Climate change -- the case for public ownership

Photo by Alex Bainbridge.
By Trent Hawkins

Arising out of the UK Climate Camp in August 2008 there has developed an interesting debate between Ewa Jasiewicz, an activist in Britain, and well-known radical columnist George Monbiot about the role of so-called “state solutions” to climate change. Jasiewicz’s article, published on the Guardian website[i] and entitled “Time for a Revolution”, was an attack on Monbiot for a “controversial presentation [at climate camp] … in which he endorsed the use of the state as a partner in resolving the climate crisis”. It was also prompted by a debate between Monbiot and former National Union of Mineworkers’ leader and head of Britain’s Socialist Labour Party Arthur Scargill about what is more polluting: nuclear or coal energy.

Jasiewicz stated:

“State solutions to the climate crisis were presented to us 10 years ago through the Kyoto protocol – what were they? To privatise the air we breathe and turn carbon emissions into commodities, to buy and sell atmospheric poison, to create a new market of trading in the means of ecological destruction. It's no wonder many at the camp reject state solutions to climate change.

“The question is, who and under what conditions, controls decision making, and has climate-changing power?”

In response, Monbiot, in an article on his website[ii] wrote:

“[Jasiewicz] claims to want to stop global warming, but she makes that task 100 times harder by rejecting all state and corporate solutions. It seems to me that what she really wants to do is to create an anarchist utopia, and use climate change as an excuse to engineer it.

“Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim. Everyone in this movement knows that there is very little time: the window of opportunity in which we can prevent two degrees [Celsius] of warming is closing fast. We have to use all the resources we can lay hands on, and these must include both governments and corporations. Or perhaps she intends to build the installations required to turn the energy economy around -- wind farms, wave machines, solar thermal plants in the Sahara, new grid connections and public transport systems -- herself?’’

There are some confused notions in these two articles, like the Kyoto protocol was a “state solution to the climate crisis” (Jasiewicz ) and that the role of the state is to “prevent the strong from crushing the weak” (Monbiot). However, the basic point that both fail to comprehend is that we do need the wealth and resources that are currently monopolised by corporations to stop climate change, however what’s needed is for that wealth to be torn from the hands of those corporations and put under popular control.

The reality is that no fossil fuel corporation can be convinced to stop expanding and making profits and instead invest its wealth in a wholesale conversion of its operations to a renewable energy-powered, sustainable industry. At the same time no capitalist government is going to be either willing or able to constrain corporations’ rights to make profits in order to drastically reduce emissions.

In other words, the only way we can make use of the massive corporate wealth that isn’t in the hands of the people is with a revolutionary struggle that institutes a government which acts in the interests of people and the planet and puts control of all sectors of the economy in the hands of ordinary working people.

The real question is what needs to be done to achieve this? There does not need to be a contradiction between what we call for today in terms of immediate measures to combat global warming and building the movement for revolutionary change. Arguing for the nationalisation of polluting industries, to be placed under the democratic control of ordinary people, is essential to constructing a movement capable of halting climate change.

Market anarchy or a planned approach

Since the release of the interim Garnaut Review (a report commissioned to recommend what policies are required by Australia to address climate change) and the Australian federal Labor government’s green paper on climate change, the focus of the debate has been almost solely on what is the best market response to global warming and how much “government regulation” is appropriate to guide this. The role of the government is reduced to determining how much large corporations will be subsidised under an emissions trading scheme (ETS).

On August 27, 2008, a report by the National Snow and Ice DataCenter found that the amount of ice coverage in the Arctic was the second-worst on record (the worst being last 2007).[iii] It stated: “With about three weeks left in the Arctic summer, this year could wind up breaking that previous record”.[iv] There is now almost near certainty that the Arctic will be ice free in summer within five to 10 years.[v]

It is clear that we have reached a major tipping point in climate change, which indicates that we are already experiencing dangerous climate change. As Dr Jay Zwally, glaciologist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, put it, “the Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming… and now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died.”[vi]

NASA Climatologist Dr James Hansen has concluded that a safe climate zone necessary to preserve the Arctic lies somewhere within the region of 300 to 325 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide (CO2) atmospheric concentration. However, we currently are sitting around 385ppm.[vii]

In short we need an urgent and immediate response to the crisis, one which relies on a centralised accounting and coordination of the activities of major polluting industries through the government and enforced by the state. Market mechanisms, corporate handouts and government investment in false solutions like “clean coal” spell nothing less than the death of the liveable planet.

