Tag: neoliberalism

The AFL-CIO “On the Beach”

In the chilling 1959 cold war apocalyptic film, On the Beach, the entire northern hemisphere has succumbed to radiation sickness after a nuclear war. A few pockets of humanity remain in the southern hemisphere but, the characters in the film discover, their demise is inevitable as wind currents slowly move the nuclear fall- out toward them. Life goes on as usual, albeit at a more frenzied and desperate pace, as people await their doom while the radioactive cloud creeps toward them, silencing other outposts as it moves.

At the risk of being overly dramatic, it could be said that today’s AFL-CIO is “on the beach” and awaiting its own demise while attempting to carry on as if it still had a future. Formed in 1955 with a merger meant to end two decades of bitter infighting, the AFL-CIO’s primary purpose was to consolidate and administer the post-war collective bargaining regime. There was a reason why its new headquarters building overlooked the White House. The premise of that regime was that labor was a limited partner with capital in a relationship mediated by the federal government.

This arrangement made workers and their unions particularly vulnerable to the rise of neoliberal globalization. Moreover, a labor movement whose mission focused on collective bargaining with individual employers, and with many of the fundamental functions of working- class solidarity outlawed or constrained, left little scope for a national labor organization to mobilize and lead an organized working class in campaigns against capital.

Instead, we got a federation whose primary internal function was not to unite but to mediate between autonomous unions and whose exter- nal function was to intervene in a regulatory state and serve as a junior partner in a multi- class political party. (Until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. labor movement also performed the additional function of serving U.S. foreign policy interests.)

Today, labor’s influence has been reduced to a few diminishing private-sector outposts. Capital has long moved on, embracing a neoliberal world order with no place for unions or any restraints on its mobility or autonomy. The strange fruits of the November 2016 presidential election make a Friedrichs’-style open-shop public sector all but inevitable. The current Congress and Trump administration may well enact a national right-to-work regulation and do whatever else they can to undermine the right to organize and bargain.

The AFL-CIO has been grappling with this existential crisis since 1995 when, in the only contested election in the history of the AFL- CIO, the New Voices slate was elected with the promise to stop doing business as usual and implement an organizing-intensive program to revitalize the labor movement. The proximate cause of all of this ferment and change was the realization that the Democratic Party had also been captured by neoliberalism. This was driven home by the Clinton administration’s indifference to labor law reform, deference to the medical industrial complex, attacks on federal workers and abandonment of the New Deal/Great Society principles of a social safety net and its embrace of punitive models of social regulation.

Unfortunately, the New Voices leadership never addressed the need to break out of its entrapment within the neoliberal Democratic Party. They actively discouraged the significant union-sponsored effort to build an independent Labor Party that emerged in the late 1990s.[1]

Instead, they doubled down, giving more and more money and organizing resources to Democratic candidates and getting less and less in return. Each election was “the most important fight of our lifetime.” Each victory gave us nothing. Each defeat had disastrous consequences.

This political accommodationism meant that there would be no real improvements in the laws regulating workers’ rights to organize and bargain nor restrictions on plant closures and offshoring. The unrelenting decline in private- sector union density continued, creating a hollowed-out labor movement in all but a few northeastern and west coast states. Union density in Wisconsin in 2011 (the year of the pas- sage of the state’s anti-union public-sector legislation) was less than the union density in Mississippi in 1964.[2] First in Indiana and Wisconsin and then throughout much of the old industrial heartland, anti-union state governments began to aggressively dismantle public- and private-sector organizing and bargaining rights.

