29 November saw a new round of protests as part of the global #YouthStrike4Climate movement, with hundreds of thousands of school and college students taking action. This year has seen the issue of the climate being catapulted to the centre of discussion. People’s awareness of how severe this crisis is has grown rapidly.
On November 28, the first general election leader’s debate to be devoted solely to the climate crisis was broadcast on channel four.
Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson was a no-show. Appropriately, in his place was a melting ice statue, which generated fury at Tory HQ. In response the Tories took to the press to attack Channel 4 producers for supposedly breaching their ‘impartiality’. But the statue acted as an urgent reminder of how little concern for the future of our planet they have.
Although Boris’s no-show will further damage his credibility among many, he would have come out much worse had he shown up. The Tory strategy so far has been to shield Johnson from public view and to avoid opportunities for his record to be scrutinised. When he makes a rare appearance, his aim is to doggedly repeat the script on ‘getting Brexit done’.
Should Johnson have appeared in this climate debate the outcome would have been a complete embarrassment. Not only would his consistent record of voting against meagre environmental protections in parliament have been brought to light, but the role played by fracking lobbyist Rachel Wolf in the drafting of his manifesto would have also been highlighted. It’s unsurprising that with authors like that, the document offers no way forward for addressing the climate emergency.
This gave Corbyn a great opportunity to show which side Boris really stands on. As he tweeted to him in the morning:
“If I was being funded by the big polluters, I wouldn’t want to take part in the climate debate either”.
Empty phrases and ‘green’ austerity
Given the subject, this debate was clearly going to be seen by the Green Party as a key opportunity to have their voices heard. However, beyond stating that they were the party to talk about the climate ‘before anyone else’, they actually had very little to offer in terms of policies that would benefit working people.
In reality, the Greens have not been the ones to force the issue of climate change onto the political agenda. It was the millions of youth in Britain and elsewhere bravely entering into struggle and staging their walkouts that did so.
It was, however, quite clear from Green Party leader Sian Berry’s performance that the party has begun to feel the pressure of this year of radicalisation around the climate. On a number of occasions, she made a call for a ‘Green New Deal’, echoing the language of the self-described democratic socialist US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). In spite of this, the Greens’ policies fall short of those set out by both AOC and Corbyn.
A key idea put forward in AOC’s proposed Green New Deal is that, by taking measures such as taxing the rich and investing in green jobs, a left government would be able to connect tackling the effects of runaway climate change with ending austerity and providing a decent future for working people. It’s vital that ordinary people are not the ones picking up the tab for a crisis created by the mega-rich elite.
Central to the Green Party’s policies, however, is the call for a ‘carbon tax’. Socialists oppose taxes which fail to take account of a person’s ability to pay. In practice, the Green Party’s proposed carbon tax would mean a tax on the day-to-day lives of working-class people while not actually addressing the root cause of climate catastrophe. By attaching blame to the spending habits of individual consumers, a carbon tax would fail to deliver on decarbonisation, while letting the big polluting companies off the hook.
Even less impressive was the Liberal Democrats’ Jo Swinson. After a car-crash performance on Question Time, she has fallen completely flat. Swinson’s approach was to, yet again, steer all of the issues back to Brexit, peddling the false idea that if a Lib Dem government were to cancel Brexit, this would provide the only safe road towards decarbonisation.
Of course, a Tory Brexit would likely compound the disaster facing our environment, with Johnson happy to make a bonfire out of the limited existing protection laws. We would have to mobilise in our schools, workplaces and trade unions to fight this and to demand the change that’s needed to protect our environment.
But the future of the planet does not hinge on remaining in the capitalist EU – which itself has a tawdry record on environmental issues. Ultimately, it hinges on whether or not we have an economy that is rigged around the interests of an exploiting and polluting capitalist elite, which destroys the planet in its quest for higher profits.
Vote Corbyn – for a Socialist Green New Deal
In contrast to the meaningless platitudes of other parties present, Corbyn’s policies managed to expose the rotten role that big business has played in threatening the future of the planet. He stated the fact that just 100 giant corporations have been responsible for 70% of CO2 emissions since the late 1980s.
While other party leaders bragged about driving their electric cars, Corbyn threw out some of his best and boldest anti-austerity policies. This involved public ownership of the national grid, water companies, along with the supply arms of the ‘big six’ energy giants, while taxing the oil companies to contribute to a £250bn “Green Transformation Fund”. This would make up a “Green Industrial Revolution”, where new policies of public investment would allow for the creation of a million climate jobs in onshore and offshore wind, housing upgrades and electric car production, along with 800,000 apprenticeships.
