A plug for a new initiative post COP – a series of broadcasts hosted by Independence Live that look at key issues for the climate movement in Scotland. Episode 1 is concerned with perspectives for the movement following COP 26 while episode 2 looks at war and the cost of living.
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 in Scottish 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”?
Stephen McMurray argues that the climate movement needs to be a movement rooted in social justice, not one that falls into the trap of individualism and promoting policies which increase exclusion.
With the COP conference taking place in Glasgow in Autumn 2021, there has been renewed focus on tackling climate change, particularly given the severe fires and floods which have affected many parts of the world. There are however, concerns that policies which are aimed at reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, may have a negative impact on the lives of people with disabilities.
Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities in favour of non-disabled people. Eco ableism is defined as a failure by environmental activists to recognise that many of the climate actions they are promoting make life harder for people with disabilities.
Action to tackle climate change requires a wide range of policies and actions to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. These include changing the way we travel and the way we generate and use energy. However, there is a danger that such policies could further marginalise people with disabilities. This has been illustrated in Edinburgh, which introduced ‘Spaces for People’ in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bollards were introduced to separate cyclists from vehicles and pavements widened.
Whilst improving cycling and walking routes to encourage people to cycle and walk more is vital in reducing transport emissions, there is evidence that they have made it harder for people with disabilities getting around. Restricting parking with bollards and introducing double yellow lines has made it much harder for people with disabilities who rely on motorised vehicles to get shopping and socialise.
RNIB Scotland and the Edinburgh Access Panel have expressed serious concern over the introduction of floating bus stops, as it means that people with disabilities will have to cross cycle lanes to get on and off buses. This is particularly worrying for people with visual impairments.
Eco ableism is linked into the neoliberal agenda of tackling climate change by individualism. That individual actions can influence the market and effectively tackle climate change. This ignores the reality that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Individualism can also be tied into victim blaming. Many people with disabilities are limited in the individual actions they can take.
There remain difficulties, for example in using public transport. Only 80 out of 270 London Underground stations feature some form of step-free access. Furthermore, there is the issue of planning ahead to organise the wheelchair ramp and the worry that a member of staff won’t turn up on either end of the journey[ii].
With buses as well, wheelchair spaces are often taken by buggies, leading to tensions and arguments. This is despite a court ruling that drivers should ask passengers to make way for wheelchairs. This can put wheelchair users off public transport and more reliant on private vehicles.
Much of the advice given to individuals to reduce their energy use is in the form of turning down the heating and watching what we eat. However, many people with disabilities struggle to keep warm due to limited mobility and may require special diets, therefore reducing their choices. A home insulation programme is desperately needed to reduce energy use and bills. People with limited mobility should be prioritised.
Even when it comes to electric cars, people with disabilities face challenges. Research found that there was concern in relation to; lifting the charge cable from the boot, manoeuvring the cable to the charge point, space or trip hazards around the car and charger, charging points not designed for wheelchair users and lack of public charging points.
The challenge therefore, is to design the charging of electric cars to be accessible as possible. There is a definite need to greatly increase the need of charging points. Ideally, these should include disabled parking bays in the street, hospitals, GPs, supermarkets, and shopping centres.
The climate movement needs to be a movement rooted in social justice, not one that falls into the trap of individualism and promoting policies which increase exclusion. Just as we should strive for a just transition for workers and communities, we should strive for policies that not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also increase social justice and inclusion.
Harry Holmes reviews Andreas Malm’s ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’. Harry argues that the book gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. This review was first published by Bright Green and has also been reposted on the rs21 website. Malm’s book is designed to provoke debate on strategy and tactics and we would welcome further contributions on these issues.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline starts with what will be a familiar image for many. It’s the yearly climate negotiations, activists have streamed towards the conference space, pleading with representatives to ratchet up their ambition to tackle the climate crisis. People block city traffic with banners, with activists dancing and playing music in the reclaimed streets. The next day brings a giant public theatre performance, with environmentalists pretending to be animals run over by cars whilst ‘negotiators’ walk around with signs saying ‘blah blah blah’.