In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led five national unions out of the AFL-CIO and launched the Change to Win Federation with a promise to shift resources from politics to organizing. Despite its sound and fury, Change to Win failed to reverse the forces leading to the broad decline of the institutional labor movement. They tripled down on accepting the two parties of neoliberalism as the eternal and unchanging reality of American politics and adopted an instrumental politics that would make an old school building trades local proud: we offer this support in exchange for an agreement to unionize these workers under these terms.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. As union density and political clout diminish, a new cadre of anti-union politicians has abrogated these “organizing” agreements as quickly and as easily as they were established by their predecessors. Today, Change to Win mostly exists on paper while the SEIU spends more on political candidates than does the AFL-CIO.[3]

The logical conclusion of the SEIU’s organizing strategy has been described by “new labor” superstar David Rolf, president of Seattle-based SEIU Local 775, as the “nurse log metaphor”[4]  (a nurse log is a fallen tree in the forest that provides nourishment for other plants). Under this scenario, the institutional labor movement’s primary function is to trans- fer resources from organized, dues-paying members to new initiatives like the Fight for $15 campaigns that can rapidly improve conditions for broad sections of the working class without the hassle and difficulty of building a permanent workplace organization. The problem with this, of course, is that it fails to leave behind the type of organic working-class insti- tutions that can nurture leadership and a sense of collective power. At best, the end result is hollowed-out structures like those unions created by administrative fiat to “represent” home health care and family daycare workers.[5]

One alternative to this approach is what journalist Rich Yeselson has called “fortress unionism”6: Defend the remaining bastions of high-density unionism, strengthen existing union locals, build coalitions with other social movements, and then, “Wait for workers to say they’ve had enough.” This is not unlike the characters in On the Beach who wanted to believe that the radioactive clouds would dissipate before they got to them. Defending collective bargaining where it is still viable is a necessary but not sufficient response to the crisis. “Fortress unionism” as a strategy would merely replicate on a much smaller scale the post-war labor movement’s acquiescence to a non-union South after the defeat of Operation Dixie in 1946-1947.

This is the paradox of the American labor movement trapped in a dying collective bar- gaining regime. On the one hand, its very existence is an affront to the neoliberal consensus that views any effort to intervene in the market as parasitic rent-seeking. Its very survival requires that it mobilize workers to confront massive political and economic power, and the threat of that mobilization is what focuses the organized power of capital against it. On the other hand, on a day-to-day basis, the labor movement must deal with the quotidian concerns of its dues-paying members. This is the world of compromise and contract enforcement, of shift schedules and work boot reimbursements, and of defending the guilty so the innocent will not be harassed. They used to call this stuff industrial democracy but now it just befuddles and bores those staffers and “leaders” who never worked in a union shop or experienced what it is like to be a shop steward coming into work in the morning and seeing ten coworkers waiting by the time clock.

The growth of alt-labor worker centers and similar organizations offers some hope as groups such as the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance evolve from foundation-funded “set- tlement house-style” centers that treat workers as clients to membership-driven organizations intent on building worker power. They may very well develop new models that embed worker organizations into workplaces without relying on the legal entailments and formalities

of the collective bargaining regime. But most workers are not willing to sign up for a lifetime of guerrilla warfare. They want security, respect, and enforceable rights and conditions. It certainly makes for great visuals when fifty immigrant construction workers take the day off and picket the boss’ house when they are robbed of their overtime pay, but, I can assure you, most would rather pay union dues so that they could file a grievance under an enforceable labor contract.

What does all this portend for the future of the AFL-CIO? The Federation is being riven by barely acknowledged ideological debates. The dispute over the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline construction projects exposed the fault lines between those who saw labor’s future as linked to a partnership with capital in an expansionist and extractive economy model and those who saw the potential in a labor movement aligned with the advocates for a planned and regulated green economy. The 2016 Democratic primaries also heightened the contradictions between those who have accepted the neoliberal world order as inevitable versus those who want to build a new social democratic alternative to neoliberalism,  and  the  Trump  administration will certainly intensify these differences. So far, the AFL-CIO has not proven to be a good forum in which to hold these debates. It has taken a hands-off approach and tried to sweep the contradictions under the table. But these contradictions persist nonetheless. They show up in debates over who to support for DNC chair and in the growth of informal caucuses of the left, right, and center. The decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growth of these tendencies based on very different visions of the role of labor in the age of Trump can only accelerate the demise of a Federation model that was crafted in different times for different purposes.

