Recent climate activism has shifted the debate but unless the system of profit-seeking is addressed then there will be no change to the ecological danger we face, argues Bill Perry
On Wednesday, 1 May, the UK parliament passed Labour’s ‘environment and climate emergency’ motion. The motion came just a week after our ‘extinction rebellion’, that saw thousands of protestors take and hold four sites in central London for ten days. A rebellion of garden bridges, pink boats, samba bands, over a thousand arrests and peoples’ assemblies of hundreds in the middle of London streets. A rebellion that has grown alongside the school student strikes (over a million students globally) and has forced a seismic shift in debate on climate change. Greta Thunberg was right when she tweeted that night, ‘activism works’.
Tell the truth
The declaration of a climate emergency is a start, but words are cheap, and actions are what is needed. Time matters because half a degree matters. The IPCC report of 2018 states that the impact of a warming increase of 2 degrees as opposed to 1.5 degrees will be catastrophic. In addition to the devastating impact that we are already seeing from climate change, that extra half a degree is predicted to put hundreds of millions more lives at risk and displace millions more. Nobody is quite sure. It is important to note that this is an environmental as well as a climate emergency. In addition to the impact of temperature rises, industrial farming is destroying habitats on mass scale to such an extent that scientists are saying earth is currently undergoing its sixth mass extinction. Globally we are losing forests the size of 21 football pitches every day.The signs of the mass extinction are all around us. Insect numbers are declining by 2.5% a year. Up to one million species face extinction within decades. It is already too late to save our coral reef. The 2018 IPCC report gave us 12 years to take drastic action to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. That report didn’t factor in the impact of Methane gas being released from the melting permafrost, and no scientific models can fully predict what events will trigger a tipping point that propels us towards a 3, 4, or 5-degree rise. ‘Our house is on fire and we have to act.’
Acting means leaving fossil fuels in the ground, it means an end to Agribusiness as usual. It means an end to permanent consumption and waste. It means changes to how we work, produce, how we live, our homes, what we eat and changes in humanities priorities.
We can’t rely on the politicians who declared the emergency to tell the truth let alone take the actions necessary. For the week of the rebellion we had politicians and commentators telling us how the UK had reduced emissions since the 1970’s. They used figures that didn’t include air travel or take into account that UK emissions fell as we reduced manufacturing and coal production - but we just moved our carbon consumption to countries like China and India. We have a government still committed to a third runway at Heathrow and fossil fuels. Behind the politicians our banks are financing the climate catastrophe, lending and investing billions in fossil fuel extraction. We have a ruling class that was prepared to go to war in Iraq or support a coup in Venezuela, in part motivated by fossil fuels. We are fighting against powerful vested interests, powerful corporations who will do whatever is required to defend their profits.
Climate vs Capitalism
It is true some of our rulers are worried. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has claimed that financial systems face an existential threat from climate change. The alarm he raised spoke volumes of the elites concerns and the solutions that the capitalists will seek. It is not the people who will die which concern them. They are working out how to protect their investments when economies collapse, while states fail in the fallout from famine and climate chaos particularly in the global south.
Their system is a system that subordinates everything to the accumulation of profit, grow-or-die system. If accumulation declines, the result is economic crisis. The answer of the system to crisis is to boost accumulation. This intensifies global environmental crises. This creates a paradox for our rulers. While they look to green technologies and other alternatives, the capitalists will do nothing that slows growth and impacts profits. It is why no governments have yet taken the necessary actions to steeply reduce carbon emissions. It is why the super-rich are building luxury bolt holes where the can ride out the coming catastrophe. It is why the EU and the USA are building higher walls to keep out refugees rather than address the injustice of how environmental destruction originating in the north is impacting the global south hardest.
Building our movement building an alternative
So, we have to find the solutions and build a movement capable of delivering them. We take responsibility to fight for words to be turned into action. Our movement demands climate justice because we understand that climate crisis impacts low income communities hardest. Our response takes on board the disproportionate impact on the global south and the responsibility of affluent economies to solve the climate crisis we face. We demand carbon neutrality in the UK by 2025. Our movement understands it has to be a global movement that taps into the full potential of humanity. Our movement raises the banner of ‘Just Transition’, (the fourth demand of XR USA), that the transition to low carbon economies will not be done at the expense of the 99%. Those of us working in the fossil fuel industries must not be discarded but must find secure jobs in the new industries.
It was clear from our XR assemblies that we understand that our rebellion is just starting. When we left Marble Arch the talk was about going back to our communities and building our global movement in our localities. I would argue that this means not only building the new local assemblies but also linking with other existing campaigns and movements. Our campaigns for refugee solidarity and against war take on new renewed urgency in a world of leaders putting up walls and driving to us to war over declining resources. Our fight against austerity and for decent jobs must be linked to the campaign for a million climate jobs and a world where we value more than just profit. In our struggles to save our homes, cities and land from the property speculators we now raise the question of environmental impact, retrofitting not demolishing, and rewilding. Climate justice has to run through all our struggles now
We also need to take the demands and energy of our movement into our unions. Over 6 million people are organised in our trade unions, many of whom have existing policies on climate change. Where they don’t, we need to take on the arguments that fossil fuel industries provide jobs with arguments for a different vision of work and for green jobs. Most importantly in a battle against the powerful corporations and lobbies driven by profit our unions are organised where we make that profit and can turn it off. On March the 15th Belgium power workers went on strike in support of the school student climate strike and to make sure they had a say in a just transition from fossil fuels. In the USA coalitions are forming between indigenous people, trade unions and local communities to fight for climate justice.
It is great that we now have politicians listening to and raising the demands of the movement, but we will have to have an active movement to keep the pressure on. The Mayor of London declared a climate emergence in 2018 but little has changed. After a week of protests the Mayor unbelievably called on campaigners to let London return to ‘business as usual’. XR is demanding a citizen’s assembly as part of the move towards greater democratic control over solving the climate crisis. However, there is no single democratic mechanism that will force change unless it is backed by the power of a mass movement. Ultimately our movement will need to directly challenge the private ownership and control of our economy if we are to make democratic, rational and urgent decisions about how and what we produce, rather than leave it to the madness of the market.
Another world is possible
We stand at the precipice of disaster for humanity. Our movement gives us hope that changes can be made but also in our global struggle. In the bonds that are being built and the demands that are being raised there lies the possibility of another world. The possibility that we can bring an end to the capitalist system that is eating our planet and threatening to destroy humanity and builds a new society based on global cooperation and respect for the environment.