Climate campaigning, large and small

Submitted by AWL on 3 July, 2019 - 12:27 Author: Mike Zubrowski

A record breaking – and dangerous – heatwave swept much of Europe in the closing days of June, affecting the UK too, with a lighter touch.

For once, complaints of it being “too hot” seemed more than an excuse to grumble. But these unnatural temperatures are the benign end of repercussions of the global climatic instability caused by rising greenhouse gas levels.

In the same period, a study was published demonstrating higher-than-predicted increase in sea temperature. One knock-on effect is reduction of the ocean’s capacity to absorb gasses, including greenhouse gasses, reducing the “budget” of how much can be globally emitted if we are to avoid crossing certain alarming climactic thresholds.

This study adds to the exponentially accumulating levels of – widely accepted – understanding about climate change, illuminating the finer details of risks facing us in increasingly horrifying detail. Yet, in the first 19 years of this millennium, alongside this explosion of understanding and awareness, the world has doubled its coal-fired power capacity; on top of this, the capacity currently being built or planned is over half the quantity of these recent new-builds. With this, comes the inexorable acceleration of our annual emissions, acceleration towards whatever climatic thresholds – and not for want of alternative sources.

These undisputable facts are a forceful indictment of the irredeemably irrational – even collectively suicidal – nature of capitalism, the life-force of the fossil economy, the system of social relations forcing the engine of greenhouse emissions to burp out poison at greater and greater speeds.

There is still time, and much we can and must do to limit catastrophic climate change, to overcome capitalism, and to create a free society. Precisely because of the importance of fighting climate change, it is imperative to think carefully and in detail about how we should go about waging this struggle.

In this article, I make the case that (I) the forces driving climate change are internationally entwined, an integrated whole; (II) that climate change can’t be fixed by focussing exclusively at a local level; (III) that dominant ideological currents push in the direction of such a limited focus, hence the importance of critiquing them; (IV) what we can and should do, on a local and wider level, and how. Local campaigning has a crucial place, which we must contextualise within a broader perspective: the final section gives suggestions on how. It should go without saying that when environmental — or any — campaigning is limited, we should get involved to actively support and push it to more radical organising.

I. Fossil capitalism as a totality

Andreas Malm, in Fossil Capital, writes:

“The fossil economy has the character of totality, a distinguishable entity: a socio-ecological structure, in which a certain economic process and a certain form of energy are welded together. [...listing a range of actions, such as an individual driving a car, promoted or even enforced by the fossil economy…]

“Moreover, none of these emitting actions would be possible without integration into the fossil economy: alone on an island, or living in a country untouched by this economy, an individual could complete none of them.”

Fossil fuels, buried underground, do not burn themselves, nor does a car or power station, by itself, emit CO2. This emission requires, is compelled by, the social relations that make the fossil fuels’ consumption happen, make them available for consumption, bring the machines in which they are combusted into existence, and into use.

Today, this is an international process; the unprecedented growth of coal power was largely in China and India, supporting international transferral of production processes and supply chains to these countries. The truth of environmentalism necessitating internationalism grows stronger by the day; we must confront the fossil economy as a whole.

II. Limits of exclusively local activism

Individuals, and individual small institutions, still operating within society, cannot escape from the fossil economy, any more than you can have a “TTIP free zone” or a “socialist town” within the UK today.

Claims of individual and institutional “carbon neutrality” sometimes rest in part on (dubiously calculated) “carbon offsetting” – through tree-planting and the like – to justify their claims, without any substantial changes. In other cases, and in the questionable practice of calculating individual “carbon footprints”, methodologies rely on ignoring many factors through a one-dimensional and flawed understanding of the causal and social relations behind a given quantity of greenhouse gasses entering our atmosphere.

An organisation may claim to be “carbon neutral” (or occasionally “decarbonised”) through a calculation of net electricity use in their building, and the “source” of this electricity. But the same calculation may ignore emissions involved in construction of the building; carbon dioxide produced in the necessary travel to and from the building for the organisation to function; contributions from supply chains of the goods, the internet, the services used within the building; effects of making available the food that must be consumed for the workers in the building to perform the labour necessary for the organisation to function; or the role the organisation plays in the accumulation of capital and the perpetuation of an ever-flatulent fossil economy. Additionally, a key unquestioned assumption is that their reduced use of electricity or fuel will directly lead to total reduction of electricity produced or fuel consumed in equal measure. Capitalist economics are more complex, and less rational, than that.

