A year is a short time in geological history, but it is a long time in climate politics. That is particularly the case when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the world’s leading voice on climate science — says we only have a handful of years left to avoid climate disaster.
The past twelve months have seen ominous signs. One of the worst tropical storms on record struck Mozambique, killing over 1,000 people and causing billions of dollars in damage. Catastrophic fires started by agricultural and mining interests swept the Amazon rainforest, while wildfires have raged across Siberia, Canada, and Greenland. Extreme heat was recorded across the world, with Paris reaching 42 degrees celsius, and Delhi 48 degrees, bringing with them severe consequences for the young and the old.
Closer to home, the UK reported more wildfires than any other year on record, with firefighters battling inferno-like conditions on the moorland across the North West. We experienced the near collapse of Whaley Bridge Dam following extreme rainfall, and the Environment Agency warned that whole towns could be lost to flooding if warming continues at the current rate.
At the international level, the United Nations has published two seminal reports, one on avoiding more than 1.5 degrees of warming and the other on the global collapse of biodiversity. But progress feels more like inches than miles.
On the domestic political stage, Labour led Parliament to declare a climate and environmental emergency, and pushed the government to adopt a net zero emissions target. We placed massive investment in renewable energy and green job creation at the heart of our Party Conference, and brought our policies together into a proposal for a Green Industrial Revolution that would transform this country.
This process has been mirrored in the United States, with the emergence of a transformative, socialist vision for tackling the climate crisis known as the Green New Deal, proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and backed boldly in the presidential campaign by Bernie Sanders.
In the halls of power, meanwhile, we continue to face a struggle. We all know about the climate denier in the White House but, depressingly Boris Johnson’s government is taking a leaf out of his book. We now have a pro-fracking Energy Secretary in Andrea Leadsom and a Prime Minister who has dismissed the science of climate change as a ‘primitive fear . . . without foundation’.
The greatest threat amid all this comes not even from climate denial, but from the prospect of the far-right capitalising on climate change, refugee crises, and the threat of resource scarcity. What better combination could they ask for to reinforce their messages of nationalism and exclusion?
Yet, despite this bleak outlook, 2019 was also marked by an explosion of popular, grassroots movements demanding ‘system change not climate change’—from the school strikers to Extinction Rebellion.
Socialism or barbarism might be a cliché on the left, but when it comes to climate change, the choice looks inescapable.
There is no third way in the climate crisis. Neoliberal approaches to environmental protection have comprehensively failed to tackle climate change in the three decades since NASA scientist James Hansen first testified to the US Congress on the greenhouse effect.
Market-based approaches, so dominant in recent decades, are based on the idea that as consumers become more environmentally conscious, they will make more sustainable spending decisions. This in turn will filter up to the system level as corporations enter into a ‘race to the top’ to bring the most sustainable products to market.
There are numerous problems with this theory. It ignores the fact that most consumers lack the money, time and information to carry out a lifecycle analysis of every product they buy. It ignores the ability of corporations, and their PR departments, to greenwash. It ignores the absence of environmentally sustainable choices for daily essentials such as transport or heating our homes. And perhaps most crucially, it ignores the urgency of the crisis — the powerful interests that prop up climate change need to be tackled directly and today, not gradually and on a voluntary basis.
The neoliberal approach of substituting citizens for consumers, regulation for voluntary corporate action, individual choice for democracy, and democratic institutions for multinational corporations is never going to protect our environment.
The question facing us now is how to deliver a Green Industrial Revolution that is equivalent to the scale of the challenge.
To have any chance of success, it will need to push aside the tradition of incremental policy making. We need a rapid and far-reaching transformation of the UK’s infrastructure, from our homes to our transport and energy systems.
This means investment on the scale set out by John McDonnell — a National Transformation Fund and National Investment Bank that together would invest £500 billion over ten years, with tackling climate change central to their missions.
Delivering a Green Industrial Revolution will require taking on powerful corporations and individuals who have amassed obscene wealth by wrecking the climate, and who will stake everything on delaying action and watering down environmental protections until it is too late.
Jeremy Corbyn has called on the Prime Minister to stop “bending the knee” to fracking corporations. We need a government that is not afraid to regulate in the public interest. Whereas those on the right might characterise this as red tape, on the left we should be making clear it is about commitment to the common good.
We also need to talk about jobs. The Green Industrial Revolution will need a clear and properly-funded plan for workers affected by decarbonisation, one that puts workers themselves and their trade unions at the heart of delivering the transition.
We must ensure that new jobs are decent jobs on union rates. We need to be able to convince a crane operator on an offshore rig, or an engineer in a coal-fired power plant, that jobs in low carbon industries will materialise on the promised scale, and that with their skillset and the right training, they will be able to access those jobs on equivalent pay and conditions.
Jeremy Corbyn has set out Labour’s commitment to a UK version of the GI Bill, which supported veterans returning to the US after the Second World War. This will require significant investment but is absolutely necessary. Any plan for a green transition that neglects those whose jobs will be affected has little chance of success.
Beyond those workers, rapid decarbonisation of our economy will have profound impacts on our towns, cities and regions. The way we get around, the way we manage our landscapes, the look and feel of our homes, streets and the jobs we do can be expected to change as new infrastructure and systems replace old ones.
Change on this scale will not succeed unless it is driven locally, and has a strong democratic mandate. That is why I have been touring the country in recent months for a series of town hall events put together by Labour’s community organising unit.
The aim is not to tell people what is good for them. It is to give communities the support and tools to campaign for the changes they want to see — whether it is affordable and reliable public transport, better air quality, or good jobs in manufacturing and renewable energy projects.
We will only succeed if we can offer a positive vision of a post-carbon future that speaks to what people want. We need to be able to tell people that we’re going to tackle climate change, but we’re also going to bring your bills down, invest in your town and usher in a new era of public luxury. We must commit to truly rebuilding Britain after decades of deindustrialisation and austerity.
We have the technology to start the fight against climate change today. We have the people, the skills and the resources. What we lack is an economic system in which major decisions about resources are under democratic control. That is because we lack a political system in which decisions are made in the public interest, for the many not the few.
A Labour government will change that — and that’s why we’re the best chance this country has at averting climate disaster.