Class issues/labour and the climate movement

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The ideas and knowledge shared on this page come from:

1) A discussion between these panelists held on November 2nd, 2022 that was moderated by Jacob Pirro (HUB team member)

2) An instagram live with Lucy Everett, moderated by Sara Adams (HUB team member). Ideas coming from Lucy are highlighted throughout.

3) Gastivists collective and allies 'Spring is Coming' platform [1]


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Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood (he/him) is a Senior Fellow at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a non-partisan, non-profit public policy think tank. His work examines the social and economic dimensions of Canada's transition to a zero-carbon economy, including the need for a just transition for working people and vulnerable communities across the country. He contributes to CCPA's Trade and Investment Research Project and Alternative Federal Budget. Hadrian holds a master's degree in political economy from Carleton University.
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Cynthia Calderon Gambini (he, iel), originally from the Quechua people of Ayacucho in Peru, is a worker at the Logements de l'Envol and a psychosocial worker at the CIUSSS de l'Est-de-l'Île-de-Montréal. He co-founded the Multicultural and Against Exclusion Committee of Cégep Marie-Victorinand continues to be involved in his community, notably through the creation of an Aboriginal space. Within his commitment, he has campaigned for several social causes including climate justice, migration justice, the rights of parents who are students, indigenous struggles as well as the rights of queer people.
Jérémie Lamarche (he/him) is a community organizer at RAPSIM, the Support Network for Single and Homeless People in Montreal. The Network defends the rights of people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless and brings together 104 community organizations dealing with issues of social housing, day and evening centres, street resources, food aid and socio-professional integration. During his studies in social work, Jérémie campaigned with the movement for climate justice as well as for the salary of internships.

Suzanne MacNeil (she/her) is a long-time labor activist based in Kjipuktuk, Unceded Mi'kmaq Territory, also known as Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is currently advocating with Justice for Workers Nova Scotia for a $20 minimum wage and labor standards reforms. Suzanne has held a number of leadership positions, including past chair of the Cape Breton and Halifax-Dartmouth District Labor Councils and as a union training facilitator.

Instagram live speaker

Lucy Everett (she/her) is a Red River Métis and mixed European settler labour and union organizer based in Vancouver BC.

Spring is coming resources

Gastivists collective is a "small team of motivated people, active in a variety of climate and oppression-related struggles in several different countries." [2] They developed the Spring is Coming campaign to address the systems of oppression that created the cost of living/economic crisis and the climate crisis with cohesive messaging.

Defining class and the distinction between classes

Panelists were asked about definitions related to class:

  • There is a belief by some in so-called Canada that we are a classless or largely middle class society.
    • The working class is diversified... does the middle class exists? Who can survive and flourish without selling their labor in exchange for a salary?
  • Social class cannot be reduced to the proletariat/bourgeoisie binary. Homeless people exist, do not sell their labor and are not privileged people.

Labour, economic injustice and poverty are climate justice issues

Income and inflation don't just disappear/appear: our money is redistributed to the ultra-rich

  • The International Energy Agency estimates that fossil fuel costs alone are responsible for 90% of current inflation costs, with gas alone accounting for half. [3] Governments increase interest rates to combat this. When energy costs (and temperatures) rise, the cost of everything else rises.
  • "At a time when consumer energy bills have sky-rocketed by double-digit percentages, it amounts to a major redistribution of wealth from citizens to corporations." -Pascoe Sabido, EUObserver [4]
  • Fossil fuel CEO's profits doubled from 2021-2022 [5] , while energy prices rose faster than they have in 40 years. [6]

