Dealing with climate change

by Liz Ross • Published 12 October 2011

A system based on exploitation of labour must also exploit nature. A more ecologically sensitive system would have to overcome the separation of workers and communities from the conditions of production and put sustainable human development, not money and capital, in command of production.[1]

Paul Burkett here highlights both the system at fault and what is needed to have an ecologically sustainable world.

In Australia we are, if anything, going in the opposite direction. The war of words over which carbon pollution abatement scheme the ruling class will adopt has been marked more by vitriol and spin than facts. There has been no serious debate over what is actually needed to counteract climate change, nor any program for sustainable jobs, a future which is in workers’ interests. Ruling class interests, instead, have been to the fore and the only direction in the environment debate has been further to the right. Julia Gillard’s political career is on the rocks, support for Labor is plummeting to all time lows and we have the spectacle of climate change-denialist and ruling class hatchet man Tony Abbott posing as if he’s on the side of workers and the environment. But nothing has stopped the Labor Party and Greens doggedly driving the ruling class’s favoured legislation through committees and reports, to be presented to parliament before the end of 2011. By the end of the year Australia will almost certainly have a carbon tax, the first step towards an emissions trading scheme (ETS). The government’s $12 million advertising campaign has already begun, while compensation dollars are set to roll out from the tax start date, 1 July 2012, along with a package of environmental measures.

In spite of the widespread support for this tax by environment groups and the Greens, there is nothing about it to support. It is regressive, a mini-GST limited to carbon and coming in at a low price, designed to pocket more and more from workers over time, then leading to an emissions trading scheme which does more of the same. As with the GST, the cost will hit most households hard regardless of any compensation. In his final report of the government-commissioned 2011 Climate Change Review, Ross Garnaut writes:

In the long run, households will pay almost the entire carbon price as businesses pass carbon costs through to the users of their products… Regardless of the assistance [to households], electricity will still be relatively more expensive.[2]

With the announcement of the full package, the amount of compensation is listed at around $15 billion in total. It will mostly be delivered through tax cuts and modifications to the tax-free threshold, and is being promoted by Labor and the Greens as targeting those most in need – welfare recipients and the low-paid. However, on closer investigation, this is yet another example of the government giving with one hand and taking back almost all of the compensation with the other. Cutting government spending on health, welfare and education is already happening (and MPs are signalling even more cuts in the pipeline). Pushing up the eligible age for the age pension, bracket creep as workers go into higher tax brackets, a savage amendment to disability pension entitlement and so on, will save the government at least $4 billion a year according to one estimate. Although the government denies same-sex couples full marriage equality, they didn’t hesitate to treat them as partners in determining welfare eligibility, saving millions by forcing same-sex couples onto married welfare rates, or cutting them off altogether.

The other requirements of the carbon tax package – efficiency, budget neutrality, competitiveness, energy security, investment certainty – are straight out of the neoliberal agenda and, as all the estimates show, will also cut into any compensation paid to workers. This logic won’t necessarily limit the compensation for business.[3] As Ben Hillier concludes:

The effect will be to push a greater burden of the tax on to the working class over time. The only difference is that the government will do it surreptitiously, simply by making cuts under a different “non-carbon tax related” banner – and probably in the name of bringing the budget back into (or keeping it in) surplus.[4]

It actually makes more sense

for governments to raise progressive taxes and/or take out loans to underwrite such large-scale investment, …a break from neoliberal orthodoxy. Restoring corporate and high-income personal tax rates to 1983 levels would raise much more money for decarbonisation (and other social goods) than any of the current price models being discussed.[5]

But these measures don’t suit the interests of business and the rich in the here and now. And without an environment movement, unions or political party prepared to force the employers to accept them, it’s not surprising that business would rather impose a tax on workers, make profits from a market-based mechanism, buy some dodgy offset permits and collect compensation as well. Like all neoliberal policies, the carbon tax is designed to savage the working class.

While Julia Gillard repeats the mantra that she is doing what is best for the nation, Greens leader Bob Brown boasts: “This agreement is the Greens in action, delivering certainty to the Australian economy, community, investors and the environment.”[6] In fact it will only make things worse for ordinary people, for workers, while lining the pockets of the capitalists – the polluters and bankers. A price on carbon, as NASA climate scientist James Hansen commented, “merely allows polluters and Wall Street traders to fleece the public out of billions of dollars”.[7]

To add insult to injury, the carbon tax does nothing to address the underlying environmental issues. Europe’s emissions trading scheme, for example, has increased emissions not cut them, and delivered a windfall profit for the polluters, with a minimal take-up of sustainable energy.[8] The latest program for green growth, “Europe 2020”, focuses on mandated renewable targets and enforced industry policies promoting efficiency, measures demonstrated to have made companies change their practices, unlike the ineffectual carbon pricing mechanism. Friends of the Earth point out that Australia’s carbon pricing approach – the greatest corporate windfall of our time, they argue – has learnt nothing from Europe’s experience, simply copying decade-old failed methods.[9]

