A Transitional Programme for the Environment

For many people, the idea of a revolutionary change in society seems like a pipe-dream that will never be possible in their lifetime. In this respect, Trotsky developed the idea of the “Transitional Programme”: a set of demands that could take society from our current situation under capitalism, towards our final goal of international socialism. What would such a transitional programme look like for the environment? What set of demands should socialists make regarding the climate change? In this article, we attempt to outline such a programme.

In several recent articles, we have tried to address different aspects of the climate change debate, touching on some of the ideas that surround this important issue. We have examined the failures of market-based methods to solve climate change (Capitalism, Carbon trading and Copenhagen), and also explained why international treaties cannot work within the confines and contradictions of capitalism (The "Copenhagen accord"). Last month, we looked at why individual actions, on their own, will not have any significant impact, and why the only real solution is mass action and systematic change (Who's to blame for climate change?).

For many people, however, the idea of a revolutionary change in society seems like a pipe-dream that will never be possible in their lifetime. It is all very good to paint a picture of utopia, but one must explain how to make this a reality. Leon Trotsky, when laying out the tasks of the Fourth International in 1938, made it clear that socialists must go beyond the “minimum” demands put forward by the traditional social democratic parties, and must “find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution”. In this respect, Trotsky developed the idea of the “Transitional Programme”: a set of demands that could take society from our current situation under capitalism, towards our final goal of international socialism. We carry on this tradition today with our “What We Stand For” pamphlet.

What would such a transitional programme look like for the environment? What set of demands should socialists make regarding the climate change? A full, complete, detailed programme would take up many pages; instead, we have outlined seven major demands.

No to market-based methods

The free-market has never been able to provide even the most basic of material needs to the majority of the world’s population. Instead of alleviating poverty, capitalism has merely amplified inequalities, and is unable to eliminate famine, drought, and disease. Why, therefore, should we think that market-based methods will be any more effective at solving the equally large problem of climate change?

Many politicians, unable to break from the free-market, have attempted to create a commodity out of carbon. This exposes CO2 emissions to the same contradictions of capitalism as all other commodities. Speculators and fraudsters have already jumped on the “cap-and-trade” bandwagon, attempting to make a profit out of carbon trading. Meanwhile, many economists are already predicting that carbon-markets will be at the centre of the next big asset bubble.

Socialists must also be firmly against carbon taxes. A tax on energy use or emissions would be a regressive tax (like VAT), and would hit the poorest hardest. The position of socialists is always for progressive taxation, aimed at big-business and profiteering middle-men. Energy prices must not rise for the large number of ordinary people who already have trouble staying warm during the cold winters (Fuel Poverty: Leaving the poor to freeze).

No confidence in capitalist “treaties”

Whilst we must condemn imperialist countries that refuse to reduce their emissions, we must recognise that environmental treaties such as Kyoto or Copenhagen are doomed to failure if they attempt to operate within the confines of capitalism. Pro-capitalist countries will not sign up to anything that damages the profits of businesses in their country. These contradictions of the nation-state were fully on display at Copenhagen, and have resulted in the failure of international treaties for all manner of issues over the years, from world trade to development aid.

International co-operation is clearly needed to solve what is clearly an international problem; however, this can only happen under agreements that are made by delegates who are accountable and who represent the interests of people and the planet, not the interests of big business.

Nationalised, democratically owned transport, industry, and housing

In the UK, the main contributors to energy demand (and thus CO2 emissions) are transport, industry, and buildings. Under private control, these sectors operate for profit, and have seen little investment. As individuals, we have neither the money nor the control needed to reduce the waste and inefficiency of these polluters. What is needed, therefore, is the nationalisation of these major energy users, under the democratic control of the workers, trade unions, and elected representatives.

At the moment, the public transport network is horribly inefficient. After privatisation in 1993, the rail service still hasn't shown any increase in punctuality or reliability, and fares are increasing every year. In many cities, three or more separate bus companies operate in a totally uncoordinated manner. We demand a publicly owned, fully integrated transport system. Buses, trams, and trains across the country must be nationalised under workers’ control, and the closure of rail and bus routes must be reversed, especially in rural areas. Transport fares must also be slashed; an affordable and efficient public transport system could bring hundreds of thousands of cars off the road, reducing pollution, respiratory illnesses, and traffic accidents, and saving commuters huge amounts of money.

