David Seymour vs. the School Strikers

Thousands of people across the country marched last Friday as part of the Global Climate Strike. School students were joined by adults of every generation, demanding real action to address the greatest crisis of our time — a crisis that is getting very real, very quickly in Aotearoa.

Tāmaki Makaurau experienced the worst flooding in its recorded history in January, before Cyclone Gabrielle devastated much of the North Island in February. Eleven people were killed, 10,000 people have been displaced, and several people are still missing, with an estimated $13 billion worth of damage done.

The case for urgent climate action should be obvious in the wake of this devastation. Many people are traumatised by their lives and livelihoods being destroyed; many are angry at decades of inaction or inadequacy from our political leaders. Surely, now that the threat of climate catastrophe is so painfully clear, the quarrelling parties will come together and find a solution?

Not so. Friday’s inspiring climate protests did not move the heart of David Seymour. Instead, the ACT Party leader cynically tweeted:

“Sadly, School Strike 4 Climate has unthinkingly adopted the hard left’s hatred of capitalism and is using climate change to try to permanently shift New Zealand politics to the left.”

There will be no unity from Seymour in the face of such an obvious crisis. There will certainly be no climate action from ACT. If the disasters of the last two months aren’t enough to wake them up to the reality of the crisis, nothing will be.

But what is this? Climate denial? Nope — unlike his predecessors Rodney Hide and Jamie Whyte, and unlike National MP Maureen Pugh, Seymour does not deny the reality of climate change.

Instead, he has moved from outright denial to denying the extent of the climate crisis, and to denying that anything can be done about it.

“The Government can do almost nothing to mitigate climate change.”

This new line is more dangerous than denying the existence of the crisis. Very few people are willing to accept outright denial these days. But to deny anything can be done about it taps into a widespread cynicism about governments being able to achieve anything. It has an air of plausibility.

Seymour is wrong. We can and we must take radical action to tackle the climate crisis. But it’s not because Seymour is ignorant that he makes this argument. It’s because he’s ideologically consistent.

Seymour is desperately clinging on to the ideology of free market capitalism, even as that very ideology destroys the planet. It’s because he knows the truth: either the planet dies, or the free market dies. His attack on the school strikers suggests he would prefer to see the death of the planet.

The Free Market on Trial

“Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.”

Naomi Klein, ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’ (2014)

For four decades, most of the world has been run according to free market ideology. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan led the market revolution in the 1980s — they smashed the trade unions, privatised state assets, deregulated national and international markets, cut government spending, and awarded their wealthy supporters with huge tax cuts. This created a huge transfer of wealth and power from ordinary working people to the rich.

Aotearoa was one of the worst test cases of this free market dogma. Beginning in 1984, Finance Minister Roger Douglas (who later co-founded the ACT Party) mounted an all-out attack on the state. As a result of the policies of Douglas and his successors, NZ underwent a 9-year period in which inequality increased faster than any other OECD country at the time.

1988 was the year when the science on climate change became settled enough that the United Nations founded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to facilitate cooperation on reducing emissions and preventing global warming. According to climate campaigner Naomi Klein, this was “the worst possible moment for humanity to decide that it was going to get serious about putting planetary health ahead of profits.”

According to the ideology of the free market, otherwise known as ‘neoliberalism,’ the state should never intervene in the economy. At precisely the moment where governments around the world needed to take drastic action to reduce emissions and avert catastrophe, instead Reagan declared that, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Between 1988 and 2020, a total of 937 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted by human industry — a substantial increase on the 763 billion tonnes released between 1750 and 1988. That is 22.8% more emissions in just 32 years than in the previous 238 years combined — after the governments of the world supposedly came together to act on the crisis. The crisis only continues to get worse and worse under this economic system.

 
 

Not only has the deregulated free market categorically failed to prevent climate change — neoliberalism has exacerbated the crisis. Yet market fundamentalists such as Seymour believe that neoliberal policies haven’t gone far enough — Seymour wants to roll back the state even further. The ACT Party’s alternative budget for 2022 proposed to cut social and environmental spending by a whopping 7.2% by June 2024, in order to pay for huge tax cuts for the rich and a substantial increase in military spending.

This is why Seymour is so threatened by the implications of climate change. So threatened that he makes the insane argument that there is nothing we can do to stop catastrophic climate change.

 

The Problem Is Capitalism

The issue goes broader than just the particular form of free market neoliberalism Aotearoa has experienced since 1984. The problem is capitalism itself. In a way, David Seymour is right — he’s right to be scared that School Strike 4 Climate, and others in the climate movement, will “adopt the hard left’s hatred of capitalism” and “use climate change to try to permanently shift politics to the left.” It’s the only logical conclusion that can be drawn from the madness of the system we live under.

The fundamental law of capitalism is that private profit comes before all else. The whole of our economy and society is structured to allow the top 0.1%, those who own the major corporations, to accumulate vast sums of wealth at the expense of everyone else.

Between 1988 and 2015, 71% of global emissions were produced by just 100 corporations. It is the capitalist class who are responsible for climate change, not individual consumers. Corporate giants will always place their profits over the lives of ordinary people, even when their actions are putting humanity’s future existence on this planet in jeopardy. It’s not necessarily because capitalists are bad people, but instead because if they fail to put their profits first, the law of competition means that they will lose out.

Returning to a more regulated form of capitalism will not change this. A system which puts profit before people is now necessary for the survival of the human race. Democratic planning of the economy is needed to save the planet. As a first step, we need public ownership of the energy, water and public transport sectors to immediately move society towards a low emissions future, and we need to nationalise and shut down all major polluters as rapidly as possible.

