Written by Suzanne Jeffery and first published at International Socialism
Time is running out. This is not an alarmist call to arms but a reflection of the scientific consensus about what is happening to the climate and what will happen in the coming years unless action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases happens on a huge scale and begins now.1
The time frame is incredibly short. The problem is not one for future generations but for our generation, those of us who are alive now. If we continue to produce greenhouse gas emissions at the rate we have been we will have used up the carbon needed to take us to 2˚C warming in the next 30 years.2 Governments have agreed repeatedly to aim to limit rises to 2˚C above the pre-industrial average temperature. It is also the increase scientists fear would trigger feedback processes that would result in climate change becoming catastrophic and irreversible.3 The current predictions from scientists are that without emissions being reduced and with a “business as usual” scenario, we are on track for a 4 to 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century. Professor James Hansen, a leading climate scientist, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for space studies and activist, describes 4 to 6 degrees of warming like this, “Four degrees of warming would be enough to melt all the ice…
You would have a tremendously chaotic situation as you moved away from our current climate towards another one. That’s a different planet. You wouldn’t recognise it… We are on the verge of creating climate chaos if we don’t begin to reduce emissions rapidly”.4
Despite this, in the last few years the response of governments globally has been inaction at best and, at worst, policies that increase emissions. This predates the current economic crisis but it is also intimately connected with it. In September 2008 Lehman Brothers went bust. The UN climate talks in Copenhagen were only 15 months later, in December 2009. The result of the collapse of Lehman’s and the economic crisis it foretold has been the prolonged and destructive era of austerity during which governments have continued to push even more aggressively the policies and economic system that caused the crisis in the first place. Meanwhile the result of the Copenhagen talks, in part shaped by the economic crisis, was a catastrophic non-deal which led to governments around the world continuing wilfully to ignore the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel use. Instead they pushed the expansion of fossil fuels even more aggressively especially through non-conventional methods such as fracking. By 2015 the results for ordinary people of both these key historical moments have been devastating. The impact of austerity on the lives of ordinary people has been dramatic. Similarly the consequences of the failure to tackle rising emissions are frightening.
These twin and connected crises require a huge challenge to the system in order to bring about the kind of changes necessary to organise society to benefit ordinary people and safeguard the climate of the planet we live on. Fortunately in recent years there has been a growing and increasingly radical climate movement. 2015 is a crucial year for this movement. One reason for this is the UN climate talks in Paris in December. This year’s talks have greater significance because the Copenhagen Protocol, the disastrous statement of inaction that concluded the talks in 2009, will be reviewed.
There will again be a focus on the willingness or otherwise of the world’s leaders to commit to urgent action.
One important expression of the strength of the climate movement has been the number of big climate demonstrations. In September 2014 there were significant demonstrations in towns and cities across the world, supported by major NGOs as well as many smaller grassroots organisations. These protests were organised to coincide with a UN summit on climate change and included a demonstration of 40,000 in London as well as a demonstration of 400,000, the biggest ever on climate change, in New York where the summit was held.5
In the UK 20,000 took part in the Time to Act demonstration in March this year. Initiated by the small but active Campaign against Climate Change (CaCC), this demonstration, like the others, was young, vibrant, diverse and radical. As part of the demonstration, thousands took part in a sit-down along Whitehall. At the final rally, for the first time at a climate rally, trade unionists spoke alongside social justice activists, anti-fracking activists, anti-austerity activists and anti-racist campaigners as well as politicians and some of the leading NGOs.6
The Time to Act demonstration was a significant sign of the potential of the movement. Despite the fact that it did not coincide with any major climate event acting as a focus for mobilisation and that it was organised by grassroots activists rather than any of the larger NGOs it was a huge success that acted to further galvanise a growing movement with a radical message.
In Canada 25,000 took to the streets in Quebec for the Act on Climate demonstration in April. Then in July up to 15,000 people marched in Toronto. This was the largest environmental demonstration in Canadian history outside the province of Quebec. For the first time on an environmental march, the Toronto demonstration brought together trade unionists, indigenous people, anti-poverty campaigners and pro-migrant groups. They marched under the slogan “Jobs, justice and climate action”, calling for climate solutions that would make society fairer and making explicit the connection between climate and the wider social struggle. This demonstrated a major step forward for the climate movement. One organiser from an anti-poverty group called the march the “launch of a powerful new movement”.7
Again across both demonstrations, marchers were young, diverse, angry and radical.