Cuba and Venezuela show us what is possible

Two examples illustrate what is possible when the primary sources of wealth are under popular control.

The first is Cuba, where in the space of 10 years it was able to effect an extraordinary transformation from a highly import-based and unsustainable agriculture and energy sector, to become the most ecologically sustainable country in the world.

With the advent of the film The Power of Community, a number of environmental activists have developed the perception that this transformation was merely initiated by the artificially imposed “peak oil” crisis that hit Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Because of the US-enforced and illegal economic blockade of Cuba, Cuba was forced to rely heavily on the Soviet Union as its primary trading partner. As a consequence, 98% of its oil and oil-based products came from the USSR. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost half its oil imports in two years. Furthermore, 66% of all its food was imported and agriculture operated along the “Green Revolution” model, whereby single monoculture crops where grown primarily for export, using high levels of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides to increase yield. [viii]

The result was an enormous food crisis. While Cuba’s response included community initiatives to grow urban vegetable and fruit gardens, the biggest factor that enabled Cuba to rapidly overcome the crisis was the significant level of state ownership of resources and industry and the existence of a socialist government.

A very useful report conducted by the UK Institute of Science in Sustainability, “Organic Cuba without Fossil Fuels”, documents exactly how the government was able to drive the process of transformation.[ix]

Beginning with a nationwide call to increase food production by restructuring agriculture, the government redivided the land and gave control of that land to the community, to best determine how to respond to the community’s food requirements. One major initiative was in urban areas, where all sorts of land was given over by the government for food production, including old car parks, disused buildings, vacant lots, etc. As a consequence 60% of Cuba’s fresh fruit and vegetables are grown in urban farms. [x]

But the government’s role extended far beyond this. It set up a seed bank in the cities to distribute seeds to urban farmers, it massively invested in biotechnology to develop increased food production without pesticides, and it even passed a law banning the use of pesticides.[xi]

As Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Perez pointed out in an interview with Green Left Weekly, no rapid solution to Cuba’s crisis would have been possible without Cuba having control over the totality of it’s resources.

“When the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and minerals, this was the base for sustainability. You cannot think about sustainability of your resources if they are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability.”[xii]

The second example worth considering is Venezuela.

Venezuela is one of the major oil-producing nations in the world, being the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the United States. Despite this, the country had high levels of poverty and extensive environmental destruction.

While Venezuela’s oil industry was technically nationalised in the 1970s, PDVSA was the only state-owned oil company that ran at a loss. This was primarily due to the fact that the profits of the company where being used to fatten the pockets of the bureaucrats who leached off the industry.

Since socialist president Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998 the government has taken back control of the oil industry and used the wealth from it to fund social programs aimed at alleviating poverty.

It has also been extremely conscious of reducing the country’s dependence on the oil industry and of ending the legacy of putting the needs of the environment behind that of oil production.

This is indicated in the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) program, which includes a section on “Defence of Nature; Planned Production”. This states that “the program of the PSUV proposes the preservation of nature and the planning of production for the satisfaction of collective necessities in harmony with the requirements of the ecosystem.” [xiii]

In 2005 the Chávez government and the PDVSA oil company made the decision to eliminate lead-based petrol. Since then, PDVSA has begun recuperating green areas, reducing emissions and cleaning up rivers and lakes. [xiv]

Under Mission Energy, some 53 million light bulbs in more than 5 million homes have been replaced with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs[xv], with the next step being to substitute almost 27 million inefficient incandescent light bulbs by energy-saving light bulbs in the official, industrial and commercial sectors.[xvi]

President Chávez has also announced plans for a wind farm to generate electricity on the Caribbean coast[xvii] and in April 2007 the government banned construction of all new coal mines on Indigenous land in the opposition-controlled, major oil-producing state of Zulia.[xviii]

While there are major restrictions on the Venezuelan government’s ability to implement these plans, due to a corrupt bureaucracy within state institutions, it is clear that none of these things would be possible if the government didn’t have real control over the oil industry to be able to fund and enact these programs.

