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Ecological Politics for the Working Class

By Matt T Huber - Catalyst, Spring 2019

The climate and ecological crisis is dire and there’s little time to address it. In just over a generation (since 1988), we have emitted half of all historic emissions.1 In this same period the carbon load in the atmosphere has risen from around 350 parts per million to over 410 — the highest level in 800,000 years (the historic preindustrial average was around 278).2 Human civilization only emerged in a rare 12,000 year period of climate stability — this period of stability is ending fast. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggests we have a mere twelve years to drastically lower emissions to avoid 1.5 C warming — a level that will only dramatically increase the spikes in extreme superstorms, droughts, wildfires, and deadly heat waves (to say nothing of sea-level rise).3 New studies show changing rainfall patterns will threaten grain production like wheat, corn, and rice within twenty years.4 A series of three studies suggest as early as 2070, half a billion people will, “experience humid heat waves that will kill even healthy people in the shade within 6 hours.”5

You don’t have to be a socialist to believe the time frame of the required changes will necessitate a revolution of sorts. The IPCC flatly said we must immediately institute “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”6 The noted climate scientist Kevin Anderson said, “… when you really look at the numbers behind the report, look at the numbers the science comes out with, then we’re talking about a complete revolution in our energy system. And that is going to beg very fundamental questions about how we run our economies.”7

The radical climate movement has long coalesced around the slogan “system change, not climate change.” The movement has a good understanding that capitalism is the main barrier to solving the climate crisis. Yet sometimes the notion of “system change” is vague on how systems change. The dilemma of the climate crisis is not as simple as just replacing one system with another — it requires a confrontation with some of the wealthiest and most powerful sectors of capital in world history. This includes a mere 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of the emissions since 1988.8 The fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive sectors of capital (steel, chemicals, cement, etc.) will not sit by and allow the revolutionary changes that make their business models obsolete.

Like all other such battles, this confrontation will take a highly organized social movement with a mass base behind it to force capital and the state to bend to the changes needed. Yet, as Naomi Klein argues, this is really “bad timing” because over the last several decades it is capital who has built formidable power to neutralize their main challenges like a regulatory state, progressive tax structures, and viable trade unions.9 The history of the nineteenth and twentieth century shows that the largest challenge to the rule of capital has come from organized working-class movements grounded in what Adaner Usmani calls “disruptive capacity” — particularly strikes and union organizing. 10 It is the working class that not only constitutes the vast majority of society, but also has the strategic leverage to shut down capital’s profits from the inside.11

Avoiding “Hothouse Earth”: Organizing Against Climate Catastrophe and Extinction

By BRRN Radical Ecology Committee - Black Rose Anarchist Federation, January 24, 2019

Climate alarms are going off all over Earth, from the devastating wildfires that have raged recently in California to the mass-bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the warming of Antarctica from below, and the continued melting of Greenland, even in winter. In August of last year, 2017 was found to be the hottest year on record without an El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event, a cyclical phenomenon which periodically warms the Pacific Ocean, while the past four years (2018 included) have been the hottest on record.

Aptly summarizing our current predicament, Will Steffen and colleagues published “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in August 2018. The authors describe the risks posed to the “Earth system” by biosphere degradation and the surpassing of environmental thresholds beyond which feedback loops such as reduced albedo effects (from lost ice and snow cover) and increased emissions (from forest fires, lost phytoplankton, and/or liberated methane) render global warming a self-perpetuating phenomenon. These conditions would result in the irrevocably infernal conditions of an imagined “Hothouse Earth.” (See the image below for a visual representation.) Steffen and colleagues are clear about the implications of this framing: “Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state.”

Courtesy Will Steffen et al.

Besides this infamous “Hothouse Earth” paper, several other new studies have illuminated the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging above us: in its October 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that we have at most 12 years to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown, defined as an exceeding of the globally agreed-upon target of an 1.5-2°C (2.7-3.6°F) increase in average global temperatures since the onset of industrial capitalism. Since the pre-industrial age, Earth has warmed by more than 1°C (1.8°F), so we are already on the knife’s edge. As the global temperature rises, risks to humanity and the rest of nature rise in tandem. See the Guardian graphic below for an illustration of some of the relationships between these risks.

