The growing mood for radical change has to be harnessed by the left on a global scale, and the demands for action over the climate have to be put at the heart of every movement, argues Feyzi Ismail
The climate emergency is here, and it is happening now. Critical climate thresholds are being crossed as wildfires, droughts, floods and other extreme weather events, together with the loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification and melting glaciers, occur with greater frequency and intensity.
This is even before the world has hit temperatures of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, a key lower limit of the historic Paris Agreement that came out of COP21. These thresholds are not confined to one part of the globe, and scientists are consistently alarmed at the pace and scale of the impact of global heating.
The world is way off the targets set by the Paris Agreement when governments promised to limit carbon emissions according to contributions determined at a national level. Currently, the World Meteorological Organization estimates that there is a 40% chance of at least one year before 2025 surpassing the 1.5C threshold.
Report after report shows that emissions continue to rise, and many reports reveal the consequences of rising emissions. However, we don’t need reports to tell us about the impacts of the crisis; people are already suffering the real effects of climate and ecological breakdown.
If the people in power continue down this reckless path, then we are hurtling towards 2C of warming or higher, making human habitation in large parts of the world impossible. Time has not run out, but it is coming dangerously close to running out if we fail to force governments to turn the situation around.
Within the decade, CO2 emissions have to be cut entirely if we are to avoid tipping points and chain reactions beyond human control. As it is, emissions that have already accumulated in the atmosphere, which remain there for roughly a century after being released, means the crisis will get worse before it gets better.
What are the politicians doing?
After decades of dithering and denial, some world leaders, including Boris Johnson, are suddenly claiming to be interested. Johnson, a one-time climate denier, has the nerve to blame other countries for ‘not doing enough’ while he refuses to block new coal mines and oil fields in Britain.
The truth is the here and now the reality of climate change has made it impossible for leaders to completely ignore the issue. But they cannot be trusted to act. The recent G20 meeting in Italy failed even to come up with any plan to curtail coal-generated energy.
Yet, the fact that politicians have got even this far is also down to the pressure exerted by the global climate justice movement, which made breakthroughs with the emergence of the Extinction Rebellion and the youth climate strikes. It is the movements that have put the climate crisis on the global agenda and made demands based on science, and it is the movements that have mobilised millions to act.
Now the movement has to use this COP26 in Glasgow to raise the temperature and increase the pressure still further.
Against blah, blah, blah
Leaders may agree to cut emissions, they may make more promises, and they may bring targets forward, but they can’t be trusted. All the governments gathering at COP26 are fundamentally committed to the interests of big capital.
Yet it has to be recognised that market solutions to address the climate crisis, including offsetting carbon footprints, carbon taxes and so forth, have not worked, and that relying on market competition will not put the world on track to cut emissions. Moreover, putting a price tag on the transition to renewables reveals the short-sightedness of a focus on economic growth.
As long as governments continue to allow fossil-fuel companies to extract, invest and explore for oil and gas, using the banks as lenders, and refuse to shut coal mines permanently, the climate talks will mean nothing.
While companies reap astronomical profits from business, as usual, billions of people, mainly in the Global South, confront grave dangers. All of this means that organised, collective resistance is decisive.
We should be putting demands on the governments at COP26: national targets for emissions reductions must be binding, and the heaviest burden must fall on the industrialised West, which has historically benefited from burning fossil fuels.
The talks must also clarify how emissions and targets are calculated, to make transparent the scale of the problem. Historic emissions, outsourced emissions: all emissions have to be counted and cut. The financing needed to help poorer countries cut emissions must be forthcoming, with no excuses or delays, and carbon markets must be abandoned.
What is to be done?
But let’s have no illusions about COP26. Much more needs to be done to begin a transition to a sustainable economy. Infrastructure to protect people from fires, flooding, and extreme weather means public spending on fire services, housing for all, and safer housing.
It means ensuring that transport is safe, but also run on renewables and that public transport is cheap, efficient and convenient. Nationalising railways and buses would mean real alternatives to cars and road freight. Nationalisation would need to go further to include power distribution, transmission and generation.
This kind of radical Green New Deal will not be delivered without immense pressure from below, because the big business will see the fundamental social change that it requires as a threat.
That is, if the real solution to the climate crisis ultimately lies beyond capitalism, then fighting for radical alternatives in the here and now establishes the foundation for dismantling the capitalist mode of organising the economy.
In mobilising millions, the international climate movement has helped to win public opinion over to the side of those who want radical change.
Trade unions are beginning to raise issues of the climate crisis at the national level, in workplaces, and in protests. The anti-austerity movements are demanding a redistribution of resources such that national budgets are redirected towards green jobs. The housing movement is starting to integrate demands around the climate into their programmes. The anti-war movement is demanding an end to wars for oil and an end to nuclear weapons.
But the left also has to organise to go much further. There is a mood for change amongst millions of people in this country and around the world.
In Britain, ten million people voted for a Corbyn alternative in 2019, and polls show that there is massive support for nationalisations, an increase in government spending, and much greater taxes on the rich. There has been a significant uptick in strikes over the last few months, including in Glasgow during COP26.
All of this shows that many working-class people are making connections between the capitalist crisis and the climate, and are not prepared to put up with the chaos generated by decades of neoliberal rule.
This mood for change has to be harnessed by the left on a global scale, and the demands for action over the climate have to be put at the heart of every movement.
The decisive moment is now: either we mobilise the biggest possible working-class resistance that uses all the tactics at its disposal to avert the crisis, or the capitalists unleash civilisational catastrophe.
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Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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