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Socialism Today 136 - March 2010

The workers’ movement and climate change

After the complete failure of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, a stark question is raised for environmental activists: how can effective action come about? PETE DICKENSON reviews an important contribution to the debate from the trade union movement.

EVEN THOUGH THEY had low expectations, environmental activist groups were shocked by the collapse of the recent Cop15 (UN environmental summit) negotiations in Denmark. Their reaction ranged from almost stunned silence to bitter invective. To add insult to injury, Greenpeace members who bluffed their way into the summit dinner to unveil banners were arrested and kept in prison for several weeks without charge. Some activists will now be demoralised and drop away, others will look to ‘direct action’ as a solution. The best, although a small minority, will look to the left for answers since the bankruptcy of capitalist institutions such as the UN has been exposed. It is therefore up to socialists to take up the issues and point the way forward with a class-based approach. A recent pamphlet*, sponsored by several trade unions, makes an important contribution to this.

It is a welcome document in so far as it provides a concrete framework for a plan to create a million climate jobs in Britain, which would represent a significant step forward in tackling global warming. The authors first point out that any solution to climate change must be international. But, it is argued, if the programme outlined in the report is implemented in Britain, it would encourage trade unionists and green/left activists in other countries to fight for a similar plan. However, since an international dimension is clearly crucial for any credible programme to fight global warming, this aspect needs to be elaborated further. It would have been possible, even within the constraints of such a pamphlet, in my opinion, to call for the building of concrete links with trade unions and labour activists around the world, and to outline a programme, even if only in general terms, for international action. It would then have been possible to make some points about the role of the main capitalist powers in causing the problem.

The report briefly summarises current knowledge on climate change that points to a rapidly deteriorating situation linked to so-called feedback effects. One is linked to polar ice whose role in reflecting back the heat from the sun is reduced as it melts. The water and vegetation that is uncovered by the disappearing ice absorbs rather than reflects the sun’s rays. This in turn raises average temperatures and leads to more ice melting, so creating a spiral effect, driving warming. This increased rate of warming will lead to more and more extreme weather events, famine, storms, droughts and rising sea levels.

This latest evidence indicates that action is urgent. Some scientists say there is less than ten years left to take decisive measures, others that there could be up to 50 years, a figure seized on by most politicians. However, the scientific consensus is a timescale of 10-20 years, so previous longer estimates used by the political establishment need to be abandoned. The report assumes that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the main greenhouse gas, must be reduced by 50-60% on a global basis to stabilise its concentration in the air. However, in Britain, the figure needs to be higher, 75-80%, according to the authors, to allow for poor countries such as India to make less deep cuts. It is difficult to judge, though, whether this figure is reasonable, since the calculations behind it are not spelt out.

Saving energy

THE MAIN PART of the report details the jobs that will be needed to convert to sustainable energy use and to implement a programme of energy saving. Wind, wave and solar energy are identified as the key areas that need to be developed, with wind playing the main role in Britain because of our climatic conditions. Two controversial aspects that are briefly discussed are carbon capture and storage, commonly known as ‘clean coal’ technology, and nuclear power. There were opposing views among the authors, strongly for or against, about clean coal. It was agreed, correctly in my opinion, that more research and development needs to be done to iron out technical problems and to resolve potential safety issues.

On nuclear power, which is particularly controversial in the climate change context because it produces no greenhouse gasses, no position is taken, even though most of the authors think that nuclear fuel/waste is toxic and dangerous. This neutral line is adopted in order to keep open discussions with unions that support nuclear power. However, this is a debatable point. Opposition to nuclear in principle could have been expressed and, at the same time, discussions kept open with members of unions in industries linked to the nuclear industry by explaining how all existing jobs would protected. For example, their skills would be needed for the massive programme of decommissioning existing nuclear power stations which would stretch over decades and create extra jobs: the Dounreay reactor in Scotland, for instance, now employs more people cleaning up the site than were employed when it was operational.

The report also highlights that large numbers of jobs will be needed to implement a programme of energy saving. In Britain, 80% of CO2 emissions are due to energy used in homes, public buildings and transport. Jobs will be created to carry out insulation work and to replace inefficient domestic boilers. A key area will be promoting public transport and converting to sustainable forms of personal transportation, such as electric cars. But, to have a real impact, the electricity for these vehicles must itself be produced sustainably. The development of the rail network, including high-speed trains, will not only allow freight to be moved from road to rail, thereby cutting emissions, but a high-speed network could replace domestic and European flights, which are a particularly bad cause of global warming. The report says "it would help to ban domestic flights, as a first step". But this will not be necessary, in my opinion, since the travelling public will prefer to travel by train once the infrastructure is in place. For example, the high-speed line from London to Paris accounts for 80% of passenger traffic between the two cities, and with a modest subsidy this figure would be even higher.

