To address climate change, many people agree we have to change the system. But what does ‘changing the system’ mean, and how can we do it?

What a difference two years make. In February 2013, public concern about climate change was apparently at its lowest for two decades with little sign of improvement on the horizon. Now, the People’s Climate March in September 2014 and the Time to Act demonstration on 7th March 2015 have demonstrated that people don’t just care about the issue but are demanding action before it is finally too late.

In part, this upswing in willingness to campaign on climate change must stem from an awareness that it is nearly too late. The message of the Campaign against Climate Change’s Time to Act demonstration was that the Paris summit coming up at the end of 2015 is the last chance for a meaningful international agreement for emissions reduction before the warming we are already experiencing becomes out of control.

It is probably fair to say, however, that most of the marchers recognise that simply calling for government action is not enough. The historical focus of the Campaign against Climate Change on the annual international climate talks seemed originally to reflect a belief that government agreements on emissions reduction targets were in some way meaningful. In other words, that if governments agreed to a certain percentage of emissions reductions, or to a certain percentage of energy from renewables, then they would at least make a decent attempt to put this into practice. Unfortunately, experience now shows that this is not the case: not only the carbon emissions but the rate of increase of emissions is higher now than it was before the Kyoto Protocols committed the signatory nations to reductions. Just last year, the Tories successfully lobbied the EU to be allowed to include energy from fracking and nuclear power in the UK’s renewables targets.

The problem is ideology not technology

It’s worth reminding ourselves here that the problem is not that the technology doesn’t exist for clean, green energy generation. There have now been several reports showing precisely how the UK, or any other First World country, could fulfil all of its power needs through renewable energy generation, including a shift away from gas for domestic heating and cooking. The problem is not so much technological as it is ideological: the creation of a green power infrastructure would be a major public works project entirely at odds with the current government’s neoliberal austerity agenda. A full scale shift to renewables would also be against the interests of some of the most powerful corporations; not just those in the fossil fuel business, but any who make use of the investment opportunities which capital-intensive projects like new power stations provide, and renewable energy installations largely do not.

While the opportunities for campaigning that international events like the Paris summit provide are immensely important, we have to understand that we are unlikely to get meaningful action from them. In order to address climate change, we have to change the system. This is a conclusion with which much of the green movement is unlikely to disagree. What ‘changing the system’ means, and how we might do it, is however rather more in dispute.

For some, the realisation that the government is unlikely to take the action we need on climate change just for the asking leads to the conclusion that the only way to change the system is from the bottom up: individuals changing their own behaviour in the hope that it will provide a model for others to follow. This is often where the aspects of the movement which see issues around food as all-important come in. There was no explicitly vegan block on the Time to Act march (for which the Campaign against Climate Change came in for some forceful criticism), but the sit-down by some marchers outside Strand McDonalds on route was a demonstration of how strong the sense that fighting climate change involves campaigning on individuals’ food choices can be.

An insistence on individual lifestyle changes as a way of addressing climate change often seems to come from those who consider themselves the most radical part of the green movement, but for all that, it is ultimately based in an understanding of the world which is oddly reliant on the central tenets of free-market capitalism. The belief that carbon emissions from food production can be addressed by people not eating problematic foods, and persuading others to follow their example, only works if it is accompanied by a belief that the supply of said foods is determined by the demand. In other words, that if individuals stop wanting to eat hamburgers, McDonalds will stop producing them. This is the myth of the market, where the consumer is all-powerful, but it bears very little relationship to reality, where in fact there is a long history of individual eating patterns across the world being shaped very deliberately by corporations.

Collective solutions

Beyond the realm of individual choices, there is also the question of local, collective action. The case for this can seem rather more persuasive, since there are examples, particularly in Germany, of local energy co-operatives providing a basis for renewable electricity supply to homes across a small area. These are of course worthy initiatives, and useful demonstrations again that renewable energy generation can meet our power needs, but there remains a difficulty with viewing these sorts of small-scale projects as the route to the system change we need.

The theory here is that capitalism can be defeated by the individuals living in it simply withdrawing themselves from it, whether that is in some aspects of their lives, like getting their electricity through their local co-op rather than from a power company, or completely. This is an idea with a considerable pedigree, being very similar to the beliefs of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Utopian Socialists like Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen. The Utopians believed that setting up communities run along socialist lines would set a powerful enough example that even the ruling class would wish to follow it. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, ‘they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavour, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.’

Both Marx and Engels were sympathetic to the Utopians, but pointed out that it was a belief which arose from a very early stage of capitalism, when people were beginning to be horrified at the conditions suffered by the working class but had not yet understood the proletariat’s unique ability for class struggle. In the two hundred years since the Utopians provided their examples of how society could be constructed differently, we have had plenty of proof that capitalism can in fact work perfectly well with small groups of people attempting to withdraw from it. It is not that these attempts are bad ideas in themselves, but that they do not bring down capitalism simply by existing. Nor do they, in themselves, effect any kind of transformation in capitalism.

Talking about revolution

There can often be a reluctance in green circles to talk explicitly about revolution, but ultimately that is what full-scale system change is. Calling it system change may allow the implication that we can get there one food co-op at a time, but this just hides the size and nature of the task we face. If we understand that what we are talking about when we talk about system change is, necessarily, overthrowing capitalism, then it follows that what we need is organisation: to think strategically about where the system is weakest, to make connections between different aspects of the struggle and to grasp the key link in the chain, the point at which we can make the most difference. Only then can serious changes be imposed upon capitalist interests.

This, then, is not to argue that nothing can be done about climate change until the revolution. It is simply a recognition that our best chance to extract any concessions to environmental concerns from the capitalist elite is by building the sort of serious movement which can pose a real threat to them. In the present situation, the connections between climate change and austerity are particularly important, given the potential for popular movements against austerity to pose a significant challenge to neoliberalism. The role of the People’s Assembly in the Time to Act demonstration was a positive step in making these connections, and the next step must surely be a substantial climate change presence on the People’s Assembly demonstration on 20th June.

Whether we will be able to achieve this does not depend on how many new and shiny climate movement organisations we found between now and the summer. It depends on how we apply the recognition that our different fights are linked to practical action; on whether we are prepared to organise, seriously and strategically, for the struggle.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.