In addition to the ideological pressures, the AFL-CIO is facing a huge financial crunch that will be made worse as the large public-sector unions reduce expenses in anticipation of the loss of agency fee revenue under a new Friedrichs decision. The Federation may soon no longer be able to afford its penthouse terrace overlooking the White House.

But there is something to be said for labor unity, especially in a time of crisis. Many of the central labor councils and state labor federa- tions play a vital role in bringing together the best and the brightest, supporting workers in struggle and engaging in ground-level political mobilization. Compared with the one-party states that characterize most unions, even many of the progressive ones, these structures allow leaders and activists to escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns. If there is to be a real debate about labor’s future, it has to be within structures like these.

If nothing else, this would ensure that the debate would take place within organic structures of leaders connected and accountable to real constituencies and capable of committing organizational resources to a common program. One of the temptations afflicting many in the nominal left is to substitute their own prescriptions for the kind of programmatic unity that can only emerge from such a process. There is no shortage of ideas, many of them quite good, about what the labor movement ought to be doing next. What is needed is not more good ideas but a unified left pole that can give life to a common plan for a revitalized labor movement. This can only happen if key national and local labor organizations are at the table from the beginning of the discussion and feel like they own the outcomes.

There will probably be an AFL-CIO until the radioactive clouds envelop the last outposts of unionism. But time is running short for those who would like to see the AFL-CIO as a catalyst for a revitalized labor movement. To move forward, the Federation must embrace the “spirit of 1995” and acknowledge that we are in deep crisis and need an open and wide-ranging debate about solutions. This must involve a recognition that a revitalized labor movement needs a new vision of politics and a commitment to shift resources toward transformational programs such as single-payer health care, green infrastructure development, and expanding the public sector to support collective bar- gaining goals while building new relationships with social movements and working-class constituencies. There are certainly leaders, staffers, and activists at all levels of the labor movement who recognize the urgency for change. As we deal with the fallout from the disastrous elections and prepare for the AFL-CIO’s upcoming quadrennial convention, this a good time to begin.

One more thing about On the Beach. At the very end, the camera scans the deserted streets of Melbourne, Australia and settles on a Salvation Army poster. “There is still time,” it says. . . .


1. See Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, “Labor Party Time? Not Yet,” 2012, available at http://thelaborparty.org/d_lp_time.htm.

2. Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/23/385843576/50-years-of-shrinkingunion-membership-in-one-map.

3. Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/big-laborunions-step-up-presidential-election-spending-1476783002.

4. Harold Meyerson, “The Seeds of a New LaborMovement,” American Prospect, October 30,2014, available at http://prospect.org/article/labor-crossroads-seeds-new-movement.

5. For further discussion of this tension, see Jane McAlevey, “Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing,” New Labor Forum 25, no. 3 (2016): 87-89.

6. Rich Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism,” Democracy,Summer, 2013, available at http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/29/fortress-unionism/.Response to Mark Dudzic’s”The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Author Biography

Mark Dudzic is a long-time union activist and former national organizer of the Labor Party. He currently serves as national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare.

Response to Mark Dudzic’s “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Julie Kushner with Kitty Weiss Krupat

There are progressive trade unionists (from the AFL-CIO down to the shop floor) who are engaged in debate about the future of the labor movement—a movement that is struggling to regain its power to defend the rights of workers against the overwhelming force of capital and corporate dominance. For over forty years, I have been part of those debates, as has Mark Dudzic. I began reading his article, “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach’” but almost stopped dead after his opening gambit, an apocalyptic vision from the film On the Beach as a metaphor for the AFL-CIO— all washed up and “awaiting its own demise . . .” But I read on and found myself in agreement with Dudzic on several points. That said, I think, in the main, his conclusions are unbalanced or unfair, dismissing too freely the complexities and contradictions inherent in any organization structured as a federation with voluntary membership.

His narrative begins in 1955, with another metaphor of sorts—the establishment of the AFL- CIO in a building overlooking the White House. What emerges is a picture of the AFL-CIO as a disembodied structure—an imposing marble building with a professional staff and a “marriage” of convenience with the Democratic Party. Largely absent from this picture are unions and the workers they represent. From this limited perspective, Dudzic places the burden of survival on the AFL-CIO, without fully considering the role of its affiliates or examining the policies, prac- tices, and actual campaigns carried out by individual unions and their members. I believe this is a common weakness in labor analysis.

