Speech for Socialist Action Webinar

Gene McGuckin, Member of the Vancouver Ecosocialists
We are part of nature: hundreds of people died while a billion tidal sea creatures cooked in place.

After the Heat Dome Killings, What Is to Be Done?

Thursday, July 22, 2021


I am speaking to you this evening from the traditional territories of the Quay Quayt and Kwikwetlem First Nations in a place otherwise known as New Westminster, BC.

So, the global crisis caused by long-term climate disruption finally arrived undeniably in BC with a deadly, record-smashing heat wave at the end of June—the same day that a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—with dire warnings of rapidly worsening climate disruption impacts—was leaked to the world media.

Neither the deadly heat wave nor the leaked report have prompted any appropriate reactions from BC or Canadian political or economic mis-leaders, despite climate disruption assessments like this one from a US scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, who told media, “[it] moved my sense of where we are by about a decade, or even more…”

Let me just briefly outline why this crisis must be dealt with quickly and thoroughly and why this will not happen, if we depend on our current governments. Then, we’ll approach the 120-year-old socialist question: what is to be done?

Let me start this way….

If I load a gun, point it at you, and pull the trigger, I am guilty of a serious crime--possibly murder. I will be arrested, charged, tried, and punished. That’s a deterrent to shooting people.

But fossil fuel corporate executives make–and conceal for decades–decisions that they know, with absolute certainty, will cause climate disruptions resulting in death and injury for huge numbers of people. Yet, no one is criminally charged. There is NO punishment for the premeditated murders—NO deterrent. But, no big problem, right? Because most of the deaths and injuries occur in the global south, or to poor folk in the north.

As in BC these past few weeks, local climate disruption deaths do make headlines. Politicians compete in their sorrowful soundbites about what we can do to keep such “misfortunes” from being repeated. What we can do, that is, without reducing corporate fossil fuel profits. Because under capitalism, profits are the basic reality that must take precedence. Eliminating this root cause of the slaughter is not considered a practical (or allowable) political solution.

After nine million people were impacted and hundreds killed in British Columbia and south of the border—mostly people who were poor, old, or unwell—no corporate executives, or fossil fuel investors, or their governmental backers were unduly troubled. Premier John Horgan blurted out the callous wisdom that “fatalities are a part of life.” But no other provincial or federal government officials have proposed the obvious emergency response to the “fatalities,” which are all-too-likely to recur.

Scientists say that calling the deadly heat wave a “new normal” is misleading. That implies we are moving from one state to another. But no. “We are now in a period where there are going to be ongoing changes for decades,” said one.

Yet, we have no political decisions to accelerate the transition off fossil fuels. No immediate end to old-growth logging, nor a crash program to reduce agricultural GHS. Construction continues on fossil fuel pipelines. Work proceeds on the Site C Dam and BC’s 20,000 fracking wells, key parts of a methane-spewing LNG-export industry. Tens of billions in government subsidies to Big Oil & Gas are still shelled out by un-consulted taxpayers.

In Ottawa, on June 29, the day Lytton, BC, set the all-time Canadian heat record of 49.6ºC, and the day before the village burned to the ground, the Senate passed the much-bally-hooed Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, another Trudeau “victory”— to add to his other pro-emission policies since the Paris Accords.

Emissions targets are not contained in the law. They’re supposed to come later—but not before a fall election. Then, there are supposed five-year targets starting in 2030, but no carbon budgets that would allow such targets to be “accountable.” No overall plan to reduce the many interwoven corporate climate disruption activities. But there are plans to actually increase fossil fuel production, supposedly allowed by the “net zero” con-game of using highly questionable “offsets” as a trade-off for continuing to pump GHGs into the atmosphere. And there’s reliance on unproven carbon capture technology and hugely expensive green and blue hydrogen production.

Two weeks after the “heat wave” deaths, Trudeau’s Lie-berals dishonoured them in submitting Canada’s updated carbon emission-reduction targets to the United Nations.

Instead of the internationally agreed target of 50% by 2030, the Lie-berals promised a only a 40-45% reduction. AND that target is supposedly going to be reached through inadequate carbon taxes and the “net zero” method I just mentioned. AND export of the world’s dirtiest oil expands with the planned completions of the Trans Mountain pipeline to the Pacific and the Line 3 pipeline to the US.