Was this a collection of Extinction Rebellion activists performing and blocking traffic? Was it even earlier, in 2015 at the Paris negotiations? Maybe it’s 2009, during the economic crisis and the Copenhagen conference? No, this image comes all the way from COP1, the climate conference that started it all – in the lost world that was 1995.
Speaking straight from his experiences of this first COP, Andreas Malm’s recollection of these early climate protests indicates a wider malaise – a certain sluggishness of environmental strategy. Despite the growth in awareness around the climate crisis and the rapid increase in the number of people organising for environmental justice, there has been limited change in the actions climate groups are willing to take to defend life.
In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm has written a short and gripping manifesto which aims to wrench the climate movement out of its complacency. By convincingly arguing against movements’ dogmatic attachment to milquetoast non-violence, Malm makes clear that as the climate crisis escalates so too must the tactics of those seeking to defend life. Not content with simply dispelling the misguided understandings of pacifism environmentalists hold, How to Blow Up a Pipeline gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. Coming out of the pandemic, with movements regrouping and attempting to navigate the mess that is the 2020s, this book is the shock to the system the world needs.
Beginning with the pacifism many climate movements advocate, a significant portion of this book is dedicated to dispelling the often ahistorical, whitewashed, and faulty justifications given for non-violence. To do this, Malm separates these arguments for non-violence into two forms; a moral pacifism focused on the wrongness of violence from an ethical perspective and a strategic pacifism centred on the advantages to environmental movements from committing to non-violence.
Learning to defend ourselves
It becomes clear that Malm has little time for the first form of pacifism. He turns to the case of Mohammad Rafiq, a 65 year old who stopped a right-wing terrorist attack on an Oslo mosque in 2019. As the gunman entered the building, the pensioner ran at him, tackling the would-be shooter to the ground where, with the help from other nearby men, they disarmed and beat the attacker. Malm points out that such self-defensive actions and any similar attempts to defend from far-right violence are unacceptable from the perspective of moral pacifism. With the struggle against the climate crisis being understood as a similarly defensive movement, focused on protecting life, Malm argues moral pacifism should hold little sway as a dogma. It risks being too rigid in the face of the escalating need to act in life’s defence.
Environmentalists’ deluded reading of the history of social change is not confined to past lifetimes either. Malm points out how groups like XR continue to invoke recent events, like the Poll Tax Rebellion of the early 1990s, as inspiration for non-violent ‘civil disobedience’, despite the Poll Tax famously being scrapped as riots rolled through London. Such a reading of history is not only one sided, but an act of positive erasure – an erasure which works to the detriment of the environmental movement’s strategic horizon.
Finding the radical flank
Looking at each of these past movements, Malm doesn’t reject the importance of the non-violent element. In fact, he suggests the opposite, the existence of a radical flank willing to commit acts of violence combined with a growing mass of non-violent organisers made change possible. Non-violence allows movements to grow larger quickly, it can secure sympathetic coverage in the public eye, and it can prevent government escalation. Because of this, non-violence always has a role.
Of course, no history of environmental movements would be complete without an assessment of the violent direct action of groups like Earth First! and similar Liberation Fronts in the 1980s to 2000s, who were responsible for the destruction of many a logging site. Malm suggests that their ultimate collapse was, at least in part, due to the lack of a wider mass movement where they could position as the radical flank. Malm’s polemical insight is that mass non-violence is the necessary condition for the impactful escalation to violent tactics and today, with climate strikes and Extinction Rebellions aplenty, we are not short of mass non-violent movements.
In short, it is not either/or but both, together in an escalating cycle. Malm argues the current environmental movement’s failure to accept the potential co-existence of both violence and non-violence reflects the wider collapse in revolutionary politics since the 1980s. In response to this collapse:
We have to learn how to fight all over again, in what might be the most unpropitious moment so far in the history of human habitation on this planet.
