Education International
Education International

Union skills and radical action needed on climate change

published 23 March 2009 updated 23 March 2009

Planet Earth faces the real danger of abrupt climate change in the next 10 to 30 years, the consequences of which would be so catastrophic that the international community needs to take concerted and radical action now.

Jonathan Neale, a long-time trade union activist and international secretary of the Campaign Against Climate Change in the UK, told delegates at EI’s annual meeting of affiliates from the OECD countries that the international trade union movement is well placed to make a significant contribution to the struggle to save the planet. “In the environmental movement we’ve gone as far as we can go with lobbying, publicity and individual action. Now we need the things unions do very well,” Neale said. “We need to count on our time-honoured trade union traditions: Mobilisation and organisation to look for public collective solutions. We need government action on a massive scale because we can’t do it individually in the time we have to face this problem.” Tackling climate change through union structures can help bring more young people into a stronger and revitalised labour movement. Neale recommended reaching out to mobilise young people, environmentalists, faith groups, and others in broad coalitions with trade unions. He sees much broader public support for taking the kind of radical action needed because people around the world now understand the basic science and know that climate change is real. “People may not know the details – and in fact the details are so frightening that most people don’t want to think about them,” he said. “But the big important change is that the general public and the corporate elites and world leaders now understand and accept the scientific warnings.” Neale said that strategies to avert climate change can play an important part in broader initiatives to confront the global economic crisis. “Doing something about global warming is a way to get the world out of the financial crisis,” he said, pointing to the period before World War II when the Allied powers completely transformed their whole economies in order to win the war. “The cost was enormous, but it made many more jobs and pulled the world out of the Great Depression.” The massive global inequities in GHG emissions must be addressed so that developing countries can industrialise, but not on the polluting model of 19th century Europe. “We have to work towards equity of emissions, ” Neale said, noting that average annual emissions of greenhouse gases are about 1 ton per person in India, 10 tons per person in Britain, and 20 tons per person in the USA. Emissions can be brought down sharply and relatively easily if governments everywhere commit to taking on the most advanced technology, developing wind, solar any other renewable energy sources on a massive scale. “The solutions to climate change have to be global,” Neale said. “We need massive programmes of investment in green jobs— in wind farms, solar energy, public transportation, home insulation and many other initiatives all over the world. We can do it!” Taking action on climate change: Practical steps for education unions 1. Mobilise: Encourage colleagues and others to take part in meetings, demonstrations and campaigns. Persuade your union to put climate change high on the agenda, and then take it to the street with your union banners. 2. Negotiate: Work to have environmental representatives recognised with the same status and statutory rights as shop stewards or health and safety reps. Negotiate with management about energy savings in your workplace. “An activist for the climate on a global scale is a defender of energy on a local scale,” Neale said. 3. Teach: Educate your students about the importance of global citizenship and democratic involvement. Help build a new generation that can make sense of the science. In higher education, Neale said, it’s important for the climate scientists to assert greater control over the research agenda because right now governments are deciding which questions are to be asked and thus driving the research agenda. By Nancy Knickerbocker.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 29, March 2009.