Industry and the commodities it produces are subject to inefficiency at every stage of production. Raw materials and resources are extracted with little regard for the environment; production is unplanned; consumer goods are designed to fail; waste material is rarely recycled by industry. In each case, this is due to insatiable appetite of big-business for profits, which results in cost-cutting at every opportunity. What is needed is a democratically planned economy, which could eliminate unnecessary damage to the environment.

The government should initiate a mass programme to improve the insulation and heating systems of all buildings, whilst new, affordable, energy-efficient homes are also needed. Such a plan would reduce energy demands and create thousands of new jobs. The construction industry must nationalised and forced to meet more stringent building regulations, whilst social housing should be put back into public ownership, not controlled by private landlords who profiteer whilst investing nothing back.

Transition away from fossil-fuels towards green industries

Power companies currently make huge profits by charging consumers outrageously high prices for electricity and gas, whilst making minimal investment into renewable technology. These utility companies must be taken into public ownership, under democratic workers’ control, enabling a large-scale transition away from fossil fuels, and towards alternative energy sources, such as wind, wave, tidal, and solar.

During the transition to a sustainable energy sector, it is inevitable that oil, coal, and gas will stay in use for a considerable amount of time. When old power stations are upgraded or decommissioned, all workers must be found replacement jobs or training with no loss of pay.

Nationalisation and democratic control of the banks and investment

In the original “Transitional Programme”, Trotsky pointed out that the banks hold the real control over the economy:

“the banks concentrate in their hands the actual command over the economy...It is impossible to take a single serious step in the struggle against monopolistic despotism and capitalistic anarchy if the commanding posts of banks are left in the hands of predatory capitalists”.

Despite much talk about investing in renewable energy and creating green jobs, governments and businesses have in fact spent very little thus far. In their special report on investment in green energy, The Economist states that, “Whereas policymakers have been scurrying from conference to conference to urge the world on towards a green future, investors have been walking away from it”.

Due to the bailouts over the last few years, the British government already owns a large stake of many banks. What is needed now is to place the control of these banks into the hands of the workers and trade unions, so that public money can be invested in green industries, not used to carry on paying out bonuses to the bankers.

Democratic control of the media, education, and research

When turning on the TV these days, you may find yourself faced with various adverts and programmes that attempt to shift the blame for ecological disaster onto ordinary individuals. In some cases, the media attempts to deny climate change altogether. These instances are normally funded by large, rich, powerful lobbying groups, such as the oil and coal industries, and are in complete contradiction to the vast majority of scientific studies. The fight against such propaganda must begin with the fight for a media that is socially owned and democratically controlled, not in the hands of a cartel of moguls.

Meanwhile, big-business has a large influence in environmental education and research. For example, the Centre for Energy Studies at Cambridge University is located in the Judge Business School, and is generously funded by BP and ExxonMobil. We say that it is students and workers who should decide what is taught and researched in universities, not private corporations.

In 2009, the Ministry of Defence was allocated £44.6bn of taxpayers’ money by the British government, representing over 7% of the total public spending. This is greater than the combined budgets allocated to transport, housing, the environment, energy, climate change, and international development. Public money should not be wasted on wars, but instead invested into research on green technologies. Large defence companies, such as BAE Systems, should be nationalised, and their productive and scientific capacity used to develop wind turbines, not weapons.

Stop using food as fuel

Growing biofuels has been encouraged by many governments in recent years as a sustainable source of fuel; however, the downsides of biofuels are too often overlooked. By turning over agricultural land to biofuels, food prices increase, hitting poor people hardest. A socialist programme rejects the current use of biofuels, and demands genuinely sustainable energy sources.

Genetically modifying crops have the potential to greatly increase the yield, but there are also possible associated risks with cross contamination. What is needed is the nationalisation of the biggest agro-businesses, and a proper scientific investigation into GM crops by independent scientists, not those sponsored by big business. A planned economy could distribute food far more rationally, rather than relying on market forces that prevent millions of people from having enough to eat.

The need for socialism

The above points give a brief outline of what socialists should call for regarding climate change and the environment. It should be emphasised that socialism is not inherently green; even if all of the above measures were implemented, the safety of the planet would not be guaranteed. A greater consciousness of environmental issues would still be needed by everyone. These behavioural changes, however, can only occur alongside a systematic change. By placing the means of production in the hands of the majority, the separation of workers from the fruits of their labour would dissolve, and people would no longer be alienated from the environment.

The profit motive is the biggest barrier to environmentalism. In the last analysis, the greatest contradiction remains that of class society. Once this fundamental contradiction is resolved, we can begin to address the other contradictions that may exist, such as that between humanity and the planet.

Source: Socialist Appeal (Britain)