Power to the people

Young people in Berlin take to the streets in Fridays for Future protest demanding both political power and renewable power.

Books from campaigner Jonathan Neale, economist Ann Pettifor and activist Chris Saltmarsh chart a course for effective climate policy.

COP26 has proven beyond all doubt that our leaders cannot get anywhere near the level of ambition needed to prevent climate breakdown.

Political leaders from around the world are now flying into Glasgow for the much anticipated COP26 United Nations climate conference. They will no doubt fail to deliver meaningful change of the kind that will reduce the amount of carbon being dumped into the atmosphere.

This leaves the global population with three options if we want to avoid climate collapse, the devastation of our life support systems and our civilisations. We can change the minds of the people in power so they implement real change; we can change the people who are in power or we can change the nature of power itself.

Get copies of Fight the Fire (free); The Case for A Green New Deal and Burnt now. 

Listen to Chris Saltmarsh on the latest edition of the A World to Win podcast.

The climate movement has for the last 50 years focused almost all its resources on the first option. This takes the practical form of careful and often discreet lobbying by professionals working for NGOs. This necessitates developing relationships with politicians from across the political spectrum, and can require a dampening of more radical action that would disrupt such attempts.

Achievement

The strategy of changing the minds of the powerful has to be recognised at this point as a colossal failure. We all meant well. The policy teams did their best work. But the rate at which emissions are being pumped into our skies only increases. The amount of coal, oil and gas burned has dramatically increased as world leaders kept to policy based on neoliberal economics. There is now so much carbon in the atmosphere that significant climate change is already “baked in”.

COP26 has proven beyond all doubt that our leaders cannot get anywhere near the level of ambition needed to prevent climate breakdown.

We already have the most environmental Tory leaders in Britain that we are ever likely to have. Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the UK, actually has an impressive environmental pedigree. His father Stanley Johnson has been attending climate conferences as far back as the Rio Summit in Brazil more than two decades ago. Johnson senior no doubt understands himself to be a leading environmental campaigner and clearly holds some influence over his shambolic son.

And Zac Goldsmith, now Lord Goldsmith at the gift of Johnson, has perhaps the most fascinating environmental credentials among the Tories. His uncle Ted Goldsmith founded The Ecologist,  which published 50 years ago A Blueprint for Survival. The book was instrumental in the founding of the Ecologist Party, now the Green Party, and Friends of the Earth. Zac was given ownership and editorship of the magazine, which took on corporate giants like Monsanto with unrivalled courage. Lord Goldsmith is now Minister for Pacific and the Environment at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

But the environmental record of the current Tory administration is an unmitigated disaster. The appointment of Alok Sharma as president of the first COP26 conference held in the UK was a clear indication of what Johnson hoped to achieve. The press release saying this government was going to stop climate breakdown by giving £5,000 to about 30,000 middle class households each year for just three years to replace their gas boilers as its flagship policy is an international embarrassment. Is this the crowning achievement of our lobbying this government for more than a decade?

So what now? There are three books that are essential reading during and after COP26 for a clear understanding of the challenge we face: firstly, Jonathan Neale’s Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs, published by The Ecologist; second Ann Pettifor’s The Case for A Green New Deal and finally Chris Saltmarsh’s Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice. Each can be seen as successors to The Ecologist’s groundbreaking Blueprint.

Money tree

Each sets out how campaigners might still leverage the power of the nation state to stop climate breakdown. Each supports a Green New Deal.

Neale sets out with clarity and precision what climate policy is now necessary. This involves the creation of millions of jobs in every nation of the world: a sincere and radical version of what has recently become a tired political slogan: to “build back better” after the pandemic. This would involve trillions of dollars being diverted from extremely harmful activities such as fossil fuel subsidies and towards renewables and socially beneficial work. Fight the Fire sets the benchmark - and COP26 has proven beyond all doubt that our leaders cannot get anywhere near this level of ambition. 

We need to accept that we simply cannot change the minds of leaders like Johnson, or the US president Joe Biden, never mind Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Xi Jinping in China. The current political leadership lacks either the will to implement actual climate policy or the means. And in most cases these leaders lack both.

This leaves us with two other options. To change the people in power or to change the nature of power itself. Ann Pettifor is an economist and in making her case for the Green New Deal she advances a series of proposals beginning with a serious challenge to the current hegemony and power of finance capital. Her solution requires massive state intervention, ending the era of neoliberal ideology and ushering in a new Keynesian epoch.