In light of such cumulative risks, which the U.S. climatologist Michael Mann has likened to traversing a minefield—“The further out on to that minefield we go, the more explosions we are likely to set off”—the new IPCC report emphasizes the stark terms of the tasks before us.

“To keep warming under 1.5°C, countries will have to cut global CO2 [carbon-dioxide] emissions 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by around 2050, the report found […]. To stay under 1.5°C warming without relying on unproven CO2 removal technology means CO2 emissions must be cut in half by 2030, according to the report.”

AFL-CIO Energy Committee releases letter opposing the Green New Deal

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, March 12, 2019

A letter, dated March 8, was addressed to Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, and signed by  Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America , and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on behalf of the  AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee.  The letter  states :   “..the Green New Deal resolution is far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members and the critical sectors of our economy. It is not rooted in an engineering-based approach and makes promises that are not achievable or realistic.”  “…We want to engage on climate issues in a manner that does not impinge on enacting other labor priorities, especially much-needed infrastructure legislation…”

How they would engage and what they would propose is contained in a position paper posted on the IBEW website, and drafted by the IBEW, UMWA, and five other unions in the electric utility, construction, and rail transport sectors.  The position paper,  Preliminary  Labor Positions on Climate Legislation , states their opposition to carbon tax legislation and grave concerns about the Green New Deal . It calls for comprehensive, economy wide climate legislation which would include an national emissions trading scheme, to be introduced no earlier than 10 years after enacting legislation, to allow for development of Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS)  technologies.  It also calls for worker transition protections, including compensation and retraining.  The policy document was submitted to the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee for the record of their  February 6th meeting:  “Time for Action: Addressing the Economic and Environmental Effects of Climate Change“.

Reaction:  The Washington Post reported:  “AFL-CIO criticizes Green New Deal, calling it ‘not achievable or realistic’” (March 12)  and  in a follow-up piece , “Labor opposition to Green New Deal could be a big obstacle” ( March 14).  The United Mine Workers re-posted the Washington Post article .  Friends of the Earth, in its reaction to the March 8 letter, states “one-fifth of the unions that make up the AFL-CIO energy committee commented on the Green New Deal”,  and,  “With the energy committee’s position, the AFL joins climate deniers like the Koch brothers, the Republican Party and Big Oil. We encourage the AFL and other unions within it to rethink this position.”

Why Unions Must Bargain Over Climate Change

By Nato Green - In These Times, March 12, 2019

Union contract negotiations include mandatory and permissive subjects of bargaining. Employers are required by law to negotiate over mandatory subjects—wages, benefits and working conditions. Permissive subjects, such as decisions about which public services will be provided and how, have historically been the purview of management. We only negotiate over how managerial decisions affect members’ jobs. Employers may voluntarily agree to negotiate permissive subjects, but unions can’t legally strike over them.

In recent years, some unions have embraced “bargaining for the common good,” which use the union campaign to win broad, righteous public benefits. The best current example of this is the Los Angeles teachers’ strike, which opposed the underfunding, privatization and overcrowding of schools—all of which hurt students. Common good goals often bump against the constraints of what is legally bargainable. For instance, does a demand from teachers' unions that school districts use district-owned property to fund and build affordable housing for teachers affect working conditions? While shortages of affordable housing affect teachers very directly, how school districts use their land and invest their money is normally considered a managerial prerogative.

But last fall’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a game-changer. It concludes that humanity has 12 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius—and avoid civilization-threatening consequences of climate change. There is a lot of space between projected best- and worst-case future scenarios. It’s the difference between bad and apocalyptic. That space represents hundreds of millions of people dying. Avoiding worst-case scenarios, in strictly scientific terms, requires everyone to do everything, immediately.

