Mike Downham reflects on the impact of Covid, the aftermath of COP26 and what we might do differently in future.This article was first published inScottish Socialist Voice.
It’s nearly two long years since we began to become aware of the potential scale and danger of the new virus. At that point some prescient people suggested that how we reacted to the pandemic would be a rehearsal for our performance in the forthcoming big show of climate breakdown.
This wasn’t the first time ‘rehearsal’ had been used for how we organise on the left. John Berger described every act of resistance as a rehearsal. Colin Barker called his 1987 book about the uprisings in France, Chile, Portugal, Iran and Poland between 1968 and 1980 Revolutionary Rehearsals. And he used this title again in his subsequent book Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, written jointly with Gareth Dale and Neil Davidson published this year – posthumously for both Colin and Neil – which describes the uprisings in Eastern Europe, South Africa, Indonesia, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt since 1989.
It’s reasonable I think to say that we’ve made a right mess of the Covid rehearsal. Had we known two years ago what we know today, we would have learnt our lines and our cues more thoroughly. What we know today is that 9,634 people in Scotland have died; that the majority of these snuffed-out lives have been among the poor, the disabled and the marginalised; that 99,000 people in Scotland are living with Long Covid; that about 10% of children who catch the virus go on to have disabling poor health for weeks or months; and that the NHS has broken down.
That the NHS has actually broken down, no longer something we just fear might happen, was brought home to me this week by hearing about a middle-aged woman in the Paisley area with an 18-month history of severe neck pain who waited so long for surgery that she’s been forced to give up her job as a care-worker, then lost her home because she couldn’t keep up with her mortgage repayments. Not that this is the only tragic story about NHS failure we could tell between us.
Now the omicron variant (whether or not it turns out to be as bad as feared – we’ll have to wait a week or so before we know) is shouting at us from the wings, telling us that if we allow the virus to spread, whether in Scotland’s communities, schools and workplaces in an incompletely vaccinated population, or in largely unvaccinated countries sent to the back of the queue because they can’t pay, sooner or later we’re going to get a variant which will evade current vaccines.
And yet the cues were there in the script from the beginning. If we’d read it and learned it we’d have known we couldn’t trust the governments of wealthy counties, including Scotland, to not rely so heavily on vaccines, or to prioritise supply and reduce the cost of vaccines for poor countries, because these governments are locked into a system where profit trumps health. Yesterday’s top news was about Pfizer rubbing its hands as it suggested that annual vaccination was likely to be necessary – without mention of the financial and logistical implications of vaccinating eight billion people annually. Pfizer is relishing not only the prospect of a limitless market but also that it has outcompeted AstraZeneca both technically and in its propaganda.
Just as profit trumps health, so that the ruling classes allow the Covid virus to spread, it also trumps the devastating impacts of global heating which are unfolding for all humanity. COP26 has finally made it clear that neither wealthy governments nor the oil and gas corporations are going to take effective action in relation to global heating, despite being fully aware of and no longer denying the scale of the impacts which will result from their inactivity.
How can it be that one small fraction of human beings can inflict such suffering on the rest of their species? Andreas Malm and colleagues, in their new book White Skin, Black Fuel try to explain:
They are not perturbed by the smell from the blazing trees. They do not worry at the site of islands sinking; they do not run from the roar of approaching hurricanes; their fingers never need to touch the stalks from withered harvests; their mouths do not become sticky and dry after a day with nothing to drink … After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it; of their own accord, under their inner compulsion, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end.
As we get our last call to take the stage in the climate crisis, what have we learned from the Covid rehearsal? What are our lines and what are our most critical cues?
The best approach to these questions may be to ask first what mistakes we made in the rehearsal, to avoid making them again. We should perhaps beware of:
Knocking politely on town-hall and parliament doors asking the politicians to do things few of them can even contemplate doing
One-off marches and protests which aren’t part of a charted programme of resistance
Loosely knit coalitions, which dilute militancy with compromise
Hoping to build a social democratic party which could win at the ballot-box
Organising strictly within our political silos, whether parliamentary parties, or revolutionary groups, or single-issue institutions
Underestimating the extent to which the ruling classes have stifled trade union power so that collective withdrawal of labour is no longer the readily available weapon it used to be
How then can we organise, if not in these ways? First, the Covid pandemic is far from over – in fact it can be said to be at a critical point, with the prospect that vaccines may not protect us, and that relying on vaccines alone is not sustainable. We’ll only be able to overcome this pandemic through traditional public health measures, delivered through a greatly expanded and well-resourced public health service. This is what we can start turning our attention to and fighting for. Covid is offering us the experience of another rehearsal, the key changes needed to address both Covid and climate becoming more clearly the same – rolling out and investing heavily in existing technologies instead of switching to uncertain ones. Vaccination on its own becomes the equivalent of Carbon Capture and Storage, both of them profitable for the ruling classes but disastrous for the rest of us.
Second, COP26 has shown us that targeted and sustained direct action works. The Indian farmers, after a year’s disruptive presence in Delhi, during which 700 of them died at the hands of the police, have won a historic victory. The first thing Modi did when he returned from Glasgow was to announce that he was going to withdraw the three laws against which the farmers had been protesting. Two weeks later Shell announced that they are giving up their ten-year plan to extract oil and gas from the Cambo field. This is a huge victory for the Stop Cambo! campaign – a direct result of its persistent visibility in Westminster over the last year, then its strong performance at the COP in Glasgow.
But in the midst of our celebrations of these two wins, we can see that the farmers are continuing to swamp Delhi. They want to see the three laws actually withdrawn, not just hear a promise. It’s probable that even then they will continue their protest for further, more systemic changes. Stop Cambo! knows too that it must not relax. There’s still Siccar Point Energy to unseat (the majority partner in the development of the Cambo field), and there’s the UK Government to force into a decision that no extraction license will be granted. A win is the cue to increasing the strength of a protest, not to ending it.
Third, we would do well at this point to start discussing what so far we’ve shunned: how are we to oppose the state oppression which is bound to escalate in relation to increased direct action? Is XR right to remain adamant about non-violence? Or did Mandela have a point when he said “The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands”?
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.
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.
Jonathan Neale (his book Fight the Fire published in February can be downloaded free from TheEcologist 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.
Just over a month ago we welcomed the establishment of the Zero Covid campaign. Throughout 2020 we’ve published posts looking at the challenge of organising for a just and sustainable transition at a moment when we face continuing threat from Covid 19, the likelihood of more pandemics in the future.
With the permission of the author, Christian Zeller, we are pleased to republish an article that looks at the need to apply the principles that inform the Zero Covid campaign internationally. It originally appeared in German and has been kindly translated by the author with further editing by Terry Conway.
The authors of the appeal note that European governments have so far failed to formulate a common vision for dealing with the pandemic. However, in order to fight the pandemic effectively, a common European strategy is urgently needed. This is the only way to keep the borders open. The vaccines will take some time to get the pandemic under control, probably not before the end of 2021. The authors formulate a clear and immediate societal goal: every single SARS-CoV-2 infection in Europe must be traceable. To achieve this goal, the authors call for the implementation of a three-step strategy.
1. Firstly, reduce infections to a maximum of 10 Covid–19 cases per million people per day. This requires decisive action and in-depth interventions. To avoid a ping-pong effect between countries and regions, the measures to reduce the number of cases must be enforced in all European countries as quickly and as synchronised as possible.
2. Secondly, once this first step has been achieved, the restrictions can be gradually relaxed. The low case numbers must be maintained in the long term with a control strategy – at least 300 tests per million inhabitants per day. Local outbreaks must be contained immediately and vigorously, if necessary through regional lockdowns.
3. Thirdly, a common long-term vision must be developed. Context-specific regional and national action plans should be developed based on European targets. These include screening and vaccination strategies, protection of at-risk groups and support for people who are particularly affected by the pandemic.
