Chris Baugh, deputy general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), is a familiar spokesperson on platforms arguing for socialist change to halt damaging environmental change. He spoke to the Socialist about the recent mass public protests over global warming which preceded the United Nations summit in New York on climate change.
Chris, you were invited to speak at a meeting in New York City during a weekend of action on climate change at the end of September, could you explain a bit about this?
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, convened a Climate Summit in New York on 23 September. In view of the failure of world leaders to secure a global agreement on reducing CO2 emissions, expressed by the debacle at Copenhagen, trade unions and climate campaigners across the US and internationally organised a series of events to coincide with the summit.
These included the historic People’s Climate March in New York on 21 September, an international meeting of trade unions organised by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and a series of meetings and discussions with US labour unions.
PCS was invited to attend these events because it has been at the forefront of not just challenging austerity but making the case that trade unions should play a central role in the struggles for climate action.
The climate change demonstration in NYC on 21 September was a massive event and was one of a number of protests internationally. What were your impressions of this event and what were its chief demands?
With over 300,000 marching in New York it represented the biggest climate protest in history and surprised the organisers. Even the New York Times and NYPD (police) had to admit to its vast size. What also impressed me was the strong contingent of US unions, with the healthcare workers and nurses at the forefront.
The impact of Hurricane Sandy and the failure of the authorities to provide the emergency and rescue services needed has reinforced the need for unions to take up the issue of climate change.
The march contained many organisations and banners raising a variety of demands, but it raised the issue: what next?
I found in discussions with US locals [union branches] and union activists, broad agreement that a call for climate action is not enough. We need to develop a programme of demands that bring the labour and environmental movements together around both common action and common demands.
Could you say a bit about the organisation that invited you and the composition of the platform on which you spoke?
Trade Unions for Energy Democracy is a US based and growing international community of unions who share the view that the market and political elites will not tackle the profound economic and environmental crises we are confronted with. Instead, we will need a decisive shift towards public control of key economic sectors; among the most important is energy.
I was asked to respond to a keynote speech from radical author Naomi Klein who addressed delegates representing unions from US, UK, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, India, Korea, Philippines, Caribbean and a range of international union federations and across the world.
Should PCS members be concerned about what’s happening to the global environment?
It’s increasingly clear that climate is a trade union issue.
Over 50% of CO2 emissions come from the workplace. The flooding caused by the wettest winter on record, the obscene profits of the energy companies at a time of rising fuel poverty, the need for a clean, publicly owned transport network, the debates about a third runway at Heathrow, the threat of forest privatisation and the rush to shale gas (fracking) all show how climate is a trade union issue.
PCS is one of a growing number of unions that recognise we need to take up the issue in the workplace, through collective bargaining with the employer and in putting an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus.
There are many different agendas being promoted by a variety of well-known politicians and environmentalists about how to halt rapid climate change. What is your alternative? How can sustainable methods of production and transport be achieved?
The economic and climate crises are both the result of market failure. Resisting austerity is part of the same fight against a capitalist economic system whose insatiable appetite for profit is pushing the earth’s climate ever closer to disaster.
Only those in the pay of the polluting fuel industries deny the impact of burning fossil fuels upon the earth’s climate.
As Naomi Klein’s book makes clear, we need action in energy efficiency and a social housing programme, for clean mass public transport and public investment in renewable energy, a huge training programme for skilled, unionised jobs and a decisive break with a capitalist economic system that offers poverty, inequality and the growing threat of catastrophic climate change.
PCS is a signatory to the latest edition of One Million Climate Jobs which sets out a range of ideas on how we can create over a million climate jobs and take decisive action in cutting CO2 emissions at the same time.
We play a lead role in campaigning for tax justice; showing how in the seventh richest economy on the planet we can afford both decent public services and the public investment needed for urgent climate action.
But it’s clear that the market and their political shadows in the mainstream parties have failed. This raises the need to bring energy and key sections of the economy under democratic public ownership and to build a movement in the UK and internationally that fights for socialist change, not climate change.
Sceptic Paterson in denial
Former environment secretary, Owen Paterson MP, has called for the scrapping of the 2008 climate change act which seeks an 80% cut in 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Such cuts are deemed necessary by environmental scientists in order to avoid irreversible global warming and catastrophic climate change.
Paterson announced this policy last week when addressing a right wing climate change deniers’ think tank forum run by former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson.
Echoing the shale gas and nuclear energy lobbyists’ arguments, Peterson said the 2050 targets will not reduce emissions and will ‘fail to keep the lights on’. He went on to say that the cost of using renewables will also be prohibitively expensive and, anyway, global warming has been “wildly exaggerated”.
Firstly, the atmosphere has warmed by 0.5% since 1990 and air temperatures are expected to rise quickly again when natural cycles that are currently pushing heat into the deep oceans reverse.
Secondly, any possible power outages will be due not to switching to (underinvested) renewable technologies but from a gross lack of investment in power generation infrastructure by the private profit energy companies.
Moreover, the financial cost of not tackling climate change will dwarf the cost of investment in new green technologies. Paterson also sidesteps the fact that shale gas extraction is environmentally damaging, as is the privately owned but heavily state subsidised nuclear power industry.
Paterson’s charge that the 2008 act is an unworkable and damaging piece of bureaucracy is disingenuous. In reality, the 2008 act is a weak law that doesn’t meaningfully address the threats to future energy production and to the environment, which are the result of the continuation of the capitalist profit system.