A First Step to Saving the Planet

This week's declaration in parliament of a climate emergency was a victory for grassroots organising – but unless it is matched by a radical policy agenda, it won't be nearly enough.

On International Workers’ Day the House of Commons made climate history by becoming the first parliament in the world to declare an environmental and climate emergency. 

That day, the climate and labour movements came together to support Jeremy Corbyn’s motion. The #ClimateEmergencyNow demo of over 2,000 people in Parliament Square was co-organised by Labour-supporting groups including Momentum and  Labour for a Green New Deal, grassroots climate groups such as #YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion, as well as NGOs including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. It was a crossover event that just a couple of years ago would have seemed boundlessly ambitious. Not in 2019. 

Wednesday was also remarkable because it was a revitalisation of the powerful relationship between movement and party which Corbyn’s leadership has created the space for. The grassroots, primarily in the form of Extinction Rebellion, channelled growing popular concern about the rate and scale of climate breakdown into action. They married a resonant narrative about the emergency with successful mobilisation and pushed their concerns to the top of the news agenda.

In response to social movement pressure, Labour used its parliamentary position as the Official Opposition to table a motion declaring an environmental and climate emergency. The ball was back in the movement’s court. Mobilising thousands in just two days put pressure on Tory MPs to show up and the rest of parliament to back the motion. Together, movement and party won a landmark victory in the battle to save the planet.

But declarations of emergency alone are not enough. Without a shift in policy, they are just a reframing of the recognition that climate change is happening, that it’s bad and that we should do something about it. At Wednesday’s demonstration Corbyn acknowledged this, declaring: “Now, it’s about what we do next.” 

Labour’s current policy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 doesn’t measure up to the emergency declared. It’s time for Labour to adopt policy bringing the target for a zero-carbon society forward to 2030. This ambition should be tied to a substantive Green New Deal to reprogramme the economy, it should expand democratic ownership in the economy so the transition is designed by and for workers and communities. It should guarantee green jobs for all, reduce the working week and contribute to a global just transition. 

Labour should demonstrate that acting on climate does not mean cutting back, but enjoying the full fruits of our labour free from the destabilising threats of environmental collapse and unrelenting austerity. As members, we’ve got to organise for the most transformative Green New Deal programme possible – that’s why Labour for a Green New Deal are releasing our proposed conference motion.

Corbyn has promised a green industrial revolution “for the many, by the many.” In February, Long-Bailey called on activists to “push us to do more.” Labour for a Green New Deal’s grassroots organising has already begun to bear fruit. Six weeks after launching, with thousands of supporters signed up and motions submitted to branches and CLPs across the country, the party is listening.

Pressure from members has led Labour’s leadership to embrace a climate narrative wedded to class politics, the need for economic transformation and internationalism. To translate this into action, as John McDonnell has called for, we need to “put in place structures for a truly participatory system of economic decision-making – not just for making policy but also for implementing it.”

That means workers and trade unions being front and centre in a just transition, rather than an afterthought for environmentalists. The labour movement must lead the way in offering a vision for millions of good, green, unionised jobs, across low-carbon and socially useful sectors like healthcare and education as well as in renewable and housing infrastructure. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s suggestion of using the power of public procurement and public investment to transform the Honda plant in Swindon, whose slated closure will result in thousands of job losses, into an electric car factory is a case-in-point.

There have already been some progress on the trade union side. Tim Roache, the General Secretary of GMB (which represents, among others, energy workers), called for a ‘Green New Deal for Workers’ recently. This class-centred vision doesn’t stop at Britain’s borders, either. As the Committee on Climate Change releases its report advising an inadequate target of net-zero by 2050 assuming business as usual, we were reminded at #ClimateEmergencyNow of the need for fundamentally internationalist climate solutions. 

Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, opened the speeches by paying homage to firefighters in the US at huge risk by wildfires every year, and then describing how this is nothing compared to what is already endured by those experiencing climate breakdown’s impacts in the Global South. Asad Rehman, Executive Director of War on Want, told the demo that the real rebels for life are already dying on the front lines of climate change. Aliya Yule, co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal, spoke of the need for both the right to move and the right to stay as climate breakdown and violent borders clash. 

The UK’s obligations to decarbonise are greater because of our disproportionate historic and current contribution to carbon emissions. Only a fundamental reworking of the global economy, in service of the many around the world instead of a tiny few, can be enough.Troubled as Labour’s past relations to the Global South may be, it is our responsibility as members to forge an internationalist agenda today with global climate justice at its heart. 

As we develop this vision, mobilisation from the grassroots will be vital. Extinction Rebellion’s demand for decarbonisation by 2025 will pressure political parties not to water down their ambitions. Likewise the Youth Strikes’ adoption of a Green New Deal. In this moment of raised climate consciousness, we must combine grassroots energy for action with a radical analysis of the roots of the crisis and a proposal for a route to a prosperous, sustainable and democratic future. This week, we have seen the first green shoots.