The Climate Movement Can Win Over Workers

Chris Saltmarsh

Working people can be won to support radical action on climate change — so long as decarbonization is tied to a vision of shared prosperity for all.

Environmental activists stage a protest outside British Parliament as part of the Global Climate Strike, London, England, September 24, 2021. (Tayfun Salci / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

This August’s report by the International Panel on Climate Change sounded the latest “final alarm” over mounting environmental devastation — another call to arms, followed by little actual response. While the crisis demands a far-reaching reordering of the global economy, summits such as the United Nations’ upcoming COP26 conference can reliably be expected to produce only further hand-wringing — and street protests that struggle to force political action.

But, as a new book argues, political action is precisely what we need if we are to overcome fatalism about the growing disaster. Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice, released this week by Pluto Press, reflects on the structural causes of the climate crisis, the reasons why NGO-style “awareness raising” isn’t stopping it, and the youth-led movements fighting for a planet fit for human beings.

Burnt’s author Chris Saltmarsh is also cofounder of Labour for a Green New Deal, which has fought for Britain’s Labour Party to take up a transformative green agenda. In an interview, Jacobin’s David Broder asked Saltmarsh about his experience of climate activism and how we can develop a program of change that appeals to the social majority.

David Broder

You tell us about your own teenage involvement in climate politics, but we also get the sense from your book that the climate movement has changed a lot since a decade ago. What does an eighteen-year-old from what you call Generation Climate know that you didn’t back then — and do you think maybe they have higher ambitions than might have seemed possible in the 2000s left? How far do you think these generations have converged politically?

Chris Saltmarsh

What really struck me about the school strikes for the climate was the more unequivocal and intuitive antagonism with the fossil fuel industry and even capitalism as a system. When I was a student activist, a lot of our work was about pushing that focus on fossil fuel companies to be more central. The frequency and severity of extreme weather is obviously ten years more advanced, so those effects of climate change feel like they’re more present in their lives and so it’s easier to see how they will define the coming decades.

There certainly seems to have been a shift in ambition, too. We’ve gone from an environmental politics dominated by calls for individual behavior change or, on the more radical edge, of resistance to the projects we think are bad. Today’s teenagers are more propositional. They’re demanding a Green New Deal, reforms to the education system, a new economy, and more democratic politics.

On whether there’s been a convergence between generations, I think there was to an extent in the UK during the Corbyn years. And around the Green New Deal in general. For a period, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour felt like the vehicle for that unity, not just of generations of environmentalists but also broadly across progressive movements. You often get clickbait articles or social media discourse about Gen Z versus millennials, but I understand that there aren’t substantial political differences between the two when polled. Politically, we may even end up seeing them understood as the same generation.

I think there’s a much clearer division between younger generations — Gen Z plus millennials — and older. The older environmentalists mobilized by the likes of Extinction Rebellion (XR) seem to be much less political, uncomfortable with explicit anti-capitalism, and less serious about questions of capturing state power.

David Broder

The crises of the last decade or so have been a political awakening for a lot of people. But there’s also a certain inertia of individualist common sense — also because of the responsibilities people have to deal with — that might lead others to mainly prioritize what they personally need to do to get by, rather than respond in a more collective and political way. Which, looking at climate change, may be frustrating for activists in movements like XR, who perhaps see the mass of people as failing to recognize the urgency of the situation. So, if we no longer have the same kind of mass political mobilization as a few decades ago, how can we begin to overcome this?

Chris Saltmarsh

Yes, it seems right to identify that frustration as being particularly present within XR. There’s an interesting trend in those spaces and the associated literature to extend the concept of denial beyond just denying the basic science. It’s also used to describe those who supposedly deny the urgency of the crisis or the changes we’ll need to make to our lives. XR has done a good job of mobilizing previously inactive constituencies of people, and I think its apolitical and doomer-end-times vibe is a lot to do with it, but those elements are also among its limitations. XR’s messaging might push the climate emergency up the agenda, but it doesn’t really tell a compelling story of the changes we’ll need to see and why they’re something to be embraced rather than resisted.

I think we should have an ambition for mass mobilization of the kind we rarely see today. That will be a crucial part of any movement with the power to achieve what we need to. A big issue with the climate movement, though, is that it’s often unclear who the base that we want to mobilize is. The youth strikes were successful because their base was really clear: school kids.

XR did a good job of tapping into a latent feeling in a lot of older people. Normally, climate demos rely on the same churn of urban left-liberals. This is what leads me to argue that if we’re to see mass mobilizations for climate justice, it will have to come at least significantly through the labor movement. Many unions aren’t in a good place and aren’t close to being as militant or radical as we need, but they are the enduring organizations of the working class that we have to work with. They will need to be re-empowered and rebuilt, but I think they give us our best chance of overcoming this divide by mobilizing around a climate politics which prioritizes meeting collective needs. Paying the bills or keeping your job are quite legitimate priorities for most people. We need to tie demands for decarbonization to a shared prosperity.

David Broder

Connected to that, in your introduction, you make an interesting point about the way in which the financial effects of climate devastation — debts for ruined tenants or farmers — produce atomized despair, and this is also echoed in chapter 2 by an anecdote about an uninsured, Tory-voting homeowner who is ruined by floods. How do you think we can socialize this kind of problem, if today its effects are felt in an individualized way?

Chris Saltmarsh

This is a really important point, and one that I think has been under-discussed in the climate movement. We currently have an insurance system where the burden is on individuals, families, or businesses to buy cover for their property. This means so many are uninsured if they cannot afford it. And they’re at the whim of profit-seeking insurance companies that have an incentive to not pay out if they can possibly avoid it. It’s clear that as extreme weather brings more loss and damage, the companies just aren’t going to have the cash to pay out. It’s not a sustainable model.