Rightly, Dudzic warns against the danger of divisions within the AFL-CIO on ideological or political grounds, but he overlooks the impor- tant role the Federation plays in bringing unions together to support one another’s organizing or collective bargaining campaigns. He does not mention the enormous resources provided by the Federation, including statewide Leadership Institutes that bring union leaders together across jurisdictional lines to debate critical labor issues. He urges labor activists to “escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns” without reference to Working America, a community affiliate of the Federation that gives non-union workers opportunities to organize around such issues as health care, education, and housing.

We have to wait until the final paragraphs of “On the Beach” to learn something about the important work going on at state federations and central labor councils. Dudzic leaves the impres- sion that these labor bodies are somehow separate from the AFL-CIO. In fact, they are directly char- tered by the AFL-CIO, and many are financed by the Federation in the form of “Solidarity Grants.” These grants help to support the development of labor–community alliances around the country that have resulted in such campaigns as the Fight for $15. In his discussion of alt-labor groups, he points to the Taxi Workers Alliance as a prime example, failing to note that the Alliance is a char- tered member of the AFL-CIO, the first “non-tra- ditional” union of independent contractors in the Federation.

I share Dudzic’s desire for labor unity around a progressive social and political agenda, and I think his critique of the alliance between labor and government is a cogent one. But I also think it is unrealistic to suggest that we ignore the main- stream political arena. Dudzic carefully explains how the alliance has led labor into the neoliberal establishment, but he sidesteps the issue that immediate and constant pressure to save members’ jobs has often driven individual unions into the conservative camp on particular issues such as the environment or trade. I wish Dudzic had spent more time contemplating long-term solutions to that problem, rather than condemning unions for their failures to unite around a left political agenda. I also wish he had noted unions, such as the Utility Workers, who are committed to job creation through Blue-Green alliances and investments in infrastructure development as well as in education and training to help workers transition from old jobs to new ones. Dudzic’s failure to recognize the significant accomplishments of labor through the Working Families Party is also a serious omission.

I do not want to whitewash the weaknesses in labor’s political work. We have failed to convince union members to vote in their own interests, and that is a bottom line. Nevertheless, political action is a necessary part of our work, which can result in important benefits for workers. The 2016 Verizon strike is a good example. Because of its relation- ship to the Democratic Party, labor was able to call upon then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to facilitate a settlement that added 1,300 new jobs and created the first contracts at several Verizon stores—all without concessions on job security and flexibility. The appointment of a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration allowed university workers to regain rights to organize they had lost in the Bush era.

Dudzic suggests that low union density in Wisconsin and Indiana was the enabling factor in allowing state governments to dismantle organiz- ing and bargaining rights in the public sector. I do not think density can be isolated as the factor in that or any other labor struggle. We have to give the Koch brothers some credit. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates poured money and resources into the Wisconsin fight. Unions from around the country came together in the greatest show of labor soli- darity in recent memory. But the combined power of the national labor movement was no match for the power of accumulated capital in the hands of the Koch brothers.

Ultimately—and I am sure Mark Dudzic would agree—we need to encourage and stand with those of our members who are ready to persist and resist. More challenging and more difficult, we need to develop effective ways to engage with, and change the minds of, those members who allow race, gender, homophobia, and fear of difference to divide us. I certainly agree with him that wide-ranging debate is a necessary first step in that direction.

Author Biographies

Julie Kushner is the director of UAW-9A, a region that encompasses New England, parts of New York, and Puerto Rico. In this capacity, she is a member of the International UAW Executive Board.

Kitty Weiss Krupat, a union organizer and labor educator, recently retired as an associate director of the Murphy Institute. Her publications include Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance, co-authored with Patrick McCreery.


