Dirty energy, capitalism and the working class

Issue: 162

Suzanne Jeffery

This article was written at the time of the first UK school student climate strikes. In February and March 2019, UK school students, in huge numbers, took their place in a global movement. The strikes were inspired by the actions of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 16-year-old who sat outside the Swedish parliament initiating the #FridaysforFuture days of action. Her initially lone stand demanding politicians meet their commitments under the Paris agreement led to school students striking on Fridays in her home country. This movement has spread rapidly, with amazing scenes of tens of thousands of Australian school students defying threats from government ministers in order to strike on the eve of the UN climate talks (COP24) in December, which were being held in Poland.

The school student strikes have thrust the climate issue into the lives of millions. Undoubtedly and ironically the few days away from school by hundreds of thousands of student strikers around the world has done more to educate millions of adults about the urgency of the issue than scientists or campaigners have achieved over many years. These strikes represent a qualitative leap forward in a growing climate movement, further galvanised by the urgency of the climate crisis and the inaction of politicians globally to respond to it.

The strikes were in part a response to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report that was released in October 2018, with its simple and urgent pronouncement that we have only 12 years left to take the action needed to avoid a radically heating planet, threatening the lives of hundreds of millions.1 The report has led to a renewed urgency and vibrancy within the climate movement, which has continued to grow over recent years both nationally and globally. Shortly after launching in October 2018, Extinction Rebellion took to the streets, mobilising tens of thousands in direct action events calling on the government to recognise the climate emergency and to act. In November 2018 the councils of two major cities, Bristol and Manchester, passed motions declaring a “climate emergency” and setting targets with the aim of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 and 2038 respectively. Since then, there has been a wave of climate emergency declarations by more than 40 local authorities across the UK. At the time of writing, similar motions are set to be put to many more councils.2

The IPCC special report put in the starkest terms how quickly we need to take carbon out of the infrastructure of society; only 12 years left in which to reduce carbon emissions to a level that would give us a fighting chance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The report went on to identify that only half a degree difference between a 1.5°C and a 2°C rise is crucial to avoiding impacts that will affect hundreds of millions of people through drought, extreme heat, sea level rises, extreme weather events and species extinction that threatens the biodiversity we rely on.3 The 1.5°C target had previously been a political concession to small island states that would be wiped out by a temperature rise above this. But the IPCC report shifted the dial. It recognised the extreme difference such small temperature rises will make to life on this planet for millions.

Debra Roberts, one of the authors of the report, said: “This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency”. She added in reference to the call for 1.5°C as opposed to 2°C: “We can see there is a difference and it’s substantial”.4

This is not the first time the alarm has been raised. However, the clear message that the action needed is a question of political will rather than a technical or scientific issue has put the focus on whether politicians are willing to act in response to this alarm. The IPCC report pushed the message to centre stage in the world’s media and has been a catalyst for a growing climate movement. This growing movement of young people and adults is not going away, with success measured against the ticking clock of 12 years.

In the context of this growing movement, this article will look at some of the issues around government inaction on climate change. Specifically the article will focus on the state’s continued commitment to fossil fuel energy, despite the clear scientific consensus that we need to decarbonise the economy quickly, requiring a rapid shift away from fossil fuel use. It will also examine the extent to which fossil fuel interests are still central to government policy and how optimism about the growth of renewable energy is not matched by the reality. It will examine why capitalism is still locking in a fossil fuel-based energy system and why, because of the interests of state and capital in a increasingly unstable world, the global imperial players will deepen this fossil fuel economy unless stopped by a growing working class movement. Finally, the article will look at why this understanding matters to our strategies for tackling climate change, especially within the trade unions and working class movement, at a time when we need to act with urgency.

Climate injustice: passing the buck

The IPCC report provides four pathways to achieve emissions reductions that would keep temperatures below 1.5°C. There is an important debate about the IPCC’s reliance on negative emissions technologies, which some regard as a form of geoengineering, and which are included in all four pathways. These are untested technologies, often at little more than the ideas stage, which would aim to take carbon out of the atmosphere. Many rightly argue that these are dangerous technologies. James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, argues that these technologies are implausible on the scale being suggested and that they are not necessary to meet the 1.5°C target.5 Notwithstanding this debate, all four pathways require a massive restructuring of energy and transport systems that currently rely on fossil fuels towards systems that use renewable energy.

