Global Warning: Covid lessons for the climate crisis

Harrods store, central London, during lockdown in March 2020. The street would normally be busy with traffic and visitors, adding to the city's high levels of pollution. (Wikimedia/CC)

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken hold at a point in human history when we face the existential threat of climate change. The scientific evidence available tells us we are in a race against time in limiting the impact and without decisive action, this could have incalculable consequences for human life on the planet.

The shutdown of production in all the major economies due to the coronavirus pandemic has led to an estimated 20 percent reduction in global greenhouse emissions. As the lockdown is ended, however, it is expected that greenhouse emissions will return to their previous dangerous levels, showing that simply reducing production is not a solution. This article argues the potential for developing alternative socially useful forms of production. To avert climactic disaster, this will need to form part of a political struggle for system change based on socialist planning using the latest smart technology with new and democratic forms of workers’ and community control and self-management.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported climate change poses an urgent and potentially irreversible threat. Without a radical change of course – of deep reductions in greenhouse emissions – there is little prospect of keeping average global temperatures below the 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius target in the 2015 Paris COP21 agreement. The IPCC now warns that by the end of the century the earth’s climate is likely to be a full three degrees warmer. They paint an alarming picture of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, drought and water shortages, deforestation, species extinction and massive human dislocation, causing rising poverty and wars over resources. To stay within ‘safe’ limits, says the IPCC, “remains technically possible, although it will require rapid and far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. To avert potential catastrophe, they set a time frame of fewer than ten years for a 45% reduction in greenhouse emissions.

The IPCC forms part of the United Nations (UN) and was set up in 1988. Far from being alarmist, the IPCC has often been accused of being conservative in its forecasts. Since the IPCC first reported in 1988, and the first UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, we have actually seen an unprecedented increase in carbon emissions with the resulting impact upon the environment. This is in the context of a virulent neo-liberal phase of capitalism which has produced record profit yields at the expense of workers’ living standards the world over.

From the birth of capitalism in the late eighteenth century, it is estimated that a mere ninety companies are responsible for over two-thirds of global emissions. A staggering fifty percent of global emissions have been added since 1990. Six of the top ten richest companies are based in fossil fuels with two in polluting car production.

The needs of our time, whether this be challenging an economic system that produces impoverishment for billions in a world of plenty, protecting the health and income of workers in a global pandemic, and taking the decisive action needed on climate change, reveal the problem as capitalism itself. Global capital, with its insatiable appetite for profit, has shown itself unwilling and incapable of taking the decisive measures needed to transform the economy and reduce carbon emissions on the scale or in the timeframe required. In this situation, the case for converting production becomes even more pressing. And there are numerous examples that show what is possible.

The Lucas Plan pioneers

In 1976 Lucas Aerospace, a major designer and manufacturer of combat aircraft and missile systems, announced plans to close several factories and make one in five of its 18,000 workforce redundant. A shop stewards combine representing the thirteen different unions across seventeen plants, had previously decided as part of a campaign to defend jobs to draw up “an alternative corporate plan for socially useful and environmentally desirable production”.

The combine committee consulted union members at each plant as well as outside experts on drawing up an inventory of skills and machinery, not the sham ‘staff suggestions’ schemes popular with bosses but instead inviting practical ideas for alternative products. Of the 150 ideas that came in, the committee chose twelve to include in their detailed plan for diversification from the manufacture of weapons technology into socially useful production. These included a portable life-support system, a heat exchange system for heating blocks of flats, a safer braking system for buses and coaches, robotic devices for remote control of firefighting and mining, and hob carts to improve the mobility of children with spina bifida. This was 1976 and some seem a bit dated now but some were well in advance of the time. The hybrid car was later manufactured in the form of the Toyota Prius with other recent examples. Many others such as the production of wind turbines and a road-rail vehicle were both innovative and even more relevant today.

