No parliamentary road to climate justice

Discussing the legislative perils of climate justice.

This May is a big month for the climate movement. Not only will thousands of students go on strike on the 21st demanding climate action, May Day also saw an historic action in support of the ‘green ban’ on the Willow Grove site in Parramatta. But where should the climate movement go after May? How are we going to win our radical demands for climate justice and a just transition for workers?

As international concern for climate change continues to increase and the scales of the market tip further towards renewable energy, it’s clear that the question is not if we shift to renewable energy, but when, how fast, and in whose interests this shift will be. Coal and gas are dying industries, and renewable energy will soon replace it, but preventing a climate crisis won’t simply involve moving to renewable energy; it demands the fundamental restructuring of our economic, political, and social systems that currently abuse our environment as a source of profit. Renewable energy will mean little if our forests and wildlife disappear in the process, or if we continue to ignore the land rights of Indigenous peoples, on whose land this infrastructure will be built. Uncontrolled climate change will also wreak untold havoc on our environment and workers alike: cleaners, teachers, builders, nurses, firefighters and other workers will all be forced onto the frontlines of a growing environmental crisis, with their wages and conditions cut to pay for the damage while the rich shelter in climate controlled homes and offices. That is why we call for climate justice, not simply climate action, and why the ruling class has worked for decades to try and cleave the climate and worker’s movements apart. Without the united strength and revolutionary vision of organised, radical, democratic workers’ unions, simply shifting to renewable energy will not create a sustainable future for anyone. 

How do we, as workers, students, and communities, make sure that these imminent changes to the energy system are in our interests, and not just the interests of bosses and businesses? For decades people have placed their hope in a legislative path to climate justice by voting for or lobbying sympathetic MPs, but this strategy fails to see that the interests of those in parliament are inherently different to those of the working class. The parliamentary system exists specifically to suppress and mediate conflict between workers and capitalists to the benefit of the capitalist class. Both Labor and Liberal are bound to the interests of the fossil fuel bosses and the capitalist class as a whole, not only as most are of this class themselves, but because capitalists use their wealth and influence within and without the parties to prevent changes against their interests. This is why even the Labor party’s policy platform includes only meagre references to renewables, and backed the subsidisation and expansion of the dying coal industry beyond 2050.  

Many activists believe that fighting in parliament is simply the most ‘realistic’ way to achieve political power, yet it is entirely unrealistic to hope that either of the major political parties will suddenly abandon their long-held commitment to neoliberalism and work against the rich and powerful people that allow them to stay in power. Even social democratic forces like the Greens, who certainly offer a supportable alternative, must be supported critically. The class character of the Greens is indeed quite different to Labor or the Liberals, but simply supporting their parliamentary push will eventually reach a dead end. To achieve change through purely legislative means would mean that the Greens would need to form an opportunistic alliance with Labor (and thereby sacrifice their principles and credibility as a party of resistance) or they would need to capitulate to the interests of the capitalist class, who already work to suppress even the most meagre of their reforms.

Fundamentally though, legislative strategies fail because the parliament does not respond to the threat of votes, it responds to the threat of revolt: protest in the street and strikes in our workplaces. This is why we need direct action to realise our goal of climate justice, by demanding, striking, and organising ourselves, rather than waiting for the go-ahead from parliament or our union bureaucrats. This principle of direct action is a response and an alternative to the inherent inadequacies of parliamentary change. It is based on the idea that the kinds of political action you dedicate your time to inherently shape the outcomes of this political action; in other words, the means that we use to achieve change determine the end result of this change. 

This is why our strategic choices must also consider the kinds of transformations that we wish to create in ourselves as revolutionaries. When we adopt strategies and tactics that reflect the goals of our revolutionary vision, we undergo a fundamental transformation:  we take power from capital, and from the state, and can affect significant change in society beyond just the demand for better conditions. The act of organising together to directly challenge oppression and exploitation teaches us crucial lessons that no electoral campaign ever could.

This is why direct action is a particularly important principle to bring to the climate movement. We cannot afford to sit and wait while the ruling class flip to a renewable energy system at the last minute, pillaging the land, closing down fossil fuel energy production without a just transition for workers, and creating a renewable energy system that will merely give more power and influence to the rich. The strike is the ultimate form of direct action and the most powerful tool of the working class, and it is the only tool that will successfully win and defend the goals of the climate justice movement. The May 21 Climate Strike is a start, but now is the time to begin organising ourselves as workers and not just students, individuals, or party members, so that we can begin agitating for a general strike for climate in the May Days to come. 

There is much work to be done to organise and strengthen our capacity to act together as workers, to bring us to a position where we might go on strike for climate justice. We cannot be distracted by politicians who would seek to dictate our own interests to us, we must begin immediately the hard work of organising and agitating amongst our fellow workers! 

This article was published in ‘Embers’, a pullout in Honi’s Semester 1, Week 11 edition.

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