Despite this uncontested message from the world’s climate scientists, this is not what is happening. Not only is it not happening, but there are no plans to make it happen. Even worse, there are many plans in place by governments and big business to expand the extraction of and use of the very fossil fuels we have been told to stop using.

In reality, despite years of warnings, fossil fuel use and therefore emissions continue to rise at alarming rates.6 A key feature of those in power in the richest countries of the world is to blame this growth on the more recently industrialised countries such as India and especially China. This buck-passing serves the function of helping to detract from the failure of the richest countries to control their own rising emissions. It also serves to suggest that any action the richer countries take will only have a limited impact on the climate crisis, given the share of responsibility for emissions growth from the newly industrialised countries.

Donald Trump in the United States has taken this buck-passing to new levels by tweeting in 2012 that climate change is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese to give an unfair competitive advantage to Chinese goods and trade.7 As a result, according to Trump, the richer economies struggle to meet the extra costs imposed by measures to tackle climate change as well as being unable to benefit from their natural resources such coal, oil and gas. It was campaigning along these lines that gave some traction for Trump in US rust belt communities, sufficient for him to win votes in some of these vital states. The slogan “Trump Digs Coal”, along with the promise to lift the emissions limits set by Barack Obama on coal-fired power stations, clearly resonated in some working class areas. Trump’s climate denial aimed to exploit the hopelessness of communities that had been hit by job losses and poverty and the failure of the politics of “globalisation” espoused by both Democratic and Republican politicians for over a generation.

Trump’s toxic mix of climate denial, racism and economic nationalism, deployed to build support in working class communities, has increasingly been adopted by politicians of the right and far-right such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. However, centre and social democratic politicians have been equally responsible for attempting to place the responsibility for rising emissions on India and China. This is often enmeshed with versions of the position put by Trump that national policies on climate change must be limited to what does not undermine the competitive advantage of national economies rather than determined by a scientific assessment of what is needed.

However, locating the responsibility for cumulative and rising emissions with the growing economies of countries such as China and India just does not stack up either in real time or historically. China has, since 2007, been the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, but it also has one of the world’s largest populations. As a per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, China still sits well below the majority of the world’s richest countries. For example, a direct comparison of per capita emissions between China and the US puts China on 4.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year with the US at 19.8 tonnes of carbon per person per year.8 In addition, the manufacture of goods consumed in the richest countries has, over the past 20 to 30 years, shifted to China, with a resultant rise in its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Finally, but crucially, existing and future climate change is a result of greenhouse gas emissions that have already been released. If we look at the contribution of greenhouse gases cumulatively we see the following picture. From 1751 to 2016, China, with 18 percent of the world’s population was responsible for 13 percent of cumulative emissions, the US, with only 4.2 percent of the world’s population, was responsible for 29 percent of emissions, whereas the UK, with only 0.8 percent of the world’s population, was responsible for a full 5 percent.9

In this context, the role and responsibly of China and countries like it is very different from the impression given by the governments of the richest countries to their domestic audience and within climate negotiations. Hansen makes clear the real position of such governments in relation to their responsibilities to act: “The United States therefore has an outsized responsibility for human-made climate change. The United States also has exceptional technical potential to reduce its emissions and work in mutually beneficial ways to enable other nations to reduce their emissions”.10

Trump’s claims about China’s supposed responsibility for global warming are both frightening and laughable in equal measure, even more so when understood against this backdrop. The global climate justice movement has fought to position the political importance of the relative responsibility of the rich countries of the West versus those of the poorer countries, including those more recently industrialised, as a central undertaking of the climate movement. The richest parts of the world are most responsible for climate change and yet continue to exploit and discriminate and erect racist walls and laws against those who are suffering the most from its consequences in the poorest parts of the world. These are the people who have contributed and continue to contribute the least to the problem. There can be no solution to the climate crisis that doesn’t recognise this injustice and seek to find solutions based on the need to redress rather than deepen it.

