Review of "Global emergency" by Roy Wilkes

Submitted by cathy n on 25 August, 2008 - 8:51 Author: Paul Vernadsky

In "Global Emergency: the Battle Against Climate Change", Roy Wilkes, a supporter of the International Socialist Group and with it George Galloway's Respect Renewal project, argues that climate change is a product of the epoch of capitalism and that it is no accident that the commodities which have come to epitomise capital in the modern era, the car and the aeroplane, are based on fossil fuels.

He is clear that it is capital’s drive for profit that determines the insatiable demand for fossil fuels as well as the bourgeois disregard for the consequences of capitalist production, which has driven the huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the last century. The world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are most at risk from the effects of climate change.

Wilkes sets out some useful criticisms of the bourgeois palliatives to climate change. Amongst other things he dismisses the hype about Britain leading the way on climate change, pointing to the impact of UK multinationals, extending well beyond the usual 2% figure to something like 15% of global emissions.

I found one or two of his criticisms somewhat overdone. For instance he is too hasty in dismissing the potential technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS), particularly given the overwhelming role of coal in the world economy. CCS won’t prevent climate change, but it may make some contribution towards diverting some emissions which are inevitable given the limits of current renewables and the desire to avoid, rightly in my view, both nuclear and biofuels.

Wilkes raises a series of “transitional demands” that make sense in the present situation. These include:

• Zero-carbon housing for all, a crash insulation programme carried out by direct labour.

• Towards 100% renewable energy, through nationalisation of the energy companies and worker conversion plans like Lucas Aerospace.

• Towards free public transport.

• The right to food, through free school meals and neighbourhood restaurants.

• Fight the destruction of the rain forests and solidarity with the indigenous peoples.

• Stop wars for oil and the arms trade.

• Halt and reverse the growth in aviation. No airport expansion. An immediate ban on domestic flights and on private jets. Longer holidays.

Wilkes says these demands are aimed at mobilising the two main forces that can avert climate change: the organised working class and young people. He is right about the key agents, but somewhat behind the debate, which has moved on significantly in both the unions and among the young activists over the last year.

His pamphlet could be read by militant workers as an argument for making climate change central to the transformation and revival of the labour movement. In particular he is right to argue that the shorter working week and longer holidays are key transitional demands to mobilise workers around, for their own sake as well as for their ecological benefits.

However, the case for the primacy of workers as environmental actors is not theorised in the pamphlet, nor does it adequately base itself on the strengths of union environmentalism, (such as Green bans in Australia, bans on toxic and nuclear waste dumping at sea) or on much of official union policy against climate change. Some areas, particularly energy, are problematic, but ideas like integrated public transport and legal rights for environment reps have, by and large, been adopted and propagated by unions. The point is, there are foundations on which to build in the unions — we are not starting from scratch.

To his credit Wilkes poses a key question: “How do we protect the livelihoods and jobs of those who work in environmentally unsustainable industries?” But the pamphlet does not engage with the debate around “Just Transition”, other than to mention the Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan. The ideas of workers control deserve much more space and explanation, not least because of the experience of workers in the 1970s. We have to cut emissions whilst defending jobs, and socially useful production needs to be teased out and made concrete if we are to convince workers in these sectors — ideally by workers themselves.

It is evident from the climate camp agenda this year at Kingsnorth that many activists have got the message about the importance of workers. The job of socialists is to help develop that understanding into direct engagement with workers in these sectors, who may initially be hostile but who can be won to progressive politics.

The problem for Wilkes is that it is impossible to turn to class politics with Respect. It is a great pity that the pamphlet is prefaced by George Galloway, whose sycophancy towards leaders of certain oil states ought to disqualify him from speaking on climate change completely. The cross-class populism of Respect also determines the omissions in the pamphlet. The role of Stalinism in perverting the labour movement on environmental questions for decades is not discussed; nor is the current Chinese government critiqued for its role.

More significantly, there is no criticism of the sub-imperialist oil states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, who are a subordinate but nevertheless significant part of the fossil-fuelled capitalist world economy.

We also have to avoid becoming lightning conductors for renewable capital or for a renewed fetish for small businesses, local produce and other anarcho-utopias. Capital large and small is braying to feed on the profitable opportunities offered by the emerging low-carbon regime. Our critique of the old carbon complex should not blind us to the limitations of their potential “green” capitalist successors.

The socialist left can help build a movement to prevent climate change within the unions, and help turn the best of the young climate activists towards working in as well as with the labour movement. But only if we develop an independent, Third Camp, working-class ecological politics.

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