Climate Crisis, Political Paralysis: Labour’s Greatest Challenge

It is past time for labour to take the climate crisis seriously. As the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) opens in Madrid, PSI has updated its climate policy, showing intersection with our main policies and sectors.

November 2019

30 years of discussions and irrefutable science.

Increasing evidence of more severe, frequent and extreme climate events: droughts; floods; fires; heatwaves; category 5 hurricanes, tornadoes; sea rise and acidification; glacier melts, and species extinction.

What more evidence do our political leaders need to act?

What more evidence do we need to act?

The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are shocking. The crisis is upon us earlier than scientists thought, with greater severity and accelerating much more rapidly than their models allowed. There is even less time to act, and greater need.

After 4 million people mobilised for climate action on 20 September in more than 180 countries, Swedish student strike leader Greta Thunberg told governments and business leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September 2019:

Greta Thunberg

All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth [...] But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you

It is past time for labour to take the climate crisis seriously. It is also past time for the labour movement to recognise our own complicity in the crisis unleashed on the planet. We must accept responsibility and act in consequence.

The climate crisis is a symptom of capitalism’s chaos where greed, materialism, consumption and personal wealth define success, allowing for massive inequality and poverty.

We must recognise the dangers of corporate capture of almost every aspect of life: corporations define our needs and desires; control our farms and food; pollute our air, water and soil; fund the election of compliant politicians; determine what (few) laws and regulations our governments enact and enforce; set the terms of trade between nations, and build the weapons used to dominate and subjugate.

Democracies and the public services which sustain democracy have been hollowed out for corporate interests – to the point where rising numbers of people feel alienated and embrace right-wing movements – leading to more disaffection, isolation, inequality, injustice and violence.

Between the global weakening of labour’s strength since the 1970s and the intensifying climate crisis, trade unions must realise that a ‘Just Transition’ based on traditional demands of job and wage security will condemn us to further marginalisation. Partnering for better deals with the same corporations that are responsible for much of the climate crisis (and for attacking trade unions), is no response. A just and equitable transition in the energy sector requires that the companies take the issue seriously and integrate social and environmental concerns before the profit imperatives.

Labour needs to openly align with the most progressive elements of the climate and social justice movements – where confronting systemic inequality and democratic deficits are parts of a cohesive response to the climate crisis. Our vision must include justice for all people, not only union members. The changes needed from us are much broader and deeper than defending wages and working conditions of our current members.

There are two global approaches competing for attention

The one that says the market must generate the solutions, and that government must create the enabling environment for corporations to act (read public subsidies for private profits). This is the essence of the current UN policies for financing the SDGs, and is carried by the World Bank, the OECD and the G20. It advocates letting banking and finance conglomerates use their tools and expertise to develop innovative financing, whereby public and private funds are blended to meet development goals. This approach means taking climate action when and if it’s profitable to corporations. And it means more privatisation.

The other says that the public sector needs to take the lead, that we need to address the combined crises of climate/ecology, inequality, poverty, political alienation and disaffection with a new multilateralism, with new rules and new financing tools that put governments in the driver’s seat and not corporations. The 2019 UNCTAD Trade and Development Report brings many of the strands together in a comprehensible and sensible package, advocating a Global Green New Deal, one that seeks to redress many of the wrongs of the past 40 years of neoliberal dominance. There are others lining up behind this approach, but we need to generate more political will to make the deep changes and challenge entrenched powers, including for example of state-owned oil and coal companies. This approach requires stronger engagement of citizens in strengthening their democratic institutions – which have not always been on the right side of social and environmental struggles.

Governments must reflect the will of the world’s citizens and the need to ensure survival of the species. They will need the fiscal space to invest massively in climate infrastructure and public services, for reducing carbon emissions (mitigation), for building the resilience to absorb the blows of extreme weather events (adaptation), and for addressing the significant loss and damage that’s already occurred, without running up against debt ceilings. Public and cooperative financial institutions have much more potential. Climate investments are urgent and need to be made outside of the constraints of profit maximisation and short-term returns. Some countries and agencies are currently examining new rules to reclassify this sort of government spending.

Countries, regions and local governments are entitled to financial support. The cost of the great wealth accumulated by the richest countries is the emissions of greenhouse gases, so they have historic obligations to help finance the changes across the globe. Current finance plans are too limited and too tied into failed market mechanisms and economic models.

Many of the funds needed to implement government programs are being spirited away in tax havens. Developing countries are doubly affected by tax evasion and illicit financial flows.

What can labour do?

PSI calls on all union leaders to act, now. The Global Green New Deal presents us with a roadmap for a Just Transition. We must ensure that our members are better informed and are able to contribute solutions commensurate to the challenges. And we need to mobilise like never before. To press for deep systemic changes, not just technological fixes here and there. First and foremost, we must link with others across communities to strengthen our democratic institutions.

All workers and all trade unions must engage in critical analysis, one that looks at systemic issues across time, not just transactional challenges of yesterday’s grievances and tomorrow’s collective agreements. We need more clarity to develop our vision and to allow us to act decisively, in solidarity with all workers. But our visions and our solidarity must also extend to future generations.

