Debating action on climate change

Submitted by AWL on 17 July, 2019 - 10:23 Author: Matt Cooper, Paul Hampton, Martin Thomas, Mike Zubrowski
start local

Workers’ Liberty activists have been proposing and debating initiatives on climate change.

Start local for climate action by Matt Cooper

Climate activism in the workplace by Paul Hampton

Intertwining the threads by Martin Thomas

Start small, but aim big by Mike Zubrowski


Start local for climate action

By Matt Cooper

In his article in Solidarity 512, Mike Zubrowski argues that a focus on limited local issues and (by implication) workplace initiatives “distracts from the real forces at play” which are international and require that the working class “take democratic public control” of key sectors of the economy.

I would suggest that we need more debate about the degree to which the response to climate change should be predicated on successful socialist transformations around the world (but I do not have space to deal with this). Here I will focus on the immediate need to start a struggle against climate change based in workplaces based on a focus on immediate local issues which Mike disdains.

The straw man of localism

Mike argues local actions are inadequate to deal with the threat of climate change. This is a truism.

Some climate change NGOs build activism with virtue-signalling lifestyle politics that appears to be such localism, most egregiously the Earth Day Network’s “Billion Acts of Green” of urban tree planting, “sustainable cuisine,” campaigns for climate change on school curricula and the usual #NoMorePlasticBags fluff. However, this is not (in the parlance of NGOs) their “theory of change”. These activities are not their end product. Such NGOs seek to build awareness and create activist-leaders to affect change through the existing decision making process.

While Mike is right to call this “liberal”, its alleged localism not a fault but a strength (building activist movements and winning majorities). Their flaw is using this as a foundation for traditional lobbying, or, at best, a generational shift in opinion leading to an environmentalist march through the institutions.


Instead Mike states that we need “bold, internationalist politics” without any indication of what these might be.

Without a movement in community or workplace, there is no local movement. Without local movements, no national movement. Without national movements, no international politics, bold or otherwise. Without a base, internationalism is passive propaganda aimed at existing school strike and Extinction Rebellion activists lacking the ability to create the agent for its implementation. Such directed propaganda is necessary but we need to present these activists with a cogent alternative.

Climate change and class politics

The criticism of localism, when transferred to the workplace, is even more problematic.

Mike writes: “For socialists to advocate … this or that workplace becoming ‘decarbonised’ or ‘carbon neutral’ is to perpetuate muddled thinking” (original emphasis). But Mike’s proposed bridge between workers organised in workplaces and the international solution required for climate change is (again) propagandistic, “advocating for society-wide changes and supporting youth climate strikers” along with fighting for a more climate- relevant school curriculum, more research in universities and (vaguely) the organisation of workers in key industries. While Mike states that workplace campaigns are important in “creating a sense of agency” he does not seem clear about the fundamental nature of struggle in the workplace.

Socialists’ next strategic goal is to win workers’ action alongside the school strikers. This might not be possible for the next round in September. While we should do what we can, union activists will be hindered by (among other things) such strikes’ illegality. Our approach must be based on workplace issues, not only to build awareness and support but to create a route to legal strike action. The demands will necessarily tend to the local (focused on the employer), although posing these in a wider context is not difficult. They could include:

a. Transport. Rather than selling the car park, we should demand that employers recognise why many workers are forced to drive to work: demand the employer subsidises public transport costs, accounts for the extra time as part of the working day, allows the necessary flexibility in working arrangements etc.

b. Discussing emissions on the level of collective agreement. Make emissions part of the formal worker-employee relationship making it clear that the workers will fight for the employer to bear the cost of mitigation. This could extend to workforce refusing to undertake damaging activities (e.g. shop workers refusing to handle certain goods). This is not simply “lifestyle politics with a syndicalist spin” (as Mike has previously called it) but rank-and-file struggle.

c. Transition. In areas where moves to a carbon neutral economy would have a serious effect on the industry (e.g. motor, construction, transport, aerospace, tourism, agriculture) seek to create workers’ plans for transition.

d. National union policy. Demand that the union’s leadership escalate climate change disputes to industrial action automatically. This would allow climate related strike action, initially in response to the school strikes.

