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10 August 2022updated 23 Sep 2022 6:46pm

Would there still have been climate change under socialism?

Market failure certainly delays aggressive climate action, but even had the whole world in the 20th century been socialist, the planet would still be heating up.

By Leigh Phillips

It is common to come across the notion, especially on the climate left, that humanity and the rest of the planet would not be staring down the threat of climate change if it were not for capitalism – from Naomi Klein’s best-selling This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (2014) to the growing number of activists identifying themselves as “eco-socialists”.

There is however no evidence that this is the case. On the contrary – and I say this as a committed socialist – while a retreat from market-based allocation and an expansion of economic planning offers us the best hope for rapidly decarbonising our economy today, paradoxically, a maximally socialist 20th century would have resulted in global warming at least as bad as we are currently experiencing, probably worse.

And the reason why would actually have been a very good thing. There are of course countless examples of fossil fuel companies persistently working to deny the reality of global warming and delay climate action in order to protect their profits, by lobbying and spreading misinformation. But this only tells us that the profit incentive can hinder the clean transition. It doesn’t explain why humanity started burning fossil fuels (or producing steel, cement, fertilizer, and so on) in the first place.

So why did humanity turn to fossil fuels? The environmental humanities scholar and climate activist Andreas Malm has argued that the adoption of fossil fuel, beginning with the shift from water power to coal-fired steam in the early 19th century, was not an inevitable development – the result of coal being an objectively superior energy source as the orthodox narrative of industrial revolution has it – but rather arose out of capitalist property relations. Since coal was mobile unlike water power – which was tied to rivers and constrained by their flows – it enabled a docile labour force, concentrated in factory towns, to work around the clock, maximising profits. For Malm, capitalism and fossil fuels are inseparable. But there could have been another path: socialism, being a classless society, does not require docile workers, and so might have had no need for fossil fuels.

But Malm, Klein and others are wrong. Socialism may not need docile workers, but its publicly owned hospitals certainly need the 24/7 electricity that powers their ventilators and dialysis machines and need to be built where there are population concentrations, not where weather-dependent energy services such as water power are optimal. Until the development of large-scale hydroelectric and nuclear power, fossil fuels were indeed objectively superior to their fair-weather and geography-dependent precursors. Socialism would have needed fossil fuels too.

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Consider this thought experiment. Let’s imagine that the 1918-19 socialist German Revolution that failed in the real world had in fact been successful. Rather than being attempted in semi-feudal, largely agrarian Russia, in our counterfactual history socialism emerges instead in the modern, democratising, industrial societies that Marx had predicted would be its birthplace. From Germany, socialism spreads across Europe and thence the world. To simplify matters for the sake of the thought experiment, let us define socialism as a global economy that allocates goods and services through democratic planning on the basis of need, not, as with capitalism, primarily via markets on the basis of profit. Furthermore, in our thought experiment, let’s give our socialists an additional, temporal advantage and say that capitalism is vanquished everywhere by, say, 1930. Democratic socialism is triumphant across the globe. There is no Soviet disaster. No Maoist famines. No Second World War. No Cold War. Colonialism is willingly, rapidly unravelled in the 1920s rather than reluctantly, incompletely, violently, in the 1950s and 1960s. There is no crisis of profitability in the early 1970s and thus no 1980s neoliberal revolution.

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Even had all this occurred, it would still probably not have been until the 1980s that the full scale of the threat of climate change with respect to fossil fuel combustion was understood by scientists – around the same time as it was under our existing capitalist system. Even though the heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide had been the subject of scientific speculation since the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the full climatic consequences of burning fossil fuels began to be widely recognised. (Remember, the fact that ExxonMobil’s internal researchers knew about the scale of the problem caused by their lucrative product in the 1970s before much of the rest of the scientific community did is central to what made their actions such a scandal.)

[See also: The energy crisis: what the UK could learn from Germany]

A successful German Revolution and democratic socialist governments around the world would absolutely not have dispensed with industrial modernity. Rather, socialism would have spread industrialisation everywhere, and as fast as development of the forces of production would allow. Housing for all, electricity for all, fast and comfortable transport for all, and yes, even delightful plastic consumer tchotchkes for all. While socialism might avoid the duplicative irrationality of 14 different flavours of laundry detergent one finds under capitalism, there would still be consumerism under socialism; it doesn’t promise a hair-shirted, grey existence of only basic needs being met. A dearth of consumer items in order to focus on industrial production was one of many shortcomings of Stalinism that turned its subjects against it. There would absolutely be a People’s Xbox under socialism. As the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strikers demanded in 1912, we want bread, but we want roses too.

