know how much methane may be released in the future, but we do know that it is a huge amount. This opens up terrifying prospects of seas ‘erupting’ in fire and explosions, mass death by suffocation, and ‘runaway’ climate change ending in an uninhabitable hothouse resembling Venus.4 We do not know how great a rise in atmospheric temperature is required to trigger these events.

All this helps explain why earlier forecasts of the situation at dates that are now in the past proved to be too optimistic. Another reason is that assumptions about the future trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions reflected politically naïve expectations about the speed of the shift away from hydrocarbons. Despite the economic recession, emissions have risen even higher than projected in the worst (‘business as usual’) IPCC scenario.

The two trends in scientific thinking ask and try to answer different questions. The mainstream asks what the climate will be like at round-number dates in the next few decades. The focus is currently on 2050 and 2100 – that is the upper limit of its vision. Independent scientists focus less on specific dates and view climate change in a very long historical perspective stretching back millions of years. From this perspective they seek a holistic conception of the current climatic shift. They ask what the climate will be when it again reaches a stable equilibrium, however long that may take. This is the crucial question for the long-term future of our species, though it is out of synch with the mentality of politicians and capitalists, whose indifference toward the long term found expression in John Maynard Keynes’ ‘witty’ observation: ‘In the long run we are all dead.’

A focus on end states yields a clearer picture because there is much less uncertainty about what is going to happen than about exactly when it will happen. Thus:

— We know that the last coral reef will soon be dead, even if we don’t know exactly when.

— We can be almost certain that most of what remains of the Amazon rainforest is going to burn down in very dry summer weather, even if we don’t know which year it will happen.

— We know that the melting Himalayan glaciers will continue to generate floods downstream in Pakistan, northern India and western China, followed by permanent drought once they are gone, even if we don’t know exactly when this point will be reached. The melting Andean glaciers will have a similar impact on the Pacific coastal strip of South America.

— We don’t know how long it will be before the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets collapse,5 but we know that when they do the ocean will inundate many cities (London, New York, Washington, Kolkata, Shanghai, etc.) and densely populated river deltas (the Nile, Ganges, Mekong, etc.).

— We don’t know when the Sahara will firmly establish itself along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, when a new dust bowl will form in the western US or when the Gobi will swallow Beijing, but we can be fairly sure that these things are going to happen.            

A common view among independent scientists, based on climate history, is that often climate does not change in the smooth continuous manner suggested by the limited experience of written history and assumed by current mathematical models. According to this conception, there are only a few stable equilibrium states in which the planetary climate can maintain itself relatively unchanged over a long period.6 An equilibrium state is not easily disturbed, but on occasion a sufficiently powerful disturbance will push the climate system past a ‘tipping point’ and trigger ‘abrupt climate change’ – a sort of ‘quantum leap’ (borrowing a term from quantum physics) to a different equilibrium state.7

The climate changes now underway strongly suggest that just such a quantum leap, triggered by greenhouse gas emissions, is about to occur – if, indeed, it has not already begun. James Lovelock believes, on the basis of climate history, that the new equilibrium state will be on average 5 degrees C. hotter than now. If so, human survival will still be possible in certain parts of the world – in the polar regions and in a few ‘oases’ elsewhere where climatic conditions will remain relatively favorable. Feedback mechanisms will come into play that impede further global heating, though that possibility cannot be altogether excluded. However, it cannot be expected that in the foreseeable future Earth will return to its current interglacial equilibrium state.  


In light of current scientific thinking, it seems sensible to think about the prospects of global heating in terms of a range of possibilities. Some conceivable scenarios might be excluded from the range of possibilities, but only at the optimistic end. In other words, even in the best plausible case global heating is going to get much worse than it is now and cause enormous destruction and misery. Droughts, fires, heatwaves, floods, hurricanes and harvest failures will grow more frequent and more severe. Climate refugees will number in the millions, then in the tens and hundreds of millions, and many of them will perish. These things will happen even in the most optimistic scenario. 

By contrast, I see no reason to exclude the possibility of the worst conceivable outcomes – even runaway climate change that eventually transforms Earth into a lifeless desert under an atmosphere swirling with poisonous gases. Some authors assure their readers (and themselves?) that this will not happen, but I have not seen the assurance backed up by any cogent argument. 

On the basis of the foregoing, I suggest the following set of scenarios:

A. Optimistic. The tipping point is still some way off and thanks to expeditious and effective action against global heating (plus luck?) it is not reached. The climate restabilises in the interglacial state within a couple of centuries. Most of the planet remains habitable.

B. Middling. The tipping point is reached and transition occurs to the next hotter state. Human society survives in the polar regions and in ‘oases’. The shift to a ‘green’ economy8 occurs before, during or soon after this transition, allowing the climate to restabilise in the new hot state and ensuring long-term human survival in parts of the planet. 

C1. Pessimistic: runaway climate change. The tipping point is reached, but greenhouse gas emissions, including massive releases of methane, are at such high levels that the climate ‘overshoots’ the next hotter equilibrium state and human survival becomes impossible.       

