The Climate Struggle –  a Struggle for Social Power

By Asbjørn Wahl, a trade union adviser, recently retired climate change spokesman of the International Transport Workers Federation, writer and Norwegian political activist.  He is a keynote speaker at the Socialist Solutions to Climate Change taking place in Edinburgh on Saturday 29th June.

Humanity is currently faced with a number of deep and challenging crises: economic, social, political, over food – and, of course, over climate change, which is threatening the very existence of millions of people. 

These crises have many of the same root causes, going to the core of our economic system. Both the economic crisis and the climate crisis are thus embedded parts of the capitalist economy. 

A system which is geared toward making profits rather than producing use values; dependent on economic growth (capitalism without growth is capitalism in crisis); a system exploiting workers and over-exploiting natural resources – one that is also about to destroy planet earth as a place to live for future generations.

However, this multiplicity of crises does not only represent a threat, but also an opportunity. It can contribute to strengthening the mobilisation of social forces needed to break the current trend – in favour of a democratic and planned development of society.

Because measures to combat climate change will require great changes in society, we face a major social struggle. A narrow focus on environmental policy issues simply will not suffice. The climate and environmental struggle must therefore be put into a wider political context. 

A system critical approach is needed. Increasingly, our entire social model, the way we produce and consume, is under question. The way out of these crises requires a system change and this can only be achieved if we are able considerably to shift the balance of power in society. 

Agreement, but no solution

At the Paris Summit (COP21 in 2015), the first ever truly global agreement to fight the climate crisis was concluded. Governments have been negotiating for more than 25 years in order to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

However, emissions have not been cut. They have rather increased immensely, by more than 60% since 1990 – and they are still increasing. 

Transport emissions have increased 120% over the last 30 years, and they are also still rising all over the world – even at a rate that outweighs cuts in other economic sectors. Today, even growth in renewable energy has stalled, and investment is falling.

The stated aim of the Paris agreement is ambitious. The target of keeping global warming below 2oC was strengthened, so that governments should now “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. 

The weakness of the agreement is that there is a huge gap between this aim and the measures agreed upon to reach it. Based on the voluntary pledges (so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – INDCs) from all countries on how much they are prepared to cut their emissions, we are so far on course for a temperature increase of 3-4oC. This means climate catastrophe. 

An interest-based struggle

The catastrophe, though, can be avoided. It is both possible and realistic to cut GHG emissions sufficiently to avoid the worst effects of global warming. To believe that this will happen by itself, through market mechanisms and through the process of adjusted voluntary pledges every five years, is however a very risky business. 

To assess that possibility, we should ask ourselves: why have our governments during the last 25+ years been unable to agree on necessary measures – and even more so, been unable to do what science tells us is necessary to avoid climate catastrophe? It is not because of a lack of solutions. The climate crisis can be prevented. We do have what is required in terms of technology, knowledge and competence to avert a climate disaster. It is the power to translate words into action that poses the greatest challenge. 

In this struggle, we are up against some of the most powerful corporations in the world – allied to an army of neoliberal politicians serving their interests. Oil companies are among the biggest and most powerful companies in the world. These firms are using all their power to avoid policies that hurt their economic interests. They execute enormous economic and political power. 

Therefore, only massive pressure from below, from a broad coalition of trade unions, other social movements, environmentalists and others can save us from climate catastrophe.

This fight against climate change – against climate catastrophe – is not an extra struggle that the trade union movement must take on in addition to fighting austerity. It is, and will increasingly be, an important part of the same struggle. If climate change is not stopped, or limited to the 1.5 or 2oC target, which is within reach if we act rapidly and forcefully, it will actually become job-killer number one.

 It will destroy communities and it will lead to enormous social degradation. It will further redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top, hugely increasing poverty and causing emigration crises of unknown dimensions. Our struggle to avoid devastating climate change is therefore an important part of the interest-based struggle – the class struggle – over what kind of society we want.

Public ownership and democratic control

The fight against climate change will require a sea change in society. Activities that adversely affect the climate have to be shut down, while renewable energy, energy saving and environmentally sustainable activities must be developed. 

For this to be supported by the public, the changes must occur in a way that will safeguard people’s social and economic security and, ultimately, create a better society for everyone. That individual groups of workers have to bear the burden through unemployment and marginalization, will never be accepted. 

