Climate change is a class issue
Image: Morning Star

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” This is the terrifying introduction to David Wallace-Wells’s timely new book The Uninhabitable Earth.

One of Wallace-Wells’s observations is that more than half of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels in human history have been produced in the last 30 years. It’s a fact which stopped me in my tracks. It means that since the United Nations first established its climate change framework in 1992, we’ve done more damage than in all the preceding millennia.

This underlines an important point: we’ve known of the need for serious climate action for decades but not risen to the challenge. It is not a lack of knowledge but a lack of action that explains this climate emergency.

Free market fundamentalism has created a clear and present danger that can only be averted by state intervention and investment and international regulation and co-operation on an unprecedented level. Put simply, climate change is the greatest ever market failure. It is a failure driven by capitalism’s endless focus on profits whatever the cost. It makes the case for socialism more pressing than ever.

Thankfully more and more people — including young people who have inspired so many with their school strikes to call on governmental action to avoid climate catastrophe — are waking up to the frightening reality that the “profit before all else” approach of capitalism poses.

Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who sparked the global school strike for climate action, highlights the systemic failure, asking:

“If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal? Everyone keeps saying climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on like before…..”

Radical action is essential. We are the last generation that is able to prevent runaway climate change. So this must be our moral crusade. The costs of inaction are frightening. The UN’s climate panel warns that limiting global warming to 1.5°C could reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050. So, given this emergency, it is encouraging that political leaders are emerging who accurately analyze the causes of climate catastrophe, who understand the severity of the situation and who are demanding action of the magnitude required.

In the US, socialist politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bold plan for a Green New Deal for huge state action against climate change has caught the popular mood.

She has made it clear that “one thing we cannot deny is that climate change is a problem of market failure and the externalities in our economics.” She has also pointed out that “Exxon Mobile knew that climate change was real and man-made as far back as 1970” and “the entire United States government knew that climate change was real and human-caused in 1989” but “the initial response was ‘let the market handle it, they will do it’.” As Ocasio-Cortez points out, “Forty years and free-market solutions have not changed our position.”

She has also underlined how climate catastrophe is a social justice and class issue and not the “elitist” issue that the actual elites have attempted to portray it as in an attempt to persuade the working-class majority that it does not have a stake or an interest in this most important of issues. That is why Ocasio-Cortez’s plan for a Green New Deal explicitly links environmental and social justice. Its progressive solutions focus on investing in skilled jobs, public and community ownership; and universal healthcare and housing are both rolled into the plan.

With this inspiring policy sparking an upsurge in enthusiasm for the left in US politics, Tony Blair this week sought to dampen it. Ever increasingly wedded to big capital interests since his retirement from elected political involvement, he expressed skepticism about Ocasio-Cortez’s approach to tackling climate change, referring to it as “the politics of protest” rather than “the politics of government” and raising concern that “market mechanisms” are not seen as the way forward.

This is not the time for such “business as usual” complacency. An adherence to the failed and outdated approach of free market dogmatism on this issue will simply not meet this most pressing challenge of our times.

It is why, in contrast, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour has recognized the nature and scale of the challenge that capitalism’s climate catastrophe poses to our society and to humanity.

Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey is leading for the party with what could well be the Labour policies that most capture the interest and enthusiasm of the public at the next general election.

Long Bailey has outlined an ambitious program for wind power, solar power and retrofitting to combat climate change but also create 400,000 skilled green jobs, committing the UK to zero net emissions by 2050, placing a ban on fracking and creating new laws to clean our country’s polluted air.

Labour members can be proud of the priority this is being given. As one climate leader recently told me these “are genuinely world-leading” polices.

Long Bailey has also emphasized that this is an issue that affects working-class communities and that the solutions need to be linked to questions of economic and social justice.

As she recently told The Guardian, “it is important for us to position ourselves as a party that is going to tackle climate change but turn that into an economic opportunity for the vast areas of this country that have seen decades of under-investment and provide jobs for the future and provide that revitalization that communities want to see.”

When thinking of the scale of the threat and the role progressives have to play in the climate battle, the words of Tony Benn at the end of Will and Testament (the moving documentary about his life by Skip Kite) come to mind: “I still believe that the choice is between socialism and barbarism and I know which side I am on.”

Nothing is a better illustration of this fundamental truth than this essential fight against climate catastrophe. Labour’s radical green agenda means we are well placed to play a crucial role in this most urgent of tasks.

Morning Star


Richard Burgon MP
Richard Burgon MP

Richard Burgon MP is British Labour Party politician and the Member of Parliament for Leeds East, in the northern English county of Yorkshire. He is the shadow (opposition party) secretary of state for justice and shadow (opposition party) lord chancellor.