“The climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism”: Chris Saltmarsh interview
by Ian Sinclair
11 March 2022
Published at the end of last year, Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice is the first book from Chris Saltmarsh, socialist climate campaigner and the co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.
With top climate scientist James Hansen recently noting ‘the 1.5°C target certainly will be exceeded, and the world will almost certainly blow through the 2°C ceiling” Ian Sinclair asked Saltmarsh about capitalism and the climate crisis, and the role played by established NGOS and new grassroots campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes.
Ian Sinclair: Your analysis in the book is unashamedly anti-capitalist. Why?
Chris Saltmarsh: It’s really clear to me that the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism. We have an economic system that puts profit before all else. Fossil fuel companies have known since the 1970s or 1980s that their business model is driving global heating. Yet they continue to extract and burn oil, gas and coal because frankly there aren’t many other resources that generate such high returns. Most of these companies have invested millions in acquiring reserves and developing technologies. Even if there is money to be made in generating renewable energy, within capitalism it doesn’t make business sense for these companies to not extract every last drop of fossil fuels.
The book is anti-capitalist because, while there’s a lot of moralising that goes on in the climate movement, its not really any individuals’ fault. Not my fault, your grandma’s or even really fossil fuel company CEOs. We all play by the rules of the system and if Shell’s CEO suddenly became enlightened and wanted to put a stop to it he’d be replaced very quickly. Fundamentally, if we don’t have an anti-capitalist analysis of the climate crisis then we’ll remain stuck in partial solutions that won’t get to the heart of the problem.
IS: You are critical of what you call the “environmental NGO industry”. Surely green NGOs like World Wide Fund for Nature, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace do valuable work?
I’m critical of these NGOs because although they are seen (by themselves and others) as the leadership of the climate movement, they operate within really significant constraints. Politically, there is a really strong ideology of liberalism which runs through these organisations. This means they’re generally unprepared to take an anti-capitalist – let alone socialist – analysis of climate change. It means they never support necessary measures like expanding public ownership and democracy in the economy. Organisationally, they are generally structured like corporations. They have an unaccountable and overpaid CEO or director, a bloated middle-management, and under-paid underlings who do most of the work with no say. These organisations aren’t democracies internally, and they certainly aren’t building a democratic mass climate movement.
We should understand this, though, as being a broadly structural problem. As charities they’re legally limited in what they can do by government. That they’re funded either by relatively conservative supporters or the philanthropic arm of capital (grants from trust and foundations) is a major source of political moderation. Sure, some of the work they do is useful, although a lot is actively harmful to our movement such as focusing on individual behaviour change. There is definitely a role for some of these organisations to play, but they need to understand their own limitations and contribute to the wider movement with more humility.
IS: 2019 saw an explosion of climate activism in the UK, and around the world, with Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes. What is your assessment of the impact of these two movements in the UK?
CS: My view is that these two movements, along with campaigns for a Green New Deal, emerged as responses to the same moment. In the summer of 2018, we saw really stark extreme weather like wildfires; an IPCC [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report warning we only had 12 years left to save the planet; and another report warning of a ‘hothouse earth’. They effectively channelled a latent anxiety and strong desire for proper climate action among the public.
I think both were effective at mobilising previously inactivated constituencies of people. The youth strikes obviously did this with school children. I thought this was particularly powerful as one of my criticisms of the wider climate movement is that it doesn’t really understand what its base is. Is it workers? Is it urban climate-conscious liberals? Too often we try to mobilise everyone and end up with nobody. Others should learn from the youth strikes organising a defined group. XR [Extinction Rebellion] did similar with older people, I think. Overall, their major impact was to push climate further up the political agenda and keep it there. This is valuable, of course, but also limited. It was essentially enhanced awareness raising. The lack of politics and demands, particularly from XR, allowed for elite co-option and unfortunately a dissipation of what became relatively short-lived energy.
IS: You argue the state is the only political form presently capable of transforming the economy and society in the short timescale the climate crisis requires, devoting a chapter of the book to the concept of a Green New Deal, which the 2019 Labour Party conference endorsed. What would a Green New Deal entail?
CS: A Green New Deal is broadly a state-programme of investment, regulation and economic transformation with the dual aims of rapid decarbonisation and achieving economic justice. There are different interpretations from different political positions. In the book, I make the case for a socialist Green New Deal which has expanding public ownership of the economy at the heart. Crucially, a Green New Deal must also be serious about a proper just transition to clean energy. This means guaranteeing jobs for all workers in polluting industries, repealing all anti-trade union laws, and spreading industrial economy across sectors.
In terms of what a Green New Deal would mean for everyday life, for me it’s about making the greenest option the cheapest and easiest in every corner of life. Transport, for example, would mean a shift from polluting private cars to low-carbon public transport that’s cheap or free, accessible and quick. Housing would mean warm homes for all alongside a massive expansion of council housing. Ultimately, its about a green transition that improves our lives at the same time. Perhaps most importantly, a socialist Green New Deal doesn’t just seek these transformations within the borders of one country, but internationally too.
IS: Where do you think the UK climate movement, and the broader left, should go from here?
CS: I think the climate movement and the Left need to have a realistic assessment of where we are. The Tories are still in power and emissions are rising. We also need a realistic strategy for achieving a Green New Deal. There are a few pre-conditions for it. First, electing a socialist government and capturing state power more widely. Second, having a radical and militant trade union movement taking industrial action for climate and economic justice. Third, a radical mass democratic climate movement mobilising millions of people on the streets and to take direct-action.
On all counts, we’re not where we need to be. The climate-left needs to divide our energies between working to re-capture the Labour Party as the most viable vehicle for a socialist government in the UK and agitating for it to have ambitious Green New Deal policies. We also need to work to re-empower our trade unions by organising our workplaces and building confidence and militancy. We can connect fights over pay and conditions to climate where relevant, and otherwise work internally to create common-sense support for a Green New Deal and a just transition among union members. We also need dozens of offshoots of youth strikes and XR, mobilising new constituencies and cohering around demands for a socialist Green New Deal.
Burnt is published by Pluto Press, priced £9.99. Follow Chris on Twitter @Chris_Saltmarsh.