The UK's Climate Rebels
There are lessons to be drawn from Vestas for the movement, too. The occupation was hailed as a breakthrough for red-green organizing, but it's easy for climate campaigners to make common cause with workers in green jobs. The challenge is to engage with those who have the most to lose from a low-carbon transition: power-plant workers and oil company employees, aviation technicians and airport catering staff, people who live on the edge of fuel poverty or who can barely afford a cheap flight to somewhere warm. The earnest young Trots from Workers' Climate Action who went down to Vestas succeeded in mobilizing a workforce who had never before taken action, and in pushing the government to put up funds for new wind-power research. But their stiff rhetoric of "class-conscious worker-led action" and "environmentalist working-class socialist revolutionary politics" may not wash so well in a less friendly setting or with more seasoned unions. Heathrow Airport is the biggest single-site employer in Britain; the national leaders of two of Britain's largest unions, GMB and Unite, are in favor of a third runway. Despite efforts by some activists and the local left-wing Labour MP, John McDonnell, to listen to their concerns, the airport's clerks and cleaners have not rushed to join in the protests there. Nor have the workers at coal-fired power plants been in a hurry to welcome a bunch of middle-class hippies who've come to shut them down.
In fact, the trade union movement has been doing its own unglamorous work toward a low-carbon transition, taking some inspiration from American pioneers like OCAW's Tony Mazzocchi. Paul Hampton writes on health, safety and environmental issues for the trade union-funded Labour Research Department; his recent survey of union representatives found many of them promoting green practices in their workplaces. "For union reps," he says, "this is going to grow as a political issue because of what the government and employers are doing." In every previous economic shift, from the Industrial Revolution to the closure of Britain's coal mines to globalization, working people have been treated as expendable. Just transition, he points out, "is still a contested concept, plastic enough to host a number of different interpretations. The government's version is predominantly market driven, but you could envisage a worker-led version that's much more bottom up."
It's for that reason that George Marshall's Climate Outreach and Information Network has launched a project called Climate Solidarity--with some government funding--to engage rank-and-file union members in the issue of climate change. "There's been a total and systematic failure by the progressive left to take this issue on until very recently," says Marshall. "This is the biggest social and equality issue of all time--and our challenge to the unions is, Why have you handed it over to people you see as a bunch of middle-class tree-huggers? Greening the trade unions is the wrong way to think about it--what it's really about is bringing a left-wing union perspective to climate change." Kevin Smith, a Climate Camp veteran, makes a parallel argument: "We need to move beyond the whole conservation issue and see climate change in terms of power relations: what are the vested interests preventing us from moving forward?"
The climate movement, in all its biodiversity--from direct-action groups to traditional NGOs, from local transition towns to national campaigns, from academic researchers to community organizers--is coming out of the ghetto. Increasingly, climate change is understood as a social and political issue, a matter for mobilization, not individual choices. But the movement--and part of the government--is a long, long way ahead of most of the population, for whom climate change remains an abstract anxiety; though they "believe" in it, they are much more concerned about rising fuel costs and supermarket prices. For all Ed Miliband's efforts to paint a rosy picture of a low-carbon future, to the majority the issue still smacks of Puritanism, smugness and self-denial. It's depressing, tedious, trendy; the government is hypocritical; there's no point in giving things up if the United States, China and India aren't going to do their bit.
We are now at a critical juncture, and not only because time is running out for us to limit global warming to a "livable" level. The climate crisis touches on every aspect of the world's political, social and economic organization. We have to change the direction of a massive juggernaut driven by profit and habit, and we have to do it fast. But not everyone who's pushing wants to turn it the same way. The metaphor is crude, but it speaks to some of the hardest questions facing the climate movement, and indeed the negotiators at the Copenhagen summit, where a binding agreement has now all but been ruled out. Would almost any climate deal be better than none at all? Would an agreement based on carbon trading or one that is unfavorable to the poorest be better than a postponement? How can we make the right changes in the time we have to make them, broaden the base while sharpening the message, use the climate crisis as a catalyst for social justice rather than as a gun held by the powerful to the heads of the weak? Whatever happens in Denmark, we'll be having those debates for many years to come. n