Misplaced optimism

It will come as a surprise to many people that emissions continue to rise alongside the growth in the use of fossil fuels. Most people understand that we are a long way from making the significant cuts we need to make, but equally would not realise that no progress at all has been made globally, or nationally, towards reducing fossil fuel use. One explanation for this gap in ­understanding is the rising optimism surrounding the expansion of renewable energy. That optimism is reflected in newspaper headlines along the lines of “Windy Weather Carries Britain to Renewable Energy Record”, carried in the Guardian in November 2018.11 Such headlines give the lie to the arguments pushed by the apologists for the fossil fuel industry—that renewable energy cannot meet our needs. But they also confuse the extent to which renewable energy is replacing fossil fuels.

The huge growth in the capacity provided by renewable energy demonstrates that there is the potential to meet energy needs from sources that do not use fossil fuels. Globally renewable energy capacity increases exponentially every year.12 The rapid drop in the cost of electricity derived from renewable energy has put it on a par with fossil fuels in an increasing number of areas. Prices for renewables are set to continue to fall, despite the ongoing huge government subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry. For those who argue price is the key driver of change in a market system, these developments, if they are sustained, indicate the future will be one of victory for renewable energy over fossil fuels. The optimism about the potential for renewable energy to meet our needs is well placed in terms of its technical feasibility, but is misplaced in relation to the belief that market-based mechanisms of price, for example, create the circumstances for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.

The latest BP energy report, produced by the world’s fifth-largest oil company, also provided optimistic headlines. “Renewable Energy will be the World’s Main Power Source by 2040” trumpeted the report.13 The message is that even fossil giants such as BP acknowledge that renewable energy is the future. Yet look not too far away from such reassuring headlines and the reality of this renewable “success” can be found.

The BP report sums up the real developments that are currently taking place around the relationship between renewables and fossil fuels. Unsurprisingly for a company whose huge wealth derives from fossil fuel extraction and supply, BP continues to see a “major role” for hydrocarbons until 2040. Indeed, its plans are to grow its oil and gas production by 16 percent by 2025 and the report is “gloomy” on the prospects of avoiding dangerous climate change! Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive, said, with words that make little sense except to provide cover for continued fossil fuel extraction, that meeting the challenge of providing more energy while cutting emissions would “undoubtedly require many forms of energy to play a role”.14

Renewable energy is expanding, but in no way is it replacing fossil fuels. The capacity of renewable energy is increasing but so is the capacity of fossil fuel-based energy, hence emissions continue to rise.15 Some 80 percent of the world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels. If current and future plans for fossil fuel expansion are not stopped, there will be no dent in the amount of fossil fuel energy being used, despite an overall increase in the share of energy provided by renewable energy.

That the growth in renewables can happen alongside a huge growth in the use of fossil fuels is because the context is a system that operates not on the basis of price signals, a utopian and ideological view of the free market, but on the laws of advanced 21st century capitalism. This is a system based on a relationship between states and huge multinational businesses that are able to sustain their market position as a result of this meshing of state and capital, much as early theorists of imperialism such as Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin described. Multinational firms regard their profits as reliant upon access to the key energy resources that provide 80 percent of the supply. In competition with other multinationals, they rely on the power of their own national state to ensure access to these resources and markets. These dynamics are the ones at play in ensuring that multinational companies and states continue to see their interests as tied up with access to, and control over, fossil fuels rather than a rapid transition away from them, regardless of the development of renewable energy. In this system, the major imperialist economies are the key players attempting to set the agenda for others.

Energy and foreign policy: the highest and most dangerous stage of capitalism

Despite the increased challenges of an unstable world, partly a result of climate change itself, foreign policy for the most powerful countries in the world, has not shifted to reflect the need to take action in order to tackle climate change. There is no serious appetite, for example, to support a move away from fossil fuels in some of the poorer and developing countries such as Nigeria, Venezuela, Indonesia, Angola, Iraq, Algeria and South Africa, which are some of the key extractors of fossil fuels. There is also no will to provide money so that poorer countries can support the development of infrastructure that could help with adaption to the impacts of climate change.