The looming timeline of the IPCC report means unions must have a right to bargain over climate change, especially in the public sector. What good is it to negotiate the assignment of overtime when the sky is on fire? Does a public employer really want to claim that its direct complicity in the potential collapse of civilization has no bearing on working conditions? Can government claim that abandoning its workforce to die or flee their homes doesn’t affect working conditions? If employers don’t accept that every choice made today affects the near future, they’re denying science. Local and state governments in Democratic strongholds may find it politically challenging to posture about resisting Republicanism nationally while denying the local implications of that stance.

Thanks to the Sunrise Movement and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Green New Deal provides a framework for us to declare our part in everyone doing everything immediately. The Green New Deal calls for a government-funded jobs program to carry out a just transition to a carbon-free economy at the rates called for by the IPCC report. This is a perfect common good framework for unions to respond to the most urgent challenge of our time, while simultaneously promoting a high-functioning public sector as antidote to neoliberalism’s degradation of public services.

We Need to Live Differently

By Simon Pirani - ROARMag, February 28, 2019

The bad news about climate change keeps coming: record heat levels in Australia in January, and in the UK in February; increasingly uncontrollable wild fires; shocking leaps in Arctic temperatures. The worst news of all is that the gulf between what scientists say needs to be done and what the international climate talks deliver keeps growing.

At the negotiations in December at Katowice, Poland — which, grotesquely, were sponsored by Europe’s biggest producer of coking coal, among others — the main outcome was agreement on proposals to monitor governments’ actions, albeit in a watered-down version. Delegates did not discuss, let alone improve on, voluntary targets for cutting emissions, agreed on in Paris in 2015; scientists reckon that these put the world economy on course for a potentially disastrous increase in global average temperature to three degrees above pre-industrial levels. The gathering even declined to welcome the latest diplomatically honed report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on the insistence of the US, Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations.

Katowice was the latest round of talks that began at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where it was acknowledged that fossil fuel use is the main driver of global warming and needs to be reduced. Since then it has risen, globally, by more than 60 percent. Governments have signed agreements with one hand and poured tens of billions of dollars per year in subsidies into fossil fuel production and consumption with the other.

The first step to dealing with climate change is to reject the illusion that governments are dealing with the problem. Society as a whole must act.

How to put flesh on the bones of that generalization is not so simple. Should we protest? Try to force governments to invest in renewable energy projects? Take direct action against new power plants? Focus on community energy? All of the above?

An Ecosocialist Green New Deal: Guiding Principles

By the DSA Ecosocialist Working Group - Democratic Socialists of America - February 28, 2019

The IWW has not endorsed this document; however, individual members of the IWW EUC have helped shape it.

Humankind has reached a moment of existential crisis. Human activity is causing disastrous climate disruption and Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, triggering critical losses of biodiversity. We are already locked in for global warming that will have catastrophic effects, and we are on a slippery path to our own extinction. The 2018 Special Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns unequivocally that “without societal transformation and rapid implementation of ambitious greenhouse gas reduction measures, pathways to limiting warming to 1.5°C and achieving sustainable development will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.”

Yet, the crisis we face exceeds ecological breakdown. Deepening inequality, suppressed democracy, precarious jobs, racial and gendered violence, border hostility, and endless wars make up the terrain on which climate destabilization will be unleashed. The most vulnerable members of society will be hit hardest, first, and suffer most.

We must solve the climate crisis and the inequality crisis together. Climate remedies in the context of austerity will produce a popular backlash, as we see in the yellow vest protests against a fuel tax. Corporations profiting from fossil extraction have long worked to turn workers against environmentalists, claiming that clean energy would be a job killer. But working class and poor people’s quality of life, gravely threatened by climate disruption, would greatly improve in a just transition. Because corporate capitalism rewards extraction to concentrate wealth, it must be replaced by a sustainable economy. A Green New Deal can begin the transition from exploitative capitalism to democratic ecological socialism.

The urgency and scale of the crisis we face demand solutions that meet the magnitude of this moment. The ineffectual gradualism and corporate obedience demonstrated by the U.S. government’s climate response has proven to be a dead-end for humanity. We need rapid, systemic transformation that heals the stratification of wealth and power while putting decarbonization and justice at the forefront.

We need a Green New Deal. We demand a Green New Deal, and we demand that it serve people and planet—not profit.

Read the report (PDF).

