Unite union leader on the struggle against climate change, and for socialism
Mike Treen on the picket line. If trade unions take up the challenge, they could become “the voice for a boldly different economic model, one that provides solutions to the attacks on working people, on poor people, and the attacks on the Earth itself".
By Mike Treen, national director of the Unite union (New Zealand)
December 2, 2013 -- Daily Blog, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- The continuing pretense that world governments will do anything about climate change was exposed once more at the latest round of climate negotiations held in Poland November 11-22. This was the 19th round of annual negotiations.
It is 21 years since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Emissions are 60-70% higher than they were then. Global warming has proceeded at an accelerating pace. As a great article by economic historian Richard Smith notes:
For all the climate summits, promises of “voluntary restraint,” carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have not just been unceasing, they have been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.” In the early 1960s, CO2 ppm [parts per mllion] concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7 ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1 ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74 ppm compared to last year.
2013 is looking like it will be the seventh warmest since records began to be collected in 1850. The 10 warmest have all occurred since 1998.
In September the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report – the fifth since 1990. These must be adopted by consensus so conclusions tend to be moderated by that fact. This report is the most strongly worded yet and calls the evidence of climate change “unequivocal”. Among the effects if emissions aren’t curtailed are an irreversible rise in sea levels, mass species extinction, ocean acidification, more extreme weather events and the list continues.
The IPCC report removes any ambiguity from which specific types of human activity lie at the root of these changes:
The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40 percent since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30 percent of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.
The report recommends that a carbon budget for the Earth be established to prevent going beyond the 2 degrees Celsius rise in average temperatures, which is the widely accepted “tipping point” for serious and prolonged damage to life on Earth. It is also feared that beyond that point additional feedback mechanism’s kick in – melting of the subarctic tundra or thawing and releasing vast quantities of methane in the Arctic sea bottom – that will accelerate the warming process and put in question the survival of the human species.
The the carbon consumption number the IPCC report says can’t be exceeded is 1 trillion metric tonnes being burned and released into the atmosphere. But the New York Times reports that we have already burned half that amount since the beginning of the industrial revolution and at current consumption rates the 1 millionth tonne will be burned by 2040 according to one of the reports authors.
Last year, fossil fuel corporations spent $674 billion scouring the Earth for new deposits of coal, oil and gas. As the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012 reported, “Despite the growth in low-carbon sources of energy, fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30 percent on 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables.” This year 1200 coal-burning power stations are under construction.
Other recent extreme weather events confirm the fact that disasters that are happening now are linked to climate change. Speaking to the Warsaw conference UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted:
Warmer ocean surface temperatures and higher sea levels contributed to the strength of Typhoon Haiyan and the devastation it caused the Philippines. This disaster is more than a wake-up call. It is a very serious alarm. Typhoon Haiyan puts an anguished human face on our struggle to combat the extreme weather and other consequences of climate change.
In late October researchers from the University of Colorado released a study that showed the warming of the Canadian Arctic in the last 100 years was without precedent in the past 44,000 years – and possibly 120,000 years. The main author, Professor Gifford Miller, said: “This study really says the warming we are seeing is outside of any kind of known natural variability, and it has to be due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
Not surprisingly many scientists are saying that it is already too late to prevent such temperature increases. Even the World Bank is predicting a 4 degrees Celsius average temperature rise by 2060.
A pair of climate scientists in the UK were featured recently in an article by Naomi Klein headlined “How Science is Telling Us All to Revolt”. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research argue that avoiding a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise will require a “revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony”. Because the existing system is actually already on course for a greater than 2 degree Celsius change this will need to involve a “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”.
As Naomi Klein notes this is all fine but we live in a system of capitalism that “fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted). So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.”
The article by Richard Smith that I quoted earlier gives a compelling description of why capitalism as a system is incompatible with the the planet. It is excerpted from a longer essay published in the Real-World Economic Review which I encourage those interested to study.
Why are we marching toward disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative — impossible as this may seem right now — is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an eco-socialist civilization.