This goal and the strategy of this appeal are to be fully supported from an ecosocialist and emancipatory perspective. Why does such a massive containment of the pandemic to only a very few infections make sense? Five arguments:
As the spread of a virus increases, so does the frequency of its mutation. Only with the lowest possible number of infections can mutations of the virus be kept so low that their unexpected consequences can be adequately controlled by society.
The ideology of herd immunity is inhuman and reactionary. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that such a strategy would lead to a social catastrophe with SARS-CoV-2. The vaccination campaigns will only achieve their effect after a significant delay towards the end of 2021. The vaccinations will take place very unevenly, geographically and socially, reflecting imperialist relations and the lack of social justice on a global scale.
The much-vaunted protection of at-risk groups is an illusion. In European countries, about a quarter of people belong to a high-risk group or are in close contact with people at risk (a high proportion of people over 65, workers in health and social care, family members, friends, etc.). So many people cannot be specially protected or even shielded. The course of the pandemic and the helplessness of the authorities reveal this very brutally. Moreover, it would be neither acting on the principles of solidarity nor socially appropriate, but rather extremely selective to simply isolate the sick and elderly for months or even years and exclude them from social life.
Only a containment of the pandemic to a very few cases would make it possible to prevent the burdens and consequential costs from being disproportionately borne by workers, the most exploited and the poor, and especially women. The radical containment of the pandemic must be a central concern of the organisations of the workers’, women’s and anti-racist movements. The pandemic is exposing class relations, gender relations and racism more starkly than ever.
Imperialist countries can contain the spread of the virus through technical and social means, with lockdowns, closures, and targeted restrictions. This requires social and political will. In the emerging and poor countries, especially in the huge urban agglomerations and megacities, such a radical containment strategy is almost impossible because of poverty, living conditions and lack of infrastructure. That is why imperialist countries also have a global responsibility.
It is obvious that the balance of power at this moment is not sufficient to enforce this orientation towards near eradication of the virus. Nevertheless, these arguments must be raised. An ecosocialist orientation consists precisely in overcoming the apparent economic constraints and making what seems socially unrealistic conceivable and realisable. Large sections of the left denounce the authoritarian tendencies of governments’ pandemic policies. This is of course correct. But this democratic argumentation only makes sense if one recognises the fundamental challenge of the pandemic for people’s health and at the same time defines and supports the goal of radically containing the spread of the SARS-Cov-2 virus. To insist only on individual liberties is tantamount to reactionary libertarianism.
With the above-mentioned appeal, numerous natural and medical scientists are actively intervening in a central social debate. They are thus acting more directly politically than many trade unions and left-wing parties, which, after almost a year of the Covid-19 pandemic, have still not managed to define a clear policy about the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In order to develop joint health policy initiatives, it is useful to start a dialogue with these researchers. In Germany, some of them have already spoken out, in April and September, with valuable opinions about how to combat the pandemic.
However, this appeal leaves out key social and economic concerns that need to be raised in order to make this strategy one based on solidarity and to convince working-class people of the necessary measures. Governments are expanding their repressive apparatus, forcing people to restrict their social life and at the same time doing everything to satisfy the interests of capital. The pandemic affects people extremely unequally, globally and in every society. The restrictive measures taken by governments are exacerbating social inequality and social discrimination.
The pandemic reveals the social misery of our societies.
The foremost aim of governments’ measures so far is to defend competitiveness and thus the profitability of companies in the sectors of the economy they consider important. Covertly, most European governments have in mind the hazy goal of a slowed down herd immunity. In doing so, governments are complicit in the deaths of several hundred thousand people in Europe. Economic interests come first. Some liberal representatives of capital openly express this “balancing of interests”.
Governments have allowed and continue to allow the spread of infection until the health system is on the verge of collapse. In doing so, they deliberately plan for the physical and psychological exhaustion of health workers. They are counting on a massive vaccination campaign to end the pandemic. But this will take time and many people are sceptical about the hasty vaccination campaign. Moreover, the vaccines currently being approved have only been tested for giving immunity. It is not yet known to what extent they also prevent someone from being a carrier.
Verena Kreilinger, Winfried Wolf and I have already described in detail in our book Corona, Krise, Kapital. Plädoyer für eine solidarische Alternative in den Zeiten der Pandemie (Corona, Crisis, Capital: A plea for an alternative based on solidarity in times of pandemic)  the failure of the EU in the fight against the pandemic and called for a joint response based on solidarity. There has never been a European pandemic strategy. This is logical because the EU is not a community of solidarity but an institution for intensifying competition. Therefore, no solidarity-based impulses can be expected from the EU in the future.
What is serious, however, is the failure of the trade unions and socialist parties, which have never even proposed the rudiments of a solidarity-based European pandemic strategy. Worse still, neither The Left Party in Germany nor any other socialist or left party in Europe of any weight have been able to set a clear goal for combating the pandemic in its own country. Why don’t the Left Party in Germany and similar political forces in other European countries demand clearly and simply that infections must immediately be reduced to a level so that every single infection can be traced?
This is necessary to ensure the health of the population. Why is the workers movement unable to stand up unconditionally for the health of wage earners? Is it because the trade unions subordinate themselves to the economic interests of big companies or certain sections of the economy and fear that they cannot effectively defend workers against corporate blackmail and layoffs?
The huge health disaster is now leading a growing number of people in England, Wales, and Scotland to bring a radical perspective to the social debate. Trade unionists, social health activists and activists from various movements, as well as ecosocialists, launched a campaign in November under the slogan Zero Covid to eradicate the spread of the virus as far as possible. Socialists in Ireland also support this position. Whether this will broaden into a mass campaign remains to be seen. In any case, it makes sense for socialist organisations in other countries to take up these issues. The pan-European call by academics now offers the chance to broaden this discussion.
Trade unions, liberation movements, and socialist organisations must unreservedly support the international initiative presented here and set out a socio-ecological programme of demands. These include:
Lockdowns, closures, and measures to contain the pandemic must involve all areas of society – production, transport, consumption, and leisure – based on the principles of solidarity. Areas of the economy that are not immediately necessary for society should be temporarily restricted or shut down if necessary if the restrictions help to quickly contain the spread of the virus. This is especially true for meat factories, large warehouses and all businesses where employees have to work in close proximity to each other.
The entire health and care sector must be expanded immediately and sustainably and strengthened with an expansion of the workforce. Wages must be raised significantly.
All privatisation in the health and care sector must be stopped immediately. Hospital financing based on the number of cases must be replaced by a system based on solidarity and needs.
There must be no rescue packages for companies that help to maintain sectors that are socially and ecologically nonsensical (e.g. the aviation and automotive industries). Instead, a socio-ecological restructuring fund should be set up to co-finance industrial conversion and decommissioning
Workers must be protected against unemployment. Unemployment benefits should be increased. Cultural workers and micro-enterprises must be directly supported.
The measures to contain the spread of the virus hit the already disadvantaged the hardest. This discrimination must be countered with appropriate measures (smaller groups in nurseries and schools, opening vacant hotels for families in overcrowded flats and for refugees, etc., see also Kreilinger, Wolf, Zeller 2020).
The measures to contain the pandemic must be financed by society through a solidarity levy on inheritances, large incomes and corporate profits and assets.
Vaccines must be a global public good for all humanity. Therefore, patents must be abolished. People in poor countries must have the same right to vaccination as people in imperialist countries.
The trade unions should immediately initiate an open discussion process with workers in workplaces in compliance with the pandemic precautionary measures to design and implement joint steps “from below” against the pandemic in workplaces, in public transport, and at home. In dialogue with the feminist movement, refugee solidarity groups, the tenants’ movement, and the climate movement, as well as the scientific community, an effective programme to fight the pandemic based on solidarity can be developed and realised. Governments will not protect the people; the people need to protect each other both against the pandemic and against the unjust measures of governments.
Christian Zeller is the author and co-author of two recently published books in German.
