September 2016 demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Sandusky, IA. via Flickr.
Donald Trump is a fitting emblem of the Capitalocene, the age when capitalism’s relentless drive to expand has generated massive carbon emissions, pushing planetary ecosystems into states of unpredictable turbulence, precipitating a mass extinction crisis of unprecedented ferocity.
A man with an apparently boundless appetite for self-aggrandizement, Trump has promised to pursue policies of such environmental destructiveness that their impacts are likely to be measured in the geologic record, in degrees of temperature increase and feet of sea level rise around the world. Of course carbon emissions are collective and historical, so it would be wrong to suggest that Trump is solely responsible for planetary ecocide, but his election comes at a critical time for the struggle to avert cataclysmic anthropogenic climate change. In pledging to unleash unfettered fossil capitalism, Trump epitomizes and promises to grievously aggravate the catastrophic contradictions of the Capitolocene. In the wake of Trump’s election, some mainstream environmentalists may take solace in the idea of an unstoppable market-led transition to clean energy and green growth. These hopes are not simply misplaced but dangerously demobilizing. Trump is a devourer of worlds. He and the rampant fossil capitalism he embodies can only be stopped through clear-eyed, concerted, and radical political action.
November is likely to go down as a pivotal moment in global history. Of course, on November 8th Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S., upsetting pollsters and pundits who had almost universally predicted that he would lose to Hillary Clinton. On that same day, the World Meteorological Organization released a report announcing that the past five years were the hottest ever recorded. The WMO report also alluded to other grievous anthropogenic climate impacts, including rapidly rising sea levels, likely to surge in coming years as a result of the unexpectedly rapid melting of polar ice. As delegates gathered in Marrakech the week after the election for the 22nd annual meeting of UN-sponsored climate negotiations, leading climate scientists warned that global temperatures are now two-tenths of a degree away from the upper threshold agreed upon only one year ago during the last round of negotiations in Paris. Researchers also warned that the Arctic is experiencing extraordinarily hot sea surface and air temperatures, which are stopping the formation of ice at the North Pole. As if these doomsday trends were not enough, the World Wide Fund for Nature reported at the beginning of the month in its Living Planet Index that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012, and that the planet is on track to lose two-thirds of sentient life forms in the fifty year period ending in 2020. The environmental systems on which life on Earth depends are breaking down under the weight of a fossil capitalist system that has entered a phase of increasingly extreme extraction. Terms like global warming and climate change are far too anesthetic to characterize the crisis of our times: we are living through a planetary mass extinction event that is on track to exterminate most life on Earth.
It is no exaggeration to say that Donald Trump is set to become the most destructive force in humanity’s history. His presidency will vastly accelerate the despoliation of the environment upon which all life on the planet depends. Achieving power at a time when the world must ramp back carbon emissions with all possible speed, Trump and the extreme right-wing ideological currents that he has helped harness and promote, both within and outside the Republican Party, have loudly and proudly declared themselves obedient puppets of fossil capitalism. Trump is a long-time climate change denier, and has placed Myron Ebell, who has made a lucrative career flouting established climate science, at the head of his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. The fifth, sixth, and seventh points of Trump’s 100-day plan are to dramatically expand the production of fracked shale oil, natural gas, and coal; lift roadblocks to fossil fuel expansion projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline; and cancel billions in payments for climate change programs. Trump has also vowed to scrap President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The plan, which Obama was forced to pass using executive action as a result of the obdurate Republican climate know-nothings in Congress, is the linchpin of the U.S.’s promises to reduce emissions as part of the Paris Accords, the agreement reached last year to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. While it would take four years to withdraw from the Paris Accords, Trump and his cronies could effectively turn the agreement into a dead letter by reneging on the emissions reductions of roughly 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 to which Obama committed.