Mark Dudzic Respondes

Julie Kushner rightfully stresses the many impor- tant things that individual unions are doing to “defend the rights of workers against the over- whelming force of capital.” However, the intent of my essay was to focus on the prospects for the future of the AFL-CIO in light of the continuing decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growing differences among the national unions that make up the federation (her reference to the Utility Workers’ excellent work in promot- ing a Blue-Green Alliance in contrast to more conservative approaches taken by other unions exposes one of those fault lines).

Kushner agrees that the AFL-CIO has diffi- culty functioning as a unified working-class voice because of its federation structure, mak- ing it ill-suited to lead at a time when the con- tradictions with capital have intensified. This structure holds the AFL-CIO hostage to the effective veto of any action by any one of its affiliates. These limitations have convinced union leaders like Larry Cohen, former presi- dent of the Communications Workers of America, that “Too often a particular union’s stance may reflect a private employer’s growth plans, not the general good for working people” and that we should “. . . not necessarily focus on [labor] unity about political strategy.”1

Recent layoffs and reductions in programs at the AFL-CIO are indicative of the precarious- ness of its financial situation and are probably just the beginning of a painful process of finan- cial retrenchment. This situation creates its own death spiral. Will the affiliates continue to prop up the AFL-CIO as it sheds programs and services and is increasingly unable to rise to the challenge of opposing a sustained and concerted attack on the foundational rights to organize and bargain?

Moreover, the Federation has been unable to resolve the tension that Kushner identifies between transactional and transformative politics. The relentless drive toward the lowest common denominator means that the long-term interests of the working class—precisely what a national labor organization should, in theory, be consti- tuted to promote—are often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. At a time when right-wing populism poses an existential threat to the principles and values of an independent labor movement, these compromises can prove disastrous.

I agree with Kushner that perhaps the most important raison d’être of the AFL-CIO is the nur-turing of solidarity, discussion, and labor unity at the local and regional level. Like Kushner, I am not ready to give up on the promise of a unified and activist national labor movement and believe that the institutional labor movement continues to be the source of the resources, organizing capacity, and constituency without which any progressive change is inconceivable.

But time is truly running short. And we are not well served by any perspective that seeks to minimize the extent of the crisis or paper over the internal differences. We must begin by rigorous  self-examination  and  debate  led  by leaders and activists who actually have a stake in the outcome. In the end, a newly revitalized labor movement in the United States may look very different than today’s AFL-CIO.


1. David Moberg, “This Is What Progressives—Especially Labor—Can Learn from Bernie Sanders’ Campaign,” In These Times, July 27,2016, available at http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19330/this_is_what_progressives_especially_labor_can_learn_from_bernie_sanderss_c.

Corporations Call for “Net Zero” Emissions: Do They Know How to Get There?

In the months leading to the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference, representatives of global institutional investors and multinational corporations made headlines after they demanded that world leaders adopt radical emissions reduction targets, among them “net zero” emissions by 2050. Examples include the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change, which was signed by 409 investors representing more than $24 trillion in assets, and the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group (which includes the likes of Shell Global and Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited). Following the Statement’s adoption in Paris, a cluster of corporate heads led by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson (calling itself the “B Team”) demanded that all governments turn the Paris net zero emissions target into national-level laws.

What are we to make of this? The practical implications of the net zero target adopted in Paris—if it is seriously pursued—are nothing short of revolutionary, opening up a “system crunch” scenario when the forces of growth, profit, and accumulation that presently propel capitalism collide with the political imperatives required to reach virtually total “decarbonization” in little more than a generation.

Paradoxically, the corporate push to adopt net zero by 2050—a target that is unprecedented in terms of its ambition—merely draws attention to the fact that the corporate elite has no clear or convincing idea about how it might be achieved. The capitalist spirit is progressively willing, but the flesh grows all the time steadily weaker.

Thus, the Paris Agreement can be a clarifying moment for labor, the climate movement, and the broader left in that, more than ever before, it exposes the gulf between what needs to be done from a scientific standpoint and what the global corporate and political elite are actually able to deliver.