Kreilinger, Verena; Wolf, Winfried und Zeller, Christian (2020): Corona, Krise, Kapital. Plädoyer für eine solidarische Alternative in Zeiten der Pandemie. Köln: Papyrossa, 277 S.
Zeller, Christian (2020): Revolution für das Klima. Warum wir eine ökosozialistische Alternative brauchen. München: Oekom Verlag, 248 S.
 Contain COVID-19. A joint statement of scientists from all across Europe. Calling for Pan-European commitment for rapid and sustained reduction in SARS-CoV-2 infections. 19 Decembers 2020 https://www.containcovid-pan.eu/.
There’s a compelling case that we are living in an age of pandemics. It’s possible, although by no means certain, that successful vaccination programmes will have had a significant on UK population immunity in 12 – 18 months. Given the profit motivation of Big Pharma it’s likely to take much longer in the global south. However, the likelihood of a mutation from Covid 19, or one or more completely new viruses over the next 5 years is high. So, a longer-term strategy for the campaign ought to be to ensure that we live safely in the face of recurrent pandemic. This is not a new idea – the British government had plans for such contingencies at the start of the millennium, then failed to maintain and update them and trashed the public health infrastructure that was needed for effective pandemic control.
So, one demand that should be campaigned for is that we learn the lessons of Covid and establish a well-funded local based public health service as part of the NHS. No place for private companies. It would be a tragedy if we are as ill prepared for the next pandemic as we were for Covid 19.
But we need more, and this is where the link with climate comes in. To be prepared we need to reimagine and redesign public transport systems so that they are safe to use and carbon free. We need to build new zero carbon houses and retrofit existing housing stock to high insulation and good ventilation standards. New public buildings and retrofitted existing public buildings also need to be zero carbon and have good effective ventilation. All of this is technically possible and is good for health and the environment.
All the key things we need to do to address both virus epidemics and global warming are not only largely the same (it’s very important that we keep stressing this point, though it’s been made before) but also their technical solutions are linked. Pumped air recirculation in buildings reduces virus cross-infection and improves energy efficiency. New bus design, rolled out in quantity production, can incorporate low-carbon motility and virus infection safety in one design, especially if the buses are in the context of no fares (protecting drivers, and passengers too because of reduced queuing and shorter journey times). Workplaces for the construction and maintenance of renewables can be much safer in relation to the spread of virus infection than oil and gas rigs. More people working in non-intensive local food production, whether commercially or in voluntary organisations, will mean more people working outside.
There are some things, like deforestation and food production, with their linked impacts on global warming and the liberation of new viruses, which we have little chance of influencing until we’ve stopped competitive capitalists from exploiting everything and every person for their profit. But these things related to housing, transport, energy production and food production are technically (and politically) achievable now. And if we don’t achieve them now there will be untold additional human suffering.
Alexander Dennis, based in Falkirk, is internationally important as a manufacturer of double decker buses. In the wake of Covid19 it faces a short-term decline in orders. The response of its new owners, Canadian firm NFI, is to cut 650 jobs.
Clean, sustainable public transport is a critical part of the transition to a zero-carbon economy and Alexander Dennis is a world leader in building all-electric and hydrogen powered buses. The skills of the workforce at Alexander Dennis will be essential in reshaping the way we use energy, the way we produce and the way we live in response to the climate crisis. Sacking 650 workers will blight lives, wreck futures and set back the struggle for a just transition to a new sustainable economy.
In an excellent article in today’s Source Direct Ben Wray notes that the company is asking the government to buy the buses that private operators are not buying at the moment. We do need government action, but as we argued recently in ‘Save Lives, Save Jobs, Save the Planet’ such action needs to be planned and systemic. It needs to tackle issues of safe public transport and it needs to look forward to the zero-carbon future. The private sector is incapable of this kind of joined up thinking. Saving jobs, skills and livelihoods at Alexander Dennis should be seen as part of the broader campaign of taking public transport into public control.
All the signs are, however, that any Scottish Government action is unlikely to measure up to either the immediate crisis in Falkirk or the longer-term crisis of climate. There is a huge gap between the government’s rhetoric on just transition and just recovery and their actions. So how do we turn this round? I’d argue that to make progress we need to think in terms of a ‘worker led just transition’. It’s hard, but collectively we need to take every opportunity to turn the slogan into real action. At a time of public health and climate crisis, when the wealth of the super-rich is rocketing up, and the Westminster government is spending billions on contracts to their friends and bailouts to big business, redundancies in carbon-saving jobs are unacceptable. One option would be for Alexander Dennis workers to refuse to accept redundancy and occupy the factory. Combined with a public campaign for socially useful production as a part of a just transition this would have huge resonance in Scottish society and could provide common cause to the trade union and climate movements. The 1971 occupation of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders is a model – but this could be so much bigger.
Save Lives, Save Jobs, Save the Planet
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Geraldine Clayton looks at the urgency of building a new green economy post pandemic and reviews the Absolute Zero report, which was published in November 2019.
Discussions are now underway on how best to restart our economy after the coronavirus crisis. There is much to play for, and many groups and organisations have taken the message they want from the present crisis. We all, however, want to build a more efficient and less fragile economy than that which came about after the banking crash. For this to happen we will need a skilled workforce spread across the country able to take on the challenges ahead. The answer is surely in the regional planning and industrial strategies we can use to revitalise communities across the country by working towards a real zero carbon future.
In the world of finance, investors are now looking towards green policies for economic recovery. Unless policy makers put these at the top of the agenda we will be jumping from the coronavirus frying pan into the climate change fire. We need to be making structural changes now; investing in the supply chain for a green economy, changing legislation and regulation, and implementing an environment-led stimulus package. Putting the energy sector into some form of public ownership would place workers and communities at the centre of the recovery through public enterprise strategies and regional planning. The Scottish government could take advantage of the fact that EU state aid rules have been largely suspended to take over strategic sectors of the economy such as clean energy production. This would provide badly needed revenue. Profits would not be going onto the balance sheets of companies owned in this country and subject to future takeover activity, or to overseas investors. By acting now will we be advancing progress on tackling the climate emergency. But there is no time to waste. The government must either lead from the front or it will become irrelevant to the changes taking place around it.
What better way to build the economy than around tasks such as retro-fitting insulation for energy saving, getting rid of old gas boilers, building district heating systems, smartening up the grid, and developing, manufacturing and installing the new technologies we will need to conform to our carbon reduction targets?
The UK FIRES ‘Absolute Zero’ report which came out last November, written across five universities in the UK, funded by the government and endorsed by the House of Lords, states that we need to be out of fossil fuels by 2029, including that used in shipping and aviation. The only exception to this will be for a limited amount of oil to be used in the making of some plastics.
Sad to say the oil majors and fossil fuel companies, while publicly endorsing the need to act on Climate Change, are at the same time massively increasing their investments in a huge expansion of oil and gas extraction. They are putting themselves forward as the solution, when they are a major part of the problem.
The industry spends a lot of money and effort on lobbying. They have set up a network of supposedly independent organisations around the world whose job it is to lobby policy makers with positions that run counter to a lot of the top line statements of the major companies. This practice is known as ‘astroturfing’. It’s a murky business, but thanks to a determined group of academics, journalists and investigators some of these activities have been exposed. Another strategy is to hide behind trade organisations. Cross sector industry bodies tend to adopt the positions of their most vocal members, often fossil fuel related companies. The other majority members tend to stay silent, so these stances prevail. Trades associations have been weaponized by the fossil fuel companies to allow them to outsource the ‘negative stuff’. These, along with other lobbying strategies, have hindered governments globally in their efforts to implement policies aimed at allowing us to reach our climate change targets. The industry says its position on climate change is transparent and clear, yet their lobbying activities tell another story. Added to that, years of suggested solutions based on breakthrough technologies, including projects such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and on market driven fixes like carbon markets have held us back from dealing with the ecological tsunami which could soon overtake us. For years the industry has proposed these types of solutions, and has been asking governments for money for funding CCS and other projects. These solutions are expensive and up until now none of these schemes has been proven to work at scale.