To begin these wide-ranging strategic conversations about fighting the climate crisis, Malm suggests focusing on two general goals – there is a need to announce and enforce a growing prohibition on new emitting devices, as well as rapidly reducing the lifetime of the polluting infrastructure and devices which already operate. The question, when bringing these general ideas down to Earth, is how precisely the environmental movement may go about this?
Building on Henry Shue’s distinction between luxury and subsistence emissions, Malm points to the increasingly violent role of luxury emissions, and the urgent need to focus efforts on these devices, whether SUVs or planes. There are several clear arguments given for focusing action on luxury devices, these are worth listing in full, albeit paraphrased:
- As the effects of climate change are here, the harm from these luxury devices should be understood as immediate.
- Luxury emitting devices like planes and cars allow the super-rich to also be hypermobile and escape the effects of climate change.
- The ideological role of these devices is the championing of destructive lifestyles.
- There is an ethical cost of how the money could have been better spent mitigating and adapting society to climate change.
- In any reduction of emissions, it is better to reduce luxury emissions first rather than those necessary to secure subsistence.
- Finally, and perhaps most crucially for Malm’s argument, there is the supremely demoralising role that these devices play. After all, if we cannot even get rid of SUV’s how are we meant to move towards a sustainable society?
Recognising this, Malm points to the need for violence to not just include the strategies of sabotage preventing new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built. It should also encompass the ways in which sabotage ‘can be done softly, even gingerly.’ Pointing to the mass movement in Sweden which deflated the wheels of SUVs during the night, Malm argues environmentalists should be comfortable engaging in extensive acts of vandalism targeting the luxury devices common in the Global North. Such violence would show how the ‘rich cannot have the right to combust others to death’, as well as preventing new emissions.
Unleashing new tactics
In opening up the horizon beyond non-violence, Malm invokes a further difficulty – precisely under what conditions does violence become necessary? What form might violence take? How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes clear that violence constitutes attacks on property, coming under the messy monikers like sabotage, vandalism, and demolition. This book is unequivocal that this does not extend to people or animals, nor property which is necessary for their subsistence. This still leaves much on the table, but Malm’s book should be read as a defence of destruction to property in a similar school as that of Osterweil’s In Defence of Looting.
Malm invokes scholars of direct action like William Smith, whose research points to important conditions which should be met for the successful escalation from non-violence. For Smith, escalation succeeds only if action would stop something which would likely cause harm, where mellower non-violent tactics have been exhausted, and where action is based on some wider ideal or charter, such as the Paris Agreement. Malm makes clear his view that these conditions are largely met for most fossil fuel infrastructure.
There are still several objections to escalation which could be posed. One is that governments have supremacy when it comes to repression and violence. As a result, escalation from the environmental movement could result in extreme crackdowns from states across the world. Malm accepts this asymmetry in power, in fact he suggests that it extends far beyond the ability of the state to commit violence. However, Malm points out that there is no law that this asymmetry ‘can never be overturned from below.’ Fighting climate change is a David vs Goliath fight in every sphere, whether economic, social, or militaristic. If we accept asymmetry as an argument against moving beyond non-violence, it would also mean abandoning nearly every climate struggle.
So Malm turns to the crucial argument many make for non-violence, that of popular support. The old story goes that abandoning non-violence leads to declining public opinion and a collapsing movement replete with infighting. Violent acts would be a ‘negative radical flank’, cutting into the wider non-violent movement. On the first issue of public opinion, Malm argues the role of social movements is not to take ‘an existing level of consciousness as a given, but rather to stretch it.’ Violence needs to stretch and drag society forward. This means that violent actions should be clearly explainable and acceptable in their wider context, with Malm suggesting perhaps the best strategy is to lie in wait for the next extreme weather event to strike at luxury emissions. With regards to the collapsing movement, Malm argues that the radical flank must simultaneously be prepared to be disowned by the wider movement, whilst also being receptive enough that in the case of either escalating repression or public backlash it can call off its actions.