Beyond the unscientific nature of the necessary bracketing out of many elements to make such a calculation, and justify such a claim, there are deeper political problems to approaches which see bit-by-bit “carbon neutrality” as the solution.[1] Implicit in the language of a single “carbon neutral” institution, and in the dominant liberal-environmentalist narrative which celebrates this, are ideas of linear progression towards global net zero emissions through the incremental advance of such piecemeal changes. This distracts from the real forces at play, from the solutions needed.

To tackle climate change – internationally – the working class must take democratic public control of the energy sector to force a rapid transition to green energy sources, financed through expropriation of the wealthy and the banks. Likewise for the transition into affordable, expanded, efficient and electric-powered transport; transformation of buildings and industry, and overhauling of the food sector.

III. Prevailing small-scale focus

The prevailing liberal-environmentalist worldview champions changing this or that little thing about your habits, the technology you use, and so on: install low-energy lightbulbs, switch to a green energy provider, use fewer plastic bags.

The more “radical” end of this permeates much of the better environmental left: flying is a fundamental sin, those who aren’t vegan should be denounced, cycling is a revolutionary act.

Those influenced by these perspectives but wanting a more collective approach often then seek to cleanse the institutions they are attached to, using the same underlying logic: make them get rid of plastic water bottles and straws, recycle more and install a solar panel,[2] divest from fossil fuels.

This narrower focus on the environmental left has been strengthened at points by aversion to making demands of the state by anarchism-influenced environmentalists. More decisively, insufficiently large and confident environmental movements, and the consequent defeats faced those who have courageously battled on, has contributed to limited horizons.

Undoubtedly, the size and strength of the environmental movement in recent decades has limited it as much as its strategy: if it became more powerful, even with limited aims, that would be a cause for celebration. But the two are not completely distinct: limited perspectives has contributed to its isolation, and vice versa. As militant class-struggle environmentalists, we should throw ourselves into building bigger, more powerful, and more strategic movements.

Recently, after the tunnel-vision of institution-by-institution focus having limited much of the environmental movement for decades, Extinction Rebellion, youth climate strikes and “green new deal” campaigns have moved beyond it; gaining traction when doing so — very positive development.

We must strive for clarity, precision, and honesty. Lenin affirmed this in Argue About Tactics, But Give Clear Slogans!, as does Trotsky in The Transitional Programme:

“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules of the Fourth International.”

The need for strict political clarity over these issues is demonstrated, in the negative, by the evolution of the “divestment” movement over the last decade. Originally seeing ending of investment by public institutions in shares in fossil fuel corporations as a preliminary stage in environmental campaigning, “removing the social license” of these fossil companies.

With all the positives of creative divestment campaigns, the movement wasn’t sufficiently honest or clear, now widely celebrating divestment as an end in itself.

So for socialists to advocate talking of this or that workplace becoming “decarbonised” or “carbon neutral” is to perpetuate muddled thinking about how the necessary environmental transition will happen. Workers’ Liberty has and continues to argue for bold, internationalist politics to fight climate change; recognising dominant ideas around us, we should continue with precision and truth in little as well as big explications.

IV. How to stop climate catastrophe

What ideas and strategy socialists advocate is a distinct question from how socialists relate to those following different ideas and strategies.

Workers’ Liberty and Solidarity supporters were heavily involved in the “climate camps” of last decade, while criticising the limitations of their politics, pushing the movement to go further. We rightly relate in similar ways to more recent environmental movements. Extinction Rebellion, for example, has a limited strategy in various ways, but the growth of combative climate action is exciting and urgent, and we get involved to push it to it’s conclusion. My focus in this article, however, is what socialists should advocate for.

While there is no even vaguely straight line between individual local institutions becoming more energy efficient, or other such changes, and the wider changes needed, this does not mean there is not a line between local environmental campaigns and wider transitions. Indeed these can play an important role.

The journey between the world we find before us today and one of net zero – or negative – emissions requires the implementation of bold, socialist, environmentalist programmes. These must be fought for by the organised working class, convinced of such ideas. Here and now, we must argue for such ideas amongst youth strikers, within the environmental movement including that around Extinction Rebellion, through campaigning for a “Green New Deal”. We should argue for it within, and work for the fusion of environmental campaigning within the trade union movement.

To get to a sustainable world requires not just promotion of, persuasion to, education about environmental socialism, at least in a narrowly conceived way. It also requires a raising of the confidence, horizons and organisation of the working class – the force capable of winning such changes – through struggle, including environmental struggle.