Upcoming climate events

Workers’ Liberty activists and supporters are supporting, building and attending the following events. Please join!

At them, we will advocate working-class climate action, with bulletins and more.

• 25 July, 6.30 p.m, London: discussion organised by the Free Our Unions campaign to contribute to building workers’ climate action on 20 September.

• 26-31 July, South-East of England: camp taking action against new gas-fired power stations, plus workshops on climate and migrants’ rights action.

• 20 September, globally: young people and students will walk out to demand action on climate change. This time there have been calls for workers to join. While a general strike is unlikely, we are organising for strikes, walk-outs and other actions where possible.

Contact us to co-ordinate!


Climate activism in the workplace

By Paul Hampton

Business and government rely on workers’ passivity to do what they want to do – which is to make profit, while polluting freely. Workplaces are an important site of struggle to reduce carbon emissions.

Individuals have little influence; but workers at the point of production have tremendous collective power.

One of the results of concerted trade union campaigning over a number of years around issues of workplace health and safety was the winning of “health and safety reps”.

Many unions have fought for the election of “green reps” to play a similar role, and sometimes won management recognition for such positions.

Of course, it is entirely possible for green reps to be management toadies, allowing themselves to be used to publicise and promote management’s environmental policies which often seek to shift the blame for environmentally-damaging waste in the workplace onto workers.

But green rep positions can be used in a radical way. Green reps should be fighters, rather than a management stooge who just goes round telling workers to turn their lights off.

A low-level start is to organise a green day, show a DVD or environmental awareness film, or run a Q&A or informal debate, or some other public event to start discussion and meet people.

Green reps can demand the employer to carry out a feasibility study to install wind turbines and solar panels in the workplace. This has already happened in many workplaces, such as Tilbury docks, the BBC, BT, numerous universities and other big sites.

Insulation makes the workplace more comfortable to work in, as it balances out the seasonal impact on internal temperature, and saves money while reducing emissions. Old buildings should be upgraded – new buildings should adopt the best available technologies.

Automatic sensor lighting and energy-saving bulbs make a big difference. Similarly, new IT equipment will make workers jobs easier while using less energy, if power-saving devices are included.

Get the boss to commit to a green travel plan! This means the employer subsidising public transport use e.g. by paying for annual travel passes. A loan is a start, but better if it is free for workers.

Bosses should also be paying for bikes, as well as the safety equipment, storage and showers to freshen up. Where driving is essential, employers should buy dual fuel and electric vehicles, especially for urban areas. Drivers should get training for fuel efficient driving.

Employers should organise recycling schemes for metal, plastic and other materials, not just paper. It should include food waste, water use (e.g. rainwater for toilets).

The basic strategy of a radical green rep is to reduce carbon emissions in the workplace by imposing workers’ control. This means workers taking decisions usually left to management’s prerogative. It is imposed because management will probably not allow it without a fight.

We fight for the right to know about real scale of workplace, industrial and employer greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, transport arrangements, waste etc. Demand your employer account for all their emissions – and not fob them off by carbon credits, outsourcing or cuts.

Energy efficiency reduces carbon emissions. It also saves bosses a lot of money. These funds should be used to benefit workers, not swallowed up by shareholders as profits, or given to managers has fat-cat bonuses. Serious energy saving could be used to stop job cuts.

Workers need to see that action on climate change leads to direct, tangible benefits for them and their workmates. Radical green reps can ask questions, and demand answers about who pays and who benefits from climate-related measures.

• Abridged from a briefing produced by Workers’ Climate Action in 2010.

For workers’ climate action: climate change, capitalism and working-class struggle

The urgency of tackling climate change makes serious strategy to halt it only more important.

The third edition of our pamphlet, “For workers’ climate action: climate change, capitalism and working class struggle”, December 2018, offers such strategy.

This is a collection of articles and reviews on the fight against climate change, capitalism and on the role of workers’ organisation and struggle in that.

