A workers’ answer to climate change

Submitted by AWL on 23 October, 2019 - 10:18 Author: Misha Zubrowski
tech workers

Workers’ Liberty’s conference this year will be discussing and debating maybe amending a document, “Fighting Climate Crises”. This article is a section from it. Solidarity 523 carried the second and final instalment of it. The document has since been updated. See a more recent version, in conference motion form, here.

The first research demonstrating that carbon dioxide released through burning fossil fuels would drive global warming was published well over a century ago, the first government warnings in the 1960s, and the first IPCC report in 1990.

Now, the scientific consensus about serious human-driven climatic heating — with far-reaching effects — is over 99%. It is the greatest danger facing both humanity and the success of the socialist project.

Beyond global warming, there are several major independent environmental threats. Biodiversity loss and species extinction undermine many important ecosystems, leaving plants we are reliant on more susceptible to widespread disease. Water pollution has contributed to hundreds of marine “dead zones” to wildlife.

The WHO estimates that air pollution is at dangerous levels for 90% of the world’s population, killing seven million people every year. Depletion of natural resources, soil degradation, deforestation all bring further dangers, notably to food production.

These environmental crises, and the social crises which they fuel and will fuel, have in turn social roots. Fossil fuels are available to use as a result of social relations and pass through the “social metabolism” again as they are combusted.

A Marxist analysis can elucidate these roots. It is necessary to explain the ever-greater acceleration towards severe and widely acknowledged climate catastrophe. It points the way out of this predicament: how to organise to halt global warming. Workers’ Liberty – the organisation behind Solidarity — has studied, developed, and will continue to debate and refine our Marxist analyses of the forces driving climate crises (this document does not attempt to cover this further).

How to halt climate change

Capital’s exploitation and degradation of nature goes hand-in-hand with its exploitation of labour.

The working class is the agent with the capability and interest in transforming society: through immediate reforms as well as in the battle for democratic, rational control of the economy and society as a whole.

The gravity of current and imminent change crises makes the necessity of independent working-class politics more urgent.

We argue for a socialist environmentalist transitional programme to be fought for within workplaces, and more widely in the Labour Party, environmental movement, and beyond, using a united front approach.

This is most urgent in workplaces and industries with high emissions and key roles in the fossil economy, such as transport and energy. Beyond these sectors, widespread workplace environmental action is important for a society-wide transition, for sparking and spreading class struggle, and for stoking working-class environmentalism on the political front of the class war.

We are undertaking environmental agitation in universities and colleges as a means of winning young people to socialism and creating a student movement which can act as a political beacon to the workers’ movement. This includes making environmental demands of universities and colleges.

We want to work with the radical environmental movement as a whole and win it to our perspectives. But we want to move the focus of that movement from direct action by small, self-sacrificing groups to mass action. For that reason we regard the climate strikes as the most important opening in the new round of climate struggles in the UK.

We need urgently to build mass working-class participation in these strikes and raise their political level. We will use the climate strikes as means of cohering environmentally-minded workers around our activists in workplaces.

“Reform vs revolution”?

We have no confidence in the capitalist class, or their states, to stop climate change. Powerful sections of the capitalist class will fight to stop a green transition.

But significant reforms, including environmental reforms, can be and have been won under capitalism. These can limit the speed of climate change, reducing harm and buying us time.

Confronting climate change is not simply a win-or-lose fight: greater emissions mean greater dangers, faster destruction, greater harm.

The IPPC warned, in 2018, that, aiming to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, global net greenhouse emissions should be reduced to half by 2030 and zero by 2050. We must respond with this urgency, but 1.5°C is itself worse than 1°C, 2°C worse still, and 2.5°, 3°, 3.5° each progressively more catastrophic.

There is no cut-off point beyond which abandoning the fight to curb global warming would be rational.

