Greenwash and techno-babble take us towards catastrophe. We need to turn the great power of social movements against them

November 30, 2022

This interview with Simon Pirani, first published on the Transnational Social Strike platform, is part of the Climate Class Conflict initiative which the platform is promoting, to provide a space for transnational discussion on climate struggles.

Q. In the last years, the climate movement – brought about mainly by young people – has used the strike as its main political tool to claim for a just transition and for climate justice on a global level. Which impact do you think this movement is having, in particular on social movements? Which are the main challenges do you think the climate movement have to face now?

“We have not been defeated”: African climate protesters at COP 27. Photo from Cop27 coalition twitter feed

A. Thank you for these questions. First, it is worth thinking about the way that the meaning of “strike” has changed. As far as I know, for at least two centuries, “strike” had a fairly narrow meaning: a collective refusal to do paid work. It was the most basic weapon of working-class struggle against employers. But under the impact of feminist and other movements, “strike” has come to cover a wider range of actions. The school students’ “Fridays for Future” movement is one such action.

I wish I could answer your question about what impact this is having on social movements! I think, time will tell. There was a moment when the new movements that emerged in 2018 – in the UK, around “Fridays for Future” and Extinction Rebellion – seemed to have the potential to change social movements more broadly. Then came the pandemic and the whole process was disrupted. It really did make organising more difficult.

This year, with the worst of the pandemic over, I have noticed two trends. The first is the growth of protest around climate issues in Africa, and a recognition of that by groups in the global north. The Niger Delta has decades of history of organising against the oil companies whose extractivism trashed the local environment and impoverished the population: that is not new. But some new movements – especially against the renewed push to exploit gas reserves – appear to be broader. Coalitions such as Don’t Gas Africa and Stop EACOP (the East African Crude Oil Pipeline) are significant. And many groups in Europe have made solidarity with the global south a basic building-block of all that they do on climate issues.

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Oil companies, dictators and greenwashers captured COP27. Hope lies in movements outside the talks

November 21, 2022

This assessment of COP27 was published by Truthout on Friday, and the agreement struck yesterday doesn’t change the main points. Headlines yesterday welcomed the fund for loss and damage – but so far it is just an “empty bucket”, as Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa pointed out.

Demonstrators outside the talks in Egypt. Photo from Omar Elmawi’s twitter feed

In other ways the deal reached was ruinous. There was no clear commitment to phase out fossil fuels. “The fact that the outcome only talks about ‘phasedown of unabated coal power’ is a disaster for Africa and for the climate”, as Babawale Obayanju, of Friends of the Earth Africa, said. Oil and gas are not mentioned, and “one small word, ‘unabated’, creates a huge loophole, opening the door to new fossil-based hydrogen and carbon capture and storage projects, which will allow emissions to continue.” Simon Pirani, 21 November 2022.

The international climate talks in Egypt – the 27th Conference of  Parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP27 – have become a dystopian nightmare: oil companies, dictators and greenwashers captured the process more effectively than ever. 

But there is hope: alliances are taking shape – between civil society, scientists and labor – that aim to break the fossil fuel companies’ deathly grip on climate policy.

Corporate capture  

This year’s United Nations climate summit, which ends on Friday at the luxury Sharm el-Sheikh resort, is the first to which oil and gas companies were invited to participate in the official program of events. Rachel Rose Jackson of Corporate Accountability commented that “COP27 looks like a fossil fuel industry trade show.”  

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How Russia’s tame opposition parties support the war on Ukraine

November 18, 2022

Russia’s loyal opposition parties have played a crucial role in enforcing and administering the occupation of Ukrainian territory, a new report shows.

The four main parties in the Russian parliament have supported the “destruction of Ukrainian statehood in every form – cultural, political, ideological and historical”, concludes a report by the Eastern Human Rights Group (EHRG), a Ukrainian organisation set up in Donetsk in 2015 by trade union and civil rights activists.

People in Kherson welcoming Ukrainian troops. Photo from the World Ukrainian Congress site

The report finds that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and A Just Russia, another nominally left-wing party, have helped to lead Russia’s campaign of control over the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions over the past eight years. It also addresses the role of the ruling party, United Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), an extreme right-wing populist party.

The CPRF and A Just Russia were active in the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk from 2015, despite Russia’s acceptance of the Minsk peace agreements that acknowledged those areas as Ukrainian.

The two “left” parties gave voice to aggressive policies, such as recognition and other formal support for the illegal “republics”, and to ideologies associated with the “Russian world” – a concept of cross-border Russian culture that supports Russian imperial claims – more stridently than government figures.

