By Camilla Royle
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 445

What kind of climate movement do we need?

This article is over 5 years, 3 months old
Camilla Royle looks at the new climate activism
Issue 445

Last month cyclone Idai struck land near the coastal city of Beira in Mozambique. One of the worst cyclones ever to hit the southern hemisphere, the storm has been devasting. At the time of writing the death toll stands at around 700 across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, but the full extent of the killing will only be known when the flood waters recede. Survivors were still waiting to be rescued from trees and rooftops a week later and many were left without enough food and drinking water.

The history of Beira illustrates the changes this region of Africa has gone through over the past century. Formerly a Portuguese colony, Mozambique won independence in 1975 after a revolutionary struggle and following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. But the city of Beira was left in ruins by a civil war that only ended in 1992 and the country remains one of the poorest in the continent. Now 90 percent of Beira is destroyed. Climate change risks shattering the hopes of Africans for a better future.

The deadly cyclone gives a taste of things to come. Global temperatures are already rising and the past five years have been the hottest five years on record. In late 2015, when world leaders gathered in Paris for the annual UN climate talks, they agreed to try to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But we have already passed the 1°C point.

Tropical cyclones

In 2018 the temperature of the oceans was also the warmest ever recorded, which can increase the size, intensity and amount of rainfall from tropical cyclones, turning catastrophes like Idai into more frequent events.

A report released by scientists of the International Panel on Climate change in October 2018 made clear the action needed to keep temperatures within that 1.5°C target. Carbon pollution would need to be cut by 45 percent by 2030 — leaving less than 12 years now.

But governments everywhere are failing to take the kind of action needed. Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro are sceptical about global warming. Bolsonaro has refused to host the next round of UN talks, stating that Brazil “does not owe the world anything” when it comes to the environment. He has also pressed ahead with plans to turn more of the Amazon into cattle ranches and soya plantations.

Even in the UK, committed on paper to the aims of the Paris Accord, the Tory government has supported airport expansion and new nuclear power. As communities secretary, Sajid Javid overturned a local council’s decision in order to allow fracking — a form of extreme energy involving extracting shale gas from underground rocks — at Preston New Road in Lancashire. Chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget statement in the autumn did not even mention climate change.

But the ever more visible threat of climate change, combined with anger at the lack of action, has produced a cascade of resistance. One of the first protests in the US after Trump’s inauguration was a huge march over climate change, supported by anti-racist organisations, indigenous people and trade unions as well as environmental organisations from the long-established Sierra Club to newer, grassroots movements.

In Britain, the Campaign against Climate Change (CaCC) has been central to organising annual demonstrations on the issue, including at the time of the Paris talks. Importantly, it has a trade union group that works to win the argument for climate jobs within the union movement. When wind turbine workers at Vestas on the Isle of Wight occupied their factory in 2009 to try to stop it from closing, the group was crucial to organising solidarity. In December last year the CaCC worked with a range of activists including those from a newer group, Extinction Rebellion (XR) to organise a march through central London.

Launched in October 2018, XR is ultimately linked to Compassionate Revolution, a not for profit company set up in 2015 by activists who had been involved in the Occupy! Movement. But it has seen its numbers swell dramatically in the past few months and now has groups in 27 countries.

XR calls on the government to tell the truth about the climate emergency and to act accordingly. In its first open letter it declared that the government, by not carrying out its duty to protect its citizens, had broken its part of the social contract. So people should not be obliged to uphold our side of the deal and should take part in civil disobedience. Members of XR are often willing to get arrested when taking part in direct actions such as blocking roads and bridges and the entrances to buildings. They organise on an open, mass basis with up to 6,000 involved in some of their actions and they are strictly non-violent. Another of their key demands is for a Citizens’ Assembly involving climate scientists.

Assertiveness and creativity

The assertiveness and creativity of the group, its willingness to welcome everyone and its use of a striking logo and artwork make XR an exciting new presence in the environmental movement. It plans to escalate its programme of direct action from 15 April.

Also refreshing is XR’s unwillingness to place blame on individuals and its focus on attacking the government and the biggest companies rather than promoting lifestyle change. However, there are debates among activists associated with the group, for example around the police — are they friends or foes? This partly reflects the diversity of opinion that has always existed among environmentalists — the people involved are from a range of political persuasions from radical to liberal.

In Britain the other prominent new development has been the school strikes. On 15 February some 10,000 school students, with an average age between 13 and 17, skipped school and congregated in Parliament Square in central London, and there were big protests in many other towns and cities across the country. The following month the protests were even bigger. The school students were joined by hundreds of university students and they marched around central London and sat down on Westminster Bridge.

The school strikes are part of an international movement that has spread to hundreds of cities worldwide. They are inspired by Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who started the protests by taking every Friday off school to sit outside the Swedish parliament with a “school strike for climate” placard. The sense of urgency is expressed by the teenagers themselves, by Thunberg’s statement: “Why should we be studying for a future that soon may be no more?” and the British school students chanting “don’t wanna die; don’t wanna die” on their way to Westminster.

The school students have been condemned by Tory politicians and commentators such as Toby “toadmeister” Young who patronisingly said they were being fed “fake news” and “crude propaganda” and that Thunberg (who has Asperger syndrome) is “living on another planet”.

The protests over climate change should give hope to everyone, whether they have campaigned over this issue for years or are new to environmental activism. They are radicalising very quickly. Many of those taking part rightly blame the government for the problem and questions often arise about why MPs spend all their time discussing Brexit when climate change is a more urgent issue.