Elite Consensus

Corporate statements on climate change invariably attract media attention, but it is worth remembering that major institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the International Energy Agency (IEA)—all of them unswervingly loyal to the corporate neoliberal agenda—have for some years been sounding the alarm about climate change and have urged, in fact demanded, bold action. As a result, the Paris Agreement included the goal of net zero emissions by 2060-2070. This is more or less consistent with what is required to control global warming. With still more emissions projected in the years ahead, it is virtually certain that the world will approach and perhaps exceed dangerous temperature thresholds. The adoption of net zero therefore reflects a consensus held by the majority of the world’s business and political elite that the situation is serious; the science needs to be acknowledged, and determined action at the global level is required.

The Paris Contradiction

The problem, however, is not a lack of consensus on the need to dramatically reduce emissions; it is, rather, the inability to actually act on the consensus that has already been achieved. To illustrate this, we need look no further than the Paris Agreement itself. It acknowledges the need for global warming to stay “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and states that efforts should be made to limit warming to 1.5°C. However, the “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) that lie at the heart of the agreement—even if they are fully achieved—will set the world on a pathway toward 2.7°C to 3.5°C of warming (and that assumes a comparable level of ambition after 2030). The 1.5°C threshold will therefore be breached long before the Agreement’s 2030 expiration date. Thus, the Agreement acknowledges the scientific reality and then institutionalizes “contributions” that are not even close to being consistent with that reality.

Instead of reducing emissions, the INDCs in the Paris Agreement will result in an increase in emissions—albeit at a slower rate than would be the case according to the “business-as-usual” scenario. The IEA notes, “There is no peak in sight for world energy-related CO2 emissions in the INDC Scenario: they are projected to be 8 percent higher than 2013 levels in 2030 while primary energy demand grows by around 20 percent.”1

The elite consensus around the net zero goal is solid enough, but when the discussion turns to considering how the target might be reached the consensus breaks down and differences emerge. Three perspectives can be distinguished. For convenience, these three can be labeled the “Gaia Capitalists,” the “Carbon Traders,” and the “Adaptationists.” Each of the three can tell us something different about the kind of responses that the system’s representatives are considering.

Go Gaia

The term Gaia Capitalism was apparently the creation of Richard Branson. Just prior to the Paris talks, the Branson-led B Team—adherents to “Plan B,” described as an ecologically focused alternative to “Plan A” profit-based ‘business as usual’—issued the call for net zero emissions by 2050. But the statements issued by the B Team and similar groups are largely devoid of details as to how this can be achieved. Branson’s group assures us that once governments turn the Paris commitment into national laws, it will, in Branson’s own words, “unleash new innovations, mobilize large-scale investment, and reshape consumer behavior, all of which will create new jobs and economic growth.”2

However, for the Gaia Capitalists, laws will not be enough. Reaching net zero will also require corporations to embrace a new ethic, one that combines ambition with altruism. The defining trait of the capitalist—making money—can be turned into a humanitarian act if CEOs can embrace a new set of values. The world needs a new form of capitalism—one that is not driven exclusively by concern for the bottom line.3 This new capitalism must recognize that the earth is one large living organism, and all life is connected. Before the Paris conference, the Plan B group issued an awkwardly phrased rallying cry to other corporate heads, one that urged them to embrace “people and planet . . . alongside profit.”

It is hard not to see this group as heirs to the paternalistic anti-union “welfare capitalists” of the early period of the twentieth century, among them John D. Rockefeller, George Pullman, and J. P. Morgan. As Naomi Klein reminds us, a decade ago Branson said he would commit $3 billion to green investments, of which less than 10 percent materialized (mostly in biofuels) and then dried up altogether.4 During the same period, Branson opened new airline companies and the aviation business is presently booming as a result of cheap oil.

Branson’s group attracts a level of media attention but, one or two exceptions aside, the companies identifying with this approach are not major players in the global economy. And in common with “green growthers” everywhere, the problem of decoupling economic growth from emissions is simply brushed aside.