Meanwhile, at the provincial level, Premier Horgan came into office vowing to use every tool in the toolbox to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and later made the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) a law of British Columbia. Well, he’s still looking for the key to the toolbox, as Trans Mountain expansion proceeds, and his sending militarized police to force a pipeline through indigenous lands shows what he and his party think of indigenous peoples’ rights, of increased carbon and methane emissions—and also what they think of the law.

All these contradictions between promises and what actually gets done are not bad planning and execution. This is the new denialism. Where CEOS and government ministers used to deny there were any climate problems, they now say, “Yeah, we know, and we’re on it!” And then do nothing! Or do it s-l-o-w-l-y, like the 2035 deadline for banning internal combustion engine vehicles.

Despite a seven per cent drop in global emissions from humans in 2020, the atmospheric concentration of carbon increased. Some scientists worry that the dreaded “feedback loops” may have begun operating.

I could go on about the world-wide environmental, economic, medical, and social crises and disasters capitalism has caused in addition to climate disruption—other breached and nearly breached “planetary limits” involving fresh water, forests, sea levels, bio-diversity, etc. And also, about the eco-tastrophes people in other parts of the world are suffering that are worse than what we have faced so far. But I just wanted to set the background for what socialists really have to talk about, which is, once again, what must be done—and what we need to do.

And that last word “do” is the key. Over the past decade, we have heard and read lots of progressive ideas about the multiplying crises of capitalism. But most of them are lists of things we need to change or results of that change that we would like to see. There is much less discussion of tactics and strategies needed to bring about these changes, and therefore very little exploration of how we mobilize and train ourselves to actually win the battles we need to fight.

I am not a specialist on any of these questions, but I venture to put forward what, generally speaking, I believe our side should be focused on. Three things are essential.

FIRST, we need to plan and implement environmental changes VERY quickly, to reduce the deadly consequences of onrushing environmental, economic, social, and public health emergencies AND to mitigate those that can no longer be prevented.

So, with laws like Canada’s so-called net-zero accountability law or the US multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, we have to leapfrog the stage where we say, “Oh, it is far from ‘the gold standard,’ but it’s a first step in the right direction.” We need to move way beyond “first steps” to effective, comprehensive solutions—yesterday! Gradualism is as bad as doing nothing. Worse, because it demobilizes the struggle!

SECOND, we must get rid of the time-wasting tactical illusions that we can convince capitalist CEOs and their government puppets to lead this emergency struggle—or even go along with it. It’s not a matter of their not understanding. It’s a matter of their allegiance to the capitalist system—to the market, to the competition, and to the PROFITS. So, let’s recognize that petitions are not mind-changers, letters to the editor only very rarely create enough pressure to thwart corporate wrongs, and telling politicians they will lose our support in the next election is useless, if that means a less progressive adversary might get voted in.

THIRD, the logical conclusion of all of the above, is that WE, ourselves NEED to develop the POWER to do what must be done to counter capitalism and its state power.

Most importantly, we need working class power. We need well-informed union members and unions who will use the strike weapon to balance the economic and police power of capital and its state. We need union and non-union sisters and brothers who will mobilize in their thousands (as was common in BC up until 2005) to take to the streets. But we also need  them to use their on-the-job expertise to help come up with needed climate solutions that those without that expertise can only guess at. We need workplace occupations and, when possible, redirection of their production—whether supplies, information, communication links or whatever—to the service of the urgent, rapid, democratic red-green transition.

We also require what I’ll call “community power”—informed and largely self-organized groups, who understand the necessity for social solidarity and can link up to launch demos, occupations, blockades, getting things done at City Hall, getting relief to at-risk populations, subverting police/military action against popular power—whatever! These mobilizations, which we should never think will automatically bring capital to see things our way, are nevertheless, extremely important, because they let us SEE EACH OTHER in action, which bolsters the all-important, movement-building belief that we have a good chance to win.