Labor Unions and Green Transitions in the USA

By Dimitris Stevis - Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change, February 27, 2019

“In broad terms there are now two camps amongst US labour unions with respect to climate change and renewables (the two not always related). On one side, are those unions that believe that something needs to be done about climate change and that renewables are a good strategy. On the other side are those that are opposed to meaningful climate policy –even as they claim that climate change is a problem.”

This report outlines the deep cleavages with respect to climate policy but also argues that the views of unions are more complex and contradictory than the opposition-support dichotomy. Additionally, it seeks to understand what explains the variability in union responses to climate change and policy. What can account for the contradictions evident amongst and within unions?

Read the report (PDF).

Affected from the world, unite!

By Viviana Rojas - La Via Campesina, October 23, 2017

Nicinha’s body was found five months after her disappearance; she was an activist of the Brazilian´s Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) and was murdered last year, thousands of stories like this multiply throughout Latin America and in other parts of the world.

This crime has aroused outrage and national and international rejection. It has once again seen persecution and death against those who defend territories, water and dignified life, opposing the interests of capital and states, which, instead of guaranteeing the rights of the populations affected, are accomplices of these crimes.

But just as the repression and criminalization of the struggles has increased, we also see solidarity and internationalism as a potent strategy of peoples’ resistance against extractive capital.

From October 6 to 8, the “International Seminar: Energy Transition for a Popular Energy Project” was held, organized by MAB, a member of Via Campesina in Brazil, and the Movimiento de Afectados por Represa in Latin America (MAR). Among its main objectives are the denounce against current economic system and its energy model, the constant violations of human rights and the exploitation of the affected populations. And on that basis, strengthen unity, solidarity and define common strategies of struggles, both nationally and internationally, for a society alternative to capitalism.

Manifest: Rights of peasants – a step ahead for the future of humanity

By staff - La Via Campesina, March 17, 2017

The International Congress on Peasants’ Rights, which took place from 7 to 10 March in Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, brought together close to one hundred peasants and representatives of food producers from all over the world,  along with the same diversity of human rights defenders and activists. The Congress concluded with the presentation of a Manifesto on the need for a Declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, a text that was finalized with the contribution of the participants to the event. Below you can find the full text.

Almost 500 years ago, growing encroachments on peasants’ common lands by princes and churches led to rural uprisings in Southern Germany and to the drafting of the peasants’ “Twelve Articles”. This document represents the first record of demands for human rights and liberties in Europe, and included the right to equal access to lands, forests and fishing grounds. Although the feudal lords brutally crushed this revolt, peasants kept resisting and showing that the feudal nobility hadn’t defeated them. History shows that when peasants are rolled back in one place they reappear in another one. Peasant revolts are still on-going!

The Global Peasants’ Rights Congress, taking place from the 8th to the 10th of March 2017, shows this. More than 400 peasants, fishers, pastoralists, beekeepers, indigenous people, migrant and seasonal workers, rural women, youth, food consumers, NGOs’ representatives, academics, lawyers, activists and government representatives from more than 50 countries gathered together in the city of Schwäbisch Hall, a hotspot of the 16th-century “Great Peasants’ War”, to exchange views, to learn and to increase awareness about the current process of drafting a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. This Declaration has roots in an initiative of La Vía Campesina launched more than 15 years ago. With the sponsorship of the Bolivian Government, the process has been rapidly advancing in the UN Human Rights Council and will now go to a fourth round of negotiations in May 2017. This week’s Global Peasants’ Rights Congress showed that while we come from highly diverse backgrounds, we are nonetheless able to join hands in defense of human dignity and nature. This process resembles a river, with an increasing number of tributaries, crossing different landscapes and flowing together in a mighty stream of life.

Southern Africa Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT) on Transnational Corporations

By staff - La Via Campesina, August 16, 2016

For the Economic, Political, Cultural and Environmental Sovereignty of Our Peoples End the Impunity of Transnational Corporations NOW!

The time has come to unite our struggles in Southern Africa - the campaigns, networks, movements and organizations that are combating transnational corporations - the way they are exploiting our destinies, natural heritage and human rights, dismantling public services, destroying the commons, fomenting violence and endangering food sovereignty in every corner of the continent. 