So in a socialist 20th century up until the 1980s: fossil fuel extraction and combustion; steel, cement and fertilizer production; rice, beef and dairy agriculture; and aviation, trucking and shipping – all would have continued in essentially the same fashion as happened in history, but there would have been much, much more of it, as so many more billions of people would have access to industrial modernity. And all of this progress would have unfolded with society largely unaware of the consequences for the climate. Exploitation would have come to an end, and poor working conditions with them. And economic development would have occurred in egalitarian fashion rather than being driven by profit and colonial, inter-imperialist necessity. But it is hard to believe that, for example, socialist steel foundries would have used a different chemical reaction to turn iron oxide into iron than capitalist societies did (at least until the real-world 2020s advent of clean steel manufacturing). To say that socialism would have been able to avoid emitting a climate-changing volume of greenhouse gases is thus to suggest that eco-socialism would not have delivered electricity, transport, modern housing and so on to all – which would not have been a socialism that any 20th-century Marxist would have recognised.

There may have been some differences between a capitalist and a socialist 20th century in terms of technologies deployed. Perhaps there would have been lots of differences. There would have been no nuclear weapons, certainly, but these, however nefarious, have comparatively little impact on the climate from their production. But the only significant difference that might have lowered greenhouse gas emissions would be that public transport under socialism would likely have been emphasised much more than personal vehicles. But even if public transport would have been greatly expanded under socialism, since development would have spread to all the world’s billions, the absolute number of personal vehicles might still have been substantially larger.

Certainly there would have been far more steel and cement, were all of humanity properly housed, and there would have been much, much more coal combustion (where local geography did not permit hydropower dams), were electricity likewise delivered to all. Remember that in the real world, prior to Stalin’s counter-revolution, Lenin defined communism as “Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country”. And in the depths of the Russian civil war, when forces from 14 nations had invaded to crush the young workers’ state, in a 1919 message transmitted from Shipilovo station Trotsky described the coal of the Donets Basin as a “great buried treasure,” of which “our factories, railways, steamships and domestic hearths are in mortal need”.

In other words, in our counterfactual world, production might have been organised according to other aims than profit (or much of it, depending on how far one favours socialisation of production), but this would in fact have unleashed much more production. And this of course was what Marx imagined when he expressed his frustration at how production for commodity exchange irrationally constrained what could be produced. Socialism would not have resulted in less production, for the set of all things that are profitable is smaller than the set of all things that are useful to humanity. Instead of coal plants powering factories largely only in Europe and the US by the 1930s, they would have been powering them everywhere. Development would have been limited only by global economic capacity at any given moment.

Global warming under a socialist 20th century thus would have been far worse by the time we realised the threat it posed in the 1980s, because socialism would have spread industrial modernity to all citizens of the world as soon as possible, uninhibited by the need for profit-making or its consequence, imperial interest. As unfortunate as the more severe threat from global warming would have been, this would also have been outweighed by the profoundly greater advances in human development the entirety of the species would have experienced.

[See also: Don’t listen to the climate doomists]

In a way the relationship between fossil fuel combustion and human advance is borne out by the actual record: the “Great Acceleration” – the sharp uptick in atmospheric CO2 since the 1950s, among other indices of humanity’s ecological impact – coincided with a world-historic socio-economic transformation: after three decades of revolution, depression, labour strife, civil war and world war, most of the West agreed to a new social compact between capital and labour, introducing the modern welfare state and institutionalising trade unions. The social democratic postwar consensus radically enhanced the living standards of hundreds of millions. China’s rapid development in the 1990s and 2000s, largely fuelled by coal, similarly lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty (albeit in a land absent of free trade unions and civil liberties).

So why is socialism of any benefit at all with respect to climate change, if its establishment worldwide might actually have made it worse, and if social advances in the latter half of the 20th century drove a sharp acceleration in emissions? To answer this question, we have to recognise the limits of what socialism promises. It does not promise a society without problems, or even a society without severe problems. Humans solve problems and those solutions unwittingly cause new problems, to which we devise new solutions, which spawn yet more problems. This will continue, so long as our species survives, until the heat death of the universe (unless we can somehow solve that problem too). No economic system can promise an end to all problems. Socialism is merely, perhaps disappointingly so, a social technology that offers better solutions to problems than capitalism does, and better problems.