C2. Pessimistic: delayed runaway climate change. The tipping point is reached and transition occurs to the next hotter state. Human society survives for the time being in the polar regions and in ‘oases’. Some or all surviving societies, however, continue or revert to the use of hydrocarbon resources (such as Arctic oil and gas deposits), subsequently triggering transition to a yet hotter state in which human survival is not possible.

Green Capitalism?

There is a broad consensus among environmentalists that the main action required to combat global heating is to complete as soon as possible a shift that has already begun toward a green economy based on the use of renewable energy – above all, solar power. I agree that rapid completion of this shift must be an essential part of any action program, but I doubt whether it will be sufficient.

A major consideration in this respect is how soon we can realistically expect a green economy to be fully established. Here I draw upon an excellent analysis of the political and economic prospects of the shift to renewable energy sources that appears in the latest issue of the journal Aufheben.9

Many ‘Marxist ecologists’ (myself included) have assumed that the continued exploitation of hydrocarbon resources, subject only to technical constraints, is intrinsic to capitalism. Rapid greening of the economy is therefore contingent on the near-term establishment of world socialism. If so, it is hard to drum up much hope for our survival on this planet. 

The Aufheben authors argue that this view is mistaken. Capitalism is not intrinsically tied to any specific source of energy. Indeed, the earliest industrial mills, in the 18th century, ran on a renewable energy source – water power. A green faction has now established itself within the capitalist class and created an alternative pole of capital accumulation. The present situation is marked by competition between the green capitalists and the hydrocarbon companies, both on the market in terms of prices and in domestic and world politics (on matters such as government subsidies, planning regulations and tax incentives). This competition will be influenced by numerous economic, technological and political factors, making it difficult to foresee its course.

In general I agree with this analysis, except that I suspect that the Aufheben authors underestimate how long and hard the struggle against the hydrocarbon interests will be. After all, several (perhaps ten) trillion dollars are at stake.10

I would also put more emphasis upon one particular factor influencing the outcome of the struggle – the extent and intensity of popular resistance to fracking, shale oil and other forms of hydrocarbon ‘development’. As the full implications of global heating strike home – a process that has not yet even begun in many parts of the world – people will feel increasing anger as well as panic, hysteria, terror, angst and despair. To the extent that the anger is directed against those responsible for the climate crisis, it can do much to undermine and finally break their power – although we can expect sustained attempts to channel all these feelings into irrational and self-destructive forms like religious fanaticism. 

It seems to me reasonable to proceed from the working assumption that the extraction of hydrocarbons will be halted, but that this will probably not happen until the second half of this century. Coming so late in the process of global heating, the victory of green capital can be expected to have only a modest and delayed impact on climate change (although this may be the case even if it occurs earlier). The probability of the optimistic scenario may rise, but only to a level that is still quite low; the probability of a pessimistic scenario will decline, but not to anywhere near zero.

We must therefore deal with the question: What else can be done to combat global heating, in addition toswitching to a green economy? And here we must give some consideration to the range of options that go by the name of ‘geoengineering’.


Geo-engineering – literally, engineering the Earth – is a newly coined term for purposive large-scale human intervention in the climate system.11

Environmentalists have reacted with hostility to the very idea of geo-engineering.12 This is understandable. Undoubtedly, it is risky to fiddle around with a system that remains poorly understood. It would have been much better had we managed to avoid the situation that drives us to resort to such expedients. Hostility is also appropriate as a reaction to the promotion of geo-engineering as the alternative to a green economy – a gambit that hydrocarbon interests are starting to adopt as outright denial of global heating loses credibility. But that is not relevant to the present argument.

It is important to distinguish among different geo-engineering schemes and assess each on its merits. Some seem harmless enough even if not all that effective (making roofs more reflective by painting them white, genetically engineering crops and grasses with more reflective foliage). Others present clear dangers. Thus, ‘doping’ the stratosphere with sulphate aerosols would cool the surface, but it would also damage the ozone layer, disturb the monsoon cycle and change the colour of the sky from blue to a dull grayish white. Unfortunately, this scheme is the most likely to be implemented, as it is relatively cheap and uses readily available technology.

In my view, the most promising are space-based or moon-based schemes designed to deflect solar radiation away from the Earth – that is, to act on Earth’s climate system from the outside instead of messing about with its internal functioning. One proposal is to place light-scattering material such as aluminium threads or small disks in Earth orbit or further out toward the sun. Adjustable mirrors would have the advantage of greater flexibility. They could be built on the moon using locally available glass. Some such system should surely be within human capacity at our present level of technological development, at least if assigned top priority by the world’s space agencies.

Global Heating and Socialism

While green capitalism might prove able to cope with the challenge posed by global heating, at least to the extent of ensuring human survival, world socialism could cope better. A world socialist community could focus human effort upon the problem much more effectively than a humanity still split into rival states and riven by class and other divisions. It would clearly make sense if space-based geoengineering projects were undertaken by a single world space agency, and it is not very likely that such an agency will be established under capitalism – even of the green variety.