All of this points in the right direction – of targeting the profits of the capitalist class to invest in a green future. Socialist Alternative has been mobilising and campaigning across the country to deliver a Corbyn-led Labour government. However, there remain some serious limitations to Labour’s manifesto that must be discussed by all those involved in the movement.
During the debate, Corbyn made correct points about the need for a massive expansion of rail networks in Britain and elsewhere. This would be achievable through the nationalisation of the railways. But Corbyn’s current plan is to simply purchase the rail companies at their ‘market value’ once their contracts end.
This means that nationalisation would not be completed until 2030, limiting in terms of speed and scope the plans for the mass expansion of transport that’s needed. What’s more this approach means ripping off the public by paying off the rail bosses whose profits have already been subsidised by taxpayers and commuters for decades.
Instead, a Corbyn-led government should take the rail companies out of private hands and fully nationalise them immediately. Compensation should only be paid on the basis of proven need, for example to smaller shareholders. The owners of the giant rail companies, who have made their profits from bleeding our public services dry should not receive a further penny. To win policies like this, it will be necessary to mobilise workers and youth everywhere, ensuring that these industries could be managed under democratic control and management. In this way, it would be possible to plan the economy in order to meet the needs of working-class people, without destroying the planet.
Corbyn’s manifesto has also watered down some of the policies passed at the recent Labour conference. Instead of adopting the conference’s call for decarbonisation by 2030, Corbyn has only come out in favour of ‘majority’ decarbonisation. It would be entirely possible for a Corbyn government to pledge and deliver on complete decarbonisation by that date. But it would require it to move beyond its list of radical reforms, and instead challenge the existence of the capitalist system as a whole.
What is needed is a socialist Green New Deal, where not only the energy, water and rail companies would be taken into democratic public ownership, but all of the major banks and corporations that dominate the economy. By breaking with this rotten market system, we would be taking the steps necessary to plan for a decent and sustainable future.
Just last month in London, Extinction Rebellion unveiled a banner that read “Climate Struggle = Class Struggle”. This is absolutely correct. Now we must vote for a Corbyn-led Labour government on 12 December, while building a movement that links up strikes of workers and youth. In order to succeed, such a movement would need to be organised around socialist ideas – to finally smash the capitalists’ control over our economy and planet.
The scientific consensus is clear on the likelihood of an impending climate catastrophe. Specialists agree that a global average temperature of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would mark a tipping point. It would trigger an avalanche of immediate effects – melting ice caps leading to rising sea levels, exposing low-altitude cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai to mass flooding and destruction. Fertile land would be devastated, posing the possibility of mass famines in the neocolonial world, which would open a new phase in the global refugee crisis.
In many ways, it is misleading to describe it as a ‘climate crisis’. It is much more than that – it is a crisis of civilisation. Scientists have increasingly referred to our time as the “Anthropocene” – a new stage in the history of Earth’s existence, characterised by ‘human-made’ climate change, posing the possibility of extinction if we don´t take drastic action immediately. We have lived on Earth for hundreds of thousands of years, while capitalism has existed for only a few hundred. It has been the actions of the exploiting class that has done the real damage.
The climate catastrophe is having a hugely politicising effect, ultimately taking a number of forms. The new Fridays for Future movement, kickstarted and spearheaded by Swedish school student Greta Thunberg, has had a tremendous effect. On the 20 September, for the ‘Earth Strike’, around 4 million young people, students and workers staged a global walkout to expose the inaction of world governments in response to the crisis.
Extinction Rebellion’s strategy of using direct action methods to paralyse urban areas has forced the climate to the front of the agenda, pushing parliament to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in May of this year. In spite of increased police repression on their recent ‘October Rebellion’, they have organised mass road blockages and airport occupations, calling on the trade unions for a workers’ day of action on October 12. The ‘rebels’ have exposed the silence of big business politicians and media over the impending catastrophe.
In the US, self-described democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has popularised the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’. While just a few years ago climate change was treated as a secondary issue by Republican and Democrat politicians, AOC’s proposal that a 70% tax rate on millionaires and billionaires could fund well-paid, unionised green jobs has thrust the climate to the centre of political gravity. 64% of US millennials now support the idea of a GND.
