The seriousness of our environmental plight comes more clearly into view with each passing news cycle. The Canadian glaciers are melting faster than we forecast. Humanity has wiped out 60 percent of animal populations since 1970.
Only 12 years remain to act if we are to keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5C as required – yet global action on climate change consistently falls far short of what is needed. The ecological rifts opening up are legion.
From climate change to biodiversity loss, nitrogen cycle disruption to ocean acidification, the realisation that we are at – or will soon be reaching – points of no return has dominated headlines in recent months.
Cause for alarm is clearly justified. Given the increasingly dire warnings regarding the state of our planet, hope is often hard to come by.
While the headlines have grown increasingly negative over the course of the past decade, a positive new force in climate politics has been quietly emerging. Its increasing strength holds much promise in the fight against climate change.
This is the growing involvement of workers’ movements in environmental action and campaigning. But it has not always been this way.
So many times in the past we have seen people, desperate for work, fighting to protect the dangerous, dirty industries on which their communities depend. With equal intensity, we have seen environmentalists, in the name of planetary protection, fight tooth-and-nail against those very same enterprises.
However, the ever-closer union of these movements – workers and environmentalists – brings together two of most powerful social forces we have in the fight against capitalist, profit-first development and the ecological devastation it wreaks.
This coming together of workers’ and environmental movements in the UK is due in large part to the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. This campaign aims to create hope in a time of crisis.
The campaign is backed by eight major unions and sets out an approach that aims to tackle the economic, environmental and employment crises.
It proposes the creation of one million new climate jobs across the UK through the development of a National Climate Service. A climate job is defined as a new job that directly reduces emissions.
It is important to note that these are state-employed jobs and that the implementation of this programme would indirectly create a further 500,000 jobs in the supply chain.
And to make sure that the transition to a low-carbon society is fair, the campaign also proposes that every worker currently employed in high-carbon industries will be guaranteed a secure, unionized climate job where they can use their skills.
The One Million Climate Jobs pamphlet sets out exactly where the jobs will be created – sectors such as insulation, renewable energy, agriculture, transport, industry, education and waste – and calculates the costs of doing so.
The pamphlet itself is useful a tool for policy makers and campaigners, but behind it is where the real strength lies – the workers’ movement campaigning for its implementation. Although the programme is ambitious, as required by current climate science, it is also realistic, ready to implement and relevant today more than ever.
The One Million Climate Jobs campaign was developed over a decade ago by a group of trade unionist activists who believed that campaigning for jobs and planet were not mutually exclusive.
It was further inspired by the struggle of workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight, who occupied their factory when it was threatened with closure in 2009.
That same year, the first edition of the climate jobs report was published by Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union group (CACCTU). It called for government investment to create one million jobs in clean energy, energy efficiency and public transport. Union members, academics, activists and environmental specialists have worked together to create two further editions since.
The campaign has gone from strength to strength, forging further links between the workers’ and environmental movements through its publications on fracking, trade union activity on climate change and by creating ‘toolkits’ aimed at boosting union affiliation to the campaign.
CACCTU has also toured the UK with a campaign bus and organised huge national climate demonstrations that have brought together thousands of workers demanding action on climate change.
However, within the union movement, the transition to a zero-carbon future is still a controversial and hotly-debated issue. In 2017, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) passed a historic motion calling for climate action and energy democracy.
The motion omitted some areas of contention, and the GMB union more recently put forward a motion arguing that the voices of existing energy workers (predominantly those involved with heavily polluting, fossil-fuel based industries), should be paramount in this process.
The Campaign Against Climate Change is concerned that the GMB proposal does not reflect the urgency of the issue of climate change, and carries the risk of moving backwards.
The Campaign is currently calling for the TUC to "reflect the voices of all its members in forming energy and climate policies. Future jobs in solar, wind and energy efficiency are crucial to our economy and these sectors have been badly affected by government cuts. The TUC must be a voice for them too, and call for urgent investment in climate jobs.”
Rank and file
There is now significant momentum on the issue of climate change within unions, driven by rank and file members.
For example, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has called for stronger climate action and greater funding for their workers who risk their lives dealing with climate impacts, particularly from flooding.
Unison recently passed a motion supporting divestment from fossil fuels and published a new policy on investing local government pensions to address climate change. The PCS union campaign tirelessly on climate jobs and the need for a rapid transition on the scale of the Lucas Plan.
While the GMB supports fracking, they also work to highlight the ways that climate change disproportionately affects poor and working-class people; they are also pushing for a just transition to a low-carbon future.
And the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) are extremely active in anti-fracking campaigns.
At the TUC Congress in 2018, in a historic vote, the trade union movement called for a moratorium on fracking in England. Many unions support a full ban.
Union members have often been on the front line of the anti-fracking struggle. When Cuadrilla’s fracking operations in Lancashire were given the green light in October 2018 following a 7-year pause, the news was met by strong opposition from the trade union movement.
When three anti-fracking activists were imprisoned for non-violent protests at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site, trade union members stood in solidarity to condemn the ‘dangerous precedent’ set by their arrest.
Over 200 members from a huge range of unions signed an open letter condemning the judgement and its threat to: “The right to protest and take non-violent direct action against threats to the climate and the environment.”
The letter went on: “We need investment in a publicly owned and democratically controlled energy system, which can oversee the transition to renewable energy. A transition that is just by providing social protections for workers and creates unionised sustainable jobs across all sectors as we develop a new zero carbon economy.”
Increasing alarm over the urgency of the multiple ecological crises we face has in recent years energised the environmental movement.
The growing demand for climate jobs has added a new and important dimension to these campaigns. And these demands are gaining traction.
The leaders of the Labour Party and the Green Party have publicly backed the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. Jeremy Corbyn recently announced that, should Labour get elected, they would create 400,000 skilled jobs to reduce the UK’s emissions.
In Sheffield, a report has been released that demonstrates how shifting the city to zero carbon could bring about a net gain of 40,000 jobs. Crucially, it is a growing demand from workers themselves - within workplaces there is an incrementally increasing view that the future of the planet is a trade union issue.
Across the world, the climate jobs movement is growing and becoming ever more confident. In countries from South Africa to Norway, from Canada to the UK, workers are increasingly demanding the right to build the low-carbon infrastructure of tomorrow.
Yet given the enormity of the challenge and the little time left to act, we need to intensify the fight for climate jobs now.
At the start of December 2018, world leaders will meet at the COP24 climate summit in Poland. They will discuss the enforcement mechanisms required to ensure that participating nations make emission reductions as pledged at the Paris COP21 conference in 2015.
On 1 December in London, just days before negotiations begin, a mass climate demonstration will take place to pressure those leaders to go further.
Adding to the scale of that crowd will be workers demanding positive, socially-useful work constructing the infrastructure we so clearly need for our future.
The skilled hands of those who could create this future will hold banners as they march, demanding a chance to build it. Join them.
Hazel Graham is a climate jobs activist with a background in social justice, housing, emission reduction and fuel poverty. She is chief executive of climate change charity, Cumbria Action for Sustainability. Stephen Graham is an environmental activist and writer whose current PhD research focuses on eco-Marxism, sustainable food systems and green energy transitions.