Nationalisation, a transitional demand

As socialists we recognise that the only way out of the mess of climate change is for the vast bulk of the economy to be put under public ownership and control, with the creation of a workers’ government that can oversee a thorough and detailed process in which the entire community can have democratic control over how the economy is run and for what purposes.

However this doesn’t prevent us advancing the demand for the nationalisation of strategic industries even before we reach that stage. In fact this demand is extremely important for posing the possibility of working people having complete and democratic control over the wealth of society (which after all was created by the labour of working people and has been stolen by a tiny number of capitalist owners), and building a movement that can win this.

Given the state of the crisis and the urgency with which we need to act, any effective program of action advanced by the environment movement to stop climate change must include the demand for nationalisation – that is to put the key energy-producing and energy-consuming industries, and other unsustainable industries, under public ownership.

But first we need to make it clear that we aren’t arguing for a public sector operating like the commercialised, profit-making enterprises we see all too often today.

Most of the public sector, if it already hasn’t been sold off and converted into privately run companies, has been turned into more or less the same thing in preparation for the time when it becomes politically possible for governments to privatise it.

Second, the public sector under capitalism is run by a big bureaucracy that the people have no control over. While we can vote for people to be in parliament who can introduce new laws, we don’t have any say over who the state employs to implement those laws. Not to mention the fact that the major parties in parliament are the representatives of big business and act to preserve profits. This means that such a struggle for nationalisation needs to be accompanied with a push for real democratic control over how the public sector is organised.

What would real government action on climate change look like?

Currently, governments in Australia, both state and federal, aren’t just sitting on their hands on climate change; they are funding and pushing for the expansion of the very industries that contribute most to the problem.

So the question is, what kind of government response is needed to avert the catastrophe?

Electricity sector

First it is essential that the electricity generation sector be put under public ownership, instead of sold off to private companies, as is being attempted by the New South Wales state Labor government. The majority of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from coal-fired power generation. In order to stop global warming we need to halt the construction of all new coal-fired power stations and effect a rapid conversion from coal to renewable energy, primarily wind and solar, within five to 10 years. Yet this will be virtually impossible unless the government has complete control over the electricity sector.

Furthermore, a national network of publicly owned electricity generators would ensure that the electricity produced actually meets people’s needs. A board could be elected democratically by the people and given the task of drafting a plan to transform the sector to meet the needs of the environment. This plan could be ratified by referendum and if those in charge fail to implement the necessary measures there should be the right to recall them.

The government could also set up programs to roll out energy-efficient light bulbs and whitegoods, and ban the selling of inefficient ones.

The government should adopt stringent limits on how much greenhouse gases private companies are allowed to emit and take serious measures to curb energy inefficiency. If a company continues to break the rules it should be made clear that it will be nationalised.

Public transport and freight

In Victoria, the public transport system was sold off to the multinational company Connex under the Liberal government in the 1990s. Connex’s contract is due to expire next year, but despite the atrocious state of Melbourne’s public transport system, the state Labor government is now toying with the idea of renewing Connex’s contract.[xix]

A recent article in the Melbourne Age newspaper showed that there had been a 70% increase in public transport use in last 10 years, but only a 9% increase in services, and very few new services in peak hours.[xx] Instead of re-nationalising the public transport system, the government is considering the construction of a new road tunnel at a cost of A$9 billion, and the introduction of “congestion taxes” and new tollways.[xxi] Meanwhile the major “City Link” tollway nets the Transurban corporation $1 million a day![xxii]

The federal government should nationalise Australia’s vehicle manufacturing industry, and retool the factories to pump out new trams, trains and buses to provide the massive needed expansion of the public transport system and, if necessary, produce electric cars that can be plugged into grid for those who can’t access public transport.

A publicly run public transport system is essential for rapidly expanding public transport, so that we can take millions of cars off the road, while providing the necessary levels of alternative transport. This must extend to rural areas and involve the development of high-speed, long-distance trains to drastically reduce need for carbon-intensive flying.

Another major task is the moving of freight. It was recently revealed that the state government is planning to expand Victoria’s roads to allow more “B Triple” trucks – three-carriage freight trucks.[xxiii] Such a plan is ridiculous in the context of climate change, when what’s needed is the development of a thorough system of freight-train lines to drastically reduce emissions. Such railways can be electrified with renewable energy, which could cut emissions significantly.