Cost and implementation

OVERALL, THE PROPOSED scheme would create a million jobs directly, and another 850,000 generated in related sectors, although some workers (estimated at 350,000) would lose their jobs in non-renewable energy industries, etc. However, they could be retrained to work in the new low-carbon economy if they were employed by the public sector, the report points out. The up-front cost of the programme is estimated at £50 billion a year for ten years. The net cost, however, would be much lower, £20 billion, since fewer workers would be unemployed and claiming benefits, and the half-million net knock-on jobs created would produce cash from taxes, etc. Also, the new green industries would generate income, for example, from selling electric cars and carrying paying passengers on public transport. Exactly how much would depend on the subsidy provided by the government to promote the green switchover. The report assumes 25% of the money spent would be recouped.

The net cost of £20 billion a year for ten years, although approximate, could be criticised for underestimating the bill for tackling global warming. In particular, the assumptions about the extent of the cut needed to stabilise emissions could be too optimistic. However, even if the cost is double that calculated, the basic point is valid that the cost would still be small compared to the overall size of the UK economy. Spending of this order would be possible, and without a disruptive cost to society, if carried out over ten to 15 years. But it would be utopian to imagine that it could be carried out in an economy dominated by the big banks and industrial companies. Such an investment programme would only be possible within the framework of a democratic planned economy. Even if the cost is relatively small, the capitalists will not want to pay, as the outcome of the Copenhagen summit again revealed.

To put the programme into practice the authors propose that a publicly-owned National Climate Service be created, similar to the original NHS, to run the switchover. They also propose tentatively that "there seems little alternative to renationalisation" of the electricity grid. However, it is hard to see how any of the report could be implemented unless all the main industries involved were brought into public ownership. To pay for the scheme, the report proposes a combination of borrowing, printing money and taxing the rich. The point is made that it is not unprecedented in Britain for similar measures, and on an even bigger scale, to be put into practice. As well as the recent financial crisis, the example is given of the second world war, where all capitalist governments massively expanded spending and introduced extensive public control and planning.

Striking for green jobs?

THE KEY QUESTION posed in the pamphlet is: how can the present government be made to take similarly decisive action on climate change? The report suggests two main tactics. Firstly, raising awareness, particularly at work, through trade union organised interventions. Secondly, action, most importantly in the workplace. Action could be having campaigning union environmental reps pushing managements into introducing green measures, organising or supporting demos and, ultimately, industrial action. This could be, for example, by workers made redundant in the car industry, occupying their factory to demand it be converted to renewable production.

The report suggests that "it may take a national strike by one union, or several unions" to force "the government of the day to employ a million workers [in green jobs]". Major strikes on a national level, however, develop from the dynamic of industrial battles, and it is artificial to pose the question of strike action in this way. Working-class action on climate change will require the mobilisation of workers on the basis of a political programme that links green jobs to the need for system change and the introduction of a planned economy.

The report gives the impression that global warming can be decisively addressed through raising awareness and industrial action for green objectives. But, although the initiatives around industrial action outlined will be very important, they can only be part of the solution. Regarding the proposed trade union initiatives, care must be taken not to slip into class-collaborationism which is a danger in the way the issue is posed. Promoting a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ mentality, even inadvertently, will rebound on union activists when management come back to demand sacrifices ‘to save the planet’.

Also, calling for Keynesian economic measures, as is done here, will have no effect. In the second world war, all the capitalist governments involved were fighting for their lives, but none today sees climate change as similarly important (even though they might if they were capable of taking a longer view of their own class interests). So the war analogy is of very limited relevance.

Even though the cost of tackling global warming is relatively small, and most of the capitalist powers also now accept the seriousness of the situation, all continue to refuse to take any serious action because they do not want to hit the profits, even in a small way, of ‘their’ multinational companies. In fact, it is unlikely that a major strike wave will occur due primarily to climate issues. It would much more likely be provoked by direct attacks on the working class, as in the 1926 general strike, possibly posing then the issue of capitalism or socialism. In this sense, reversing global warming would be a by-product of the struggle to change society.

The struggle to stop global warming needs to be linked with a wider political programme that takes up the need to change society. Although it may be argued that detailing such a programme is beyond the remit of a report of this nature, it is important at least that reference should have been made to these wider issues, otherwise the report lacks credibility. The Copenhagen summit posed the issue sharply in that the capitalists are clearly not willing to seriously address global warming. The labour movement must now take the initiative and draw behind it the best environmental activists, but this can only be done if its programme persuasively answers the key questions in the fight to save the planet.

* One Million Climate Jobs Now! A report by the Campaign Against Climate Change trade union group for the Communication Workers Union, Public and Commercial Services Union, Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, Transport Salaried Staff Association and the University and College Union.


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