Failed policies won’t solve today’s environmental problems. Nor, with a world in crisis, will they begin to address the myriad issues – from the environment to the money markets, from imperialist wars to water wars – confronting us. All the proposals to date are aimed solely at bailing out a ruling class desperate to salvage their system from economic collapse and political overthrow by the millions no longer prepared to stay downtrodden. Never willing to sacrifice themselves or their profits, whether it’s cleaning up after BP’s Gulf Oil spill or finding the trillions of dollars required to fund imperialist wars, the ruling class has kept turning the screws on the working class. Every scheme proposed, from a carbon tax to anti-union laws, is merely another part of a neoliberal agenda embraced by world leaders to make workers pay for the crises they had no part in causing. Taxpayer dollars bailed out the financial institutions during the global financial crisis, but in the aftermath bonuses to the bosses have soared and workers have got the sack. Today the US government spends more to service its debt (derived in part from bailing out the banks) than it spends on education, transport and public housing combined.[10]

While in Greece workers reacted with justifiable rage to neoliberal attacks, taking to the streets in strikes and demonstrations, in Australia the response couldn’t be more different. Here, Labor and the Greens are backed by the environment movement, most unions and sections of the left, as they implement an attack on workers through the carbon tax. Instead of protesting against the tax, June 5, 2011 saw thousands on the streets of the capital cities, organised by GetUp, the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) and environment groups, to back the call to “Say Yes” to carbon pricing.[11] With most progressive forces abandoning opposition, it has been left to climate change-denialists such as Tony Abbott and the Coalition to argue the “no” case; to hypocritically pose as the workers’ friend and opportunistically call the tax what it is, a cost on workers.

The result is that many who do want something done to fix the climate crisis find themselves uneasily supporting a carbon tax they know is anti-worker and will not cut emissions, but can see little alternative when the public face of the “no” case is the likes of Abbott or Gina Rinehart. Realising that the adoption of schemes such as the carbon tax are indications of a lack of seriousness by the ruling class to deal with climate change, and that it is only profits that motivate business, others respond by downgrading their concerns about the environment. The end result of four years of hopes raised and dashed, with environment and union movements pretty much indistinguishable from the ALP and Greens and a vocal campaign from climate change-denialists, has been a significant falling away of public acceptance of global warming and support for measures to tackle climate change.[12]

With the exception of Friends of the Earth, who continue to argue against carbon pricing and an ETS, green groups and unions are now trapped within the ALP’s framework of (in)action on climate change. Instead of offering a credible alternative – and mobilising their forces for this – they are left arguing that the meagre solutions on offer from the ruling class (via the ALP and Greens) are supposedly a first step in an attempt by political and business leaders to tackle climate change. It has led many dedicated climate activists to turn their energies to promoting “user pays”, restraint or cuts to living standards (live simply so that others may simply live, as the saying goes), solutions and schemes most would have earlier opposed.[13]

Or the activists find themselves lobbying for or participating in environment hubs or small business start-ups, even some academic-business partnerships – career paths in reality; or pushing a variety of schemes to governments, as if it is merely a change in technology that can resolve the climate crisis.[14] The end result is that the activists turn to the rulers and the system they oversee, the cause of the problems in the first place, for solutions. The schemes proposed, by definition, must be workable within capitalism and consequently cannot pose an effective challenge to the economic system that consistently degrades and will ultimately destroy the environment.

What could have been a more progressive step – a coalition of environmental groups and the peak union body, the ACTU – has instead pulled the unions to the right, rather than shifting the environment movement towards putting workers’ interests first. In 2008, the ACTU teamed up with the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Climate Institute and the Australian Council of Social Services to form the Southern Cross Climate Coalition (SCCC) “because we realised that our different constituencies had mutual interests in the climate change debate”.[15] But there’s been nothing but talkfests and the SCCC has simply become another voice arguing for and implementing government policies within communities that will be hardest hit.

Initially there was much talk by the ACTU that they would run a climate campaign like their anti-WorkChoices campaign – out on the streets, in the workplaces and communities, arguing hard for jobs, for sustainable energy sources and a range of other “green” measures that would be in workers’ interests first and foremost. But their only “actions” have been ringing endorsements of the government rather than anything that could change things, or that would give workers a say in their future. Mirroring the Prime Minister, nationalist and “hard work” attitudes abound in all the ACTU statements, as if all you need are business opportunities and a bit of hard work. A media release in April 2011 says:

Unions know Australian workers are up for the challenge. Australians have always achieved great things in the national interest. Acting on climate change is no different. Australian workers’ innovation, can-do attitude, and commitment to teamwork gives us an edge that could see our nation become a global leader if the right decisions are made now. These are big numbers and big opportunities, but if we don’t take strong action on climate change and invest now, the economic opportunities will pass us by.[16]

