Stopping Hothouse Earth

Trump in space

Trump Lost in Space

The absurdity of Donald Trump calling for a new Military Space Command to make America Great Again, geographically expands the horizons of climate change denial. Not because space may provide a bolt-hole for rich climate refugees, assuming Elon Musk and others can provide the hardware, but because it proves that capitalism is blind to the extinction of our species if it is at a cost on profits.

As every major global crisis of capitalism has proven, capitalists must destroy the previous generation of sunk capital to revive profits and restore accumulation of wealth in their own pockets. Countries are laid waste, populations are wiped out in their multi-millions, and nature is sacrificed to the scramble for more carbon and more profit.

So, there is nothing new about Trump’s spatial adventure in pushing the level of destruction beyond planetary limits. It merely extends the carbon jackboot of US imperialism into the space left by Reagan’s Star Wars against the threat of Russian and Chinese imperialism. Proving beyond doubt that capitalism facing its own demise will bring the human race to an end rather than face any threat to its profits.  

Or will it? Some like Guy Macpherson or Hillel Mayer say we are doomed and that we should prepare for near-term extinction.

However, mainstream climate science still believes that major changes to how capitalism operates capitalism can prevent human extinction, even while remaining vague about the ‘political will’ to make that happen. Their default position is liberal/social democracy, itself the democratic face of the bourgeois state that only exists to hide the dictatorship of capital. 

For example, the recent publication of the article “Hothouse Earth” summarizes recent climate science and concludes that even at the Paris 2 degrees target we may not be able to avoid the “tipping point” into the “hothouse”. The “deep transformation of, and fundamental rejuvenation of, values, equity, behavior, economies and technologies” has to happen now! 

We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. We examine the evidence that such a threshold might exist and where it might be.

If the threshold is crossed, the resulting trajectory would likely cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.”


What might these actions be and how can they be put into effect? Who or what will take charge of the “stewardship of the entire Earth System”? The debate that we need then, is not about accepting the science of runaway climate change, that is now a given, but how we can make the changes necessary to stop it before it is too late. In other words, when climate science is peaking and warning of impending doom, climate change denial is now passé. But why is social science stuck in the pre-Marxist mode of social class denial and calling for changes that cannot happen without ending capitalist class society?

Hothouse Earth and Neo-Liberalism

Hothouse Earth argues that it is neoliberalism that has caused climate change rather than capitalism itself.  The term ‘neo-liberalism’ is used here in the conventional sense. The turn to more-market-anti-state-intervention-supply-side economics of the 1970’s first tested in the Pinochet Coup of 1973. Neoliberalism therefore is crisis ridden capitalism attempting to resolve its crisis of falling profits by using an aggressive state to privatize assets and attack workers living standards. Yet this is the modus operandi of capitalism in crisis throughout history – the destruction of physical and human capital to create the conditions for the realization of profits.

If we ignore Marxism and claim an historically unique ‘neo-liberal’ period, even on the face of the facts of climate science this is ridiculous. It’s an improvement on the abstract carbon-dating ‘Anthropocene’, but it lets capitalism off the hook. Capitalism could not have been born in 18th century Europe had it not been already busy destroying nature in the ‘new world’ in the 16th and 17th centuries. Without those centuries of plunder and despoliation, capitalism would not have developed and survived to reinvent ‘neoliberalism’ in the late 20th century.  The damage that took 400 years to make cannot have happened in just 40 years. So, class-blind climate science makes a mockery of contemporary bourgeois social science of “deep transformations”.

The lead author of “Hothouse Earth” in an interview in the Intercept gets into more detail on how to rid capitalism of neo-liberalism – by putting us on a “wartime footing” and moving towards a ‘centrally planned economy’. 

By shifting to a “wartime footing” to drive a rapid shift toward renewable energy and electrification, humanity can still avoid the apocalyptic future laid out in the much-discussed “hothouse earth” paper, a lead author of the paper told The Intercept. One of the biggest barriers to averting catastrophe, he said, has more to do with economics than science.

 “That “wartime footing” Steffen describes is a novel concept in 2018, but hasn’t been throughout American history when the nation has faced other existential threats. In the lead-up to World War II, the government played a heavy hand in industry, essentially shifting the U.S. to a centrally planned economy, rather than leaving things like prices and procurement of key resources up to market forces. By the end of World War II, about a quarter of all manufacturing in the United States had been nationalized. And while governments around the world continue to intervene heavily in the private sector — including in the U.S. — those interventions tend now to be on behalf of corporations, be it through subsidies to fossil fuel companies or zoning laws that favor luxury real estate developers…

Many of the solutions to climate change, Steffen and his co-authors argue, already exist and are starting to work; the appendix to their paper lists out several such measures. “It’s not that the solutions aren’t there. It’s that we don’t have the economic and policy setting right to really ramp those up,” he said. The main constraints on action are “our value systems, and legal systems,” Steffen told me, adding that taking climate change seriously also means taking “a completely different view of economics, going away from viewing the natural world as resources to viewing it as an essential piece of our life support system that needs to be maintained and enhanced.