The Southern Africa Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power invites you to participate in the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Transnational Corporations. The Tribunal will bring affected peoples from Southern Africa together to make their problems visible, analyse them and collaborate and share experiences in order to strengthen our joint struggle.

The effort to unify Southern African struggles is one part of a major global campaign to fight the exploitation of our lands, our eco-systems, our labour and our bodies by big corporates acting together with powerful states. These mega transnational corporations have created a blanket of impunity – getting away with their crimes unpunished and without repercussions - through the dismantling and systematic violation of laws and the signing of international trade and investment agreements, which award investors more rights than citizens. As a result, peoples’ rights have been systematically violated, the Earth and its resources destroyed, pillaged and contaminated, and resistance criminalized, while corporations continue committing economic and ecological crimes with total impunity.

Driven by the imperative to maximize profit, TNCs seek to pit workers from different countries against one another in what is a race to the bottom for the world’s working people. The governance and policies of the multilateral institutions, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisations have long served corporate interests, while the institutions of the United Nations, Southern African Development community and the African Union have been increasingly captured by TNCs and placed at their service. In most countries, governments increasingly act at the service of corporate interests, awarding them with tax breaks and a legal system that works to their benefit. National elites use their access to political power and influence over state policy to position themselves so as to benefit from corporate power and stop at nothing to continue plundering the wealth of nations and maintain their predatory relation to nature.

Working class and peasant women carry the major impacts of corporate-led theft of land, water and forests, and the pollution of the resources that peoples across Southern Africa rely on for livelihoods and survival. The patriarchal division of labour means that women have to work longer hours and bear heavier burdens as they search out livelihood alternatives when land-based ones are destroyed, safe water when these resources are stolen or polluted, and alternative energy when forests are destroyed. And it is women’s unpaid labour that fills in for public services that are cut to service debts in support of major infrastructure investments that benefit corporates, and when workers and family members fall ill from environmental pollution and unsafe working environments.

In the face of mounting criticism of their operations, TNCs’ use Corporate Social Responsibility to clean up their image with minor investments and no change in destructive business practice. They recruit private security arms, often acting in collaboration with state militaries, to patrol their territories and enforce the compliance of communities through intimidation, arson, rape, sexual harassment and murder. And they control major media agencies, which play a key role in ensuring the continuity of corporate hegemony. Acting with brutality in the rich countries from which they originate, but especially in countries of the Global South, including those in Southern Africa, major corporations are appropriating more and more of our collective wealth and rights.

Yet, resistance is growing across the world and throughout our region. Every day, there are more communities, movements and peoples struggling against TNCs – often confronting specific companies or sectors and winning important victories. If we are to challenge corporate power and the system that protects and benefits TNCs it is necessary that we come together and offer a systematic response. 

We must unite our experiences and our struggles, learn collectively from our victories and our failures and share our analysis and strategies for putting an end to the impunity of TNC’s. We must converge our struggles within and across countries, regions and continents.

We must build on our ways of life, our forms of production, our ways of nurturing and living alongside eco-systems and each other in harmony and with love - it is these ways of being, seeing, relating and producing that are the basis for building an alternative society in which we, the people, are the protagonists.

Dismantling the transnationals’ system of power demands coordinated action at the regional level: engaging in struggles in various spheres and sectors of the economy, combining mobilizations on the streets and in territories with popular education and actions in parliaments, media and international forums and organisations. By creating a powerful movement of solidarity and action against TNCs, their apologists and promoters, we will begin to build a world free from corporate power and greed.

We, the Southern African Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power, Stop Impunity, and Reclaim Peoples’ Sovereignty, welcome you to join us in collectively building this process of mobilization towards a campaign against the power of corporations and their crimes against humanity. The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal will take place in three sessions: A first set of hearings in August 2016 in Swaziland, the second in May 2017, and soon after, the delivery of the verdict by a panel of respected judges.

To sign on to the Call to Action or to participate in the Tribunal email ilham@aidc.org.za

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