Trader Woes

The most important camp of climate-concerned capitalists is the “Carbon Traders.” Carbon pricing lies at the heart of neoliberal climate policy—the “primary mitigation mechanism” according to the IMF and the World Bank, and think tanks like the Stern Commission.5

Carbon Traders (the Traders) represent a hard-nosed subset of investors and corporate CEOs, most of whom probably look at the narcissistic hubris of Branson’s “B team” with disdain and perhaps some embarrassment. For them, net zero is needed to preserve their assets and investments, but reaching the target will require governments to introduce a global price on carbon to drive and incentivize the low-carbon economy. Governments need to “take carbon out of competition.”

The Traders understand that capitalists primarily respond to the laws of capitalist competition. Singing from the Milton Friedman songbook, they take seriously the idea that the fiduciary responsibility of a corporation or bank is to provide a return on investment regardless of the social and ecological implications. As the Prince of Wales group candidly admitted, “The private sector invests trillions of dollars . . . but in most cases the goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions does not guide such spending.”6 Therefore, “a clear, transparent, and unambiguous price on carbon emissions” is needed.7 Similarly, in February 2015, British Petroleum’s chief economist Spencer Dale described how, over the next twenty years, the use of oil and gas would grow 25 percent and, therefore, climate goals could not be reached. “Policy makers may wish to impose additional policies,” principal among them being a “meaningful global price for carbon.”8

The problem for the Traders—a problem they have thus far refused to acknowledge—is that carbon pricing has failed to have an impact on emissions and is going nowhere. The World Bank’s detailed assessment of carbon markets reported that, in 2015, only 12 percent of global GHGs were covered by a price. “A global average carbon price,” the Bank reminds us, “of between US$80 and US$120—per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)— . . . would be consistent with the goal of limiting the global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.”9 The average carbon price is today around $10 per ton. So more than twenty years after the Kyoto Agreement established pricing carbon as the principal policy instrument for reducing emissions, still 88 percent of global GHGs are not covered by a price, and the price on the emissions that are covered is so low as to be completely useless. The World Bank cannot point to a single instance where carbon trading has had more than a barely measurable impact on emissions levels.

The prospects for carbon markets are poor. Corporations do not want to pay for their pollution because it cuts into the bottom line. Any anxieties with regard to the long-term viability of the system are almost invariably trumped by short-term competitiveness concerns of an individual company. Meanwhile, unloading the net zero responsibility on to governments allows corporations to continue more or less on a “business-as-usual” course. If the Traders were to face up the failure of carbon pricing, they would need to offer something different—the most obvious solution being decisive government interventions, ranging from heavy and restrictive regulations to all out social ownership of key economic sectors. But this would require an ideological shift away from neoliberal groupthink—and there are few signs that this is going to happen absent sustained pressure from social movements.

Adapting to the Future Normal

The “Adaptationists” resemble something of a secret society. And while few corporate heads will openly admit it, there is a growing belief that the net zero target will not be reached by 2060-2070. The INDCs submitted in Paris already reflect the distance between the scientific consensus and the declared intentions of governments, many of whom are mere mouthpieces for business interests. Net zero will require full decarbonization of the global economy in just four or five decades. At that point, any GHGs released—to generate electricity; make products; power cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes; heat and cool buildings; raise and slaughter billions of animals, and so forth— must somehow be offset or “neutralized.” In the case of CO2 , this can be done by enhancing photosynthesis through reforestation and expanding the amount of vegetation on the surface of the planet. However, at present, some forty-six to fifty-eight thousand square miles of forest are lost each year—equivalent to fortyeight football fields every minute.10 Currently, the global economy emits roughly fifty-seven billion tons of CO2 per year; almost twice the annual emissions levels of the mid-1990s.11 Emissions from fossil fuel use have risen a staggering 61 percent since 1990 and will continue to rise, albeit more slowly.12 Furthermore, the global economy is expected to be three times larger in 2050 than it is today.13

Aware of these realities, the Adaptationists have concluded that the chances of reaching net zero amounts to, well, practically zero. And rather than adopt a politically dangerous or untenable target that could become a lightening rod for discontented radicals, they are trying to shift the policy focus toward dealing with the effects of warming, and the need for building resiliency. This perspective is presently expressing itself via important pro-corporate think tanks—perhaps a clear sign that CEOs are also thinking in similar terms. According to the World Economic Forum,