After this year’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s pro-government opposition parties have supported the administrative and political structures hastily imposed in newly occupied areas of Ukraine.

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Ukraine’s energy system: principles for post-war reconstruction

October 28, 2022

Ukrainian socialists hosted an on line discussion on “Energy Crisis and Sustainability: lessons of the Russo-Ukrainian war” on 22 October. You can watch a recording on youtube here in English, or here in Ukrainian. The panel of speakers included Ukrainian climate policy researcher Maryna Larina; Leszek Karlik of the Energy Policy Group of Razem, the Polish left party; and Christian Zeller of the University of Salzburg; and me.

The event was part of an on-line conference on Reconstruction and Justice in Post-War Ukraine, hosted by the editors of the socialist journal Spilne (Commons). Recordings of all the sessions are now up on line, and well worth viewing.

Here’s the text of my talk. At the end I have added some comments on the discussion, and some links to further reading. I look forward to the continuation of our discussion. Simon Pirani.

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I have not been to Ukraine since the invasion in February, and I only understand the difficulties people face at second hand. Furthermore, it is difficult for all of us to talk about post-war reconstruction when the war is raging. Every day this means not only deaths and injuries, but also the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including power stations and boiler houses. 

Delegates from the Independent Miners Union of Chervonohrad delivering food, medicines and other aid to front-line communities last week. Photo from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine twitter feed

This winter, Ukrainians will not only be trying to protect themselves from bombs and bullets, but also trying to stay warm and healthy in the face of disruptions to gas, heat and electricity supplies. [This month, Russian bombing has focused on civilian infrastructure, putting one third of power stations out of action and forcing widespread power cuts as winter temperatures set in.]

But even under these circumstances, discussion has begun about post-war reconstruction, in the first place between the Ukrainian government and European governments at the Lugano conference in July. They are making plans for the long term.

The labour movement, and social movements, need an approach to these issues that takes the side of working people and of society, as opposed to economic or political elites. I am going to suggest four principles that can help develop such an approach.

1. Energy should be supplied mainly from renewable sources.

Society internationally needs an energy transition – that is, a transition to a system without fossil fuels, centred on electricity networks, with the electricity generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind and wave power. In Ukraine, there is also some potential for biofuels made from agricultural waste.

I am sure everyone present knows why this is: because global heating could seriously damage human society, and the chief cause of global heating is the burning of fossil fuels.

For the last 30 years, the world’s most powerful governments have gone to great lengths to delay the energy transition while simultaneously pretending to deal with the problem.

The labour movement and social movements need to advocate a transition that serves the interests of society, not capital.

Two points to make about Ukraine specifically.

a. Coal has historically been central, in the Donbas in particular. Coal use has been falling since 2016, mainly due to Russian military aggression. Now, political forces in the Donbas are discussing a future without coal. For example in the recent open letter by the Mayors of Myrnohrad, Chervonohrad and other towns (here in Ukrainian, here in English). I hope that the labour movement and social movements will engage in this discussion.

b. Gas has also played a key role. The government has sought to reduce dependence on Russian gas, and there have been no direct imports since 2015. However, in Ukraine, as elsewhere, gas companies make the false argument that gas is part of the solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, because it produces energy with fewer emissions than coal. Actually, it’s part of the problem. The energy transition means moving away from gas.

2. It is in society’s interests to cut the flow of energy through technological systems.

To understand this, we should, first, forget the idea of “energy demand”. People do not want “energy”. They want the things that it provides – heat, light, electricity to run computers, the ability to travel from place to place, and so on.

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What cutting greenhouse gas emissions actually means in practice

October 24, 2022

“We have to do things very differently”, transport researcher Jillian Anable told the Royal Meteorological Society’s Climate Change Forum in London last week. “It’s not about celebrating electric vehicles.”

Cars are “getting bigger and heavier”, Anable warned, meaning that “it will take longer to decarbonise the system”. Of new car sales globally, 46% are SUVs.

Architects for Climate Action and Architects Declare joined Fridays for Future to march through London on 23 September. Photo from Architects Declare twitter feed

For every electric car sold, 10-15 large vehicles are sold: they “negate the effect of that electric vehicle many times over”. Moreover, half the electric cars sold are plug-in hybrids, which use “a great deal” of petrol and diesel.

No country has “achieved the speed and scale of reductions [in greenhouse gas emissions] that we now need”, Anable, professor of Transport and Energy at the University of Leeds, said. And no country has “achieved deep and long-term reductions [in transport emissions] without restricting car use.”

