By BILL ONASCH
On the eve of the April 29 People’s Climate Mobilization in Washington and other cities, Bill Onasch describes what working people and the labor movement must do in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
The working class faces challenges on many fronts today. But one crisis is overarching. On both land and sea, Northern and Southern Hemispheres alike, our planet is getting hotter. The scale and pace of this global warming is unprecedented in human history. The last three years have been the hottest since precise measurements began in the 1880s.
This heat is expanding the volume of oceans. Along with melting sea and glacial ice in the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland, this is raising sea levels. If not stopped soon it will eventually inundate coastal areas that are home to hundreds of millions. The New York City penthouse at Trump Tower would remain dry—but by 2050 the tip of Manhattan, including Southport, Battery Park, and much of the World Trade Center would be submerged.
Familiar weather patterns are being disrupted, leading to severe droughts in some areas and giant floods in others. In February, 11,743 local record warm daily temperatures were recorded just in the United States. The world has been hit by ferocious storms, like Cyclone Debbie in Australia, and massive wildfires such as the recent one in Kansas that killed thousands of livestock, consumed all of the hay supply, and destroyed hundreds of farm structures.
In some regions of the world, such as eastern Africa, this early-stage climate change has resulted in famine—and numerous climate refugees.
Pernicious liars like the president of the United States assert that climate change resulting from global warming is a hoax, variously attributed to either greedy climate scientists bilking tax-payers or the Chinese government trying to wreck our economy.
Other deniers don’t challenge the validity of thermometer and sea level readings but insist this is a natural cycle of our planet that will eventually get back to what we consider normal. They see no cause for alarm or need for drastic changes. In any case, they say there’s nothing we can do to stop Mother Nature.
But the overwhelming majority of scientists accept irrefutable evidence that the principal cause of global warming is the release of greenhouse gases by the ravenous energy demands of industry, agriculture, transportation—and war.
These emissions are still growing. The damage this causes to the fragile biosphere that has nourished human civilization is irreversible. While its worst effects will be felt by future generations, climate change has been advancing faster than expected and requires urgent and far-reaching countermeasures.
How capitalism fouls things up
After steam engines fueled by wood and coal gave a big boost to the 18th-century Industrial Revolution, the capitalist economy became increasingly addicted to fossil fuels. Since the first modern oil wells began pumping in Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1859, the United States, Britain, and other major powers have been exploring and conquering on land and in the sea to satisfy the thirst of diesel, internal combustion, and jet engines, as well as for raw material for production of petrochemical products like plastic.
For some time now, the U.S. has had more registered cars and trucks than licensed drivers. Big new markets have been carved out for products like snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles, and motor homes. Once serene lakes are now battered by racket and wakes of ubiquitous motorboats and jet skis. And we shouldn’t forget those dirty, noisy two-stroke engines commonly used to mow lawns.
While plug-in electric cars are now starting to appear, nearly 99 percent of the auto industry is still cranking out fossil-fueled cars and trucks. More than 900,000 American workers are directly involved in making parts and assembling these vehicles. Millions more earn a paycheck by selling, maintaining, repairing, insuring—and ultimately scrapping them. Hundreds of thousands of others are employed in building and maintenance of highways and city streets. And, of course, auto is a prime customer for the steel, rubber, and glass industries.
With zero redeeming social benefit, the fighters, bombers, tanks, cruise missiles, and drones used in constant wars of intervention to advance the interests of capitalist Globalization are also a huge greenhouse polluter.
Of course, it has never been the intention of the capitalists to wreck our biosphere. That’s collateral damage in the class war they wage, which has made today’s American ruling class the richest in history. Some of them favor measures they hope will slow down global warming so that the next generations can figure out something better.
The bosses and bankers mainly promote ineffective schemes like carbon price, carbon tax, and carbon offsets, which have been widely used since the Kyoto Accords were adopted in 1997—but never implemented by Clinton or Bush II.
Obama’s much hailed “Clean Power” initiative—which Trump is now trying to dismantle—was the first American contribution to world efforts to adopt goals to reduce carbon emissions. It was mainly based on inducing many power plants to convert from coal to somewhat less carbon-polluting natural gas. This hasn’t happened out of climate concerns by the utilities. Gas has become cheaper than coal—mainly because of Obama’s promotion of environmentally destructive hydraulic fracturing (fracking.)
“Clean Power” also relied on the cooperation of states to develop carbon markets and quotas—much like Obama’s Affordable Care Act counted on states doing the right thing. And because this “historic” plan was introduced through an executive order, it can be modified and perhaps even nullified by order of the current Denier-in-Chief.
