When we get back to thinking about climate change, what lessons can we draw from the coronavirus crash? Is suppressing economic activity (“degrowth”) the way to reduce carbon emissions? Chris Saltmarsh of Labour for a Green New Deal argues for a different approach
As Labour elects its new leader, we are launching a series of essays on political possibilities of the new decade. Read more here.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved that it is possible to quickly contract the economy with the effect of dramatically cutting carbon emissions. But as recession looms, the pandemic also shows that simply shrinking the economy without transforming it is both unjust and insufficient as a means of tackling the climate emergency.
In the decade since the last economic crisis of 2008, socialism and environmentalism have converged within growing democratic socialist movements on either side of the Atlantic. The rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn appeared to offer shortcuts to state power for socialists and climate activists who had made limited progress in previous years. Labour went into the 2019 general election with the most ambitious climate justice policies of any party in Europe, largely down to the organising of Labour for a Green New Deal, which successfully pushed the party towards a radical Green New Deal platform commensurate with the scale of the climate crisis.
Labour’s election defeat was devastating to all those who fought to prepare the party to deliver a Green New Deal in government. The possibility of a Labour victory alongside a Bernie Sanders presidency encouraged many activists to believe that they might just turn the tide of climate breakdown. Could two of the countries most culpable for the ecological crisis really have their liberal democracies captured by democratic socialists simultaneously? Labour’s failure curbed those hopes and demonstrated that there is no easy road to socialism. Sanders’s 2020 campaign remained a source of optimism, although establishment Democrats rallied around Joe Biden’s candidacy.
It would be naive for the left to pin all its hopes for climate justice on the election of democratic socialists in the Global North. Had Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister in December, those fossil fuel companies profiting from the climate crisis would have invested extensively in disrupting rapid decarbonisation. Labour’s Green New Deal would have faced resistance from the private interests controlling key infrastructure: transport operators, energy companies, housing developers. National Grid threatened to sue Labour over plans to bring the energy grid into democratic ownership.
Entering the decade in which Labour planned to fully decarbonise, we must face up to the real possibility of further defeat at the ballot box and stubborn resistance by capital when we do command state power. How then should eco-socialists orient ourselves politically in the 2020s? What is our strategy for winning and exercising power to transform and decarbonise the economy?
Electoralism alone is not sufficient to achieve climate justice, but it remains strategically necessary. Over the last five years, a convergence of unlikely factors opened up the possibility of socialists winning state power through the Labour Party to deliver a broad suite of socialist and environmentalist ambitions. Previously imbued with anarchist ideology, the climate movement was forced to consider the question of state power when it came into contact with Corbynism.
The promise of the Green New Deal is massive state-led investment, regulation and economic transformation to concurrently decarbonise and guarantee human rights, needs and prosperity. Without state power, such a programme cannot be delivered at the scale and pace – or with the justice – that we need.
In some political contexts, for example in France, it is possible to build new parties that go on to achieve electoral success, but the British and American political systems do not lend themselves to such dynamic organisational reshuffles. In these contexts, socialists like Leo Panitch have emphasised the “long struggle” to democratise and control existing social democratic parties. Accepting that it takes time to build socialist power through institutions guards against the folk political tendency of some movements to indulge in immediately gratifying but strategically ineffective tactics. But, entering the 2020s, eco-socialists must contend with an added dimension: the time constraints of climate breakdown.
The impacts of climate change are different in character to those of capitalist exploitation and oppression more generally. While capitalism wreaks immeasurable suffering globally, climate breakdown will render our planet irreversibly uninhabitable. In August 2018, leading scientists warned of a "Hothouse Earth" scenario in which we reach planetary tipping points faster than predicted, as higher temperatures unlock new sources of greenhouse gas emissions through positive-feedback loops. Human efforts to reverse the breakdown would quickly become futile.