Instead the increasingly unstable and contested warming world has strengthened rather than weakened the strategic importance of control, by force if necessary, over what are regarded as vital interests for capital—the fossil fuel assets and the regions and countries in which they are found. The rivalries of 21st century imperialism and efforts to maintain dominant geopolitical positions continue to be based around access to, and control over, fossil fuel interests.

Trump’s foreign policies reflect a shift away from Obama’s, but are designed to re-assert US control over key strategic regions such as the Middle East, with its continued importance in terms of fossil fuel-based energy supplies. His support for the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, despite the brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the clear evidence of the House of Saud’s involvement, is a reflection of this. So too is the US and UK governments’ criminal support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing and blockade of Yemen.

Similarly the US’s less than covert attempt to instigate a coup against the democratically elected president Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela is a result of its determination to acquire greater access and control for American oil companies over a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy has rested meanwhile on a more aggressive and central role in Syria, in part designed to ensure Russian interests in the oil rich Middle East and Gulf are aligned with those of rising regional powers such as Iran in opposition to the US. Both the US and Putin see Ukraine as a key strategic transit corridor for some of the major oil and gas producers in Russia and the Caspian Sea. One hoped-for consequence of Russian engagement in the war in Ukraine has been to halt increased EU and NATO influence over this key area.

Like the band of warring brothers described by Karl Marx, these rivalries didn’t stop the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, some of the world’s largest coal, oil and gas producers, from uniting at the UN climate talks in Katowice in Poland in December 2018. Coming together in an alliance that suited domestic commercial interests, they watered down a statement about the significance of the IPCC special report and put on hold any agreement about future commitments to emissions reductions.

In this Alice in Wonderland warming world, the world’s biggest powers pursue foreign policies intimately tied up with maintaining, defending and expanding fossil fuels. No surprise therefore that the same governments’ energy policies reflect not what is needed to tackle climate change, but instead, what are their strategic interests as national states and capitals in an increasingly unstable and contested world. As such governments are often at best ambiguous about transitioning to renewable energy and at worst, as is the case with Trump and others, antagonistic to moving away from fossil fuels.

Defending or citing the need for an “energy mix” alongside the need for energy security in order to “keep the lights on” is the main argument used by ­governments to justify energy policies that support fossil fuels. It’s the basis on which governments that appear to be politically different have energy policies that fail to tackle climate change.

No country has an energy policy that begins to meet the need for an energy transition identified in the IPCC report, and most have energy policies which go no way towards it. In the UK, the energy policy devised by David Cameron and George Osborne has meant a new “dash for gas” and huge government subsidies for the oil and gas industries.16 The current Tory government has dedicated itself to pushing for the fracking of shale gas at all costs and despite massive public opposition.

In Germany, despite being regarded as a global leader in the transition to renewable energy, Angela Merkel’s government has become embroiled in a battle with protesters against the clearance of the Hambach forest in order to expand a coal mine. The recent German government announcement that the country will end reliance on coal by 2038 and a goal to increase the share of renewables in the electricity supply from 38 percent today to 65 percent in 2030 are important. Nevertheless, it has also committed to increased investment in gas, reflecting German commercial interests with substantial investment in Russia’s gas giant Gazprom. In addition the German government’s decision to go ahead with a second gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 2, is driven by geopolitical strategic and commercial interests rather than climate change mitigation.

The pattern is the same across countries which are the largest carbon emitters in the world. Energy policies reflect the interests of state and capital, including the continuing interests of fossil fuel big business, rather than the urgent need to decarbonise the economy. The term “energy mix” works to suggest that we are moving in the right direction—away from reliance on fossil fuels—but serves to disguise the continued huge investment in a fossil fuel infrastructure for generations to come. Current energy policy “locks in” fossil fuels as part of the energy mix and, as such, is locking us into a future of dangerous climate change.