Although we are fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world we are witnessing a near simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening” — as the Brazilians call it — from Tahir Square to Zucotti Park, from Athens to Istanbul to Beijing and beyond such as the world has never seen. To be sure, like Occupy Wall Street, these movements are still inchoate, are still mainly protesting what’s wrong rather than fighting for an alternative social order. Like Occupy, they have yet to clearly and robustly answer that crucial question: “Don’t like capitalism, what’s your alternative?” Yet they are working on it, and they are for the most part instinctively and radically democratic; in this lies our hope.
Trade unions and climate change
Why all this is important to the trade union movement is explained by Naomi Klein in a wonderful speech she gave on September 1 this year to the founding conference of UNIFOR, a new mega union created by the Canadian Autoworkers and the Canadian Energy and Paper Workers Union. In it she challenges the union movement to take up the issue of climate change because it poses the need to change the free-market capitalist system and workers have a stake in that struggle.
Namoi Klein points out that she has written a lot about what is wrong with the system today. Her book The Shock Doctrine, she says, “argues that over the past 35 years, corporate interests have systematically exploited various forms of mass crises – economic shocks, natural disasters, wars – in order to ram through policies that enrich a small elite, by shredding regulations, cutting social spending and forcing large-scale privatizations”.
She said all that remains true and is continuing in Canada and the rest of the capitalist world. However it is not enough to expose and denounce. It is not enough to protest. We need an alternative. “We can’t just reject the dominant story about how the world works. We need our own story about what it could be. We can’t just reject their lies. We need truths so powerful that their lies dissolve on contact with them. We can’t just reject their project. We need our own project.”
Climate change she says give us the arguments we need for that project:
So I want to offer you what I believe to be the most powerful counter-narrative to that brutal logic that we have ever had.
Here it is: our current economic model is not only waging war on workers, on communities, on public services and social safety nets. It’s waging war on the life support systems of the planet itself. The conditions for life on earth.
Climate change. It’s not an “issue” for you to add to the list of things to worry about it. It is a civilizational wake up call. A powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, storms and droughts – telling us that we need an entirely new economic model, one based on justice and sustainability.
Taking up the climate fight doesn’t mean the unions should drop any of their existing concerns or struggles.
My argument is that the climate threat makes the need to fight austerity all the more pressing, since we need public services and public infrastructure to both bring down our emissions and prepare for the coming storms.
Far from trumping other issues, climate change vindicates much of what the left has been demanding for decades.
In fact, climate change turbo-charges our existing demands and gives them a basis in hard science. It calls on us to be bold, to get ambitious, to win this time because we really cannot afford any more losses. It enflames our vision of a better world with existential urgency.
What I’m going to show you is that confronting the climate crisis requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook – and that we do so with great urgency…..
It should be clear by now that I am not suggesting some half-assed token “green jobs” program. This is a green labour revolution I’m talking about. An epic vision of healing our country from the ravages of the last 30 years of neoliberalism and healing the planet in the process.
Environmentalists can’t lead that kind of revolution on their own. No political party is rising to the challenge. We need you to lead.
If UNIFOR as a union takes up that challenge, Naomi Klein believes it could become “the voice for a boldly different economic model, one that provides solutions to the attacks on working people, on poor people, and the attacks on the Earth itself, then you can stop worrying about your continued relevance. You will be on the front lines of the fight for the future, and everyone else – including the opposition parties – will have to follow or be left behind.”
Naomi had another useful piece of advice that we should heed. She argued that a key to the shift needed by the unions in Canada was
deepening your alliance with First Nations, whose constitutionally guaranteed title to land and resources is the biggest legal barrier [Canada's Premier Stephen] Harper faces to his vision of Canada as an extraction and export machine – a country-sized sacrifice zone. As my friend Clayton Thomas Mueller says, imagine if the workers and First Nations actually joined forces in a meaningful coalition – the rightful owners of the land, side by side with the people working the mines and pipelines, coming together to demand another economic model? People and the earth itself on one side, predatory capitalism on the other. The Harper Tories wouldn’t know what hit them.