The 2018 edition adds a new introduction, several new book reviews, an article from our 2017 bulletin at Ende Gelände, and our 2018 Labour Party conference motion

40 pages A4. Cover price £3. With UK postage £4.20. Cheap rates for bulk orders.

•Buy it here

Intertwining the threads

By Martin Thomas

The main sources of carbon emissions are:

• power generation (25% worldwide, 28% USA)
• other industry (18% worldwide, 22% USA)
• transport (14% worldwide, 29% USA)
• agriculture (20% worldwide, 9% USA).

So the major steps to decarbonise are:

• converting from coal, oil, and gas power to renewables and nuclear power
• converting to low-emissions transport, expanding public transport, restructuring work and cities to reduce travel
• reforestation

All of those require government action, and can’t be completed through a linear-build-up of local activities.

Thus far Mike Zubrowski (Solidarity 512) is right. He recognises that local activities are important too: “Environmental workplace activism... helps to pose the question of power in the workplace: who does and should run it, workers or bosses? Socialists should initiate such campaigns”.

Some small-scale greenery is fake. The corporation that wins environmental awards for its new office with neat energy-saving tricks in the green countryside induces more carbon emissions through all the driving to and fro than one which fixes up an old building in a dense city.

But Mike is wrong, I think, to say that a big ailment of environmental activism has been a “tunnel-vision of institution-by-institution focus”. There has been lifestyle and win-environmental-awards greenery. But that’s not really activism.

The chief ailment on the activist side has been an intertwined running-down both of worksite or campus level activity and of large-scale government-focused activity (demonstrations etc.), or at best a turning-to-the-defensive on that front (stop fracking, stop Keystone XL, etc.).

The “green bans” by the New South Wales Builders Labourers in the 1970s, which first put the word “green” into large-scale politics, were all disputes about particular worksites. In the earlier years of the 21st century there was a scattering of workplace union actions to reduce carbon emissions significantly. They were nourished by and nourished the big political demonstrations.

Paul Hampton, the researcher who documented those union actions, says that since then the “activity has dropped off because of union indifference”. That drop-off came with a drop- off in big political demonstrations on environmental issues. The new rise in big political demonstrations (school students, XR, etc.) can and should intertwine with a renewal of workplace and campus activism.

You can’t allocate a precise carbon-emission figure to each segment of society. But you can do it roughly, as has been done in the figures I cited at the start of this article. Without doing it roughly, you can’t even know where a workers’ government would start with a socialist environmental programme.

Google defines “decarbonise” as “reduce the amount of gaseous carbon compounds released in or as a result of a process”. The current use is an adaptation from the older one — removing soot and other carbon accretions from an engine. The word is ok: to use the single word “decarbonise” rather than the two words “reduce emissions” carries no necessary implication of illusion.

Stanford University in the USA has reduced its emissions drastically. As far as I know, the reduction was driven by the university management wanting to look good, rather than by students and workers organising.

But rather than leading to complacency, the university’s plan has led to students agitating for further reductions in the carbon emissions from travel connected to Stanford. They urge the university to deal with “Scope 3” — “all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain”.

The initial “decarbonisation” activity at Stanford has led to more attention to wider carbon emissions than on campuses which belch out carbon emissions without comment. Not to tunnel vision, but to wider vision.

The Stanford action is also significant because it has acted as a test-bed for low-emission energy techniques which could then be spread to other large institutions.

University campuses are a good focus for workplace decarbonisation because they are some of the largest workplaces around these days. A big university in England will have maybe 50,000 students, academics, and other workers.

Universities also have on-site expertise for emissions audits and emissions-reduction technology.

Campus emissions-reduction efforts can be used as test-beds for new technologies, and can be used to stimulate further research of wider application.

Mike Zubrowski’s reply to this is here.


Start small, but aim big

By Mike Zubrowski

I must admit to being disappointed with much of Matt’s response to my article in this Solidarity.

He makes various insightful points, and points I agree with. He has previously made other thought-provoking and good points. However, he seems to misrepresent me quite seriously, replying at an angle to my arguments. I’m sure this is unintentional, so significant fault presumably lies with me for insufficient clarity. I guess underlying perspectives are being read into my article which aren’t there.