Significant and powerful sections of and tendencies within the capitalist class will fight every major change that is necessary to stop climate catastrophe. We recognise the dangers of “greenwashing”. Even sincere liberal and bourgeois attempts to limit climate change are, as a rule, woefully insufficient.

Ultimately, a fully and genuinely green capitalist society is impossible, just as a fully democratic or equal capitalist society is.

Within the immediate fights to curb capitalism’s devastation of nature, we promote a working-class programme and working-class independence, insisting on measures that are adequate to meet the challenge of climate change, in the knowledge that such measures lead to confrontations with the power of capital and its agents in the workers’ movement.

United front methods using transitional environmental demands are necessary both to win immediate environmental reforms and overthrow capitalism to ultimately stop climate change.

Our programme

Humanity needs a major transition to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, internationally, as fast as possible: a 2030 target.

We denounce bogus “offsetting” used as greenwashing by many capitalists and politicians, and aim for radical transitions across the board internationally. Zero CO2 emissions is an impossibility as humans emit CO2 by breathing out. That means that genuine offsetting is necessary, and for honesty and precision we demand “net zero” — as a step to net negative.

We support the demands of a “socialist Green New Deal”, as advocated by the FBU and the Clarion, as one initial step.

All major industries should be socialised — taken into public ownership, under democratic control of workers — to facilitate transition. Expropriating the banks, and the wealth of the rich, would make available resources to fund rapid transition and adaptation.

Our programme must and does aim to improve people’s lives, to a comfortable standard of living.

This is necessary for a sustainably classless, democratic society. Without it, the contest for an adequate standard of living, for essentials, will rekindle: a basis of class society. Class societies have exposed themselves as no basis for environmental sustainability. People must be empowered to participate in consciously and collectively running society.

To maintain extensive high living standards requires strong and developed productive forces, and advanced technology.
We demand an immediate ban on fracking, tar sands, other “extreme energy”, and any new fossil power plants. We advocate the fastest possible phasing out of all fossil-fuelled power stations, heating, and transport.

In general we oppose biomass-fired power stations. Burning biomass produces more CO2 per unit energy than burning coal. Its profligate consumption of vegetation causes deforestation and soil degradation, releasing further CO2 and limiting the ability to grow new forest.

“Carbon Capture and Storage” is not a solution, although we do not oppose its introduction. At best, it provides a sticking plaster, mitigating the worst from power stations which we aim to shut down as soon as possible.

Renewable energy production should be expanded. An integrated and coordinated electricity system using “smart grid” technology would maximise efficiency and reliability.

We support nuclear power, which is much safer than fossil fuels. We fight for the scrapping of Trident and all nuclear weapons, internationally. Without the siphoning-off of by-products from power stations to make these abhorrent weapons, nuclear power could be even more efficient.

Our support for nuclear is not unconditional. Nuclear fuel is finite; nuclear power bears its own risks; and it would be possible to construct a future power infrastructure without nuclear energy. In many cases, internationally, other energy sources are more appropriate. We support it as a stopgap measure in the medium term.

Energy generation projects are not necessarily better for being “local”. Large, integrated electrical systems are generally more efficient.

In the energy sector, as in others, we champion a transition organised on the basis of worker planning, and in particular the retraining of workers from polluting or obsolete roles into socially-useful jobs.

We advocate public programmes of insulation, electrification of cooking, and electrified large-scale heating systems.

We support a moratorium on airport expansion, advocating an expansion of high-speed, affordable, electrified and efficient rail, and policies to radically reduce flights. We support increased taxation on flights and phasing-out of short-haul flights where there are less-polluting alternatives, with flights rationed on the basis of need.

We seek an expansion of local free or low-cost good-quality electrical and efficient public transport, and policies to support cycling and walking. Alongside this, we advocate a public programme to – where workable – retrofit cars with electric or hydrogen engines, or to recycle them; and collectivise greener cars into car rental schemes.