Finally it is worth adding that governments often include nuclear as part of their “energy mix”, and biofuels in their renewable basket. The case against nuclear power is well documented.17 The UK government has been especially loyal to ridiculously expensive nuclear power projects, which are symbolic of aspirations around foreign policy and nuclear weapons rather than a climate focussed energy policy. Currently the two planned nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point and Wylfa are either dead in the water or struggling to proceed.

Less understood is the case against biofuels, which campaigners have worked hard to expose as most definitely not a form of renewable energy but instead a driver of a dangerous destruction of forests, some of the world’s most important carbon sinks. Biofuels derive from burning biomass, primarily wood. They have become the new darling fuel for those in power, with many big energy companies such as BP eyeing a lucrative return while positioning themselves as contributing to emission reductions. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s disgraced former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, reclassified biofuels as renewable energy, while the EU has encouraged biofuels by setting targets for each country to derive 10 percent of transport fuels from them by 2020.

But burning biomass does not cut emissions, nor is it a renewable energy source. Burning biomass emits CO2 to the atmosphere just as burning fossil fuels does. In fact generating a unit of energy from wood emits between 3 percent and 50 percent more CO2 upfront than generating it from coal. It is claimed that biofuels are renewable because trees can be replanted. But it takes decades for CO2 released from burning biomass to be sequestered by newly planted trees. In addition, huge amounts of land are required. The use of land for biofuels displaces populations and limits access to resources that sustain communities. Huge land grabs, often by Western corporations, in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America are taking place in order to produce biofuels. Companies who are complicit in the massive destruction of ecosystems are presenting a green face, and are being heavily subsidised by governments. In the UK, the Tory government has subsidised the conversion of Europe’s biggest power plant to biofuels. Since 2015, Drax has been burning more wood annually than the UK grew in total every year, producing only 0.74 percent of the energy used in the UK and contributing significantly to the climate crisis rather than providing a solution.18

Energy, jobs and democratic control over the economy

Current energy policies, sustained by the needs of big business and the state, are condemning us to changes in the climate that humans have never faced before.

The climate crisis demands a huge transition in the sources we use to produce our energy. This cannot be an “energy mix” that still relies on fossil fuels to some extent or involves a transition to biofuels, which destroy the carbon sinks that naturally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Most centrally it means that the 80 percent of energy we currently get globally from fossil fuels has to stop. Existing coal mines, oil wells and gas installations have to be phased out and the infrastructure that exists to use these types of energy, power stations, transport, heating, have to be converted to use energy derived from renewables—sun, wind, solar—within the next 20 years. No new extraction of fossil fuels can begin or be planned. According to a 2015 report in Nature, most of the current known coal and gas and much of the oil cannot be exploited. There can be no use of Arctic oil or oil from tar sands even to keep temperature rises to within 2°C above pre-industrial levels, let alone 1.5°C.19 In short, and to use the slogan popularised by the climate movement, the fossil fuels have to “Stay in the Ground”.

The crisis has begun to give rise to new movements and to politicians who are beginning to articulate some of these demands. In the US, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who describes herself as a socialist, and Ed Markey, supported by politicians including Bernie Sanders, have introduced a resolution calling for a Green New Deal (GND).20 The GND aims to meet 100 percent of the power needed by the US through clean, renewable and zero-emissions sources in order to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through “a fair and just transition for all communities and workers”. The plan outlined would aim to complete this transition through a 10-year national mobilisation, that would be on a scale not seen since the Second World War or Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal, from which the name is derived. In the process it would “create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States”.21 The GND is a bold and ambitious statement of intent that begins to outline the kind of plan needed for energy transition, with the required urgency. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has made similar, if a lot less far-reaching, proposals in their call for a “green jobs revolution” involving huge investment in renewables, energy efficient homes and the creation of 400,000 skilled jobs in order to reduce emissions by 60 percent by 2030.

This is a key moment which opens up possibilities for delivering the huge economic and social transformations necessary to restructure away from fossil fuels and a system that prioritises the profits of the fossil fuel corporations over the climate. But these possibilities will only be realised if the social forces of the working class are able to mobilise behind these demands.