An agenda of sacrifice, nationalism and profit-making fits right into the ruling class’s neoliberal framework. None of the ACTU’s policy work and negotiations with government, nor its declaration of union support for the government’s carbon price, amounts to the kind of all-out campaign needed for the fundamental change required to counter the threat posed by global warming. Instead of looking to workers’ power to build a real campaign for change, the ACTU is more content to draw up industry policy proposals to provide assistance packages to boost the profits of polluting companies. Class collaboration rather than class war, and the consistent blurring of the real divisions between workers’ interests and those of capitalists, mark the ACTU’s “campaign” to date.[17]

Politically the shift to the right has been clear in the environment groups, with open support for Malthusian notions on population growth – blaming the millions instead of the millionaires – and turning on workers for “consuming” too much.[18] Other neoliberal notions, such as “user pays” or pointlessly encouraging individuals to shorten their showers and change their light bulbs, are used to put the burden for change on workers rather than targeting the companies who waste and pollute.[19] It has also fed into Labor and Liberal racist scaremongering about refugees, whose numbers are certain to increase substantially when global warming impacts on sea levels and severe weather events create havoc.

The potential of workers to bring about real change is sidelined or ignored. There is even, on occasion, open hostility to workers and their demands. The Stop HRL Campaign, for example, set up to oppose new coal-fired generators in the Latrobe Valley, does not mention the unions once on its website. The group has consistently taken action without involving the unions, despite union support for their campaign and repeated requests to involve local unionists. Its only reference to workers is to note that there will be few new jobs created by HRL. The campaign focuses on non-violent protest as a strategy, relying also on stunts and rallies usually called at short notice, rather than serious mass campaigning.[20]

But more important in the overall rightward shift within environmental politics is the role of the Greens under Bob Brown’s leadership. Now playing a pivotal role in Australian parliamentary politics, instead of offering an effective alternative, the Greens have been part of selling the government’s neoliberal policies on the basis that saving the planet transcends class divisions and we should all do our bit. Their criticism of the Liberals is not how appalling their policies are, but that the Coalition is a bunch of irresponsible blockers of government policy. They contrast themselves as being experienced and competent negotiators, prepared to be “responsible” in implementing policy. Justifying much of their environment policy on the basis of what’s good for Australian business, slipping into racism by calling short-term visa workers “queue jumpers”,[21] justifying the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan not on an anti-war or anti-imperialist basis, but from a pro-imperialist stance that Australian troops are needed in the Pacific to maintain Australia’s interests, the Greens have shown the anti-working class nature of their “sensible” and “responsible” approach to politics.[22] Adam Bandt, MP for Melbourne, is amongst the most left wing of the Greens, but as one commentator noted, “hastening gently is his style”. The Greens’ motion on gay marriage, the cornerstone of their platform, is “worded carefully to nudge the debate forward, not boots and all, because that would only frighten the socially conservative into retreat”.[23] But as Ben Hillier wrote in the aftermath of the 2010 election which saw the Greens’ historic gains:

[I]f they are truly to be a left alternative to the ALP they actually have to block right-wing policy. Otherwise they will prove themselves no better than the Labor left: progressive in words only, and disingenuously parading themselves as “concession getters” while rotten policy after rotten policy is passed.[24]

And they have to be prepared to “frighten the conservatives” – not capitulate as they so shamefully did to Zionist interests over Marrickville Council’s support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against apartheid Israel.[25] The rightward shift, however, looks set to continue. Already the Greens are to the right of where the ALP stood during the 1970s, and Drew Hutton, a long-time green activist, argues that the party will become more right wing, rather than less: “In time, that strong left wing element will diminish, because the people coming in are wanting us to be in government and they are wanting us to be in policymaking positions.”[26] The bankruptcy of the strategies of all these groups has led us to where we are today – a rightward-moving environment movement and Greens party, one that tails the government’s neoliberal policies and is left flailing ineffectually as emissions rise, jobs are cut and the bosses profit. It is a movement that ignores or downplays the role of the one class that can ensure a sustainable future for the world, the working class.

Although some in the ruling class vehemently oppose a carbon tax, why does it appeal to so many captains of industry? The entire rationale of the tax is to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, thus commodifying or making a quantifiable “thing” out of something that previously has had no “value” or “cost” within the capitalist system. No matter how you dress it up – that’s it. Larry Lohmann in his thoroughgoing analysis describes the process:

Another way of conceptualising the product [carbon] is to say that it is the result of the state enclosure, commodification and apportionment of the earth’s carbon-cycling capacity, or ability to keep its climate stable. Governments decide, whether on climatological or political grounds, how much of the world’s physical, chemical and biological ability to regulate its own climate should be “propertised” and privatised and then given away or sold at any particular moment, and to whom [usually the big industrial polluters].[27]

