Nigel Doggett says the climate crisis needs transnational action from governments and corporations, while British Labour needs to back civil society actions to force change
The climate and ecological crisis constitutes a collective action problem, where individuals can act with little regard for the cumulative societal or global impacts they cause. Mainstream liberal economics calls this a ‘market failure’ to account for ‘negative externalities’ such as biodiversity loss, pollution and, specifically, carbon emissions, stressing the role of individuals and downplaying collective action in addressing our needs. We emit greenhouse gases directly by travel, energy usage and other consumption, and indirectly by destruction of carbon sinks (eg forests and peat bogs) and purchase of goods produced with carbon emissions (‘embedded carbon’). Instruments to reduce emissions (mitigation) include market-based carbon pricing and taxes, developments focussed on big business, inter-governmental agreements on emissions targets, and financing low carbon projects. But these neglect a family of elephants in the room, as the drivers of the crisis are interwoven with class, gender and race, and, as we see in relation to Russia and Europe, are subject to the twists and turns of geopolitics. Market-based measures can maintain or worsen social inequalities, whilst climate impacts tend to be worst on women, the marginalised and people of colour, due to location, employment type and poverty.
Marked climate changes are now unavoidable as global heating approaches the totemic 1.5C (in many places, land temperatures have already risen well beyond that). So climate strategy must prioritise adaptation alongside mitigation. Poorer nations are often most vulnerable to heatwaves, drought, sea level rise and flooding; hence the campaigns for climate and environmental justice on a global scale, now joined by establishment bodies including the IPCC (publisher of scientific climate assessment reports) and UK Committee on Climate Change.
The concept of doughnut economics, with the aim of living within a sustainable ring-shaped zone, illustrates the international and intra-social factors. Whilst the richest people (and nations) exceed the outer ecological limit, causing multiple environmental impacts, most people in the least developed nations lack essentials and cause much lower impacts, visualised as inside the ring.
Two major UN conferences this year concern the climate (COP27 in November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt) and biodiversity (COP15 in December in Montreal, Canada). National governments have places at the negotiating table (albeit through groups such as the High Ambition Climate Coalition), fossil fuel corporations wield huge influence behind the scenes, and petrostates have an effective veto in the search for consensus. But environmental NGOs and local campaigners from the sharp end of climate breakdown only have fringe status.
The BRICS – emerging economies led by China and India – are rapidly becoming the largest carbon emitters, with development still largely fossil-fuel based despite their climate impacts. Their assertion of the right to living standards rivalling the global north is belied by the fact that small elites benefit most, while the majority miss out.
So, these themes should inform an eco-socialist climate strategy:
- the global north’s historical responsibility for fossil-fuel based industrial development;
- the continuing legacy of empire and the role of international capitalism in both social divisions and this crisis;
- the value of interconnections, through trade, exchange of ideas and culture, whilst rejecting aspects of ‘actually existing’ globalism that foster exploitation of weaker parties, shading into neocolonialism (not just by former imperialist powers – Russia and China are responsible for land grabs in the name of development);
- support for international civil society – trade unions, radical/environmental NGOs (eg Extinction Rebellion) and popular left political movements – in building solidarity on trade, industrial and energy development and environmental protection; for example, exerting consumer leverage on polluters and networking with groups of employees of the same transnational companies, using modern communications and social media;
- low carbon development must be accountable to the community and its benefits shared. Large scale hydro, solar, wind or nuclear all require massive capital investment and concentrate power and benefits, leaving local people at best as passive consumers.
In the British Labour Party, the pendulum has swung back to a parliamentary focus where popular campaigning (and active support for both industrial and direct action) is shunned in a quest for electability. This narrow focus jeopardises the potential to lead a broad movement to safeguard our climate and biodiversity, especially in the current international crisis where the Russian invasion of Ukraine affects energy security, fossil fuel dependence and the low carbon transition.