Anable was one of several researchers at the Forum who addressed the yawning gap between government declarations about climate change, and the snail’s pace of action – the gap that has infuriated, and motivated, the new generation of protesters from Greta Thunberg to Just Stop Oil.

Transport, the built environment and the food chain – three areas of gigantic fuel consumption – were covered in detail. Adaptation (coping with the effects of climate change) was considered along with mitigation (how to minimise the level of global heating).

Built environment researcher Alice Moncaster launched a broadside against the culture of demolish-and-build, as opposed to retrofitting existing buildings.

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The limits of western economic war with Russia and the failure of climate policy   

October 17, 2022

By Simon Pirani

Download this article as a PDF

Russia’s war on Ukraine marks a historical turning point. The illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September, and the nuclear threats issued, are a dangerous intensification. It is a matter of principle, in my view, that the labour movement and civil society internationally should support Ukrainian resistance, and I have written about that elsewhere.[1] In this article, I make an initial attempt to understand the economic war being waged alongside the military conflict, the resulting disruption of energy markets, and their place in the broader social and ecological crises shaking capital.

Anti-war protest in Lisbon. Photo from Feminist Antiwar Resistance / @t_alexx_t

In the first section, I argue that the western powers’ economic war against Russia is reactive and limited; even now, sections of western capital hope to mend ruined business relationships with Russia. In the second section, I show that, until 2014, western policy was focused on integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms: even after the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine, the western response remained reactive. The third section is about the consequences of this year’s invasion for energy markets – in particular the European gas market – and for the energy transition. Narratives of “energy crisis” are being used to double down on fossil fuel investment and undermine the western powers’ commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, magnifying the impact of the war and climate crisis for the whole of humanity.

1. Economic warfare and its limits

The aim of the western powers’ sanctions on Russia is to try to discipline the Putin government, not to destroy it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September, marks the breakdown of the relationship established in 1990-92 between Russia and the European powers, especially Germany – a breakdown that those powers had desperately hoped to avoid. This breakdown will transform not only capital’s military arrangements in Europe, but also the energy system, in which cheap Russian gas has been a key element for four decades.  

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Achieving climate justice is about solidarity across borders. Not charity

October 7, 2022

A conversation with Canadian socialist David Camfield about his new book, Future on Fire.

Simon Pirani: Congratulations on the publication of your book Future on Fire. It stands out, in my view, because you avoid pronouncing neat “solutions” to climate issues, you consider actually existing social movements and how they might address the climate emergency. You point to the limited scope of parliamentary politics and “green new deals”, and in chapter 3 argue that mass movements” are “our only hope”. I agree.

You argue that the point of these movements is “to develop the power to force governments to enact the climate justice measures that are needed”. That’s altogether different, you write, from seeking “governing power” (which anyway doesn’t have total control over the state, let alone capital). Movements shouldn’t limit themselves to “pushing the envelope” or holding governments accountable; it’s about applying “relentless and escalating pressure”. I agree.

“People in the global south are being hurt more by climate change”: a protest in Uganda against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. See “About the photo” at the end

The question in my mind is: does it make sense to talk about a “mass movement” on climate issues at all? I am not sure that truly mass movements, in response to issues influenced by climate change, will look like “mass movements about climate”. You argue persuasively that the climate issue is always combined with the social issue: you give the example of Haitians being more vulnerable to death in storms than Cubans, because of the different societies they live in. And you quote Naomi Klein saying that “climate change acts as an accelerant to many of our social ills – inequality, war, racism – but it can also be an accelerant for the opposite, for the forces working for economic and social justice”.

Isn’t the reality that – rather than appearing as “mass movements on climate” – mass movements will actually develop in response to immediate, tangible issues, and that the task in hand is to find ways of taking these movements beyond the immediate, to address the larger issues of both climate and capitalism?

Take the “yellow vests” movement in France, which started in response to a tax on diesel fuel. You point out that far-right forces tried to divert the movement along anti-migrant lines, but were successfully confronted by left-wing forces who pushed against social inequality. All this gave rise to one of my favourite slogans, that you quote: “end of the world, end of the month, same struggle”. You write that the yellow vests “forged a powerful link” between climate issues and social issues. But wasn’t the reality actually more complex? Wasn’t that link only realised in a very small, fragile way, that still has to be built upon?

