Facing Catastrophe

An opinion piece by Mike Downham that looks at the twin challenges of Covid and Climate and the role of the big corporations. A version of this article is also published in the the Scottish Socialist Voice newspaper.

It’s been said before but let me say it again: COVID IS NOT OVER!

This bears repeating because we’ve fallen into a deep pit of thinking that there’s no viable alternative – that our daily lives have to be like this – and taking at face value what those in power tell us. We keep falling back on trying to persuade and negotiate with them. This is a trap deliberately set for us by those who have the power at this point in history – the big corporations, served by their political lackeys in governments across the world, particularly in the Global North. 

The corporations are a consequence and integral part of the capitalist economy, which is, as encapsulated by Asbjorn Wahl:

 A system which is geared towards making profits rather than producing use value; dependent on economic growth; a system exploiting workers and over-exploiting natural resources – one that is also about to destroy planet earth as a place to live for future generations. 

This week’s IPCC report says that the impacts of this destruction – floods, fires, droughts, heat which humans can’t survive – are now being experienced in every region of the world. Glasgow experienced unprecedented flooding on the same day the report was published. 

Image by Pierre Banoori CC BY-SA 3.0

The report concludes that we are set to overshoot the critical 1.5 degree rise around 2030 – a decade earlier than their previous prediction. Only a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years can save us.

In relation to the pandemic, the pharmaceutical companies want us to rely solely on their vaccines to stop the pandemic. No pandemic in human history has been stopped by vaccines alone – simple public health measures to cut down the spread of infection have always been necessary. But social distancing isn’t a source of profit, and ventilating buildings doesn’t need new technology.

In relation to global warming, which is now set to kill 100s of millions of us (the global death count for the virus is ‘only’ 4+ million so far), the Oil and Gas companies want us to go on burning fossil fuels down to the last drop, while they prepare to replace or compensate for these fuels with energy sources and technologies which will be equally profitable and every bit as exploitative

Trapped as we’ve been, we keep trying to negotiate with these companies and with the governments who serve them. Given the huge current imbalance of power between them and us, this amounts to inaudible whispering down the barrel of a gun.

The Zero Covid Scotland campaign has drawn a line under its attempts to negotiate with the Scottish Government. Just as the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change is to slash emissions, the only way to prevent more deaths and more suffering from Covid is to eliminate the virus. Slashing emissions and eliminating the virus are both entirely possible.

Image by Pete Linforth – Public Domain

Jonathan Neale (his book Fight the Fire published in February can be downloaded free from The Ecologist website) said at an event in Scotland last week that when you are faced with catastrophe the only way out is to build a mass movement of those most threatened by that catastrophe – a movement which starts by focussing on keeping each other alive.

The Zero Covid Scotland Campaign is planning to contribute in a small way to a movement to keep each other alive from Covid infection by inviting a range of people who have been most impacted by Covid to give evidence at a Public Hearing on Saturday 4th September, staring at 11.00am. You can register in advance for this event here.

After registering, you’ll receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

In the same way that eliminating the virus is the way of keeping each other alive from Covid, the way of keeping each other alive from global warming is climate jobs. This isn’t a new idea – thanks mainly to Jonathan Neale through the Campaign Against Climate Change it’s been around for more than ten years. But it’s been considerably developed through research in terms of how it would work, what kinds of jobs we are talking about (above all good, secure jobs), how many jobs (latest calculations for Scotland come to more than 100,000), and what training would be necessary. Climate jobs are the solution because they are the only way we can simultaneously and quickly slash emissions and keep our economy going so that we don’t have to drop our standard of living.

There’s a third specific catastrophe facing many people in Scotland – the loss of huge numbers of jobs in the North Sea Oil and Gas industry. There’s a sort of “offshore-so-not-affecting-most-of-us’ blind eye being turned on this by people in Scotland, led astray by our governments. But it’s already a reality for around 30,000 redundant workers, their families, and their communities. Unless something is done quickly it will affect at least 100,000. If you add this number of redundant workers to a society the size of Scotland’s which already features inadequate services, inadequate housing, and inadequate income support, in the middle of a lethal pandemic, to speak of keeping each other alive isn’t an exaggeration. Moreover, at the end of September, on the verge of winter and with the Covid epidemic still raging, the UK Government is set to terminate furlough, reduce Universal Credit back to its insulting pre-pandemic level and increase the cap on energy prices to an unprecedented figure. This amounts to a perfect storm for less well-off people.

The solution to the catastrophe facing offshore workers also lies again in climate jobs, specifically in the sectors of renewable energy, public transport, and heating efficiency, where a majority of offshore workers already have the right skills and experience. We can’t achieve energy transition in the short time we have available without the skills and experience of offshore workers.

Unfortunately, there’s an elephant in the room in relation to climate jobs and a transition to them. Just as we need to go on (to every one we meet regardless of their politics) about Covid and elimination and about climate change and climate jobs, we also need to speak of this elephant, which is the trade unions. 

As Wahl points out it’s entirely understandable how the trade unions have got into the fix that they now find themselves in. 70 or so years ago they had a place at the bargaining table with employers and governments because they had shown how they could disrupt the capitalist economy by withdrawing their labour. But the balance of power today is such that they don’t have a place at the table any longer. To win it back they need to demonstrate again that they are prepared to stop the train in its tracks. Unless the unions shift their perspective, the workers will leave them and set up their own collective arrangements

We mustn’t be fooled. The corporations which hold the power have no motivation to make concessions at this critical point in history. They are prepared to accept whatever number of deaths and however much suffering it takes to remain profitable. They are fatally hooked on the system they’ve created.

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