The suffering caused by the disruption of our environmental systems will not be evenly felt, but few will be completely immune. Climate justice movements have long made a point of the inequitable global distribution of climate impacts: while capital in the Global North profits, people in the Global South endure flooding, drought and extreme weather events. But wildfires in Australia and California, flooding in Yorkshire and South-East England and back-to-back storms across the UK have reinforced the urgency of climate breakdown even in the Global North.
As liberal governments remain unable to devise or implement proportionate solutions, socialists are increasingly embracing responsibility for putting forward a vision for climate justice. Climate breakdown is now one of the most important factors to consider when developing socialist strategy.
The Labour for a Green New Deal campaign launched in March 2019 aiming to take advantage of the political space opened up by Corbyn’s leadership. Its co-founders came from a mix of grassroots climate organising, student movements, internationalist solidarity and tenants’ unions. Working within Labour meant navigating the party’s sometimes murky democracy by displaying the weight of support among members (evidenced by the 150-plus local constituency parties which submitted our motion to Conference) and persuading the larger general unions representing energy workers (Unite, GMB and UNISON) to join members and other unions, including the CWU and FBU, in supporting a programme for climate justice that puts workers at its core. This was a moment of historic unity between trade unions and climate activists, with the Labour Party as the vehicle.
Interviewed by Tribune in the aftermath of the election defeat, Leo Panitch warns that climate breakdown must not be used as a pretext for socialists to shorten their strategic time horizons. He advises activists to “commit for the long haul” and “think in terms of ten, fifteen or twenty years.” This is the time-frame required to successfully rebuild working class organisations, which is a necessary precondition for socialists to both capture and exercise state power.
The tension between the time it takes to build the basis for socialism and the time left to mitigate runaway climate breakdown is excruciating. Socialists cannot neglect the temporality of climate breakdown, but nor can we frantically lapse into short-sighted strategy. With the Green New Deal we have a plan to mitigate climate breakdown through the same interventions required to build a prosperous socialist society.
During her speech to the Labour Party Conference in September 2019, Rebecca Long-Bailey succinctly articulated why many find the Green New Deal so appealing. Building on George Monbiot’s argument for “private sufficiency and public luxury”, she told delegates: “My socialism and your socialism isn’t about luck. It’s about saving the planet and ushering in a new era of public luxury based on social and climate justice.”
Critics of the Green New Deal have called instead for a politics of “degrowth”, blaming the relentless pursuit of economic growth for the ecological crises we now face. It would be a mistake for socialists to get hung up on reversing “growth” per se, rather than systematically undoing the dominance of the profit motive throughout the economy by disempowering capital in favour of workers and the public.
Due to the current public-health crisis, the aviation industry will be almost entirely bankrupt by the end of May if it is not bailed out. Virgin Airlines has grounded 80 per cent of flights and asked staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave. Norwegian Air has laid off 90 per cent of its staff.
The aviation industry must be transitioned to be zero-carbon or almost obsolete, but not like this, as thousands of workers are plunged into poverty and insecurity.
Carbon emissions may be down at present, but these emissions are the tip of a very large iceberg. Fossil fuels are still the basis of the economy that remains. As capitalism continues to immiserate, it is no coincidence that the crises of climate, inequality and now public health have the same solutions: expanding public ownership right across the economy.
The Green New Deal rejects alienating appeals to climate-austerity which push responsibility for decarbonising onto those least responsible for reproducing fossil capitalism. We can’t moralise individuals into changing their own behaviours within capitalism. A Green New Deal would restructure our economy so that the “greenest” choice is the cheapest and easiest.
Public luxury means limited private car ownership counterbalanced with free public transport efficiently connecting towns, cities, regions and countries. It means returning land privately enclosed by the rich and powerful to the public to use for work, recreation and ecological restoration. It means food that is produced, distributed and consumed collectively, rather than for the profits of agribusiness. Such a vision can win majority support for a programme of rapid decarbonisation.
In his viral paper, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy”, Jem Bendell argues that we should take a three-pronged approach to the crisis. He emphasises the need for resilience (psychological as well as material), the relinquishment of certain industries and consumption habits (along with other unsustainable elements of modern civilisation, such as living on coastlines), and the restoration of older ways of life, including re-wilding, seasonal diets and non-electronic forms of play.