Another problem project of the Victoria Labor government is the $3 billion desalination plant, which will have its carbon emissions “offset” by ``clean coal’’ and other “clean’’ energy sources, possibly from interstate.[xxiv] The plant is being used to discourage people from installing rainwater tanks, and failing to introduce tighter restrictions on commercial irrigators who use up most of the state's water.[xxv]

Australia is still in extreme drought, with constantly diminishing water supplies. There is a threat to the survival of one of our most important water supplies – the Murray-Darling river system. It was recently revealed in a report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that found that almost 2 gigalitres a year is consumed on Victorian farms each year. [xxvi] As the Age reported on August 28, “in total the Australian farming sector used 8521 gigalitres of water in 2006-07, with nine out of every 10 litres used for irrigation.”[xxvii]

To preserve future water supplies and the natural environment, it is essential that our water supply is completely publicly owned, and managed in a manner that responds to the needs of people, not of big business.

One major thing the government must do is take over the most water-consuming farms, particularly cotton and rice, and instead use the land to grow less water-intensive crops like hemp. Instead, the government is unwilling to restructure the water allocation to irrigators to help save the Murray-Darling system.

For domestic urban water usage the government could set up a system to roll out free water tanks and fit grey water systems to each home.

There are also a range of big corporate industries like the aluminium industry, logging, coalmining etc., which contribute enormously to climate change. The basis of their profits are processes which are intrinsically harmful to the environment so it is essential for them to be put under public ownership. Only by ensuring that the big industries are no longer run for profits, will it be possible to determine to what extent they are actually needed and to what degree their impact on the environment can be reduced.

Jobs versus the environment?

The bulk of the industries that are the biggest polluters are simply going to have to be shut down, and no corporation is going to willingly accept such a proposition. Furthermore, while some corporations are investing in renewable energy, what’s needed is a massive government investment and commitment to renewable energy, and the direct conversion of the fossil fuel industry not just a gradual “transition”.

The socialist approach puts it clearly that it isn't about putting the environment ahead of jobs, but instead that the only way any sustainable industry can operate is with workers to run it. It's clear there is a huge pool of possible workers to fill jobs in new renewable and sustainable industries, but these workers will be thrown onto the scrap heap unless there is a government plan to utilise these workers and skill them to work in those industries.

The reality is that under capitalism big business regularly chucks workers onto the scrap heap, in order to preserve profits – just look at the 380 workers being axed from the Fairfax newspapers in Australia. It’s not like there is less news to cover!

Some right-wing unions, such as the Australian Workers Union, have been able to tap into this fear by workers that they will be left without jobs. The radical environmental movement must make it clear that the only solution is the nationalisation of those industries which will have to be reorganised or phased out, to allow public boards to be established to plan the rapid industrial transition and retrain workers so that they can be (voluntarily) deployed where they are needed. This is what happens in the public education sector.

What we propose also includes a huge investment in education and skills training – to re-skill workers in the fossil fuel industry to run solar thermal plants or build wind turbines etc. There also needs to be serious investment in the research and development of more energy-efficient technology and renewable energy sources.

But it is clear that no demand for nationalisation can be won without a mass struggle of workers that forces the government to do so. Furthermore we know that no industry can operate long term within a capitalist framework as a truly community-controlled public sector. Whenever a private corporation thinks it can make a profit, there will be a push from our present capitalist governments to carve up the public sector and privatise it. Despite the fact that these are necessary services and real public assets, wealth built up by the hard labour of working people, capitalism cares only about finding new areas it can take over and operate for profit.

If we win our demand for partial nationalisation, it would open the way for many more workers to comprehend the advantages of far wider (and even complete) public ownership of the economy and shift the struggle towards achieving real democratic control over entire industries. Only when we have control of the gears, pedals and steering wheels of the economy will we have any real chance to steer us away from the brink of a climate catastrophe.

[Trent Hawkins is an activist with the Australian socialist youth organisation Resistance and a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist organisation affiliated to the Australian Socialist Alliance. He also runs the Inhabitable Earth blog at]



[ix] ibid.