Report by Fiona Harrington; photos Peter Arkell

A trade union conference on climate change was told that life on earth has never before existed with the levels of CO2 we are experiencing now.

Representatives from many unions heard of the growing effects of global warming including extreme weather events, damage to soil and crops, precipitation changes, heatwaves and catastrophic flooding. There could be more contagious diseases and wild life extinctions, as well as water stress and severe impacts on livestock. And there would be displacement of populations with large number of environmental refugees.

The meeting at the NUT in Central London on Feb 11 was called by the Campaign Against Climate Change, in an attempt to get the trade unions more involved with the existential threat facing humanity and the natural world from the climate crisis.

Joanna Haigh

Joanna Haigh, a physicist and climate scientist based at Imperial College’s Grantham Institute, summarised the latest sobering science on global warming. And she dealt with climate denial which she said was very cleverly disseminated by people who are very well funded. The fact that temperatures don’t follow a constant upward curve but fluctuate and also that degrees of warming are not globally constant either, are used as ‘evidence’ by climate change deniers that global warming is a hoax.

Africa and Asia, she said, are likely to see–in fact are already seeing–some of the worst effects as they are on the frontline of climate change. She called it a ‘planetary emergency.’

Harjit Singh, via Skype, dealt with the issue of displacement in South Asia, including internal displacement. Millions of people are already displaced due to conflicts, he said, and millions more are likely to become environmental refugees.

Forty-six million people have already been displaced in South Asia by extreme weather, while by 2050 fifty million from Bangla Desh alone are likely to be forced from the country as land is lost to the sea. These people will go mainly to India which already is under severe pressure. The impacts on women are likely to be particularly serious, he said.

Diana Holland

Diana Holland of the Unite union said she was “angry and ashamed” at attitudes towards refugees generally and the lack of recognition of the problems of those seeking sanctuary from the effects of climate in their home countries. Climate change refugees needed recognition and help and a massive alliance must be built between workers and refugees in order to address the many related issues, including the need for work.

She cited the example of Scottish solidarity with Chilean refugees after the coup there, when there was a huge amount of assistance of a practical nature given to those who arrived in Scotland with great generosity of spirit. This sort of thing is not happening today to the same extent. The trade union movement must become more adaptable and flexible. There are links in place but they must become stronger as climate change increases.

Asad Rehman, of Friends of the Earth , also discussed the effect of climate change on migration, especially as it becomes more extreme as more tipping points are reached. The possibility of violence and conflicts would become more common as people fled across borders. Crop failure could affect 50% of Africa with a rise of 1.5 degrees. He referred to the Philipines also and the hurricane that caused the deaths of 6,000 people and massive displacement, with most of the 2 million people internally displaced still not able to return.

In all there could be 250 million refugees by 2050–which amounts to one in thirty people. Rich countries will not escape the severe repercussions, from floods, wild fires and drought although they have more resources to cope. Humanity is facing an existential crisis so we have to urgently shift away from dirty energy resources toward renewables.

The use of bio-fuels and carbon offsets are leading to more damage to biodiversity and also to evictions due to land grabs and are not an answer to the climate situation. Palm oil plantations are another damaging factor and even ‘sustainable’ palm oil firms have very poor records on workers` rights and work practices.

The conference went on to address the issue of how to build a trade union response, how to dispel migration myths and why climate is a workers’ issue.

Wilf Sullivan of the TUC Race Relations Committee posed the question of how do we engage with a wider audience? In a climate of political and media hostility towards refugees and immigrants–where politicians such as David Cameron could describe them as ‘swarms’ , where Nigel Farage could unleash his infamous poster and where columnist Katy Hopkins could describe migrants as cockroaches– how could the trade unions push back against this kind of propaganda?

He pointed to some positives such as the tens of thousands of British people who have voiced their opposition to those attitudes and welcomed the arrival of refugees. Society was very polarised he said, and called on the trade unions to fight for a different narrative from the one being put out by the far right and Donald Trump in the U.S.

He pointed out that while people have made the connection between war and refugees, we haven’t yet been hearing the term ‘climate refugees’, so they are likely to be viewed as ‘undeserving’ economic migrants. This needs to change through raising awareness and building a mass anti-racism movement. Union members are well placed to campaign on the issue, he said.

Chidi King of the ITUC continued the theme of climate change as a workers’ issue. Unions must talk to their members about the possibility of loss of jobs due to the closure of carbon heavy industries, because there are no jobs on a dead planet. These will be very difficult conversations to have, he said. A just transition to a future of renewable energy jobs has to be made.

Zita Holbourne, PCS vice-president, spoke on the theme of climate change and inequality. The poorest are already the most unequal and the climate and economic crises have deepened inequality and prejudice. Developing nations have already faced the worst but have contributed the least to climate change.

But even in the richest nation, America, it is the poorest and those of colour who have experienced the worst effects of events like Hurricane Katrina, she said. Where there are refugee camps the aid they sometimes receive, in terms of clothing and food, has been unsuitable. Aid has to be appropriate to people’s cultural and religious sensibilities. Treating people with dignity when aid is being brought is very important, as is involving them in their own solutions. Sometimes black and ethnic minority aid workers are treated with suspicion by the authorities and some have been detained by police. Racial equality has to be campaigned for too as an intertwined issue.

Asad Rehman

Asad Rehman spoke again on making climate refugees welcome. There is a crisis of injustice and a broken economic system. Climate change is the crisis of crises and fans the flames of every other crisis. All advanced countries are projected to overshoot their 1.5 degree targets. Carbon capture and storage have not been proved to work and in any case would need six times the amount of land currently used for crops – and whose land would that be, he asked? Food waste is also a huge and contributing problem as well as GM crops which are no solution. The EU also has its own walls and fences now. Politicians are in reality doing nothing and it seems as if the developed world is clinging onto `our rights’ to keep consuming, while the banks and corporations hold onto their perceived entitlement to keep making profits.

This was followed by a Question and Answer session. The issue of union structures was raised; there were notices of various actions that have been happening; on bringing unions and campaigning groups together; the importance of direct action; on getting union annual conferences to table motions on the rights of climate refugees; on getting onto the school curriculum the issues of climate change and rights;

The conference then broke into five participatory workshops to bring people together in discussion:

1. The Planetary Emergency – building a zero carbon economy on climate jobs and social justice.

2. Building Power – how do we build power in trade unions and communities on the issue of climate refugees?

3. Creating a solidarity narrative around climate, refugees and migration.

4. How do we win a legal protocol for climate refugees and migrant rights.

5. Moving stories: testimonies exploring climate change and migration.

The final full session was on Strategies for Moving Forward using the ideas which came out of the workshops.

The aim of the conference was to bring together the trade union movement, environmental justice groups, anti-racist and migrant organisations to work together to challenge the current demands to build more walls and fences, and to change the status quo in which there is no protection in international law for the victims of global warming and climate change. More gatherings of this nature were proposed and there were calls for the solutions provided to be urgently acted upon.

There was an art exhibition in the main hall by artist and PCS activist and co-chair of BARAC UK, Zita Holbourne, on the theme of displacement.    

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