The New Climate Laboratories
With regards to this last point, how are these contradictory characteristics to be satisfied? Being able to balance the tightrope of competing arguments for and against escalation is not something that Malm can answer in around 150 pages. In such a short work, one is left desiring the detail, the roadmap, where in practice the neat lines Malm draws can be observed. These will never appear, as only practice and thought together can bring this flourishing. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is effectively indicate strategic considerations and reflections which must be borne out in the practices of climate movements. There is no perfect tactic, no silver bullet, only a magazine of possible actions which environmentalists need to constantly assess as the crisis gets worse.
Malm puts his faith most of all in the climate camp movements like Ende Gelände and Reclaim the Power, where activists come together in mass numbers to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure. These camps can be built easily, allowing the movement to spread horizontally whilst also being planned well in advance. As the number of attendees rises, so too does the capacity to outmanoeuvre police and disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure. Malm invokes these spaces as the ‘unrivalled laboratory for learning this fight.’ If environmentalists are to develop the strategic acumen to pull the breaks on emissions, then what is need is a proliferation of these camps and any other equivalent ‘laboratories’ – we need spaces where climate activists can come together to learn and act with a sense of militancy. In the 2020s, Malm’s book points to the need to let a thousand laboratories bloom.
The final pages of How to Blow Up a Pipeline reflect on the opposite tendency to such escalating militancy – a climate fatalism which presents breakdown as inevitable. Many writers are encouraging society to ‘learn how to die’ and bring a deep pessimism about our capacity to change course. Whether in the work of Franzen, Scranton, or others, Malm rejects their pessimistic understandings of society’s future as that of a particular class interest. It is comforting for the rich of the Global North, unable to accept their need to change production and consumption, to ‘project this weakness of the flesh onto society’ and doom it to climate collapse. What is harder is internalizing the continued need for resistance.
With every part per million counting, with every stopped pipeline saving lives, and with every minute counting, the truth is the opposite of what the climate fatalists suggest. Looking to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or who resisted within the extermination camps, Malm invokes the continued gesture of struggle against all odds. As Malm puts it:
Precisely the hopelessness of the situation constituted the nobility of this resistance. The rebels affirmed life so extraordinarily robustly because death was certain and still they fought on. It can never, ever be too late for that gesture. If it is too late for resistance to be waged within a calculus of immediate utility, the time has come for it to vindicate the fundamental values of life, even if it only means crying out to the heavens.
One hopes, like Malm, that it does not come to this, that we come to tackle the climate crisis with the ambition it needs before such hopeless struggle is necessary. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is act as a rallying cry for a climate movement far too comfortable in its ways, at a time where bold action is more than overdue.
How to blow up a pipeline is published by Verso at the beginning of January 2021 – we will have a small number of copies available for £10 (including UK postage). To enquire or order use the contact form.
Boris Johnson’s ten point plan has received largely uncritical responses from the main stream media. We’re pleased to repost here the Campaign Against Climate Change’s ten point response. We welcome other contributions that develop or extend this critique.
We’ve had the big announcement: Boris Johnson’s ten point plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. But following initial positive headlines, the details start trickling out. £12 billion was announced, but just £3 billion, it emerges, is new money. This is paltry. Other countries have already made much larger commitments, including Germany’s green stimulus of over €40bn and France around €35bn.
Most importantly, how does it stack up compared to the scale of the task facing us? Two years on from the IPCC’s ground-breaking report calling for an urgent transformation of the global economy to stay within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, global emissions are still (excluding the limited impact of the pandemic) on an upward trend. As temperatures continue to rise, sea level rise is accelerating as polar ice melts. And in the background a steady stream of records broken for ‘natural’ disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, hitting the poorest hardest.
