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Trade unions must join the fight against climate change

Ian Angus speaking at the Climate Change Social Change conference. Photo by Alex Bainbridge.

September 29, 2011 -- Climate and Capitalism, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Ian Angus, editor of Climate and Capitalism, is currently in Australia to speak at the Climate Change Social Change conference in Melbourne, September 30 – October 3.

During his pre-conference speaking tour, he was invited to address several meetings of trade union members. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the opening comments he made at union meetings in Melbourne and Geelong.

[For more articles by Ian Angus, click HERE.]

* * *

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

This week, in Canada, hundreds of people gathered on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa,  to support a civil disobedience action against the environmental crime known as the Alberta Tar Sands, and the related Keystone XL pipeline.

The action was supported by the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union, the National Union of Public and General Employees, the Indigenous Environmental Movement, Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians and other groups.

One of the first of more than a hundred people arrested for crossing the police barrier was Dave Coles, president of the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union.

This is just one example of the participation of trade unionists around the world in the fight against global warming. I’d like to start off our discussion today with some comments on why a growing number of working people are coming to see global warming as a trade union issue.

* * *

A few weeks ago, a headline in the New York Times read, “Even Marked Up, Luxury Goods Fly Off Shelves”.

The article was about the shopping habits of the very rich, in the midst of the Great Recession, at a time when official unemployment in the US is over 9%, and real unemployment is at least twice that high. Here are some excerpts:

Nordstrom has a waiting list for a Chanel sequined tweed coat with a $9,010 price.

Neiman Marcus has sold out in almost every size of Christian Louboutin “Bianca” platform pumps, at $775 a pair.

Mercedes-Benz said it sold more cars last month in theUnited Statesthan it had in any July in five years. …

Tiffany’s first-quarter sales were up 20 percent to $761 million.

Last week LVMH, which owns expensive brands like Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, reported sales growth in the first half of 2011 of 13 percent to 10.3 billion euros, or $14.9 billion. …

BMW this week said it more than doubled its quarterly profit from a year ago as sales rose 16.5 percent; Porsche said its first-half profit rose 59 percent; and Mercedes-Benz said July sales of its high-end S-Class sedans — some of which cost more than $200,000 — jumped nearly 14 percent in the United States.

The article notes that while this is going on, Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the US, has started selling toilet paper one roll at a time, because many customers cannot afford the usual multi-roll packages.

For me, that New York Times article calls to mind a vitally important word that is missing from almost all of the hundreds of books that have been written about global warming and the global environmental crisis.

The word is class.

In the world’s richest country. a handful of people buy $9000 coats and 200,000 cars, while millions can’t afford toilet paper.

That’s a sign of the deep class divide that separates rich from poor, powerful from powerless, exploiters from exploited, bosses from working people.

  • The richest 5% of Americans own more than everyone else in the US combined.
  • Here in Australia, eleven very rich individuals own more than the country’s 800,000 poorest households combined.
  • The 147 richest people in the world have total wealth equal to the total annual income of half of the world’s entire population.

And yet one of the most common themes in articles about the environmental crisis is that WE are all in this together, WE are all responsible for destroying the earth.

You know, whenever someone says “we are all in this together”, you can be sure that they want you to suffer and pay for a problem that someone else caused. And that’s the case today with global warming.

The huge BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred while Simon Butler and I were writing our new book, Too Many People? 

Almost immediately there were articles in major newspapers claiming that WE were responsible for the disaster, because WE love cars and WE are addicted to oil.

We couldn’t resist paraphrasing one of Bob Dylan’s early songs – “No, No, No, It ain’t WE, babe.”

Global warming and environmental destruction are not caused by working people.

They are caused by the rich, both as super-consumers and, even more importantly, through their control of the corporations that produce the immense majority of greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.

Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, puts it this way:

The 3 billion poorest people … emit essentially nothing.

In contrast, the rich are really spectacular emitters ….

The top 500 million people [about 8 per cent of humanity] emit half the greenhouse emissions.

These people are really rich by global standards.

Every single one of them earns more than the average American …

And yet many environmentalists insist that working people are the cause of global warming, that the solution is for us to lower our living standards, give up our cars, and pay carbon taxes.

In reality, individual activity isn’t driving climate change, and changes in individual behaviour – however morally appropriate – will not save the world.

Let me illustrate this with an example from my home country.

75% of the electricity produced in Alberta, the third-largest Canadian province, comes from five coal-fired plants.

Those five plants together produce more greenhouse gas emissions every year than 4 million automobiles.

If those plants were replaced by renewable energy sources – if Alberta implemented the Beyond Zero Emissions plan that has been recommended in Australia – Alberta’s total emissions would drop dramatically.

And what’s more, the emissions attributed to individuals and households would fall dramatically, because they would be getting their electricity from green sources.

But if the electricity business continues as usual, individuals and families in Alberta can not possibly live carbon-free lives.

Alberta is also the site of what has been called the biggest ecological crime in history, the Tar Sands.

In addition to physically destroying an area twice as large as Tasmania, poisoning the land and the Athabaska River, this project generates more than three times as much greenhouse gas per barrel as conventional oil.

