If you're under 45, you'll see climate change's effects in person

We're still caught up in a 1980s mindset.

BusinessGreen's James Murray writes about "Clinging to a climate of optimism" when it comes to fighting climate change:

My point is this: if you are over 45, then you are on track to bequeath the rest of us a pretty scary inheritance. But if you are under 45, then you have a good chance of experiencing some of the more devastating results of our failure to leave fossil fuels in the ground for yourself. You will see first-hand whether we are capable of building a genuinely sustainable global economy by mid-century or not. You will find out if it is possible to support nine billion people in a warmer world. You have a direct stake in this game.

In a way, it comes back to the argument I made last week about the risks of imprecision: climate change has been mentally filed away in the "legacy to our grandchildren" box for the last forty years. But while it's painfully obvious that something happening "in 2080" is getting closer every year, it's not quite so easy to continually readjust your perceptions for something which you've estimated as "a long way in the future".

And so we end up in the trap Murray addresses, where even people who were born after climate change first hit the agenda have it wrongly pegged as something they won't be alive to see. There's a level of urgency which people understand on an intellectual level, but not on a practical one. That is, someone perfectly happy to talk about "two degrees warming by 2050" still blanches when discussing the Thames Barrier being breached in their lifetime.

What effects could that practical understanding have on our approach to the issue? Murray writes:

Too many environmental debates are akin to arguing in 1940 about whether the allies should build tanks or planes.

We are past the point where we have the luxury of working out what the "best" sort of investment is to fight climate change – and really, we should never have been having that argument in the first place. A carbon-free energy infrastructure would always have a mix of inputs, from wind and solar to nuclear and CCS-equipped gas generation, and while some mixes might work better than others, all of them are better than the status quo.

But you don't even need to decide which energy mix you want, because with an appropriate policy background you could leave providers to make their own choices. That could be a cap-and-trade system which actually caps, as opposed to just trading, or it could be a carbon tax levied at a high enough level to make a difference, but whatever it is, it needs to be passed sooner rather than later.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.