With the global climate negotiations beginning in Lima next week, the question of climate change is in the public eye more than it has been for a long time. Yet when much of Europe has still not recovered from the financial crisis, there’s a tension that remains in the minds of European leaders.

So it was a good time for the European Trade Union Institute to hold its conference: ‘The Socio-Ecological Transition: A New Climate for the EU’s Sustainability Transition,’ last week.

A key point of discussion was inequality and growth in relation to the climate crisis – with politicians scrambling for the latter while the former grows. Speaking was Jean Pascal von Ypersele – the IPCC vice-president – who spoke about their latest report.

Taking on board over 140,000 comments from scientists, governments and researchers across the world, the fifth IPCC report was ground-breaking. But it was also interesting that it included the ideas of sustainable development and equity for the first time.

A rich-poor or North-South issue?

A key message from the IPCC was therefore that climate change is a major threat to sustainable development – a vague concept, but one that demands development should not harm communities or the environment. But do politicians really care about this, or is it generally just lip-service?

Von Ypersele also noted that the poor are more vulnerable everywhere, but especially in global south. Therefore, given that the vast majority of CO2 increases have been over the past 50 years from developed countries, it seems that any concept of equity would demand that the majority of emissions reductions therefore come from the global North – historical emissions overwhelmingly stem from here. Von Ypersele – avoiding ‘political’ discussions – of course could not comment on this.

The challenge however is clearly enormous. The IPCC note that we need zero net emissions well before 2100 to ensure warming stays below 2 degrees – the politically-set maximum. Achieving this without radical change appears – and Naomi Klein would argue is ­­– impossible.

Looking at the climate crisis, and despite the rising emissions of countries like China, Brazil and India, it’s hard not to perceive it as a North/South issue. Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and a leading socio-economic academic pointed out that the EU had only stuck to its Kyoto commitments by outsourcing production to the Global South – which it then blames as a contributor to climate change.

Yet if we are to have climate action it must be viewed as fair: after all, agreements perceived as fair have higher probability of acceptance. We need everyone on board.

Driving the surge in production and outsourcing however is arguably the global economic obsession with ‘growth’ – GDP as the prime metric of economic success. Yet De Schutter argued that while it is too simple, it is politically popular for a key reason: it avoids talk of redistribution, i.e. who gets the wealth in society, by masking inequality.

Inequality and climate change – hand in hand

At the heart of the GDP question is this issue. More unequal societies have higher rates of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – buying commodities as mere status symbols in a context of ‘status anxiety’. Not only that, but in more unequal societies, you need far more growth for any of it to reach the poor, which in turn leads to much higher emissions. Yet higher emissions in turn hit the poor again through ‘environmental inequality’ – air pollution, economist and academic Eloi Laurent claimed.

Moreover, in equal societies, sacrifices are more evenly shared, so people are more likely to give up polluting lifestyle choices. In less equal ones, the desire to out-do each other drives unsustainable habits. Yet as Laurent noted, ecological crises themselves aggravate inequality, as poor communities are destroyed while the richest stay relatively protected.

These issues exemplify that climate change is inherently political. Yet scientists have shied away from political questions.

It’s not a one way street however – social science has similarly traditionally ignored climate change, said ETUI director Philippe Pochet.

But there was a poignant comment from Laurent: ‘Without politics and economics, climate change science is just disaster contemplation – spreading depression.’

To actually inspire people to save the climate, there has to be a social justice element. ‘If the transition is not socio-ecological, it will be nothing at all’. Since inequality destroys a sense of collectivism – ‘we’re all in this together’ – the climate fight has to be a radical one.

It was clear from this debate that inequality is a major driver of both destructive growth and (linked to this) runaway climate change. All of which begs the question: why aren’t we fighting inequality and climate change side by side?

This is the challenge for the climate movement: to empower communities to do this.

Radical democracy

Tackling social and economic inequality requires tackling inequalities of power too. Our democracies have been hollowed out by neoliberalism, putting the market above all else. People change their behaviour when they think it’s morally right or matches their values – but also when they are in charge.

There are no top-down solutions to climate change. The freedom to experiment among states is vital, within broad objectives. It’s not just governments though – social movements and social innovations have been wrongly ignored by many involved in discussions around climate change.

Such social movements are making a difference, not just through pressure but through shared, collaborative economics – peer to peer economies, the commons, Transition movements and so on. People buy into their own solutions.

Unions and ‘Socialists’

Where do unions sit within these debates? Sadly, not always comfortably. ETUC Advisor Benjamin Denis raised a worrying case study: the recent European Trade Union Council conference in Poland was picketed by miners opposed to tackling climate change (and by implication their industry). In a country 80-90% powered by coal, perhaps this was understandable. And while the ETUC and Polish confederation did eventually agree a joint statement, it was not without difficulty (and harsh words were exchanged).

Similarly, the Socialists & Democrats group in the EP appears to pay mainly lip service to climate change. Maria João Rodriguez, Vice President of S&D, said simply that job creation is now the most important thing (falsely counterpoising it with the environment), stating ecology was just one of several priorities – ‘but there are financial constraints’. There was little talk of financial restraints when it came to bailing out the banks however…

After the crash

All this brings us back to the crisis. Now is a difficult time for those wanting to tackle climate change. Public debt creates a drive for growth, as debt is measured as a percentage of GDP (if the latter expands, the latter declines relatively). And in its 70th anniversary this year, it doesn’t look like growth as a metric is going anywhere soon, particularly with wages remaining stagnant or declining for the 99%. Signs of nominal growth are a useful distraction for politicians to use when standards of living are falling.

But Greens need to seize the moment and create a positive narrative around climate change – not of doom-mongering, but pointing to the opportunity for radically reshaping our societies in socially and ecologically just ways. ‘We need to decolonise our minds’, said Olivier.

A major issue is boredom: people just produce and consume. Tackling both the crisis and climate change means finding meaning in life outside of economics.

If we don’t? There will be conflict, predicts Laurent – one akin (and not separate to) the labour v capital divide. Since climate change is caused mostly by the richest 20% – not the bottom 80%, these two issues feed off one another in worrying ways.

The ramifications for Europe are enormous. But there is hope. If battling climate change requires making our societies less superficial, less focused on expansion and instead more focused on equality, then that’s something we can all fight for.

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