Jonathan Neale’s new book calls for a global mass movement to confront the capitalist forces driving climate breakdown. Janet Bujra reviews ‘Fight the Fire’, describing the transformative power of writing that links analysis with real world action and what must be done to fight climate disaster. This review was originally published by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).
It is easy to succumb to a sense of defeatism and despair when faced by a rising tide of unbearable news about the impending climate crisis. Many of us shut down, believing it will not affect us personally, or become cynical at the unlikely prospects of the powerful ever acting decisively to confront it. I counted myself amongst the defeatists and the cynics, even whilst dutifully attending protests where we waved banners and collectively feigned death in Centenary Square in Bradford to bring home the message.
This book has transformed my thinking.
Written by a committed socialist and climate activist, with a powerful analysis framed by radical political economy, Jonathan Neale both informs and inspires, with a realistic assessment of the problem of global warming and of potential solutions. He argues powerfully that committed and organized collective action is the urgent answer, where democratic forces confront the vast power of vested interests in the status quo.
In Africa we have already seen the insidious effects of climate change, with substantial future impacts anticipated. Increasing desertification and aridity is threatening food supplies and leading to major conflicts over the control of water from depleted rivers. Conversely, major floods and cyclones have killed and displaced thousands, whilst unreliable weather patterns and heat waves threaten human existence and create habitat changes that favour disease-bearing or crop-devastating insects such as mosquitoes and locusts. Although the African continent has contributed the least to causing climate change it is likely to be amongst the worst hit.
A recent report in Le Monde Diplomatique (April 2021) detailed the threat to over 70% of African National Parks from ‘greedy’ multinational oil companies seeking and gaining concessions to explore, drill and frack. It warned of the disastrous impact this will have – on local people forcibly displaced, on wildlife and habitats destroyed and on water polluted. Despite resistance from NGOs and environmentalists, African states are facilitating oil exploration in a bid to top up their depleted reserves and join the ranks of the oil producing countries, even as we know that the profits of oil production feed global corporate accumulation more than local development, and reduce African producers to the status of suppliers of raw materials.
The major issue here, however, is not even mentioned – oil is a fossil fuel feeding the climate crisis. When burnt to produce energy it creates toxic carbon emissions. Neale makes crystal clear that if we are to avoid a cataclysmic future of global warming, we need to ban the use of fossil fuels altogether – oil, gas and coal – and replace them with renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, as he writes, “The key to stopping climate change will be stopping emissions”. His book demonstrates how this is possible.
This is a book addressed to a general audience, so the style is almost conversational, avoiding jargon and undefined technical vocabulary, whilst also displaying an encyclopaedic grasp of information through an extensive set of appendixed references (no index though!). It engages through a step by step unfolding of a set of meticulously logical arguments and evidence, always taking care to address and deal with objections. A major contribution of the book is its construction of a comprehensive global analysis, showing how all parts of the problem everywhere and their solutions are interconnected. Most importantly Neale goes beyond the symptoms of climate change and focusses on the causes. These are to be found in the scientific facts, but equally relevant, the social relations of globalizing capitalism. Saving the planet will take more than piecemeal responses, like extracting the methane from sewage for biofuels or setting up a charging system for electric cars. It must address the concentration of economic and political power which stands in the way of a result.
Neale differentiates the two major sources of emissions – carbon (CO2) and methane – and shows how they are generated and how they affect climatic conditions. Secondly, he calculates by how much they could realistically be reduced, using current technology (no hostages to fortune here). He estimates that it would be possible to reduce current emissions by around 70% which would allow us to stay within the 1.5 degree internationally agreed objective for global warming.
Yet achieving this goal will require a complete change in the way that we live our lives. The key transformation here is electrification using renewable energy. Neale spells out the extent to which electrification can be applied – in transport particularly, in construction and manufacturing and in heating and cooling homes. The eventual objective would be a ‘super-grid’ allowing for the evening out of variations in electricity supply and with excess production becoming exportable across the globe. The cost of doing this is considerable and Neale insists that it cannot be done via the market. Markets are efficient in producing profits for private production, not in investing in public services. It demands public ownership and funding. He notes in passing that Africa has totally inadequate levels of electrification, distributed very unevenly towards urban areas and the more industrialised countries like South Africa and Nigeria.
African development efforts have typically been focused on industrialization, especially manufacturing, but the methods by which this is to be achieved usually depend on building core heavy industry – cement, steel and chemicals – using fossil fuels, some of which are only currently being discovered on the continent – especially natural gas and coal. To give up on this tried and tested path to growth will lead – at least in the short run, to negative economic growth, especially for the poorest parts of the world. Neale is adamant that the most disadvantaged must be offered the prospects of a better, rather than a worse life in this transition. Economic growth must continue, in order to satisfy the needs of the many rather than the few – in jobs, housing and health – but it must be achieved through the use of renewable energy creating a low-carbon world, if we are to avoid climate disaster.
The key, whether in Africa or elsewhere, is to build industries and economies using renewable energy which also create jobs. This is a key tenet of Neale’s argument. Reductions in emissions must go along with the simultaneous and planned generation of ‘climate jobs’ – to design, manufacture, install and operate the infrastructure required. This needs to be done strategically so that communities which were based on mining and processing of fossil fuels are not left stranded and in decline. We saw in the UK in the 1980s how the lack of such planning devastated coal mining communities and the worker solidarities that were built upon them. Such planning should also provide an incentive for those affected to join the struggle against environmental disaster.