Many changes to the food industry would reduce its negative environmental impact, while enabling nutritionally good, diverse and enjoyable diets. Crucially, phasing out almost all animal products (with the added benefit of reducing the needless extreme suffering of billions of sentient beings). We advocate seriously funded research and development into substitute foods. Genetic engineering is in itself not problematic, and genetic engineering of low-emissions substitute foods is positive.

“Geoengineering” is advocated as a future technical fix to problems which are better solved politically. Most proposals have horrendous side effects, typically for areas in the global south. Global weather patterns and ecosystems are so complex that it would cause unintended consequences.

We demand huge public investment in an ambitious programme of ecological restoration to increase biodiversity and natural carbon sequestration.

The fight against climate change can only be won internationally.

We stand in solidarity with workers and movements fighting their hard-right governments in Brazil, China, India, the USA, and elsewhere. This solidarity is crucial in the fight against climate change, given the alarming policies pursued by these governments for the environment.

Climate crises will create hundreds of millions more climate refugees. Anti-migrant politics will be stoked by climate-driven movements of people. We advocate freedom of movement and equal rights for migrants as the only alternative to a hell of borders.

This programme entails class struggle. An adequate programme to curb climate change and preserve civilised conditions contains many elements that are not acceptable to the bourgeoisie. The “labour lieutenants of capital” in the union and Labour bureaucracies are already fighting to keep such an adequate programme from their masters’ doors.

The landscape today

Climate change has already caused or exacerbated droughts and heatwaves, storms and hurricanes, sea level rise and displacement, crop failure and spread of diseases, all around the world.

Tens of thousands of people are already killed by the effects of climate change every year, if not more. Environmental threats are already fuelling and heightening conflicts. Every year, of the last few, tens of millions of people have been displaced by weather-related “natural” disasters, which have tripled – in reported statistics at least – since the 196 Most of these are “internally displaced” within the same state, but many become (international) refugees.

Global and local inequalities, underdevelopment, and competing capitalist states are the backdrop to climatic disasters and responsible for the severity of their effects.

Awareness and concern are increasing across the global north, and beyond, and we are witnessing a renewed “wave” of climate activism. Strong words around anthropogenic climate change have become widespread amongst politicians.

The official advice on the UK’s emissions reductions, published by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in May 2019 argued for a target of net zero emissions by 2050, noting that the government was already failing on existing targets. The UK government legislated for a 2050 net zero target, but without concrete policies that would make it possible to meet this target.

Labour movement bodies and trade unions have, for the most part, advocated comparatively bold programmes to tackle climate change, with more of a class dimension. But this has only translated into very limited real-world action, and reactionary sectional attitudes are alive and well. See, for example, the stances of Unite and GMB on airport expansion and fracking, their successful pushes to enshrine energy union sectionalism in policy, and GMB’s opposition to a 2030 or even 2050 net zero target.


The left-wing surge within Labour over since the election of Corbyn as leader has created openings for socialist environmentalism.

Labour’s 2017 manifesto, and 2018 Green transformation documents were steps forward from previous policy. To render Labour’s policy adequate, the membership will have to assert itself against the leadership and break with Blair-style office-led policy development.

The policy itself was seriously insufficient, even by the standards of the broader labour movement: quantitatively, in money committed, qualitatively, in challenging rule of capital in key industries.

For example, while it called for nationalising energy transmission and distribution, the market dominating energy generation was to be left intact, but with state-supported alternatives competing within it. It had no serious working-class orientation, other than vague token commitments to work with unions.

“Labour for a Green New Deal” (LGND) is currently the most prominent environmental tendency within Labour. Its existence raises the profile of the idea of a progressive environmental programme. Where Labour had implicitly committed to net zero by 2050, with only 60% low carbon or renewable energy within 12 years, LGND pushed for “zero carbon emissions by
2030 and a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels”. LGND also advocate “[s]upporting developing countries’ climate transitions by increasing transfers of finance, technology and capacity;” and “[w]elcoming climate refugees”.

