A placard from a demonstration which says 'climate justice = social justice'.

Climate breakdown is a class and union issue


Our members, communities, and entire society are threatened by the breakdown of the climactic conditions that allow us to live.

By Paul Atkin

Our members, communities, and entire society are threatened by the breakdown of the climactic conditions that allow us to live. On current policies we are heading for an average increase in global temperatures of around 3.6C. Unless the scale and pace of these polices are qualitatively increased we face climate tipping points, at which the impact of the damage leads to runaway effects that are beyond our control.

The UN International Panel on Climate Change has stated unequivocally that –

1. No new fossil fuel exploration and development is compatible with keeping the increase in global average temperatures below 1.5C

2. That current targets set at Net Zero by 2050 for developed countries and 2060 for the Global South are ten years behind the curve. That means that, for the UK, we have 17 years to get there not 27.

Globally, governments are investing just over $1 trillion a year in the energy transition. We need to be investing $4 trillion.

The scale of investment is greatest in China, then in the two great concentrations of Global North wealth, the USA and EU. Chinese investment is at about the level needed. It is 70% greater than the US and EU combined, so the world’s wealthiest centres are lagging. The Global South is struggling because access to finance is much more expensive, climate impacts are already hammering their economies (with an impact of 5-15% of GDP in Africa for example) and the Global North has utterly failed to provide the support of $100 billion a year they promised; let alone what’s needed. The $100 billion would be less than an eighth of the current US military budget.

In the UK, there is a combined problem of a Conservative government, whose MPs abstained on the 2019 Commons motion declaring a climate emergency, and an economic and political dominance of the private sector; in which profits are considered an imperative, but sustainability is seen as an optional frill for marketing purposes.

The dominant fossil fuel interests here have just been allowed windfall profits from rising energy prices instead of being taxed 100% on them, with the proceeds used to hasten the transition to renewable energy and home insulation.

With only 5% of FTSE 100 companies having a Net Zero plan compatible with UK government guidelines, and the big energy companies like Shell and BP guilty of having suppressed information that they had about climate impacts, in much the same way as tobacco and asbestos companies did about the link between their products and cancer, with all of them planning big increases in oil and gas exploration that bulge well outside the fig leaves provided by their token renewables divisions, it is obvious that the transition we need will not be made if power over power is left in their hands.

The current government have a well organised cadre of climate change denying backbenchers linked to Tufton Street think tanks which includes Ministers like Kemi Badenoch. As one spokesperson for her Department for Business and Trade said: “There are various think tanks in Westminster that have sceptical views about climate change and ministers meet these people all the time”. This is no accident. Climate change is a class question.

It is the overconsumption and enormous carbon footprints of the top 10%, anyone on more than about £80,000 a year, that is taking us beyond 1.5C. The carbon footprints of the poorest 50%, almost all of them in the Global South, is negligible. That of the upper middle 40% – most working class people in the Global North – is going down. Dealing with the climate crisis will be impossible with the scale of inequality we currently have. The idea that living like the rich do is “aspirational” is actually suicidal.

We can’t leave it to them. Its not all in hand or under control. The UK government is adrift of its targets and is trying to meet them in a way that priorities business opportunities instead of emergency planning.

So, organising around this is partly political at national and local levels, partly about organising in workplaces and communities, and partly about linking those up.

We need to think ahead of developments and break with defensiveness. The fight for a just transition is not simply about defending workers in jobs that are threatened by it, vital though that is. We need to lead.

In Katowice, during the COP there in 2018, the local coal miners branch of Solidarnosc, responded to the threat to their jobs by voting that climate change isn’t happening. Which, sadly, won’t stop it. When a union delegate to the Labour Party conference in 2019 argued that getting to Net Zero is unreasonable because it meant we’d have to stop eating meat, flying off on holiday and driving cars, he didn’t reflect that if that is the price needed for a habitable planet for his grandchildren – and broadly speaking it is – then we need to do it; and start organising now to make sure we can.

The TUC has recently appointed 2 Green Bargaining Officers to help workers in high carbon industries to push ahead with collective action to reduce the carbon impact of their work. But workers in all sectors need Green Reps, or Green training for existing Reps and Health and Safety Reps to press employers to reduce carbon impacts of our workplaces, how we travel to and from work. We need just transition task forces at every level, national, regional, local, with union representation as part of the colossal social mobilisation we need.

  • Paul Atkin is the convenor of the NEU Climate Change Network
  • Visit the NEU’s climate change page here
  • The ‘Big One’ is a four-day climate action from the 21st to the 24th April 2023. People from all groups and movements will gather throughout Westminster to demand climate action. Full details here.
  • If you support Labour Outlook’s work amplifying the voices of left movements and struggles in the UK and internationally, please consider becoming a supporter on Patreon.
A placard from a demonstration which says 'climate justice = social justice'.
A placard from a demonstration which says ‘climate justice = social justice’.

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