Part 1: Mapping the resistance on a burning planet

Terry Conway writes in Part 1 of a two part series on the climate resistance in Britain and what this means for COP26


A. Catastrophic reality

Over recent weeks, the reality of global heating has become evident to more and more people, including in the Global North. It was almost impossible to keep pace with the latest disasters, and while, as far as I am aware, no lives were lost in Britain, extensive flooding reached places that earlier examples of extreme weather hadn’t previously touched.

Phil Hearse’s article The Earth is burning chronicles that process and its impact well, but its focus is on the Global North – which is, of course, the part of the globe that generally receives most coverage in the mainstream media. So I want to complement what Phil says with the following remarks.

Madagascar has been suffering from drought for three solid years. The UN Food programme says more than a million people don’t have enough food as a result, with climate change as the main (if not the exclusive) factor.

In the Pakistani city of Jacobabad (population 200,000), temperatures in July briefly exceeded 52°C. This is an extraordinarily high temperature, but it is not in itself the whole story. A study in 2020 by climate scientists Colin Raymond, Tom Matthews and Radley M. Horton examined how the combination of humidity with high temperatures is even more threatening to human survival than dry heat. Jacobabad and Ras al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates were, at the time, the only two places on the globe to have passed an alarming combined temperature and humidity barrier.

The researchers investigated “wet bulb” temperatures, which are taken from a thermometer covered in a water-soaked cloth so that they give a measurement that accounts for both heat and humidity. Wet-bulb readings are significantly lower than the more familiar dry-bulb readings, which do not take humidity into account. But researchers say that at a wet-bulb reading of 35°C, the human body can no longer cool itself by sweating, and therefore such a temperature can be fatal in a few hours, even to the fittest people.

But there are major differences between the city in the UAE and that in the Indus valley. In Ras al Khaimah, efficient air conditioning is widespread and there is no history of power cuts. In Jacobabad, meanwhile, where the average standard of living is much lower, the danger is compounded by the fact that the electricity often goes off for three or four hours a day, or even longer in the surrounding countryside.

More comrades will have read the (slightly misleading) Guardian headline from 14 July: ‘Amazon rainforest now emitting more CO2 than it absorbs’. It’s misleading because the article only examines part of the Amazon, and because significant elements of the data that led to these conclusions have been known since the beginning of the year.

However, I can entirely forgive these sleights of hand if the result is to bring to more people’s attention to the disastrous reality that the Brazilian Amazon, at least, long thought of as the lungs of the world, is now becoming a net carbon emitter. And this crisis reminds us of the intersection of climate change with other ecological disasters – water and air pollution, loss of biodiversity, and more – with each impact making the others yet deadlier. In particular, it’s Bolsonaro’s cattle ranching and logging friends who are cutting down the forest, destroying biodiversity to extend the production of meat and of the soya that feeds it.

All of these accounts of the damage fossil capitalism is doing to the planet and people’s lives are confirmed and compounded by the IPCC report that was published last week in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow.

Daniel Tanuro’s article powerfully reflects two essential things. Firstly, there is the anguish that screams through the report in the pages of data underlining the urgency of the situation. Secondly, there is the very real danger of false solutions which seek to paper over cracks with unproven or dangerous technologies, while we are in the middle of a typhoon the like of which none of us has ever experienced.

At the same time, precisely because the situation is actually so desperate, our responsibility as revolutionaries is absolutely to make propaganda for a different world, for an ecosocialist world. At the same time, we must continue to fight with every ounce of our energy for each change, however small, that gives us more space and more possibility of organising for that world. More on that later.

B. Where is the resistance in Britain?

The climate movement, like the overwhelming majority of social movements, has been less visible since the pandemic. Before Covid, there were three highly visible strands at a national level: Extinction Rebellion (XR), the school strikes, and Labour for a Green New Deal. The first two groups were hugely important in pushing climate, and environmental catastrophe more generally, up the political agenda, and involved huge numbers of young people.

a) Extinction Rebellion

There were contradictions in XR, some of which they have in common with many other horizontalist movements. The group suffered from a conflation of politics with electoral political parties, and it was difficult to get involved if you worked full time. The processes of decision-making were often obscure, and privileged those who already had social power. Furthermore, they had to contend with the increasingly problematic positions of RogerHallam, the most high-profile member of XR UK.

The debate around all this resulted in XR UK distancing themselves from Hallam, and was a contributory factor in the creation of a somewhat separate XR Scotland structure. However, the upset also seems to have had a positive impact on the overall political direction of XR UK. Allan Todd puts it like this in a recent article for Left Unity: “As XRUK – like XR Scotland – moves ever-closer to defining precisely what is meant by ‘System Change,’ it’s encouraging to see them identifying ‘the political economy’ (or, as ecosocialists would say: ‘capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’!) as the root cause of the Climate Crisis.”