I’d say there are a couple of ways you could socialize it. The first, which would be my preference, would just be to say it’s inappropriate for insurance to be a for-profit enterprise. You could have a state-backed insurance program where people are guaranteed cover, including proportionate payouts. You could fund it in part with progressive tax or payments based on the value of what you’ve got insured, but you’d also want to put the capitalists profiting from emissions on the hook for a lot of the bill.

A second option would be to heavily regulate the insurance industry by mandating minimum payouts for various events, introducing stricter criteria for when companies have to pay, making insurance a right, etc. Although I think there you’re getting into a place where it wouldn’t be profitable, so I’m not sure who’d want to be in the business.

David Broder

You refer to the Paris Agreement as “a death sentence to many around the world.” Clearly, powers like the EU and the Biden administration plan some limited green transition, but they’re really an adaptation to the effects of climate change, offloading the brunt of suffering onto other places and peoples. Other than putting pressure through rallies at events like COP — weakly subject to democratic influence — what forums for concerted, international solidarity do exist? Or are we reliant on individual states taking a lead?

Chris Saltmarsh

I think we’re in a really difficult situation with this one. There’s no shortage of international forums or institutions which claim to act as the vehicles for international climate diplomacy and governance. Unfortunately, they tend to be designed to protect the interests of Western countries and uphold the status quo. For sure, poorer countries work together to make interventions through the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and have extracted marginal gains, but it’s nowhere close to enough. I’d like to see progressive governments in the Global North join with states in the Global South to disrupt these forums and set up parallel structures like alternative trade agreements and mechanisms for transferring resources and finance.

The nature of the climate crisis does call for some kind of global governance, but I worry we are in a situation where — unless a group of nations, including some powerful ones, are prepared lead an effort to seriously reorganize the international institutional architecture — we may have to rely on individual states taking a lead by setting a new example for a viable alternative industrial strategy.

David Broder

I’d like to talk about your experience in Britain. During Corbyn’s leadership, Labour’s call for ambitious, state-led greening projects was often ridiculed on spurious grounds, like the supposed impossibility of planting 2 billion trees by 2040. But I think a further problem, certainly in the constituency I was campaigning in 2019, was that it didn’t boil down to saying — we can do X project in Y local area. How do we talk about the Green New Deal in a way where it isn’t just a big plan for the future, or even urgently necessary, but something that sounds within reach?

Chris Saltmarsh

Yes, a big difficulty we had was the timeline of it all. We launched Labour for a Green New Deal in March 2019. We made a big impact at the Labour Conference after six months of campaigning in September 2019. The general election was called one month later with the vote in December. It was beyond our capacities as a campaign to develop the granular and local specifics of the policy platform beyond the headline politics of a Green New Deal.

The Labour Party itself also just didn’t have the time to embed the agenda and really flesh it out. There was some of those local projects, though. I did some campaigning in Swindon, where there was a pledge to save the Honda factory and turn it into a battery plant for electric vehicles. But we lost so many votes there, despite that level of specificity. Ultimately, in 2019, this stuff just wasn’t what the election was fought or lost on. Brexit crowded it out and Labour’s national campaign did a poor job of making it about anything else.

Another serious issue on the doorstep was that a lot of people just didn’t really believe what we were promising. A decade of austerity and even longer of quite deeply entrenched anti-political sentiment just makes any party offering serious levels of investment and economic transformation seem unrealistic. This presents a big challenge for those of us seeking to win a Green New Deal at the ballot box, given how counter it is to austerity ideology.

Ideally, we’d be able to demonstrate its potential with specific initiatives on a local level where we have power in local government. Then we could make the argument that we plan to scale what’s already there. But this is where we run into the challenges of the timeline we have as well as how disempowered local government actually is. This is why we can’t just rely on capturing a center-left party and hope to win an election. That needs to be one element of a broader strategy that includes building power in workplaces and communities.

David Broder

Burnt ends by emphasizing the value of joining “a party with a chance of winning power and the political space to adopt a socialist Green New Deal platform,” even if that party isn’t necessarily a good expression of “moral virtue.” Many Jacobin readers would agree with the idea of fighting to take over and change such parties. But then there’s also the fact that the Labour for a Green New Deal motion at this weekend’s Labour Conference has been thrown out before it can even be discussed. Can you tell us what the campaign is planning to do at conference, and what kind of support you’ve had?

Chris Saltmarsh

Absolutely. It’s worth saying that the ideas around working through political parties as part of a strategy to capture state power are a really important element of the book. As someone who sees politics significantly, if not primarily, through a climate lens, there has to be an attempt to put the UK’s social democratic party in a position to win power and implement a Green New Deal. This clearly rubs up against the difficulties of doing so when the context is a party substantially captured by capital, or those who work in its interests.

The blocking of Labour for a Green New Deal’s motion, which has a particular focus on green jobs this year, is another example of bureaucratic maneuvering designed to frustrate member-led campaigning and to alienate ordinary members. Fighting against this kind of thing, arduous as it may be, has to be a core element of exerting influence within the party.

We’re appealing the decision and have generated a significant pushback against it. Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, there will be Green New Deal motions debated. Some are pretty close to our own, minus lines about telecommunications and a National Care Service. So we’ll be working to get a motion to the conference floor that has the necessary level of ambition and is able to garner widespread support across the party membership and affiliated trade unions.

Overall, we’ve had a lot of support across the party and the labor movement more broadly. We’ve been working closely with affiliated unions and our agenda is consistently among the most popular policies with party members. The Socialist Campaign Group in the Parliamentary Labour Party understands that the Green New Deal needs to be a key demand for the Left. Even members of Kier Starmer’s shadow cabinet have been supportive of what we’ve put forward. With the latter group, though, actions speak louder than words. So we’ll believe it when we really see it.