In part this must be through trade union branches, workers organised at the point of production, advocating for society-wide changes, and supporting youth climate strikers. But there’s more that can be done.

Workplace reps have in several places made progress in acting on environmental issues, some achieving considerable emissions or energy reductions. As Paul Hampton noted in his book Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity (buy the book here, review here), with environmental and environmentally-engaged workplace reps, “even less adversarial union reps tended to go beyond the parameters laid down by government and employers”.

Even employers purporting to want to be greener reject many proposals from them on cost grounds. Additionally, at least one workplace reports “greater appetite amongst rank and file members to get involved with tackling environmental issues than… for… traditional trade union areas.”

There are immediate possibilities for activism which engages wider levels of workers, widens their political horizons, brings them into conflict with their bosses, and helps to move the trade union movement as a whole forward on these issues.

There are fairly clear, evident and significant environmental demands that workers in the energy, transport or construction industry can organise to win in their own workplaces. Such struggles are much needed, and by their nature as major changes and need for public funding, will take serious organisation and pressure to win.

How about – for example – schools, universities, public administration? Compared to many other sectors these have a comparatively low energy consumption: in public administration in the UK it has been steadily falling for decades (whether considering intensity or total usage).

Specific demands tailored to particular industries, recognising the social role they can play in transition, in many cases provide a better basis for campaigns. School workers could campaign for serious curriculum reform to place climate change, its scientific and social causes, more centrally in the curriculum. Students and university workers could demand an overhaul of the current structure of research funding, shifting the control of from external unaccountable funders to democratic public funding, ramped up for research and development about everything climate change related.

Substantial reductions can still be made in these lower emissions workplaces. Since 2015, Stanford University, USA, have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing their own gas-fired power plant with electricity largely from the grid, they have electrified their heating, cooling and transportation systems, using heat pumps and storage systems, pioneering new technology. These large integrated systems and storage can overcome limitations of some renewable-sourced (grid) energy having intermittent electricity.

The key benefit here isn’t so much whatever direct emissions reductions it might lead to, but its function as a test-lab for new technologies. As a university of 30,000 people it is acting on the scale and with the necessary centralisation to introduce such changes — in advanced capitalist countries few workplaces outside (campus) universities could play this role. Their transition is integrated into research, a key function of universities.

Campaigns over research is thus more important than campaigning over energy efficiency, in universities. While aiming to reduce consumption might offer “easy wins”, such campaigns must be clearly contextualised – with clear slogans – and kept in proportion from the start.

This additionally acts as a major advertisement, a driving force greater in both cases than any campaigning that happened. We must be vigilant about “greenwashing”: Keele university’s plans hype up methods aiming to make natural gas slightly less polluting, allowing technologies reliant on it to exude a green tinge as they further heat our planet. This, too, emphasises the need for working-class environmental campaigns, putting the needs of humanity as a whole before profit and image.

In these sectors, campaigns to reduce emissions might provide a focus for campaigning activity, providing fairly straightforward wins that could galvanise and educate a workers’ campaign. But while not disdaining “low-hanging fruit”, socialists should also offer clarity on where the real prize for local climate change demands lies. Keeping our eyes on the prize shapes both what we should chose to campaign for and how we should phrase demands.

Environmental workplace activism can develop workers’ sense of agency. It helps to pose the question of power in the workplace: who does and should run it, workers or bosses? Socialists should initiate such campaigns.

But we should avoid localist illusions, offer clarity and precision about the national and international efforts needed alongside our local fights, and choose local demands that will bring us furthest forward in the international fight for a transition to a low-carbon economy.


1. Socialists have long recognised that international socialism is possible, socialism in just one city or small country isn’t, but socialism in a sufficiently large and advanced economic bloc, such as Europe as a whole, could be, transitionally, as a step towards international socialism. There is no logical contradiction here. Likewise, the aim of net zero emissions internationally is crystal clear, net zero aims for an individual or small institution is muddy and murky, net zero as an aim for an institution somewhere in the middle makes progressively more sense.

2. Widely co-ordinated energy systems are generally more efficient and can have wider knock-on effects in terms of transitions than local ones. Plus, where electricity is used isn’t necessarily the best place for electricity generation. Having solar panels – or wind turbines! — installed on a building which is aiming to reduce its “carbon footprint” is often far from the best approach.

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