And that’s why a carbon tax is only going to be in place for around three years under Labor and the Greens’ scheme, before they move onto the next phase in the program. Pricing – the first step – allows carbon to become a tradeable commodity, ready to be part of an emissions trading market. Lohmann adds, “Trade in the commodity then supposedly makes climate change mitigation maximally cost-effective.”[28] And consequently it is meant to force business to change to low emissions, more efficient energy usage and so on. Instead what happens is that carbon enters the “free market” as yet another commodity, subject to the uncontrolled – and uncontrollable – swings of the market place. There are booms and bubbles, futures trading, creation of carbon “products” on the stock market – derivatives and the like – all essential ingredients of a global marketplace. And the dollars roll in. The Australian director of multinational conglomerate General Electric gloats, “It’s about saving money, reducing emissions [so he claims] and making money, unashamedly. What’s not to like about it?” The Czech electricity giant, CEZ, made so much money trading permits that, according to the CSIRO’s Clive Spash, it was able to buy another coal-fired power station.[29]

If implementing the tax and ETS ends up costing the big polluters, as it is supposed to do in order to act as an incentive to change to less polluting practices, Tony Shepherd, the chair of Transfield Services and ConnectEast, has other intentions: “One way or another, the cost of taxing CO2 will be passed on to the consumer.” And if we can’t be made to pay for it all, he warns that if these costs are, instead, absorbed by industry, there will be job losses – ours not his.[30] An added bonus for those trading in this market is that, instead of going bankrupt when the carbon price bottoms, firms are able to charge consumers for the supposed costs of holding the carbon credits they can’t trade or sell at a profit.[31] Of course slumps are never far away either. With all the financial products (CDOs and the like) that hid the disastrous problems in the US housing loans market, the carbon market will be open to the same underlying instability and already many predict a collapse in the six trillion euro carbon market with a similar impact to the global financial crisis.

Fundamentally the carbon tax is a neoliberal solution to a problem that arises from capitalism itself. In Australia Gillard and Combet’s “to market, to market, to market we will go” rhetoric is somehow meant to reassure us that the compensation (and there’s lashings of it for business) will protect everyone while driving change and that, over time, we can buy our way out by purchasing overseas emissions trading permits. But why should we believe that this latest version of neoliberal measures will be any less anti-working class than those under the Hawke-Keating or Howard governments?

Capitalism and the environment

There is nothing new about human-caused threats to the planet. Global warming is only the latest in a long line of potentially catastrophic disasters. In earlier decades it has been the prospect of nuclear annihilation, pollution, resource depletion, extinction of species and the like that have taken centre stage. And of course they all still stay with us, putting even more pressure on a world trying to cope with the latest threat. It’s worth commenting here on the use of the phrase “human-induced” or “human-caused” to describe the cause of various environmental disasters. Using “human” lumps everyone in together, rather than making it clear that it is the ruling class and its capitalist system that has caused the problems the world faces. What is common to all instances of environmental destruction is not just the threat they pose, but that they are all products of the capitalist system. They are all the result of the normal workings of capitalism, just like exploitation, war, famine, homelessness, sexism, racism and homophobia. They are the product of a system that must maintain such inequality and destructiveness to ensure its continued survival, a system whose inner logic drives it to destroy even as it creates. In other words, rather than global warming or any of the other environmental disaster scenarios, capitalism is the biggest threat to humanity and the planet. And it is only from this starting point – that puts the capitalist class as squarely to blame for the ecological crisis – that we can have any hope of saving the planet. Climate change is not the central question facing us today – how to get rid of capitalism is.

Overwhelmingly it has been workers and their allies who have fought for a better world, for an end to pollution, against nuclear power, and so on, while the ruling class continues to trash the planet. As Karl Marx famously put it, capitalism creates its own gravediggers, i.e. the working class. Workers have the power to bring capitalism to its knees because they do the work that creates the profits which feed the system. Marx also pointed to the process that is needed for the working class to overthrow capitalism and become fit to lead a new sort of society. Crucial to building – and these days rebuilding – a militant, organised working class movement are the day-to-day struggles around wages and conditions. For if workers were to abandon such struggles, as Marx wrote, “they would be degraded to a level mass of broken down wretches past salvation”.[32] Marx argued to delegates to the First International, in order to maximise workers’ “power of acting against the system of wage slavery itself” – that is, to overthrow capitalism – workers’ combinations (unions and political parties) should not be “too much aloof from general social and political movements” and indeed “must learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interests of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction”.[33] Today, the fight to save the planet from ecological disaster means we need to build this kind of movement.

