Students occupying Westminster Bridge, Youth Climate Strike 15th March. Photo: Shabbir Lakha Students occupying Westminster Bridge, Youth Climate Strike 15th March. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

Environmental activist and author, Elaine Graham-Leigh, highlights seven key demands the movement against climate change needs to be making

In early 2019, we set out seven demands for stopping climate change. Since then, we’ve experienced the hottest month in human history in July 2021. The climate crisis is not a future abstraction, but a current reality. In the UK, the Tory government likes to boast that it has ‘world-beating’ climate policies, but appear to be pinning their hopes on electric cars, carbon capture and offsetting rather than looking to real, effective ways of reducing carbon emissions. At the same time, though, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that even Tories will embark on public spending when they have to.

As activists prepare to take to the streets to demand climate action, we’re reissuing our seven demands, as a response to a world where the climate crisis is now.

1) Adaptation

2021 has shown beyond doubt that the climate crisis is upon us now. Whatever we do to reduce carbon emissions (and this is as necessary as ever) we are going to be facing the reality of a disrupted climate. As we’ve seen this summer in the northern hemisphere, this means not just killer heatwaves, but droughts, storms, wildfires and floods, all of a severity that we have only rarely seen before.

The weather may be inevitable, but we shouldn’t assume that the death toll is similarly unavoidable. The reason people die in flooded basements in New York or fires in Greece or California is because we don’t have the infrastructure to cope. That’s the result of political decisions, from cash-strapped local authorities cutting back on drainage and sewer maintenance to governments slashing the fire service. This becomes a social-justice issue: the people most at risk from the effects of the climate crisis are those who can’t afford to pay for their own measures to protect themselves, or to move to safer areas.

Accepting the reality of the climate crisis has to mean public spending to ensure that our streets and homes are as safe as possible from the storms that are coming. If as safe as possible isn’t safe enough, then we need to be able to rely on the state to evacuate us in good time. When we know that people may be killed by an approaching natural disaster, it’s never good enough simply to tell them that they should leave when that may not be possible for everyone.

The changing climate will mean that some places won’t be inhabitable. Part of our response to the climate crisis therefore has to be that we accept climate refugees with open arms, as the victims of the crisis that Western countries have caused.

Demand 1: Publicly funded infrastructure to cope with the reality of the new climate. Reverse the cuts to services that keep us safe.

2) Power

The move to renewables so far has largely come about through individual action: consumers and businesses deciding to install some renewable generation like solar panels or moving to a renewable tariff with their electricity supplier. Government programmes to enable people to earn money from the renewable energy they generate but don’t use have helped drive this, hence domestic solar power levelled off when the Tories stopped the scheme. This model of progress through individual action is inherently limited. There are only going to be so many householders with both the resources to invest in solar panels and sole ownership of a suitable expanse of roof. Ensuring Passivhaus standards for new build properties, meaning they would require minimal heating or cooling, would help, but this wouldn’t get to the older buildings which still make up the majority of people’s homes. Individuals signing up for renewable-only tariffs with electricity suppliers will similarly be limited by the vagaries of the market. It’s often difficult to tell if a renewable electricity tariff actually means 100% renewable energy or fossil-fuel generation with offsetting.

The first step has to be to remove our power infrastructure from the demands of the market. This means nationalising not only the power grid, but also the power generation network. This should not preclude individual renewable installations and micro-generation projects where people and communities want to embark on them, but the scale of the shift we need from gas-fired power stations to renewable generation is only going to come from a government-led, publicly-funded green infrastructure creation programme. While we’re at it, nationalising water and broadband as well and providing all utilities free at the point of use would allow us to plan these services in the most environmentally friendly way, without having to think about the shareholders. This would also ensure that no one has to choose any longer between heating or cooling their home and having enough to eat.

Demand 2: Nationalise power distribution, transmission and generation and other utilities.