The difference between capitalism and socialism with respect to climate change (or any other environmental problem) is that under the latter, once any ecological threat from a technology is discovered, the main barrier to switching away from that technology is the speed with which scientists and engineers can develop alternative technologies that don’t cause the identified harm while still delivering the same benefit.

Under capitalism, however, there are three additional problems. First is the market incentive that drives the owners of a firm that produces a commodity found to be harmful to continue its production (and thus an incentive to lobby, misinform and capture regulation). Note that this incentive does not distinguish between a single boss, a group of shareholders, or an entire country owning the given firm (hence the incentive Equinor, an energy company of which the government of Norway is the largest shareholder, to continue oil and gas extraction). Second, there is little incentive, in a capitalist system, to produce clean, useful technologies that remain unprofitable or insufficiently profitable. A good example is conventional nuclear energy. Despite having the lowest carbon emissions of any electricity generation source and being capable of providing energy 24/7, nuclear finds it difficult to compete against natural gas and wind and solar in liberalised energy markets because of its high upfront capital costs. For this reason, conventional nuclear will likely always be a primarily state-driven affair. Finally, the competition between nations that the market produces inhibits democratic global problem-solving.

All of these pathologies of market failure at the level of individual commodities and development of individual technologies combine to create the direst of economy-wide coordination problems. The existential threat from stratospheric ozone depletion was largely solved by the 1987 Montreal Protocol and the national regulations that the protocol demanded – a species of (modest) economic planning, coordinated globally. But chlorofluorocarbon use, the target of the protocol, affected only a few sectors. Climate change, by contrast, demands wholesale transformation of electricity, transport, industry, buildings and agriculture – almost everything we do and make. Sectoral planning bodies such as were common in Western democracies during the First and Second World Wars, using indicative planning (state coordination of a mixed economy rather than Gosplan-style planning of everything) to craft climate mitigation strategies for each while coordinating with their fellows across sectors, could go a long way to ameliorating the coordination problem at which the price mechanism performs so poorly.

Even if low-carbon technologies to decarbonise, say, four fifths of emissions-producing activities – outside hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as cement and heavy transport – were known in the 1980s, in reality deploying these technologies can sometimes still be far too expensive. A socialist world might not account for expense in dollars, depending on one’s preferred means of socialist allocation, but it still would in labour time and opportunity cost. As the neo-Keynesian economist Mariana Mazzucato has shown, markets are often poor at blue-sky innovation and also at taking innovation from lab bench through to commercialisation, so here we can add another feather in the socialist’s climate cap by arguing that such a society would be able to allocate more economic capacity towards innovation and de-risking that innovation both for the hard-to-decarbonise and expensive-to-decarbonise sectors.

Putting all this together, the most we can say is that even though global warming would likely be worse under socialism by the time the full scale of its threat was discovered in the 1980s, the response would have been more rapid and more egalitarian than that of our existing capitalist world. Speed of response is crucial of course, especially when it comes to an existential threat like climate change – and particularly when you consider that the bulk of greenhouse gases have been emitted in the last three decades or so. But that is all. Perhaps, if we squint, we might imagine that if the situation was worse, our socialist world might have discovered the problem a decade or two earlier. A global egalitarian order – democratic socialism – does away with aspects of capitalism that slow down our ability to deal with unknown, novel threats, once they become known. But socialism cannot do away with unknown, novel threats.

Understanding this is essential if we are to break with romantic responses to the climate emergency and related bio-crises, responses that are all too frequently empirically ungrounded or show a lack of understanding of how energy, transport, industrial and agricultural systems work. Too many think of climate change as something imposed by capitalist irrationality upon the rest of us against our will, a phenomenon that would never have happened in a classless world. Rather, climate change, as the unintended consequence of largely beneficial – though highly uneven – economic development, presents a problem that is just really hard to solve. Fossil fuels were (and in many places in the developing world still are) a great emancipator, even as over the long term, they may eventually foreclose that emancipation.

If this way of thinking is not corrected, there will be those who continue to be seduced by false solutions such as degrowth, anti-consumerism, anti-modernism and other forms of eco-austerity that distract from solutions that are more appropriate to the problem – and which also happen to be properly socialist – namely a greater role for economic planning.

[See also: Biden’s bill is the biggest climate victory since the Paris Agreement]

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