The Absolute Zero report states “The target of zero emissions is absolute. There are no negative emissions options or meaningful carbon emissions offsets. The UK is responsible for all emissions, including imported goods and international flights and shipping.” “Breakthrough technologies cannot be deployed at the scale needed rapidly enough.” We are concerned that most plans for dealing with climate change depend on breakthrough technologies, so will not be delivered in time. Until we wake up to the fact that breakthrough technologies will not arrive fast enough we cannot even begin having the right discussion.”
The stark reality is that the carbon to CO2 ratio is 1:3.7, which means that to stick to absolute zero emissions, for every ton of carbon we burn, we would have to take 3.7 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. (Professor Miles Allan , in ‘The Life Scientific’ on Radio 4).
The current crisis has exposed the cracks in our system, and we now have a clearer understanding of what an emergency is. Even the super-rich cannot escape in any meaningful sense. Our life support systems are under threat, and there is a danger we could soon reach the point where, in a world in which biodiversity loss is amplified by climate change, there will be no turning back. Coronavirus will be brought under control eventually, but environmental collapse will be permanent from a human perspective.
If the fossil fuel industry wants to sell its product it should demonstrate that it can be used safely, and that the industry can clean up its own mess. It cannot do either. The fact that the industry spends so much time and effort in lobbying demonstrates that its arguments are weak. These arguments include;
“We can’t get out of oil and gas because if we do, production will be taken up by the ‘bad’ producers, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. Our oil is good oil.”
The Deep Water Horizon well was exploratory at the time of the disaster, but the oil destined for production would presumably have gone under the heading ‘good oil’. Would the people of the Niger Delta, who have lost much of their livelihoods to oil pollution think Shell’s oil is ‘good oil’? It takes nine times more land to produce a barrel of oil on the US mainland than it does in Russia or Saudi Arabia because of the amount that is recovered from fracking. That is neither environmentally nor financially sound. We have a moratorium in Scotland on onshore fracking, but companies such as INEOS are pushing hard to have the moratorium overturned. In any case, the ‘chemically enhanced’ treatments used in oil recovery to get that ‘extra bit’ of oil out of a well are now standard practice across the world, including in the North Sea.
Many people still believe we import much of our gas supply from Russia. In fact we weaned ourselves off Russian gas years ago, and now import only a tiny fraction from there. Most of our gas comes from Norway, while the Norwegians obtain their own domestic power from hyrdro-electricity.
We were fed a similar line regarding the ethics of supplying arms during the seventies and eighties by the arms industry, who told us that if British companies stopped selling weapons this would allow the ‘wicked’ arms sellers to take over. Decades later the world is still awash with arms, and we are entering into yet another arms race. Oil, and the rights of access to it have both stimulated and fueled conflicts for a very long time now. But natural resources for clean energy are spread across the planet. There is no point in fighting for the wind, the sun or underground and airborne heat sources.
“We need to produce more oil and gas to save on expensive importing.”
Oil and gas is bought and sold on the world’s markets, so the oil produced here will go to the highest bidder. A report in January 2019 from the UK’s National Audit Office estimated the costs of dismantling offshore oil and gas infrastructure in the North Sea over the next twenty-five years could exceed £240 billion, most of which will be funded by the taxpayer. When this, along with the tax handouts and generous benefits handed out to companies are taken into account, the product appears to be rather expensive.
“We have the skills and the technological know-how to solve the problem of climate change.”
They are right, but it’s time for the industry to put their money where their mouth is. Their biggest resource lies in their workforce, who have families, and like us are hoping to live in a world where the future will be safe for their children and grandchildren. This is a truly solvable problem, and the fossil fuel companies have the resources, capital, cash flow and engineering capability to make this happen. Together they account for 10% of the world’s economy. But it requires the whole industry to clean up its waste rather than hoping someone else will do it for them.
“We will still need a mix of fuels by 2050”
Just listen to the science.
The sharp drop in the price of oil allows us to see what will happen in the future. The value of these companies lies in the value of their oil, and they have tanks of it. The days of peak oil have gone, but still many of them continue to take on debt to enable them to carry on with exploration and drilling. Offshore drilling tends to be done at greater depths than previously, and in more hazardous conditions. Clean-up operations will become much more difficult and expensive in the future. Oil leaks have increased recently, including in the North Sea, and the oil companies have been told to clean up their act. Climate change means insurance firms will be hit with increasing claims related to extreme weather, and fossil fuel companies will lose their value as the world implements increasingly urgent climate targets.
The Arctic is now being viewed as one of the most lucrative places for fossil fuel investment, but oil production in the area is beset with environmental dangers. Protection treaties have not been agreed for oil and mineral extraction in the Arctic, and there are no safety protocols in place for the region. The detrimental effects of oil spills in such a cold climate will be many times longer lasting than in temperate areas (think how much longer things last when kept in your fridge or freezer). The Deepwater Horizon disaster was estimated to have cost $100 billion to clear up. Any such occurrences in the Arctic region could be much costlier and more damaging to the environment. Shell, to its credit, has said it will not explore in the region until regulatory measures are put in place, but many other companies are keen to get started.
For pension funds and other investors, oil dividends and investments have up until now been safe and lucrative, but this cannot continue. Shell has for the first time in decades cut its shareholder dividends, and BP has seen a sharp drop in profits. Over the past three to five years global stock indexes without fossil fuel holdings have held steady with, and even out-performed otherwise identical indexes that include fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuel companies once led the economy and the world stock markets. They now lag.
According to the Institute for Energy, Economics and Financial Analysis, trustees face growing fiduciary pressure to divest from fossil fuels due to volatile revenues, limited growth opportunities and a negative outlook. Scottish local government pension funds have been advised by the Scottish Local Government Fiduciary Duty Guidance Advisory Board that pension committees may take environmental social and governance considerations into account in relation to investments if the financial performance of that investment may be impacted as a result of any particular environmental, social and governance considerations. Legal & General has put climate change risk as its top concern in terms of profit warnings.
Oil tends to mirror the stock market’s rise and fall, so it’s not a particularly good investment in a properly diversified portfolio. The value of these companies is bound to crash. We don’t know when this will happen, but we know it will.
Fossil fuel and aviation companies are currently asking the government for yet more handouts and tax breaks. The UK already has some of the lowest oil tax rates in the world. Last year Shell paid no tax at all on its UK operations. They already receive handsome tax breaks on investments and decommissioning, but the taxpayer can no longer keep on funding private businesses only to see them create more costs in the future in the form of climate impacts. The UK should remove all incentives and tax breaks from oil and gas extraction and redirect them to funding a just transition. Money spent on green initiatives will provide decent training and employment opportunities and help small and start-up businesses which are well placed to deploy new technologies. Given the right policies, job creation in clean energy industries will exceed affected oil and gas jobs more than three times over. These opportunities will be spread across the UK.
Our situation regarding climate change and loss of biodiversity is very serious indeed. We are closer to a real tipping point than we think. The stimulus packages released now hold the key as to whether this coronavirus crisis delays or advances progress on tackling the climate emergency. As the saying goes, why not make an opportunity out of a crisis? After all, I don’t think we will get another chance.
Neil Rothnie spent his working life on the North Sea oilrigs. In this post he looks at Covid-19 and the slump in oil process and how oil workers pay the price for the super profits stolen by the oil companies.
COVID19 exposes that there are no “market” solutions to the real problems that face us. In fact the, “neo-liberal” market-led society has left us with a precarious health service which has all but had to shut down looking after the health of the majority of people just to be able to cope with this virus. And it’s left us with insufficient resources in the form of testing kits and PPE and ventilators. The market can’t lead us out of this COVID19 emergency (no one is even making this claim) neither will it be able to lead us out of global warming and the developing climate emergency. When the oil & gas industry says that it is the solution to global warming it’s lying. Their plan is business as usual – produce every drop that can be economically produced from the North Sea and (presumably) worldwide. Greed, private property and getting rich drive the oil industry. Co-operation, the recognition of the crucial role of key workers, an end to poverty homelessness and the provision of basic necessities to all has to be the response to COVID19. No going back to the days when our “heroes” will once again be the “celebrities” that stand in for and apologise for the filthy rich. Our heroes are health and care workers, supermarket and delivery workers. Let’s make sure it stays that way.
