Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Socialist Alliance's climate campaign strategy

"Capitalist governments may step in to force the individual capitalists into a collective response to the collective threat. This is how the authors of Climate Code Red (Spratt & Sutton, 2008) illustrate a collective, emergency response to the crisis, using the example of the US government’s war planning when they entered WW2. However, there are differences between a war and climate change that could upset the analogy, at least if the government in question were pro-capitalist."


Sara Moss writes in Alliance Voices Vol. 8 no. 1 that “It is simply wrong to argue, as some have tried, that only socialism can provide an answer to Climate Change.” She makes the argument that capitalism can stop global warming. As we have outlined in the SA Climate Charter, to really stop global warming would basically need new industrial revolution. Would capitalists allow it or undertake it? They have had the technological potential for such innovation for decades yet instead have invested into finance because it is seen as less risky. Will the current financial crisis force them to invest back into new technology and innovation?


The short time scale we have to address climate change doesn’t give me much hope. We have less than ten years to begin the sustainability revolution if we want a good chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Will capitalism do it in that time?

As Ian Angus writes “Unlike previous anti-pollution campaigns that focused on single industries, or specific chemicals such as DDT, stopping greenhouse gases will require wrenching change to every part of the economy. Restructuring on such an enormous scale is almost certainly impossible in a capi­talist framework — and any attempt to make it happen will meet intense resistance.” (Confronting the Climate Change Crisis)

Capitalist governments may step in to force the individual capitalists into a collective response to the collective threat. This is how the authors of Climate Code Red (Spratt & Sutton, 2008) illustrate a collective, emergency response to the crisis, using the example of the US government’s war planning when they entered WW2. However, there are differences between a war and climate change that could upset the analogy, at least if the government in question were pro-capitalist.

The key difference is that in a war there is an enemy nation. In climate change there is none. Because of this, the quicker one takes action in a war, the more likely to beat the competitor (enemy) nation. In climate change, since nations are still in capitalist competition, the incentive is to wait for someone else to start making the radical changes first, while “our” corporations continue squeezing just a few bucks more out of coal and oil and gas. In other words, there is a definite and obvious threat of immediate loss if war is not responded to appropriately, but the losses from climate change disaster are further off. The losses from abandoning fossil fuels could potentially be much sooner, and the industries that are invested in fossil fuels and related technology are the bulk of the big multinational monopolies: cars, oil, mining, petrochemicals, energy. Of course, a capitalism without fossil fuels is theoretically possible; you would just have to get rid of most of the currently existing capitalism in order to achieve it!

Capitalists do not factor long term threats and opportunities into their financial decision making; this is reflected in the stock market bubbles we have seen in the last decade, and the spectacular crash we are witnessing now. Sara writes that “If there is profit in it, capitalism will find a way to save the planet” – but only if there is not a greater profit to be made in some other less worthwhile activity in the short term.

Can, or will capitalism really solve the crisis? I have yet to hear a detailed explanation of how from a socialist viewpoint. If serious action is taken by capitalism, it is likely to be too late for many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. If we continue to assume it highly unlikely that capitalism can prevent climate catastrophe, then we ought to have a fairly clear plan of how a socialist government could do it.

Social Justice and the climate charter

Sara appears to imply that the average single mother on welfare would not see the relevance of our detailed proposals for action against climate change. I think that single mothers on welfare are just as likely as anyone else to be concerned about climate change. However, the “technical” focus of our documents does have a particular target audience which is environmental activists (a fair few of whom are single mothers and/or on welfare I could add).

Our climate charter set about to explain three essential things. Firstly, that the problem of climate change requires an urgent and radical response. Second, that such a response is clearly possible with current technology. Lastly, that capitalist governments are pursuing an opposite course. This is a radicalising series of conclusions to draw for many environment activists, who have mostly followed conservative strategies of lobbying, compromise and, in effect if not always intent, loyalty to the market system.

However, that target audience is a focused and specific one, and the climate charter is designed largely with that in mind. The Gold Coast comrades are to be thanked for pointing out this weakness in our climate change propaganda (including much of what is printed in Green Left). It often lacks a certain popular and agitational edge and broader appeal. A “shorter, sharper campaigning tool which emphasised a Socialist approach to climate change by pinpointing the failure of market capitalism to find solutions that put the interests of people first” as Sara puts it would be very valuable.

As much of the climate action movement is now adopting many of the ideas that we also adopted in the Climate Charter, perhaps it is time to alter our focus in our next publication. What will climate change mean for ordinary Australians? And although the solutions are quite tangible, simply installing solar panels (assuming you can afford them anyway) is not going to fix it. We need a more detailed look at what working class (and and all) communities can do to fix the problem: build a mass protest movement.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that working class people do not want to hear the technical aspects: the argument that yes, we do have the technology to fix it. There is a lot of scientific propaganda that renewable energy cannot meet base-load and so on. Hell, there’s still an undercurrent of climate change denialism being promoted to the less educated through mouthpieces like Andrew Bolt.

It would be really good if Gold Coast branch members who are concerned about this could articulate in more detail what they think we should in fact say about climate change in our publications.

Another too-narrow focus?

Sara writes that “The Howard legacy has left a disempowered “underclass” who still suffer under a draconian welfare system and a growing working poor. These people comprise part of our membership and, at present, a potential constituency for our ideas.” Obviously we have more than one policy and it is good to hear the Gold Coast branch is making good use of our welfare policy. In the example given by Sara, no doubt the welfare policy would be the most appropriate thing to hand out.