Poverty increases vulnerability to the climate crisis

  • The climate crisis has a very significant impact on marginalized (BIPOC, disabled, trans, queer etc) people; the groups that also are the least responsible for the climate crisis, and also who are most vulnerable to poverty.
  • Poor neighborhoods and communities tend to receive less climate adaptation efforts from their local and national governments. (I.e. studies have shown that areas affected by poverty and high social vulnerability are more likely to be abandoned in the context of sea level rising). [7]
  • Government climate initiatives are also often inaccessible to those living in poverty. For example, the liberal's promise of rebates on electric cars is not accessible if you can't afford to purchase one in the first place. [8]  
  • Poverty increases vulnerability to extreme temperatures. For example, for those who are housed, while there are minimum temperature requirements for rentals there are not maximum requirements. [9] This increases vulnerability to heat-related health effects. For those who are unhoused, both extreme heat and extreme cold put lives at risk. 
  • Those without access to vehicles or the funds to pay are vulnerable to being left behind when disaster strikes, as was evident in the 2023 wildfires when thousands of folks without housing and/or living in poverty in Yellowknife were left vulnerable. They were the last to be evacuated. [10]
Climate migrants are at risk of poor jobs and poverty
  • Extreme weather events and massive resource extraction are increasing the migration of people seeking to survive. Climate migrants have less employment options in their new city, and are at a high risk of poverty, houselessness and food insecurity. [11]

There can be no climate justice without addressing immediate survival needs

  • The climate crisis is often experienced less immediately than other daily challenges, particularly among people in precarious situations. They must struggle on a daily basis to meet their basic needs (food security, housing, etc.) Collective experiences of oppression cause a person to have less time/energy to worry about the climate crisis.
  • 2022 saw open protests over food and fuel prices in half the world’s countries, including where the climate crisis presents high vulnerability. [12]

These crises are rooted in the same systems of oppression

  • Our exploitative economic system was built on, and continues to be powered by, fossil fuels.
  • Fossil fuel companies are given handouts of public money and tax incentives that are not offered to the working class majority. The same goes for billionaires in other industries. E.g. The EU gives 56 billion euros in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry each year. [13] This is compared to the 17.5 billion euros the EU gives to support climate impacted European regions through their Just Transition Fund. [14]  
  • Taxing corporate profits to fund public infrastructure and loss and damage would address these intersecting crises. 
Wealthy industries control decision makers
  • Oil and gas lobbyists and other lobbyists from wealthy industries have access to government decision-making, including in International bodies. This is why critical decisions on tax, energy infrastructure, and regulation put industry above the interests of millions of people at risk of poverty. [15]
      • The President of COP 28 (the UN climate conference) is an fossil fuel executive, and more fossil fuel lobbyists registered for COP 27 than any other single delegation. [16]
  • Public money is often used to fund fossil fuel infrastructure, the profits of which are not circulated back to the public.
Necessities for life should be publicly owned
  • This includes ownership over our energy, food and transit systems, among others.
  • Public ownership keeps money in communities, rather than lining the pockets of billionaires.
The Global South is less able to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis due to the debt crisis caused by the Global North
  • Economic disparities exist between countries; some are better off by their domination over others. This means that there are disparities in the capacities of countries to prioritize the climate crisis and to respond to it by building the right infrastructure and building the resilience of communities.
  • See our definitions page on the Global South for more.
Work in climate action can be precarious
  • Many people working in non-governmental organizations and climate researcher do not receive a living wage.
  • Jobs in a renewable, regenerative economy would not be temporary, as is the case for many jobs in the fossil fuel industry. 

Our main goal should not be to unite the working class and the environmentalists, but above all to show the links between the two realities.

Talking about class issues within the climate movement

Limited scope of critique
The critique of the capitalist class in the climate movement rarely strays from the critique of fossil fuel companies. There is a relative lack of familiarity and discomfort in doing this.
  • COVID was a wake up call for class consciousness; whose labour is necessary for society to function? It’s working class people. This was an opportunity for leveraging critique that the labour movement took advantage of.
Jobs in the fossil industry

Communities dependent on fossil fuels are worried about not being considered in a transition. They fear losing their jobs, the way they support their families.

  • The Green New Deal includes those affected by a transition in the plan.

The government should be held accountable, not the people.

  • A carbon tax is accepted by the fossil industry because it does not threaten the power of the industry.

There must be solidarity between labour/union struggles and struggles for climate justice.