The GND’s popularity is fundamentally based on a rejection of the ideas pushed by capitalist politicians – namely that tackling climate change can be reduced to modifying the individual spending habits of consumers, often promoting lifestyle changes that are simply unattainable to most working-class people. The politics of guilt touted by the proponents of ‘green capitalism’ has been rejected by many, in favour of targeting the rich, to make them pay up to address a crisis that they have created.
An equally positive aspect of the GND is how it envisions a radical program that, by eating into the profits of the ruling class, could tackle both the climate crisis and poor living standards among working-class people. AOC sees neoliberal austerity as something that could be tackled alongside the climate catastrophe. This is a hugely promising development that Marxists cannot stand aside from. This is why in the US, Socialist Alternative (sister organisation of SA in England, Wales and Scotland) has been battling Amazon’s rule over Seattle, as part of Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s fight to be re-elected to the City Council under the banner of a “Green New Deal for working people”.
Capitalism is the culprit
The scale of the crisis has forced many young people on the #YouthStrikes to draw increasingly radical conclusions. It is no coincidence, for example, that the dominant slogan emerging out of the strikes across the world has been ‘system change not climate change’. While not all have fully drawn socialist conclusions, anti-capitalist ideas remain extremely popular. Many youth strikers see the ruthless and uncaring nature of the capitalist system as the fundamental driving force of runaway climate change. The fact that just 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of CO2 emissions is widely known and cited among the youth.
These ideas did not come from nowhere. Young people have been left with no option but to draw these conclusions – the inaction of capitalist governments around the world make it obvious. Take the criminal irresponsibility of Bolsonaro’s reactionary government of big business in Brazil, which has granted unprecedented access for corporations to the Amazon rainforest, while wildfires have increased 84% on from last year. Many were outraged when Trump announced his plan to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement; he has ruled out re-joining the Agreement if he wins a second term in 2020. Trump remains in the pocket of the major oil corporations – Exxon, Chevron and BP all donated around $500,000 each to his presidential campaign in 2016.
Equally guilty are all the governments who pay lip service to the need for climate action, but still defend capitalist profits above all. At the September UN Climate Summit, 70 states committed to a goal of net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. But we can’t let ourselves be deceived by this. The ‘net-zero by 2050’ target is grossly inadequate. A widely publicized report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, estimated that at current rates, we will reach temperatures of 1.5°C by 2040. But the reality is that it would most likely be even sooner than that. Even if the 2050 net-zero target was enough to prevent runaway effects, our governments would still be drastically falling short. All scientific reports show the UK government failing to meet its climate target by a long margin. 79.4% of the UK’s energy is still derived from the use of fossil fuels. This is a trend replicated on a global scale. The ten biggest polluting countries in the world emitted roughly 27.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2017, and only one (India) has come anywhere near to meeting its Paris Agreement targets.
The pledges of the sort laid out in Paris are designed to pay homage to the crisis, while member states are not compelled by any binding targets that would push them into confrontation with the major fossil fuel giants. World capitalism can play at looking ecological, while it continues to rapidly undermine the health of the world’s ecosystem.
Labour Party Conference
This radical awakening on the issue of the climate has taken place across many sections of society. The recent Labour Party Conference, for example, saw a grass-roots effort across 128 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) for a motion committing Labour to a Green New Deal. It called for co-operation with specialists and trade unions to work towards a goal of net-zero emissions by 2030. There were further proposals for taxation of the rich, a ban on fracking, along with a program of mass public investment to build high-speed electrified railways. A separate motion had been submitted, calling for a “Socialist Green New Deal”, with the support of the Bakers Union and Fire Brigades Union. This proposed the additional nationalisation of banking and the financial sector, “empowering workers to take action over political and social issues including climate change”. It is very significant that the final motion was overwhelmingly supported, with the added backing of the CWU and TSSA, along with prominent names in Unite and Unison.
It is unsurprising that the FBU gave its endorsement. Intimately tied up with the climate emergency is the global spike in wildfires, which most notably affected Saddleworth Moor, burning 39,537 acres of UK land. The climate emergency is an emergency for those working in the fire service, along with workers in general.