The UK’s carbon budgets reflect out of date targets, an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. Previous policy failure means we are nowhere near on track to even stay within these deficient targets. This latest set of announcements is therefore doubly inadequate. It leaves a major hole in meeting even these out of date commitments. However we don’t just need to close that gap. Last year the government set a new climate commitment of ‘net-zero’ carbon by 2050. In relation to this new target, the gap is even greater. But unfortunately even ‘net zero by 2050’ doesn’t cut it. We need to act even faster than 2050 to be compatible with the Paris Climate Agreement.
Meanwhile, we also face a devastating pandemic leaving in its wake widespread unemployment. Now is the time for a real climate jobs programme to tackle the climate and jobs crises.
What would a real 10 point plan to tackle the climate crisis look like?
1. A comprehensive approach
Climate change cannot be tackled as an add-on, or a piecemeal approach that takes us one step forward, two steps back. We need a commitment that every economic policy, every spending commitment, every piece of legislation, will put us on track for a safer future, not jeopardise it by locking us in to business as usual.
If the government had really taken on board the scale of the crisis, it would be rethinking the policies of unconditional corporate bailouts, planning deregulation, aviation expansion, road building, stifling onshore wind. It would not be giving a £16.5 billion windfall to military spending.
2. Meeting the needs of both people and planet
Austerity has left us, more than ever, with a grossly unequal society with continued deep inequalities in race, gender and for disabled people. Underfunded public services are struggling. The move towards a zero carbon society must also ensure access to food, healthcare, education, income, job security, good, affordable, housing, clean and affordable energy and heat, public transport, clean air and green spaces for everyone.
There is huge public support to ‘build back better’ as part of recovery from the pandemic, investing in public services and frontline workers. Instead, a public sector pay freeze is being mooted. These are the wrong priorities: we need huge investment and expansion in the public sector and the people who work in it.
3. ‘New Deal’ levels of spending
Boris Johnson has tried to compare his plans to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In today’s money, Roosevelt’s spending programme amounted to about £4,300 – for every American living through the turmoil of the Great Depression. In contrast £12 billion is about £180 each.
Our own ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ report or Green New Deal plans give more of a sense of the levels of investment and ambition needed if the government is taking this seriously. Other recent analyses include an IPPR report which estimates that £33 billion a year in additional annual investment is needed to meet the government’s net zero target, creating 1.6 million jobs, including £8 billion on homes and buildings and £10.3 billion on transport.
The pandemic has shown that money can be found. It has been found for other spending, including billions to private companies for medical supply and services in contracts awarded with no oversight, regulation or transparency. These are the sums of money that now need to be directed into tackling the climate crisis, sums that can actually make an impact in reducing emissions and would truly justify the term New Deal.
4. Not relying on techno-fixes that don’t solve the problem
There are valuable technologies that help us cut waste and greenhouse gas emissions. But those we’d call ‘techno-fixes’ are a double-edged sword. Despite serious drawbacks, these pull resources away from proven solutions (for example onshore wind and solar are not even mentioned in Johnson’s plan). They often support the continuation of fossil fuel infrastructure, and give a sense of false security about the need to radically cut energy use. Boris Johnson’s ten point plan overly relies on these techno-fixes which seriously undermine any genuine and far reaching attempt to transition the economy.
There is more detail below about why we are concerned about the emphasis on hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and nuclear energy. The promotion of ‘Jet Zero’ (zero carbon flying) also hides the fact that the scope for genuine decarbonisation of aviation is limited and the pursuit of ‘sustainable aviation growth a mirage. There should be no further airport expansion in a serious plan to tackle the climate crisis. While not mentioned explicitly in this latest plan, biofuels and biomass (burning wood for power) also fall into the same category – unsustainable while subsidised as ‘green’ technology.
