Climate Change Is Class War – and Fighting It Is a Workers’ Struggle

by Mika Minio-Paluello

21 November 2017


From flooding in South Asia and Sierra Leone to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, extreme weather events which destroy people’s lives are not ‘acts of nature’. Climate change is class war – a war waged by the rich and powerful against the working classes, women, people of colour and the poor. They carry the biggest burden of average global temperatures on behalf of the privileged.

The violence of climate change is driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels – a choice made by corporations and powerful governments. It’s the outcome of centuries of capitalism and colonialism. But these decisions are constantly being remade in London and Brussels, Abu Dhabi and Washington DC.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The climate transition changes everything. We can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something better – taking power off the corporations, putting energy into public hands and reclaiming democracy.

But this isn’t going to happen on its own. Theresa May might have agreed to ditch coal power for solar panels and (at least some) wind turbines, but this doesn’t mean the transition will be just, or fast, enough. This will depend on how we fight, the coalitions we form and the kind of world we want to build.

The climate justice struggle is far weaker than it should be because we didn’t embed workers’ struggles within it from the get go. Large green groups excitedly pointed to the potential of thousands of jobs in renewables, but didn’t push for the economic changes needed to actually create the employment locally. They didn’t say anything when the market failed to deliver the jobs, and stayed conveniently silent about the reality that many of the jobs are precarious, badly paid and not unionised.

At the same time, some trade unions found a way to use demands for ‘just transition’ as a defensive block. Instead of pro-actively fighting to transform our economy, they pushed back against climate action and argued we can’t have a transition without justice, in the process strengthening the hand of the fossil fuel companies.

But this isn’t the whole story. There have been powerful attempts to build something different – from Workers Climate Action to the One Million Climate Jobs campaign, from Switched On London backed by UNISON and Unite to the TUC’s historic vote in September to back public ownership of energy, a rapid climate transition and divestment from fossil fuels. These examples show us how not to let corporations use the jobs argument to play us off against each other, and have provoked difficult questions of what a radically just transition will actually look like.

However, we’re still faced with a massively difficult and urgent question: what to do about the North Sea? We’ve got to leave 80% of proven fossil fuels in the ground to avoid 2°C warming and have any chance of limiting average global temperatures to 1.5°C. We can’t just dump that responsibility onto the oil states of the Global South such as Venezuela, Nigeria or Algeria. The UK should be leading the way in drawing a line in the sand. This means no fracking, but it also means leaving a big part of North Sea oil in the ground – not offers of tax breaks to the oil and gas sector as were announced in the budget yesterday.

If we’re only going to extract 20% of North Sea proven reserves, then based on the current rate of extraction, we’d need to stop all operations by 2018 or 2019. That’s a big deal, and nobody’s talking about it. But conversations about any rapid changes like this need to be grounded in the needs and desires of communities in Aberdeen and up and down the east coast of Scotland and England.

This means fighting for a new equivalent job for every worker in a polluting industry, and new livelihoods for communities. We can’t have a repeat of the devastation caused when Thatcher shut the coal mines. We also need the skills and collective capacity of cities such as Aberdeen at the heart of the new clean economy – but the market system won’t deliver that.

The public has been pouring billions of subsidies into North Sea oil for years. In recent years there’s been an annual net transfer of up to £1bn to oil companies. But it’s no good to just say ‘stop fossil fuel subsidies’ – even if it’s tempting to think we can persuade neoliberals with this logic. These subsidies are justified in terms of defending jobs (even if they don’t). Instead, we need to insist on a redirecting of public funds towards creating public sector jobs in renewables.

The UK is going to build lots more offshore wind farms, and probably invest in more tidal energy too, like the Swansea Tidal Lagoon. But just because we’re hosting the turbines in our sea, it doesn’t mean that communities are benefitting or enough good jobs are being created. A report put out by Labour Energy Forum showed the UK has more offshore wind installed than any other country – but only 0.07% is owned by the UK public. That’s one single measly turbine, in Fife, Scotland. Large environmental organisations desperate to promote renewables like offshore wind can end up working hand-in-hand with energy multinationals, and unthinkingly promoting the privatisation of wind energy.

If the climate justice struggle is to succeed, we need to fight hard for good, well-paid, unionised work. We’re going to need public ownership of energy and democratically-driven industrial strategies. We’ll need to redirect the £16bn of fossil fuel investments held by local government pension funds, and instead invest in social housing, clean energy and public transport.

Rather than looking to top down solutions to the climate crisis, let’s create space for a 21st century Lucas Plan – learning from the pioneering efforts of workers at arms company Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s who fought to refit their factory to make socially useful products like public transport vehicles, energy efficiency and medical components.

Instead of letting corporates divide us and settling for short-term victories, let’s aim for something truly transformative.


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