This is also a key moment because the demands pull into the debate the organisations of the working class, giving trade unions an opportunity to play a key role in pushing for this transition. Equally it exposes some of the faultlines within the unions, reflecting some of the issues outlined above. The unions have the potential to either give huge social weight to the transition away from fossil fuels or to act as a backward break on such change.

There is huge popular and union support in the US for the Green New Deal, which also addresses health and social issues. But some in the US trade union movement have responded with a sectional and backward response, aping the language of the right by describing the deal as “unrealistic”. Seven energy-sector unions stated “grave concerns” about the solutions advocated in the GND. The leader of the Laborers’ Union, Terry O’Sullivan, who has aligned his union with Trump’s energy agenda, went even further with the astonishing claim that: “It is difficult to take this unrealistic manifesto seriously, but the economic and social devastation it would cause if it moves forward is serious and real”. The irony of criticising a plan to tackle catastrophic climate change, which is set to cause devastating economic and social impacts, in this way seems to have been lost.22

Unfortunately, by the time the final resolution was submitted to Congress some of this pressure appeared to have led to amendments to an earlier version. This version was circulated at the same time that young activists from the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats occupied the office of leading mainstream Democrat and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The occupiers delivered the draft of a congressional resolution calling for the development of a “Green New Deal” that called for meeting 100 percent of US power from renewable sources and the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, agriculture and transportation within 10 years. This was effectively a call for an end to fossil fuel use and for a transition to renewable sources alone. However, the final version submitted to Congress called instead for “100 percent clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources”, leaving open the door for nuclear power and, in the future, coal and gas using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. These technologies currently do not exist on an industrial scale and would, if ever developed, require unfeasibly enormous areas of land in which to bury captured CO2. But they have become a useful way for the coal and gas industries to position themselves as providers of a future “clean” energy.

There are important criticisms of the GND from the left and the climate justice movement. Some have pointed to a lack of consultation with movement activists. Rightly, some of the left have argued that unless the GND is located within a wider strategy of mobilising huge social forces in order to challenge fundamentally the organisation of capitalism, it will be unsuccessful in tackling the climate crisis. Nevertheless, it is rightly regarded by many that GND could become the basis on which such a mobilisation could begin to be organised.23

In the UK, some unions have made similar arguments against a transition to renewables. The GMB, a general union with over 600,000 members, submitted a motion that was passed at TUC Congress in 2018 stating that “a balanced energy mix is essential” to meeting the UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and that “such a mix must include investment in renewables, alongside new nuclear and lower-carbon gas”. The motion went on to say that the views of energy workers should be “paramount and central to the development of all TUC policies on energy, industrial strategy and climate change”.24 As many opposing the motion made clear, this is a problem. Climate change affects all workers and as such should be an issue debated and decided by all trade unionists. Speaking to the motion, GMB delegates called on Congress to show “solidarity” with energy workers by supporting its motion to protect jobs. But calling for solidarity in this context emptied all meaning from the word. Those opposing the motion did not do so in order to destroy jobs and put energy workers on the dole. Rather they have campaigned for a just transition that will benefit the whole of the international working class, not just one section of it. The slogan “There Are no Jobs on a Dead Planet” makes clear why there is a need for such a transition.

The GMB motion and the call for the TUC to initiate “a political and lobbying strategy led by the voices and experiences of energy unions and their members” was also designed to exclude those unions that have been at the forefront of campaigning on climate change within the wider trade union movement, including PCS, TSSA, UCU, FBU, CWU and BFAWU. Among other things these unions have supported the “One Million Climate Jobs” report, which outlines how a million jobs could be created in the UK that would reduce carbon emissions.25 The GMB strategy was also designed to put pressure on a Corbyn Labour Party to resist policies that call for a transition to renewable energy along the lines of this report and other similar proposals.

