SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 228 May 2019

Youth climate revolt

In thousands of cities and towns in over 100 countries more than two million young people took part in protest strikes in March against inaction on climate change. Youth are revolting against a profit-hungry capitalist establishment which, mired in economic crisis, has not only sunk their hopes of a decent standard of living but has wrecked the planet – and is presenting the bill to the next generation.

There is compelling evidence that global temperatures are approaching a tipping point after which the damage done to the environment may be irreversible. Yet, almost 30 years after world powers promised action at the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro, it is clear that the most powerful governments and the big-business interests that stand behind them will do nothing to counter the threat.

The inadequate Kyoto protocol of 1997 has been followed by an even more inadequate Paris agreement in 2016. The US, responsible for over a third of greenhouse gas emissions, signed up but the Trump administration has given notice that it will withdraw from it. It will be the working class and poor who bear the brunt of the resulting ecological disasters, including the displacement of an estimated one billion people because of rising sea levels.

A new generation of activists is searching for a way to overcome the past failures of the environmental movement. Slogans, like ‘why study when there’s no future?’, ‘planet not profit’, and ‘system change not climate change’, have decorated placards across the globe since the climate strike movement began in November of last year. Open-air assemblies have debated the solutions.

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish school student, has captured the mood with her speeches full of contempt for establishment politicians, and her willingness to confront them. "Our leaders are behaving like children", she said, adding: "We will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago".

She became an activist at age 15 after wildfires raged through Sweden in 2018 during a record-hot summer – 480 wildfires broke out across Europe that year, over 20 times the annual average. She was inspired by student walkouts in the US against government inaction on school shootings. Everywhere, young people are denouncing mere words, ‘thoughts and prayers’ and empty phrases about hope, and are demanding action instead.

Greta Thunberg confronted the super-rich at the World Economic Forum in Davos, gathered to cry crocodile tears for the planet: "Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. I think many of you here today belong to that group of people… We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people".

Her derision is fully justified. Attendees at the Davos summit claimed to take climate change seriously – and 1,500 flew in, mainly in private jets which emit ten times the amount of carbon dioxide per passenger. Governments subsidise these jets: in the EU, almost £800 million in tax relief on imports of them since 2011; in Trump’s America, 100% of their cost is tax deductible.

Much more important than the choice of transport, however, many of the participants at Davos are important players in the capitalist ruling class, wielding real power. The capitalist system is based on the exploitation of the working class and the drive for short-term profit. It operates on the basis of competition between corporations and nation states – more or less intense depending on circumstances. It cannot put the long-term interests of the planet we live on over its own short-term interests. So, global warming and environmental destruction are a systemic problem.

This does not mean, of course, that all CEOs and establishment politicians are necessarily ignorant or unconcerned. And a section of the capitalist class sees big profits in green technology and is investing accordingly. Other sections are openly hostile. Some of the biggest corporations have actively undermined efforts to transition to production methods less damaging to the environment. The documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car, for example, explains how Ford motor company developed electric cars in the 1990s but destroyed them because of the threat to the petrol-based profits of car and oil companies. Powerful vested interests are at play.

Many of those participating in the climate strikes will have already reached the conclusion that an alternative to the capitalist system is necessary. They will be assisted in this by the attacks of capitalist politicians like Germany’s Paul Ziemiak of the ruling Christian Democratic Union. He condescended to "poor Greta" on Twitter, dismissing her criticisms of Germany’s coal phase-out plan as "pure ideology". Theresa May called on protestors to "stop wasting lesson time", and Australian resources minister Matt Canavan sneered that "the best thing [strikers] will learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue".

Other capitalist politicians have cynically attempted to co-opt and divert the movement. This was the case at Davos. If it does not prove possible to bring the movement to an end, they will attempt to push it into channels that do not threaten the profit margins of their billionaire backers. There is a struggle, for example, over the content of the idea of a ‘green new deal’. If, like Kyoto and Paris, it leaves untouched the economic and political monopoly of the big corporations and the market, it will fail to solve the problem of global warming.

The demand for system change is very common on climate strike protests. This must be concretised as more than a new system of ideas for a society that remains otherwise unchanged. It must become a call for a socialist system that puts the running of society into the hands of the working class, who could carefully and democratically plan how to use the world’s resources in a sustainable way for the benefit of all. We need a socialist green new deal to build a new society.

Contrary to the claims of capitalist politicians, those who have taken part in climate strikes have learned a great deal, including how much power ordinary people hold in their hands. Weekly student protests in Brussels brought down a Flemish climate minister who had attacked the demonstrations as the work of ‘outside forces’. If the mass movements are sustained and built, they could win much more, especially if they build alliances with organisations of the working class like the trade unions.

Workers’ interests are in direct conflict with those of the exploiting companies that care as little about the damage done to the living standards of their employees as they do about the environment. Trades councils, which bring together union branches across cities and regions, could assist climate activists to build school student unions to organise their campaigning, plan protests at school gates to gather more activists, and build for the monthly days of action. Public meetings could get the message out to the wider public.

Trade unions have enormous potential power, and it would not be the first time that action by young people had an effect on them. UK student protests in 2010 against the tripling of tuition fees fed into a strike movement from the unions. That culminated in a public-sector general strike that could have brought down the government if right-wing union leaders had not sold it out. In France 1968, huge student protests were the opening act to one of the biggest strike movements in history which prompted authoritarian president Charles de Gaulle to flee the country.

Greta Thunberg pointed out at Davos: "Our civilisation is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money… It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few". But only if we build a movement to take the running of society out of the hands of this profiteering minority, giving it to those whose work creates the wealth that they monopolise, will we be able to end that suffering.

Ross Saunders

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