The State Against Climate Change: Response to Christian Parenti

Image: “Paradise Melting” by SL Rote. Blog/Website

A response to Christian Parenti’s assertion that the state is the only way to meet the challenge of the climate crisis.

By BRRN Radical Ecology Committee (REC)

In the concluding chapter of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2012), author Christian Parenti suggests that those seeking to mitigate and adapt to the disastrous effects of global warming can do so best by taking power of the State to implement the necessary changes to bring about a transition to a post-capitalist global society powered by renewable energies. In an address to the 2013 Left Forum, “What Climate Change Implies for the State,” in which he develops these ideas, Parenti asserts that the Left should adopt a strategy of recovering and reclaiming the territory of the State, “reshaping” it toward the end of an all-out short-term mobilization to resolve the impending threat of climate destruction. Though Parenti recognizes that the State’s primary role within the rise of capitalism to have been to facilitate the exploitation and destruction of nature, he somehow believes that this same mechanism could now serve the opposite end. He claims that climate change can be resolved simply through fiat by the Environmental Protection Agency: “we’re [just] waiting for numerous rules from the EPA.” He insists that the Left desperately needs to come up with “realistic solutions” to the gravity of the climate crisis, and that any strategy of merely “being outraged” or “invoking the righteousness of our cause” will utterly fail. [1]

What Is the State, and Is It Neutral? 

To begin to respond to Parenti, we first have to ask, what is the State? Peter Kropotkin distinguishes between the State as bureaucratic despotism imposed from above and collective self-governance from below, otherwise known as self-organization or self-management. [2] Examples of the latter can be seen in the soldiers’, peasants’, and workers’ councils of the Russian Revolution; indigenous Latin American assemblies; the Paris Commune of 1871; the Gwanju Commune of 1980; the cooperatives, communes, and free cities of medieval Europe and today’s Rojava Revolution; and the Local Coordinating Councils of the Syrian Revolution, among other examples. Therefore, when we mention “the State,” all that is meant on the philosophical level—leaving aside for a moment the very real physical presence of the State, as embodied in militarism, prisons, and the police—is just centralism, or the concentration of decision-making power, whether that be a monarch, emperor, One-Party State, or modern multi-party western democracies.

In terms of ecology, it is clear that the State is not a “neutral” arbiter but rather, as Parenti argues, the facilitator of ecocides global and local. The EPA’s laws and regulations are often not enforced, even when the ruling class believes they should at least be on the books, and are currently being decimated due to the Trump Regime’s affinity for fossil capital. If enforced, these standards are too-often observed along a racial-territorial basis, exacerbating environmental racism. Centralism in practice leads to bureaucratic lack of accountability and popular dis-empowerment, among other problems, as Kropotkin specified. So then the question becomes, do we need centralism for a successful transition to a post-capitalist, “ecological” future? The answer to this is of course not.

Facing Global Ecocide

To be clear, the need for a revolutionary transition beyond capitalism and global ecocide is absolute, given how seriously climate change, species’ extinction, chemical pollution, and several other environmental disasters threaten the future of humanity and, indeed, complex life on Earth. That is not under question. Rather, this is a question of strategy. In this sense, Parenti’s statism is a dangerous distraction from the necessary struggle of organizing a broad-based international popular movement against the factors impelling catastrophe: that is to say, capitalism and the State themselves. Parenti’s short concluding chapter to Tropic of Chaos and his Left Forum address do not consider this possibility; yet it is a surer way of resolving the problem than deferring to the State.

One undeniable problem of a reliance on the State to combat climate change is that the “progress” supposedly made by the State is eminently reversible upon the entry into power of a new administration: hence Barack Obama, a notorious climate criminal who effectively continued George W. Bush’s approach while presenting the same as just and reasonable, is followed by the Trump Regime, which in power has closely implemented the anti-environmental de-regulations announced by candidate Trump, ranging from the opening up of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling to the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, intensified bombardment of different Middle Eastern countries, privatization of public nature reserves, and suppression of climate science, ad nauseum. While the gains of the revolution can similarly be reversed—for indeed, what we are witnessing on the part of the State across the globe is an unprecedented counter-revolutionary mobilization—they should also be considered closer to the interests of the people, the soul of the revolution, who ensure the progression of the necessary social changes by fighting autonomously for them—and for the collectives of humanity and all life on Earth behind them.

An Anti-State Ecological Transition

Concretely, we know what has to be done: to avert the worst of capital-induced climate change, we must transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels right away, with the proviso that, in Peter and David Schwartzman’s view, we should set aside a given amount of petroleum for the construction of renewable-energy infrastructure. [3] According to Jeremy Brecher, achieving a transition beyond fossil fuels implies undermining several “pillars of support” for them, including the cancellation of the trillions of dollars in subsidies for these fuels; the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energies; direct carbon sequestration; the discrediting of the “climate destroyers,” or those principally responsible for the problem; the increasing of the negative consequences of continued fossil-fuel extraction and burning; and developing of dual power. [4]

None of these goals requires the State, but they can be achieved through dual power. We can imagine workers and communities coordinated across borders to shut down fossil-fuel industries, thus revealing the simplicity of the problem. Rather than divert our struggle into the State, where it becomes lost, we can do this better ourselves. It is only a conscious working class battling with the interests of the youth, future generations, and the planet at heart that provides hope. To rely on the State and the bourgeoisie is sheer folly, given that they’re the reason we’re in this mess. While the example of taking matters into our own hands can be expected to provoke a concerted backlash on the part of the privileged, it can also open the horizon of possibility that is currently veiled by the ethos of capitalist “realism,” which denies the very destructiveness of bourgeois society while prioritizing production and consumption above all else. [5]

To close, let us summarize the argument. Is the State necessary for the struggle against climate change? No; instead, we see that the State is, alongside capitalism, our principal enemy in contributing to global warming and other environmental catastrophes. Due to its functional role in defending and expanding the capitalist system, the State cannot be a means for true climate justice. Let us not concern ourselves with reformist false solutions to environmental problems, but rather get on with organizing a broad-based popular global movement that implements the solutions we need.


  1. Javier Sethness Castro, “Reform and Revolution at Left Forum 2013,” CounterPunch, 14 June 2013. Available online
  2. Jim Mac Laughlin, Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition (London: Pluto, 2016), 137-141.
  3. Peter D. Schwartzman and David W. Schwartzman, “A Solar Transition Is Possible!” Institute for Policy Research and Development, 2011. Available online.
  4. Jeremy Brecher, Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2017).
  5. Stefan Gandler, Critical Marxism in Mexico: Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez and Bolívar Echeverría (Leiden: Brill, 2015).