Real solutions are available
Since burning fossil fuels is the main culprit in creating the greenhouse effect driving climate change, a total solution is simple and obvious—quit burning them, leave them in the ground. We in fact don’t need them. There are clean, renewable energy sources available free for the taking everywhere on Earth—sun, wind, and water.
We can replace dirty, inefficient internal combustion and diesel engines that consume fossil fuel with electric motors. We can conserve energy and reap many other ecological benefits by reversing urban sprawl, reclaiming the forests, wetlands, and farm lands that once surrounded and nurtured many of our cities before being wrecked by irresponsible “development.”
To facilitate population return to our depleted, long neglected urban cores will require using craft workers now building pipelines and fracking wells to be put to work rebuilding and renovating quality affordable housing and a sustainable infrastructure. Safe, reliable, electric-powered mass transit would be a high priority project.
Climate change is a global crisis. No country can escape its impact—not even the U.S., the richest country in history. A large part of this American wealth—of which the lion’s share is controlled by about one-tenth of one percent of our population—is accumulated through exploitation of other nations, leaving them “underdeveloped” and polluted. There is not only a moral obligation but also a vital self-interest for the world economy to finance climate stabilization projects in the poorest countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
But we need to offer more than money—it’s also essential to lead by example in action. Sustainable restructuring of the world’s biggest economy can convince the whole world that there is now a road to development far superior to our history marked by unintended ecological destruction.
But we need a plan—pronto
When American capitalism decided to go all-in for the Second World War, they didn’t try to induce industry to build unprecedented numbers of ships, planes, and tanks through tax credits or other fiscal and market measures. Instead, the government essentially took control of the entire economy and dictated products and production quotas. This project of Big Government was the most successful crash mobilization of economic resources in history.
To be sure, this is a far from perfect analogy. The end use of that production led to 70 million deaths and the beginning of the era of nuclear war. We want to end wars and war spending, not make them bigger or more efficient.
Nor is it realistic to expect a capitalist government to carry out such planned economy to combat climate change. The capitalists were rewarded handsomely for their compliance with the government’s World War II plan, and the U.S. victory led to opening up vast new markets to U.S. domination—which from their point of view made the slaughter and destruction more than acceptable. They will not make any sacrifices to eliminate the most important sources of profit.
The only force in society with both the potential power and material interest to challenge destructive capitalist rule is the working-class majority. With the same sense of wartime urgency, our class that does nearly all the work, in alliance with scientists and environmentalists, can take charge of a planned rapid restructuring of a sustainable economy and run it democratically.
Some hopeful signs from labor
The only class-based mass organizations in the USA are the trade unions. This movement has long been divided over climate and environmental issues. But today a number of important national unions are educating and mobilizing their members around climate as well as class justice. Those making that connection include the Amalgamated Transit Union, American Federation of Teachers, American Postal Workers, Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, Service Employees International Union, and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers.
Some of these unions are part of the labor/environmental Blue Green Alliance. All are affiliated with the Labor Network for Sustainability, which is doing valuable work in hammering out a program for “Making a Living On a Living Planet.”
Most have also joined the global Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. Among other demands, TUED favors socialization of all energy under worker management—a goal Socialist Action heartily supports. But to secure the needed massive restructuring plan, we think socialization will need to also include at the very least the financial and transportation sectors and, because of its central importance, the auto industry as well.
Both the LNS and TUED strongly support the application of Just Transition—a topic of an article in the February issue of this newspaper. This long standing working-class principle holds that when workers lose their livelihood for the better good of society we have a collective obligation to give them income, retraining, and relocation support until they can find suitable new jobs.
Unlike Trump’s phony promise of putting miners back to work digging coal, we can honestly and confidently guarantee Just Transition to the millions of workers who will be affected as we replace climate-wrecking jobs with sustainable ones. At the same time as we save our biosphere, we will generate full employment with a decent standard of living for generations.
As the working class replaces the present capitalist ruling class, we can use some of their ill-gotten wealth to also provide generous solidarity grants to nations exploited by the old rules, so that they too can be part of making a decent living on a healing planet.
This, of course, won’t be done overnight. While climate change relentlessly advances, the struggles for both climate and class justice are in their early stages. There are no short cuts. We need to continue to educate and motivate around the urgent need for climate action while helping the working class recover from class identity theft. Periodic mass demonstrations, along with education in union halls and workplace break rooms, and teach-ins on college campuses, remain essential
Scientists and environmentalists have done their job well in explaining the climate crisis and offering ways to satisfactorily resolve it. But the necessary alternatives require taking political power away from the climate-wrecking class. That won’t be done until the working class breaks the two-party political monopoly that allows this tiny destructive minority to rule. The need for a mass working-class party in the United States—likely arising from our unions—is every bit as urgent as the climate crisis itself.
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