Another sign of the growing movement is the upsurge in the number of anti-fracking campaigns with some scoring notable successes against companies such as Cuadrilla. In Balcombe in Sussex a high profile campaign in 2013 which included the setting up of a camp to block drilling resulted in a great victory for campaigners. Cuadrilla backed off, claiming it would no longer be drilling as a result of the unsuitability of the area’s geology! But the real message was not lost on anti-fracking groups across the country—action works. Earlier this year a brilliant campaign in Lancashire with broad support from activists, trade unions, NGOs and councillors successfully forced the local council to oppose planning permission for a new fracking site.
The continued growth of the divestment movement is another important illustration of what’s happening in the climate movement. Research by Oxford University suggests that the campaign calling for divestment from fossil fuels is the fastest growing in history, surpassing those against the tobacco industry and the apartheid regime.8 The divestment movement has modelled its strategy on the success of the anti-apartheid movement and built real momentum. The aim is to embarrass institutions that invest in the companies extracting the fossil fuels that will destroy the planet. In addition the campaign aims to show to investors that fossil fuels will be “stranded assets” if the move to renewable energy required by the need to reduce emissions takes off. The most high profile corporate divestor is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund—it has withdrawn $86 million from fossil fuel investments.
The focus on winning corporate investors to turn away from “stranded assets” faces obvious challenges. Nevertheless the campaign has most energy and potential around the call on institutions which use public funds such as universities and pension funds to divest. On university campuses the divestment campaigns have grown quickly with some significant successes. Students have used many of the tactics of the anti-apartheid movement such as sit-ins and occupations to win gains. Despite its short life, important successes have been achieved with Glasgow University, SOAS, and the Universities of Warwick and Bedfordshire divesting from fossil fuel investments after lively campaigns.
Finally, the success of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, with its clear and radical message that tackling climate change means tackling capitalism, illustrates the potential of the movement. As well as the huge sales of the book in many countries there have been big audiences at events designed to build campaigning around the ideas in the book including over 1,000 in London.9
This is not to argue that the climate movement is universally radical or that there are not competing ideas in the movement. Many are pulling in a much more conservative direction, looking simply to lobby business and politicians or get the right politicians elected. But it is to suggest there is a growing section of the climate movement for which the problem is rooted in the type of society we have. The solution for these people is to challenge the system at the heart of the problem and to challenge the powerful corporate interests that are blocking change. It is also to suggest that the climate issue is beginning to be understood and engaged with by the wider movement for social change and equally that many in the climate movement are beginning to recognise the common cause with those who are challenging the system across a range of struggles. “System change not climate change” is a popular slogan and a good summation of the ideas of a section of the movement. What is meant by the system and hence what kind of change is needed or indeed possible is of course, as in any movement, an area of debate. I will return to this later. However, the recognition that there is an increasingly radical climate movement shaped to some extent by a radical critique of the system is one that should be understood by the left.
One reason for the growth of this movement is the increased urgency of the crisis in the context of continuing inaction by those at the top of society, indeed, worse than inaction. The coalition government initially claimed that they would be “the greenest government ever”. But despite the rhetoric, they were loyal supporters of the fossil fuel industry, an industry that, as research by the World Development Movement shows, many of its ministers had close links with.10
In spite of growing public opposition, the coalition supported fracking, an environmentally disastrous method of extracting natural gas. And the current Tory government recently announced that they will allow fracking at an additional 27 sites, introducing further legislation which will make it much harder for councils to refuse planning permission for fracking projects.11 The coalition granted subsidies to fossil fuel companies, but cut those for renewable energy, significantly undermining the expansion of renewables. The Tories have recently scrapped subsidies for onshore wind farms altogether, effectively banning any new onshore wind farms from being built.
A series of extreme weather events in recent years have also demonstrated what changing weather patterns as a result of climate change might look like and the misery they will cause for the poorest people. Hurricane Sandy, the “superstorm” that hit New York in October 2012, acted as a wake-up call for many on the left, demonstrating how little governments, even in the wealthiest countries, would do to help the most vulnerable. As Naomi Klein movingly describes in her book, huge swathes of working class areas were left for days without any help or support from the state.12 Although less dramatic, the storms and floods in the UK in 2014 also demonstrated to millions of people that those in power would do little to help ordinary people cope with extreme weather conditions.
Climate change is a social justice issue. With the climate crisis, as with the economic crisis, governments have prioritised the interests of those who caused the problem, despite the consequences for ordinary people. We are not “all in it together”. An increased understanding of this has led the climate movement both to grow in size and to adopt more radical slogans.
