Global Warning: Preparing for Glasgow’s COP26 jamboree

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, is to take place in Glasgow in November. This conference is seen by climate scientists and activists as critical to cutting carbon emissions and increasing investment in green renewable energy. These measures are essential if there is to be any chance of reversing catastrophic global warming.

But already it has blown up in political controversy. Former Tory energy minister Claire O’Neill, appointed to lead the summit, was sacked by Boris Johnson for questioning his commitment to tackling the climate crisis. She was punished for stating that the UK was way off target in cutting carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

The Tories and the Scottish National Party (SNP) led Scottish government are also in conflict over who will pay the costs of the summit. Johnson has already inflamed the national question in Scotland after denying the right to a second independence referendum. The mood in favour of Scottish independence is likely to feed into protests against climate change at COP26. It was even mooted that the venue may be moved to England to avoid political disruption. Johnson has now confirmed that the conference will go ahead in Glasgow. 

It will not be lost on the Glasgow working class that the obscene bill for policing and facilitating this extravagant, elite talking shop is projected to run into several hundreds of millions of pounds, comparable to the council funding cut from our city over the past decade. The Tories, Labour, the SNP and the Scottish Greens are all variously responsible after voting for budgets at Westminster, Holyrood and in Glasgow that wielded the austerity axe.

While capitalist politicians, corporate lobbyists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are planning to wine and dine in the most expensive hotels, 38,700 food parcels were handed out by charities in Glasgow last year. Not even a few miles away from the venues hosting COP26 you can find some of the poorest areas of Europe, blighted by the lowest life expectancy in the UK and among the highest rates of drug deaths.

Glasgow’s workers have always suffered from environmental destruction caused by capitalist exploitation. From the air that turned the city’s buildings black, a result of the industrial revolution when Glasgow and the Clyde were British capitalism’s workshop, to more recently with the Centre for Cities study showing worsening air pollution – even dirtier than London according to the World Health Organisation. This pollution was linked to 354 deaths last year.

COP26 delegates, mainly members of the ruling class, will meet on the Clyde river at a site which is a shrine to mass deindustrialisation. An area that once built 90% of the world’s commercial shipping in its yards is now in a gentrified atmosphere. A “blue exclusion zone”, a heavily policed fortress, is to be erected to keep troublesome working-class people away from discussions about their planet’s future. Glasgow’s SNP-led council is already being praised by COP and the UN for its warm welcome to the conference, at the same time as it plans to inflict up to £50 million in cuts to public services this year.

COP26 will no doubt be a strain on infrastructure. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde cannot provide consistent out-of-hours GP services. Roads are clogged and ill-maintained with austerity making it difficult to reach the main hospital, which is unsafe. There is discussion about making the city’s transport network free for the conference duration. Many workers will ask why the SNP council and Scottish government can’t go beyond this token gesture and implement real measures that would make Glasgow less polluted and ease car congestion? For a start they could stand up to First Bus and nationalise the bus network, ending rip-off fares and reinstating recently cut routes from working-class housing schemes into the city centre. The same goes for bringing the failed rail franchise Scotrail into public ownership.

There is precedent for Glasgow hosting major events being used as a cover to attack workers’ terms and conditions. Glasgow council trade unions took action at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Trade unionists will need to prepare to fight to ensure that any new jobs created will have trade union representation and meet trade union agreements. Neither can the cost of hosting the summit be use as an excuse for further budget cuts in Glasgow.

As with COP25 in Madrid when 500,000 marched through the city, COP26 will mobilise significant protests, particularly given the mood of young people angry at the threat of climate destruction.

Workers and youth can have no trust in the empty promises and declarations of COP26. Even genuine scientists and activists like Greta Thurnberg who attend will find their evidence-based warnings listened to politely by the capitalist class but not really acted upon.

Only mass action that goes beyond the already mobilised climate movement, drawing in Scotland’s labour movement and the wider working class by linking demands against climate change with the fight against cuts, austerity, poverty, low pay and for democratic rights, can hope to succeed in forcing change. At COP26 Socialist Party Scotland will call for an effective mass movement based on the methods of working-class struggle and demanding socialist change to end climate change.

A mass demonstration should be organised during the summit. If it clearly raises the need for decisive action against climate-destroying capitalism, including for public ownership of the polluting multinationals and a massive investment in publicly owned and controlled renewable energy, it could beat even the Madrid turnout.

In addition, demands to end to all cuts, for the removal of reactionary governments like Johnson’s Tories, and the democratic right to indyref2 should also feature. The climate school strike movement must also be escalated with an all-Scotland weekday strike and appealing for an all-UK strike of schools, colleges and universities. The Scottish TUC (STUC) should also discuss planning a national day of coordinated strike action.

Unfortunately, the approach taken so far by Extinction Rebellion Scotland would be divisive. They plan direct action against Scotland’s oil industry during the summit and say in their material “oil workers have a role in a just transition but can’t have a veto on our action”.

Yet Scotland’s workers in the fossil fuel industry are among the most powerful in the economy. And under capitalism there cannot be a ‘just transition’ or even a just ‘green new deal’. Under capitalism any of these would make the working class pay for the climate crisis.

So the struggle of oil workers and their trade unions must be supported. The oil multinationals, who have benefited from successive governments giving them tax breaks, and their contractors, are attempting to rip up collective bargaining agreements on the rigs and in terminals like Sullum Voe on Shetland.

The protests against COP26 should defend oil workers’ terms and conditions and fight casualisation in the industry. Supporting strike action can be combined with fighting for a socialist plan of production that nationalises the oil, gas and wider energy industry. This would release billions of pounds to invest in a massive programme of job creation in the renewable energy sector. At the same time democratic control by workers of necessary redeployment away from fossil fuels can ensure no job losses or cuts to wages and conditions.

Scotland has massive productive and renewable energy potential. It is estimated natural reserves exist in wind and tidal power that could produce energy for twice its population. However, capitalism is incapable of utilising this without waste and exploitation for profit. Currently companies like EDF are moving production of wind turbines away from Scotland to China to exploit lower labour costs, despite the energy grid announcing that 50,000 green energy jobs could be created in Scotland over the next decade.

None of the ‘green new deals’ proposed by pro-independence parties like the SNP and the Greens, or even the more radical measures by Labour lefts including the ‘green industrial revolution’, go as far as this, especially in regards to public ownership and the working class control of the economy which is necessary.

To fight for such an alternative, a new mass party of workers and youth based on trade union struggle is needed. An independent socialist Scotland could plan green growth as part of a voluntary socialist confederation with England, Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist world.

Matt Dobson, Socialist Party Scotland