In other words, it has to be a just transition. This can only be achieved in a planned and systematic fashion, i.e. through democratic processes, and it will have to go hand in hand with a radical redistribution of wealth in society.

Put differently, if we are to save the climate, we need a new brand of democratic control – including of the economy. We need an offensive and proactive industrial policy. 

We need a controlled shift of investment from non-renewable to renewable energy sources. We need a reorientation of existing industries and a reindustrialisation based on renewable energy. 

We need massive investment in public transport, and free public transport in order to curb the ever-growing emissions in the transport sector. We need a completely new approach to land-use and urban planning, one with the environment and climate at its core. 

We must strengthen research and development, as well as innovation and skills development. In short, we must do what is necessary to attain the scientific target of keeping the temperature rise below 1.5-2.0°C.

The anti-austerity struggle raises the need for public ownership and democratic control in a number of areas – in defence of public utilities as well as in the fight to bring privatised property and services back under democratic control. One of our most important challenges is to bring the powerful corporations and institutions which benefit from the financial-industrial fossil fuel complex under democratic control. 

In the fight against climate change, the energy sector stands at the forefront: CO2 emissions are all about energy, and without bringing that sector under democratic control, we will not achieve the deep transformations we need rapidly enough. 

Unify the social with the climate change struggle

The trade union movement will have to play a decisive role in this struggle, because of its strategic position in society. However, trade unions are on the defensive all over the world and they are under immense pressure from strong economic forces. 

The trade union movement has developed ever more consistent policies against austerity and global warming over the last years. What is required now is a deeper discussion of effective strategies and what is required in terms of mobilisation and forms of struggle to achieve our goals. 

Anyway, we need to act rapidly and forcefully. During the more than 25 years of the COP process, we have seen that big oil, big finance, neoliberal governments and market forces have been unable to solve these problems on our behalf. The same goes for the economic and social crises. The corporations are mobilising all their power to avoid any restrictions on their desperate hunt for more profit. More austerity and more GHG emissions are the inevitable results.

For the trade unions, fighting climate change cannot be a question of sacrificing what has already been achieved. On the contrary, it is about creating a better society for everybody. 

Transition to an environmental, sustainable society has many advantages. Thousands of new jobs in public transport, renewable energy, house retrofitting and sustainable industry will be created. A reduction of greenhouse gases will also lead to less polluted workplaces and communities. 

Increased democratic control of the economy will reduce competition and pressure at the workplaces. The end of the over-exploitation of non-renewable resources will open the possibility of a radical reduction of working hours. Less stress, strain and mental pressure will be important effects of such a development.

Growing pressure from below!

The fight against climate change and the fight against austerity cannot be abstract; it has to address concrete problems and solutions in people’s daily lives. 

We need to unify and make the struggles broader. Most unions today are involved in anti-austerity fights. Ever more unions are joining the campaign against climate change. Initiatives like the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) and the Global Climate Jobs Network represent important developments in this regard. 

What we need now is broad coalitions willing to fight, a more radical agenda, more militancy and thus a growing pressure from below to ensure that the aims and ambitions set out in the Paris agreement can be realised.



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  1. Patrick Scott Hogg says:

    Good article. Its a paradigm shift in attitudes we need. As you say we are heading for at least 4 degrees warming if things don’t change dramatically. All governments signed up to the IPCC gamble with our future as they all accept as fact a total fiction – that Negative Emissions Technology will work if it is ever invented! We are killing true carbon capture from forests by ravishing them down for palm oil. The FM of Scotland declared a climate emergency after voting down the Greens in the SP who tabled a motion asking the snp to declare a climate emergency. Populism at its worst. We need major action and major investment to go green as fast as we can and stop all oil exploration NOW. Leave it in the ground. Every day the energy equivalent of the worlds Co2 emissions is the equivalent of 500,000 Hiroshima bombs and that energy goes into he sea and the atmosphere and it accumulates year on year, so the idea of CO2 going down in the atmosphere is almost laughable. Governments are talking in a bubble and need to burst through it to the climate paradigm, that we change course rapid or we perish. Its that simple.