Bendell is criticised by some for overstating the inevitability of social collapse, and his austere, primitivist conception of deep adaptation runs contrary to the mass appeal of a Green New Deal. But he is right that adaptation has too often been neglected by the climate movement. We should take his intervention as a prompt to develop a socialist politics of adaptation that prioritises justice and is compatible with the optimism of the Green New Deal.
The report of the Civil Society Equity Review, “Can Climate Change-Fuelled Loss and Damage Ever Be Fair?”, proposes a number of adaptation measures in response to the inevitable impact of climate breakdown, including shifting away from intensive agribusiness, renewing mangroves and other forms of natural carbon sequestration, regulating new buildings to withstand future storms, building more flood defences, giving enforceable land rights to indigenous peoples, and tackling underlying social inequalities through technological and financial transfers and capacity building. Such measures could be easily integrated into plans for a Green New Deal.
As climate impacts become more frequent and severe, measures to ensure equitable adaption to climate breakdown must become just as central to the demands of climate movements as dismantling the fossil fuel industry and investing in renewable energy technologies. This means asserting that insurance, housing, food, energy, health and social care, education and emergency services are universal basic rights. We should demand the construction or repair of resilient infrastructure, regardless of cost, to protect those rights for anybody at risk.
But adaptation cannot be a new business venture for the same private interests which have profited from taking us this deep into climate crisis. Those at risk of climate impacts should guide the adaptation process through democratic control and public ownership of these services.
Delivering a rights and justice-centred programme of adaptation is obviously not a priority for governments representing the interests of those profiting from climate breakdown. Though we can make demands from opposition, eco-socialists must retain the goal of capturing state power: rather than abandoning electoralism, we must learn how to buttress it by building a more diverse power base from below.
Extinction Rebellion and Youth Strikes have developed innovative models of organising and mobilised thousands to push climate up the mainstream agenda. However, neither are mobilising their respective constituencies around an ideological project – XR is explicitly “beyond politics”. This is part of what explains their success: a plurality of people can identify with a movement that doesn’t contradict any of their core beliefs. These movements are valuable in asserting the essential truth that the climate crisis is upon us, but they cannot provide alternatives to the current system. For socialists, there exists an opportunity to cohere these existing diverse movements around our own political vision. We should intervene to fill in the political space they create by popularising just climate solutions from our platforms in political parties and trade unions.
Socialists should also use the space created by these street movements to conduct our own grassroots organising. Building power locally will help win material gains and create a sense of possibility around the ambitions of a Green New Deal. For example, the Sheffield branch of ACORN built its base in tenants’ rights and is now campaigning to bring local buses into public ownership.
Each of us should take the initiative to identify where social and ecological needs are not being met and work with trusted comrades to fill those gaps. As well as building a diverse ecology of new eco-socialist organisations, it will be essential to restore the power and confidence of the traditional organisations of working-class power: trade unions. Our aim should be for unions to treat issues of climate adaptation and just transition as worthy of industrial action.
The Fire Brigades Union is already calling on the government to give firefighters a statutory duty to respond to flooding, after General Secretary Matt Wrack described climate change as “an industrial matter today” at Labour Conference in 2019. But a renaissance of working-class power through trade unions will only happen if people organise for it. Groups like Momentum can play a vital role in redirecting the waning energy of Corbynism into the longer-term project of re-building trade union power.
These are just the beginnings of a bottom-up strategy for a mass movement united around socialist climate-justice politics. This decade will be challenging for socialists, but our movement is the only one with the ideas and organisation to resolve the crises capitalism has birthed. In that, we find hope.
Chris Saltmarsh is a co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal. He writes about climate politics and social movements.
This essay is part of a series of excerpts from Futures of Socialism: Into the Post-Corbyn Era, edited by Grace Blakeley. Read all the essays, as they are published through March, here.