There are, or have been, disagreements, which I have no desire to soften. However, its necessary to be clear about what is being debated, what my previous article was arguing.


Matt; "In his article in Solidarity;512, Mike Zubrowski argues that a focus on limited local issues and (by implication) workplace initiatives “distracts from the real forces at play” which are international and require that the working class “take democratic public control” of key sectors of the economy."

I do not say that focus on local initiatives — and even less so workplace initiatives — distract from the real forces at play. I said “... approaches which see bit-by-bit ‘carbon neutrality’ as the solution. Implicit in the language of a single ‘carbon neutral’ institution...”, i.e. certain ideas promoted about the role of local transitions, not transitions in themselves.

Matt: "immediate need to start a struggle against climate change based in workplaces based on a focus on immediate local issues which Mike disdains."

In my introductory section, I summarised my overall argument (emphasis added):

“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.”

What I argue against is thus, I repeat, not “focus on immediate local issues”. Perhaps — but at worst — I underplayed or underemphasised the role of such foci.

Matt: "Instead Mike states that we need “bold, internationalist politics” without any indication of what these might be."

I said that “Workers’ Liberty has and continues to argue for bold, internationalist politics to fight climate change;” the indication is in my reference, to what we have argued for more widely. These are sketched within our recently reprinted pamphlet For workers’ climate action: climate change, capitalism and working-class struggle; our 2019 pamphlet Remain and rebel: a socialist manifesto for Europe; many of weekly environmental articles I have written for Solidarity; in our motions to trade union and Labour party branches; in campaigns we’re involved in; and beyond.

Matt has correctly highlighted, elsewhere, that we haven’t directly proposed — anywhere — a fleshed out international programme on climate change. I will do so in future articles, but unfortunately there has been no appetite in this or the previous issue for a twenty-page paper.

Matt: "But Mike’s proposed bridge between workers organised in workplaces and the international solution required for climate change is (again) propagandistic, “advocating for society-wide changes and supporting youth climate strikers” along with fighting for a more climate-relevant school curriculum, more research in universities and (vaguely) the organisation of workers in key industries. While Mike states that workplace campaigns are important in “creating a sense of agency” he does not seem clear about the fundamental nature of struggle in the workplace."

There is a disagreement here, as I don’t see the workplace demands my previous article advocated calling for as “propagandistic”, but more than that.

I said “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.”

“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.”

Matt: "Discussing emissions on the level of collective agreement... is not simply “lifestyle politics with a syndicalist spin” (as Mike has previously called it) but rank-and-file struggle."

There are disagreements here, I believe, in emphasis and presentation, but again more.

What I was referring to previously was rank-and-file struggle over emissions, collectively, in itself. It was the idea or goal which I saw as implicit in slogans of/and the proposals at the time, “decarbonise your workplace”, which I believed were promoting the idea that individual institutions could go “carbon neutral”, and all the associated ideas.

Taking stock

Perhaps my emphasis read as unbalanced, I aim to clarify below.

The local workplace, for organising against climate change, is a the necessary starting point; the working-class are the agent for social change we orient to. However, tackling the fossil economy, and the society-, nation- and world-wide social relations driving climate change are necessary starting points for the slogans and associated we promote.

This is not to suggest, by analogy, that we should not demand wage increases, or “the living wage” without demanding socialist revolution. But it is to suggest that we should not advocate demanding “fair pay”, or “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”. This is generally attached to specific demands over pay and perhaps hours, which even at their boldest necessarily leave the exploitative relation with the employer intact. Implicit in such a demand is the widely endorsed assumption that the fundamental ills of society can be addressed — made “fair” — by slightly higher wages, a slightly lower rate of exploitation.

I’ll comment more on substantive points in future articles: my reply to Martin partly does.

“Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken” — Rosa Luxemburg’s proclamation remains as true today as ever. New meaning, and fresh urgency, is breathed into Marx’s “[t]he proletarians... have a world to win.” These need not be in

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