Photograph: Robin Pope
AN EXTRAORDINARY TWO WEEKS before Easter saw thousands of schoolchildren strike for the third time, well over a thousand Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists arrested for blocking central London, Swedish school student Greta Thunberg address MPs and David Attenborough go on primetime TV to warn of the looming catastrophe of runaway climate change.
Such was the public sympathy that even the Daily Mail and Sun had to express grudging support. In Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn won unanimous cross party support (albeit it in a nearly empty chamber!) for declaring a Climate Emergency. Our celebratory week of barricades, mass arrests and civil disobedience, during which central London became effectively traffic-free, was reported by Private Eye to have cut the City’s toxic nitrous oxide emissions by 40%.
I have heard critics complain that XR is top-heavy with scientists and other academics. But who better to lead a movement against climate catastrophe than those whose job it is to know what’s wrong and shout it from the rooftops? Should it be doctors, city traders, fire-fighters?
It’s time to counter the populist nonsense about science being elitist or subservient to capitalism. In this case, the opposite is true. Whatever the source of funding, it would be hard to find a single current within climate science which views the continuation of free market capitalism as compatible with planetary survival. At its best, science is the one truly collectivist, truly accountable, genuinely internationalist form of knowledge we have. Unless our policies are based on scientific evidence, they will be irrelevant at best and more likely to be plain disastrous.
Since the 1970s, the West’s response to environmental issues has been restricted by the dominance of neo-liberal economics. We were urged to focus on individual action as consumers, switching off light bulbs or buying sustainable furniture, rather than taking collective political action. Instead of urging government intervention, we were urged to embrace free market mechanisms such as the carbon trading scam. Most damagingly of all, we were urged to see climate action as a separate issue from the governance of markets, finance and banking, rather than exploring what kind of economic system might enable sustainability.
It is people of colour in the world’s poorest countries who are already suffering most. In the past year, climate chaos has hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, devastated by Cyclone Idai, hit the East Coast of India with two terrible cyclones in six weeks, hit Syria, Libya and Yemen, where climate chaos has been stoking civil war, and hit Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where crop failure, drought and the collapse of fisheries have been driving people from their homes.
Although attitudes have changed, poverty still prevents many people from worrying about the climate. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or if you can’t pay the rent, your mind will be focused on surviving the week. For this reason among so many others, the struggle for economic justice needs to be recognised as inseparable from the struggle to stop climate catastrophe from devastating the globe.
John McDonnell has proposed providing everyone with a basic income as of right, funding this by abolishing tax breaks for the rich. That would certainly help.
It is probably too late to save some of the world’s great living wonders, such as coral reefs and monarch butterflies. It might also be too late to prevent many of the world’s most vulnerable people from losing their homes. But, with every increment of global heating, we will have to accept still worse tragedies, many of which can still be prevented through radical social and political transformation.
The prevailing capitalist system - whose premise is perpetual economic growth on a finite planet - will inevitably implode. The only question is whether the collapse is planned or unplanned. Our task is to make sure it is planned, and fast.
This may not be as difficult as it once seemed. XR speakers have been citing research indicating that for a peaceful mass movement to succeed, you only need to mobilise 3.5% of the population. Combine the support we have mobilised already with the immense resources of the trade union and labour movement, not to mention the prospect of getting Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10, and you can begin to glimpse the possibilities.
Kofi Klu, a refugee from Ghana, has been acting as XR’s international solidarity coordinator. He has reminded us that tactics which may work in Europe, such as supporting children when they skip school, may not work in Africa where education remains a minority privilege. In Ghana, Kofi reported, it was school children themselves who invented a better method, blowing whistles “to raise the alarm” during break times. Kofi has also been vocal in warning XR activists in Europe not to be too self-congratulatory, reminding everyone that people of colour around the globe have been resisting corporate polluters and criminal exploiters in their own way long before Europeans noticed their responsibilities.
These are some of the tragedies now unfolding:
Weather abnormalities related to climate change are already costing billions of dollars a year, and growing exponentially.
In Antarctica, the Ross Ice Shelf, which is the size of France, is now known to be melting ten times faster than scientists previously thought. By the end of this century, rising seas will have flooded all the world’s low-lying cities, displacing some 650 million refugees.
About half of the world’s coral reefs have already died in the last 30 years, owing to a combination of warmer temperatures and the increasing acidification of the world’s oceans as they absorb carbon dioxide. Once the oceans turn acid, not only will we lose all our fish stocks and marine life, but the rest of the globe will quickly cease to be habitable.
Environmental scientists are now describing our era as the sixth mass extinction event in the history of Planet Earth, with this one caused by us. The current rate of extinction of species is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural background rates.
When scientists highlight these facts, they are typically accused of hyperbole and alarmism. On the contrary: the scientific community have been excessively timid and conservative in their warnings. Each time scientists have tested a theoretical prediction in the light of observed global warming, they have realised that they were seriously underestimating the rates of change.
XR has three demands for the UK. It wants the government to
Tell the truth about climate change by declaring a climate emergency;
Create a citizens’ assembly to guide action;
Set a target of reducing greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2025.
Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and the whole Labour front bench have agreed to the first of XR’s demands, while signalling Labour’s willingness to debate the other two. When Parliament voted unanimously to support Jeremy’s proposal to declare a climate emergency, it was the first country in the world to take this step.
So now it’s officially an emergency. What does this mean? Imagine placing the whole country on a war-footing. Austerity has to end. And we have every reason to resist the temptation of neo-liberal politicians to invoke climate emergency as a cover for continuing austerity by other means. Rightly, Labour is committed to ensure that the quality of life increases for everyone as we move to a zero-carbon economy.
As we let go of our addiction to polluting cars and gas boilers, ordinary people should expect and demand improved living conditions, not continuing poverty and hardship. I am in support of those many economists who insist that we need to stop measuring wealth in purely monetary terms. We need to explode the whole idea that a forest is of no value until we start cutting trees down and selling the timber. Alongside a new social and economic system, we need an entirely new culture which turns our current value system upside down, putting our collective needs before all else.
All economics, as Karl Marx once explained, can be reduced in the final analysis to the economics of time. For the past few centuries, capitalism has been imposing on us the miserable dogma that “time is money”. The result has been to rob us of our leisure time - time to play with our children, to tend an allotment, to celebrate with our friends, or time to slow down with sufficient abundance and security to simply enjoy being alive.
The key is social justice. People will make sacrifices if the rules apply fairly to all. We have seen in France what happens when a neo-liberal government lets the rich go free while imposing the costs of environmental legislation one-sidedly on the working class.
So let’s start with the rich. We need a crackdown on crime, starting at the top:
Refuse planning permission for housing not fully insulated and heated with green energy;
Outlaw fracking or anything else which stokes up carbon emissions;
Cancel Heathrow expansion;
Take over the National Grid and nationalise the banks, offering compensation based strictly on need.
Plant a million trees a week. Ban private cars from cities. Make public transport free. Replace gas boilers with carbon neutral alternatives. Finance all this at the expense of the rich, and by cancelling such insane systems as Trident.
Science says we must change our economic priorities and entire way of life. That means overthrowing capitalism in order to save Planet Earth.
Dulwich and West Norwood CLP