Extinction Rebellion, after eleven days of ambitious, disruptive, relatively widespread, and extensively covered actions in their “International Rebellion”, (15-25 April), have moved into a “regenerative, resting phase". They have been celebrating wins so far: media coverage, politicians seeming receptive, changes in public narratives towards recognising the gravity of the situation; reportedly huge expansions of local XR branches.
Socialist environmentalists should continue to get involved, and to push it towards the radical conclusions that its environmental commitments point towards. They are at pains to draw distinctions between XR and the individual XR members, including their leading strategist, running as candidates in the European Parliament elections as “The Climate and Ecological Emergency Independents”.
A recent Greenpeace-commissioned poll of the UK public, carried out while the “International Rebellion” was happening, found that 63% believe there is a “Climate Emergency”, and 76% say they would “vote differently to protect the planet and climate.” To what extent this is down to XR is not clear.
The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey showed that almost everyone believed in the existence of climate change, that most people are worried by it, think about it a lot, and think that its consequences will be pretty bad. That said, disturbingly, only 36% believed that it was caused entirely or mainly by human activity, while 53% believed attribute blame “[e]qually [to] human activity and natural processes”.
What some may see as the most substantive victory is Parliament agreeing to XR's first demand, declaring a “climate and environmental emergency”. A motion, tabled by Labour, passed without a vote, as Theresa May did not turn up and reportedly encouraged MPs to go campaigning ahead of the local elections the following day instead of opposing it.
With its passing, the motion now means that the House of Commons "calls on the Government to increase the ambition of the UK’s climate change targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 to achieve net zero emissions before 2050, to increase support for and set ambitious, short-term targets for the roll-out of renewable and low carbon energy and transport, and to move swiftly to capture economic opportunities and green jobs in the low carbon economy while managing risks for workers and communities currently reliant on carbon intensive sectors; and further calls on the Government to lay before the House within the next six months urgent proposals to restore the UK’s natural environment and to deliver a circular, zero waste economy."
Labour's leadership refused to move the proposed date to 2030, although McDonnell had previously agreed to consider this. Michael Gove, Conservative Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stressed the importance of tackling climate change, using left-sounding rhetoric about global justice, and tried to claim a history of environmentalism for his party and political tradition.
“The first British politician — in fact, the first world politician — to make it clear that climate change was an emergency was Margaret Thatcher. She was a Conservative and a Christian who believed in the principle of stewardship, but above all she was a scientist who followed the evidence.”
He made further fantastical claims, as the environmental advances of governments since 2010, later even concurring with the Conservative Sir Edward Leigh “that the best way to reduce emissions is to have a vigorous, free-enterprise, low-tax, deregulated economy”, contrasting this to Stalinist command economies. Stalinist states have an awful environmental record, worse even than most capitalist states. Capitalism's record is nonetheless indefensible in its own right. Class societies driven by the - usually short-term - interests of their ruling classes, cannot be relied on to tackle climate change. Leigh's “best solution” stands for little short of putting our foot down on the accelerator towards greater and greater climate catastrophe.
The only solution is deeply democratic, genuinely socialist, environmentalism. The fact that such anti-environmental politics can be advocated under the banner of supporting this motion highlights its lack of substance. This isn't fundamentally altered by XR describing Gove's ramblings as “complex” and “piss-poor” in a members' newsletter. Later, without a trace of irony, Corbyn added: “It’s too late for tokenistic policies or gimmicks. We have to do more than just ban plastic straws. Individual action is not enough. … Today we have the opportunity to say, 'We hear you.' ”
Upcoming climate events
Extinction Rebellion “International Mother’s Day March”, Sun 12 May, 12 noon, Trafalgar Square
UK Youth Strike for Climate, next national strike, Fri 24 May.
Momentum and People & Planet's “Bankrupt Climate Change” second national day of action, Sat 25 May
Unions say “Stop Adani”
Union leaders in Australia have dissented from the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) union's wider leadership over the construction of a coal mine.
Bob Carnegie is secretary of Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Queensland, and member of Workers' Liberty Australia. On 30 April he publicly called on Bob Shorten, the leader of the Australian Labor Party (the main opposition party) to oppose the construction of the Adani coal mine in Queensland due to its environmental impact.
MUA in 2018 merged into the CFMEU to form the CFMMEU, and remains a section within it. Peter Ong, Queensland secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), has likewise stated opposition to Adani. In Clermont, Queensland, protestors supporting and opposing the coal mine have clashed, with some supporters waving CFMEU flags. Bob Shorten has come under pressure from CFMEU Queenland's mining division to “support coal mining jobs” with Adani, although from other states the union has opposed it. So far, Shorten has equivocated.
Carnegie and Ong advocated a just transition to renewables, referencing historical struggles such as the “Green Bans” by builders' unions in the '70s, and the Franklin Dam protests. They recognise, too, that sometimes wider considerations and the “greater good” should prevail over immediate job calculations.
Third runway challenge fails
A high court challenge to Heathrow's third runway has failed. The challenge was brought by five London boroughs, Sadiq Khan, local residents, and environmental campaigning groups. The third runway would see a huge expansion to the number of flights from the UK and nationwide.
Aviation is one of the most polluting sectors in the UK, and until serious technological advances are made, we need to scale it back. Had the case succeeded, it is likely the government would have brought a modified National Policy Statement back to the house of commons, pushing ahead with the third runway anyway. The runway can still be stopped: it is currently due to be built starting 2021.
The first step is to win the Labour Party and labour movement to serious environmentalist politics, and to hold MPs accountable to these politics. Shamefully, Labour MPs were granted a free vote in the previous Commons motion to construct the third runway, and the proposal passed with a huge majority of 296. That was in part because major unions such as Unite supported it.
While Unite and the Labour leadership on paper oppose climate change, in practice they have opted for conservative policies of accepting proposals which offer prospects of immediate jobs, rather than fighting for the proposals and the jobs that we need. We must have these arguments within our unions and within Labour.