But where would all the workers go?

CtrlAltShift Blog #2 - Ask most direct action environmentalists what we should do with all the airports and coal-fired power stations, and they will probably give you a funny look - "obviously we should shut them down!" Josh Moos explains...

Unfortunately, coal-fired power stations and airports are currently workplaces for thousands of workers, from technicians to baggage handlers. Most environmentalists have a vague idea that they want these workers to be involved in a 'just transition' to a low-carbon economy, but what does that really mean? Even when the environmental movement acknowledges the "problem" of these workers' existence, it has a tendency of overlooking their agency and potential power to effect change. If we are to prevent catastrophic climate change, these issues must be addressed.

Workers in high-emitting industries are not the enemy. Climate change is not caused by workers, but by a system based on profit and accumulation where the majority of people in society produce the wealth and a minority appropriate it. This system is called capitalism.

By understanding the causes of climate change, we can also work out the solutions to it. If it is the workers that produce the wealth, then ultimately it is the workers that hold the real power in our society. Those best placed to press the figurative "stop" button in a coal-fired power station are not the people frantically (if admirably) throwing themselves at the fences, but those working in that power station.

Those dynamics were clearly demonstrated by the recent strikes by British Airways cabin crew. By striking, they grounded thousands of planes, and had a considerably bigger impact on emissions than myself and other activists did when we shut down Stansted Airport for several hours in 2008.

This is not to suggest that Plane Stupid shutting down Stansted was unsuccessful, or that environmental direct action of that kind is in anyway pointless. However the fact remains that, while the BA strikes may not have had a directly "environmentalist" motivation, the workers' action still prevented considerably more emissions than we did. We have to recognise the power that workers hold.

This is not simply a question of using workers as a conveniently-placed army to disrupt the activity of high-emitting workplaces. It is about disrupting the wage relation and profit motive that are, fundamentally, the root causes of climate change. By striking workers challenge the "right" of their bosses to run their workplaces (and, by extension, the whole economy) in the sole interests of profit. This creates the possibility of workplaces and a society in which other interests - those of human need and environmental sustainability - come first.

Even a strike around "bread-and-butter" issues like pay or pensions poses the question of power and control. If climate change activists active within the workers movement can win workers in high-emitting industries to a radical environmental perspective, we could again see workers taking action to save the planet as well as their jobs. This is what happened at the Lucas Aerospace plants in the 1970s; when faced with redundancies, the workers developed an Alternative Corporate Plan to convert their factories and save their jobs. The factory produced military hardware, but the workers demonstrated that it could instead manufacture renewable energy equipment.

From the point of view of an environmental activist and not a worker in a car factory, this may all seem rather abstract, but the implications are crucial. The environmental movement needs to engage with workers in high-emitting industries, rather than alienating them. Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group (CACCTU) have attempted to start this process with their "Million Climate Jobs" Report, and Workers' Climate Action is a network built on the idea of working-class environmentalism.

But we need these initiatives to grow. At the most basic level, if a car factory is threatened with closure we shouldn't lick our lips at the prospect of getting rid of a high-emitting workplace, but actively campaign alongside workers to keep the plant open, while helping develop worker-led conversion plans so that factories currently producing cars or aeroplanes begin producing socially and environmentally necessary products.

Everyone knows that climate change will hit the poorest first and hardest, but a united working class is not a vulnerable victim, it is a significant social power. A 'just transition' is not an abstract concept but an integral part of the fight for the survival of our planet. On 20 July 2010, Linamar car factory workers started a fight to save their jobs, and BA cabin crew workers rejected a pitiful pay offer from bullying boss Willie Walsh.

These are workers' struggles in the here and now which need our support and solidarity; they are the path to a just transition and sustainable future.

Plane Stupid launches new blog series


In collaboration with website blog CtrlAltShift, Plane Stupid is launching today the first of many blogs on issues such as climate change, environmental justice and social justice to name a few. Every Monday you will be able to get your weekly dosage of key thinking on the important issues of today. Here's the first, written by activist Richard George and titled "We're In Charge - Or Nothing Is Going To Change".

To paraphrase author and activist Derek Jensen, every morning I wake up and ask myself whether I should go to work or shut down an airport. Going to work usually wins - I work for a green charity, and tell myself that I can make a difference sitting at my desk - but that doesn't make it a rational response to climate change. Instead, it's time to get disobedient.

It's not a want of impassioned campaigning that's stopping progress on climate change, but a lack of meaningful action. If campaign success was measured in petitions, marches and demonstrations, we'd be well on our way to solving the problem. Instead, scientists are warning that we're headed for a 4 degree rise in global temperatures, and we're only on track to meet our CO2 targets because of the recession.

Those of us who have been enjoying the balmy summer might secretly look forward to warmer temperatures, but stories about vineyards in Scotland bear no resemblance to reality. At 4 degrees, Kent turns into Marrakech - 45 degrees C in the shade. Even a 2 degree rise leaves Europe uncomfortably hot and condemns the global south to a very nasty future.

You might think that such a serious threat would galvanise people to action, but so far the response has been muted. Sure, we've marched a bit, and there have been calls for govenment to do something. We have even got a shiny new law: the Climate Change Act 2008. But the net result is resolutely business as usual, as lobbyists, businesses and politicians frantically backpedal, obfuscate and do everything they can to prevent lasting and meaningful change.

The problem, as I see it, is partly one of language. We turn our faces to the sky and cry, "The earth is dying! We must do more to stop it!" But the earth is not dying, it is being killed. Unhelpfully, the people killing it are incentivised to do so by the fortunes they make selling cars, trading in carbon or flying people to Manhattan to go shoe shopping. Helpfully, they have names and addresses, which means that we can pay them a visit and persuade them to stop.

We need to accept that government, businesses and the army of civil servants are not going to make the changes we need. They have too much invested in the present system. Instead, it is our responsibility, not just to be the change we want to see, but to reshape the world as we want it to be. This means changing our behaviour - buying less crap, turning down thermostats and all that jazz - but far more importantly, it means making sure that business as usual is simply not an option.

We still have a chance to make a difference, but we'll have to be quick. Unlike campaigns to end poverty, or stop the arms trade, this one has a deadline. Once we hit a certain temperature, large amounts of greenhouse gases, such as the methane stored in the frozen Siberiam permafrost, will start to leak out of their own accord. If we're going to stop runaway climate change, we have only a few years in which to do it.

So what can - and should - you be doing? Think global, act local. Find your nearest "carbon criminal" - a coal fired power station, an airport, an open-cast coal mine - get some friends, and pay them a visit. Don't be a "green consumer", or an "ethical shopper" or whatever buzzword some arsehole in marketing dreamt up. Instead, get active in your community, your school, your workplace.

Make sure that government realises that the changes which need to happen - and which would make the world a better, fairer place, even if climate change wasn't happening - are going to happen, even if we have to go through them to do it. Because until they realise that we're in charge, nothing is going to change.

But whatever you do, don't lose hope. We can win this if we work togethor and remember what we're fighting for. It's ok to go to work most days (unless you work for an oil company, in which case, call in sick). Just remember: if you want to make a difference, you have to get off the sofa and start taking action against those who would condemn us to a future not worth living.

See you on the streets.