But we do have to end fossil fuel use. And winning that debate within the trade unions and the working class is crucial to building the social forces and movement capable of pushing for this level of economic and social change. Both climate and jobs are working class and trade union issues. They represent the struggle between the power of the ruling class to shape society in its own interests and the working class’s ability to wrest it back. Success for the working class is only ever the result of its capacity to defend its own interests over those of employers through struggle and, most crucially for unions, through strike action. In major battles with employers and the state, the strength of workers is also dependant on solidarity across the wider working class and on political leadership that resolutely challenges rather than compromises with the agenda of the ruling class.

Climate change is a working class and trade union issue because on a very simple level we are all directly affected by it. As workers we will experience its impacts on our weather, our food, our homes and workplaces and on the future of our young people. Energy, like health or education, is an issue that has a generalised effect on society and as such cannot be debated with only the sectional interests of the workers in the energy industries in mind. The policy and the level of mobilisation of the trade union movement must reflect this. Indeed, many who work in energy industries and are members of the unions which organise there already know and care about this and do not form a homogenous bloc behind the positions taken by the leaderships of their unions.

The GMB’s success at winning support for its motion last year was a backward step for the trade union movement in the UK. It needs to be changed. Activists across the movement need to take seriously the need to ensure that each union and the TUC have a policy that reflects the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis.

The main argument used by the unions in order to oppose a massive and rapid transition to renewable energy is job security. Jobs do matter, and strategies to protect good, well paid and unionised jobs for those who work in the fossil fuel industries need to be part of the wider climate movement as well as the trade union movement. The Grantham Institute suggest that six million jobs will be lost globally by 2030 during a transition to low carbon energy; however, 24 million will be created.26 The “One Million Climate Jobs” report and similar initiatives in other countries make a similar case that jobs will be lost but new ones will be created; that good jobs and the climate are not mutually exclusive. Some unions have been dismissive of these strategies, claiming they are a recipe for replacing “good jobs” with badly paid and non-unionised employment. They suggest that “just transition”, the demand developed by some sections of the union movement following the success of US unions in the 1970s in defending workers in environmentally dangerous industries, is a meaningless and empty position. Again the GMB motion to the TUC reflected this position with a section that stated “‘just transition’ is a much-used but often ambiguous term and there is no shortage of voices who believe they are qualified to say what energy workers and communities want and need”.27 In the debate on conference floor, one GMB delegate claimed that those opposing the motion were calling for a “just transition” from skilled jobs to unemployment.

In a report that was more sympathetic to the just transition demand, Unison, one of the backers of the GMB motion, organised a conference for the four major unions representing energy workers (Unison, Unite, GMB and Prospect). In their write-up of the conference, entitled “Protecting Jobs, Saving the Planet”, they identified that those attending “had the example of the UK coal mining industry in the back of their minds” where a “precipitous fall in employment devastated communities”.28

But the defeat of the miners in 1985 was a very different situation to the demand for a just transition. Drawing a parallel or conflating them doesn’t help either the fight for action to save the planet or the battle to protect good, well-paid, skilled, unionised jobs. In the 1980s we were fighting against a brutal Tory government determined to close the pits and smash the National Union of Mineworkers in order to weaken the whole trade union movement. This had nothing at all to do with the environmental issues around coal. It was a major effort by the UK ruling class to push through a restructuring of the UK economy in order to increase profitability. Margaret Thatcher and her supporters saw themselves as the shock troops for a new global restructuring of capitalism inspired by the free market economics of Milton Friedman. Tragically, Thatcher was victorious and the miners were defeated, with long-lasting and devastating consequences for the working class in the UK. Not least of these was the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and the devastation of mining communities from which there has been no recovery. Thatcher’s victory was also the basis for a massive global drive towards liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation of the economy that has been fundamental to the global growth in fossil fuels over the past 30 years.

In contrast, today we face a brutal Tory government and a global ruling elite determined to resist policies that threaten the fossil fuel industry. Neither job creation, protection of existing jobs or human development through expanding energy and electricity, is the motivation of the companies and politicians currently involved with saving the fossil fuel industry. In this context, calls for a just transition should not simply be a defensive strategy to protect jobs. It can be part of an offensive strategy to demand a transition from a energy system which is at the heart of a climate crisis for millions of ordinary people on the planet to one that prioritises the needs of the majority—a safe climate, an end to energy poverty, democratic control over energy and transport systems and good, well-paid, skilled and unionised jobs.