Capitalism isn’t working for the planet, and it’s not working for the people either. In 2017, the two richest New Zealanders, Graeme Hart and Richard Chandler, owned more wealth than the bottom 30% of the country. Despite Jacinda Ardern’s reforms, we still have far too much poverty in Aotearoa, and we still live in a low wage economy with a housing crisis. Worse still, inequality has actually gone up under the Labour Government.

The fight for climate justice must also be a fight for social and economic justice — because people will not accept radical change which harms ordinary people, and because ending capitalism, now a necessity for our species, makes a more just society possible. We also need a just transition for all workers involved in polluting industries, and we need to tax the rich to pay for the transition. Ordinary working people are not to blame for this crisis and should not be punished for it.

 

Capitalism or Survival

Mark Fisher said in 2009 that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Perhaps that was true then — but the hegemony of free market ideology is not what it once was. The Global Financial Crisis and the austerity that followed in many countries shattered the illusion that capitalism could ever deliver for ordinary people, and anticapitalist ideas are on the rise again.

In the case of Seymour and his ilk, it’s not about whether or not they can imagine the end of capitalism. Seymour would rather see the end of the world than the end of capitalism. He would rather see our ecosystems break down than see workers earn a decent wage; than see the rich give up their mountains of gold; than see the governments of the world intervene in the economy to prevent climate collapse.

Why else would the ACT leader deny the possibility of mitigating climate change? Why else would he want to slash spending on social and environmental programmes? Most damningly of all: why else does he want to abolish the Zero Carbon Act and the Climate Commission, whilst expanding oil drilling in our oceans? Does he have a death wish? Or is it that he would rather see the continued dominance of free market capitalism, no matter the cost to current and future generations?

The climate movement must accept that right-wing parties will never do anything to avert climate catastrophe. It’s not just ACT. Whilst less extreme, the National Party also intends to end Labour’s ban on new deep sea oil drilling. A National-ACT Government would be a catastrophe for the climate. There is no amount of gentle persuasion that can build some magical cross-party consensus on this issue. Capitalism is the enemy of the planet, and the right-wing parties are utterly committed to the reign of profit over people.

The Labour Party are also too wedded to the current economic consensus to provide much hope on environmental issues. Whilst the Zero Carbon ACT, the Climate Commission and the ban on new deep sea oil drilling are steps in the right direction which must be defended by the climate movement, it’s nowhere near enough.

Even the Greens, the party founded to demand real action on environmental issues, do not have the vision we need. Their entire strategic outlook is based on being junior coalition partners with the Labour Party, and they refuse to put up a proper fight to force Labour to do better. That’s not to say that the Greens should ever even threaten to join a right-wing coalition — but they do need a serious rethink of how to aggressively pressure Labour to act boldly. If the opportunity arises in the next parliament, they should consider refusing to enter a coalition, and instead support a Labour Government on a case-by-case basis, demanding radical action wherever possible whilst at the same time preventing National and ACT from taking power.

There is also the problem presented by the ‘moderate’ faction within the Green Party. Whilst the left of the party is tentatively willing to speak about capitalism, the party ‘moderates’ still have illusions in the system. James Shaw, a former corporate executive, believes that climate change will be solved by politely persuading businesses that taking climate action is the right thing to do — and that they can profit from it. It’s hopelessly naïve. The co-leadership model means that there is a deadlock in the Green Party between the left led by Marama Davidson and the ‘moderates’ led by Shaw.

If Green members are truly serious about climate change, the greatest crisis of our time, they must replace Shaw, ditch the idea of a happy consensus between radicals and moderates within the party, and commit to a transformational platform. There is nothing ‘moderate’ about compromising with the corporations that are threatening the future existence of our entire species.

The compromises of the Labour Party and some in the Green Party are dangerous because they present no genuine alternative to National and ACT when radical solutions are so desperately necessary. But the true hope lies with ordinary people.

Another World Is Possible

“What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!”

“One solution: revolution!”

“We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”

These are just three of the chants yelled by the 1,000 people who marched for climate justice in Tāmaki Makaurau on Friday. The rally was much bigger and bolder than the previous one held in September last year. The lockdowns stole momentum from activists, but the climate movement is well and truly getting back on its feet. In the wake of the Cyclone and the floods, this could not be a more welcome sight.

There is confusion, however. Two other chants included:

“I say: government, you say: accountability! Government! Accountability!”

“I say: Corporate, you say: accountability! Corporate! Accountability!”

To hear calls for corporate accountability one minute and revolutionary slogans the next was jarring, to say the least.

The official demands of Fridays for Future represent a clear step in the right direction. These demands are:

  • No new exploration or mining of new fossil fuel resources.

  • Lower the voting age to 16-years-old.

  • 30 percent marine protection by 2025.

  • Support regenerative farming.

  • E-bike rebates for lower-income families.

This is not a radical programme. The climate movement needs to widen its demands to address the true scale of the crisis. That being said however, it is a huge step forward for the movement that so many young people understand that the climate movement is inherently a movement to put people before profit.

That understanding must become universal. Ultimately, everyone in the climate movement must understand that capitalism is the cause of ecological breakdown, and is not part of the solution. Everyone must understand that Labour and National will never solve this crisis, let alone ACT. The people must come together and demand radical, just solutions. We must demand system change, not climate change — and we must understand the radical implications of that slogan.

The climate movement should formulate a radical programme of social, environmental and economic transformation along the lines of the Green New Deal proposed by left-wing US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Immediate and significant emissions reduction, widespread public ownership, green jobs, workers’ rights and higher taxes on the rich should all be central.

ACT and National must be terrified every time the climate movement mobilises. They’re terrified of school students going on strike to demand better. And Cyclone Gabrielle must have been so hard for them — for it heralded the death of their ideology.

Capitalism isn’t working. But a better world is possible; and a mass movement is beginning to emerge to create that better world. It has David Seymour shaking in his boots!