Pettifor succeeds in presenting the economic levers that make this possible, speaking the language of economists and policy makers in a way that Neale does not. This is a highly compelling and thoroughly reasoned proposition that would see capital diverted away from fossil fuels and into the kinds of solutions Neale has proposed.

But the problem Pettifor faces, one she recognises herself, is there is simply no way that Johnson or any other Conservative would abandon neoliberalism in such a clear and thoroughgoing way. Indeed, Rishi Sunak has proven in his most recent budget that the Conservatives will spend, spend, spend - but spend on subsidies and tax cuts for oil, alcohol and bankers. There is no magic money tree for trees, and other methods of saving the planet.

Coups

This problem is only intensified by the fact that Sir Keir Starmer has made a strategic decision to offer “constructive criticism” to the Conservatives, and used the most recent Labour party conference to pick a fight with its few remaining (eco)socialists instead of platforming the Green New Deal as a way of creating jobs and ensuring its members have a planet to inhabit a few generations from now. Pettifor could see a future of climate action in Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalised Labour party. But that window seems firmly closed.

And this is where Saltmarsh steps into the frey. Chris is a member of the Labour party and a founder and leading light of Labour for a Green New Deal. The campaign ensured that the Corbyn leadership adopted the most radical climate policy of any political party in British history. It showed the power of an energised and organised party membership working with rather than against a leadership. The party from top to bottom held climate action as a matter of principle. Chris was also active in making Starmer retain the Green New Deal policy.

Saltmarsh’s Burnt is an absolute firecracker of a book: punchy, polemical and politically savvy. It also places front and centre the real barrier to climate action: capitalism. He addresses directly the question of whether we can change the minds of the people in power, whether instead we can change the people in power or indeed whether power itself needs rewiring.

His answer is a mix of the former two strategies. In many ways, it does not matter if Keir Starmer favours climate action - and personally and privately he surely does. By using the existing power levers within the Labour party it is possible to get policy agreed at conference that mandates it’s leaders to act. It is then necessary at election to change the people in power - a Labour leadership with its feet held to the fire by the membership put into Number 10 could conceivably make the Green New Deal a reality.

And Saltmarsh recognises that this would not be an easy process. A Labour government that takes on the global oil industry would be met with extreme resistance. The membership - and democrats outside the party - would have to defend any such government. There have been so many coups against socialist governments that have taken on oil that this cannot be discounted.

Movements

The final option, of changing the fundamentals of power itself, is also duly considered by Saltmarsh. We are, after all, pragmatists. We are on a course that will result in millions of people experiencing untold suffering - through extreme weather, sea level rises and, perhaps most seriously, the stress on global crop production.

But, Saltmarsh concludes, the revolutionary option is simply not credible or realistic. Does it involve workers taking over airports and communications infrastructure? Extinction Rebellion might well occupy an oil refinery for a few hours or blockade McDonald’s beef burger factory. And Insulate Britain might block the M25 or the occasional SUV. 

But no-one has the will or the machinery to “seize control of the means of production” on a permanent basis, shuttering the oil industry for good, taking over the state in order to employ millions of people who can then build a renewable utopia. Or at least, the book roadmapping here, today, to Extinction Revolution is yet to be written.

All three authors agree that whatever the approach, action on climate change will require people power. The minds of the global leadership are certainly not going to change themselves. If we are going to change those minds, change those leaders or change our mode of leadership globally, the only method available to us is the active engagement of millions of citizens within a global climate movement. 

This mass environmental movement needs to have clear demands, if not clear means. And this involves, in any democratic alliance,  individuals really knowing their stuff.  We all need to  understand the choices that need to be made. Blueprint in the 1970s showed that sound arguments can bring about social movements. And we need bigger social movements now more than ever. Which is why the contributions of Neale, Pettifor and Saltmarsh are, during and especially after COP26, so vital.

Event

Ann Pettifor will be speaking at the Festival of Wellbeing, an online event held by the Resurgence Trust (which owns and publishes The Ecologist). The event begins at 10am on Saturday, 30 October 2021 - the day before the COP26 conference opens in Glasgow. Other speakers include Caroline Lucas MP and Vandana Shiva. Tickets are available for £10/£20 online.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.

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The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here