Under conditions of this Covid19 pandemic, the exploitation of the workforce has taken on a more overt and sinister form, where workers are herded offshore under conditions where it is impossible to maintain social distancing. Only a virtual news blackout has allowed employers to try and mitigate the risks (to their reputations) by jumping the queue being formed by health and care workers, and privately organising COVID19 testing for oil & gas workers going offshore. Who knows how effective this is, or whether the infection is spiraling offshore only to come home with these guys at the end of their trip? Are all the companies quarantining all outward and inward bound workers? Are they testing everyone every day? Otherwise what possible precautions could be put in place to get workers offshore via helicopter to work eat and sleep (sometimes in shared cabins) cheek by jowl in an atmosphere of endlessly recycled air?
Belatedly the industry have organised their own “testing” regimes but are still capable of fucking that up by sending guys offshore before results are in and have, in at least one case, ended up sending one guy out who had tested positive to the virus and then disallowed his fellow passengers from self-isolating.
The testing of oil & gas workers for COVID19 before many health services and care workers could get tests, needs I think to be challenged. It’s not on as far as I’m concerned. How essential are oil & gas workers during a pandemic and a global glut of oil? Even a 10% cut in global production isn’t enough to artificially hike the prices that we ultimately pay to levels where the rich can continue to get their “dividends”. Many of these workers, far from being “key” workers have turned out to not even be essential to the industry. The industry is sacking workers en mass in the midst of a social crisis that we’re all supposed to be in together. What bollocks!
Oil that workers have sweated and risked life and limb to produce is trading at negative prices in a market that’s driven by greed and geopolitics and periodically crashes. Where the workers pay with their jobs, again and again? An industry that cannot learn the lessons of the periodic disaster and near-disasters and must be very close to another. What kind of life is that for the workforce? And all this from the industry that threatens an existential crisis for people and nature.
If the employers can’t/won’t furlough their workers, then the Government should step in and do so directly. If the Government won’t do it they should come out and explain why.
At every opportunity, and to get out of the holes they’ve dug themselves into, the industry periodically drives up exploitation by driving down wages and increasing offshore work periods. Dumping whole swathes of the workforce is the traditional method of achieving this. We’re well into the latest phase of this with another 30,000 UK job losses predicted on top of the steady stream of redundancies already underway.
We need to go for the industry by the throat and break this unholy alliance that exists between them and the Government and in which the trade unions have been willing participants or “partners” in sweetheart agreements. The media has largely failed to be anything more than a propaganda mouthpiece.
Should we not shut-in oil production, furlough the workers and use up the global glut if need be. Is this not the time to start offering oil & gas workers the chance to retrain for the renewables sector (or for whatever they want) and escape the ongoing nightmare of an industry that is an eater of men and women and a threat to our very existence?
The coal miners, their families and communities were fucked-off in the last energy transition. Oil & gas workers will get the same treatment if they stand by and let it happen this time.
In this post, the latest in a series on the pandemic and climate crisis, Mike Downham discusses some of the lessons that we can learn. The article was first published in the Scottish Socialist Voice newspaper.
Yesterday I met two front-line doctors in Pakistan at a Zoom meeting. They described their work as a suicide mission. They have no PPE provided – they make what they can themselves. Health workers who protested were arrested and brutally treated. They have three ventilators for the whole country (population 213 million), and no staff trained to use them. Anyone who gets coronavirus pneumonia dies. The government doesn’t have a policy.
In India slumdwellers are being issued with hydroxychloroquine as an experiment – there’s no evidence that it’s effective. Getting food to these people, who by the way are human beings, is a bigger immediate problem than stopping infection. The government is panicking, already opening up the lockdown at a point when the epidemic is just taking off.
Yemen, after five years of civil war, has 2 million malnourished children. Malnutrition is notorious for reducing resistance to infections of all kinds. They don’t know how much coronavirus they have in the country because they don’t have tests.
As for Africa, a continent of poverty and underfunded health services, the predictions for numbers of deaths range from the terrible to the catastrophic – but how can you usefully describe the difference between hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of deaths?
Meanwhile the Government of our rich, relatively small country, remains more concerned with covering its tracks than doing anything of significance. The Scottish Government didn’t adopt a better policy than Westminster’s at the point when they could have split, an act of subservience which the independence movement won’t forget.
Saving lives must be our priority, and I’ll come back to that. But, first, this pandemic is a huge learning opportunity, and if we don’t take action on the basis of what we learn, and begin to take action now, rather than wait until ‘it’s all over’- there will be other pandemics of new viruses, waiting for their moment. We need to act now to tackle the root causes, not just the symptoms.
There is little doubt that this new coronavirus originated in primary forests, as did Ebola, Zika, Swine Fever, Sars and Mers. All these viruses are thought to have existed for centuries in primary forests, where they were contained by sustainable ecosystems. The trouble started with deforestation to make way for agriculture – agriculture which has become more and more industrialised, monocultural and as a result unsustainable. There have been different intermediate hosts for each ‘new’ virus before it reached humans, and we don’t yet know which hosts were involved for the Covid-19 virus. Pigs are prime suspects, because pork has become a staple in China for the many who can now afford it. The Chinese eat an average of 39kg of pork in a year – even the Americans eat only 27kg. This appetite for pork has fuelled a huge expansion of highly profitable production by big companies. The animals are raised in factory farms with the usual inhumane crowding and conditions. Last year 100 million pigs died in China with Swine Fever. These farms are mostly sited on newly bulldozed forest land.
The initial theory that the pandemic started in a wild animal market in Wuhan is no longer holding up, though it may have contributed. An additional factor may also have been that wild-animal foragers were forced to push deeper into forests to satisfy demand, another large and profitable food market for big business, disrupting sustainable ecosystems as they hunt.
The first thing we’ve learned, then, is that the profit motive on the part of big agricultural companies is the root cause of this pandemic. These companies, as we know, have expanded by grabbing forested land in poor countries – less expense, and easier to buy off protest.
The second thing we’ve learned is that governments, for the most part, have failed us in controlling this pandemic once it started. The most despicable examples are the UK and USA Governments. For the UK Government to be prepared to sacrifice older people to save the shareholders is an abuse of human life which people will never forgive.
The third, and biggest thing we’re learning is that we have the power to control this epidemic ourselves. London bus drivers, having failed to get adequate protection from the Government, or from the Mayor of London, or from Transport for London, took things into their own hands. They organised through a whatsap group, sealed the front doors of their buses and waived fares. They were driven to this because they were dying – at the last count 30 TfL workers, bus drivers or Tube workers, have had their lives ended by corona virus infection.
Some intensive care NHS workers have decided, hospital by hospital, to refuse to work if they don’t have adequate protection. NO KIT, NO CARE. They feel they have a responsibility to make that painful decision, not only for their own survival as vitally essential workers, but also because they know that if they become infected they will pass on the virus to large numbers of both patients and other workers. They will not be complicit with intensive care units becoming coronavirus reservoirs.
Construction workers are forcing closure of non-essential sites – luxury flats and hotels for example – if they do not have adequate protection, either by persuading management to shut down, or by walking out. NO KIT, NO WORK.
People not at work are setting up highly effective mutual support networks in their communities.
That’s a lot to have learned in a few weeks, but it’s not all. We’re learning, through lockdown, ways of daily living that had been taken away from us – people are realising they’ve been working too hard, delegating too much of the care and education of their kids, delegating too much of the care of their older people, and relying too heavily on long and vulnerable supply chains for their necessities, especially food. They’ve learned above all that they like to have opportunities to be kind.