Our Conservative federal government, which isn’t given to pro-environmental exaggeration, estimates that by 2020 the Tar Sands will produce more greenhouse gases than every car and truck in all ofCanada.

So long as the Tar Sands projects exist, trying to solve global warming by persuading individual drivers to ride bicycles is like fighting cancer by getting a haircut.

It may make some cosmetic difference, but it leaves the disease untouched.

 * * *

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to live greener lives. Of course we should. But we must understand that while there are things that individuals can do, global warming is a social problem, and it can only be solved by social change.

To prevent disaster, we need a new industrial revolution, a new energy revolution. We need to change what we make and how we make it.

Entire industries need to be eliminated and others need to be transformed.

If the necessary economic and social changes are not made, our lives, and even more our children’s lives, will be much harder, much poorer, than they are today.

Our grandchildren may not have an inhabitable world to grow up in.

And that means that global warming is a trade union issue. It is an issue that directly affects working people, and it can only be stopped if the workers’ organisations join and lead the fight to end it.

If we leave this issue to the bosses, to the corporations and politicians who profit from the existing system, the changes will be inadequate – and they will put the entire burden on working people.

The rich will reap the profits, they’ll continue to live in gated communities and air conditioned mansions, while we pay the price.

The trade union movement must take this challenge on – or working people will be the victims of climate change.

One powerful example is in Britain, where trade unionists in the climate change movement are promoting a call for One Million Climate Jobs [also available here]. Not just loosely defined “green jobs” that clean up the mess while leaving the causes untouched, but specifically climate jobs.

  • Jobs building new energy sources and a new energy grid.
  • Jobs retrofitting homes and offices for energy efficiency.
  • Jobs expanding public transport and railroads.
  • And more

In their document calling for One Million Climate Jobs they have documented just what has to be done, and what it will cost. They have shown that it is possible, and affordable and essential.

This campaign takes the concept of a “just transition” into new territory – not just protecting current income, but actually fighting for a union-initiated transition to a new kind of economy.

The campaign is supported by the Public and Commercial Services Union, the University and College Union, the Communication Workers Union and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association.

The pamphlet describing their plan is available online (PDF) – I encourage you to read and circulate it.

It’s a realistic and practical plan – but it won’t happen unless working people fight for it.

I won’t presume to tell you what tactics or demands are appropriate in Australia– you know your situation far better than I. But I will say that the Green Bans of the 1970s were an inspiring example and precedent for green left labour activists around the world.

Whether or not those specific tactics are appropriate today, the simple fact that you carried out that inspiring campaign convinces me that trade unions in Australia can be leaders of the global fight against environmental destruction, that you understand that climate change is a trade union issue and will act accordingly.

As the old song Solidarity Forever says, there can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.

If we unite and mobilise that power, we can save the world.

Thank you.

Comments

Our Climate is everyone's resposibility

Yes.Our Climate is everyone's responsibility. We Working class and our family deserve a healthy environment and a sustainable future.

Class Rhetoric against and/or Climate Jobs under Capitalism?

Great to hear anyone confronting the issue of the union movement and climate change!

I feel guilty for not having myself confronted this earlier. And I therefore hope Ian's contribution will lead to a worldwide dialogue around the matter in and within the union organisations and the labour movement more generally.

Reading Ian's piece, however, the following question arises in my ecologically-underinformed mind. On the one hand it presents the climate crisis in classical class v. class terms, with the rich responsible for and the working poor innocent of this crime, implying the necessity for a surpassal of capitalism. On the other hand it identifies with and lauds the British union call for one million climate jobs, and argues that workers won't need to give up their cars.

Do I here note a tension, not to say a contradiction, in the argument? It seems to be suggesting that we (I am a union member and retired working person) ourselves are not going to have to switch from 'living better to living well' (in the Latin American expression). And that achieving climate-friendly jobs under capitalism can prevent climate change.

I am inclined to thinking that 1) we, as in large part commodified human beings (shopping till we drop), have to, yes, transform ourselves individually and as a class, and that 2) that this requires a surpassing of a capitalist system, implying commodification, exploitation and alienation in its multiple forms.

The challenge is, of course, to link working people where they are (globally, 70-80 percent un-unionised)and as they are with a strategy that is emancipatory in the sense of subverting capitalist civilisation in all its implications - most urgently that of climate catastrophe.

'One Million Climate Jobs' in the UK seems to me a little like the international union call for 'Decent Work'. Neither of these names capitalism. Both inevitably suggest solutions within capitalism. Neither requires of working people the necessary change of consciousness and behaviour. If, as our Latin American companyer@s suggest, it is a whole civilisation that is in crisis, then we need to demonstrate this in our analyses and strategies.

I recognise that this is difficult but it is increasingly unavoidable. The connection between contemporary working class consciousness and behaviour, on the one hand, and species existence, on the other, needs to be made explicit. Whilst, as I said at the beginning, Ian's piece is welcome, I am wondering whether it is sufficient.

Finally, I cannot even imagine trade unions leading the fight against climate change. The trade unions will have to be reinvented in the light being presently shone by the ecological and other emancipatory social movements - and in the realisation, as suggested above, that the overwhelming majority of working people lie (increasingly stand) outside their limited ranks.

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