Saturday 9th February 2008 saw the UK’s first national Trade Union conference on climate change, convened by the Campaign against Climate Change and believed also to be the first of its kind in the world. Hundreds of activists and trade unionists packed the main hall of University College London Union to discuss the role of unions in developing just and equitable solutions to the potential threat of climate change, an ecological catastrophe that threatens billions of people especially the poorest and most vulnerable - who will inevitably be its victims. RESPECT Environment spokesperson Elaine Graham Leigh called it ‘a question of social justice’ and was one of many speakers to cite the £50billion investment in Northern Rock and several billions more into the so-called ‘War on Terror’ as draining taxpayers money from investment in alternative energy sources that would break our dependence on fossil fuels.
While capitalism and its roots in the industrial revolution are undeniably the causes of the problem, governments and the international business community rely on the free market to provide the solution through carbon exchange schemes and development of new technologies. This is clearly double speak from the ruling classes who are more than aware that unqualified freedom creates exactly the opposite – with restraints to trade removed there is nothing to stop the strongest from oppressing the weak (as successive announcements of record profits for oil and gas companies demonstrate). Author and socialist Jonathan Neale reminded activists at the conference that the whole world economy was re-drawn for the Second World War – and a similar seismic shift is needed to tackle climate change.
With industry the main contributor to CO2 emissions, and government nowhere near to applying meaningful regulation, workers must pressure their employers to make change. Chris Bough from the PCS union said that environmental impact is a logical extension of health and safety and echoed the belief of many delegates that green reps should be given legal status. He added that unions should promote learning peers to educate management and co-workers.
The role of trade unionists
For many trade unions and their leadership the environment has historically been a divisive issue – workers are generally told their jobs are under threat - however, a transition to ‘green collar’ jobs would see workers trained towards a future in a low carbon economy. This was envisioned by Lucas Aerospace workers in the 1970’s, who attempted to defend their jobs by calling for an end to the production of military goods and a switch to high technology equipment like kidney dialysis machines. (Lucas workers also argued that the radar systems used in fighter planes could be used for sight aid for blind people).
The workforce would be much happier with this from the point of view of jobs and the quality of work.
Under capitalism the world's resources and wealth are owned and used to make profit for the wealthy. Money is invested where profit is highest and the fulfilment of human needs is always a secondary priority. The Lucas Plan challenged many of the basic assumptions of capitalism: why should profits come before people? What value have weapons in a world with so many other pressing needs?
Affordable jobs and homes
Providing good jobs locally would help minimalise day to day travel (particularly by single car users) and reduce the stress of commuting. Investment rather than privatisation in public transport would decrease pollution and begin to tackle the health problems caused by the amount of traffic in cities. Spiralling fuel and food costs only further diminish the quality of life for workers, especially in an era of public sector pay freezes (which are locked below the level of inflation – effective pay cuts in the real world).
A strong presence of teachers at the conference was reflected in the reception granted to Christine Burr (NUT) who said that 14% of pupils are delivered by parents in private transport. A lack of school buses coupled with closures, particularly in rural areas, has only exacerbated this problem. She added that schools are forced to tarmac important recreational spaces to accommodate temporary classrooms and parking spaces for teachers.
RESPECT believes that people should be able to live near to where they work or study and should be able to do so in decent quality council housing without having to pay extortionate rents dictated by the property market, driven by New Labour’s love of buy-to-let mortgages – which place no responsibility on landlords while offering tenants no security. Developers in major cities continue to build high price luxury flats which stand empty while working families endure endless council and housing association waiting lists.
Matt Wrack (FBU) highlighted the problems faced by Fire & Rescue Services in responding to emergencies like last year’s nationwide floods. Insurers have only this week said they will not pay out in such cases in future and that developers should think twice about building on flood plains – offering small consolation to people who cannot afford to buy a home elsewhere! Fire & Rescue are not tasked with responding but have to since no-one else can. FBU members believe the Fire Service Act should be changed to recognise this and include training and money to deal with these increasingly regular incidents. Perhaps in older days the army would have rolled out the Green Goddesses (as during the fire workers’ strike a couple of years ago) however they are too busy overseas looking after our ‘energy security’.
It’s the individual, stupid!
Instead of addressing these many problems, we are told we are failing in our individual responsibility to the planet. We are told to switch off our televisions and buy energy saving light bulbs, we are told to recycle, as if our habits of consumption are solely to blame rather than the society that created and depends on them.
By doing this the government gets away with doing nothing and creates among individuals the familiar state of denial that Mark Lynas describes in his book ‘Six Degrees’: “There is the metaphor of displaced commitment… denial of responsibility ("I am not the main cause of this problem"); condemnation of the accuser ("You have no right to challenge me"); rejection of blame ("I've done nothing wrong"); ignorance ("I don’t know the consequences of my actions"); powerlessness ("Nothing I do makes much difference"); comfort ("It is too difficult for me to change my behaviour"); and "fabricated constraints" ("There are too many impediments").
John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, bemoaned his own party’s record. He called for re-nationalisation of railways and energy companies and invited anyone and everyone to come to the next climate camp at Heathrow Airport – to protest and take direct action against the planned third runway which would see air traffic double and several hundred of his constituents forced from their homes.
Since 2005 Campaign against Climate Change has organised annual Global Days of Protest, and 65 countries were involved last year. In London, tens of thousands took part and will do so again at the next national demonstration on December 6th. If politicians are not prepared to act then we must go onto the streets and demand that they do!
RESPECT’s Nine Point Plan to Save the Planet
* Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 2050 and massively increased investment in renewables
* No nuclear power
* Cheap, integrated, publicly-owned public transport system, run for need not profit
* A new binding international treaty to ensure real cuts in greenhouse gas emissions
* Halt airport expansion and end the £9 billion tax-break to the airlines
* Increase public investment to make all homes energy efficient, and all new homes sustainably designed
* Localise food production, packaging and distribution where possible, to cut food miles
* High-quality facilities to maximise recycling and no incinerators
* No biofuel production, which takes land needed for food crops and drives up food prices