But community power should also include getting more people involved at the local level with discussing problems and their solutions. Not so long ago, thousands of people in Canada (and elsewhere) came out to meetings to discuss winning a “Green New Deal.” Hopefully, we can make that happen again, going far beyond the concept of a “deal” to, perhaps, a Green New Society. Because we are going to have to cement our victories, not just by defeating capital in numerous battles, but by replacing capitalism and its state powers, that promote profiteering and, in turn, are financed by it.

Bringing together all our skills and experiences and imaginations to discuss and implement solutions will be the way that we learn, that we become the germ of the democratic social and economic planning system we will need when we replace capitalism.

And, of course, before we replace capitalism, in the here and now, we need to go beyond developing more class power and more community power in our workplaces, neighbourhoods, towns, and cities. We need to challenge for government power. We have to fight to begin implementing what needs to be done over the objections and obstacles of capital and its state. And, for the time being we have to use, as effectively as possible, the existing political system’s possibilities.

Recent polls tell us a large majority of Canadians are now convinced climate disruption is negative-tending-toward-disastrous, and they want a shift in investment from fossil fuels to renewables. Even most oil and gas workers now want to transfer to “net-zero jobs.” Of course, no parliamentary party shares these progressive goals—or numerous other such goals.

So, how do we make effective use of elections? If we hope to have an effect on large numbers of voters, we obviously can’t run on “maximal demand” for an immediate socialist revolution. But running on the usual, social democratic or left-green “minimal demands” for gradual, partial, and temporary reforms would be the same as giving up, because these reforms are not big enough or fast enough.

A preferable approach—making “transitional demands,”—would focus on the current level of consciousness of workers and popular sectors, like the rising awareness of climate disruption’s impacts and costs, the frustration and grieving caused by the inept handling of the pandemic, sympathy with First Nations’ struggles, attention to growing crises of jobs and housing. In each of these areas, and probably more, we would put forward common sense “transitional demands” that capitalism cannot (not just will not, but cannot) accept, because doing so would disrupt its whole profit-based system.

As more and more people, who consider the transitional demand(s) reasonable and worth fighting for, but who come to realize capitalism cannot agree to these demands, cannot provide what survival requires for individuals, their families, our society, and the global biosphere, more and more of them will realize that their/our only choice is replacing capitalism with the democratic social and economic planning of socialism.

And the totally open and public “transitional goal” of making all these transitional demands would be for working people and our allies to take governmental power away from the capitalist puppet parties—thus posing the question of who rules in whose interests. Such a situation of dual power would inevitably lead to the deciding revolutionary contest.

So, what “transitional demands” should we emphasize (though this would also be a good question to put before the Green New Society groups, if they come into existence).

Undoubtedly, one urgent demand should be to nationalize the whole fossil fuel industry NOW—AND WIND IT DOWN.” Another would be to nationalize the banks and use their resources for financing a just green transition with well-paid jobs for all, while taking effective prevention and mitigation steps to counter the impacts of climate disruption. It would certainly be reasonable to demand that unceded territories of First Nations should be returned to those nations along with funds necessary to remediate the damages done by settler colonialism.

And just to spice up that discussion on another key point, how would we put forward these transitional demands in, say, the Canadian federal election heavily rumoured to be taking place within the next few weeks? Because, as noted already, common sense transitional demands are not in any mainstream party’s platform.

Traditional “critical support” for social democratic candidates is problematic for the same reason we don’t want to promote the “minimal program” of slowly improving reforms. But, as an alternative, we don’t yet have a mass ecosocialist party to run candidates and promote transitional demands on a scale that might make a difference.

Should we run one or a few candidates in select ridings with a “transitional platform” of demands that can attract attention and allow at least some voters to have an opportunity to cast a ballot for what is necessary? Should we hand out leaflets at other candidates’ events? Hold events of our own? Carry out Extinction Rebellion-type actions, hoping that media will give exposure to our ideas? What do you think?

Thanks for your attention, and thanks to Socialist Action for inviting the Vancouver Ecosocialists to speak today.

Note: Unfortunately, the last eight paragraphs of this speech were not delivered during the webinar, since I misjudged how much could be squeezed into 15 minutes, and I ran out of time.

- Gene


[Top photo: We are part of nature: hundreds of people died while a billion tidal sea creatures cooked in place.]