Trump has not become the sole political leader on the planet to deny climate change because he is stupid or bad at science. As Naomi Klein pointed out in This Changes Everything, the well-funded denial movement is animated at bottom by the realization that genuinely and adequately addressing climate change would require a sweeping overhaul of the capitalist economic system that is the motive force behind overexploitation of the environment. The scandalous anti-scientific medievalism of climate “skepticism” is, in other words, driven by a most acute assessment of the political and economic implications of climate change science. The extent to which Trump’s denialism is animated by the spirit of capital is evident from a now-notorious tweet of his from November 2012, in which he said that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Summoning an economic nationalism intended to appeal to working class voters abandoned by the bipartisan globalization consensus of the last four decades, Trump’s tweet unmasks the reality of inter-imperial competition between capitalist states on the terrain of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to this logic, the atmosphere is a commons subject to colonization by the world’s most powerful nations. To cede rights to occupy that commons by cutting carbon emissions would be to lose the race to expand ceaselessly and to capitulate to competitive powers such as China (or India, Brazil, etc.). Trump’s braying climate change denialism thus lays bare what, to paraphrase Lenin, may be the highest (and also final stage of capitalism): climate imperialism. In a sign of inter-imperial climate competition to come, Trump’s election has already emboldened other highly polluting nations to begin disputing the terms of the Paris Accord. If world war and genocide were the necessary corollaries of imperialism in the last century, planetary ecocide is the inescapable outcome of Trump’s naked climate imperialism in this one.
In the face of the alarming environmental and political trends described above, pro-market environmentalists have pointed to both the incoherence of some of Trump’s campaign pledges, and to underlying economic trends, to suggest that the world has embarked on a transition to clean energy that is unstoppable, notwithstanding Trump’s extravagant promises to the fossil fuel industry. For Michael Liebreich, Chair of the advisory board of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Trump is a political novice whose energy plan doesn’t account for the economic reality of coal and renewable energy. Liebreich points out that Trump has championed both shale oil and coal, although the success of the former is directly responsible for the eroding economic fortunes of the latter. Furthermore, Trump’s summary dismissal of wind and solar power as expensive is simply inaccurate: renewables now outcompete some fossil fuels economically. These facts lead Liebreich to conclude that “the world will continue its inevitable transition to clean energy and transportation [no matter what Trump does in office], just at a slower rate than if the US were fully committed to leading the process.” Liebreich is not alone in this optimistic attitude. For prominent advocates of green growth such as Al Gore and Nicholas Stern, the world is on an unstoppable pathway towards decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions. This view, which is often known as “ecological modernization,” has percolated not only through entities like the World Bank, which has predictably embraced “inclusive green growth,” but to environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, which concluded after COP21 that “the end of fossil fuels is near, we must speed its coming.”
Unfortunately, the rosy outlook of ecological modernizers is nothing but wishful thinking. As Sean Sweeney of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy demonstrates in a forthcoming paper, ecological modernizers seize on partial information about the global energy economy in a way that obscures the fact that we are in an age of rapidly expanding fossil fuel extraction. Among the trends fueling the optimism of ecological modernizers are a sharp drop in coal consumption, rising investment in renewable energy, slowing energy demand and improving energy intensity, and the leveling off of global carbon emissions. Taken together, these trends are read to signify the decisive deterioration in the economics of fossil fuels as a result of the strengthening economic position of renewables. But, as Sweeney shows using data from organizations such as the International Energy Agency, this is a fundamental misreading. While coal production may be down in the U.S., global coal use has doubled since the mid-1980s. Similarly, natural gas use is increasing on a global scale, with energy generated from gas growing at a faster rate than that generated by renewables. Oil consumption is also increasing on a global scale. Wind and solar combined still only generate 4.6 percent of global electrical power. Furthermore, according to the IEA, global energy demand will continue to rise by 30 percent between now and 2040.
Improvements in energy efficiency, such as they are, will not reduce this growth in aggregate energy demand. And despite a diminishing rate of global carbon emissions in recent years, emissions continue to increase, pushing atmospheric carbon concentrations and global warming across dangerous thresholds towards runaway climate chaos. While we might be witnessing a glut of fossil fuel production that has driven prices down to historic lows and made some industries, such as coal, uncompetitive in some nations, the fossil fuel era is emphatically not over. Although renewable energy production has certainly been increasing, it has not been growing fast enough to displace fossil fuels, and it will not do so without decisive political action to shift the world towards a just transition. The struggle for democratic control over energy production, distribution, and use is a key element in this fight for a better, sustainable world.
