Richard Kuper reviews Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs, by Jonathan Neale, published by Resistance Books, London; The Ecologist, Devon; Alternative Information and Development Centre, Cape Town; International Institute for Research and Education, Amsterdam, available for free download as a PDF or in e-book format here.
It was Raymond Williams who said, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.”
As COP26 gets underway and half-faces the greatest threat human life on this planet has every faced, it seems most timely to review this book, published earlier this year.
In the midst of escalating climate crisis and looming environmental catastrophe generally, Jonathan Neale’s book is a lifeline, a truly radical intervention.
The author has been thinking about and campaigning actively around climate change since 2004.
He writes that several months after he got involved, “I began having the same nightmare most nights for months. In that nightmare I was trying to tell some people something, and they were not listening. I tried to scream, but they could not hear.”
It is testimony to Neale’s strength and courage that he was able to overcome that panic, to continue thinking, exploring, planning, and intervening in the climate movement. Now, as we approach ever-closer to the catastrophe we have so long been warned about – have known about at some level since well before the turn of the century – in the midst of lost opportunity after lost opportunity to respond globally to this global crisis, despite setback after setback, he has produced a book of great importance.
It starts from where we are now, not where we might have been had people heeded the warnings and it says: there is still time, there is still reason for optimism.
The optimism comes from three developments in recent years, summed up in two names and one dislocation. The names are Greta Thunberg and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez; the dislocation is the Covid-19 global pandemic.
In a nutshell, Thunberg exemplifies the spirit of resistance, a willingness to tell the truth, to insist that the emperors who rule the world have no clothes; Ocasio-Cortez, that there is another way – it is called a Green New Deal – and to force the debate onto a very different terrain; and Covid-19, whose dislocation of the global economy and extension of the mass unemployment that characterises the system, gives life to a solution to mass unemployment, so exaggerated by the pandemic, in the creation of climate jobs.
As Neale makes clear, “those three little words, Green New Deal, can mean everything, anything and nothing” The task is to spell out what they mean if they are to meaningful and in his Introduction he does so, very briefly, by outlining what job creation might look like in very different context of the US and South Africa. Despite the differences there are certain commonalities.
Here I want to tease out some of the arguments underlying Neale’s whole book.
For instance his idea on the role of government are there, interspersed throughout the book. Let’s lay them out explicitly.
The role of government is central; without it there will simply be no solution. It can only be government, Neale argues, that can drive the creation of climate jobs – “jobs that directly reduce the emissions that heat the world.” The rest would be green jobs – anything useful and eco-friendly, including a substantial number of jobs in care, public transport, housing and building to service the needs of society in general but also the needs of those engaged in the climate job process.
It has to be government intervention, through publicly run and publicly accountable companies, for many reasons. One is simply transparency. Just look at the disgusting waste of “test and trace” in the UK – £37b with no discernible effect on the spread of the disease, and bulging pockets for the private buccaneers who responded with alacrity to the government’s offer to give them mouth-watering sums of money for nothing much.
Leaving it to the market, whatever the sense of urgency, will only produce solutions that are profitable now with the long-term commitment and investment needed unlikely to materialise. But much more important is the need to phase out rapidly jobs in the high carbon economy (power generation and the like) and the only way to do so would be with the agreement of those in that sector by promising them new, high status, well-paid equivalent jobs and the training that would be needed to go with them. And only government can provide that.
We have seen the GMB’s shilly-shallying in Britain: committed to a green new deal, but not one that threatens the short-term interests of its members, not least because they do not believe that the market will provide other opportunities for them in due course.
Neale is adamant here: “Global heat is not the fault of the workers in the high carbon economy. They deserve security. And if we don’t take care of them, we will divide communities, the working class and the country.”
Public control over climate jobs and other green jobs can also ensure that jobs go where they are needed by actual living communities, rather than people uprooting themselves en masse to go where private corporations find it most profitable to locate themselves.
It will of course take vast sums of money, that only government can provide. What the Covid pandemic has shown us is that the fiscal rules can be torn up when there is a need to do so. Most of the vast sums required will come back down the line, particularly in taxes paid by those who move from unemployment or low-wage work into higher paid climate jobs, or jobs in the care economy and elsewhere; and in the sale of the renewable energy that the system will increasingly be generating. The rest, Neale believes, can easily be found in taxing the very rich (who although he doesn’t point this out particularly, will still be very rich after tax!); and through quantitative easing.
Last, but not least, creating a large number of decently paid climate jobs will be politically self-sustaining as it will create a large constituency whose well-being is tied up with the continuation of the green transition. Only a government committed to that radical programme will be interested in such a development.
A cornerstone of Neale’s argument is that as we emerge from the pandemic, and the economies are restructured, many businesses will fail. Here it is crucial that workers in failing businesses are kept on board and not simply swept to the wall. There is another way – government taking over every failing business and saving jobs or guaranteeing to every worker retraining for decent new employment. That is not simply going to happen on its own.
Neale is all for workers in failing industries taking over their workplaces and demanding government action in support of their transition to the right kind of jobs for the emerging green economy. But for that to happen, these workers must be won over by policies that will guarantee them the respect and future they deserve. We can’t simply let airlines, say, go to the wall and allow their workforces to be shredded while rejoicing that a polluting industry has disappeared. Unless we can carry the workforces of declining and redundant industries with us, the struggle for a new green economy will be torn by divisive conflicts over the scarce resources that market-led solutions have to offer.
All this is prologue. The book itself is a model of clear, rational and accessible information and argument, full of essential practical detail.