This pandemic isn’t the biggest crisis we face. Far bigger is the crisis of global warming. Yet there are similarities between these crises. Both are killing large numbers of people. Both are global. And the only solution is radical change of the economic system, mediated through participative and decentralised democracy.
Some of the things we’ve learned from this epidemic are directly transferable to the fight against global warming. Bulldozing primary forest is as lethal through its huge impact on global warming, as it is through the setting free of new viruses. As we come to understand more intimately the unsustainability of monoculture of pigs we’ll be able to more confidently reject the crazy proposal, supported by the Scottish Government, to replace Scotland’s old forests with monoculture quick-growing trees to capture carbon, harvesting these trees frequently to burn them in power stations – ‘Bio Energy and Carbon Capture and Storage’ or BECCS, which is nothing more than a capitalist scam.
One of the construction sites which was shut down last week on the insistence of workers was the building of a new gas power station at Keadby, near Scunthorpe. The workers saw this as work which was only essential to the company (SSE, headquarters at Perth), not to them or to the rest of us. It’s a short step from here to seeing the nonsense of building a new fossil fuel power station at the very point when we should be argueing, right now, for a Just Transition away from North Sea oil and gas. The construction workers will have jobs which are truly essential to all of us, and which will put their essential skills to better use. And we will be able to meet our carbon targets without resorting to carbon capture.
The action by London bus drivers to provide free bus travel puts us into a strong position to argue right now for publicly owned, democratically controlled, decarbonised and free public transport across the board. What’s more, people are already talking about how good it is to have less traffic on the roads. They know their health is benefitting from reduced air pollution.
I’ll finish by coming back to the immediate priority of saving lives. There are three things we can all do to save lives, on top of social distancing. We can encourage people in our communities and networks, particularly older people, who develop symptoms they think may be due to coronavirus, and become breathless, to phone for an ambulance if they can’t get through to NHS 111 or their GP. It’s become clear that many people are uncertain how ill they should be before calling for help, yet we’ve also learned that breathing difficulty can get worse rapidly, and that getting to hospital quickly gives people a better chance of being treated successfully. This decision isn’t easy to make, especially if you live on your own, or even for the people living with you. It can help to give your phone number to any older people you know so that they can at least speak with someone if they can’t get NHS advice when they need it.
Secondly, it’s also become clear that some people who suddenly become ill in other ways – they think they may be having a heart attack, or a stroke, or they have breathing difficulty because of COPD or asthma which has got worse – are hesitating about going to hospital at all. They may be frightened of catching the virus, or of putting further strain on the hospital and the ambulance service – or both. They may delay phoning, or even not phone at all. They can be supported to understand that although there is a risk of catching the virus if they go into hospital, the risk of not going into hospital is more certain. Paramedics are reporting that people are dying at home with these common non-Covid emergencies – or getting to hospital too late to be treated successfully.
Thirdly, we can join the swelling chorus of people demanding better PPE and testing in care-homes – for the sake of both residents and workers. It’s an on-going scandal that the Government continues to be slow to respond to the needs of care homes, and to be less than open about the numbers of deaths of people in care homes caused by this virus. In France, where care-home deaths have been added to hospital deaths in daily reports since early in their epidemic, around 50% of all Covid deaths have been in care homes. The lack of respect shown by the UK Government for people dying in care homes by not even counting them is despicable.
This pandemic is frightening – people are dying around us in appalling numbers, and our governments have failed us. But the virus has brought with it a determination among people everywhere to change the way our world works. Nothing could be worse than a return to ‘normality’.
Matthew Crighton continues the discussion on organising at a time of pandemic. You can check out earlier contributions here, here, here and here.
The Covid19 crisis and climate change have in common not only that they are both deadly but also that we know that they can both be tackled. The reasons that each has become a massive crisis is that they have been exacerbated by the neo-liberal economic system, by the weakening of health systems and social protection, and by the lack of capacity, globally and nationally, to manage the economy so that it protects us and meets our needs.
To solve both of them and to put us on a safe trajectory into the future, we need a radically different approach – publicly-driven, pro-people and pro-nature, collective and egalitarian. Broad and strong mobilisations leading to decisive shifts in power away from the corporations and their political allies are required to ensure that, drawing in the diverse popular movements with a stake in this alternative.
These struggles are inter-linked. So climate change activists ought to be engaged now in the politics and economics of the coronavirus, and practical solidarity actions which it necessitates.
The essential messages are the same including:
Save lives! Take immediate urgent measures to stop the avoidable death, illness and suffering which will arise if we don’t act.
Collective actions for our shared needs must displace the pursuit of private profits. Public institutions must be strengthened and resourced.
In crises the powerful will seek to protect and consolidate their grip on power. Only mass organisation, vigilance and democratic accountability can prevent that and ensure change for the better.
Inequalities will increase unless strong and determined actions are taken to reverse that. Our actions must protect and empower the vulnerable and make the rich pay most.
We can build back better and merge our ideas about just transition into campaigns for a just recovery. It’s not in doubt now that radical public interventions in the economy are possible, in this case to reduce transmission of the virus, to boost public health systems, to support workers affected, and to sustain otherwise vulnerable companies. Only governments have these powers and they can and should be used to rapidly cut emissions as well. All support for private companies should include conditions that they should create forward plans for a just transition; and just transition approaches to redeploying and training of workers from one sector to another should be applied in the current crisis.
As it moves towards an end, the reconstruction of a new normal for economic activity should integrate health, wellbeing, climate change and environmental objectives at its core. We need work on a new economic strategy for that to start now.
THE SAME PRINCIPLES APPLY
We are all bewildered by the rapidity and scale of the Covid 19 crisis and most climate justice campaigners are juggling with reactions which can appear to pull in different directions. These include: this has knocked other issues from the attention they need – if only climate change had been treated as seriously – solving Covid will give us tools for stopping climate change – at least emissions are falling if only temporarily and at massive human cost – the same groups of people are at risk from both.
Thinking clearly about the similarities and differences will help fit these all into a perspective which can in turn help us to orientate to the political and campaigning challenges ahead. Here’s my first effort, with some concluding thoughts specifically about implications for work on sustainable economics.
These are very different problems. One is a disease – a medical problem with associated public health problems related in particular to the rate at which it can spread in urban societies. The other is at its heart an economic problem, an externality – an unintended, unanticipated, uncosted and initially unnoticed consequence of economic activity. In free markets, no costs are attributable to anyone responsible, even though the costs to society and nature are enormous.
Accordingly there are few intrinsic synergies between the two crises. Solving one has no necessary relation to solving the other. For example an end to Covid 19 through rapid creation and deployment of a vaccine will leave greenhouse emissions untouched, or rather bouncing back to previous levels. Equally a clear and rapid downward trajectory of emissions will bring no benefit to those dying from the virus, nor to the medics treating them. The timescales and the degrees of threat are also contrasting. Climate change threatens civilisation and therefore the lives of billions, in the fairly long term by the destruction of liveability and agriculture in much of the earth; and in the shorter term through disease, drought, flooding and wars, probably involving nuclear powers, driven by escalating resource competition. Unless it mutates badly, the virus will only kill a fraction of any human population but it could do that in a few years.
However the connection between the two crises is not just that efforts to solve one may distract from the other. We sense that there are lots of similarities and perhaps we have tried out the idea that they have common roots in a dysfunctional relationship between nature and humanity. Maybe, but perhaps that’s really just tautologous – restating as a generalisation that they both cause illness and death and both involve natural processes which we don’t have ways of controlling. (However I recognise that there is an argument that they are fundamentally connected – that Covid 19 would not have infected humans without the effects of globalised economic expansion on marginal agricultural communities and the pressure on wildlife from habitat extinction, even though viruses do transfer between species naturally. This could mean that it also could be portrayed as an externality of similar economic processes, though in my mind that is a stretch. Another true point is that climate change will make more pandemics more likely).