The Socialist has published articles highlighting the astonishing ingenuity of the Lucas workers and how it was possible to draw up detailed and workable plans for alternative production, including The Lucas Plan, by Jane Nellist (27 April, 2020) and a review by Bill Mullins of the 2018 film, directed by Steve Sprung, The Plan That Came From The Bottom Up (31 October, 2018). But the plan was opposed by the Lucas Aerospace bosses who saw it as an encroachment upon their power. As Dave Nellist, a former Labour MP and a Socialist Party member, states in the 2018 film, “instead of submitting to redundancies or to a continual deskilling and fragmentation of their work, they tried to take control of how they worked, what they designed and what they built. To take over that power of management’s ‘right’ to manage”.

The Lucas workers had the initial support and encouragement of Tony Benn but he was replaced as Industry Secretary and the right wing-led Labour government withdrew its backing. By May 1978 the biggest union in the company, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW), gave formal support but this was too late to affect the crucial negotiations between the company and the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. This was one of several factors that helped management to play off the official, right-wing trade union leadership against the Combine Committee to prevent national negotiations taking place and any serious chance of implementing the plan.

But the Lucas Plan was only one of a series of initiatives for socially useful production which flourished in the 1970s, a period of industrial struggle involving strikes, sit-ins and occupations. They generated alternative corporate plans, socially useful prototypes and product banks, co-operative enterprises and networks of community-based craft and technology workshops. Another major report in 1978 from car workers at Chrysler, Vauxhall, Ford, British Leyland and Wilmott Breeden proposed socially useful alternatives to petrol-driven cars. This included public service versions of adapted vehicles for disabled drivers, cross country vehicles similar to the Lucas road/rail prototype, and hybrid cars using alternative and cleaner energy.

While these initiatives revealed the potential of workers control of technology and production, it could not lead, as a Lucas Plan shop steward put it, to “socialism in one company”. Another shop steward said, “we wanted workers to have as much power as the shareholders”. But as Dave Nellist commented, “unfortunately that was the problem. Shareholders collectively own a company, and can, therefore, set its direction. The workers at Lucas never collectively owned their company – for that it would have to be nationalised”.

The Lucas Plan remains, however, an important moment in working class history and deserves rescue from “the enormous condescension of posterity”. It carries vital lessons for diversifying production in energy-intensive industries, arms manufacture and nuclear power as part of the social and economic transformation needed to address climate change and is of even greater relevance today.

Building unity

Trade unions organised in energy-intensive industries have waged an often heroic struggle to counter the imbalance of power between capital and labour and establish basic union rights. There are many examples of struggles in trade union history around issues of workers safety, public health and environmental degradation. In many ways, reducing carbon emissions is a logical extension of the work of unions challenging hazards and making the workplace a healthy and safe environment. As the impact of climate change is felt in the form of extreme weather conditions and the need for fire-service and emergency workers to intervene, unions have gradually started to engage with the issue. It still generates opposition, however, from some union leaders with members working in energy-intensive industries who often view any move to cut greenhouse emissions as a threat to much needed, unionised jobs.

Nearly a third of manufacturing was lost under the Thatcher government. Regions, where these jobs were based, have suffered chronic economic decline, making the fear of unemployment and the need to defend jobs very real. Inflated claims of jobs and economic benefits in expanding aviation, shale gas extraction (fracking) and open cast coal mining are presented by the bosses as an opportunity for workers. It is undoubtedly true that arguments around these issues have sometimes caused a mutual distrust between trade unions and climate change activists. Experience has shown that breaking down this mistrust is not achieved, and is often counterproductive, by protesting outside a polluting plant or industry without attempting a genuine dialogue with the workers – and of even more importance, putting forward an alternative worth fighting for.