This is Neale’s own summary, which I can’t better. Following it, I will make a few further comments:
“After the first introductory chapter, the next chapter of Part One explains the science of climate change – the different greenhouse gases, feedbacks and tipping points. Chapter Three outlines the sources of the different warming emissions. Parts Two, Three and Four explain how climate jobs can reduce emissions from different sectors. Part Two is about electricity. Three is about transport, industry and buildings, and Four looks at farming and forestry.
“The rest of the book deals with the politics of climate jobs. Part Five explains why the leaders of the leaders of the world have done so little to reduce emissions, and points out some of the lessons of the Covid 19 pandemic. Six deals at length with the problem of how to find a fair way to reduce emissions in both the richer countries and the poorer countries. Finally, Seven looks at what will happen if we enter a state of climate breakdown, and suggests some ways we can organize to prevent that.”
Chapter 2, “The science”, does what so few arguments do. It takes nothing for granted but explains, in terms that are accessible to everyone, just what the basis of the problem is – so essential for understanding the nitty-gritty detail of the solutions offered in later chapters. Even as someone who started out studying natural sciences, I found it immensely interesting and rewarding to be reminded of what I know (and to learn quite a lot I thought I knew!) about feedback loops and tipping points and how these factors have played out over recent tens of thousands of years.
Above all, the discussion of the uncertainties of the science stresses the need to be measured in our statements about the crisis. Many activists say something like “we have 12 years to sort out the crisis – or else”. This may mobilise some, says Neale, but for those who don’t believe it can be done in 12 years this becomes not a call for action but a call for not trying. The truth is we don’t know: the science shows things are getting worse; it suggests ways in which various crises interact with each other, generally making things even worse. But no science says you have 12 years (or whatever) and that is it.
The bottom line is that however long we have, however uncertain the interacting feedback loops leading to ever greater catastrophes might be, one thing is certain: the higher the global temperature rise the more likely are the more pessimistic outcomes and the more rapidly we will encounter them.
It may be that capitalism is the underlying cause of the environmental crisis. It may be that socialism is the answer. It may be that there are planetary limits to growth. All these are important issues to discuss. But the essential task now is to keep the rise in global temperature as low as possible and that means reducing drastically the burning of fossil fuels, the major cause of global heating, now.
This book is essentially a handbook to how this can be done, industry by industry, sector by sector. It shows why the detail matters. Along the way the interaction of competition, markets, government policy are traced, the relationship between climate jobs and other necessary jobs, particularly caring jobs, drawn out.
Take, for instance, Part Two on the problems involved in moving to a renewable electricity system. It starts boldly: “Electricity from renewable energy can reduce fossil fuel emissions by more than 90%. The key to this is that we do not simply replace current electricity production. We also have to use renewable electricity to run almost all vehicles, heat almost all buildings, and for all processes in industry. And we need massive new supergrids to deliver that electricity.”
Neale goes into the nitty-gritty of how wind and solar power are produced but also wave, geothermal and other forms of renewables, what kinds of jobs they create – in manufacturing, installation, operation; why nuclear is irrelevant; storage problems and alternatives; and the simply massive investment (and jobs) required to produce a fail-safe grid that can assure that electricity is available when it is needed. Plus, a discussion of how such a shift can be managed in which the fossil fuel companies now supplying most of our electricity, don’t simply go bust, leaving vast gaps in the electricity supply during the transition. And Neale explains why markets cannot accomplish these things.
I could describe other issue covered, but the answer really is to read the book. There is a challenge on almost every page, not just to conventional assumptions and arguments from those who believe that all this can be safely left to the creativity of the market, but also to activists, committed, for example, to the mantra that small is beautiful, which just won’t work in ensuring the continuity of energy supplies.
But I do want to allude to one central argument, which is about agency. Can government do what Neale calls on it to do? The answer in my view, has to be no – not as it is constituted now. And Neale recognises this clearly in his analysis of why previous COPs have failed so dramatically. It’s not that individuals like Obama or Biden don’t see the problem. Their capacity to act is limited by the weight of the very system they are trying to steer, a system hostile to the massive changes which a transition to a green new deal demands.
Rather, as FDR is supposed to have said to a group of activists in the 1930s: “You’ve convinced me. I agree with what you’ve said. Now go out and make me do it.” (You will find an article in Dissent here saying that this never happened. But the essential truth in the quote remains: politicians are seldom convinced by radicals’ arguments for change and, even if they are, they do not do what you want them to do except under sustained pressure, sufficient to overcome the inertia, and indeed countervailing forces, represented by those who benefit from the existing relationships of power.)
Neale is well aware of this. So a key underlying theme in his analysis is the need for workers displaced or simply left behind by change to protest in the strongest possible terms, to demand respect, retraining and alternative employment in the new renewable economy. And to occupy if necessary until their demands are met. Their rejection of the damage the system inflicts on them, together with a tidal wave of protest by younger generations demanding a world they can live in, will be crucial to any just transition.
You could go further. A facilitating state of the kind Neale is looking for may have existed in the heyday of social democracy. Forty years of austerity, state retrenchment, outsourcing, deregulation and privatisation, have undermined the capacity of the British or US or most other states to play the role now demanded of them here. The wager implicit in Neale’s analysis and political programme is that, assuming the kinds of demands he is making are taken up in mass trade union and social movements pressing for them, these movements will also in that same process be constructing the caring, providing, facilitating set of institutions capable of delivering them.
Jonathan Neale has published a substantial analysis, drawing on much of the argument of this book, but linked directly to COP26 and its likely outcomes and inevitable failures here: What do we do after the COP?
Richard Kuper is an ecosocialist. He was a founder member of the Red-Green Study Group in the early nineties, bringing diverse red and green currents of thought together to seek common ground. Its publication What on earth is to be done?, published in 1995 is still available. He continues to struggle, in the Labour Party and beyond it, for transformative change.
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