Paul Hampton begins his new book with an arresting metaphor: “If the owl of Minerva takes flight only as dusk begins to fall, then human society may have already missed the opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change.” Minerva is the goddess of wisdom. Paul brings to his thoughtful analysis a strong conviction that working people and their trade unions can play a vital role in global political efforts to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
We are now in the best of times and the worst of times for climate change politics, he believes. It’s the age of climate science of unprecedented quality and breadth. We understand global temperature changes are linked to carbon emissions through the evidence in ice core samples in the Antarctic going back over 800,000 years. We have finely measured and forecast sea level changes.
Yet Small Island States in the Pacific are disappearing beneath the ocean. Carbon Brief estimates this week that at the current rate of carbon emissions, we have only five years left before global warming breaches the UN’s 1.5C temperature goal.
We cant rely on those causing the problem to solve it
Clearly, as Paul argues, we cannot rely on the same businesses and governments who caused the problem to tackle it. He offers instead a Marxist approach to the existential threat of global warming, with explicit emphasis on the part workers and their trade unions can play, both in their own right and working with wider social movements.
For if science is our guide, then our neoliberal economic system is blind to the task. Paul roots the causes and consequences of climate change firmly in the failings of capitalist market economies. After all, it was the leading climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, who coined the famous phrase, “climate change is the biggest market failure the world has ever seen.” Stern has proposed carbon markets to price out carbon emissions. But Paul argues that ‘compressing the potential damage wrought by climate change into a single price of carbon fails to capture the manifold effects of global warming.’ These manifold effects have gone global, from the floods that swept through northern England this year, to the havoc wrecked by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2014.
In any case, as a new study from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy shows, the carbon pricing system adopted by the EU has collapsed, with CO2 now worth just a few euro coins per tonne. As for other ‘market failures,’ many of us in the trade union movement would say we are spoiled for choice, from rising global poverty to our own housing crisis.
Unions on the frontline of climate impacts
Paul acknowledges, of course, that unions work within and often against market economies. He is head of research at the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). It should be called the Fire and Flood Brigades Union. The winter floods of 2013 saw the largest deployment by the fire and rescue services since Second World War. Across the UK over the entire three months from December 2013 to February 2014, firefighters responded to nearly seven thousand incidents. Austerity measures in the service of neo-liberalism left rescuers poorly equipped, underfunded, and exposed as communities were to government cuts on flood defences.
It’s the same for the New York State Nurses Union, which is now a leading advocate of action on climate change in the States after Hurricane Sandy hit hospitals and tenements on the city’s seaboard.
As first responders in the health and rescue services trade unions such as these are driven by circumstances into the heart of radical climate change policy and politics. A question Paul raises in his book centres on what kind of demands are unions making?
What demand should unions make?
In the economic theory developed in the book, so-called ‘win-win’ solutions are described as ‘eco-modernisation,’ a belief that climate change can be addressed through ‘greening the economy.’ It is now commonplace for unions to support moves to regulate market forces, such as carbon pricing, and state-led investment, such as feed-in tariff incentives for renewable energy. Unions with tens of thousands of members in the fossil fuel energy system – coal mining, power generation – or the big energy burners like aviation, have followed such a path.
And some have found it hard to reconcile the contradictions: protecting the short-term interests of their members, by say, backing Heathrow expansion or shale gas fracking, while acknowledging that science tells them these carbon intensive industries are approaching their moment of truth.
Paul argues that the concept of just transition is perhaps ‘the most distinctive trade union framing of climate change politics to date.’ With distinctive class undertones, at its best, just transition embraces formal consultation between unions, government and employers using their power to demand investment in low carbon technologies and new skills for a green economy, and social protection measures during the period of industrial change that surely lies ahead. Unions have aimed high, demanding that the UN includes this social justice principle in the Paris Agreement, yet falling short of their goal with the phrase ‘just transition’ only to be found in the treaty’s Preamble, alongside respect for human rights.
Greenworkplace projects provide ‘a distinctive working class contribution’ to tackling climate change, he argues. The last TUC survey found over a thousand union-led schemes; at their most effective, environmental issues are high on the negotiating agenda. They offer a genuinely novel contribution to climate politics. So it’s no accident that unions with some of the most radical environmental policies also have at their base some of the most effective greenworkplace projects, informed by the direct experience of union members taking up these issues in the training ground of their own workplace.
Paul argues that organised labour ‘is the most advantageous starting point to develop a climate counter power.’ He doesn’t set out a policy agenda, but a more independent, class-focussed approach would involve ‘substantial rethinking’ in such areas as carbon pricing, aviation, escalating fossil fuel extraction, the privatisation of energy and its democratic control, and far greater support for union-led greenworkplace projects.
Paul is indeed the wise owl of our union movement. Martin Empson has written a comprehensive review of a book that deserves wide readership – and a cheaper cover price. Perhaps there’s a trade union out there with the whit to woo a pocket-sized summary?
Philip Pearson, chair, Hackney Energy