Fire Alarm — It’s Up to Us

Michael McCallister

“To live with hope in a world that seems determined to race off a cliff: this is the real radical choice.” —Renato Redentor Constantino

Future on Fire:
Capitalism and the Politics of Climate Change
By David Camfield
Fernwood Publishing/PM Press, 2023, 128 pages, $15.95, paperback

Not Too Late:
Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility
Edited by Rebecca Solnit &
Thelma Young Lutunatabua
Haymarket Books, 2023, 220 pages, $16.95 paperback,

NEWS COMING FROM the annual global climate summit (the Conference of Parties, or COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has been minimal and depressing.

The conference, led by the president of the United Arab Emirates’ state-run oil company, kicked off with his comment that there was no scientific evidence that fossil fuels were the source of the climate crisis, and if we banned them, humanity would have to “return to dwelling in caves.”

The best news was that a “Loss and Damage” fund was formally created. This fund is intended to force the imperialist countries of the Global North, who have contributed the bulk of other greenhouse gases into earth’s atmosphere, pay the underdeveloped countries of the Global South to repair the worst effects of the climate crisis (sea level rise, floods, more intense hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones, and deadly air pollution).

While trillions of dollars will be required to repair the loss and damage to these countries, the largest imperialist power, the United States, pledged just $17 million.

Since humanity cannot negotiate with the laws of physics, we face an ever-worsening climate crisis for as long as we continue to put carbon into the atmosphere, mostly by burning coal, oil and gas, and releasing methane and other fossil fuels.

The stark reality: If we cannot keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times, the effects on life on earth will be catastrophic.

What can we do? Two valuable books approach this question from different angles. In Future on Fire: Capitalism and the Politics of Climate Change, David Camfield looks at the strategic level of combating climate change.

The contributors to Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility provide a variety of answers to the often-asked question “What can I do — at this late date — to fight the climate crisis?”

University of Manitoba sociologist Camfield outlines the task in front of us, and explores why we can’t depend on capitalism (or individual capitalists), or lobbying the government to organize the transition from fossil fuels. He then argues effectively that only mass movements can really organize the kinds of massive change required to reverse course.

Relying on Liberal Politicians

Corporate media outlets often point to technological solutions like carbon capture and electric vehicles as the way forward to a climate-friendly future.

Others note that solar and wind power generation is already cheaper than digging up the last fossil-fuel deposits, hopefully leading the invisible hand of the market, along with “socially responsible investors,” to (eventually) do the right thing.

“To be sure, some [capitalists] will find ways to make considerable profits by investing in renewable energy generation or producing other goods and services that could be useful for addressing the climate crisis,” Camfield writes, “But a rapid, all-embracing transition away from GHG [greenhouse gas] pollution of the kind required to limit climate change to dangerous rather than extremely dangerous levels would not boost the profits of most firms.”

As we march into the 2024 election season, U.S. activists are again preparing to join Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, touting the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) as the “strongest government action ever taken” against global heating. To be sure, it has few competitors.

The Biden Administration continues to grant offshore oil drilling licenses, and the Mountain Valley gas pipeline was approved to get Joe Manchin’s vote for the IRA in the Senate.

Camfield notes that Barack Obama, Biden’s Democratic predecessor in the White House (where Biden served as vice president) “also presided over an unprecedented expansion of oil and gas extraction by fracking.”

“The appalling experience of Donald Trump’s presidency should not obscure Obama’s actual record in office.”

“The policies of Joe Biden’s administration will not be identical to those of Obama on climate change and many other issues…but there is no reason to think its policies will be better from the perspective of climate justice and social justice more broadly.”

Camfield also reviews the climate record of Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and former French President (and Socialist Party leader) Francois Hollande, who both said all the right things about the fight against the climate crisis, but still stood up for fossil fuel interests when required.

Mass Movements — Our Best Hope

Canada’s labor party, the New Democratic Party, fares no better in Camfield’s assessment. “The NDP government of the province of Alberta from 2015 to 2019 actively pushed for pipeline construction to export more tar sands oil (while the NDP government in British Columbia) supported a massive liquefied natural gas project in the province.”

“Whether ‘enlightened’ parties of business or social liberals, the record of the parties of the extreme center (including European Green Parties) shows that they will not bring about anything resembling just transition,” Camfield writes.

