Carbon Confusion
Coming to Terms with Climate Change on the North Atlantic Left

by Larry Lohmann

first published 7 October 2021

"System change, not climate change" has long been a rallying cry of climate justice movements in the global North, as elsewhere. But, argues this contribution to the Indian online magazine GroundXero, the slogan can have several different meanings, with markedly different consequences for practical action, depending on who gets to define what "climate change" is.

One interpretation that is still prominent in the North, even on the left, is that climate change is a matter of  CO2 molecules being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here climate action tends to become organized around the fetishized object of the wayward CO2 molecule in the same way that far-right politics is organized around the fetishized figure of the immigrant. "Climate mitigation" becomes management of CO2 molecule movements without regard to the underlying causes of those movements in capital accumulation.

On this view, there is essentially nothing wrong with, say, Chevron's practices with regard to the earth. It is just that the company should be nationalized, its oil wells used to bury carbon dioxide rather than increase the carbon content of the atmosphere, and subsidies provided to it so that it can invest as profitably in renewable energy as it did in petroleum.

A more realistic interpretation of "system change, not climate change" would instead try to break the stranglehold of the "climate = carbon" equation that dominates climate politics today.

You can find a related presentation from an ongoing conference organized by the University of California at Santa Barbara at See also and