The continued success of the One Million Climate Jobs campaign is one aspect of this. The campaign was an initiative taken by the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group in 2009 coming out of a conference organised by the group. It produced a report, One Million Climate Jobs, outlining how the creation of certain types of jobs could rapidly cut emissions. The first edition of the report was published in 2009. In 2014 it was updated and reprinted for the third edition, which now has the backing of eight national unions.13 In addition there have been six national conferences aimed at rank and file trade unionists and a Climate Jobs Caravan tour of the country to promote, discuss and popularise the campaign. The success of the idea and campaign has led to similar and very successful initiatives in other countries. During the week of the Paris talks a session is planned on Climate Jobs as part of the convergence space.
Obviously the central and crucial role of the campaign is to demonstrate that there are solutions to our climate crisis. The report outlines clearly how the creation of jobs in renewable energy, public transport, home insulation, energy efficiency and other areas of the economy such as waste and agriculture could slash emissions by over 80 percent over 20 years—actions that would tackle the climate crisis as well as creating work.
However, the campaign also plays a wider role. It has also acted as a way of engaging with and winning the debate about climate among ordinary people and importantly within the organised working class. Winning support for climate jobs is not a narrow economic discussion playing to the supposed prejudices of trade unionists. It involves debate about the reality and causes of the climate crisis. It means engaging with ideas about the possibility or otherwise of tackling the problem. It can often mean an opportunity to challenge and defeat right wing climate sceptic ideas marshalled by the fossil fuel lobby and pumped out in some sections of the mass media.
It has been able to frame the climate debate in a way that doesn’t accept that ordinary people are part of the problem. Most significantly it begins to both assert the role that workers could have in solving the climate crisis—by doing meaningful productive work—and the changes needed in society in order to allow workers to be part of the answer.
Allowing workers to be part of the solution raises further important strategic questions. It is a lack of any kind of basic democratic control over the production process that blocks real solutions from being implemented. The climate jobs campaign asserts that democratic control of production through the creation of a National Climate Service is the only way to enable the real change needed.
Therefore climate jobs also act as a bridge to wider debates about the type of society we need and ways of achieving it and puts the working class at the heart of those debates. By putting the needs of the planet and those who live on it ahead of profit, it successfully exposes the failure of neoliberal capitalism to deliver what is completely possible, both practically and technologically. In doing this it deepens and radicalises the movement.
This has meant that in a relatively short space of time the idea of climate jobs has become if not an accepted common sense within the working class movement, then something that has this potential and is on the way to being this. It is “good sense” in the way meant by Antonio Gramsci, one that helps challenge ruling ideas. More needs to be done, however, in order to achieve this more completely.
As well as the work in unions at a national level, in particular ensuring that all unions pass motions to support the campaign, more rank and file and grassroots work is needed. It is worth noting that it was the work done by activists in Unite the Union around One Million Climate Jobs, pushing the debate through from local union branches to regional and then national level, that has helped ensure that Unite has taken a stand against fracking. This has unfortunately not been the same in the GMB in response to fracking, where a similar debate about climate jobs has not taken place.
Ensuring that the campaign is raised in workplaces and union branches and as part of the wider anti-austerity movement in campaign meetings will allow these ideas to be engaged with and owned by the working class and wider movement, strengthening both the climate movement and the wider movement for social change.
The growing climate movement should give us heart. The urgency of the situation gives a different dimension to the struggle. However, in one respect at least this urgency unfortunately doesn’t change everything. It doesn’t remove the obstacles to achieving fundamental social change. These are the same obstacles that have stood in the way of achieving social change in the past and include both the power of the system and the difficulties of building a movement that can take on that system. So political and theoretical debate that can strengthen the movement must also be fundamental in the coming period. There are two related issues I would like to raise in the interest of deepening debate in order to strengthen the movement.
On a simple political level there is a tendency in the movement to underestimate the degree of concern among ordinary people about climate change and the willingness to take action including action that impacts on people’s personal lives. In a recent survey featured in the Observer, four-fifths (82 percent) of the population agreed that the global climate is changing; 72 percent believe that global climate change will pose a serious threat to global stability within the next 50 years. The survey also found that people do take action to reduce energy consumption, but believe that individual actions only have a limited impact and that governments should do more. Even when confronted with such evidence of the degree of public concern, many environmentalists dismiss their significance. In this survey, for instance, climate change was listed as the thirteenth most important issue facing the British public. Many environmentalists argue that it should be top priority. This concern reflects the seriousness of the climate crisis but misses the point about the potential for building a mass movement around the issue.