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Ukraine: bogus ‘anti-imperialism’ serves the Kremlin

September 28, 2022

I gave a talk at an on-line event on the war in Ukraine, arranged by the Future of the Left group on Monday. The meeting was shorter than planned, due to technical problems. Only two of the advertised speakers made it: Richard Sakwa, emeritus professor of Russian and European politics at Kent university, and me. Sakwa focused on the western powers’ failure to uphold principles of sovereign internationalism in the post-cold-war period, and concluded by opposing military aid to Ukraine. Against that, I put the case for supporting Ukrainian resistance as a matter of internationalist principle. I said that I think such discussions should continue. Here’s a recording of the session. Simon Pirani.

Here is a text, based on my talk. It is aimed mainly at the bogus “anti imperialism” widespread in the left, and among Future of the Left’s supporters, rather than at anything Sakwa said.

Thanks for inviting me to join the panel. It’s worth reflecting on what good panels like this, or gatherings like this, can possibly do. As a socialist, I believe that effective change is caused by the labour movement and social movements acting independently of the state. So I will say what I think the labour movement could or should do, and what people here could or should do, rather than declaiming principles with no reference to implementation. 

My main point is that we should build solidarity with Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression. That is rejected by some people in the labour movement, and I think we have to find ways of discussing these differences on life and death issues.

Character of the Russian war  

Russia is a weakened empire desperately trying to restore its imperial status. It emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union as an economically subordinate power, supplying the world capitalist economy with raw materials and pumping oligarchs’ wealth into the world financial system. Under Putin, since 2000, it has sought to make up for economic weakness by military means.

In the second Chechen war, Russia pulverised Chechnya and its population, rather than allow aspirations for national autonomy or independence to take root. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and intervened in Syria in 2015, to support a dictator who drowned citizens in blood rather than allow them any democratic freedoms.

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Cut motor traffic. Live better lives. Tackle climate change

September 16, 2022

By Simon Pirani

The borough of Greenwich, south east London, plans to cut car traffic by 45% by 2030 – but even that will produce less than half the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that climate scientists say are needed.

The proposal to cut back traffic is a good start to a conversation about transforming urban transport, I argued this week in a response to the council’s draft Transport Strategy. But only a start. (Download the full response here.)

Copenhagen. But coming to south east London soon. Photo by heb@Wikimedia Commons

Better still would be to set carbon budgets – limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted during specific time periods – and use them as a framework for transport and other policies.

Such budgets can concentrate minds on policies to improve people’s lives, while contributing to tackling climate change at the same time. Better, cheaper public transport and support for non-car ways of travelling, e.g. bikes and walking, all help.

Transport is the second-biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Greenwich; heat, electricity and cooking fuel for homes and other buildings is the first. 

In 2019, Greenwich was one of many local authorities that declared a “climate emergency” in response to school pupils’ strikes demanding action on climate, and Extinction Rebellion’s direct action campaign. Even the UK parliament claimed to recognise this emergency.

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Climate adaptation: more sea walls will not be enough

August 26, 2022

The climate crisis is leading to massive social rifts. Politics-as-usual will tend to accentuate the problem rather than solve it – and effective adaptation calls for radical transformations that push beyond the existing system. By Ulrich Brand, Barbara Fried, Rhonda Koch, Hannah Schurian, and Markus Wissen

Imagine a summer heatwave in Berlin in 2050. For weeks on end, the temperature fails to dip below 20 degrees, even at night. The heat builds up in poorly renovated, heavily populated residential areas—while neighbourhoods with green areas and private gardens are up to ten degrees cooler.

This is a just a single glimpse of the kinds of inequality produced in a world shaped by climate change—and it is far from the most distressing one. By mid-century, far more serious environmental crises will interfere with living conditions in many regions of the world, or even render them unbearable.

A man walks along the giant sea wall being built along the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia, much of which is sinking below sea level. Photo by Irene Barlian / Climate Visuals Countdown : Creative Commons

Yet, even in Germany, heatwaves will claim lives. Preparing for the coming increases in extreme weather and environmental crises demands massive action—however, this need continues to be ignored. Even a rich country like Germany is failing to take the measures that are necessary to adapt.

The price is being paid primarily by those who have access to the fewest resources and bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis.

Climate adaptation is a social question, conceivably the social question of the coming age. But even on the left it is often pushed aside.

To speak of adaptation suggests a posture of defence and resignation, and fails to inspire assent. And anyway, wouldn’t we be better off directing all of our efforts toward mitigating climate change than already starting to reconcile ourselves to the consequences?

The opposite is true. If we take climate prognoses seriously and consider what, concretely, a two-degree rise in average global temperatures will mean, we will see all the more clearly that a radical fight against climate change is urgently necessary in order to prevent an even worse fate.

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