One example of that failure of the political economy is that the promoting of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, a cross-party bill which seeks to tie down the UK government to action after their declaration of a Climate Emergency on May 1 2019, has led to virtually nothing.

XR will be back on the streets very soon, with two weeks of action focused around their new ‘immediate demand’: Stop all new fossil fuel investment immediately. They point out that since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the amount of money being invested in fossil fuels has increased, not decreased. Indeed, investments continue despite the International Energy Agency saying in May this year that all new fossil fuel investments must end immediately if we are to remain below 1.5°C of warming.

On this basis, they plan to disrupt the City of London, because ‘we … target those who have a legacy of funding the toxic system that oppresses marginalised communities at home and around the world whilst creating a global genocide.’ It’s important that ecosocialists have a visible presence in these actions where we can. Even if many of us will not be in a position to be there for the whole time, there is no doubt that some of the most committed – particularly young activists – will be. 

b) School student strikes

Internationally, the movement of school and college student strikes started in the summer of 2018 in response to the call from Greta Thunberg. Since then, Fridays for the Future has been the common umbrella organisation for the movement across the world. In Britain, however, the lead organisation before the pandemic was the UK Student Climate Network, which did brilliant work for around 18 months (and was at that time being much sharper politically than XR). They had a rhythm of monthly actions (in some other European countries there was a period where there was weekly action), and were visibly led by young women. Sadly, the UK Student Climate Network does not seem to have survived Covid, as far as one can tell from the website. Fridays for the Future / Youth Climate Strike were also involved, and the balance may have been different between the two groups in different parts of Britain.

Fridays for the Future was also affected by the pandemic, but did seem to start organising physical events again in March of this year on an international basis. In June, there was a fairly significant protest in Glasgow to mark the end of the Scottish school year. Perhaps this organisation’s strong international links have helped to sustain it. Another factor may well be that it’s an affiliate of the COP26 coalition – of which more later.

While the pre-pandemic Fridays were definitely focused on activity by young people in full-time education, they did open the possibility of some limited participation by trade unionists. Particularly visible in my experience were NEU members, who accompanied younger school children to rallies at local town halls, and seemed to be working with those young students and their families to fight for a curriculum which integrates the ecological emergency. Other trade unionists joined some of the strikes, particularly the biggest-ever environmental protest across Britain in September 2019.

So now the call out has gone out far and wide for the next strike to take place on 24 September 2021 – more than a month away. This timescale should provide an opportunity for environmental activists, but also trade unionists with an interest in the climate emergency, to find out what is planned in their local area and to offer solidarity and support. Building on links that existed before the pandemic or forging new ones will also be a key step on the road to COP26. It’s not a major surprise that the language of the call is aligned with that of the COP26 coalition around the question of loss and damage, given that one participates in the other.

c) Labour for a Green New Deal

Labour for a Green New Deal crystallised the fact that Labour saw this issue as a political cornerstone under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This was, and is, a deep personal commitment of the then Labour leader; he spoke at a huge number of environmental protests during this time, of which two merit mention. Firstly, 29 November 2015, in the run up to COP21 in Paris, when the whole of Corbyn’s environmental team joined him on the podium. Secondly, the march and the September 2019 climate strike.

Labour for a Green New Deal was set up in this context to push for a Green New Deal to be adopted as Labour policy at Conference 2019. After a short, sharp campaign, resolutions were submitted on the subject by a huge number of local parties – more than on any other subject. There was, however, a fudge on conference floor which passed two resolutions, one much sharper than the other, because of the failure to win the debate on Just Transition in a number of the key trade unions.

However, the situation inside Labour changed significantly after the 2019 election defeat and the subsequent replacement of Corbyn by Kier Starmer, with the response to environmental disaster being one of the main radical policies to be rapidly ditched.

Additionally, Labour for a Green New Deal is not a very transparent organisation. Attempts to propose joint work by RedGreen Labour, in which a number of A*CR members are active, were fruitless. This is because Labour For a Green New Deal has tacitly (if not explicitly) declared itself to belong to that sector of the Labour left that seems to believe that keeping your head down is the way to go. They have never played any evident role in mobilising on the streets.

C. The role of ecosocialists

Of course, this is only a relatively brief snapshot of the main organisations playing a national role in environmental politics in the pre-pandemic period, and the issues they are currently organising around. There are thousands of local and regional initiatives, single-issue campaigns, and local branches of national campaigns organising to defend the environment, to oppose projects which will further destroy both planet and community, and to put in place remediation measures that can improve the lives of working-class communities.

Opposition to HS2; mobilising against the massive increase in incineration; promoting and defending low traffic neighbourhoods (where implemented with proper local consultation and involvement); pushing for retrofitting of housing stock; opposing new road building, and much more … The list is too long to remember, never mind repeat. But for many people, involvement in local activity where they live and/or work is what first brings them to radical ideas. It is crucial that ecosocialists are active in sharing both our ideas and our organisational and political skills, so we can win victories, however small, which will give people the confidence to keep fighting.

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