Jonathan Neale’s Fight the Fire shows that solving climate change requires a movement based in the working class to succeed, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Jonathan Neale, Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs (Resistance Books 2021), 333pp.

One of my earliest memories of Jonathan Neale is from a Campaign against Climate Change meeting in about 2006. His warning then was that at some point the working class would be told that we have to sacrifice because of the climate, and that the climate movement would have to decide which side we would be on. Class did not tend to come up very much in climate-change discussions then, as indeed it is often still absent now. Neale’s speech opened my eyes and stuck with me.

The intervening years have not changed Neale’s view on the ways that the climate crisis can be used to justify attacks on working-class people. As he argues, when we’re imagining the horrors of runaway climate change, we should not ignore the threat it would pose to democracy, in the name of dealing with the problem:

‘It will come with the tanks on the streets and the military or the fascists taking power. Those generals may be climate deniers. But it is much more likely that they will talk in deep green language. They will speak of degrowth, and the boundaries of planetary ecology. They will tell us we have consumed too much, and been too greedy, and now for the sake of Mother Earth, we must tighten our belts. Then we will tighten our belts, and we will suffer, and they will build a new kind of gross green inequality’ (p.291).

Neale’s position here is at odds with the strand of green thinking which does indeed hold that ‘tightening our belts’ is the way to deal with the climate crisis. In this view, we are in ‘a struggle against ourselves’, in which the only solution is to embrace ‘a culture of self-limitation’ so that we can be happy with less. Against the background of now more than a decade of austerity and the resulting growth of poverty, an expectation that working people should embrace further cuts for the sake of the climate is tin-eared, to say the least. The idea of sacrifice is particularly serious though when we realise that we are not just talking about foreign holidays and iPhones, but jobs.

Just transition

If we are to deal with the climate crisis, workers in polluting industries, from airlines to mining, face the prospect of losing their jobs. This not only unjust, but shapes campaigning on climate change in unwelcome ways. Any temptation to handwave such lost jobs away as collateral damage strengthens a perception of climate campaigning as a middle-class concern, divorced from the realities of working-class life. As Neale points out with reference to working people in the Global South, building a movement to stop climate breakdown will not work ‘if someone with an Apple Mac lectures people who are ashamed of their clothes and worried about their sick children’ (p.228). It simply risks the climate crisis becoming solely part of a culture war, exploitable by right-wing politicians looking for working-class support.

What is needed here is a just transition, but that has to be meaningful. A ‘just transition’ amounting to warm words and a voucher for a training scheme is not going to cut it. The answer, as Neale argues, is the need for huge numbers of people to transform our infrastructure to cut carbon emissions. This would be, using familiar and trusted names, a National Climate Service in the UK, or a Climate Corps in the US: publicly owned and run organisations providing good, permanent jobs to do the work necessary to build a green economy.

Despite decades of government inaction, it is still possible to cut greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst of runaway climate change. Neale sets out here a roadmap for cuts in CO2 and other long-lasting green-house gases from 45.5 billion tonnes a year of CO2 equivalent to 6 billion, and for methane reductions from 9.5 billion tonnes to 3 billion. If we start in 2025, with offsets from reforestation and storing carbon in the soil to cover the start-up period, this should enable us to keep warming to 1.5oC.

The detail of how we might achieve this is too much to summarise in a review (read the book!), but broadly it involves government infrastructure projects rather than individual action: the work for that National Climate Service to do. For power generation, it means creating national grids and international supergrids for renewable energy. In transport, Neale sees some role for electric vehicles but emphasises that the real need is for ‘public transport that does not overload the roads, that comes quickly day and night, and runs swift and clean’ (p.102). This is, he stresses, a vision for countries in the developing world where current public transport is poor or non-existent, as well as for revitalising public transport services decimated by privatisation in the developed world. In housing, as we know, the key issues are insulation and electrification, but Neale argues that these should be provided as needed by the government programme, rather than it being left up to the individual owners to fund.

Much of this is familiar, although Neale’s stress on the necessity of scale for renewable grids, against the often-argued local renewable generation model, will be controversial in some quarters, as will his dismissal of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage as a way to keep on using coal and gas. As Neale is aware, however, ‘the most controversial chapter in the book, and the hardest to read’ will be the chapter on food and agriculture’s contribution to the climate crisis (p.155).

