The power to change the system

Another contribution to our ongoing thread of debate about ‘what next after COP26’.  This post from Sara Bennet, Raymond Morrell and Pete Cannell, based on a revised and updated version of an article originally published on the rs21 and Conter websites, is intended as a contribution to that debate.  It looks the rising level of industrial militancy in the UK and discusses the importance of this for developing a movement that has the power to force the kind of system change that we need to avert climate catastrophe.

The imperative for the COP 26 conference was to agree actions that ensure that greenhouse gas emissions (mainly CO2 and methane) are cut rapidly to restrict average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees centigrade.  It failed to do that.  This is the latest in a long line of failures.  Carbon emissions have increased almost every year that COP talks have taken place since the first conference in Berlin in 1995.   In 2020, despite reduced economic activity because of lockdown, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose faster than the average for the previous decade.  2021 is set to see the second biggest ever increase in CO2 emissions.    The aggregate increase in parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere since 1995 exceeds the total increase over the previous 200 years.  A staggering lack of impact that is pushing humanity close to the edge of runaway global heating.

Nevertheless, despite the failure of the COP, there are reasons to be hopeful.  Glasgow was the focus for a diverse and dynamic series of protests that took place in more than 300 locations around the world.  There has been a convergence in understanding of the science and economics of the crisis between climate activists and scientists and researchers.  So for example, the IPCC reports are produced by consensus among scientists from around the world. The physical science section of the latest report was published in August 2021.  It highlights the chasm between the reductions in greenhouse gases that need to happen and the reality of continuing increases.  Increases that reflect the fact that while investments in renewables have grown, that growth is outstripped by new investments in fossil fuels.  The second and third sections of the report were not due for release until 2022 but, in an unprecedented move, scientists have leaked drafts of the texts. Essentially the message is that restricting the average rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century is only possible if there are fundamental changes to the way economic and social activity is organised around the world.  Quite simply the message is that business as usual, based on the assumption that the market will drive a transition to a low carbon economy, is just not an option.  

But in essence COP26 stuck with business as usual.  So how do we build a movement that is powerful enough to drive through system change in the face of opposition from the rich and powerful?

Over 100,000 marched in Vancouver in solidarity with the youth of the world in the September 27 Climate Strike. Image by Chris Yakimov CC BY-NC 2.0

Part of the story of the Glasgow COP is the strikes and threats of strikes by Scottish workers.  The industrial action by ScotRail workers that would have paralysed Scotland’s rail network while the COP took place was called off after the RMT union reached a settlement over a one-year agreement.  But in a separate dispute strikes by workers on the night sleeper trains from Scotland to England went ahead as did action by Glasgow refuse workers, members of the GMB union.  It was important that the COP coalition that brought together activists to protest and demonstrate at the COP provided open and consistent support for the strikers.

Image by superalbs CC BY-SA 4.0

For too long the demand for a worker-led just transition has been abstract and disconnected from any sense of working-class agency.  While climate activists have promoted the idea, concrete examples of class action have been lacking.  So, whilst climate change has moved up the agenda of most trade unions in Britain, the disconnect between economics and broader politics continues to exert an influence over trade union engagement in the climate question.  For example, the GMB has turned its back on meaningful action with its support for fracking.  It also supports an approach to mixed-energy provision which may appear like a step in the right direction but allows the status quo to continue under the guise of sounding more balanced.  Meanwhile Unite, which represents members working in some of the key ecologically damaging sectors, opposes fracking.  However, it has often passed sensible-sounding policies around supporting climate jobs while simultaneously limiting their effectiveness by being unable to think beyond the immediacy of job provision, such as its position in favour of Gatwick airport expansion position.

Trade unions’ main role, of course, is to defend workers, their jobs and working conditions. However, this has too often led to a narrow focus, and a determination to defend the climate-damaging jobs that in time will simply undermine the very existence of such jobs in the future. Jobs in these polluting sectors have often also tended to be more highly skilled with a history of organisation. They also wield some power within the union structure. Due to their importance in terms of UK manufacturing and output, they have also been some of the worst affected by partnership arrangements, which basically attempt to convince workers that their interests align with their bosses. 

When climate activists see unions acting in this way, it can breed a sense of cynicism, and to regarding the those working in these sectors as part of the problem, rather than as key to the solution. However, workers are right to insist that there will be meaningful and sustainable jobs for them and future generations. What’s more, increasing numbers of workers within and outside these sectors realise that time is up. These are workers that could and should be at the heart of planning what a real just transition would look like: which skills it could retain and build on, how to transfer them to building a viable future. 

Things are changing.  Four decades of neo-liberalism have resulted in grotesque levels of inequality.  So, for example lorry drivers pay has remained stagnant while working conditions declined, and workloads grew.  This is mirrored across society.  The accumulated impact of these trends, compounded by the pandemic, is reflected in staff shortages in key sectors from transport to care.  In this context workers are starting to organise, take action and win.  

Whether or not the anger that these actions represent, and the confidence they engender, can generalise beyond immediate economic demands to grapple with the need for system change depends on the way in which political ideas develop in both the trade union and climate movements.  Not least, a worker-led transition requires new forms of organisation at the base and a rejection of employer partnership.  

Objectively the conditions are favourable for this to develop.  Marxist Ecologist John Bellamy Foster argues that the existential threat posed by the climate crisis can create a revolutionary situation in which the struggle for freedom (from oppression, poverty and more) and the struggle for necessity (survival in the face of climate chaos) coincide.   Such a formulation may seem like an impossible step from the action of rail workers and council workers in Scotland – yet building a movement that can achieve system change (necessity) will be one of many steps and reversals – sometimes slow – sometimes rapid.   

For many, perhaps most climate activists, the IPCC’s conclusions are old news.  It is precisely because of the way in which, year on year, world leaders have jetted into the latest COP and made decisions predicated on the assumption that the market is sacrosanct that so many have concluded that system change is the only answer.  The slogan ‘System Change Not Climate Change’ is ever present on climate protests worldwide.  But what the slogan means and how the change is achieved is less clear.  Will capitalist enterprises respond to ethical imperatives or is state regulation required to force changed behaviour?  Can a system driven by profit and capital accumulation ever coexist with a sustainable zero carbon economy?  Or do we need a much more fundamental reorganisation of society? And at the same time, given the strength of fossil capital – structured through a century of exploitation of coal and oil and resting on vast resources of wealth and power – where is the power to make this happen?

The beginnings of the answer to that question of the power to change the system are evident in the rise of the school student strike movement around the world, the mass demonstrations that preceded the global pandemic and on the streets in Glasgow this month.  But, apart from a moment two decades ago when the turtles and the teamsters marched together, organised workers have largely been absent from the stage.  This why the industrial action around the Glasgow COP is so important.  

In the aftermath of the COP a priority for climate activists must be to actively lend their support to striking workers, whether it be the refuse collectors in Glasgow and Brighton, the HGV drivers nationally or bus and rail workers. Supporting road haulage might on the surface seem contradictory to the fight against climate change but ultimately the change we need will come from below, with unity across the struggles being of paramount importance. Likewise, we need to see trade unionists march with their banners alongside climate activists at COP26 and beyond. The fights for decent jobs and a decent environment are not in opposition: they are one and the same. 

Writing about how neo-liberalism and its consequences can be overturned, Panagiotis Sotiris talks about “productive reconstruction”.  

We must think of “productive reconstruction” not as “a return to growth” but as a process of transformation and intense confrontation with capital, based upon public ownership, self-management, and forms of workers’ control. It has to be a process of experimentation and learning.

This seems like a pretty good agenda for both the climate and workers’ movements.

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