LGND is a Momentum-supported initiative, and has the character of a “loyal opposition”. Its policies are a more ambitious version of Labour’s: a “state-led” (not worker-led) transition, again lacking concrete policies. It has no democratic structures and is run by a small and opaque group of self-appointed “directors”, nationally (after Labour conference, there have been moves to set up local LGND groups, or at least WhatsApp groups). These directors’ strategy revolves around diplomacy with a fundamentally hostile bureaucracy – diplomacy which will tend to require them to discipline their supporters and liquidate their programme.

The “Socialist Green New Deal” motion, promoted through the Clarion and passed by the FBU, marked a start in bringing concrete class politics into the Green New Deal.

Our activists and other left-wingers got a workers-led “just transition”, repeal of anti-union laws, a fracking ban, socialisation of and investment in energy production and transport, and more, into the patchy policy passed by Labour Conference 2019. However, socialisation of finance and a ban on airport expansion were buried by Conference Arrangements Committee. We should re-raise all of these key issues.

The 2030 target, which LGND regarded as the main prize at conference, suffered from compromise. It survived compositing in a tentative, watered-down form.

Labour-oriented environmental campaigns

Whatever its political weaknesses, Labour for a Green New Deal marks the best attempt at injecting discussions around a specific political programme into the broader radical environmental milieu, from XR to the Climate Strikes.

Its programmatic approach marks a step forward for the movement. We will work with LGND wherever possible and assist in the development of local LGND groups, while trying to push for a better programme, a better and less sectarian democratic culture, and a more uncompromising attitude towards the labour movement bureaucracy. The fight to get conference policy into the Manifesto marks a first step here.

Momentum’s own “Bankrupt Climate Change” campaign was very politically limited, and seems to have been retired. SERA, Labour’s oldest environmental campaign, is run like an NGO or think-tank and is politically very conservative, siding with the GMB against LGND at Labour conference.

Red Green Labour is a small initiative, associated with Socialist Resistance and established in early 2018. It is a loose organisation or network, generally to the left of the previously mentioned campaigns. It has an insufficiently combative attitude towards the leadership of Labour and the trade unions. It aims to intervene within SERA. We will work with it where appropriate. However, due to its small size, putting lots of effort into it is not a priority.

Next steps in Labour

We seek to win a broad section of our class to a radical environmental programme. We will continue and increase our agitation and organisation around environmental transitional demands.

We will use the sections of the policy passed at Labour conference as a springboard for promoting a radical, socialist Green New Deal. In particular, the sections that were inserted by the SGND motion, the lines on internationalism and refugees from LGND, and the additional policy passed on fracking, car scrapping, and ecological restoration.

Additionally, we continue to argue for the necessity of, expropriating finance, and ending airport expansion, and fleshing out a socialist, working-class internationalist environmentalism. These will be a core part of the programme of environmental transitional demands that we agitate for immediately.

We have a particular history and tradition of international solidarity, which we should bring into environmental activism, standing in solidarity with workers and activists fighting environmentally destructive regimes elsewhere. We will also draw links, in both directions, between environmental crises and migrants’ rights.

We continue to argue for a rational non-conspiratorial approach to nuclear energy and a proportionate assessment of its pros and cons. We call for it to be part of, or a potential part of a low-GHG emissions energy mix. However, immediately, we do not treat it as a necessary and central part of a socialist environmentalist programme.

To fight for this minimum SGND programme and beyond, we will seek, with others, to develop a campaign with independent life and democratic structures, with one foot in the Labour party and one foot in the unions — including non-affiliated unions. We’ll pursue such a campaign with assertive united front tactics.

The second half of this document discusses: the trade union movement; the new climate movement from the Youth Strikes to Extinction Rebellion, and beyond; the broader revolutionary left, and; Workers’ Liberty’s traditions in climate activism, and our next steps.

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