It can also lead to large amounts of time focused on the question of how to get the message over to people about climate change. Paradoxically, despite polls consistently showing that people are concerned, this campaigning approach is driven by the presumption that people are not willing to engage with the issue. To some extent this fits with the preferred method of campaigning of many of the bigger NGOs, where the emphasis is on professional looking campaigns designed to support the lobbying of government. However, it does have a purchase on ideas among many activists and can pull towards a more conservative approach to campaigning in which radical arguments, both about the seriousness of the problem and about the solutions, are played down for fear of alienating potential supporters.
Countering the supposed lack of interest among the public is seen as the magic formula for success in the battle over climate. George Marshall’s influential book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change takes this approach.14 There is a valid point that debate about the importance of the issue has to be had and won among a wide range of ordinary people. But this approach often overstates this as the problem while the consciousness and capacity of ordinary people are understated. Therefore the potential for mass action is often written off or there is a pressure to water down radical messages, inhibiting rather than strengthening the movement.
The more radical wing of the movement is strongly influenced by anti-capitalist politics. Their analysis tends to locate the problem with capitalism in its inherent drive for growth. So Naomi Klein talks about the system as one in which there is a ruthless drive for expansion, kept going by “consumption for consumption’s sake”.15 For her the key features of the system we need to challenge are “the fundamental, growth based, profit seeking logic of capitalism”.16 Brian Morris praises Murray Bookchin and Barry Commoner, both important and influential thinkers, for their early identification of capitalism as at the root of the ecological crisis because it was a system based on putting profits before human need and seeing no limit to “industrial progress, no limit to growth and technology”.17 Richard Smith says “the orthodox view of economists…from Adam Smith to Karl Marx [is] that growth is an iron law of capitalist development, that capitalism cannot exist without constant revolutionising of productive forces, without constantly expanding markets, without ever-growing consumption of resources. Indeed, it was precisely this market-propelled ‘motor’ of economic development that for Karl Marx so sharply distinguished the capitalist mode of production from all previous historical modes of production”.18
The drive for expansion and growth inherent in capitalism is destructive because it pushes up against the limits of the Earth’s resources and hence is at the root of the ecological crisis. This analysis is correct and the rapacious and wasteful destruction of the Earth’s resources in pursuit of profit is a conspicuous aspect of capitalism which does lie at the heart of the ecological crisis. However, in this analysis only one contradiction within capitalism is identified—the contradiction between the drive for capital accumulation (growth) and the impact on the Earth’s resources, what John Bellamy Foster (following Marx) calls the “ecological rift”.19
However, this is not the only important contradiction, and emphasis only on this contradiction can tend to downplay others within capitalism that unlock the potential for challenging the system. It can also put the weight of explanation for the dynamics of capitalism at the level of consumption without understanding how consumption is structured by production.
Focusing primarily on capitalism simply as a system of growth and missing its wider contradictions can result in a more idealist understanding of the problem, or in mistakenly seeing workers as having a material stake in the system. If the system is one of perpetual growth then it can appear that both capitalists and workers have a vested interest in the continuation of this system. Richard Smith articulates this well and no doubt reflects the views of many when he says:
What’s more, given capitalism, we’re all more or less locked into this lemming-like suicidal drive to hurl ourselves off the cliff. Whether as CEOs, investors, workers or governments, given capitalism, we all “need” to maximise growth, therefore to consume more resources and produce ever more pollution in the process—because companies need to satisfy the insatiable demands of investors and because we all need the jobs. That’s why at every UN Climate Summit the environment is invariably sacrificed to growth.20Capitalism generates growth, but it also generates crisis. Capitalism is a system of accumulation in competition and it is as a result of this competition that there is an inherent drive for expansion and also an inherent drive to crisis. Both are equally destructive, both socially and environmentally. Capitalism both destroys the Earth’s resources in expansion and lays waste to them in crisis. So capitalism is simultaneously a system of destructive expansion and of destructive contraction. Ordinary people tend to experience both, the expansion and crisis, and mostly this is experienced as insecurity and fear, which is why explanations of the problem of capitalism as a problem of growth can ring hollow.
