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Capitalist courts and climate struggle

Brian Champ

June 17, 2021
Recently, climate justice activists have been enthused by some major developments where mainstream institutions connected to centres of power have sought to curtail the operations of the oil and gas sector to meet climate goals. The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report in May that argued for a halt to new oil and gas production and, in January, Dutch courts ruled for damages against Royal Dutch Shell for their operations in the Niger delta and in May a court ruling mandated that they abide by the carbon emissions reduction commitments from the Paris Accord. These are milestones that are surely indicative of the reach of the climate movement and the severity of the crisis and further put the fossil fuel industry on notice. Unfortunately, the courts and institutions like the IEA cannot deliver the transformation we need – the power for this can only come from the convergence of the grassroots movements for Indigenous sovereignty, climate justice and workers fighting for a livable future.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) was founded in 1974 as a reaction to the oil crisis precipitated by the OPEC oil embargo against the US for their support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Canada was a founding member. The main requirement for membership was having a 90-day surplus supply in order to keep the oil flowing when other member nations experienced supply issues. Their collective emergency response system mechanism has been activated 3 times as a "stabilizing influence on markets and the global economy". In 1991 during the Gulf War, in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had destroyed oil infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico and in 2011 during the Libyan crisis that was precipitated by the Arab Spring that swept through North Africa and the Middle East.
The close connection between US energy policy, US foreign policy and the IEA can be seen in its beginnings and these emergency responses, and for most of its existence it has been a conservative organization, but more recently they have had to respond to the burgeoning climate movement, however contradictorily.
In 2011, the world energy outlook hailed a coming "golden age of gas" even as the reports urged energy transition to renewables in order to decoupled growth from carbon emissions. Leading up to the Paris Climate meetings in 2015 they released a special report for this "historic milestone" in efforts to reduce emissions. 
But their special report released on May 18th of this year entitled "Net Zero by 2050" hit the world media like a bombshell because of its call to end all new investments in oil and gas "from now", calling for a "rapid shift away from fossil fuels" and "huge declines in the use of coal, oil and gas" to reach net zero. Practical steps recommended include "halting sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars by 2035, and phasing out all unabated coal and oil power plants by 2040."
Furthermore, their analysis identifies that "the path to net-zero emissions is narrow and staying on it requires the massive deployment of all available clean energy technologies" by 2030. They call for clean energy investment to more than triple to $4 Billion (US) by then. For such a conservative organization consisting of oil producing countries to write this report demonstrates the growing severity of the climate crisis as new thresholds are crossed almost routinely and the reach of the global climate justice movement that is creating pressure for action.
But it would be a mistake to see this as an indication that leaders will act responsibly and implement effective programs to meet the immense challenges. One of the key focuses of the IEA is a vision of decoupling economic growth from emissions which their reports from 2014 and 2015 see as a real phenomenon, but emissions that had fallen slightly in that time period have risen again showing that this decoupling goal is far from straightforward.
Capitalism: Addicted to oil
But the transition will not happen quickly enough if it is left to market forces and incentives to shift investment from carbon intensive to zero emissions energy. Fossil fuel companies will not willingly give up their infrastructure investments as long as there is a market for their products, and already invested public infrastructure acts as subsidies to these corporations. As long as profits can be made, investment will flow in and the oil will keep flowing.
In addition, their recommendation of phasing out “unabated” coal and oil power plants by 2040 displays the reluctance to truly embrace an energy transition, because this implies the continued burning of these fuels could continue with the application of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology which are unproven at the scales that would be necessary. CCS solutions require “suitable geological formations” for the sequestered carbon to be contained, but this would necessarily involve further encroachments on Indigenous sovereignty to be guinea pigs in this experimental and unproven technology.
We also have to challenge the idea of “growth economies” as in any way sustainable. The climate crisis does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of a planetary crisis that includes; a high species extinction rate; chemical pollution of land, water and skies; ocean acidification; freshwater consumption; nitrogen and phosphorus pollution; and more. Even if all energy production was converted to be zero carbon, a continually growing economy would continue to overwhelm the remaining planetary ecological limits.
But what about the Dutch appeals court decision in January that ordered Royal Dutch Shell pay compensation for spills and another court decision in May holding the company accountable to Paris Agreement emissions targets? The compensation case had been brought forward by Nigerian farmers with the help of Friends of the Earth in 2008:
"Three of the four Nigerian plaintiffs and their fellow villagers must now be compensated for the damage caused and Shell must ensure that there is a leakage detection system in the pipelines in Nigeria. It is the first time that a court has held Dutch transnational corporation accountable for its duty of care abroad."
This is to be applauded as it sets precedence on the liability of parent companies for their operations abroad, where the respective legal systems are compatible. The terms of the decision, however, do not challenge the continuing flow of oil and it remains to be seen if the penalties will be set high enough to make a difference to the farmers or deter companies from continued negligence. Shell will appeal on the basis that the spills were caused by “sabotage” which the court ruled they had not proved beyond reasonable doubt.
In May another court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell and their suppliers must not only comply with the law, but also adhere to global climate commitments as well and therefore must accelerate their emissions reductions plans. This should be celebrated as undermining the legitimacy of the fossil fuel extraction industry, but this decision will surely be appealed and likely overturned by a higher court.
These court rulings and others do serve to further encircle corporations by providing legal penalties and mandating monitoring equipment that place their operations under greater scrutiny.
Unfortunately, legal systems were developed mainly to regulate private property which means it is an uneven playing field dominated by those with wealth and influence and any court rulings can only mitigate the property rights of corporations through regulations but cannot challenge these rights outright. Only collective action can do that.
Environmental destruction is built right into capitalism because when workers sell their labour power for a wage, they are alienated not only from control over the product of their labour, whether it be an object or service, but also from control over the production process. These reins are in the hands of the capitalist. The boss cannot, however, exercise this control any way they like: the bitter struggle between bosses competing in the market acts as an alien power pushing them to maximize profits in order to accumulate more capital than their competitors. And they are forced to engage in an up and down level of conflict with their workers over wages and working conditions to extract as much surplus value during production as they can. In this way, alienation is a universal feature of capitalism, though it is experienced much differently by capitalists and workers.
Alienation and nature
Marx argued there were additional “moments” of alienation: of workers from each other; of workers from the natural world; of humans from their “species-being” – the conscious and free application of labour to transform the natural world in order to meet our needs.
The primacy of the drive for profit overrides all other considerations, including deleterious labour conditions, violations of human rights and the destruction of the environment. Reinforcing oppressive ideas such as racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ+ oppression serves to atomize resistance to worsening working conditions and lower wages.
For Marx, the labour process "is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between [humans] and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence."  For Marx, this was the key to human nature. This human nature is exemplified by the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, who developed modes of social organization over thousands of years centred around sustaining human, plant and animal life on their lands.  
He argued further that capitalist production “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”
This “metabolic rift” lies behind the destruction of the environment and the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. We need to heal this rift on a global scale before climate catastrophe advances too far. The purpose of the Unist’ot’en camp on Wet’suwet’en land in the path of the CGL pipeline is to “Heal the People, Heal the Land”. We need to connect these assertions of Indigenous sovereignty that aim to heal this rift with the collective power of workers to challenge the rule of capital at the point of production.
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