5. Provide decent, well paid, secure jobs
With a wide range of sectors hit by the pandemic, unemployment is expected to rise in 2021 to levels not seen since the 1980s. The transition to a zero carbon economy needs a workforce, but opportunities are being lost even when the investment is made. Manufacturing contracts for offshore wind supply have not been used to provide work for a skilled workforce in Scotland. Instead Scottish workers who could have been making the infrastructure needed for offshore wind have been made redundant. We need a proper climate jobs strategy, not a piecemeal approach rooted in a market based thinking. A strategy which is driven by understanding of the huge transition that is needed across manufacturing, transport, agriculture, construction, insulation, managing our land and biodiversity, in training and education. And one which seeks to create well paid secure jobs across these sectors to meet this challenge.
The difficulties and delays with the recent Green Homes Grant are a warning example of what happens without this strategic approach including workforce skills. Trade unions have a key role. There are more accidents in non-unionised offshore wind jobs than there are in offshore oil. A worker-led Just Transition is needed. As set out in the One Million Climate Jobs report, a National Climate Service could take on key aspects of the transition to zero carbon, providing well paid, secure, flexible, permanent jobs in the public sector.
6. Keep it in the ground: phase out fossil fuel extraction
Extraordinarily, the UK’s Infrastructure Act introduced in 2015 a legal obligation to maximise economic recovery of oil and gas. It was clear then, and even clearer now that we can’t continue fossil fuel extraction. Keeping the planet safe means leaving remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
The oil and gas industry has already been hit hard by the economic impacts of the pandemic. We need instead a just transition for oil and gas workers as part of a strategy to phase out UK fossil fuel extraction. Many of these workers could be and want to be retrained to be part of a new offshore wind industry.
We also need an immediate end to the anomaly whereby the UK offers billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in financial support to companies that bid for work on fossil fuel projects overseas
7. Tackling car dependency and increasing public transport, walking and cycling
The transport sector accounts for around a third of emissions in the UK. Surface transport alone represents around a quarter of our total emissions, while air pollution is a serious health problem. So far, electric vehicles have barely made a dent (less than 2% of new car sales), while SUVs represent over 40% of new cars sold.
But this cannot be solved by a simple like-for-like switch to electric vehicles. We need a property resourced and integrated public transport system under democratic public ownership. Alongside this, we need a reallocation of road space in towns and cities away from cars to walking, cycling and public transport, and a presumption in favour of development that reduces travel.
These changes would not just benefit our climate: the social inclusion and health benefits would be huge. It is shocking that the £27 billion currently intended for road building, which will significantly worsen our climate crisis, is far more than the entire ‘green industrial revolution’ budget touted as tackling the climate crisis.
8. Decent homes for all
We do need a programme of mass retrofitting our homes and buildings to be warm and energy-efficient, but it must be much more ambitious. We also need to be wary of corner cutting which does little other than inflate the profits of companies. Poorly fitted cavity wall insulation has been a scandal affecting thousands of homes with damp and mould, while post-Grenfell, there are still tower blocks with unsafe cladding. This is an example of where a National Climate Service could ensure high standards of work by employing a well trained public sector workforce with the goal of delivering warm homes and energy use reduction rather than quick and easy profits at the taxpayers expense.
It is much easier and cheaper to build homes and public or commercial buildings to near-zero carbon energy standards, than it is to retrofit. The scrapping of the Zero Carbon Homes standard in 2015 was a huge step back, and proposed new energy standards are totally inadequate. One of the major problems facing the UK is a lack of affordable housing, in particular social housing. We need to invest in jobs to ensure decent homes for all – quite literally ‘build back better’.
9. Land use and agriculture
With the UK’s biodiversity in crisis, and agriculture a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, it is not simply a matter of ‘plant more trees’. Alongside reforestation and protecting habitats, we need to consider land ownership, the vital role of access to nature for all, even and especially in urban environments and the potential of rewilding. Meanwhile, we are still waiting for the government to take the simple step of banning peat burning, an easy climate win which appears to be being blocked by grouse shooting interests.
