There can be few more dogged campaigners than David Polden.
When I arrived at the Jobs and Climate conference on 10 March at 10am, the start of the 45-minute registration period, the seasoned 77-year-old peace campaigner was already there, distributing flyers to the general public. Believing that the event would start at 10am, David had been there since 9.15am. Given that no one else had arrived during the intervening period, it was a miracle that he hadn’t given up.
Something similar might be said about the organisers of the conference, the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group (CACCTU).
CACCTU launched its campaign for the creation of a National Climate Service (see PN 2545) almost a decade ago. This would involve the government rapidly hiring a million people to work in new public sector ‘climate jobs’. A climate job is one that ‘leads directly to cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases, and so slows down climate change’. To take some examples, building and installing a wind turbine or retrofitting a building in order to conserve energy are climate jobs.
According to CACCTU’s calculations, the work done by these million workers would enable the UK to cut its CO2 emissions by 86 percent in 20 years, finally making good on the UK’s – until now, largely rhetorical – commitment to tackle the climate crisis.
For much of the period since its launch, the whole plan must have felt like a pipe dream. Now, with a Corbyn premiership a real possibility, the campaign’s prospects are looking much brighter.
It was significant that one of the main speakers in the morning session was the Labour MP Barry Gardiner, currently the shadow secretary of state for international trade – potentially a powerful figure in a future Labour government.
A junior minister under Blair (he backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq), Gardiner had some good things to say (against fracking, for community energy, and so on…), though he was noticeably outflanked on his left by War on Want’s Asad Rehman. Rehman slammed the 2015 UN Climate Summit for failing to agree any binding commitments (Gardiner thought was this a good thing) and urged the climate movement to be accountable to those on the sharpest end of climate change – the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
After the usual mixed bag of questions and statements, the conference broke into parallel sessions. I attended one entitled ‘Energy Democracy: How can trade unions “resist, reclaim, restructure” the energy system?’ A brief presentation by two trade unionists from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) was followed by a somewhat haphazard whole-group discussion.
I left not very much the wiser about what ‘democratic control of the energy sector’ would look like in practice but thoroughly depressed about the prospects for a Tory Brexit (involving the deregulation of the energy sector) to scupper the sorts of radical action that will be necessary to bring anything like this about.
“Hiring a million climate workers would enable the UK to cut its CO2 emissions by 86 percent in 20 years, finally making good onthe UK’s climate promises”
As I went in search of lunch I pondered whether I could legitimately bunk off the afternoon sessions.
Fortunately I didn’t, as the afternoon workshop on ‘Planning for a National Climate Service’ left me feeling both inspired and (tentatively) hopeful.
Jonathan Neale outlined the plan for One Million Climate Jobs (including, crucially, how it could be paid for) while academic Andreas Ytterstad related some of the inspiring activism that has been taking place in Norway to make climate jobs a significant political issue there. The Norwegian campaign’s conference, ‘A Bridge to the Future’, has even been made into a TV show!
Corbyn the start
A number of key points resurfaced throughout the day.
First, if we’re to win on climate change, we need to challenge the false opposition that the right has made between jobs, on the one hand, and action on climate change, on the other. (Trump’s grandstanding in the rust belt notwithstanding, in the US, there are already almost three times as many people employed in the renewables industry as in coal mining.) The idea of a ‘climate job’ is a potentially important weapon in this fight.
Second, massive public sector investment is essential if we’re going to avert catastrophic climate change in the desperately short time we now have left.
According to a recent working paper from TUED (Preparing a Public Pathway: Confronting the Crisis in Renewable Energy, November 2017): ‘The primary obstacle that stands in the pathway to an energy transition is the political and ideological commitment, on the part of the major institutions and policy think tanks, to package the transition as a large profit-making opportunity.
‘On this logic, there can be no transition without profit. The problem is this: there is currently not enough profit in renewable generation (or in energy conservation, storage, etc) to generate the level of investment that can deliver the deployment of renewables on a for-profit basis at the speed and scale required.
‘By contrast, a not-for-profit “public goods” approach to the energy transition can radically alter the prospects of renewables and allow us to effectively pursue climate and decarbonisation targets.’
Third, we can take inspiration from abroad. As one speaker noted: if the city of Munich can fund offshore wind here in the UK, why can’t we? (Only 0.07 percent of UK offshore wind turbines – a single turbine – is owned by UK public entities!)
Fourthly, a Corbyn victory would be the first – not the last – step in getting the One Million Climate Jobs plan implemented.
Corbyn has said that the challenge of climate change ‘requires us to radically shift the way we organise our economy’, with a ‘decisive turn to collective action’ ‘at least as radical’ as that of the post-war Attlee administration that created the NHS. He has also committed a future Labour government to guaranteeing ‘that all energy workers are offered retraining, a new job on equivalent terms and conditions, covered by collective agreements and fully supported in their housing and income needs’ in the transition.
However, if elected, he is sure to face tremendous pushback on all fronts. It will be the job of grassroots movements here in the UK – both inside and outside the Labour Party – to create and defend the political space necessary for him to follow through on these bold promises.