While both are instances where the interaction between the scientific community and politics is in the spotlight, it’s not in the natural sciences where we should look for similarities but in the social, economic and political spheres. There, I think we will see that the contradiction is not between nature and humanity per se, but between nature and humanity on the one hand and, on the other, the particular dominant way of organising economy and society – neo-liberal capitalism.
Firstly, equity and inequality: the impact of both Covid19 and climate change are universal in the sense that anyone may be victims, but both tend to fall most on particular sections of the population, disproportionately on those who suffer other disadvantages. People in poverty are more likely to have poor health and to be badly affected by COVID (think for instance of rough sleepers) and citizens of poor countries with limited health services will be much more likely to die. In a similar but not identical way, the impacts of climate change are mediated by social oppressions and global inequalities. A rich person can get the virus, or their house may be burnt by a wildfire, over all it is the poor and oppressed who will suffer most. Social inequalities kill, in both cases.
Secondly, the economy: both cause economic dislocation. That caused by climate change is slow and long term and if unchecked it will be massive, resulting in breakdown of the economic life support systems of many – for example through drought and starvation or flooding of coastal settlements. In the short term the consequences of climate change are more about the value of financial assets in specific sectors; and on specific countries and geographical areas. COVID 19 is having some similar effects, in an immediate and dramatic way. However, mostly it is not the illness which is having them but the measures being taken to prevent its spread.
It is when we get to think about these, the policy responses and the solutions, that we start to see really big connections between these two crises. At root, both require that the economy, and social conduct, is managed in order to achieve shared human purposes – prevention of a pandemic disease or stopping catastrophic global warming. Economic policy in capitalist countries, however, has as its formal purposes achieving economic objectives (though some might say that its real purpose is continuing a regime of accumulation which benefits the already rich).
These are both crises which need urgent solutions but which free markets cannot solve. They require decisive and forceful action by the state. Conversely the pro-market, neo-liberal consensus has contributed to making both of these crises worse in various ways (for instance the massive growth in cheap air travel). Austerity has weakened the capacity of our institutions and infrastructure to respond (for instance the stripping of the NHS to the bare minimum for regular, expected peak demand). The recognition that markets need to be constrained and that collective action and public agency are vital has de facto dispelled neo-liberal prescriptions.
We have been developing the tools, measures, policies which are needed to prevent greenhouse gas emissions and when we look at Covid 19 we find that we need them for that too, whether in preventing its spread or dealing with the economic consequences – again, not in identical ways. For each of the measures needed for a just transition to net-zero emissions listed below (in no special order) we can compare the way they need to be applied for the Covid19 crisis:-
Economic management and regulation, general and sectorally specific
Restrictions on the rights of private owners
Bail outs, conditionality and extension of public ownership
Investment planning and direction of production in specific sectors
Social protections (unemployment benefit, pensions etc)
Redeployment, training and other labour market measures
Planning and long-termism
Regional and local responsibilities
Community organising and service delivery
Behaviour and consumption changes
(There are other tools used against Covid 19 of course – most notably social distancing, public health systems, digital surveillance – see annex).
It’s not just the policy tools, it’s how they are done.
National governments are the key agents of a pro-public response – only they have the capacity to overrule the decisions and desires of companies and individuals in order to impose measures which can limit and end these crises. Each nation, in its own political system, has its way of balancing consent and coercion and deriving the authority for the state to act in these ways. Between and within states there are right wing and left wing solutions (and ones in between) – this is a tension between ones which won’t be effective and will exacerbate social problems and existing inequalities – and ours, which will actually work and bring wider benefits.
However no national government on its own can solve these crises. Effective global governance is vital – we need institutions which can constrain global capital and ensure solutions are applied across the world. It is obvious that neo-liberalism has weakened these institutions and empowered corporations and profit seeking instead. In particular mechanisms for achieving a fair distribution of pain and gain between rich and poor, and rich and poor countries, have been fatally undermined.
To legitimate this, and to weaken the alternatives when the failures of globalisation and neo-liberal crisis management become apparent, xenophobic ideologies and the racist narratives of the right have been fostered. A focus on justice and combatting oppressions conversely has to be built in to our approach to both climate change and to Covid19.
In the face of hesitant, inadequate and incompetent response to Covid 19 from governments, in particular in the UK and USA, political campaigns and workplace organisation have been essential to insist on action to protect both the population and the workforce. Similarly, we have learnt from bitter experience that those same governments are failing to protect us from the consequences of climate change. We will only be protected if we have developed the power to insist on it, so democracy, scrutiny, movement building and populare mobilisations are essential – we need to force the existing system to deliver real solutions; and in doing so, to change that system.
The strength to do that will depend on seeing that these struggles are inter-linked – success in one can strengthen the likelihood of success in others. Workers, health, environment, social justice, liberation/anti-oppression are up against the same enemies. The strength of each helps the other.
Core Messages about both Covid 19 and climate change
The Covid 19 crisis is about mortality and illness, which is why people are prepared to accept such draconian measures against it. It is preventable, in the short term by lockdown, testing and tracing and effective health systems; in the long term by treatments and vaccines. It has arisen in the context of reckless exploitation of our environment and has been fostered and enhanced by neo-liberal capitalism. The most vulnerable and poorest are likely to be hit hardest- in our communities and across the world.
Each of these things is true of climate change too. It kills people, it is preventable and it is rooted in economic and social structures which put short-term profit above collective human needs.
So, many who care about climate change care equally about preventing the Covid 19 crisis from escalating and about ensuring that actions to stop it don’t make injustice and inequalities worse. Instead they want them to create a much stronger foundation for the solutions to both climate change and future pandemics. In political terms, this also suggests that they ought to become actively engaged in the immediate arguments and struggles about the virus and the responses to it.
Just as the solutions which we need to climate change are vital parts of the armoury we have to deploy against Covid 19 and its consequences, most of the measures which we need to take now are also required to stop greenhouse gas emissions. The essential messages are the same:
Save lives! Take immediate urgent measures to stop the avoidable death, illness and suffering which will arise if we don’t act.
Collective actions for shared needs must displace the pursuit of private profits. Public institutions must be strengthened and resourced.
Inequalities will increase unless strong and determined actions are taken to reverse that. Our actions must protect and empower the vulnerable and make the rich pay most.
In crises the powerful will seek to protect and consolidate their grip on power. Only mass organisation, vigilance and democratic accountability can prevent and reverse that.
Xenophobic, racist and reactionary ideologies which seek to blame and weaken other communities strengthen the elites and weaken our capacity to deal with these crises.
The workers most affected must be protected from danger, their voices must be heard and their actions supported. The principles of just transition can be applied to the management of any planned changes, not just decarbonisation.
Economic powers must be used to protect the wellbeing of the people. Support for businesses must ensure that the benefits are transmitted to workers and customers and tight conditions must reduce harmful impacts on our environment.
Tackle the crisis globally! We are dependent on each other for our health so governments must cooperate and create institutions which can ensure funding, delivery and oversight of solutions across the world.
The poorest countries and their poorest peoples will suffer most so rich countries must direct large-scale funding and support to them.
Build back better! The ways in which we act will determine whether we are in a stronger or weaker position to deal with ongoing and future crises.
The way in which a government deals with a crisis is likely to be the way in which it comes out of it. It not only affects how effective it will be but also all the other outcomes, for instance whether the society which emerges is more or less equal. It is vital, therefore, that we are stronger and better equipped to deal with the climate change crisis as a result of the massive efforts and sacrifices made to stop the Covid 19 pandemic.
The inescapable conclusion from this is that climate change activists ought to be engaged now in the politics, economics and practical solidarity actions of the coronavirus.
Some conclusions about campaigning
At the moment there is almost no news except coronavirus. Quite rightly people and journalists are giving full attention to this extraordinary crisis and the measures being deployed to tackle it; and to the economic questions.