It is not only emissions from fossil fuels which will have to be addressed. Forestry and farming account for one-third of total global emissions. And African economies rely more heavily on agriculture than on industry. Here deforestation (given that trees store carbon), rice cultivation and methane from livestock impact the most. Reductions are proposed by Neale which do not have the same potential for job creation as the development of renewables but can still cut emissions. This can be facilitated through changing methods of production. Large-scale industrial farming is less effective here than small-holder production. Cutting the use of fertilisers, encouraging the consumption of meat which does not produce as much methane (chicken and pork, for example), reducing livestock and letting grazing areas revert to natural forest are some of the suggestions. Neale calls it ‘conservation agriculture’ and insists again that it will win over communities to the cause, especially if backed by land reform.
The intellectual rationale for these dramatic changes is laid out impeccably by Neale, but he does not assume that rationality will produce its own effects. There have to be social forces which can carry the necessary transformations into effect. He has little confidence in current governments and international bodies purporting to bring change, noting that so far they have consistently avoided mandatory cuts in climate emissions. Nor does he have much truck with the plethora of NGOs which have emerged to address the crisis and now dominate the narrative, seeing them as too tied to the current power structures. Given patterns of research patronage, it is difficult even for scientists to remain independent of vested interests. But the main opposition to the radical transformation required to fight climate change are the vested interests of ‘carbon capitalism’ – those who make profits out of the exploitation of fossil fuels, together with the political class which fronts their toxic power. His response is clear: only a global mass movement can confront such a phalanx of power, and “we need to replace the current leaders and rulers of the world and we need to do so quickly”. Rebellion is justifiable where the future of humanity is at stake.
The over-riding debate here is about the cost of the dramatic changes necessary. Neale estimates that the global cost of a climate change programme would be $4trillion a year. He argues that the cost can be covered by a mixture of more progressive taxation, cutting tax evasion and quantitative easing – obviously anathema to the richest and threatening to the electoral prospects of those in power. However, history shows that governments can find money when they need to: after the Great Depression of the 1920s-30s, World War II, the global financial crash of 2008, and for pandemics like Covid. The climate jobs programme would also yield returns – the workers employed would receive wages and pay taxes, consumers would purchase the electricity, and because the programme would be delivered by public bodies (Neale suggests a national Climate Service in each country) the drain of profits would be eliminated.
Progressive climate change policies in one country will not prevent the climate crisis – there needs to be a global movement of change, given the interconnectedness of the world’s economy. All regions contribute to the problem though in different ways. The US and China are the heaviest contributors to global emissions – one a capitalist economy in decline which resists political regulation for the public good, the other an authoritarian communist state industrializing via traditional high carbon methods of production.
The same globalizing capitalist pressures to industrialise for economic growth and accumulation are raising emissions everywhere and generating the same catastrophic spectre of disaster. To address this will “require the mother of all political struggles and will not happen without solidarity between mass movements in the North and the South”. How can this be achieved?
For Neale it is those who will suffer the most from climate disaster who have the most to gain from fighting it – the most impoverished and exploited, the workers of the world (84% of them in the Global South, especially China and India) and especially those most organized to do so through trade unions. He is aware that trade unions have conflicting interests in this struggle and may on occasion take reactionary positions. Moreover, those who resist the power of carbon capital will face concerted suppression, enduring brutality, imprisonment, even death.
Neale’s optimism that it is possible to fight and win in the struggle against global warming is backed by his examples where the oppressed have resisted successfully. He names the campaign in South Africa for free HIV/AIDS drugs and the international solidarity that led it eventually to succeed: “millions upon millions of people were given life because those in grave danger had organized and fought”. And history shows that people do resist oppression: currently there are mass uprisings across the world, beginning with the Arab Spring and stretching from Hong Kong, to Belarus, Lebanon, Chile, India, Sudan and many others. Neale notes their impact in unsettling and even overthrowing regimes, but also the weakness of their organizational capacity to build alternative futures. More focused movements like Black Lives Matter or Me Too demonstrate the potential force of single issue campaigns – and here Extinction Rebellion is on target for the climate crisis. Neale celebrates the way in which women and youth have become noticeably more radical in recent years but notes that their radicalism does not embrace socialist alternatives. In this struggle the Left has also been guilty of defeatism and of “hopeless rage … that works against change”.
At this point Neale’s optimism seems like wishful thinking. Clearly there is not yet the solid base for a full-frontal international resistance movement against carbon capital. However, giving up is not an option: “it never makes sense to stop trying to limit the damage”. The key is to understand how the social stasis of inequality is transformed into resistance and active and organized opposition. Where climate change is concerned it will first be events – the devastating series of failed harvests, the rising numbers of children dying of pollution in the air of our big cities, even the primroses that flower at Christmas. But it will also be the inspiration of those who make sense of these events and build them into a bigger picture and act to link the angry voices into a movement. And here Neale is required reading.
Jonathan Neale’s Fight the fire: Green New Deal and Climate Jobs is published jointly by Resistance Books, London; The Ecologist, Devon; Alternative Information and Development Centre, Cape Town; International Institute for Research and Education, Amsterdam. The book is free to download, read and print here.