There is huge potential for agriculture which is better both for climate and biodiversity. The government has been remarkably reluctant to promote, for both climate and health reasons, a dietary shift to reduce meat and dairy consumption. Without forgetting, when talking about diet, that the obesity crisis still coexists with real food poverty in one of the world’s richest nations.
With food and environmental standards likely to be a casualty of post-Brexit trade deals, it is clear that our unhealthy food system also has implications for workers rights and animal welfare. The prospect of further zoonotic diseases – and future pandemics – cannot now be ignored. Land use, our food system and biodiversity have to be a key part of any climate strategy.
10. Climate justice beyond our borders
Any real climate policy must be rooted in climate justice. This is a global problem and the UK has a historically disproportionate contribution to the climate crisis. As well as doing our fair share in reducing domestic emissions, the UK’s policies must address this historic responsibility.
The goods we import, as well as having their own carbon footprint, may also hide ecosystem destruction and exploitation of workers. So do the deals made by UK banks, pension funds and insurance companies. There must be no ‘solutions’ for this part of the world which rest on further damage and explotation of nature and people in other parts of the world, whether that be in mineral extraction or land grabs for carbon ‘offsetting’. Solutions must be rooted in climate justice, collaboration and internationalism.
We need a real climate jobs plan, a real Just Transition, a real Green New Deal.
Techno-fixes – what’s the problem?
Carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) has promised to make fossil fuel burning environmentally friendly by capturing carbon dioxide from the smokestack emissions of power stations or industrial plants. However, additional fossil fuel burning is needed for energy to capture the carbon. The new funding promises to bring the total government funding back to £1 billion – the same amount promised for a pilot that was suddenly cancelled at the last minute in 2015. But CCS technology still has not been successfully scaled up elsewhere, with problems of finding reliable storage for the captured CO2. Certainly for power plants it seems more an attempt to continue fossil fuel production than a significant climate solution.
Hydrogen sounds like a great idea – a fuel that when burned, produces only water. But so-called ‘blue’ hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels and requires carbon capture and storage. It has been heavily promoted by gas companies. Meanwhile green hydrogen, generated from renewables, also has significant limitations. It is approximately 4-5 times less efficient than using renewable power directly because you have to convert power to a gas and back into power, and will probably take around 10 years to generate at scale. Hydrogen may have a place in the zero carbon economy for some hard-to-decarbonise uses. But the idea that it is a cost or energy efficient way to heat the nation’s homes – and could be rolled out in the time needed – seems far less plausible.
Nuclear is a dangerous, unnecessary and expensive diversion which will pull away investment from safe and cheap renewable energy which could come on stream quickly.
We held our latest organising meeting on 23rd July. It was a chance to catch up and share ideas. You can find the full list of actions here and if there are particular actions that you would like to get involved with please do email us.
Part of the discussion focussed on the impact of Covid19 on the Scottish economy. We will soon be publishing an extended article on the importance of the education sector in the transition to a zero carbon economy – in light of this it’s very important to support education workers who are fighting to keep their jobs. Edinburgh Napier University is the first to announce that it is looking for compulsory redundancies. Do sign and share the petition in support of Napier staff.
In Glasgow jobs at First Bus are under threat – Get Glasgow Moving are looking for support for their campaign to take Glasgow bus services into public ownership. You can sign their petition here.
We are planning two public meetings, one on Ineos and one on a Worker Led Just Transition – watch this space for dates and further details.
The twin gas plants run by Shell and Exxon Mobil at Mossmorran in Fife have had a devastating impact on the lives of people living nearby. At our 3rd June online meeting Linda Holt and James Glen from the Mossmorran Action Group (MAG) gave a presentation on the progress of the campaign.
In the discussion that followed Linda and James addressed questions about the campaign and participants shared useful links and ideas for solidarity and joint activity.