But aren’t we denying the “truth” of the popular slogan that there are no jobs on a dead planet? Surely saving the planet by whatever means available is the key issue facing us today? Of course we need to stop as much environmental destruction as possible – just like we need to struggle against hunger, disease, wars and oppression – because if we don’t we’re looking at barbarism on the way to a dead planet. Indeed we need movements that fight for change: for renewable energy, stopping pollution, closing down brown coal power plants. Because these struggles for reform are all part of the political process of rebuilding militancy and convincing people they have the power to make a difference. Right now, it needs to be said that the environment movements in Australia do not have this orientation. By backing the government’s neoliberal agenda they are not fighting for change; they are, in effect, derailing any real fight which can seriously put the capitalist class on the back foot and are pulling the whole debate to the right.

So let’s put the argument in a different way. We are facing some hugely damaging ecological upheavals. It is capitalism that has brought us close to the brink of planetary catastrophe, so why think that it is possible within capitalism to resolve such a disaster? After all, it’s clear that winning equal pay will not get rid of workers’ exploitation. So why then would we work on the assumption that just adopting renewable energy, developing public transport and rail transport rather than building more roads for cars and trucks or any other important environmental measure will save the planet while capitalism continues to operate? Even if it slows or reverses climate change, it won’t stop environmental vandalism with just as serious consequences. Gillard, amongst many others, is tapping into the new economic consensus that “green” capitalism’s new ecological markets hold the key to survival. But even managing the problems we face is beyond the current social institutions, as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York argue in their book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. They write:

The structural significance and scale of the ecological crisis is not reflected in solutions of a corresponding significance and scale. This failure of both imagination and social practices is in many ways a product of a double alienation: from nature and within human society itself. Not only has this [alienation] generated inertia with respect to social change – indeed a tendency to fiddle while Rome burns – but it has also led to the belief that the crisis can be managed by essentially the same social institutions that brought it into being in the first place.[34]

They then hammer home the point that not only is capitalism the cause of current ecological crisis, but it cannot provide the solution:

It is an inner characteristic of the capitalist economy that it is essentially limitless in its expansion. It is a grow-or-die system. The “drive to amass capital” recognises no physical boundaries. All obstacles are treated as mere barriers to be surmounted in an infinite sequence. Capital is thus, from a wider social and ecological standpoint, a juggernaut, an unstoppable, crushing force.[35]

We can’t judge environmental problems and solutions without taking up the question of capitalism, without dealing with it in class terms. We can’t judge a carbon tax or creation of a low-carbon economy on whether it reduces emissions, without seeing it in the context of neoliberal capitalism, without demanding a solution that is in the interests of workers. That can mean opposing measures that may alleviate global warming or address some other environmental issue, but which are primarily attacks on the working class – measures that make workers pay for capitalism’s destructiveness and crises.

Apart from the carbon tax, biofuels are the classic example. Biofuels, while reducing emissions, use up arable land or replace food crops in their production, thereby driving up food prices and causing malnutrition, even famine – all of which hit the world’s poor and working class the hardest, while adding to the profits of agribusinesses and oil companies. For that reason biofuel production (other than by diverting waste), regardless of any positive environmental impact, is not progressive.

If you just focus on energy sources rather than the system they operate in, it can seem incomprehensible that the system doesn’t turn from polluting oil and coal to renewables. Ignoring the fact that it is profit rather than rational decision-making for human well-being that is driving the system can lead you to use ineffectual tactics, focus on side-issues rather than the main game – and lets the capitalist class off the hook. Being profitable, as renewables are increasingly becoming, can also become part of your argument to persuade business to adopt such measures, instead of focusing on protecting workers’ jobs and forcing the bosses to pay. That’s certainly part of the ACTU’s argument. They argue that any package of measures to deal with climate change “must position Australian industry to take advantage of the opportunities”.[36]

There is no law that says capitalism must only operate with a non-renewables-based economy, or that plastics are essential to its survival. This is simply the result, albeit a highly profitable one, of the planet’s geology matching up with a certain level of technological development. Faced with an end to oil, gas or coal resources, capitalism could live off the profits based on the production and sale of renewable energy, more sustainable production processes and so on. Indeed before oil, steam to power engines was the technology of the day. And now there are companies growing rich on renewable energy, organic farming or environmentally sound building practices. It’s even conceivable that in the face of an immense global crisis brought on by climate change, where social upheaval and instability threatens the survival of key sections of global capitalism, that the ruling class could bring about some dramatic world-wide shift to precipitately shut down fossil fuel use. A transfer from fossil fuels to renewable energy would not bring an end to the system of capitalism – just as changing from wood/steam to coal/oil did not undermine the rule of capital. Capitalism has proved itself human society’s most innovative and most productive of economic systems to date. But it is also clearly the most destructive – a system capable of destroying the world more completely than any other. Therefore it would not end environmental destruction because new industries will be just as destructive in one way or another as any other capitalist development. There will still be wars with all the environmental horrors that involves – the list could go on. Green or any other colour capitalism is not the answer to global catastrophe.

