Labor in the Age of Climate Change
Year Published: 2016
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX19038
Climate change must be stopped. But who will do the stopping? Who, in other words, could be the political subject of an anticapitalist climate revolution? Stefania Barca argues that this social agent could be, and indeed must be, the global working class. Yet to play this role, the working class must develop an emancipatory ecological class consciousness.
Climate change must be stopped. But who will do the stopping? Who, in other words, could be the political subject of an anticapitalist climate revolution?
I am convinced this social agent could be, and indeed must be, the global working class. Yet to play this role, the working class must develop an emancipatory ecological class consciousness.
Fortunately, history is rife with examples of this kind of green-red synthesis -- labor environmentalism is as old as the trade union movement.
For much of its existence, labor environmentalism focused on the workplace and the living environment of working-class communities, linking occupational health and safety with the protection of public and environmental health.
In the 1990s, labor environmentalism began embracing the concepts of "sustainable development" and the "green economy." More recently, as climate change has intensified, "just transition" (JT) has become the idea du jour. JT is based on the notion that workers shouldn't bear the brunt of the shift to a low-carbon economy, whether in the form of job losses or destabilized local communities.
To this end, blue-collar unions -- particularly those in heavy industry, transport, and energy -- have forged so-called blue-green alliances with environmental groups across the globe. These convergences demonstrate a growing consensus around the need to tackle climate change, advancing union involvement and sustainability as the means to that end.
Yet important cleavages exist within this consensus, especially when it comes to the just transition. Some groups simply push for job creation in a greened economy. Others, refusing to abide market solutions, have adopted a radical critique of capitalism.
How this schism shakes out will decide whether labor unwittingly bolsters capital or confronts capital and climate change.
Trade unions and workers are charting a new course in the long history of labor environmentalism -- one in which green growth and a just transition promise the economic growth and security that the Fordist dream once held out.
But buying into this new dream will not save organized labor from the shortcomings and constraints that have all but destroyed its strength in most countries. If they continue supporting capital's "green" restructuring of the global economy, trade unions will find themselves on the opposite side of peasant and indigenous communities, landless rural workers, unpaid domestic and social reproduction workers, subsistence farmers, and all those who bear the costs of "green" capitalism -- fostering renewed cycles of dispossession and subjugation.
The alternative is more promising, if more challenging: an ecosocialism powered by an emancipatory, ecological class consciousness. It would demand class struggle on a higher level -- the level of global political ecology. But it would offer the possibility of a truly sustainable world, forged on labor's terms rather than capital's.