Linda noted that the MAG Facebook page is a really useful resource for following what’s happening and is used to share reports of flaring and other impacts from the gas plants. However, Twitter has proved effective in pressurising the Scottish Government – the MAG twitter handle is @MossFlare – do follow and retweet.
We discussed the importance of phasing out Mossmorran as part of a Just Transition in Scotland and the opportunities for joint campaigning.
Linda and James talked about the SEPA investigations into Mossmorran and the limitations of SEPA as a Scottish Government Quango, whose board members are nominated by Scottish Government Ministers and dominated by representatives from the oil and gas industry. There was strong support for replacing SEPA by an independent body that could take a critical view of government (in)action. The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) was suggested as an alternative model. The UKSA has a statutory objective of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that ‘serve the public good’.
Prior to lockdown Climate Camp Scotland was planning its summer 2020 action at Mossmorran. Local campaigners were highly supportive, and it’s hoped that action will take place in the future.
MAG has attempted to get data on cancer in the areas adjacent to Mossmorran but NHF Fife refuses on the grounds of data privacy. The only data available covers an area so large as to be useless.
ExxonMobil and Shell largely employ workers from outside the local communities so that the communities don’t get to find out what’s really happening in the plants. Closing down Mossmorran would not have a negative impact on local jobs. The skills of those who work at Mossmorran are valuable and with support for retraining could be redeployed into new sustainable industries.
It was agreed that there was a need to submit something more robust on Just Transition to the Just Transition Commission. Scot.E3 is working on a document and will share with MAG before final version is produced. The deadline is the end of June.
George Kerevan in Bella Caledonia writing on Big Oil, SEPA and Mossmorran
Information on ‘Cancer Alley’ in the US
On Friday evening (15th May) three of the authors of ‘A Planet to Win – why we need a green new deal’ joined us from the United States to talk about the issues that are raised in their book. The video of their introduction to the meeting is included in this post.
While the book focuses on the US and draws inspiration from the original New Deal its themes resonated with the participants in the event – mostly from Scotland but also from England and the Republic of Ireland. In an overview of the book Thea Riofrancos asks ‘what kind of labour movement do we need to win a green new deal and argues for the importance of broadening the idea of Just Transition and Climate Jobs to include care and social reproduction; a position that we have adopted in Scot.E3.
It’s impossible to do full justice to the range of issues raised in the discussion. Participants raised the issue of housing and home insulation. In Scotland, well over 90% of the homes expected to be in use in 2050 have already been built – so dealing with the current buildings and current layout of cities is key to reducing emissions from the built environment. Several people picked up on the issue of care and noted that the pandemic has underscored the fact that while care jobs should be central to a green new deal they have to be valued equally and paid equally to other jobs.
A Planet To Win lays the blame for the climate crisis on the fossil fuel companies – one participant suggested that staging a mock trial of CEO’s (and politicians?) for crimes against humanity might help take this view into the mainstream. There’s a useful link to who the leading ‘criminals’ are on the Why Green Economy site.
We didn’t have time to properly explore another question that was raised about how capitalist growth drives the continuing degradation of the climate. There is a useful article on Degrowth in a recent issue of the Ecologist.
There were also contribution on food and land use, taxation, the value of discussions that bring people together across national boundaries, the need to find new ways of using and conserving natural resources and the impact of extractivism on the global south. The final question before the speakers rounded up raised issues of the role of the state and the challenge of avoiding cooption by organisations whose purpose in proposing change is in fact to maintain the status quo.
If you were at the meeting or have watched the video we’d welcome contributions to this site on any of the issues raised.
You can buy the book from Lighthouse Books who cohosted the event.
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.
For more detail on the last two points, go to the We Are All Daniel Blake website.
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’.
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:-
- Public leadership
- State intervention
- Economic management and regulation, general and sectorally specific
- Fiscal policy
- 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