Students and workers strike for climate action

While the clean-up from Hurricane Dorian’s devastation is still underway in the Bahamas, world leaders are set to meet in New York during the last week of September to discuss plans for meeting climate goals. Fed up with their inability to solve the world’s climate crisis, students and workers across the globe are hitting back back with school walk-outs and strikes.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is calling upon leaders to come with “concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.”

The “Climate Action Summit” is meeting in the context of near total failure of countries to live up to their climate commitments. The earth’s nations have failed to live up to the objectives they set for themselves in Paris in 2015. Carbon-dioxide emissions continue to rise, and investment into renewables has stagnated over the past few years.

This failure to make headway on the issue is in contradiction with the increasingly dire assessments climate scientists have shared over the past year. Last October the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report which estimated that in order to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius — a threshold beyond which lies unthinkable consequences to human and nonhuman life — the world must reduce its carbon emissions by 45% percent by 2030. This past May the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published a report compiling data from 15,000 scientific and government sources and found that at least a million species are currently threatened with extinction due to human activity. Negative human impact can be felt in 75% of terrestrial and 66% of aquatic ecosystems. 

Grassroots movements show the way forward

Faced with governments and an economic system which are unwilling or unable to make policy that matches our dire reality, social movements have taken to the streets to demand meaningful change. The Climate Action Summit has become a focal point for this activism, with environmental groups planning actions throughout the week.

The summit is bookended by two strikes, one on September 20th , three days before the summit, and the other on the 27th. The strike on the 20th has grown out of Fridays for Future, the movement of student strikes which has swept the world since last August. This movement was founded by Swedish sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, who began skipping school last year to protest government inaction on climate change. Greta’s trip across the Atlantic by boat and her arrival in New York has been the object of media attention over the past few weeks.

The September 20th strike is a broad united front around the issue of climate, with a variety of organizations involved in the actions including Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, People’s Climate Movement, and 350.org. United Against Racism and Fascism, the campaign against the threat of encroaching fascism in New York, has sponsored and will be marching with the Brazilian anti-Bolsonaro contingent, drawing connections between these two evils. Building a strong anti-racist movement now is a crucial part of tackling climate change, since we can expect more refugees coming to the US as extreme weather forces people from their homes.

This movement is led largely by students and young people, but major labor organizations are backing the actions. The Trade Union Conference of Britain, which represents all the major unions in the country has voted unanimously to support this action with a 30-minute work stoppage, drawing attention to workers non-compliance with current climate policy. Workers at Amazon in Seattle have also announced an act of solidarity, saying they will walk out at 11:30 on September 20th in protest of what they see as their companies inaction in the context of their climate impact. Hundreds of maritime workers in Australia will strike alongside students on the day.

Coming after the close of the Climate Action Summit is the international organization Earth Strike’s call for an international strike on Friday September 27th. Earth Strike’s demands include cutting carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050, international and binding commitments to halt the destruction of rainforests and other wildlife habitats, and to hold corporations accountable for the greenhouse gases they produce. 

Earth Strike articulates that until “the world’s governments and businesses are held accountable to the people, we are refusing to participate in the system that fills their pockets.” 

While the organization does not have any illusions about achieving a full general strike on their first attempt, they intend to use the September 27th action as a springboard, raising awareness of their movement and building workers’ confidence, eventually making larger actions possible.  

Student and worker power

These strikes mark a desperately needed turning point for the environment movement. Rather than focussing on eco-conscious consumer choices, the strikes are raising the general understanding in society about who is responsible for carbon emissions. A group of 100 companies are responsible for producing and selling almost three quarters of the world’s fossil fuels. It is industry and outsized consumption by the 1% that is most responsible for climate change, not regular people eating meat or forced to drive cars to work through lack of public transport.

Coming together to strike back against the climate catastrophe is a strategic way to use our collective power as students and workers. The growing pressure for some kind of Green New Deal — a jobs program which would mobilize large sections of the economy toward building a more environmentally sustainable society — can feed into this movement. SEIU 1199 will have a contingent on the September 20th climate demonstration in New York. The fact that major unions around the world are backing the strike illustrates the possibilities for a climate movement that can win the things we need: 100% renewable energy and a future on this planet.

As we go to publication, the 50,000 United Auto Workers at General Motors just began a strike over pay and conditions. If their struggle in the auto industry could be linked up with the student climate strike, it would be a huge step forward for the movement. Workers in carbon-intensive industries have the power to shut production down and demand well-paid, secure, and unionized jobs in a green economy, where major industries are nationalized rather than held in private hands. These were some of the demands from Belfast shipyard workers last month.

Other strategies may provide small improvements to our civilization’s relation to nature, but only an approach in which workers exercise their power to build a society which values people and nature over profit has the power to build a world which could justifiably be called sustainable.

Thomas Hummel