So we need to recast the whole question of the environment – and the solutions – in class terms and as part of the strategy of ending capitalist rule. From that it follows that the demands we make, the goals we aim for and the movements we build have to be focused around demands that will build the class struggle, that will build revolutionary organisations. We need to actively build an organised, militant working class movement that is able to confront – and ultimately defeat – capitalism and everything it stands for.

Australian unions have a long history of taking a stand around social and political issues – participating in struggles for Indigenous rights, against uranium mining and war to name just a few local issues; as well as taking an internationalist stance for Indonesian independence and supporting the anti-apartheid struggle. But where are the unions today, and what is their attitude to the climate solutions on offer? Most unions now reject their militant past and have pulled back from the day-to-day fight for wages and conditions. And while some unions have come out in support of equal marriage rights, unions have largely abandoned the social and political movements, instead acting as PR machines for the ALP or occasionally the Greens.

There has been an absolute deluge of words from the ACTU and unions in manufacturing, education, mining and the public sector, talking about the urgent need for climate action, under the slogan “climate change is union business”. Reports are filled with demands for jobs, for retraining, for special plans for regional centres such as Whyalla, the Latrobe Valley or Wollongong – all absolutely essential to protect workers during the massive restructuring that will be necessary to move to a low-carbon economy. But the ACTU and concerned unions have done little more than go to meetings and make speeches. Instead of fighting for an alternative to carbon pricing, they have been content with a seat at the table of “climate change consultation mechanisms” with government, backing Gillard’s carbon tax. This top-down bureaucratic approach has left the rank and file on the sidelines.

Even when union leaders have spoken up on behalf of their members, there’s been no strategy to actually win these demands and no involvement of union members. So when OneSteel bosses demanded government compensation for the carbon tax, threatening to close down their operations and throw thousands out of work, Paul Howes from the Australian Workers Union hit the headlines with his announcement that there would be dire consequences for the government if one single job was lost in the steel industry because of a carbon tax. However there was no attempt to attack the employers, no suggestion that the workers would walk out because of the bosses’ threats to jobs, no attempt to ask the companies where all the past years’ record profits had gone to. Howes was right to attack the carbon tax, but this opposition soon melted away when the government agreed to massively compensate the steel companies, basically letting them continue to pollute and profit. OneSteel has been talking about making its sites more energy-efficient since the 1980s, but that’s all it’s been – just talk and nothing else. And they’ve been let off the hook once more by the unions, as well as giving the government’s carbon tax the green light. But it is Paul Howes’ members who will bear the brunt of any costs, not the companies.[37]

It’s not as though there isn’t concern about the environment amongst workers. Even in industries most implicated in carbon pollution – the coal industry and coal-fired power stations – unions could lead the way in a fight for measures that could make a difference for all workers and would give their members a future. CFMEU president and ex-mining union leader Tony Maher is proud of the role his union has played during the past 25 years over a range of environment and other issues and argues that now “unions must ensure that a low-carbon economy goes hand in hand with a jobs-rich economy”.[38] However his solution is to support the Gillard government’s carbon tax, including directing union resources to turning around workers’ opposition. Maher told The Age that union polling showed that support for a carbon price jumped from 25 per cent to 61 per cent “once you explain the generous compensation, effective industry assistance and money for restructuring the energy sector”.[39]

In an address to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which has an extensive policy on climate change and is pro-carbon tax, Maher asks and answers the question, “Will a carbon price deliver renewable energy? No. Not much anyway. It’s not meant to. The sole purpose of an emissions trading scheme is to reduce emissions within an economy.” And he notes that at a price of around $23 it will have almost zero impact on emissions. Maher, who sits on one of the government consultation committees, went on to explain that we shouldn’t expect it to drive change either, saying “its aim is not to produce zero emissions from the electricity sector. Nor is its purpose to mandate renewable energy.” He then toys with the notion that workers could force the adoption of renewable energy and force the bosses to bear the costs, but puts it in the too-hard basket because of employer resistance. He knocks back the idea of funding a transition to renewable energy – a suggested $37 billion a year for the next ten years from taxing the mining industry – even when he acknowledges that the Australian industry has $350 billion “racing down the investment pipeline”, as well as $215 billion a year income just from current projects.[40]

In Victoria’s brown coal power generating heartland, the Latrobe Valley, following years of betrayal and neglect by politicians and employers, workers themselves are starting to plan for what comes next. Under a “Just Transition” banner, the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council began a series of forums in 2010, bringing together unions, councils, businesses and environment groups to develop an economic plan for the valley. Gippsland TLC Secretary John Parker told The Age, “To me, the writing is on the wall and we’ve got to make sure we are in a position to transition as soon as possible. These are not forums for people who want to talk [about whether] climate change is real – we’re past all that.” Parker describes the possibility of a rosy agricultural future for the Valley, with some forestry, tourism and manufacturing, but he admitted that there’d been little discussion of what the likely closure of Hazelwood and Yallourn power plants under a carbon tax regime would mean for workers and their families.[41] Again the unions’ only strategy is to support the carbon tax, seeing it as the only way to kick-start change.

