An Urgent Transition

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We live under an economic system which encourages consumption on an industrial scale and the consequences of climate change will be endured by future generations. What can we as activists do to affect change here in Scotland? Pete Cannell and Brian Parkin write ahead of this Saturday’s Just Transitions conference in Edinburgh about the steps we need to be taking…

We face an existential threat. Unless there’s a rapid transition to a low/no carbon economy there will be catastrophic climate change. The recent UN Climate report underlined how little time we have. In years to come, our children and grand children may ask why, when the danger, was clear, there was no mass movement to drive the change that’s required.

The UN report, like government policies around the world, assumes the market will adapt to meet carbon reduction targets. However, growth in solar and wind energy production is taking place alongside a massive expansion in the use of coal. It’s now certain if we rely on market forces, driven as they are by the maximisation of profit, the targets will not be met. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, already higher than it has been for 10 million years will continue to grow and average temperatures will continue to rise.

But it’s also clear if we drop the reliance on the market it’s possible to make the transition to a low carbon economy in a way that will mitigate the future effects of climate change and provide immediate benefits for most of the world’s population. The Campaign Against Climate Change has developed a costed blueprint for transition at a UK level and the notion of a Just Transition is gaining traction around the world.

On Saturday, a one-day conference in Edinburgh will look at how we can take the urgent steps needed for a Just Transition in Scotland. We start with some real advantages and some major challenges. Scotland as a ‘region’ of the UK is a distinct geo-political entity. It has a significantly higher proportion of its adult workforce in industrial employment.

Core industrial sectors such as shipbuilding, heavy mechanical (and electrical) engineering and construction have retained a ‘critical mass’ and skill content of their workforces and have been able to keep pace with world class technological developments. Long-term involvement in North Sea oil and gas has developed the most advanced marine engineering and process systems base in the world. This is a major technological asset with massive spin-off and diversification potential. Scotland has by far the greatest share of the UK’s potential wave and tidal stream renewable energy resources (about 75%) as well as about half of the useable onshore and offshore wind.

It’s important that energy policy, the creation of a state run energy company and the creation of a green investment bank are on the Scottish Government agenda. However, the initial proposals for these essential components of a strategy for transition fall far short of the scale and ambition that’s required. There also seems to be little recognition of a looming energy crisis. In terms of electrical capacity and distribution, Scotland is rapidly slipping from its pre-electricity privatisation situation (1989) of a 50% over-capacity with interconnector ‘exports’ to England and Wales and Northern Ireland, to one of sharp capacity decline and a possible import dependency by 2025.

ScotE3, the organisers of the conference argue that to build the momentum required for a Just Transition a full and democratic debate is needed to tackle hard political questions. Climate change in the abstract is terrifying. But recognition of the threat can’t be confined to committed environmental activists. If you’re scared and feel powerless then it’s very unlikely you will join their ranks. Indeed anger at inequality and fear for the future is precisely the terrain on which the alt right is flourishing.

The relatively small-scale initiatives to tackle climate change that are currently in place or planned will neither be effective nor will they inspire confidence. However, large scale investment that guarantees job security (and paid retraining if required) for engineering workers in the construction and defence sectors as the switch is made to climate jobs would be hugely popular in these sectors which are rife with rotten agency staffing. A programme of home insulation for all would stop the illness and anxiety caused by the high levels of fuel poverty that exist across Scotland but disproportionately impact old and poorer people in rural areas.

These are big steps and necessary steps. At the conference we’ll see film from REEL News showing how working class communities in the US are organising for a Just Transition and there will be speakers from Campaign Against Climate Change, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and the defence and construction sectors. However, the most important part of the conference will involve thinking about how we win the case for urgent and large-scale action. The manifesto or action plan produced will be shared across the labour movement and community groups as an open document for discussion and amendment. Come along and join us – it’s high time for a mass movement to articulate a positive alternative vision for the future.

For more information go to the ScotE3 Employment, Energy and Environment website


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