Interestingly, neither XR nor the school strikes are particularly associated with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. But there have been chants of “Oh! Jeremy Corbyn” on the demonstrations. When asked his view by the Guardian, Corbyn supported the school strikers unconditionally.

The slogan “system change, not climate change” is also incredibly popular on these protests. Although not all young people have a clear idea yet of how capitalism functions, there is a general recognition that something is very wrong with how the world works and change needs to be fundamental.

They are absolutely right to blame the system. As socialists we can point to how capitalism puts profit before the lives of ordinary people, how governments have been willing to go to war in order to defend access to fossil fuels and how, when refugees attempt to flee the effects of climate change, our governments will slam the doors shut. This is why it was important that the CaCC worked with Friends of the Earth and the anti-racist movement to hold a very successful conference in 2017 on climate refugees.

We should also defend and develop our own analysis of the environmental destructiveness of capitalism. It is driven by competition and exploitation and fossil fuels are central to how capitalism works. If the oil and gas companies fail to explore for more fossil fuels, they risk their shareholders moving their investment somewhere else. These companies have access to reserves of fossil fuels in the ground. It is obvious that it should be there. But these companies can make huge profits from extracting and burning, so they have an incredible vested interest in doing so.

Short-term profit

Capitalism is a system that puts short-term profit before the long-term interests of humanity, producing vast amounts of goods that are not needed, causing crises of overproduction as well as huge quantities of waste.

The past year has also seen various attempts to force governments to act with new legislation. In the US, Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise youth movement have been central to a campaign for a Green New Deal (GND). This would involve a rapid shift towards renewables in order to cut carbon emissions and create jobs. It would mean government intervention in industry on a scale not seen since the Second World War, toppling the argument that the market knows best. Some versions of the GND aim to reduce emissions to zero within the next ten years.

On 26 March the GND was debated in the US Senate in a vote triggered by Republicans in an effort to force the Democratic senators to declare their support or opposition. The proposal was viciously ridiculed by the Republican senators. It was voted down by 57 votes to 0 — three Democratic senators joined the Republicans in voting against, all the others voted “present”, effectively abstaining following Ocasio-Cortez’s advice as they felt the vote had been set up to avoid a full debate.

Logic of austerity

However, the issue of a GND is likely to reappear, especially as it is supported by several Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidency. There is also now a movement inside the British Labour Party, Labour for a GND, to push the party to adopt a similar strategy and to counter the logic of austerity by investing in climate jobs, which has been a demand of the climate change movement for years.

Marxist sociologist John Bellamy Foster has said he is impressed by Ocasio-Cortez’s proposals and praises her sense of urgency. However, as he points out, the plan will come to nothing unless it is the spark for a revolutionary mobilisation that could transform society. Others see it as a form of green capitalism that avoids the real cause of the problem and that risks drawing activists into the structures of the Democratic Party.

In Britain, there have been moves by local authorities to declare a climate emergency. Starting with Bristol and Manchester last year, this movement has spread to more than 40 councils. The London Assembly has called on mayor Sadiq Khan to put together a climate emergency plan for London to be carbon neutral by 2030. However, it is not yet clear what measures Khan will actually take to achieve this. In Manchester the council has disappointingly excluded Manchester Airport from its plan and is actually investing in developing the airport with a new car park.

In Ireland, People Before Profit Deputy Bríd Smith put forward a Climate Emergency Measures Bill to the Dáil (parliament) on 7 February last year that would effectively ban further fossil fuel exploration in Ireland and in all Irish waters. Under pressure from the growing climate change movement, the bill passed its first stage vote in the Dáil. However, Fine Gael (Irish Tories) have succeeded, at the behest of intense lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, in blocking the bill in its Committee Stage. The fate of the bill is not yet decided but it serves as a very important focus for mobilisation and campaigning outside the Dáil and across the country.

People often ask whether climate change can be solved without overthrowing capitalism. But this seems unlikely, given the way that capitalism works and, especially, the centrality of the fossil fuel industry. Members of trade unions should pass motions supporting the school strikes, with the education unions playing a particular role in this, and socialists can organise with others in their local area to call for change at local and national government level. We should fight for the maximum amount of change we can in the here and now.

But we shouldn’t think that climate change can be solved by reforms. And, as the great Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg argued, reformism is not an easier road to the same goal. It aims to make surface modifications to the old society, rather than create a new one. The experience of Ireland shows that, at some point, climate reforms will meet a brick wall as states attempt to block measures that will hurt the profits of the big oil and gas companies. There will need to be a bigger movement outside of parliament to push through legislation such as the Climate Emergency Measures Bill. Organised workers, as the people with the ability ultimately to bring about the change we need should be central to this.

Driven from below

The movement over climate change needs to be driven from below. It needs to threaten governments with revolution if they don’t give us reforms. Luxemburg also said that: “Every legal constitution is the product of a revolution”, so reforms are the symptom of revolutionary movements rather than the other way around. This might seem like an uphill struggle. But history shows that revolutionary movements have arisen rapidly, against the predictions of even their participants. The revolutions across the Middle East in 2010-11 spread quickly and took place in arguably much more difficult conditions than we face in Britain. In 2019 there are new hopes for the region as massive protests and strikes escalate in Sudan and Algeria.

The experience of involvement in these movements can also change how people feel about themselves and their ability to act. People can start to draw the conclusion that ordinary people could run society — and do a much better job. Socialists should not hold back from pointing to capitalism as the problem and to the need for revolution. It is a conclusion that the new generations thrown into the struggle over climate change are increasingly coming to themselves.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance