The climate protest movement must not alienate Britain’s working classes

(1 Oct 2019) Rooting calls for action in the reality of people’s lives is vital if the likes of Extinction Rebellion are not to fuel further division.

Next week thousands of Extinction Rebellion protesters will descend on Westminster, the latest example of direct action in a year when committed women, men and children across the world have pushed climate change to the top of the global agenda, where it belongs. Although London will again be the focal point, the movement mustn’t overlook the committed activists in places such as Bolton, Wigan, and Sunderland who are also spreading the message across the country. For the climate movement to succeed we have to build a broad coalition that covers our nation’s towns as well as our cities, and reaches out across class divides.

Calls for individual action can’t just be modelled on the lifestyles of middle-class city dwellers. Telling people to get out of their cars can’t be the solution in those parts of the country where decades of chronic underinvestment have left us without public transport. In towns such as Wigan, jobs have disappeared as investment flowed into cities, creating lengthy commutes on public transport for most working-age people. Trains are overcrowded, deeply unreliable and ceased to function entirely for a large part of last year, while the buses are few and far between, and often more expensive than getting a taxi. Demanding people abandon their cars isn’t realistic if the alternative is a round trip of 42 miles a day on foot or by bike, just to get to work. Campaigns to tackle climate change need to link up with campaigns for better transport and fairer funding for it, particularly for buses.

Rooting calls for action in the reality of people’s lives is essential if the battle against climate change is not to become a battle against each other. It is galling to be lectured on not eating meat when you and your family are struggling to get by and relying on help from friends and local food banks. It isn’t fair to ask families to forfeit the one foreign flight they have saved for all year, while we have global corporations whose business models rely on frequent air travel and governments that refuse to tax them for it.

Climate activists must also rethink their language. Phrases such as “dirty coal” are profoundly condescending to communities in which generation after generation did dangerous, backbreaking work down the mines to build the country’s wealth and influence at great cost to themselves; pneumoconiosis victims are still fighting for justice decades after the mines closed. We are owed new clean energy jobs, and the infrastructure to create them. In Wigan and Barnsley, the desire for good jobs that provide a sense of purpose is palpable. Positive movements for change, such as the One Million Climate Jobs trade union campaign, provide an antidote to the stark warnings about climate scenarios that often leave people feeling powerless to act.

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, 1 Oct 2019: The climate protest movement must not alienate Britain’s working classes