  2. Swiss Toni says:

    Karl Marx and his evil disciples have been proclaiming the imminent demise of capitalism for 160 years and counting. It seems remarkably resilient and, to the vast majority of people, infinitely preferable to the alternatives demonstrated by Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Kim Jong- Un et al.

    1. Dave Millar says:

      Socialism saved capitalism in 1929 and 2007.

    2. Wul says:

      Try to see it from the planet’s point of view Tony.

      Q: “What was that red flash?”

      A: ” Oh, the human’s invented a thing called “capitalism”, but it killed them all, it didnae last long”

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Greenpeace UK has come up with a draft climate emergency plan and an easy-to-read roadmap, mentioning unions as collaboration partners:

    From an anarchist perspective, traditional UK trade unions are often considered more deeply embedded in the reactionary status quo (even if not specifically infiltrated, corrupted or cowed) than a revolutionary vanguard, but I guess any collective will have its tipping points.

    But I think the idea that such transformation change can be achieved without sacrifice, without some austerity, without giving some things up, is a fantasy, even if it can be achieved with broad fairness. For a start, the UK standard of living depends (and has depended for a very long time) on exploiting people and resources elsewhere.

    The major turning point, I would suggest, would be that trade unions and trade unionists undertake some deep reflection and admit where they might have been wrong about priorities in the past, the better to embrace needful change in the future.

  4. Mike H. says:

    It is one thing to describe a problem. It is entirely another to claim you have a solution. Trade Unions jumping on the band wagon will only put ordinary people off. Remember the 70s. The Unions brought the Country to its knees through strikes for huge percentage wage increases. Many behind the movement were more interested in destroying businesses for ideological reasons than the working man’s need for a steady wage. This article gives me shivers.
    The Scottish Government is making good progress in renewables and has set ambitious targets for reducing emissions from vehicles.
    Seems to that me that many will come to Scotland in the hope that some of the SNPs success will rub off on them. If I thought an Independent Scotland was going to be controlled by the Unions, I’d emigrate, We don’t need TU interference nor their subversive ideology. It will only undermine our path to being a free Scotland.

    1. Trade Unions are a subversive ideology”? Er, right.


    2. Wul says:

      Aye, trade unionism’s “subversive ideology” is a dangerous thing right enough; paid holidays, sick pay, maternity leave, collective bargaining, health & safety at work.

      Thank fcuk we abandoned all that.

  5. Scott Macdonald says:

    The fight for the survival of civilisation against the climate striking back is very much one of justice. Social and recuperation. What will be needed is several orders of magnitude more ambitious than a car park tax. We need grand systemic changes and better alternatives. The climate cannot be bargained with. It cannot be bought off with cash, stock options or quick fixes that structurally change nothing. Like a certain technological movie monster – “it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.”

    The only way forward in the short term is to limit the awesome greenhouse emissions damage we’re inflicting to buy time, and to use that time to structurally re-engineer the economy. Capitalism, and market economics, in its very nature of ignoring, side-lining, undermining, attacking or removing anything that gets in the way of profit – is uniquely unsuited to this.

    A explosion of clean electricity generation, storage and transmission tech. Hydrogen powered buses, ferries and full electrification of trains. And no-one likes it other than pork barrelists, but nuclear as a baseload may play a part in the longer-term transition. Free public transport. Highly subsidised e-bikes. District heating using heat generated from industry. Solar on every public building. Dealing with peak demand using pumped storage and other high capacity storage solutions.

    Energy is the key. The necessary near ending of fossil fuel burning will have wide-reaching economic shocks impacting everyone. Next up: security of good food, clean water and abundant energy-efficient shelter. We’re in a terrible place to start from. Millions live in poverty, and those who have a little will sharpen their elbows and fight jealously on behalf of the status quo to keep what little they have. To encourage people to accept the ecological and necessary economic transition, means the provision of better alternatives available to all.

    The usual green politics of punishment, of giving up of our hard-won rights and brutal sacrifice won’t win – they’ll be rejected at the ballot box, in favour of weak leaders offering hot air, contradictions and piecemeal solutions. The package doesn’t have to mean crushing pain to everyone, but it does need a near blank cheque level of investment that we only ever see at war times. The poorest have had the least agency in polluting the planet, they should not be forced, like the banking crisis, to pay for the crimes of corporate capitalism.

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