Momentum recently announced a new campaign “Bankrupt Climate Change”. It is good that they are campaigning on climate issues. The way they are doing so lets Labour off the hook, and is inadequate and undemocratic. It nonetheless provides opportunities for building a socialist environmentalist campaign.
In their mobilising call, Momentum organiser Aliya Yule said: “Rather than digging more coal mines, or drilling more oil fields and building more pipelines, we need to radically transform our energy infrastructure, and build a green economy for the many. Labour have quite ambitious plans for green investment, that’s part of a much broader ‘green industrial revolution’.
“I don’t know if people have seen that’s been talked about by John McDonnell and Becky Longbailey, but we need to step up and play our part to. Because we won’t transform the economy, and beat climate change, just by pulling policy levers in Westminster. It’s gonna take some real grassroots action in communities across the country.”
However, Labour’s proposed plans are far from ambitious enough, as Solidarity has previously noted, and as any socialist environmentalist who has looked closely will tell you. Momentum, as the largest left organisation within Labour, should recognise this and fight for Labour to do better. However, their consistent approach since the undemocratic imposition of a new constitution at the beginning of 2017 has been to uncritically support and defend the Labour leadership, in all cases. We won’t tackle climate change or transform the economy on that basis.
The core of the campaign is holding monthly protests targetting Barclays banks across the country, aiming to pressure them to cut all investments in fossil fuels. This is framed as how we “break the chain of fossil fuel finance… [i]f we beat Barclays, we can land a fatal blow to the fossil fuel industry.” The current “carbon bubble”, the quantity of fossil fuel infrastructure, extracted fuels, and other assets which would have to be abandoned in a shift to green energy, has been estimated as between $28 and $100 trillion. The campaign states that “one of the biggest culprits is Barclays. Between 2016 and 2018, Barclays financed fossil fuels to the tune of over $85 billion.”
That is a lot, but only a fraction of 1% of the magnitude of global fossil assets. Trying to nudge fossil companies into being greener with such incentive-based approaches, let alone trying to wipe them out of existence, will not work. It certainly won’t work on anything like the necessary timescale. Fossil companies have the interest and the clout to withstand such divestments. They can influence governments to intervene in their interests.
One success that is sometimes celebrated is divestment targetted at the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, in Canada. However, the outcome in that situation was the oil pipeline being nationalised to keep it going ahead. As a movement, divestment, at least originally, saw itself as tackling the “social license” of fossil fuels companies. Raising the importance of tackling climate change and migrating away from fossil fuels is of course important, and “symbolic” divestment actions can help — but only as a first step.
Of course, “being determines consciousness”, and through a process of campaigning over something for a symbolic reason, many campaigners have inadvertently persuaded themselves and other people that it will make a significant difference. Consumerist, individualistic approaches to politics as a propaganda tool, being overly focussed with absolving institutions you are linked to from connection to climate change, can lead to inadequate ways of trying to bring about change. Concern with our agency, and the agency of companies, as investors, in the tackling of climate change, is misplaced. We should be concerned with the agency of ourselves as workers, and of the labour movement, in tackling it.
This means orientating the labour movement and Labour party around organising to win socialist environmentalist demands. For starters: take the banks, energy, and transport into public ownership under workers’ control, to bring about a rapid transition to a zero-carbon economy. Make banks fund energy being transitioned to green production, and public transport hugely expanded on an energy-efficient basis.
Referring to this campaign, Laura Parker, Momentum’s national coordinator, said “[w]e’ve got it in for the forces of global capital”. If this is to be genuine, to do so means organising the labour movement seriously to confront the power of fossil capital, and capital more widely — not just encouraging people to move banks.