We need to send political leaders the strongest possible message – that unions will not sit idly by while the livelihoods of working people and future generations are sold to their corporate benefactors. We must tell them that if they do not act, we are prepared to use our collective strength to demand climate action.

PSI’s climate strategy is coherent with our other areas of our work: Governments must act on behalf of all people, and it needs the tools to make the significant changes to meet the threat of the climate crisis. Corporate control, deregulation, defunding and privatisation prevent governments from acting decisively, and the market will not solve the global climate crisis.

Privatisation: After governments privatise, they lose the core knowledge and staff and the ability to influence sector development. The private sector’s pressure to maximise profits and deliver short-term results make them unfit partners to resolve the climate crisis, and they are likely to resist many of the systemic changes needed.

Trade: Governments must have policy, financial and regulatory tools to move rapidly to a zero-carbon society. These tools are directly threatened by regional and bilateral trade regimes which are geared to protecting corporate interests and limiting government legislation and regulation that can ‘threaten’ profits. Ratchet or stand-still clauses in trade agreements block governments from reversing privatisations. Energy neutrality clauses prevent governments from choosing the most renewable sources, e-commerce provisions could mean that climate and water data is held and commercialised by corporations and governments are prohibited from including carbon miles in their procurement policies.

Tax: The current tax system is broken. We urgently need reform to create a new tax system under the UN to address the issue of corporate tax evasion and avoidance and to close tax havens in order to ensure that governments have the resources they need.

Migration: In the last 10 years, more than 260 million people have been displaced by natural disasters, and up to one billion more will be displaced by the year 2050 if the climate crisis is not mitigated. In 2018 alone, almost two-thirds of the 28 million new internal displacements were caused by natural disasters, with the remaining one-third caused by conflicts. Yet disasters and conflicts are intrinsically linked in the struggle for dwindling natural resources exacerbated by the impacts of the climate crisis. Therefore, the rights-based approach to migration governance, along with strengthened international protection of refugees and the asylum system, must take precedence in any local, national and international response to climate-related migration and forced displacement.

Gender: Women and girls in developing countries suffer the most direct blows from climate change. Climate change often increases the burden of unpaid care work, especially when energy, water and sanitation infrastructure, health and care, public transport, etc., are inaccessible, damaged or expensive. Climate induced poverty and displacement also increases early and forced marriages and dowry demands. Therefore, gender-responsive policies and programmes must be core to any climate strategy and for disaster risk reduction and response.

Young workers are probably more engaged in, and justifiably more concerned about climate change, and PSI needs to recognise the intergenerational injustice of climate change and engage young unionists in our work on climate.

For PSI, there are urgent actions in key sectors

In the energy sector, we must bring an end to the private ownership of our infrastructure and resources. If we are to stop burning fossil fuels, governments must invest massively, for all people, not just those who can afford to pay. Much more of the material for renewable energy needs to be sourced locally, both to create good local jobs and to avoid long, carbon-intensive and socially degrading supply chains. We must recognise that workers are not demanding more jobs in the fossil fuel industry – they are demanding more unionised, fairly paid, public sector jobs in renewable energy. Our response should not be to advocate increasing the use of nuclear power.

In the water sector, we must stop the commodification of water, water speculation and privatisation and demand that access to potable water is respected as a human right. We must protect our natural resources, consume only what is needed and clean what we use. All water utilities should be able to deliver potable water to users. PSI supports the public-public partnerships between water utilities, aimed at increasing the skills of staff such that they can manage the processes to deliver universal access. And we need to anticipate the shocks of the climate crisis to guarantee our infrastructure and services. Given that agriculture uses 70% of the available sweet water, we also need to support a move away from giant agri-business and towards organic, short food supply chains. Where possible, we should oppose bottled water and other forms of water grabbing and privatisation.

In health and social services, we need to prepare for more injuries, more sickness, more disease. Our hospitals and clinics need to anticipate and prepare. Many more health professionals will be needed, as there is already a global shortage. Our first responders and emergency workers will be called to action more often, to deal with more severe situations. They urgently need more protection, better tools and training, and recognition of their rights to join unions and negotiate their terms and conditions of employment.

Local and regional governments (LRG) will be increasingly pressed to meet peoples’ needs, as more than half of humanity is urbanised, and slums are growing. 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are linked to cities. City governments are increasingly responsible for delivering public services but are often starved of income. LRGs must be prepared and well-resourced to absorb the shocks and to respond to the slow-onset and sudden impacts of the climate crisis, including hosting populations that are displaced.

National administration staff work in some of the key departments/ministries that will need to develop the national commitments and programs to combat climate (and social) chaos, including developing and implementing the ‘Green New Deal’, rewriting trade obligations, fixing global tax rules, defining sustainable public finance, and more.

Education support and culture workers must first and foremost protect our children and our cultural infrastructure. These workers need to be fully integrated into the disaster risk reduction and recovery plans, as they will be called on in times of emergency and following natural disasters, and therefore need the tools and training to prevent and protect.