Socialism, Capitalism and the Transition Away from Fossil Fuels

Students are back at school, and preparing for another wave of Friday strikes in protest at politicians’ failure to tackle global warming. Shocking images of floods in Indonesia, wildfires in Australia and other climate change induced weather events add to the sense of urgency.

Judging by the placards and slogans at their demonstrations, the school strikers seem increasingly to see the indivisibility of climate justice and social justice as a core principle.

How will those aims be achieved? Because climate change is so evidently global, it is throwing up global-sized political questions more forcefully than at any time since the economic and political crises of the 1970s: can the climate crisis be tackled under capitalism, and by its political representatives? Does dealing with it mean confronting capitalism, and if so how?

This essay reflects on these questions, firstly by considering how fossil fuel use has grown to unsustainable levels through history; then, by highlighting the disastrous failure of the international climate talks process; and, finally, by arguing that a transition away from fossil fuels means changing not only the technological systems that use them, but also the social and economic systems in which they are embedded.

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