Skip to main content

Whatever our politics, there is one thing most of us can agree on: this century will be a period of immense economic and social change. Most of us acknowledge that a major contributor, perhaps the major contributor, to that change is the potential for climate breakdown if serious action isn’t urgently taken to keep global heating below 1.5°C. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, we are at “code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”

It’s important to spell this out so we understand what the terms of the debate on climate change are. We are not arguing over whether we should change society or not – that is inevitable. What we are arguing over is how society will change. The do-nothing scenario virtually guarantees that future generations will grow up in a brown, overheated wasteland defined by scarce resources and authoritarian politics.

A Green New Deal offers us a chance to create something good from a reckoning with climate breakdown. It gives us an opportunity to rewild our spectacular natural world, create good, well-paid jobs for people currently working in fossil fuels, as well as our children and grandchildren, and make life more affordable and enjoyable for working people with free or low-cost public transport, cheap energy, clean air, and more green spaces.

There is another option: we could leave the transition to green energy to the free market. In some ways, that is what we are doing. As Dr Nicholas Beuret at Essex University puts it: “While campaigners will be focused on trying to close the [emissions gap], business has already stepped in to fill it.” As the hard right mediasphere of GB News, talkRADIO, and so on ridicules the net zero emissions target as a pipedream, many companies are using it as a business plan. Action – albeit vastly insufficient action – is being taken by the UK’s business community. So what’s the problem with just facilitating that? Why do we need a Green New Deal at all if the markets can do the work for us?

At CLASS we’ve been looking at what happens when there are massive changes to the economy and industry which are not organised in a way to prioritise working people. Our report Work in 2021: A Tale of Two Economies examines the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the labour market and the experiences of the ordinary people that comprise it. We found that the pandemic has exacerbated a set of existing inequalities that had reached crisis point, even before those first pneumonia cases were identified in Wuhan.

We already know what happens when a fossil fuel industry closes without planning for the future of the people working within it

One desk-based, middle class section of society – working predominantly in industries like finance and real estate – has sailed through the pandemic relatively financially unscathed, and even enlarging their personal savings in some cases. Another section – working in sectors like retail and hospitality – have become more precarious and more underpaid, and have been invariably forced to go to work during the height of the pandemic at great risk to their personal safety. The lives of these two groups of people have become so contrasting, that it is like they exist in different countries.

We already know what happens when a fossil fuel industry closes without planning for the future of the people working within it. Britain’s coal mining communities suffered mass unemployment and immiseration after the pits were closed. In 2019, Sheffield Hallam University found that many coal mining towns hadn’t recovered from pit closures a generation later. As more fossil fuel jobs become obsolete, we risk going through this process all over again.

Supporters of Bright Blue will have different ideas about how to organise the economy to CLASS, but what both can surely agree on is that there is a point where vast inequality becomes corrosive to politics, democracy, and the economy. In 2017, Forbes magazine published an article arguing that rising income inequality was a threat to capitalism itself.

In 2019, the Institute for Fiscal Studies released a major report arguing that rising inequality was “a threat not just to capitalism but also to our democratic system.” We’ve certainly seen this at CLASS, in the many conversations we’ve had with working class people. People express alarming resentment towards politics and political leaders, which ultimately fosters a culture of “anti-politics” – fertile ground for charlatans like Donald Trump to win elections.

What’s needed is action to transition to green energy in a planned way that prioritises resolving massive income inequality, so that our democracies, politics, and economies can remain intact. We need a Green New Deal.

Ellie Mae O’Hagan is the Director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS). This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Favourable climate? Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Pexels]