Faced with an impending global catastrophe and possible human extinction, it is easy to see why many people might feel that everyone has a common interest in tackling the climate emergency. Trade union activist Ian Allinson draws on a discussion at Leeds TUC’s recent conference on how trade unions can meet the challenge of climate emergency to argue that this would be a serious mistake.
Who do we need to win over to our side in the climate movement? One popular answer is that we need everyone, because we all have a shared interest in preventing or minimimising climate catastrophe. Even if you know the facts about the grotesquely disproportionate contribution of a tiny minority of the richest people and most polluting companies to greenhouse gas emissions; even if you recognise that countries like Britain are responsible for the vast majority of atmospheric CO2 produced by human activity, you still might think that humanity now has a shared duty to act together. One attendee at the Leeds conference put it sharply – if your house is on fire, don’t spend your time arguing about who was most to blame, focus on working together to put the fire out. They saw discussion of different contributions to the climate emergency as a matter of blame, as victimising CEOs when we should be reaching out to educate them and win them over.
The argument is appealing and the use of Greta Thunberg’s metaphor is powerful. However, the metaphor needs some work to fit this argument accurately. The unspoken assumption is that telling the truth about who is responsible for causing the climate emergency is talking about the past, and is not useful to guiding our actions in the present or the future.
Improving the metaphor would include recognising that the rich and powerful individuals, companies and states are not helping put out the fire. They are busy pouring petrol it. They are arguing with people that there is not fire, that the fire won’t do much damage, that the fire will go out by itself, and that we can build a new fire-proof house with technology that we hope will be available in a few decades time. They are insulting, arresting, jailing, assaulting, and killing people who are trying to put out the fire. In such a situation, people might spend a moment or two trying to persuade the fire-starters to stop, but would justifiably and quickly turn to force to stop them if they didn’t listen.
But is the modified metaphor a good guide to action, or is it, like the original, merely an appealing story which fails to make its assumptions explicit?
The key distinction between the two positions is whether to focus on reaching out to the main polluters and their state protectors in the hope of convincing them, or on reducing their power and influence in the hope of defeating them.
Common justifications for the ‘outreach’ approach include a quasi-mystical invocation of love, the argument that climate breakdown will affect us all, and that ‘they’ (the rich / police / CEOs) have children too. Even the injunction to ‘love your enemy’ still involves recognising that someone is your enemy. Beyond the rhetoric, nobody in the movement seriously thinks you should engage with Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos and Greta Thunberg in the same way.
It is true that climate breakdown will affect us all. Everyone’s life will be changed, and if we fail to win decisive action there is a risk of the collapse of human civilisation or even extinction. But in the meantime the impacts and risks facing people are not all the same. Many in the Global South are already facing deadly famines, floods, fires, crop failures and wars. In contrast, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hired private firefighters to protect their mansion while surrounding homes in greater need of assistance burned. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has warned of ‘climate apartheid’ and some of the super rich are already preparing fortified mansions in locations most suitable for surviving climate chaos. There are a range of possible responses to the climate emergency. We should have a strong preference for a swift and egalitarian response in which deaths are minimised over a slow response that protects a rich minority and as much as possible of their ‘business as usual’, using brutal repression against the majority while billions die along with much of our biodiversity.
A strategy of relying on the majority disarming the minority of rich and powerful planetary arsonists is not just based on the belief that CEOs are disproportionately likely to be psychopaths, lacking empathy with other people. Most aren’t, but still behave in socially destructive ways. The real issue is structural. Capitalism is a system of ‘competitive accumulation’: each capitalist is forced to compete to make profit faster than their rivals. Though shareholders and directors siphon off vast sums, most profits are reinvested to maintain competitiveness. Low profits mean falling behind, going bust or being taken over by a competitor. Whatever the personal opinions of capitalists, their system forces them to put profit ahead of people and planet – or lose their business to rivals who do. States rely on business to fund their activities and compete with each other economically and militarily to maximise the profitability of business in their area of influence.
The implications are that outreach, persuasion and ‘winning over’ capitalists will have little or no overall impact on preventing climate catastrophe, and that we will have to oppose, pressure, weaken and defeat capital and its states if we are to succeed. Averting catastrophe will be easier the more progress we can make towards a society where democratic decision-making replaces the dictatorship of the employer and the landlord, themselves driven by competition to prioritise short-term profitability above all else.