“Why do these parties continue to govern in ways that have led us to a much hotter planet? It’s because for them a challenge to fossil capital is inconceivable and because they support the capitalist status quo. The actions required to carry through a just transition are incompatible with its rules, to which these parties’ leaders are loyal.”

The central thesis of Future on Fire is the necessity of mass movements to change social relations and bring more power to working people and the oppressed. This is the only way to change the world.

Camfield defines mass movements as “people acting together. It’s all about collective action, not just individual choices. In a movement, what people do goes beyond the official channels of politics, such as voting in elections, and is usually disruptive. Acting together involves organizing. … For a social movement to develop, the collective action has to be sustained.”

These sustained mass movements include the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1950s and ’60s, and the mobilization of indigenous people against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that attracted thousands of people from around the United States to the South Dakota encampment.

He identifies several features that allow a mobilization around an issue become a mass social movement:

• An orientation to drawing in larger numbers of people, beyond the folks already mobilized,

• Leaders encouraging people to get involved in groups that keep organizing between big demonstrations, and

• Smartly using disruptive mass action, such as strikes, occupations and blockades.

Next Steps for the Reader

When someone becomes convinced that some action is required to change society, the first question is “What can I do?”

While Camfield is clear on the primary strategy to defeat climate change, he’s less so in answering this specific question for his readers. Obviously, participating in demonstrations is often the first step, but how do you get connected enough to find the next demonstration?

A collection of essays designed to inspire new and would-be activists, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility can serve as at least a partial complement to World on Fire.

U.S. feminist writer Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, a climate activist from Fiji, assembled 25 essays and interviews from 21 activists, scientists, government officials and academics for this easy-to-read collection.

Solnit writes “A lot of stories in circulation endeavor to strip you of hope and power, to tell you it doesn’t matter, or it’s too late or there’s nothing you can do or we never win. Not Too Late is a project to try to return hope and power through both facts and perspectives.”

Many chapters are indeed an antidote to the frustration, burnout and even despair (a term that comes up often as an opposite to hope in the essays) from which veteran climate activists can suffer, in view of the increasingly dire effects of the crisis we witness across the globe.

Mary Annaise Heglar, a terrific journalist on the climate beat, kicks off the collection with perhaps the best advice of all for new activists in her chapter “This is Where You Come In.”

“What can I do? There’s no such thing. I wish there were. …We have to accept that we’re all going to have to buckle down for the long haul. Responding to this crisis is going to have to become part of who we are. All the time. Once you understand that, you understand that this isn’t about climate action at all. It’s about climate commitment. Climate action is recycling or voting or opting for a vegan meal. Climate commitment includes those singular actions, but is bigger still. It’s a framework. It’s asking yourself: What can I do next? And always next.

“Now that you understand that the question is complicated, the answer actually emerges as quite simple: do what you’re good at. And do your best.”

Antonia Juhasz reminds us that there’s a reason the fossil-fuel industry is increasingly desperate in recent years, to the point of sending hundreds of lobbyists to COP28.

Juhasz, in an interview with the editors, notes that they’ve “been suffering death by a thousand cuts for years. Until very recently, corporate profits, market values, investor returns, and demand growth (that is, people buying their products) had been in a steady nosedive.”

Leah Cardimore Stokes, who teaches environmental politics, offers a three-point program to resolve 75% of the energy problem:

• Transition to renewable energy

• Electrify transportation

• Electrify buildings and industry

These are some highlights of Not Too Late. While this is not a traditional book of inspiration, nearly everyone will find something to give them courage to fight for a livable future on this planet.

What Does Success Look like?

Ultimately, Camfield concludes that a mass social movement for a just transition from fossil fuels can only succeed by breaking with capitalism, transitioning to “a self-governing society with a nondestructive relationship to the rest of nature — ecosocialism.”

ATC readers will find Camfield’s conclusions familiar, and the reminder that ultimately, it all comes down to taking political power away from capitalists and putting the working class in charge.

Future on Fire offers an excellent introduction to ecosocialist ideas for those already active in the climate fight.

Unfortunately, many contributors to Not Too Late really want you to believe that revolutionary changes won’t be required.

Mary Ann Hitt’s “A Love Letter from the Clean Energy Future” of 2030 goes the furthest in that direction. She suggests that Joe Biden’s climate plan, along with enlightened state and federal government regulations, might really do the trick. Yes, there are movements, and activists, and a lot of hard work, but Hitt believes rational politicians will indeed save us all.

The ecosocialist movement offers a better hope for our future.

January-February 2024, ATC 228

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