  • Solidarity is a strategic necessity. It's only through cross-sector solidarity that enough working class power will be built, and have a shot at changing our capitalist reality. Growth of the labour movement is inevitable. This isn't necessarily the case for the climate movement.
    • We must fight against extractivism without blaming the individuals who work in these industries.
    • It will be necessary collectively to remodel the means of production to find an alternative way of living.

    How do we build a more just future?

    Empower impacted voices

    In the public policy community and in decision-making spaces, several consultations have been initiated. They lack mechanisms to bring marginalized voices to the table. Many policies focus on solutions for the wealthy without considering the working class (e.g. rebates for home upgrades and electric cars).

    Make spaces more accessible 

    The climate justice movement should make its spaces accessible to those most in need. For example, by offering free food and babysitting services at events, meetings and actions.

    Building solidarity between movements
    Social change comes from people confronting corporations and demanding change; not from governments themselves or international conferences. We must unite social struggles and counter the discourse of "us vs. them".
  • Most of us don’t work in environmental jobs. Most of us work on the side. If you don’t work at a union job, look at organizing your workplace. This is key to building worker’s solidarity towards climate justice.
  • See the page on the convergence of struggles for more.
    Union support Unions in so-called Canada are mostly aligned with climate movements on the issue of the transition away from fossil fuels. This transition has government support and a social protection system for workers in transition.
    • Public sector unions can be reached out to outside of strike moments. This is less likely for private sector unions, but still, see how you can support them. Ask them how you can support their struggles. This will create space for other conversations to occur, but you have to build relationships first before bringing in your own concerns.
    • Show up to picket lines to show solidarity. These are intersectional issues.

    What the climate movement can learn from the labour movement

    Building coalitions and working with people we don't agree with, rather than driving people further right

    ”If I had to pick one thing that the climate movement can learn from labour, and should learn from labour, it’s this.”

  • The climate movement understands this at a theoretical level, but is struggling to put this into practice.
  • You have to be able to organize with people who hold different opinions than you. You have to be able to defend them even when they have opinions that make you deeply uncomfortable. We need to have conversations about these disagreements, but this needs to be internal.
  • In practice, people aren’t working with those who have ‘problematic’ views. There's a line for keeping people safe, and not excluding people we disagree with.
  • Withholding social community is violence, and it’s unproductive. There are people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn; it’s elitist to exclude these people from our spaces.
  • The reality of the world we live in, is that there are people who have problematic views on gender, race, immigrants etc. We need to struggle with these ideas in a way that doesn’t drive people further right, including pushing people in the middle away. They see us as exclusionary.
  • Suggested read for more on this: We will not cancel us by Adrienne Maree Brown.
    Leave space for reflection spend time on building solidarity

    We have to think long term by choosing our battles, making strategic compromises and balancing patience and urgency.

    • Righteous fascists are very adept at manipulating fears and perpetuating damaging discourse. Countering these narratives and fighting for justice will require solidarity.
    Focusing energy on the right targets, and on supporting people to learn, rather than cancelling them

    • We should call in people who are being harmful, and ensure it's in a loving way. Don’t shun them from our circles. This work is very important for allies, so it’s not just marginalized people doing this. It’s harder when you’re directly facing violence. Being aggressive pushes people further right.
    • The climate movement is quite elitist. Shaming people for individual things like driving a car, using individual use plastic etc is so harmful. You have no idea if people need those for disability reasons, for affordability etc. We need to focus our efforts on the right targets.
    Make sure our message meets people's needs
    The only way our message will reach people is if it meets their needs; there are people who do not feel seen or heard by the movement for climate justice.
    • People get righteously angry about how no one else is doing anything. E.g. why does no one care to show up to meetings, why don’t people care about this? But people don’t have time to come to meetings. People are struggling to put food on the table. Maybe what we’re doing isn’t relevant to them. We aren’t fighting the fights that matter to people. We need to frame our message in a way that includes their needs.

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    7. Martinich, J., Neumann, J., Ludwig, L., & Jantarasami, L. (2013). Risks of sea level rise to disadvantaged communities in the United States. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 18, 169-185.
    11. Ahsan, R. (2019). Climate-induced migration: Impacts on social structures and justice in Bangladesh. South Asia Research, 39(2), 184-201.