I think you simply have to go right back to the fundamental science of who we are, the planet we evolved into, how that planet operates and what’s happening to it,” Steffen maintains, “and that will tell you immediately that so-called neoliberal economics is radically wrong in terms of how it views the rest of the world.”

This actually tells us a lot about the author’s assumptions about a “wartime footing”. Capitalism already faced two major crises in the 20th century that led to two world wars. While the official bourgeois history claims that these wars were necessary to defend democracy against autocracy/fascism, all sides actually went to war to defend and extend their global spheres of influence. They couldn’t have done it without ‘centrally planned economies’. But these centralized states were imperialist states consistent with state monopoly capitalism.

Is this the alternative to ‘neo-liberalism’? No. It is just another face of the late capitalist state defending and extending the interests of its ruling class against their imperialist rivals. However capitalism branded itself, it was the workers in all countries that paid the price on the battle fields for the ruling classes to settle their differences on who owns what parts of the globe. So, what does a ‘war-time footing’ by a ‘centrally planned economy’ against climate change today mean?

We get back to the contradiction: ‘centrally planned economies’ going on a ‘war footing’ do so for the interests of the capitalist ruling classes. Yet these same class interests are the cause of climate change. So which class will control the state and plan the economy to rescue us? Bourgeoisie or proletariat? These are the questions that we need to pose urgently, and we need to debate the answers offered by non-Marxists and Marxists to find the truth.

Survival Socialism

Non-Marxists have taken a range of positions. Guy Macpherson gets as far as naming capitalism as the problem but cannot see a way to avoid near-term extinction.

Paul Beckwith proposes his three-legged bar stool solution – stopping carbon burning, extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, and re-icing the North Pole. Each of these is technically feasible and he calls for world leaders to declare a “climate emergency” to raise the funds to implement them.

The ‘evolutionary’ socialists, anarchists and liberals have a stake in promoting the ideal of a liberal or democratic capitalism that can be reformed by a progressive, ‘left wing’, social democratic government and make the changes necessary to avoid Hothouse Earth in time. Yet their token ‘Green agendas’ that fiddle with carbon credits and carbon taxes, and try to regulate Big Oil and Big Tech away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, cannot possibly bring us back from the brink of the predicted ‘tipping points’ in time. These ‘tipping points, are approaching with increasing speed and will be irreversible. Carbon burning is still rising along with the growing list of extinct species.

The common problem face by the non-Marxist left is that the bourgeois state cannot act against the interests of the capitalist class. So long as it uses the state to defend its class interest against those of humanity-in-general then humanity will pay the price.

As Marx pointed out, the bourgeoisie claims to stand for the universal, common, national interest – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – but in practice these are values reserved for the bourgeoisie. The proletariats’ Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity are abolished by the police and army whenever they threaten the private property owners most fundamental right to exploit and oppress the proletariat.  The bourgeois interest dictates the use of any method necessary to defend private property and exploit the working masses, to our death if necessary.


The obvious conclusion must be that our objective is the same as that of the Paris Commune 1871, Russia 1917, and every revolution since that was aimed at removing the ruling class and its state. The interests of the working masses are to overthrow the class that exploits and oppresses them, that is, to take state power. We need a workers’ state to create a new society based on the principles of workers’ democracy and central planning to produce to meet the needs of society and nature, restoring the unity of nature and society, and eliminating at long last, class society and the terminal war and destruction that are now heading inexorably to human extinction.

But how to get there? For Marxists, the method is transitional – to struggle every day to live and fight back until our power becomes a force against capital, and leads ultimately to the seizure of state power. These daily demands become transitional demands because when they come up against the ruling class interests, ‘human rights’ go out the window, ‘democracy’ goes out the door, and fascism prepares for a home invasion. Working class resistance to ruling class attacks teaches us all the crucial lesson that there is no future for humanity without a socialist revolution and a workers’ state to make the necessary urgent changes we need to survive.

The problem is capitalism, not neo-liberal economics. Five centuries of destruction of nature was not caused in the last half-century. We have to replace capitalism with a socialist society that returns to nature and produces for need not greed. Now!

For humanity to live, capitalism must die!


Interview with Meyer Hillman

And even sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson fatally underestimates runaway climate change. His “NY 2140” would still see Hillman’s great-great-grandchildren enjoying the high life.

Will Steffen et. al.

Intercept interview with Will Steffen

Guy Macpherson

Paul Beckwith