By Asbjørn Wahl, Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees

Most problems in society are mainly social and political, even if at first glance they seem purely technical or scientific. This is a hard-earned lesson for the labour and trade union movement.  For example, workplace technology can be developed to serve different interests: the shareholders, the customers, the workers… In the end it is the actual balance of power which decides the solution and who it will benefit.

The threat of climate change is no exception. The solution of this problem requires, among other things, a huge amount of new technology. But the problem isn’t just about technology, it is a genuinely social and political issue. It is decisive, therefore, that the trade union movement develops its own climate change policies. We have to move from a reactive to a proactive position. In the end, it is a question of what kind of society we want to develop.

Facing up to the issues
So far, much of the trade union movement has hesitated when confronted with the problem of climate change, even though this situation has moved on significantly in recent years. There has been a tendency to deny the seriousness of the problem, and there has been some opposition against taking action as a result of a (fully understandable) fear of job losses.

Our first challenge is therefore to face reality. We have to realise the overwhelming scientific proof that climate change is here, that human activities are crucial factors, and that this can be catastrophic. We must realise that the main reason for the problem is the burning of fossil fuel. This means the success factor of any measure is whether or not it contributes to reducing the burning of fossil fuel. The way we live and work will change radically over the coming years either as a result of action, or of inaction. Not to act, or to delay action, is not an option, but will only make consequences worse.

Failed markets need political control
The Stern Report, which reported to the UK government, concluded that “climate change represents the biggest market failure in history”. The on-going financial crisis represents another huge market failure in history. We cannot rely on those same failed market mechanisms to solve these crises.

Both climate change policies and the financial crisis will need increased democratic control of the economy. That is exactly what we, in the trade union movement, also need for many other reasons. This means that the climate crisis not only represents a threat, but also new possibilities for the trade union movement. The on-going crises, together with neo-liberalism’s current crisis of legitimacy, have actually opened an array of opportunities waiting to be exploited.

Trade unions thus have to prioritise climate change policies, but we have to embed these policies in a broader political context. We therefore also have to overcome the contradictions between specific workers’ immediate, sectoral interests and broader interests of workers as a whole. In other words, we are not only transport workers who face a change in work pattern; we are human beings confronting a potentially catastrophic event.

Redistribution of wealth
One thing is quite clear: there will be far-reaching changes. The question is therefore, how do we meet these challenges? Currently, workers and trade unions are on the defensive. We are under pressure. There is a tendency to individualise responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions. All of us have to pay for the emissions we cause, it is said, even though those emissions in most cases are effects of the way society is organised and market forces are pushing.

Of course emissions have to be reduced, even radically. This cannot, however, be left to each individual’s responsibility. Neither can it be done by implementing economic restrictions which in practise exempt the rich and wealthy from any change. Why should ordinary people support the necessary climate change policies under such conditions? People will never accept that rich people can continue to pay their way, that corporate interests are protected, while the costs are put on workers, consumers and taxpayers. What is needed, therefore, are collective political solutions in which policies against climate change are combined with a radical social redistribution of wealth. Anything short of that will prevent any solution to the climate crisis.

From defensive to offensive
Environmental organisations tell us we have to make sacrifices to save the climate and our planet. This is both incorrect, and strategically and tactically wrong. Climate change policies are not only a question of sacrifices, but of creating a better society for all. Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers’ Union Local 100 in New York, got it right when he, at a climate change conference, stated that: “Going green is not just about job creation, it is about an improved life for working people.”

Serious climate change policies will give us an opportunity for progressive social change. Change will presuppose a more democratically managed economy. it will create millions of green jobs – particularly in public transport and in the production of renewable energy. It will reduce market competition and thereby also reduce pressure at work. It will make it necessary to shorten working hours to reduce the overexploitation of resources and allow a more just distribution of jobs across the globe. It will, if we do our job properly, hopefully reduce consumerism as a way of compensating other unmet needs in our societies, characterised by alienation and powerlessness. In short, social change is a precondition and a solution at the same time to stopping climate change.

Furthermore, reduced greenhouse emissions will also reduce pollution in workplaces and communities. An enormous – and free – transfer of technology to developing countries will be necessary, both to reduce their increase in emissions and to lift two billion people out of poverty. Most importantly, climate change policies will secure the survival of human beings and the planet.

Alliances and social mobilisation
Global summits haven’t achieved social equality, jobs for all, decent working conditions, eradication of poverty, gender equality. It seems unlikely they will solve the problem of climate change either. Instead, we need a social and political mobilisation for alternative solutions built on solidarity, equality and peoples’ needs.

The trade union movement will need to build strategic alliances with the environmental movement, and others. To do that, we have to overcome a couple of important weaknesses. Firstly, we have to ensure the environmental movements understand the role of social power (the class conflict). Secondly, we ourselves need to increase the understanding of environmental problems and the climate crisis in our trade unions. This can only happen if the two movements start to co-operate, exchange views and experiences and develop a friendly and constructive environment for discussion.

An excellent example is the Blue-Green Alliance between the United Steel Workers and the environmental movement Sierra Club in the USA, which “is focused on restoring an additional element to the relationship between public policy and electoral politics … that of movement building … without strong, well-organised social movements mobilising along a society’s basic fault lines, meaningful change is unlikely.”

Our long-term perspective must be to build the social alliances necessary to change society, not the climate. It is ambitious, but necessary and possible – and we will sit in the driver’s seat.

In summary
•    Trade unions have to face up to the reality of climate change now
•    We need to be proactive, not reactive, to deal with the consequences
•    Climate change is part of a broader political context. We should look at the structure of society to find solutions.
•    We have to work with others, especially environmental organisations.
•    Climate change offers many possibilities: new green jobs, a greater role for public transport, less market competition… We must act now to seize these changes and make this a positive step for workers.