After the catastrophic impact of privatisation under Jeff Kennett, you’d think the unions would be threatening industrial action to close down the Valley, pulling out all stops unless there were iron-clad guarantees of jobs, genuine retraining packages and clean energy generation plans, ahead of business interests. Instead, after Julia Gillard’s visit to the Valley, when there was some hostility from rank and file members, the local union officials continued to back the tax and after a day in negotiations just put their hands out for a bit more money from the compensation package. But it won’t be workers who get the full benefit, that’ll be going to business. It looks like millions of dollars of carbon tax revenue will be spent buying the near bankrupt Hazelwood plant, bought during Kennett’s sell-off with borrowed millions and which now even the banks are refusing to bail out.[42] Labor’s plan is only offering minimal retraining and job security guarantees, some measures to support clean energy alternatives – just $200 million in funding for job security-retraining programs over seven years for all of regional Australia. Workers, it’s clear, will come a poor second – again.[43] But then what would you expect from a prime minister and government whose backdown over the Resource Super Profits Tax gave back billions to Australia’s massively profitable mining industry, money that could have funded better health, public transport, renewable energy projects – real measures that could deliver gains to workers and the environment.

Saying no to a carbon tax, taking the fight up to the government and the big polluters, making the polluters pay, both to clean up the mess they’ve created and switch to renewable energy – these are the demands that union leaders could use to rally workers to the fight for a sustainable future. But again the opportunity is being squandered. After the full details of the carbon tax package were announced, Dean Mighell, Victorian State Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), heavily criticised it, especially with regard to jobs in the Latrobe Valley. He insisted that the union could not back the package if it didn’t guarantee jobs and a green future. But he still sees a carbon tax as working if it were structured in a way that genuinely facilitated job creation in renewable energy manufacturing. And although he acknowledges the government’s double-speak, its botched mining super profits tax and its massive support of business in the current tax package, he still looks to government for a way out rather than turning to the strength of the union to force change. While the union’s stand demanding job guarantees, supporting renationalisation of the electricity industry and opposition to the current carbon tax scheme is important, Mighell isn’t prepared to lead a fight for job guarantees or a campaign to end the government’s carbon tax and ETS. He only talks about future possibilities, seemingly accepting what is now on the table.[44]

But the ETU is in a position to do something now, especially if it involved other progressive unions. When workers have had strong combative unions, capable of winning better wages and conditions on the job, it has meant that they’ve been prepared – and able – to take on the ruling class over other issues. And the ETU has certainly won significant gains for its members, even during the current period. By leading and backing campaigns, as unions have done in the past, the ETU could give strength to those who are prepared to oppose carbon pricing and all the other regressive policies the government has. A brief look at past struggles shows what could be possible today, and how workers can be won to the fight for more than the usual “bread and butter” issues.

In 1972, alongside protest movements, several unions mobilised against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. The most active were the Seamen’s Union, the Plumbers and Gasfitters Union and the Waterside Workers Federation, with the latter putting on industrial bans. In September 1974, unions covering the NSW State Electricity Commission voted not to work on constructing or operating nuclear power stations unless nuclear pollution could be eliminated. But it wasn’t just protests against the French testing that spurred the unions on. With Australia containing some of the world’s biggest uranium deposits, mining was also the focus of opposition groups. The Railways Union (ARU) put bans on uranium transport in 1976 and when one of its members in Townsville refused to couple carriages, he was sacked, sparking an immediate walkout by rail workers across Queensland. The dispute escalated until a national rail strike, involving a number of rail unions, won his job back. It was the first national strike over nuclear energy anywhere in the world and galvanised what became a national movement against the nuclear menace.

It was such union action, and the sight of tens of thousands on the streets across the nation protesting against uranium, which prompted then National Party Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to ban street marches in Queensland in 1977. This sparked a mass civil liberties campaign which lasted for two years; attempts to march brought the unions on board, tens of thousands struck and the ban was defeated. Summing up the impact of the campaign, the state secretary of the building workers’ union was spot on when he said “movements like this can not only beat laws, but they can bring power to the genuine people and develop real social change”.[45] But as we’ve seen, even when we do win reforms, the capitalist class is constantly trying to undo our gains, or limit them in a million different ways. We’re now facing a ruling class determined to undo the industrial and social gains made by the working class across the globe over the last 100 years. Capitalism’s all-consuming, profit-driven logic, and therefore the rapacious nature of the system, means that every “solution” brings more destruction somewhere else in the world. If we want a world where there isn’t the constant need to fight for a decent life, we have to fight this system.