Given the grim situation in which the global movement for climate justice finds itself, what resources of hope and strategies of resistance may it turn to? First of all, the election of Trump should demonstrate the utter bankruptcy of neoliberalism in the environmental sphere. As writers such as Cornel West have argued, the age of Obama may be the last gasp of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party. Premature predictions of neoliberalism’s demise have admittedly been legion in the last few decades, and, notwithstanding some of his campaign pledges, Trump is not about to ditch the elements of globalization which benefit U.S. elites, himself included. Nonetheless, Trump’s election constitutes a damning referendum on the neoliberal New Democrat faction within the Democratic Party (and of social democracy more broadly). After all, the results of November 8th were not just a rejection of the Clintons but also of the legacy of Obama, a president who promised to provide the downtrodden with hope but then chose to ignore the crimes of Wall Street bankers while rejecting bailouts for low-income homeowners, who ran on an anti-war platform but then engaged in a global spree of extra-judicial assassinations (including of U.S. citizens) while strengthening a police state of unprecedented power whose most frequent targets domestically are African American men and undocumented immigrants. There were undeniably potent strains of misogyny, homophobia and racism that fed into Clinton’s loss, but this cannot gainsay the additional impact of anger at Obama and the Democratic Party’s failure to stem rising inequality.
Obama’s environmental record is particularly troubling. It was Obama, after all, who pushed for “voluntary” (i.e. hollow) cuts to carbon emissions at UN meetings from Copenhagen to Paris, and who helped to privatize the atmosphere by codifying a property right to pollute in the form of carbon markets and emissions trading. Although Obama did cave-in and cancel the Keystone XL pipeline in response to grassroots pressure, near the culmination of the 2016 election he quietly auctioned off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas drilling in national forests, opened up 119 million acres for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and weakened the Endangered Species Act. If nothing else demolishes faith in the capacity and determination of neoliberals in the Democratic Party to address the climate crisis adequately, the refusal of both Hillary Clinton and Obama to condemn and bring to an end the violent persecution being meted out to Native American water protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota should certainly do so.
With faith in the Democratic Party’s neoliberal environmentalism and green growth smashed, and the Trump environmental horror show about to unfold, there are no obstacles to mass mobilization around strategies that have the potential to deliver climate justice. First and foremost among such strategies must be radical resistance to Trump’s fossil capitalist agenda. But equally important will be struggles at scales where grassroots movements can win meaningful change over the next four years, as well as campaigns for systemic transformation in the longer term. Of course some resistance to Trump’s oil executive-occupied White House will take place in the courts, where existing environmental regulations must be defended and government agencies must be held accountable. Efforts such as the investigation of ExxonMobil for its decades of duplicity about climate change take on increasing importance with the ascent of a consummate media manipulator and industry shill like Trump. Yet while such efforts are important, they cannot be a substitute for campaigns that bring people in the U.S. and around the planet together en masse to defend the ecosystems on which they depend. There is some cause for hope in this regard. Struggles against extreme extraction projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline are part of a global movement to break free from fossil fuels that has grown massively as more and more people are endangered by and incensed over fossil capitalist infrastructure. This resistance has been met with heavy-handed repression, including the assassination of hundreds of environmental activists around the world. In the face of such violence, activists such as those gathered at Standing Rock have advanced defiant campaigns of nonviolent direct action. Their struggles have galvanized global opinion and helped foster forms of solidarity based on an awareness of a shared anti-racist struggle. The links between the NODAPL campaign and Black Lives Matter are indicative of such forms of intersectional unity. If state-sanctioned violence against such movements is likely to increase under Trump, so will the movements pushing back courageously against it. The campaign for climate justice must be an integral part of a larger mass movement against racism, colonialism, and fossil capitalist ecocide that spans the globe.