In the debates about what the measures should be and how they should be implemented, our voice is unlikely to be heard, in large part because we don’t have anything to say about these which is specifically within our remit (or do we? ‘look after what keeps us healthy and that requires a healthy environment’ might work).
On economic questions we have a bit more to say because we identify that the way in which the economy develops and is managed is central to achieving our objectives regarding climate change and biodiversity. We have a unique contribution to make as part of the broad movement advocating for different objectives and policies.
While health-related measures and the economic response are to the fore at present, in parallel everyone will start thinking about more general issues as well, to differing degrees. These include questions like Why did this happen? What went wrong? Who might be blamed? What should be done differently from now on? On these we have a lot to contribute from our decades of experience of thinking about these questions in relation to climate change.
My conclusion from the discussion above is that our overall approach should be:
Covid19 and climate change have different roots but they have in common not only that they are both deadly but also that we know that they can both be tackled. The reasons that each has become a massive crisis is that they have been exacerbated by the neo-liberal economic system, by the weakening of health systems and social protection and by the lack of global and national capacity to manage the economy so that it protects us and meets our needs. To solve either or both of them and to put us on a safe trajectory into the future, we need a radically different approach – publicly-driven, pro-people and pro-nature, collective and egalitarian. Broad and strong popular mobilisations leading to decisive shifts in power away from the corporations and their political allies are required to ensure that, drawing in diverse popular movements with a stake in this alternative. We have a powerful and unique contribution to put alongside those of other allies; and we want to support them and learn from them in their struggles for protection of workers, care for the vulnerable, public health etc.
We should avoid saying that the Covid19 virus is helping fight climate change, even though emissions are falling, because it suggests that a) we think they are directly connected somehow and b) that high mortality and economic crisis are necessary parts of the solution to climate change.
We should try saying: Climate change will make similar disasters more likely and is already on course to cause similar levels of harm. Why do all this to stop a virus pandemic without using the same tools to also stop greenhouse gas emissions?
Implications for alternative sustainable economics
In relation to economics work and just transition, the key links with the response to Covid 19 are:
radical public/state interventions in the economy are possible and effective, in this case to reduce transmission of the virus, to boost public health systems, to support workers affected, to sustain otherwise vulnerable companies;
only governments have these powers and they can and should be used to rapidly cut emissions as well;
the terms of support for private companies should include conditions that they should create forward plans for a just transition;
just transition approaches to redeploying and training of workers from one sector to another should be used and developed in the current crisis;
social protections for the workforce should be improved permanently to make such shifts easier in the future;
as and when the Covid 19 crisis moves towards an end, the reconstruction of a new normal for economic activity should integrate health, wellbeing, climate change and environmental objectives at its core. We need work on a new economic strategy for that to start now.
in the longer run, it is likely that the Covid 19 crisis will lead to re-balancing of the offshoring of production in favour of greater self-sufficiency, complementing the requirements for creating local employment and a just transition;
the experiences of this episode should be instructive for how we promote circular economies, de-coupling and de-growth.
Author: Matthew Crighton
Covid 19 campaigns and messages
Prevent avoidable deaths –
Immediately: through lockdown, testing, tracing and quality universal health and social care.
Restrict intra-national and international travel
Defend the disadvantaged and vulnerable (and all communities with greater vulnerability)
Protect frontline workers with PPE
Support union actions and community solidarity
Invest in health systems
Strengthen and empower public services
Convert industry to make health equipment
Protect and support poor countries
Create drug treatments
Make them universally available
Global governance to ensure funding, delivery and oversight
Protect people economically – incomes, food, rent, bills
Ensure supplies of necessities
Bail out private companies with the right conditions – prevent profiteering, extend public ownership
Address inequalities- share the pain fairly – tax the rich
Resist restrictions on liberties
Build an economy which won’t repeat these mistakes
Mike Downham reflects on discussion at a recent Scot.E3 organising meeting.
This piece began as a report on a ScotE3 discussion about its forward strategy at an organising meeting on 19th March. The meeting had been planned before COVID-19 had become the over-riding priority. By the time we met, it had. For most of us it was our first Zoom meeting.
Over the week since we met, events have moved more quickly and more significantly than in any of the 4,213 weeks I’ve been alive and aware (too young to be aware of the outbreak of World War 2, and too distracted as a medical student to be fully aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis.). So this report has become an attempt to develop the main points which emerged from our discussion in the light of the subsequent escalation of COVID-19 – an escalation in terms of the spread of the disease, the number of deaths, Government intervention, and the response of communities and activists.
The key points which emerged from our discussion that night were that the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare the contradictions in the capitalist system; and that increased consciousness of these contradictions among working-class people, already noticeable, has the potential to build to a point where those people will collectively insist on fundamental change.
What are the contradictions in the capitalist system which the pandemic is particularly exposing? Above all, the vulnerability of our health and social care infrastructure as a result of market-led policies over recent years has become blatantly obvious. The NHS has about 5,000 ventilators, and we are predicted to need around 100,000 within the next few weeks – this despite a flu pandemic exercise run by Government three years ago which pointed to the need to increase ventilator capacity. The Government took no action. On top of that it’s now widely known that the Government, as recently as a month ago, was prepared to sacrifice older people to save the shareholders. Though it became politically impossible for them to hold tightly to that strategy, it still informs their inadequate and confused public health interventions.
The economic impacts of the epidemic are likely to be as big for working-class people as the health impacts. Yet the Government’s income-support interventions have been slow to emerge, inadequate and confused. What for example is an ‘essential job’? Essential for who?
Food will inevitably become scarce soon, particularly but not only for those with least money. The official figure for the percentage of food the UK imports is 50%. But this is a figure massaged by the inclusion of foods processed in the UK. If ingredients for the processing are included, the real figure is around 80%. A lot of that comes from Europe. Wholesale prices of the fruit and vegetables we import from Europe are rocketing in the context of the pandemic, some of them have already risen by 100%. Wherever food comes from it has to be distributed and many of the waggon drivers come from central Europe. Homegrown fruit and vegetables are threatened by the shortage of harvesters, most of whom also come from Europe.
What are the signs of increased consciousness of these contradictions? Already many people are expressing lack of confidence in the Government. That, to date, 600,000 people have responded to the call for volunteers to help the NHS is a sign that people recognise just how under-resourced the service is. At this point the Government is arguing that the scale and severity of COVID-19 was unpredictable, but as the facts emerge about their inaction in the face of what became known to them from the experience of China and other far-eastern countries, this argument will be seen through, especially by the new volunteers as they experience working at the front line. The vigorous responses of local mutual aid associations will lead to increased confidence and a growing collective consciousness about the way working class people have been failed, particularly as people lose loved ones and as their economic conditions deteriorate. Workers are standing up for their rights for protection from Coronavirus infection in their workplaces – at Moy Park poultry processing plant, Northern Ireland’s biggest employer, 1,000 workers have walked out.
ScotE3’s primary aim is to contribute to the building of a mass movement to achieve a Just Transition from North Sea oil and gas to renewable sources of energy within a timeframe which prevents catastrophic climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic, despite its devastating outcomes, which have now become inevitable, offers an opportunity for ScotE3 to support the growing consciousness of the way the capitalist system is threatening the very survival of working-class people. We can support the generalisation of that consciousness, so that it extends to an understanding of the urgency of Just Transition. As one of our members put it recently:
Oil & gas need to go the way coal went, but this time without victimising the workers and their communities…The people, if they get the facts, will not allow either the industry or the Government to lead us into a future that condemns our grandchildren.
We are well placed to continue to contribute strongly to a Just Transition movement, despite the restrictions of the pandemic, given our emphasis on providing high-quality information widely available online, and the diversity and depth of the experience of our membership. The pandemic will make it more possible for us to promote radical solutions, above all the need to replace the capitalist system. The COVID-19 pandemic should inform all our activities, the resources we work on, and the politics of the material we publish. The pandemic is the new prism through which we should view everything.