Without the direct action of climate change activists against fracking, expanded aviation at Heathrow, and in the Extinction Rebellion protests to give recent UK examples, it is unlikely the need for action on climate change would attract such support – not surprisingly – amongst the young. At the same time, the threat to workers’ conditions in the energy-intensive industries comes from the bosses’ agenda. Capitalism may be forced slowly and under sufferance to organise economies towards less carbon emissions. This will, however, be too little and too late, so rather than have another unjust transition imposed upon workers in this sector, this moment provides workers through their unions with the opportunity to set out an alternative to the attacks on jobs and conditions coming their way.

In energy and arms manufacture in particular, the industrial unions like Unite, GMB and others have maintained collective bargaining rights and an important degree of industrial power. Workers in these sectors possess the expertise and industrial power to apply their own concept of the Lucas Plan and place the interests of workers at the centre of what is described as a Just Transition to a zero-carbon economy.

One million climate jobs

It was to build on the example of the Lucas Plan and develop an alternative that trade unions, academics and climate activists came together to produce the One Million Climate Jobs pamphlet in 2009 (see the Global Warning column in Socialism Today No.136, March 2010). The pamphlet has helped make the case that climate change is a trade union issue. It demonstrated the technical feasibility and affordability of one million new skilled, unionised climate jobs while at the same time cutting UK greenhouse emissions by 80 percent over a twenty year period. With the necessary investment and planning, climate jobs could be created in energy efficiency, retro fitting new domestic heating systems, insulation of homes and public buildings, mass transit on a public, green and integrated basis, and by the application of wind, wave and solar technologies as part of a revived manufacturing sector. This was described by Naomi Klein at Paris COP21 as “a fantastic tool for mapping the kind of climate justice we should all be working for”.

Reflecting the policies of the unions involved, it demonstrated the affordability of one million climate jobs from Tax Justice measures and argued for public investment and a properly funded public sector. While it fell short of calling for the socialist transformation needed to really end the power of the capitalist class over society, it was another concrete example of how an alternative to the capitalist economic model can be developed.

Covid crisis lessons

Rolls Royce, Airbus, British Airways and various other major UK based employers have announced redundancy plans affecting tens of thousands of workers as a consequence of the coronavirus on production and profit margins. Alongside the militant defence of jobs, this situation raises the opportunity of workers through their unions developing their own independent plans for diversification into alternative socially useful products and to call for the public ownership of their company and industry.

The woeful failure of the Tory government to prepare for the Covid-19 crisis has been laid bare by the death rates in the UK. Medical supplies were inadequate due to years of NHS underfunding and privatisations. A market-driven approach meant much of the vital personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and other key products are not produced in the UK but imported, with China the biggest supplier. This created a scramble for supplies, many countries stopped exporting supplies, and in a so-called single free market European Union, countries within it stopped selling to each other. This massively increases the risk of the virus to populations in economies with a limited manufacturing base of their own.

While the lockdown has massively cut production and impacted on the bosses’ profits, a number of private manufacturers have re-tooled to produce medical supplies sometimes in a few days. Distilleries have made hand sanitisers, clothing companies have switched to making gowns, masks and PPE. BAE systems have made 3D printed parts for newly designed visors. On the other hand, the Tories ‘Ventilator Challenge’ to industry resulted in numerous products reported by clinicians as unusable. The big fanfare for the RAF airlift of PPE from Turkey resulted in the delivery of gowns that were not fit for use.

While many are keen to be seen to be helping in the fight against the virus, these examples of employers switching production are driven primarily by their own commercial interests and a desire to win government contracts. They show the failure of the market to meet social need but on the other hand they also show, even in a limited fashion, how it is possible to switch production to meet social and public health requirements. This is a vital lesson for the post-corona crisis world that will need to be built on.

Workers’ control comes from below. It is at its most effective when workers are well organised and feel confident to challenge the bosses ‘right’ to manage. The balance of power between boss and worker is never static and is contested on a continuous basis every day. The Lucas Plan is one example of what is both possible and necessary in setting out the workers’ alternative to the bosses’ agenda. This will need to be replicated in the UK and across the world as an essential part of the struggle to create the conditions for socialism and protect the planet we inhabit.

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July 2020