Many people see cataclysmic climate change as being too important or broad in its impact to be understood in Marxist terms or responded to with working-class solutions. The term “we're all in this together” holds far more sway when it comes to the climate than it does when applied to the global economic crisis.
But the effects of climate change are and will be selective and class-biased as drought and flooding rip through Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Wealth will also be the determining factor in Europe, where the rich will have the option to adapt far better than the working class, in terms of buying land away from flooded low-lying areas or harnessing small scale energy sources to isolate themselves from the effects.
The causes are not simply “man-made” but are a product of our system of production and distribution. Capitalism operates the same process of extracting value from the planet as from workers. Commonly, the start of mass greenhouse gas emissions is set at the Industrial Revolution, and even in 2010 Government figures showed that over 50% of greenhouse gases came from workplaces and related transport (such as commuting). The nature of the causes and effects of climate change need to shape how we respond and present solutions to this crisis.
The debate can be framed in terms of three current and historically-offered solutions: those from the state, those from capital (which tie into state-led solutions) and finally, the independent initiatives that have come from workers themselves.
New Labour and the Tory/Liberal governments have both flaunted mythical green credentials, with both saying they will create thousands of “green jobs”. The Campaign Against Climate Change's “One Million Climate Jobs” campaign has argued that jobs could be created building turbines, energy efficient buildings and much more. This is true, and is a logical demand, but if this is de-coupled from a more fundamental claim for worker-controlled production, then it would be likely to lead to a cross-class cul-de-sac that cuts off the path to bigger goals that the ruling class cannot give us: socialism.
One central element to bourgeois state approaches to climate change is through a regular cycle of negotiations that, whilst being dismissed by many as inconclusive and stage-managed, do get tangible results. A central part of the Kyoto Protocols, for instance, established carbon trading and the Clean Development Mechanism as central to state/corporate solutions. The latter relies on companies establishing tokenistic conservation projects, often imposed unilaterally on an area, and has a proven record of causing damage to indigenous communities in parts of South America. Carbon trading on the other hand illustrates a step towards greater exploitation of the planet, from the earth to the skies. Simply put, carbon trading divides the atmosphere into units, of which more or less can be polluted depending on how much of the air you own. This is clearly a tool to enhance the exploitative powers of capital, without an obvious curbing of emissions.
In addition to carbon trading, Capital has also found more accessible ways to profit from climate change at the level of the high street. Greater energy efficient washing machines and appliances have provided great opportunities, which have been supported by governments and the EU that recently resolved to ban higher wattage light bulbs. Along with governments and companies, the bourgeois media has fuelled this trend towards green consumerism through the promotion of aspiration towards self-satisfied eco-lifestyles.
Workers’ Liberty rejects a definition of our power based on consumption, and looks to workers’ action in production as the strategy for dealing with climate change.
An important example of this comes from Australia, where in the early 1970s, the Builders Labourers Federation of New South Wales organised around 50 campaigns to prevent damaging construction projects. Dubbed “Green Bans”, workers refused to work on sites that destroyed local parkland or involved the replacement of working class communities with new office developments. These actions came from a unity between community activists and workers, but significantly, on a very democratic culture in the union itself. These workers challenged the expansionist drive of capital, on the basis of real rank-and-file control.
In this country, the late 70s saw several high-profile cases of the skills of workers being focussed towards plans for alternative production, over and above the withdrawal of their labour. In Lucas Aerospace, faced with the threat of mass redundancies, shop stewards’ combines across several major sites of the defence manufacturer came together to show how production could be directed towards human need. Prototypes were made of solar cells and other renewable energy sources, medical equipment and new vehicles for public transport. Whilst the company and Callaghan’s Labour government rejected these ideas, the collectivism and the model of workers developing a positive plan, from the shop-floor up, to deal with economic crisis has important resonance today.
Over 30 years later, in 2009, workers at a wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight acted in their interests to protect their jobs and the production of a source of renewable energy. The company Vestas were re-locating production to the USA. The activism of workers there was stimulated by a small group of Workers’ Liberty activists who produced agitational literature, drew together labour movement support, and had meetings that quickly grew from individuals to a plan to occupy the factory. The occupation, by just a small group of workers, lasted weeks. This campaign drew in the creativity of direct action climate activists, whilst providing a stark example of the need for workers’ action to combat threat of climate change.
Campaigns like the Lucas Plan and the Green Bans movement were founded on well-organised trade union action, and whilst the ability of workers will always be limited without ongoing, democratic organisation, the two year old example of the Vestas dispute and its roots in revolutionary socialists’ agitation highlights the role we can play in aiding the struggle.
Demands for working-class control of production are central to fighting climate change. Workers’ initiatives since the 1970s have illustrated how combining our strength with the democratic potential of the labour movement and the support of community action is the force for stopping climate change and facilitating social change.