That’s why it matters how we struggle, what we demand, and what we say about supposed solutions in the here and now. Mass mobilisations and union pressure can start to shift the corporations, but to be really effective, we need to go further – union and community struggles are not enough. In Australia many progressive unions and political movements were led by members of the Communist Party (CPA), political activists who, while not revolutionary given the Stalinisation of the CPA, had a world view not limited to trade union struggle and just fighting for reforms. These activists understood at some level that out of the struggle must come both the revolutionary organisations of workers that can overthrow capitalism and a class schooled to build a new society.

Today we’re some distance from revolution. Instead we face a weakened union movement, an environment movement that has embraced the government’s neoliberal agenda, and a government whose only serious proposal to deal with emissions, the carbon tax, is an attack on workers. Rebuilding a fighting union movement, one that can begin to challenge neoliberalism in all its manifestations, and building the revolutionary political organisation that can lay the basis for a future revolutionary party that can smash the system – that’s the only way forward for anyone wanting to tackle climate change and all the other environmental threats to the planet.

As Engels wrote 150 years ago in The Dialectics of Nature, to regulate our relationship with nature “requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order”.[46]


[1] Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Politics, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2009, pp.293-4.

[4] For a full unpacking of the 2011 carbon tax package see Peter Jones, “Smoke and mirrors” and John Passant, “Carbon tax: short term carrot, long term stick” in Socialist Alternative, No. 169, July 2011, and Ben Hillier, “Unpacking the carbon compensation package”, item&id=6973%3Aunpacking-the-carbon-compensation-package&Itemid=398.

[5] Tad Tietze and Liz Humphrys, 9 June 2011, 2751414.html.

[6] Bob Brown media release, 24 February 2011, content/media-release/carbon-price-agreement-transformation-clean-energy-can-start-now.

[7] The New York Times, 6 December 2009.

[8] Tamra Gilbertson and Oscar Reyes “Carbon trading: how it works and why it fails”, Critical currents, No.7, 2009. More recent studies only confirm the details here. Profits were €19 billion in the first phase of Europe’s ETS, between €23 and €71 billion in the second phase and look to be higher still in the third phase.

[10] The Age, 30 July 2011.

[12] Once the government’s scheme was announced in full and it began its multi-million dollar marketing campaign, with the backing of the union movement, support has been slowly rising for the tax.

[13] Some groups on the right of the environment movement have consistently argued for these sorts of solutions, but this has not been the majority opinion until more recently.

[14] This is not to argue against research and development, or the modelling necessary for future planning such as that done by groups such as Beyond Zero Emissions or the improvement of renewable energy technology. However, on its own, this will never be enough if the measures are introduced by market mechanisms.

[16] ACTU, “Climate Change is Union Business”, April 2011.

[17]For the disastrous impact of class collaborationist policies, see Tom Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia. A History from Flood to Ebb Tide, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.

[18] See Allyson Hose, “Overpopulation or overblown lies?” in this issue.

[19] The Age in July 2011 was still running ads from Environment Victoria and other bodies that tell ordinary people that these measures actually have an impact on global warming and carbon emissions. There is next to nothing that targets the waste, inefficient and polluting practices of business.


[22] Socialist Alternative, No. 158, September 2010.

[23] The Australian, 8 November 2010.

[24] Socialist Alternative, No. 158, September 2010.

[25] Socialist Alternative, No. 166, May 2011.

[26]. The Australian, 8 April 2011.

[27]Larry Lohmann’s “When the markets are poison”, September 2009, is an invaluable anti-capitalist addition to the debate on solutions to the climate crisis,

[28] Lohmann, “When the markets are poison,” p.28.

[29] Clive Spash, “The brave new world of carbon trading”. CSIRO, 2009,

[30] “Australia’s tail cannot wag the world’s dog on carbon trading”, The Australian, 1 April 2011.

[31] Stephen Leahy, “Carbon markets are not cooling the planet”, 28 June 2011,

[34] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2010.

[35] Foster et al, The Ecological Rift.

[36] ACTU, 11 July 2011, packageprovidescertaintyandsafeguardsforworkershouseholdsandcommunities.aspx.

[37] Joe Kelly, “PM rejects claims a carbon tax will destroy jobs in industrial cities”, The Australian, 19 April 2011.

[38] Tony Maher, “Where are jobs in carbon plan?”, The Australian, 29 April 2011.

[39] Michelle Grattan, “Jobs ‘safe’ under carbon scheme”, The Age, 20 June 2011.

[40] Maher, “Where are jobs in carbon plan?”

[41] The Age, 6 June 2011.

[42] The scandal that was the privatisation under Kennett and the current financial situation is exposed in an excellent article by Ian Verrender at

[43] The Age, 16 and 17 July 2011.

[44];view=item&id=6991: sustainable-jobs-not-corporate-handouts&Itemid=392.

[45] Mick Armstrong, Leave it in the Ground! The Fight against Uranium Mining, Melbourne, International Socialists, 1978; Brian Martin “The Australian anti-uranium movement”, 82alternatives.html.

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