Class and food

The argument that dealing with climate crisis requires people to switch to a plant-based diet has become a dominant one. It is also a view picked up by the right, as Neale cites for example the US right-wing columnist Sebastian Gorka lambasting the Green New Deal proposals as taking hamburgers away (p.168). The use of ‘hamburger’ here rather than steak is telling, as Neale observes. This is both because it is pointing to that discourse of greens as the enemy of the working man, but also because it reflects a class-based argument from the green side which does, implicitly or explicitly, see working-class consumption in the developed world as the key problem for the climate crisis.

In fact, the road to resolving the climate crisis does not lie through our plates, or indeed our McDonalds trays. As Neale points out, the identification of meat with harm to the climate is reductive and distorted. Overwhelmingly, the majority of meat consumption around the world is pork and chicken, neither of which is a climate problem as pigs and chickens do not produce greenhouse gases in significant amounts. The issue is cattle, but even here, the answer is not to make cows extinct. Neale cites important work suggesting that ruminant grazing has beneficial effects on plains by enabling them to store carbon. What we need to do is not to extirpate the ruminants, but to stop factory farming and feeding grain and soya to cattle. With around half the cows we have now, grass-fed, switching some beef consumption to pork and chicken, and feeding the pigs and chickens food waste, we could reduce the methane emissions by two-thirds and the emissions from agriculture in general by half.

None of these steps will be achieved primarily through individuals changing their own lifestyles, nor through market mechanisms, so the central question is how we can compel our governments to take the necessary steps. As Neale points out, this is a global fight, as actions are necessary globally. While it used to be assumed that it was only the richest countries which needed to reduce emissions, this is in fact not the case. China’s per capita emissions, for example, are more than the UK’s or the EU average. The goal has to be to reduce per capita emissions in every country to about one tonne per annum.

Role of the movements

Neale has considerable experience of the campaigns around the COP international climate summits and is therefore in a particularly good position to argue that such international agreements are not going to be the answer. As he points out, the Copenhagen agreement, touted by some environmental organisations as at least a partial victory, was in fact a defeat for the movement:

‘two pieces of evidence made that clear. One was that the big environmental organizations moved on from climate campaigns to doing something else. The other was that the marches we organized grew tiny. Everyone, the leaders and the rank and file, knew that hope had suffered a historic defeat’ (p.209).

In the UK, arguably this did not turn around until the school climate strikes.

This does not mean however that there is no possibility of international action, but that it will come from international movements of solidarity, not from governments off their own bats. As Neale argues, while reducing emissions to one tonne per head in one country would not, in itself, make much of a dent in global emissions, its power as an example of what could be achieved would be profound and far-reaching. The revolution will fail if it is restricted to one country, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fight for it in the one country we find ourselves in.

Speaking of revolution, there is nothing in Neale’s proposals which could not be achieved under capitalism, although it would require governments prepared to spend public money. This is not a proposal for addressing capitalism’s inherent environmental destructiveness, but for implementing the solutions we already have for the immediate problem at hand. Given the timescales involved, however, there is the question of how we could turn Neale’s sensible proposals into government action, now that we don’t have the prospect of a social-democratic Corbyn government to pressure.

Neale is clear that the task is to build the movement. This is primarily a movement specifically on the climate crisis, but the fight for green jobs clearly opens up the possibility of fighting on a wider front, against governments which want to make ordinary people pay for economic crisis, pandemic and climate breakdown, rather than creating jobs to build the infrastructure to deal with them. As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, even the most neoliberal of Tory governments can be pushed into government spending when they’re under enough pressure, but that pressure won’t be created except by us, on the streets.

If we are to have any hope of implementing the measures Neale sets out here, we need to bring together the movement against post-Covid austerity with the movement for action on the climate crisis. This is going to need green politics which arise from the working class, rather than seeing working-class people as those on the wrong side of the culture war. It needs a green movement fighting for jobs, not sacrifices, and which embraces green infrastructure. As Chico Mendes said, ‘ecology without class struggle is just gardening.’ What we need now to deal with the climate crisis is a green movement firmly with, not against, the working class.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.