‘Climate change is a class issue’

Unite’s education team have set up an ‘environmental taskforce’ ahead of this year’s COP26. UNITElive investigates

Reading time: 8 min

As extreme weather events increase with ferocious force; as air pollution claims exponentially more lives; and as crop yields wither in once-abundant regions around the world, there’s a growing consensus that the climate emergency is no longer just an abstract conversation.

The ‘what if’ of a climate emergency is now a terrifying ‘what is’ – and what we do about it now will determine the future of every single worker and citizen, both in the UK and across the globe.

In August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a landmark study that threw into sharp relief the urgency of the situation. It highlighted that human activity has changed the climate to such an extreme extent that some of the damage is simply now ‘irreversible’.

But as a UN Secretary General António Guterres noted, if we act fast “we can avoid climate catastrophe”, adding that “there is no time for delay and no room for excuses”.

That’s why Unite will launch a new Environmental Taskforce, ahead of this year’s COP26 climate change conference hosted in Glasgow, to educate members and to raise working people’s concerns to the top of the agenda in the global climate emergency conversation.

Unite’s education department is behind the union’s new initiative, and its director Jim Mowatt explains why the Unite Environmental Taskforce has never been more necessary.

‘One common denominator’

“A giant organisation like Unite has a very diverse membership, but the one common denominator is the impact of the climate crisis on all of these individuals as citizens,” Jim explained. “And we acknowledge too that the impact will differ on individuals as workers. To meet the UN’s climate change objectives, in some sectors, the impact on workers will be immediate.”

These sectors include, for example, steel and fossil fuels, both of which are very carbon-intensive industries. But Jim noted too there are other sectors which will be impacted by climate change that aren’t often spoken about.

“In the not-for-profit sector, our members in housing associations will be affected because housing will need to be completely retrofitted to meet our carbon-reduction targets. The government has committed to taking out 28m gas boilers from homes and replacing them. It’s not so obvious but it will have a huge impact on our members in housing associations.

“And beyond the workplace, there are many non-employment concerns such as clean air that affect all of us. That’s why the Taskforce was created – to cover all those different interests. And that’s reflected in the membership of the Taskforce which runs the gamut from ordinary members such librarians to national secretaries, researchers and outside consultants,” he added.

‘A just transition’

At the heart of Unite’s Environmental Taskforce is what’s called a ‘just transition’, a set of policies which aims to secure the future and livelihoods of workers and their communities in the shift to a low-carbon, climate resilient economy.

“A just transition is the exact opposite of what happened in the mining industry in the 80s and 90s,” Jim explained. “People lost their jobs and were left with nothing. What we’re saying now is that there should be a transition programme worked out by the government so that people can get decent jobs. If your job is at risk then it is incumbent upon the government through employers to get you suitable alternative employment.”

Jim argued that such a programme would mean that when jobs are created in, for example, the wind energy or carbon capture sector, those jobs should go to people who will be displaced by the demands needed to meet our climate change obligations, such as workers employed in coal-fired power stations.

But in order to successfully demand that a just transition become the cornerstone of the government’s climate change policies, it is absolutely vital that workers and trade unionists are aware of what exactly a just transition entails, so that they themselves can lead the conversation about their futures.

Jim noted that the RMT recently surveyed its members in the North Sea oil industry and 91 per cent had never even heard of a ‘just transition’.

“This survey is emblematic of many workforces across the UK,” he explained. “Our members are largely unaware, even those in oil refineries which are very much threatened by climate change policies.

“As Unite’s education department, it’s our job to educate them – to ensure they are fully aware of the realities which confront them. It’s our job to make sure all our members, reps and officers fully understand the repercussions. We need to get a just transition at the very top of the agenda.”

The Unite Environmental Taskforce will launch its charter in September, two months ahead of the UN’s Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, which is this year hosted in Glasgow.

‘Oxygenate the debate’

“The hope is that our Taskforce will help steer the conversation – that it will oxygenate the debate so to speak,” Jim said. “The launch of our charter, which lays out Unite’s principles in our approach to tackling climate change, will also be accompanied by the official launch of our education programme. This programme is not just for our reps but for members as well.”

If, as the saying goes, knowledge is power, then Unite members have good reason to avail themselves of the union’s new education programme on climate change. That’s because working people face an inherent power imbalance in the fight against climate change, and the more they know, the more they’re equipped to challenge these inequalities.

“Climate change is above all a class issue, because as we’ve seen time and again – take austerity for example – it is always working people and poorer people who are forced to shoulder the higher burden,” Jim noted. “As a percentage they will be expected to pay a higher price in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Indeed, eventually replacing the entire heating system in a home so that it will meet the UK’s climate change obligations could cost up to £18,000 per home.

“This is a hell of an expenditure for someone who might be on the minimum wage,” Jim pointed out. “What’s more, poorer people simply have fewer opportunities and options in terms of mobility. They can’t as easily escape, for example, flooding, which has increasingly become a problem in this country. We’re already seeing this in the global South, where there has been an explosion in the number of climate refugees having no other option but to flee their homes because of drought and other extreme weather events.”

As worrying as the future may sound, if working people’s voices lead the conversation, then there are just as many opportunities in the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy as there are challenges. Unite is committed to ensuring all of its members are prepared for the big changes facing them, both in and out of work, as the climate emergency becomes ever more urgent.


Unite Education’s climate change video


Thinking about becoming an environmental rep? Wherever you live, more details on Unite’s environmental taskforce can be found here.


If you’re interested in the environment and climate change why not attend Unite Education’s Environment Conference? An online discussion called Climate crisis – a workers-led future.

The event will take place on September 16 from 9.30 am to 12 noon. To take part register here.

If you  simply want to find out more about the Taskforce and the courses on offer, contact your regional education organiser.

Stayed tuned to UNITElive for more on climate change

By Hajera Blagg

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