Explaining capitalism primarily in terms of its drive to expand, in which workers appear to have an interest, can also obscure some of the final but centrally important contradictions of capitalism. Within capitalism the producers are separated from the means of production and their ability to work has become a commodity. This fundamental contradiction means the system of production is not organised by rational human planning, which could put the needs of human beings and the planet we live on at the heart of production. Instead production is driven by the drive to accumulate for accumulation’s sake and organised through commodity production. But this contradiction also ensures that workers have an objective interest in ending the system of capitalism and establishing new social relations that allow production to be regulated in the interests of the many and the planet rather than the few. This is why Marx called the working class the gravediggers of the system.
A more complete understanding of the dynamics of capitalism and the contradictions at the heart of the system could play an important part in strengthening and deepening the climate movement. It would help ensure that a grassroots movement recognises that the working class is part of the solution with an objective interest in overthrowing the system rather than propping it up.
Many sections of this growing movement are determined not to make the same mistakes in the lead up to Paris as were perceived to have been made in Copenhagen. It is argued that many activists put too much misplaced faith in a positive outcome to the Copenhagen talks. This raised expectations and the demonstrations were used simply as a stage army to support the lobbying efforts of the bigger NGOs. Hence when the talks failed the movement also collapsed.21
However, in many respects the movement goes into the mobilisations for Paris in much better shape than the climate movement has ever been in. This, however, does not mean that the mobilisations for Paris will avoid the tensions that tore the movement apart after Copenhagen.
Indeed there are fears that the plans made at the World Social Forum in Tunis earlier in the year may unravel under similar pressures as in the past. In Tunis all the key global environmental groups agreed a strategy for Paris designed to ensure that, in contrast to Copenhagen, an energised and growing movement will leave Paris for the next stage of the battle. The key elements of this strategy were mobilisations both at the beginning and end of the talks designed to ensure that the movement was on the streets at the end of the talks, to shame and critique the failure of governments but also to show the hope in a growing movement ready to fight for the changes needed. Patrick Bond flagged up the real possibilities in what was framed at the meeting in Tunis as a “climate movement across the movements”. But he also pointed up potential problems with a strategy of “unity-seeking-minus-politics” arguing that a similar strategy when the climate talks took place in Durban in 2011 resulted in a demonstration that South African political leaders could use to legitimise their actions and a failure to build a movement coming out of the summit. He went on to argue that without an agreed radical narrative a similar failure to hold the governments to account could be the outcome of the Paris mobilisations.22
Bond’s concerns and analysis are right. But there are also more fundamental processes in play in terms of the direction and strength of the movement that are unlikely to be derailed by whatever happens in Paris. Unlike Copenhagen, large sections of the movement understand that governments will not agree to what is needed in Paris. The reality is that there will not be a deal in Paris that does what is necessary to tackle the problem. Government leaders at the talks will not be willing to agree to the huge and rapid cuts in emissions needed to decarbonise the economy and which challenge the vested interests of significant sections of global capitalism. They will not be willing to sacrifice the advantages of their own national economies over other countries regardless of what is at stake. They haven’t done so in over two decades of talks and it won’t happen in Paris. This is already part of the understanding of many people within the movement. Therefore from the outset many have ensured that Paris is not, like Copenhagen, seen as the end point. Instead it is understood as part of building a bigger movement beyond Paris.
There seems to be developing in a number of countries a climate movement that is broader and is beginning to have deeper roots in the working class and wider social movements, most especially the anti-austerity movement. For example, the 250,000 strong People’s Assembly demonstration in June saw climate activists demonstrate alongside the anti-austerity movement. The climate issue is increasingly a central part of the wider struggle. As this article is being written plans are being made to ensure that there is a day of climate action as part of the actions outside the Tory party conference in October. The issue of climate change is no longer the domain of committed environmentalists. It is now a thread that runs through the anti-austerity movement.
In the UK the coalition working together to build the London demonstration of 29 November eventually agreed, after much debate, to march under the banner of the “People’s March for Climate, Justice and Jobs”, ensuring that a radical narrative is at the heart of the demonstration. This compares with the title of the 2009 “London Stop Climate Chaos—The Wave” which had little political content to it. These are very important developments.
There is a lot at stake as well as an important opportunity coming out of Paris to build a vibrant and radical climate movement that can play a central part in challenging the system at the root of our climate crisis: a mass, grassroots movement which is rooted in support among ordinary people; one which recognises that mass action has the power to win; a movement that is ready to make common cause with other struggles against the system and one that has system change not climate change at the centre of its understanding. The left has a vital part to play in this movement. It’s time for us all to play our part.