But the “underclass” or “working poor” are only one part of the working class. What Sara refers to as “a large and, in world terms, very comfortable middle class” is largely part of the working class, in fact if not in consciousness. As a party which aims to lead the whole working class we must include and support the working poor, yet working class people have other concerns, including a great many who are indeed worried about climate change, who are anti-war, and so on. In fact many of what could be called the “underclass” and “working poor” are quite concerned about these issues too.

Misconceptions about the environment movement

Sara’s comments about there being many “bourgeois environmentalists” who are “downright hostile on class terms” are in my experience incorrect. There are indeed consciously right-wing environmentalists, but I have met almost none who are activists, and I am heavily involved in the climate movement. In fact the general ideology of most environmentalists, activists more so, is traditional liberal politics – critical of capitalism but without an alternative, like many of the working class.

When Sara writes that “The “aspirational” middle-class… are not our constituency and there are poor prospects for finding comrades among them, at least until a significant change in material conditions changes the political landscape” she seems to reduce the appeal of socialism to an economic critique of capitalism, and help for poor people. Yet we have a broader vision of socialism that can appeal on many other levels.

There is the potential for mass movements to develop out of these broader issues. “Finding comrades”, i.e. recruitment, is crucial, but we are not in movements just to recruit – we should build strong movements because they can challenge capitalism and give the working class valuable experience in struggle.

As a political party, not a single issue campaign, we have the challenge of balancing these diverse issues and finding the best one to push at any given time. This seems to be where Sara is leading, but some of the arguments she uses are in my view leading in the wrong direction.

My own suggestions

I think we need to make more of the human impact of climate change.
If agriculture has to be largely abandoned inland of the Great Dividing Range, that will cause mass migration to the coastal region, food shortages, and a large decline in the (capitalist) economy with all the effects of job losses and so on.

The rush to build desalination plants instead of empowering communities to conserve water amounts to a massive privatisation of water, handing control of this basic human right to multinational corporations for profit. It is estimated that the cost of the Wonthaggi plant in Victoria will be passed on as a 500% increase in domestic water bills.

If, as currently seems likely, the Himalayan glaciers disappear by 2050, the resultant drying out will mean starvation and refugee movements on a scale that will make 20th century disasters look tiny.

Loss of the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu is indeed a horrible prospect too: culturally, for tourism workers, and for biodiversity. But reducing environmentalism to saving pretty scenery is an unfortunate trend that we must avoid.

As documented well by Friends of the Earth in Victoria, poor people will suffer most the effects of disease, rising prices, heatwaves and all the other negative health and social impacts of climate change. Indigenous people, being particularly disadvantaged already, will probably suffer worse still.

We also need to criticise the Emissions Trading Scheme in more detail. It is not just that it won’t work at the pace and scale that we need action; it is a typical capitalist measure to make workers pay for capitalist mistakes. Like they are passing on the bailout of financial institutions to the taxpayer, corporations will pass on the cost of any carbon credit scheme or carbon tax to the individual consumer. The widely accepted ecological principle “polluter pays” is going to be ignored as the working class consumers will pay corporations to (maybe) clean up their polluting industries.

It’s a pity that the welfare charter is such a poor cousin to the climate charter in production values and the attention paid to it by branches. I invite all branches to look at Gold Coast and any other branch that has used the charter to campaign, and see what they can learn.

Is “Greening” SA wrong?

There is an assumption in Sara’s argument that we are simply trying to (opportunistically) pinch members from the Greens and their supporters. This is not the reason. We think the Greens, like many environmental organisations, have been slow to adopt the position of urgency that SA did with our Climate Charter. Although the Greens are now updating their positions, they went into the 2007 election with very modest targets, as compared to SA’s expressed target of 90% reduction in emissions by 2030. As a result, I believe the SA activists in the climate movement are respected as SA activists. We have the policy to back it up. On the other hand, some Greens activists tend to even be apologetic for their party’s tardiness.

If all this was about was competing with the Greens, of course, we could leave it there and say Look – we got one up on the Greens! But that is not the point at all.

Our aims in the climate movement are to build it positively, to help it grow, and to lead it in the direction of real solutions. If the more conservative wing of the movement tries to lead it in the direction of supporting market mechanisms to fix the problem, any extra credibility we have with the rest of the activists when we argue against that is vital. Of course we want environment activists to join SA. Some changes to our propaganda on climate that I hope Sara and I can both agree on ought to help in this respect by explaining our socialist approach more clearly. But it is not the only facet of our strategy.

This is all important for SA branches and members who are heavily involved in the environment movement. However, I am not arguing that environment campaigns must always be our no. 1 priority. All branches should support any climate campaigns that occur in their area, because a new mass movement is developing. But it is still quite uneven. In some areas, a branch may try it out but then find they can grow better and provide more useful input into the union movement, or welfare rights, or indigenous solidarity, or any one of our other campaign areas in their region. Each SA branch needs to make those decisions based on their own assessment of the opportunities presented to them. That is how in Melbourne (and I think more or less in most branches), we have found ourselves quite involved in climate change activism (whereas earlier we have had good experiences with Palestine solidarity, union work and other issues) But where branches achieve success on another front we all need to hear about it and consider if our branch, too, can replicate these successes whether it is with our welfare charter or something else.

(Originally published in Alliance Voices Volume 8 No 2, November 2008)

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