Socialist Alternative

‘Insulate Britain’: which tactics should the climate movement adopt?

The Tories have gone into overdrive in their repressive attacks on the climate movement. Insulate Britain – an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been, over the last few weeks, using road blockages to bring traffic around the M25 surrounding London to a standstill, along with blockades of the Port of Dover, essentially bringing many imports into Britain to a halt. 

This action, carried out by hundreds of activists from IB, was responded to by Patel with calls to order “decisive action”, with current numbers of arrests at 438 and counting. 

There is no doubting the urgency of the situation that has led to these actions. This past year has seen an explosion in deadly wildfires across North America, the Mediterranean and elsewhere, while much of Europe and Asia has been devastated by drastic floods. But these are only the most obvious knock on effects of the crisis. Studies estimated that around 25% of children in the UK spend their daily lives in the midst of significant pollution that poses severe health risks – both physical and mental. Fossil fuel air pollution has been attributed to around 8 million deaths worldwide each year.

The thinking and words along these lines from Insulate Britain are very clear – given the scale of the emergency, we can no longer politely ‘ask’ the ruling elite to act in moving towards a zero-carbon economy. We need immediate, radical mass action for fundamental change. 

At the same time, this tactic of blocking cars and disrupting the lives of thousands of ordinary people has fallen into controversy. On the one hand, it has been successful in garnering media attention, however negative that has been. While on the other hand, many – even many within the climate movement – have questioned the effectiveness of these methods. 

What position should socialists have?

First of all, we have to recognise that the demand of the protestors for mass insulation of housing is not only correct, but urgently necessary. Not only would insulation be an integral part of a transition towards zero-carbon, but it is a necessity in the fight for good standards of living for working class people. It is estimated widely that 10,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable people will be losing their lives this winter due to fuel poverty, out of a total number of over 4 million people. It can’t be measured how many lives would be saved or otherwise improved by removing the horrendous burden placed on paying for bills for heating. 

This is precisely why the Tories and capitalist elite are dripping in hypocrisy when they slam climate activists for action which causes ‘disruption’. Where is their concern when rising sea levels decimate lives? While the likes of Richard Madeley and Suzanna Reid on Good Morning Britain brand Insulate Britain as “fascists”, and while former senior police chiefs compare the road blockers to “Islamist extremists”, the double standards of the police and media are glaringly obvious and can’t be ignored. 

Effective methods

At the same time, however, we have to frankly discuss which strategies are most effective, in not just forcing climate issues onto the agenda, but to build a movement of working-class and young people to force solid and lasting change in the direction of what Insulate Britain are fighting for. 

Extinction Rebellion’s period of mass direct action and civil disobedience received its largest draw of support from 2019, when activists staged blockages around the City of London. But while this was criticised by some, what was clear was in who they were targeting. Yes, it caused disruption to the lives of workers, but the target was clear – the financial institutions, parliament and the corridors of real power under this system. 

Since then, the latest ‘Impossible Rebellion’ which took place in London in June 2021 was, although still drawing in within the thousands, was significantly reduced and drew markably less press attention. This has clearly thrown up much questioning of the model adopted, which has become all the more blatant with these latest actions from Insulate Britain. 

Of course, all effective action and protest has to be disruptive in some way. The most effective action is that which paralyses the ruling class’ ability to keep profiting from the crisis. But who are we attempting to pin the blame on when we take action?

While the demand for mass insulation will no doubt gain an echo, the method of directly blocking ordinary motorists unfortunately points in a direction away from building a mass, working-class based movement for climate justice. An organisation of no more than a few hundred activists cannot take steps towards taking actions as disruptive of these without having already such a mass movement. Otherwise we unfortunately risk alienating those sections of working people who need radical climate action more than anyone. 

Many unfortunately echoed the point from one motorist who confronted the Insulate Britain activists, saying “I’ve got to feed my kids now. I’ve got to get my money now to feed my kids. But you don’t get that. You don’t get it. Because if you did, you wouldn’t be blocking normal people like this. You’re ridiculous”. Although this was seized on by the right-wing press for their own reactionary ends, it is true that this has reflected the mood of big sections of society, even those who strongly support the demand for insulation. 