Advocating for greater attention to be paid to adaptation is controversial in some quarters as it is interpreted as a tacit admission that mitigation efforts are no longer worth pursuing. However, the less effective mitigation efforts are, the more pronounced adaptation challenges will become.14

Using stronger language, in a 2013 report titled Too Late for Two Degrees? the pro-corporate PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) noted, “This year (2013) we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2 degrees warming target has risen to 5.1 percent a year, (every year) from now to 2050.” Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2°C, it noted, therefore “appear highly unrealistic.” The PwC report concluded, “businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world—not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.”15 Such levels of warming are, in the words of one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson, “incompatible with an organized global community.”16

How we can actually plan for global chaos remains something of a mystery—but the key message of the Adaptationists is valid. PwC’s report makes this point: “The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions.”17 Such radical transformations would threaten the system itself—which is a political “no-no.” Therefore, we need to suck it up and hope for the best.

Capital’s Conundrum and Climate Justice

These differences of approach among the global corporate elite are unlikely to lead to open conflict, at least not yet. But it is already clear that none of these perspectives warrant the support of labor and other social movements. The Paris Agreement expresses the distance between what the science says is needed and the “best we can do” reality offered by those who work within the ideological and systemic confines of competition and accumulation.

To get even close to net zero in the time agreed will require dramatic changes in the global political economy. The capitalist paradigm of extraction, accumulation, and consumption, wrapped up in the ideology of growth, is incompatible with true ecological sustainability or a stable climate.

For labor, climate justice, and other social movements, capital’s climate conundrum is an opportunity. We need to continue to develop our own proposals to pursue radical emissions reductions by way of deep restructuring of the global political economy; to reassert the need for extending democratic control, advancing “public goods” approaches to essential needs and services; and to implement a just transition based on mass popular participation in key economic decisions.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.



  1. International Energy Agency (IEA), “World Energy Outlook 2015 Special Report on Energy and Climate Change” (Paris: International Energy Agency, 2015), available at http:// www.worldenergyoutlook.org. The IEA also reported that the Paris Agreement would see electricity generation from coal grow by 24 percent by 2040, available at http://www. worldcoal.org/signing-ceremony-paris-agreement-what%E2%80%99s-next.
  2. https://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/ climate-opportunity-paris.
  3. People and planet alongside profit available at http://bteam.org/the-b-team/watch-the-b-teamdeclaration/Branson in Guardian, http://www .theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/06/ paris-climate-change-summit-richard-branson? CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco.
  4. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ 2014/ sep/13/greenwashing-sticky-business-naomiklein.
  5. For example, see May 29, 2015, letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat and the COP21 Presidency, available at http://s08 .static-shell.com/content/dam/shell-new/local/ corporate/corporate/downloads/pdf/media/ speeches/2015/letter-to-unfccc.pdf.
  6. Carbon Price Communiqué (first issued 2012). Statement available at http://www.climatecommuniques.com/Carbon-Price.aspx.
  7. Ibid.
  8. 2015 BP Energy Outlook 2035 (published February 26, 2015). Presentation by BP Chief Economist Spencer Dale energy trends, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy PBww4o_Do.
  9. World Bank, State and Trends, page 23. How much more the price would need to be to limit warming to “well below 2°C” or even 1.5°C per the Paris Agreement has still to be calculated, but perhaps $150 per ton seems a fair estimate.
  10. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/ deforestation.
  11. http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/15/files/GCP_budget_2015_v1.02.pdf.
  12. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report,” available at https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full .pdf.
  13. http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/the-economy/assets/world-in-2050-february-2015.pdf.
  14. http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/ risk-case-1/testing-economic-and-environmental -resilience/#view/fn-10.
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature =player_embedded&v=ct6cJc G5o1M.
  16. http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professorkevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyonddangerous.
  17. http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professorkevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyonddangerous.
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