The call for Corbyn to place a GND at the centre of his next election campaign came from what took shape as a rank-and-file revolt. This was seen most vividly when protests held by Labour activists led to the cancellation of a fringe event hosted by fossil fuel giant BP. This upsurge must have a lasting impact on Labour’s climate change policy. It will need a mass movement to start to implement the policies agreed by Labour conference, even if Labour is in power and Corbyn in Number 10. All CLPs should now pass motions, noting the result of the GND vote and keeping on the pressure for Labour to adopt a socialist GND policy.
The push for Corbyn to adopt a radical environmental policy has largely been the work of the ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’ (LGND) group. Emerging out of circles linked with the Momentum left, the group has many positive proposals to make. In an online policy paper, titled A just transition to well-paid, unionised, green jobs, they make the case for a ‘just transition’ that would have to be “fundamentally worker-led”.
Equally worthy of support is LGND’s proposals for a break from a neo-liberal model, to nationalise the energy and water companies, for instance. They have called for a program of mass investment in democratically-run public transport, and for it to be expanded beyond the skeletal service provided to people today. We would equally support their call for the scrapping of Thatcher’s anti-union laws.
As LGND’s website puts it, they “envision a prosperous, socialist, zero-carbon society as the alternative to our current world ridden with political economic and ecological crises”. We would mirror these words completely. But their current program, if adopted by a Corbyn government, would still ultimately leave capitalism intact. Another policy paper of theirs, entitled Expanding public, democratic ownership makes this clear. They make many correct statements, for instance that “The prevailing neo-liberal ideologies of private ownership, value extraction and profit maximisation form the root of the crises we face of climate change, economic inequality, housing, biodiversity, and international and intergenerational inequity”. But it proposes policies that would only superficially break from the mould of big business politics.
The same is the case with the ideas coming from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has floated the idea that nationalising the national grid in of itself would be enough for a Labour government to oversee a program of rapid decarbonisation. An issue to consider, however, is the scale of the task involved. To transition to zero or net-zero by 2030, while reskilling the relevant sectors of the workforce for green jobs would take a gigantic level of planning that the capitalist system could never deliver on. The financing of such a huge task would inevitably put a strain on the pockets of the mega-rich, hitting the profits of some of the most powerful and polluting companies in energy, finance and land. These companies dominate capitalism as a whole and their bosses will fight any serious attempts at the kind of planning necessary for full decarbonisation. This was made very clear in a recent issue of the Financial Times (24 September), which quoted an unnamed representative of the Confederation of British Industry, who declared that big business saw “no credible pathway” to decarbonisation by 2030.
While the ruling class cheers on the vague idea of ‘net-zero by 2050’, it rejects any radical program that would let us decarbonise before the tipping point of 1.5°C is reached. The fact that they dismiss this as ‘unrealistic’ (unprofitable) says a lot about how the capitalist economy functions. This stage in world history is one where the capitalists of each country act in constant fear of being outcompeted by rival profit-seekers. This leads the ruling class to push the state to act in their interests, not those of people and the planet. So it would not be enough for a Labour government to simply stick to the goal of reforming capitalism.
Any government that took the radical steps outlined by LGND would have to accompany it with a wider program of public ownership. This could guarantee a high level of investment in green, free and accessible public transport, replacing the widespread reliance on personal vehicles, along with the building of ecological council houses. This could only be achieved as part of a wider democratic socialist plan, which would use the world’s resources in a rational and sustainable way.
Socialist Alternative is a democratic, revolutionary socialist organisation. We are made up of youth, working people and students, fighting in our unions, communities, workplaces and campuses to build action necessary to bring down the Tories and the fossil fuel giants. Join us today!
What we stand for
A socialist government to bring the automotive, shipbuilding, aerospace and agricultural and food industries, along with the banks and major corporations, into democratic public ownership. Compensation to be paid out only on the basis of proven need. Nothing for the big capitalists.
A research and development plan, with full trade union and worker involvement, to oversee a reduction in polluting / emitting industries, in order to maintain skill levels and re-deploy workers into useful and well-paid employment
A massive program of public works to oversee the reduction of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and to remediate damage to the environment. For a plan to rewild and reforest green space through the nationalisation of land, removing control from the major landlords and land-owning companies.
For publicly-owned industries to be managed democratically, forming elected bodies of workers, consumers and trade unions in each sector. For a plan of sustainable agriculture to be drawn up by committees of farm workers, small farmers and elected specialists.
Capitalism is an international system. For a global fightback of workers and youth against this system which means ecological destruction, exploitation and oppression. For world socialist revolution to save the planet!
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