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'There is no future in which we do not transform this civilisation'

Speaking to RUPERT READ, Ian Sinclair discusses the urgency of climate action, the demise of the 1.5°C target, and the pivotal role of trade unions in building a majority against climate change

IN 2023 the Climate Majority Project was set up in Britain to help catalyse a shift towards mass citizen action that is urgently needed to effectively mitigate and adapt to the ongoing climate crisis.

Climate public intellectual Rupert Read, one of the co-founders of the project, talks to the Morning Star about the new book about the initiative, The Climate Majority Project: Setting The Stage For A Mainstream, Urgent Climate Movement, why 1.5°C is dead and the importance of trade unions to climate action.
 
IS: Before we get to the book I want to ask where we are in terms of the likely increase in global temperature (from pre-industrial levels) coming down the track. For example, a November 2023 Guardian headline reads “Deal to keep 1.5°C hopes alive is within reach, says Cop28 president.” What’s your take on this?

RR: 1.5°C was toast already before Cop28. The last year has shown categorically that we’re heading deep into the danger zone. The average global temperature is and has already been for the last year over 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels! The ship has sailed.

I, and my colleagues at the Climate Majority Project (CMP), believe — and we set out the case for why, in the early part of our book — that holding onto the forlorn hope of staying within the official 1.5°C maximum-ceiling-target for global overheating is not only now tragically unrealistic but actively detrimental to organising the kind of adaptation and mitigation we are still in time for.

On “mitigation” (AKA reduction of the greenhouse gases that are the material cause of the climate crisis): until we acknowledge that our efforts to date have palpably failed, we are unlikely to step-change those efforts. But so long as we pretend that staying below 1.5°C is still possible, then we have not made such an acknowledgement.

On “adaptation” (resilience-building, preparedness): acting as if there will be no dramatic changes to our eco-  and socio-political systems, resulting in unreliable food supplies, disruption of travel, etc is reckless.

We will never take adaptation seriously so long as we continue to fantasise staying within the “safety zone,” which is symbolised by the 1.5°C maximum-ceiling-target. And this matters utterly for those who most badly need adaptation to be taken seriously: strikingly, many inhabitants of the global South, and many of the working class here in the global North.

If you care about climate justice, then it’s time to admit the terrible truth, that 1.5°C is gone, and draw the consequences: including crucially a massive injection of cash and tech into not just mitigation, but adaptation, and compensation for loss and damage. Plus a righteous anger at those who have led us down the garden path to this. We have been profoundly let down by our “leaders.” Industrial-growth capitalism is proving itself incapable of being sustained: because we literally cannot go on like this.

If, instead of the fantasy climate politics still prevailing at the Cops [UN Conference of the Parties], we pragmatically appraise the situation we are in, and get serious about making the changes we need from grassroots to policy level, we can still transition to a society based on much sounder priorities.

Where does The Climate Majority Project fit into the larger British climate movement — what are its aims, and methods for achieving these aims?

The CMP exists for the majority of people who care about the climate and ecological crisis but don’t want to glue themselves to anything. Many still feel unsure of how to take action — or whether it counts — because they feel alone with their concerns. Beginning in Britain, the CMP aims to make the climate majority aware of itself and take meaningful, effective climate action wherever they have most leverage.

Through our campaigns, we model the kind of citizen action people can take:

1. Most businesspeople know innovation won’t get us out of relying on fossil fuels in time. The only way to swiftly transition to an economy that we can live with is via better policies and regulation. We are pioneers in bringing this message to green business conferences and organising businesspeople to speak up about their need to be regulated.

We also work actively alongside groups such as Climate Voice in the US, who pursue much the same agenda chiefly by way of seeking to organise employees. There are many firms which are subject to pressure from their employees or potential employees, through “conscious quitting,” through difficulty in recruiting, and much much more.

2. In the near future, education about dangerous man-made climate change will become a part of every student’s curriculum. Teachers who deliver the truth of our predicament are used to feeling the mood in the classroom sinking and are afraid of plunging their students into hopelessness. Our climate courage campaign brings climate scientists, mental health professionals, educators and youth activists to mobilise resources that help address climate distress in the classroom.

3. This year I’ll be leading a campaign on Strategic Adaptation For Emergency Resilience (Safer), intended to bump adaptation way up the collective agenda, in line with what I said in answer to your first question. Right now, Britain is chronically ill-prepared to face the climate shitstorm that will be coming at us; don’t take my word for it, this is the verdict of the government’s own committee on climate change.

No-one is coming to save us. In the next few years, we’re highly likely to experience weather extremes we’ve literally never experienced before. (One is wildfires; these have of course been devastating recently in places such as California, Greece and Australia, but at least those countries have good preparedness for such eventualities. We simply do not.)

The Safer campaign will expose the scandal of our unpreparedness — and help people to organise from the ground up to make ourselves safer against the coming storm for which not one of us — is ready.

We in the CMP have also funded especially promising initiatives which take or sustain various kinds of necessary climate action such as WildCard, MP Watch, General Counsel Sustainability Leaders, Teach the Future, Community Climate Action, and Cadence Roundtable. We function, in other words, not just as a strategic campaigning organisation but as a strategic incubator.

We envision a political culture where the promise of decisive action on mitigation and adaptation becomes crucial to electoral success, and we’re working to transform climate and ecology from polarising issues into unifying drivers of collective action. In the 2030s, rather than running away from climate, Labour and even the Conservatives, as well as the Greens, will be taking the climate concerns of huge numbers of citizens very seriously; if our endeavour to mobilise the #climatemajority comes to fruition.

We only get to have a future if our politics becomes about competing over who can deal with climate breakdown best.

In the book you cite the UN Environment Programme as saying trade unions are in a unique position to help build a climate majority. Can you explain?

The environmental movement has often done a poor job at welcoming working-class people. As a lifelong trade unionist myself, who has been involved in strikes and pay negotiations etc, I know, like many MS readers do, from first-hand experience, the power of a union. But our workplaces have as yet mostly barely begun to face the climate threat. If and when trade unions step into that breach, it would be truly game-changing.

You have co-edited a book which is being published later this year about Transformative Adaptation. What is this?
 

Transformative Adaptation (TrAd for short) embraces this climate and poly-crisis as an opportunity to return to a more natural way of being, that will enable us collectively to survive the future. So it includes a focus on food-growing as something that the majority of us should have access to, rather than just a minuscule mechanised cadre of farmers.

The CMP book already includes some discussion of Transformative Adaptation, because it is a necessary dimension of our project, as my previous answers in this interview have suggested.

There is no future in which we do not transform this civilisation, and adapt to the damage that is baked in, and the worse damage that is coming.

Please join us, in co-creating a future: start by coming to www.climatemajorityproject.com.
 
Co-edited by RR, Liam Kavanagh and Rosie Bell, The Climate Majority Project: Setting The Stage For A Mainstream, Urgent Climate Movement is published by London Publishing Partnership, priced £12.99.

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