Next steps – turn the workers movement to the climate crisis!

We need to build a movement that, while causing maximum disruption to capitalist governments and their system worldwide, draws on the collective power of the working class, rather than engaging in actions that have the potential to be alienating and implicitly blaming workers for the situation we are in. This needs to be a movement that, while putting the climate on the agenda, also actively mobilises working class people to demand many of these urgent needs through mass struggle.

Through 2019, over 4 million people – mostly school students (but with some workers coming out in solidarity) took to the streets to demand action. More recently under lockdown and after, capitalist governments across the globe have been crippled by strike movements, from the mass movement of workers and farmers staging general strikes in India, to the revolutionary uprisings against neoliberalism and repression in Colombia and Chile. 

Building a force that  can point in this direction requires clear democratic structures for the climate movement in all areas. Rather than adopting a false ‘leaderless’ structure as has often been the norm in some of the movement, democratic decision making conferences of resistance, drawing together all strands of the movement, could democratically agree a strategy for escalating strike action and how that can be achieved. On that basis, we would be able to then democratically decide which actions are likely to draw more negative attention than positive and instead reach out to those sections of workers most impacted by the crisis, including motorists whose lives would be improved by things like emergency mass funding into rapid expansion of green, accessible and free public transport for all. 

Contrary to the often-repeated idea that the climate crisis has no appeal for worker, all studies demonstrate clearly that climate action is widely popular and understood to be necessary. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI last month found that 73% of respondents agreed with a target for large-scale investment into renewable energy. 81% polled in another study agreed that climate change is a global emergency requiring global action. 

This is why a strategy for bringing the climate movement into the ranks of the workers movement, and workers into the ranks of the climate movement is an urgent priority, in order to undercut the need for potentially divisive tactics. 

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) drawing closer, it is urgent that a strategy to achieve this is underway. Those thousands of young workers who are attracted to the climate movement, including XR, should seriously discuss and consider entering into trade unions, to organise their colleagues, push climate issues into the workplace and build, not just for lunch-time protests around COP26 (although that would be a step), but for economic strikes which can paralyse the system. If mass action of this type were organised and the anger seen among young climate activists harnessed in this direction, world leaders would be utterly humiliated by the clear message that it is us, the majority, that have the true power to show them up.

Unfortunately, many of the existing union leaders have so far adopted a conservative approach towards leading members into strikes. But a fighting campaign to actively recruit and push for workers’ climate action, using that huge pool of people drawn to action, actively coordinating with students in the schools, colleges and universities, would have a huge potential power, not just to build along the lines of the 2019 global strikes, but to go above and beyond it at COP26 and after.

Rank-and-file union members and students are going to have to organise themselves to take the initiative, to organise together to fight for this, given how little action tends to come from the top. A big part of this will be supporting existing fights, both of workers striking uniting their struggles across sectors, as well as students and young people organising against racism and oppression wherever they see it. This means striking across sectors for climate action, but also to improve working conditions, reduce emissions and make the real polluters pay.

Many of the most important disputes taking place among the trade unions right now involve workers who will have the most vital role to play in any transition to a green, zero-carbon economy. When we see workers in transport, in energy (including among workers in the fossil fuel industry), we need to demand investment into green energy, along with retraining for workers to prevent the attack of workers’ standards of living while lockdown draws to a close. 

Militant campaigns for green energy infrastructure projects could create masses of skilled, green jobs on decent union rates of pay. With a movement of workers and young people armed with socialist and anti-capitalist ideas and ready to take on the capitalist class and their system, we would be able to fight for an economy and society based on public ownership and democratic control over key corporations, banks, energy companies and agribusiness. But this will only be achieved with a movement that has an orientation to the working class, which means avoiding the trap of blaming workers for this crisis.