A climate change activist in Melbourne, March 2021. Photo: Flickr/Matt Hrkac A climate change activist in Melbourne, March 2021. Photo: Flickr/Matt Hrkac

Lindsey German on climate change and the case of Kathleen Stock

The Cop26 conference in Glasgow this week is shaping up to be the whitest, most elitist climate conference ever. Which hardly promotes confidence in its outcomes doing anything to deal with the major threats to livelihood and to the future of the planet. It is clear that those in the global south face some of the most severe problems of climate change, including shortages of water and inability to produce necessary amounts of food. This in turn will lead to high levels of migration as people search for any sort of sustainable existence.

The fact that many delegates to the conference are unable to come – for a combination of reasons including visa problems, lack of vaccine availability, and the astronomical cost of accommodation in Glasgow – suggests a lack of seriousness about easily soluble problems, let alone the great environmental challenges facing us.

There is no way that the governments of the world’s richest countries are going to adopt policies which could deal with the problems of the global south. Instead, their politics of fear, division and inequality are so deeply embedded that they will double down on them.

Take Boris Johnson’s remarks in Rome. It’s easy to see him as a blundering buffoon. That has always been a mistake. When he opined on climate change beside the Coliseum, he showed what a deeply unpleasant character he is and how prepared he is to use opportunist and inaccurate arguments to divide and rule. Talking about the effects of climate change leading to shortages of basic resources and to migration from affected areas, he said:

‘When the Roman empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration. The empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east, all over the place, and we went into a dark ages, Europe went into a dark ages that lasted a very long time.’

Leaving aside the ludicrous school boy factual errors about the fall of the Roman empire, it is also a signal that the fortresses of Europe, north America and Australia will stand well defended against future migration, ignoring both humanitarian issues and the beneficial effects of such migration. Johnson ignores the role that imperialism, Roman and modern, have played in keeping the poor poor and the rich arrogant.

Any serious attempt to save the environment has to take into account the huge disparity of wealth and power in the world today – in terms of individual countries but also in terms of the different classes in society. As the G20 meets in Rome before moving on to Glasgow there is zero chance of that happening.  

So we have to look at reality. There is a huge amount of gushing going on – that we can’t do this to our grandchildren, that this is our last chance, that we are at five minutes to midnight – but the idea that this bunch want to or indeed can seriously confront capital is fantasy. And if we don’t confront capital over these issues then the situation will continue to deteriorate.

That means immediate action to limit private transport and to invest in public transport which is cheap, environmentally friendly and extensive. In turns this means confronting oil and motor companies. It means confronting the military machines, whose hugely detrimental emissions are excluded from present calculations. It means developing a housing policy which is based on need not profit driven landlords and banks. It means dealing now with threats of climate change on countries such as Bangladesh, as sea levels rise.  

The protests at Cop 26 and around the world are set to be huge, reflecting growing concern over what capitalist relations of production are doing to the planet. This protest movement is the hope for future change, rather than the blah blah blah (in Greta Thunberg’s inimitable words) coming from the ‘great and the good’. 

However we need to ensure that we go beyond individual moralism. Changing lifestyles is important, but we should remember why people follow certain patterns of behaviour. Working people are often totally dependent on the car in order to get to their jobs. This is particularly noticeable in the US where people drive long distances to work and work shifts, and where there is negligible public transport. Similar patterns have developed here. And public transport remains very expensive. Unless we address these issues, change will be much harder.

The same is true of issues like diet, where poverty and poor diet often go together, and where obesity is now common among young people. Analysis of the Budget last week showed a projected shocking decline in incomes, just at a time when food and energy price increases are hitting people and rents are soaring.

Solutions to these problems can only be found collectively, and that means seeing working class people as key to change, rather than a problem. Everyone is affected by climate change but it is the poorest both in the developing and developed world, who will be affected the worst. And working people have the power to demand change. We know it will not come from governments like Johnson’s, which only last week cut duty on domestic flights, but from those who are organising for a better future.

It is encouraging that there have been plans for strikes in Glasgow and elsewhere during Cop26, as workers take the opportunity to seize back some of the wealth they have created. In the process they can make links between the different issues on an international scale. And that would be a big step forward in fighting the power that has helped create the dangerous situation we now face.

It has to stop   

The decision by Kathleen Stock to resign from Sussex University is regrettable, if understandable. She has faced threats of violence, demonstrations and calls for her dismissal. The statements from both Sussex UCU and the national union both fell far short of what should be said faced with this campaign of intimidation. Accusations of transphobia against Stock are wide of the mark.

But the outcome raises wider questions about how we should handle debate on the issues of feminism and trans rights. There are very deep divisions here, but there is an acceptable and unacceptable way of dealing with them. The former involves serious and respectful debate and discussion, the latter the pathetic attempts at ‘no platforming’ and demands for dismissal which should be reserved for fascists.

This was also true last week when a well-attended meeting on women and prisons, organised by Woman’s Place UK, was subject to an unpleasant and sexist protest by people who opposed their gender critical views and accused them (wrongly) of transphobia. It seems lost on these people that women are an oppressed section of society and that if there is a clash with other groups of the oppressed (such as transwomen and men) then it has to be taken seriously.

It is worth noting here that these protests tend not to be directed towards, for example, the government, or real transphobes, but towards those on the left, including established socialists and trade unionists, who are deemed to be wrong about this. In itself, this shows an inward looking and narrow approach – the rest of the left really is not the enemy.

It is not acceptable to use sexist, ageist and racist abuse, as seems to be the case from video evidence, against women. It is not acceptable to comment on their looks, the shape of their bodies, or anything else. We have spent decades now fighting against stereotypes of how women are supposed to look and behave, and it is still an uphill battle. How appalling then that people on the left, in the name of supposed solidarity with the oppressed, feel it is justified to join in with these right wing views.

Let’s be clear here: gender critical women are not fascists – they are mostly left wing. They should be allowed to organise as women without being abused and intimidated. And if you think that doing otherwise is helping fight oppression, you really are in a bad place. This has to stop – the only people it is damaging is the left.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.