A socialist community would also be much better placed than a profit-driven system to minimise the human suffering caused by global heating (though the suffering would still be on a massive scale). In socialism we would not face ‘economic’ obstacles to the effective organisation of relief for regions struck by extreme weather and harvest failure or to the resettlement of climate refugees.    

At the same time, we need to rethink our ideas about socialism in the light of the climate crisis. How would a socialist world administration actually function under conditions of pervasive climate chaos, with communications constantly disrupted by superstorms? Would such conditions not require a decades-long emergency regime? As a matter of practicality, could such a regime function with as much democratic mass participation as we like to imagine?

The concepts of ‘abundance’ and ‘free access’ also need to be reconsidered in light of global heating as well as the general environmental crisis. Under conditions of climate chaos, socialist society might find it a sufficiently taxing task just to satisfy basic human needs (food, clean water, housing, health, etc.). True, substantial reserves can be freed up by eliminating the waste inherent in capitalism, but these will soon be depleted by increasingly frequent regional harvest failures. And even if society does manage to keep all its members supplied with enough food, it may not be the kind of food that most of them would prefer to eat. It will be necessary to grow those crops which are most adaptable to chaotic weather rather than those which are most appealing to consume.13

Under some conceivable scenarios, even if humanity survives in some form, socialism would no longer be a viable option at all. Consider Scenario B, with humans surviving only in isolated pockets or ‘oases’. Socialism on a global scale – perhaps any society on a global scale – is extremely difficult to envision in such a world.

We are only just beginning to reassess the socialist viewpoint in light of the reality of global heating.14 To what extent socialism will remain relevant depends on this reassessment.


1. ‘Global heating’ has stronger and therefore more appropriate connotations than the more widely used ‘global warming’.

2. Government scientists, who form the interface between the worlds of science and politics and therefore play a key role in the process, are especially vulnerable to these pressures.

3. These waters are shallow and are therefore warming faster than the ocean depths. See: Robert Hunziker, ‘Methane Outbreak Alert’, April 27, 2013.

4. Andrew Alden, ‘Erupting Seas.’

5. Until recently climatologists were asking how long the icesheets will take to melt. At least as far as sea level is concerned, this was the wrong question. The icesheets will collapse long before the ice has all melted, with the remaining ice then entering the ocean as icebergs.

6. ‘The long-term climate history of the Earth reveals the existence of several stable but quite different climate states, and present-day climate models do not predict their existence’ (James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, NY: Basic Books, 2009, p. 39).

7. There are numerous academic and popular books on climate change to choose among, but specifically on abrupt climate change I recommend: Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007); John D. Cox, Climate Crash: Abrupt Climate Change and What It Means for Our Future (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2005). For a collection of academic papers, see: National Research Council, Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002).

8. By a ‘green’ economy I mean one based on the use of renewable energy sources (wind, tidal, geothermal, etc.) but above all solar energy. The quotes (henceforth dropped) are to acknowledge that ‘green’ capitalism should not be idealised, even from the environmental point of view. See my article: ‘Rare Earth Metals and the Not-So-Clean Energy Economy’, The Socialist Standard, May 2011.

9. ‘The Climate Crisis and the New Green Capitalism?’ Aufheben, 2012, no. 21. Order here

10. The combined value of the top 100 coal companies and top 100 oil and gas companies is estimated at $7.42 trillion. This does not include smaller companies, firms providing transport and other services to the industry, petrochemicals manufacturers, etc.. See: ‘Capitalism: Blind and Deaf to the World of Nature’, The Socialist Standard, June 2013.

One crucial issue is whether and when hydrocarbon companies will seriously diversify and finally switch to producing renewable energy. So far the involvement of oil companies in renewable energy has been on a tiny scale – probably just an exercise in PR. Recently, however, Coal India, the world’s largest coal company, announced plans to use solar power to reduce its own energy bill.

For an analysis that is much more skeptical regarding the prospects of ‘green capitalism’ see: Sanderr, ‘Hope or Hoax: Reflections on the Green New Deal,’ Internationalist Perspective, mo. 61, Spring 2016.

11. I discuss the topic of geoengineering in ‘Engineering the Earth’, The Socialist Standard, January 2011.

For a more detailed analysis of geoengineering options, see: The Royal Society, Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty (September 2009).

12. See, for instance: Geopiracy – The Case Against Geoengineering (ETC Group, 2010).

13. Similar considerations apply to sources of animal protein. By the time we achieve socialism fish stocks may well have been completely destroyed by overfishing, ocean acidification, etc. Fish farming may exist, but its products will have less nutrient value. People will also have to get used to eating insects when all else fails.

14. Some socialists have been much more influenced by environmental imperatives than others. Some still fail to grasp even such a basic point as the urgency of abandoning the burning of fossil fuels. For a clear exposition of the diverging outlooks, see the recent debate on fracking on the SPGB Forum.

Tags: global heating, green capitalism

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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