The green movement must challenge capitalism, not individuals

The wealthy are responsible for far more carbon emissions than the poor. Labour's promise of climate justice is the only answer. 

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It is a law of snap general elections that they are dominated by issues other than those they are called to resolve. In February 1974, Conservative prime minister Ted Heath called a snap contest to ask the country to determine “who governs?”, before losing 37 seats in response to Labour’s promise of “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”. Later that year, having been replaced as prime minister by Harold Wilson, Heath again failed to win a majority at the October 1974 election. In 2017, Theresa May called an election to shore up support for her Brexit position only to find the contest dominated by the impact of seven years of austerity. 

Boris Johnson has been bullish about his party’s electoral prospects ever since his ascension to No 10 earlier this year. But behind the confident rhetoric, the events of 2017 are likely haunting the minds of Johnson and his senior adviser Dominic Cummings. The government has called a Brexit snap election, but will the campaign end up being dominated by Brexit?

The Conservatives are right to be worried. People are frustrated by the lack of progress on Brexit, but more than this, they are simply sick of talking about it. Before the campaign has even started, the issues that are dominating the headlines are those on which the Conservatives are weakest: the economy, public services, and the environment.

This last issue is of particular concern to the Tories, who know that they are at risk of losing the youth vote due to their inaction on the climate. According to a recent survey conducted by Client Earth and Opinium, 74 per cent of young people say climate breakdown will influence the way they vote at the election, and 72 per cent say politicians aren’t doing enough to tackle the issue. Perhaps most strikingly, 63 per cent of people surveyed, both young and old, are in favour of a “Green New Deal” with “large-scale, long-term investment in green jobs and infrastructure”.

These numbers bode well for Labour. This year’s party conference, supported by the grassroots campaign Labour for a Green New Deal, passed a motion in favour of adopting a target of net-zero emissions by 2030. The report commissioned in response to the conference motion, 30 by 2030, is a goldmine of popular climate policy ideas.

Labour has already taken one of the recommendations of the report – improving the energy efficiency of housing – and turned it into a key campaign pledge. The Warm Homes for All scheme will provide grants and loans to fit almost every home in the UK with loft insulation, double glazing and renewable technology, delivering a 10 per cent reduction in carbon emissions and creating 450,000 jobs.

The jobs-creation aspect of this policy is not a happy coincidence, but a central pillar of Labour’s approach to climate breakdown. The party’s argument for a “just transition” is based on two key insights. Firstly, the wealthy are responsible for far more carbon emissions than the poor and should therefore bear a greater part of the burden of decarbonisation. The wealthiest 10 per cent of the global population is responsible for half of all emissions, and the top 10 per cent of the UK population is responsible for nearly a quarter of domestic emissions.

Secondly, if we want to build mass support for decarbonisation, we must recognise and respond to the concerns of working people worried about the impact on jobs, transport and taxes. France’s yellow vests movement gives some indication of the response detached politicians can expect should they heap the costs of climate breakdown on the poor (as Emmanuel Macron did by raising fuel duty while abolishing his country's wealth tax). 

Labour’s approach to climate justice stands in stark contrast to that of other parties, including the Greens, and much of the broader environmental movement. Those who take up green issues without a background in labour or community organising often alienate the very people they need to win over by framing climate breakdown as a moral crusade and heaping responsibility on individuals rather than an economic and political system that prioritises the pursuit of profit over all other social and environmental goods.

Tackling climate breakdown requires a mass movement that can fight back against a capitalist system that exploits human beings as much as it does the natural environment. Focusing on recycling, energy-efficient lightbulbs and plastic straws militate against the emergence of such a movement by encouraging people to think of climate breakdown in individualised terms. Equally, buzzwords like “degrowth” conjure up images of scarcity and poverty that deter people from climate activism.

Labour is winning the argument on the environment because it is focusing on climate justice. Politicians such as shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey seamlessly integrate environmental issues with job creation, long-term investment and regional rebalancing. Policies such as reducing working time, nationalising rail and energy infrastructure and changing the mandate of the Bank of England all feed into Labour’s ambition to build a green, democratic, socialist economy.

Much to the chagrin of the Conservative Party, climate breakdown is likely to be the central issue of this election. Unlike Brexit, Johnson can’t respond to questions about climate breakdown with eccentric quips, xenophobic comments or calls for more deregulation. The only answer to climate breakdown is to challenge the logic of capitalism — and on that, the party of bosses, bankers, and big business is a little stuck. 

Grace Blakeley is the New Statesman’s economics commentator and a research fellow at IPPR.