In addition to fighting back against Trump, partisans for climate justice must struggle in arenas where grassroots movements can achieve significant victories over the next four years. With climate criminals like Trump and the Republican Party in almost total control of the federal government and many state houses, the onus falls on progressive states and cities like California and New York City to decarbonize their economies. Again, there is some cause for hope here. Cities are responsible for nearly three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the majority of humanity now lives in cities. If urbanization is one of the factors producing growing carbon emissions, many cities are moving to slash them. Even Trump’s hometown, the consummate capitalist city of New York, dropped its emissions by 12 percent since 2005, despite a growing economy and population. Moreover, the city has pledged to cut its emissions by 80 percent by 2050. These cuts are important victories, hard fought by environmental justice movements facing pro-growth interests that, like Trump, would no doubt love to forget about climate change. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the city achieved these cuts largely by shifting from coal-fired energy sources to natural gas. As a result, although New York State has banned the highly polluting process of fracking, it is drawing much of its energy from the destruction of the environment in neighboring states like Pennsylvania. In addition, the city’s 80x50 plan to reduce emissions sounds great but is extremely vague about how future emissions cuts are to be made, other than through insulation of buildings. The plan makes no mention of the need to shift to truly renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Meanwhile, New York is threatened by truly outrageous fossil capitalist infrastructure projects like the Spectra AIM pipeline, which is being built within hundreds of feet of the decrepit Indian Point nuclear power plant thirty miles north of the city. Even on the scale of the city, much work remains to be done in the struggle for a renewably generated and locally controlled energy economy.
The movement for climate justice must also look beyond the era of Trump. Efforts such as the Leap Manifesto point the way to a society based not on fossil capitalism’s imperative of incessant growth but rather on renewable energy and social solidarity. Among the manifesto’s prescient proposals: a universal program to rebuild ailing infrastructure around renewable energy, an end to trade deals that destroy local economies, the creation of a localized and ecologically based agricultural system that reduces reliance on fossil fuels, and expansion of those economic sectors that are already low-carbon, such as caregiving, teaching, the arts, and public-interest media. The idea of a national mobilization to avert climate chaos may seem laughable given the election of Trump, but it is precisely in the face of the dystopian world proffered by Trump and his neofascist supporters that we need to make stridently utopian plans for an alternative future.
Two key provisos for such proposals for a just world to come: First, no matter how successful our fight against the forces of ecocide is over the next four years, we are already irrevocably on track for intensified climate chaos. We need to mobilize now to adapt to the chaotic future. Those who are least culpable, the people of the global South, are already suffering the most from the unnatural disasters unleashed by climate change. Ecocide is, after all, not distributed evenly across the planet, but is affecting the poorest people, who live overwhelmingly in formerly colonized nations in the tropical latitudes, most harshly. Among Trump’s chilling campaign pledges is a promise to slash already-lagging U.S. support for adaptation funds for such poor nations. We must build many forms of solidarity against this racist reversal, but absolutely paramount must be a recognition that the developed countries, who have benefited from centuries of exploitation of the atmospheric commons, owe an immense climate debt to the poor nations. There are many ways in which such debt might be discharged, including plans for a future global New Deal that would mobilize the labor of the urban informal classes, the human surplus of the capitalist system, as well as the all-but-forgotten rural poor in the Global South, for the sustainable reconstruction of the cities, towns, and villages they inhabit in a planet-spanning just transition. Short of such plans for planetary reconstruction, a basic element of climate debt must be the recognition of the human right to adapt to climate chaos through mobility. Rich nations must assume responsibility for those forced to abandon their homes by the direct or indirect ravages of climate chaos.
Second, plans for a just transition must be framed around a shift to an economic system that is not based on ceaseless growth. After all, clean energy alone won’t save us. Even if it is powered by 100 percent renewable energy, capitalism will still gorge itself on the planet, stuffing rainforests and other vulnerable but vital ecosystems into its insatiable maw with no thought of the future. We have been brainwashed by thirty years of capitalist triumphalism into believing that There Is No Alternative, but given the planet’s precipitous trajectory towards mass extinction, it should be abundantly clear that we desperately need an alternative to unfettered capitalism. The global hegemony of neoliberal capitalism over the last four decades has not built the world we wish to inhabit, nor will it sustain one we can bequeath to future generations. If it does nothing else, the era of Trump will make that point clearer than ever.
Ashley Dawson is Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. He is the author of Extinction: A Radical History (O/R Press, 2016), The Routledge Concise History of Twentieth-Century British Literature (2013) and Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Michigan, 2007). Dawson is also co-editor of four essay collections, including, most recently, Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities (Haymarket, 2015). A former editor of Social Text Online and of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom, Dawson recently completed work on a book entitled Extreme City: Climate Chaos and the Urban Future for Verso.