3) Heat

The needs of the market have also driven what sort of alternatives are available for low-carbon power and heat. Once we’ve sorted out the electricity, the next issue on the power front is domestic gas. Most households in the UK use gas for heating and hot water, and many for cooking as well. This makes up 15% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 24% for electricity generation, so it’s not insignificant. If you look up eco-alternatives, you’ll find plenty of companies offering ground or air source heat pumps and the like. What these solutions have in common is that they require not just considerable spare cash to install them, but plenty of space inside and outside the home. It’s as if the options have been developed to suit the sort of consumers who would be most likely to be able to buy them. If we are going to make every house and flat genuinely low carbon, we need publicly funded, democratically accountable research and development into solutions which fit every house and flat, not just the houses of the well-off.

Demand 3: Publicly-funded R&D for eco-solutions to fit actual current housing stock.

4) Rail

Transport issues have received comparatively little attention from greens in recent years, but the transport sector is now the biggest single source of UK greenhouse gas emissions, at 27% in 2017. It is widely recognised that privatising running the trains was always a terrible idea and should be reversed, but rail nationalisation is just the start. If we are going to create genuine alternatives to car travel for individuals and to road freight for goods, we need not just publicly owned trains, but a system planned not for the perceived needs of business but to make the trains usable for everyone.

This means tackling the backlog of unglamorous but essential engineering projects all around the country, to increase capacity, relieve bottlenecks and tackle recurring issues. It means getting on with the electrification projects Grayling so idiotically cancelled, and taking them further, to finish off electrifying the entire rail network. And it means listening to the rail workers when it comes to safety and comfort for passengers, for example about keeping the guards on the trains. Beyond this, we should be looking to reopen some of the key lines closed in the Beeching era and creating new lines where they will add genuine connectivity rather than shaving fifteen minutes off the trip from Birmingham to London. Getting freight off the roads and onto the railways also requires planning and potentially reopening old lines, but must be a priority given the safety issues as well as emissions of road freight.

Demand 4: Nationalise the railways and plan a rail network to provide real alternatives to cars and lorries.

5) Road

When it comes to road transport, there’s something of a campaign to make us think that self-driving cars are the answer to all our problems. They aren’t. Electric cars are of course superior in emissions terms to petrol and diesel cars, and electric vehicle technology is certainly a good option for public transport. Electric vehicles, however, still generate emissions in their manufacture and disposal, along with plenty of plastic and metal waste. They take up space on the roads which could be used for public transport, cycling, walking, children playing, cats sunning themselves, people enjoying their traffic-free street, and so on. Fleets of self-driving cars circling our neighbourhoods, waiting to be called for, aren’t a good vision for a future liberated from congestion, dangerous roads, greenhouse gases and pollution. A comprehensive network of electric buses, publicly run to give frequent, convenient services so that people genuinely don’t need to drive, on the other hand, is.

Demand 5: Nationalise the buses and plan a bus network to provide a real alternative to the car.

6) Jobs

Reworking our power and transport infrastructure will create jobs, but it will also entail withdrawing from some polluting industries. This cannot be at the expense of the workers in those industries. We will need their skills in the new industries we will be building, but more than that, it is simple fairness that says that in transforming our society into a low-carbon one, we have to ensure that no workers lose out. We have seen what the move away from diesel cars did to the workers at Honda’s Swindon plant. We will have to ensure that is not repeated by working closely with unions and workers in polluting industries to design a meaningful programme for them to transfer their skills or learn new skills without facing poverty in the meantime.

Demand 6: No transition at the expense of people’s livelihoods; a job for every worker currently in a polluting industry.

7) War

A world of unchecked climate change would undoubtedly be an even more violent world than today, in which imperialist wars would be waged to control ever scarcer resources. In trying to avoid this we cannot ignore the significant contribution that modern warfare has already made to climate change. Control of oil resources and therefore use of fossil fuels has been the basis of military success since the Second World War; US hegemony depends on it. On 9th February 2019, Donald Trump tweeted that the Democrats’ Green New Deal would permanently eliminate the military. Unusually for him, he was not totally wrong. While the Democrats’ Green New Deal doesn’t in fact say so, if we try to have a low-carbon economy at home while continuing oil-based wars around the world, we will fail. A green future means a future without military imperialism.

Demand 7: No more wars for oil.

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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.