The Climate Struggle – a Struggle for Social Power

Jan Davidsen, President, Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees
Hans O. Felix, President, Electricians and IT Workers’ Union of Norway
John Leirvaag, President, Norwegian Civil Service Union
Roy O. Pedersen, President, Trade Union Council of Oslo

Global warming is not just a question of what might happen in the future. The process is already underway, and the consequences can be catastrophic. There is broad consensus among scientists (the UNIPCC), that global warming is man-made, and that the main cause is the use of fossil fuels.

The climate threat will have widespread implications for social development, either as a result of climate changes or as a result of measures to prevent or mitigate climate change. The way we live and work will thus change radically, whether we take action or not. Major social changes are in other words unavoidable. Postponing action will aggravate the situation and ultimately have disastrous consequences for people, nature and society.

Social struggle
Because measures to combat climate change will require great changes in society, we face a major social struggle. The battle is not primarily about technology, but about fundamental social and political conditions. It’s about what kind of society we want to develop, in other words, a struggle for social power.

«Climate change represents the biggest market failure in history» according to the Stern report to the British government. The ongoing financial and economic crisis represents the second major market failure in history. We cannot assume that the same market forces will resolve these crises.

Today’s economic growth and the ongoing ruthless exploitation of natural resources is an embedded part of the capitalist economy. A narrow focus on environmental policy issues simply will not suffice. The climate and environmental struggle must be put into a wider political context. A system critical approach is needed. We need increased democratic control of the economy. The environmental crisis, as well as the economic crisis, therefore not merely represents a threat but also an opportunity to fight through important and necessary social changes. The interest-based political-ideological struggle must have to come to the fore again.

Just transition
To prevent a number of small island states and low-lying lands disappear completely, the temperature increase has to be kept below 1 degree Celsius. To prevent catastrophic climate changes global warming must be kept below 2 degrees Celsius. To achieve the latter goal requires a reduction in emissions of 25-40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and a reduction of 50-80 percent by 2050.

Those who have caused most of and benefitted from CO2 emissions should also bear the greatest costs. The transitions which are necessary to save the climate, must, in other words, be just. Without broad social mobilization, both in the North and in the South, the costs will be tried inflicted on ordinary people, while powerful economic interests go free. Developing countries must have the opportunity to develop their economies and their societies. To achieve a just transition, both developmental and social funds therefore are necessary – as well as free technology transfer to the South.

In the social struggle which is necessary to prevent the climate crisis, the trade union movement, because of its strategic position, will have to play a major role. However, trade unions are on the defensive all over the world and are under massive pressure from strong economic forces. For the trade union movement to be able to assume a leading role in the fight against climate change, it is therefore necessary to revitalize, refocus and activate the trade union movement.

The course must change
Our highly commercialised society constitutes an important challenge to the fight against climate change. Market forces conquer ever greater parts of social reproduction in society, and one’s own personal gains, individual competition and consumerism are promoted as the highest social values ​​rather than solidarity, cooperation and sustainable resource use. Growing social and mental problems in society suggests that current social developments are on the wrong course. Feelings of increased powerlessness and control from above reinforce this.

Climate policy cannot therefore be reduced to a question of sacrifice, of what we must give up of our hard-won rights. The struggle is first and foremost about creating a better society for all. The financing of reduced emissions must therefore go hand in hand with a radical redistribution of wealth – both from the North to the South and from the rich to the poor in our own society. Without this, broad support for necessary climate policy measures from most people will be impossible to achieve. A successful climate policy will thus require increased democratic control of the economy. That is exactly what we need to solve a number of other social problems.

This will require extensive restructuring of our society. Activities which damage the climate must be reduced, while renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable activities must be developed. This must be done in a planned and systematic manner which maintains the social and economic security of workers and people in general. We will never accept that certain groups of workers bear the brunt of climate change measures through unemployment and marginalization. Duties and rights must be shared jointly, and alternative solutions must be developed. This is also a question of workers’ power in the labour market, of shorter working hours and how we distribute the necessary work in society.

Restructuring and reindustrialisation
To save the climate we thus need democratic control of the economy. We need a proactive industrial policy. We need a planned and systematic shift in investments from fossil energy sources to renewable. We need a restructuring of existing industries and a reindustrialisation based on renewable energy. We need massive investments in public transport. We need a change in land use and urban planning policies, where environmental and climate considerations are in focus. We need strengthening research and development, innovation and skills development. We must do what is necessary to achieve the goals that the UNIPCC has outlined.

Transition to an environmentally sustainable community has many advantages. Thousands of new jobs in public transport, renewable energy and sustainable industry will be created. A reduction of greenhouse gases will also lead to less polluted workplaces and communities. Increased democratic control of the economy will reduce competition and pressure at the workplace. Sustainable use of resources will strengthen the need for shorter working hours and thus more leisure. Less stress, strain and mental pressure will be an important effect of such a development. Last but not least, it will secure the livelihood of future generations.

Deficient climate policy
The climate policy so far pursued in Norway is highly inadequate. Three elements have dominated: Purchase of CO2 emission quotas in developing countries, that is, the purchase of the right to continue our emissions at home; the financing of tree planting and conservation of rainforests, also mainly in developing countries; as well as capture and storage of CO2 in the ground. Otherwise the impression is given that everything can continue as before. While some of these measures in isolation contribute in the right direction, we find a striking lack of awareness of the necessary emission reductions and the changes that need to happen in our own country. This leads to demobilization and demoralization – and works against the promotion of necessary changes.

The market-based solutions to the climate crisis, primarily through carbon trade, which have been promoted by governments and strong vested economic interests, have so far failed. To take the climate crisis seriously means much more far-reaching economic and political restructuring and regulation. Time is ripe, therefore, that we take our global responsibilities and reduce our own emissions at home – through a restructuring based on completely different social and environmental goals.

Popular mobilisation
Just as little as social equality, full employment, decent work, poverty reduction, gender equality, etc. are obtained through global summits, will the climate crisis be solved that way. We need binding international agreements to save the climate, but to achieve that, it is necessary to mobilize social forces for alternative solutions built on solidarity, equality and people’s needs.

To succeed in this social struggle, we need to build long-term, broad popular alliances. This has particularly to happen between the labour and the environmental movement. Such an alliance policy must take account of the differences between the two. Thus, it is necessary to increase the understanding of the social conflict in the environmental movement, as well as increase the understanding of the environmental problems in the labour movement.

The climate struggle is about democratization of the economy and society, redistribution of wealth between the North and the South, as well as between rich and poor, just distribution of benefits and burdens, the free use of our common knowledge. To save the climate we must change society. Only then can we create the necessary conditions for a better life for all – including our descendants.

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