The demand for this type of energy transition should be taken up across the trade union and working class movement. Workers must be unrelenting in demanding an end to fossil fuel use, one that challenges every politician, boss and bank that gets in the way of this transition, that stands alongside the movements and activists that are demanding this change both here and across the world and one that demands a transition that prioritises the needs of the working class rather than the interests of the rich.

In the 1980s the enemy of the working class and trade union movement was a ruling class with the short-term goal of destroying the UK coal industry in order to destroy the most advanced sections of the UK trade union movement and to promote the long-term interests of the ruling class. Those who stood alongside the miners were on the right side of history and had they been successful they would have been in a much more effective position to challenge the policies that have since threatened our planet. In the 21st century, our enemy is a ruling class determined to defend the short-term interests and huge profits of the fossil fuel industry regardless of the long-term impacts on our planet and the majority of people who live on it. To be on the right side of history in the 21st century and to defend the interests of the working class is to join the struggle against this ruling class and its defence of the fossil fuel industry.

On the left and within the union movement we have an immediate task to ensure that the urgency of the crisis is reflected in the demands and actions of the working class movement. Ensuring that trade unions stand in solidarity with the growing school student movement is crucial. On every day of school student climate strikes we need to fight for maximum support and solidarity through union statements of support, workplace solidarity actions and delegations to the protests up to and including calls for unions to join the call to strike. As the climate movement grows, through the direct action protests of Extinction Rebellion and other protest groups, we need to ensure speakers are invited to union branches to explain why the protests are occurring. We need to look for imaginative and creative ways for unions to work with the growing protest movement. We need to ensure the demonstrations called by the Campaign against Climate Change and other groups are supported across the union movement with union delegations and banners providing a visible and significant part of the demonstration. In every union we need to fight for policies that do not pit jobs against the environment but support the call for one million climate jobs.

A historically important moment

The frightening prospects of a climate heating up to three or four degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century if no action is taken to drastically reduce emissions within the next 12 years is what has brought onto the streets hundreds of thousands of young people across the globe in recent months. As they have made clear, for them climate change is not just something that matters for future generations, it matters too for their generation. They have a right to a planet that has not been destroyed. Their movement has given young people a voice in their future, but it has also sounded a clarion call to us all.

The growing climate movement is part of a reassertion of left-wing politics that is beginning to provide answers to the crisis of capitalism on every level. The stakes are high, particularly coupled with a polarisation of society in which a right-wing solution to the crisis of capitalism is also being strengthened with its attempt to build the social forces necessary to impose brutal solutions to capitalist crisis. We must understand the options on offer to solve the climate crisis within the working class and trade union movement. They are ones that pit solidarity over sectionalism, internationalism over nationalism and working class democratic control over big business interests. The coming months and years are crucial to deciding the success of one or the other. It is indeed a battle for socialism or barbarism.

Suzanne Jeffery is a long-standing climate activist. She has played an active role in the Campaign against Climate Change trade union group and is a contributor to its One Million Climate Jobs report.


1 Watts, 2018.

3 IPCC, 2018.

4 Quoted in Watts, 2018.

5 Hansen, 2018.

6 Carrington, 2018.

9 Hansen, 2018, p15.

10 Hansen, 2018, p15.

11 Vaughan, 2018.

12 International Energy Association, 2018.

13 Vaughan, 2019.

14 Quoted in Vaughan, 2019.

15 Malm, 2016, pp368-373. Andreas Malm has an excellent section outlining in detail how this is occurring and the role of the oil companies in this process.

16 Carrington and Doward, 2012; Carrington, 2019.

17 Empson, 2011; Caldicott, 2006.

18 Biofuelwatch, 2018.

19 McGlade and Ekins, 2015.

20 Ocasio-Cortez, 2019.

22 Sweeney, 2019.

23 Triantafyllou, 2019; Foran and others, 2019.

25 Campaign against Climate Change, 2014.

26 Gambhir, 2018.

28 Bralsby, 2018.


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