Latin American example
The final point I want to argue is that this merger of the workers' movement, socialism, the Indigenous rising to protect Mother Earth is at the heart of the transformative struggles being waged today in Latin America. Those struggles too we need to study.
The governments of Bolivia and Venezuela in particular have given a lead to the left and progressive movement world wide on why protecting the Earth and protecting capitalism are incompatible objects. They have stood with the poor and oppressed of the world in resistance to demands that they submit to the exploitation and destruction of their countries by wealthy imperialist countries and corporations. Just this week Venezuela lead a walkout of 133 developing nations from the talks in Poland over the refusal by the rich nations to accept any historical responsibility for the climate changes that have occurred already.
The system running the planet is incompatible with long-term survival of our species. Capitalism as Karl Marx explained long ago is a system of expanded reproduction. What many people don’t realise is that much of what Marx wrote in his famous work Capital was on why capitalism grew in the way that it did. He explained that capitalism could not exist except in a perpetual growth cycle. These cycles are punctuated by periodic recessions and depressions but growth is relentless and perpetual until the planet is destroyed or we destroy capitalism.
The industrialised consumer societies aren’t just over-consuming fossil fuels we’re over-consuming everything. As Richard Smith explains in his paper:
Between 1950 and 2000 the global human population more than doubled from 2.5 to 6 billion, but in these same decades consumption of major natural resources soared more than 6 fold on average, some much more. Natural gas consumption grew nearly 12 fold, bauxite (aluminum ore) 15 fold. And so on. At current rates, Harvard biologist E.O Wilson says that “half the world’s great forests have already been leveled and half the world’s plant and animal species may be gone by the end of this century.”
From fish to forests, minerals to metals, oil to fresh water, we’re consuming the planet like there’s no tomorrow. Ecological “footprint” scientists tell us that we in the industrialized nations are now consuming resources and sinks at the rate of 1.5 planets per year, that is, we’re using natural resources like fish, forests, water, farmland, and so on at half-again the rate that nature can replenish them.
But Richard Smith also notes there is a enormous class bias in this consumption.
According to the World Bank, the wealthiest 10% of the world’s people account for almost 60% of consumption expenditures and the top 20% account for more than 76% of global consumption whereas the
bottom 40% of the world’s population account for just 5%. Even the bottom 70% of the world’s population account for barely 15.3% of global consumption expenditures. Needless to say, those 70% want and deserve a higher material standard of living. Yet if the whole world were to achieve this by consuming like Americans, we would need something like five more planets worth of natural resources and sinks for all of that. Think what this means.
There is no technical solution. There is no market solution. We have to rethink what and why we produce, where we produce, how we produce, how we transport things and people. We need a new system that is based of democratic decision making for these questions.
Major monopolies and sectors vital to the economy should be under public ownership and control. Workers and consumers must be involved in the boards making decisions on day-to-day operations. Decisions need to be made to eliminate all destructive and wasteful production – including the military. Industries devoted to making us consume for consumption's sake (advertising, most marketing) should simply be closed down. Public transport needs to replace cars for most trips. Production and consumption should be localised wherever possible. Housing should be well insulated and affordable. Food should be healthy and cheap. But it all requires a plan. And plans are best if they are democratically debated and decided.
By embracing the fight against climate change we need to explain that this is a fight for a new world that restores the balance between Mother Earth and our needs as a species. But those needs will not be determined by the number of commodities we can consume but by the real needs we have for meaningful work, human relationships not based on exploitation and oppression, cooperation not competition, education for its own sake, creative labour and culture available to all to participate and create.
Marx called this a society of associated producers where “the free development of each was the condition for the free development of all” – a socialist society.
That is a world worth fighting for. And all around the globe millions of people are mobilising against what the current system is doing to us. People are saying another world is possible. We need to be looking for every opportunity to link hands in solidarity – in our local communities, in our workplaces and across the globe – with a vision of what that world could look like.