James Clark

When it comes to climate change, class matters

01 April, 2014

Originally Publish at Green Agenda, link broken.

In September 2013, Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein stood on stage at a conference of one of Canada’s largest unions to deliver a historic speech. The speech, Why Unions Need to Join the Climate Fight, was a call to action for the union movement to break free of their issue and industry silos and use their size and power to dream big and make big demands. The speech was made more remarkable by the fact her audience represented energy, forestry and auto workers, not an audience typically associated with climate activism.

Klein called on the unions to see climate change, not as another issue to add to the list of things to worry about, but instead as the counter narrative they need to fightback against the brutal austerity of the conservative Harper government. Climate change is a civilisational wake up call, she argued, and proof that we need to reimagine our economic system before it destroys us and our planet.

The case I want to make to you is that climate change – when its full economic and moral implications are understood – is the most powerful weapon progressives have ever had in the fight for equality and social justice.

The ideas Klein expressed in that speech later formed the foundation of her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate that Simon Copland recently reviewed for Green Agenda. In it she adds significant detail to her argument that climate change is proof the left has been right all along; our economic system simply doesn’t work. Not only is capitalism the cause of inequality, it is leaving a mark on our planet that we can’t ignore any longer. For the union movement, climate change is the most compelling argument they have ever had to dream big, break out of their issue silos and start demanding a world that is fair for workers.

Responding to the climate crisis could usher in a new period of cooperation between the green movement and organised labour but it is not just up to the unions to step up to the climate plate. The green movement must take responsibility for bringing unions into the climate fight by putting workers and their rights at the centre of our climate campaigning.

Just as Naomi Klein called on the unions to see the importance of joining the climate fight, the green movement needs to see the importance of labour issues in climate campaigning. Put simply, the climate movement needs to join the class fight.

Platitudes about “green jobs” and a “renewable economy” are not enough to expect workers to believe the green movement has their best interests at heart. We need to take the challenge of a just transition to a renewable economy seriously and this means working closely with unions who represent workers in dirty industries to develop serious plans for a just transition.

No tears will be shed — in the green or union movements — for the mining companies. They have exploited the land and workers in their pursuit of profit, and profit they have. But the workers in these industries are not there for the love of coal, but out of economic necessity. They should not be made to feel like the enemy of the climate movement, because they could be the climate movement’s most powerful ally.

For far too much of the environmental movement’s history the relationship with unions has been antagonistic and distrust between the two movements runs deep. Which is a shame, because it doesn’t take much to realise that we are on the same side in this struggle. The exploitation of workers and the exploitation of the planet are the result of the same logic. This is a logic that not only accepts a world where the richest 1% own over half the world’s wealth, but celebrates it. This is the logic of capitalism, and it is waging war with life on earth. It is no coincidence that the places with the weakest labour laws and lowest wages are also the ones with the most polluted air and waterways.

As Klein rightly points out, a transition to a zero emission economy is going to require a complete reimagining of how our society and economy works. Lowering our emissions will mean more public transport and dramatically more renewable power, creating thousands of new jobs around Australia. Retrofitting houses with solar panels and other measures to make them more energy efficient will see a boom in construction jobs that could employ tens of thousands.

But is important to understand that we are not talking about a job-for-job substitution. The climate crisis demands that we imagine an economy much better than the one we have now. A just transition does not mean moving workers from one under-paid job to another under-paid job where the new boss is the same as the old boss. We need to also reimagine the system of ownership and the very foundations of our economy.

We have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of renewable energy being built in recent years and the costs of solar and wind are falling drastically every day. But this has not replaced coal generation; only supplemented it as demand for power increases as we continue to consume more. Working longer hours only to produce more wealth for the 1% as our real wages continue to be forced down in the name of “productivity” and “competitiveness”.

The post carbon economy needs to be built with worker co-operatives and public ownership. We can not continue to produce more than we need just to have the wealth accumulate at the top. We need to produce less which means a fairer distribution of wealth. Something that is  simply not possible with our current corporate-capitalist system. Worker owned co-ops are not just a solution to inequality, they are a solution to climate change.

With a fairer distribution of wealth and a focus on living standards for the many rather than GDP growth for the few we will be able to reduce working hours, revitalise our communities and even our food systems. Imagine a local economy powered by free power from a community owned solar project, which produces its own food from an urban garden, and builds and repairs things locally.  More time in your community means a strong community, more time with your friends and family and less time on transport. This doesn’t just dramatically reduce emissions it makes our society better.

This may sound like a pipe dream, but action on climate change demands it. The climate does not negotiate and we do ourselves no favours by understating the scale of change required to reduce our emissions in line with what the science says. One way or another, climate change is going to “change everything” and only by taking action now can we make that change just and fair for workers.

As renowned author Ursula K Le Guin said in a speech at the National Book Awards, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” Capitalism, like climate change, is made by humans and we need to make something better before it's too late.

There is only one group in our society who has the power to make change of this scale happen and that is workers. Effective unions of workers have been central to major social and economic changes throughout history and the change required to tackle climate change will be no different. The climate fight needs the unions, which means the green movement needs to put the fights for worker’s rights at the centre of our agenda.


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Hey, I'm James Clark. I’m an organiser, writer and social movement nerd based in Melbourne, Australia. You can read more about me here.