Marxism at Work: Climate Change

Submitted by Off The Rails on 29 June, 2008 - 10:54

Burning fossil fuels and pumping CO2 into the atmosphere is changing our planet. Current projections see temperatures rising by 3°C by mid-century. Sounds insignificant? It means snow cover disappearing across the world, sea ice shrinking, sea levels rising and extremes of temperature.

Public transport is far kinder to the planet than private. Think of a train full of people and imagine each in an individual car! We need cheap or free public transport. We need investment in high-speed rail, but private firms avoid investment. So we need public ownership and accountability.

Transport workers are in a key position to build the working-class fight against climate change. A big campaign is fighting Heathrow expansion. We can support their actions by exposing the polluting air transport industry. But we need to link this with the fight for socially-useful jobs for workers in those industries. We need to fight for more holidays and time away from work for all workers, so that we can make slower but more environmentally-friendly journeys.


Climate change will be dangerous for species and human life. Even American-government-sponsored scientists, after trying to dismiss global warming, have been forced to face it as fact. The British government's Stern Report projected floods, displacement of 200m people, falling crop yields and more.

They propose ineffective ‘solutions’. One is carbon trading, where countries or firms buy tokens for excess carbon emissions. Drax power station, Europe’s largest polluter, last year paid £1.50 for each of its 7.6m tonnes of excess carbon and made a profit of £449m! Carbon trading does not cut emissions, it just turns the ‘right to pollute’ into a commodity that profitable companies can easily afford.

Another ‘solution’ is burning supposedly ‘carbon neutral’ biofuels. Drax has just announced that it will produce 10% of its electricity from biomass. But this drives food prices up, as food shortages result from cultivating vegetation to be burnt. Companies like Drax will do their bit for the planet only in so far as it suits their aims, but will not look at the interests of the planet and humanity as a whole when they choose their methods.

Their ‘solutions’ address only the challenge for capitalism to survive in ever harsher circumstances. The Stern Report was mainly concerned with the ‘devastating economic consequences’ and 3% fall in output it predicted. Working-class and poor people around the world face a different problem. We will suffer the worst effects of climate change. We are not interested in preserving the current economic system, but the long-term survival of our lives and our planet.


Environmental destruction is built into the structure of capitalism. The capitalist system is based on exploitation of human labour, but also exploits the natural world for profit. Capitalists use nature as one (free) ingredient in the production process, and spit out the waste. They destroy rainforests, burn and release the carbon stored in fossil fuels for millions of years without consideration for the unsustainable damage caused.

Capitalism does not develop in a planned way but works towards short-term gains, as competing firms strive to boost this year’s profit. With environmental harm built into capitalism, we can expect no solutions from its political representatives. Their solutions won’t get us out of the mess they created.


So how can we build a genuine solution? We need to change the whole basis of society into one where we produce things to meet human needs and produce in harmony with the environment.

Where do we start? Polluting the air by flying cheaply-produced commodities and food from abroad for consumption in the west will have to change. But we don't want to live a primitive lifestyle, only eating things grown in our own gardens. We don’t want workers anywhere in the world to pay the price for an ecological problem we did not cause. Too often, environmentalism is seen as being about making individual ‘sacrifices’ and punishing working-class people in the west for their consumerism and bad behaviour.

We need a strong workers’ movement that fights when the capitalists try to make us pay the price. In environmentally-harmful industries, workers can organise for a ‘transition’ to socially-useful jobs, so that the bosses, not the workers, pay. We also need trade union environment reps, similar to health & safety reps, with the legal power to stop polluting or harmful work processes.

Rather than thinking of climate change as a concern only for middle-class hippies, workers need to see ourselves as central to halting climate change. The Grangemouth Oil Refinery strike in May showed the power that organised workers have to stop industry and the polluting process. The challenge is to build on that power to achieve long-term, sustainable bases for production in their own industries and ultimately in society.


Workers Taking Action

  • Port of Los Angeles – Port truckers were forced to buy their own trucks, often older, higher-emitting vehicles. They organised with environmentalists into a coalition for clean, safe ports.
  • Lucas Aerospace – The Shop Stewards combined committee organised for their technology to be socially beneficial, eg. developing radar technology to provide aids
  • Builders Labourers Federation in New South Wales, 1970s – organised 'green bans', where building workers refused to do environmentally-harmful jobs.

Workers' Climate Action Network aims to build a grass-roots movement for workers to fight for sustainable industries, and link environmental activism with trade union action. To get involved e mail:

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