Jeremy Corbyn Speech on Climate Crisis: Now Is Not the Time for Small Steps

December 11, 2015
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Jeremy Corbyn

U.K. Labour leader and British opposition leader.

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed hundreds of climate activists and trade unionists in Paris on Monday at an event organized by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.

"We’ve taken the responsibility on ourselves to do something here and now–to stop the destruction of the world’s environment, to bring people together to prevent that happening, and above all, to bring people together not through fear, but through hope, through imagination, through optimism," Corbyn said. "Unleash the optimism, unleash the imagination, unleash the hope. That is the way forward."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JEREMY CORBYN: Sean, thank you very much. Thanks for inviting me here tonight, and thanks for all the work that you do in the International Program for Labor, Climate and the Environment. I am a trade unionist. I was formerly an organizer in a trade union. And I’m very proud to be a member of a union and proud of the close relationship between my party, the Labour Party, and organized labor in Britain. I believe that is a strength, not a weakness, not an embarrassment. It’s fundamental to what we believe in.

And the message of Trade Unions for Energy and Democracy is powerful and compelling. I want to hold this document up. It’s called "One Million Climate Jobs," produced last year in Britain, largely by trade union work, but by others, as well, and points out that a different energy policy in Britain, a more sustainable energy policy in Britain, one that would help the issues that we face on a global level, would actually be an economic generator, not a problem. It’s a very good document. I urge you all to have a look at it and to read it.

I want to start this evening, if I may, with two quotes. The first is from Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, fantastic environmental campaigner and socialist, who said this—and I quote: "Humankind is capable of saving the Earth only if we recover the principles of solidarity, complementarity and harmony with nature"—a very important philosophical message to put across. The second quote might be surprising for its source from you, as I’m going to give it to you, because it’s not one of the world’s most poetic institutions—namely, the International Monetary Fund. They said human fortunes will "evaporate like water under a relentless sun" if climate change is not checked soon.

So I believe we have to look at this issue in a number of ways—first of all, in our imagination. And the problem is one of our limits of our own imagination. This does not mean that the issue can only be solved through our imaginations, but it does mean it cannot be solved unless we open up our imagination and our minds, and begin to think, talk and act as if we really cared about the future of this planet and all the generations that will come long after we’ve gone.

So I’m going to put to the meeting tonight three questions. All of them is to ask us to consider the basic questions of our shared existence on this planet.

The first: What will the future look like if we continue as we are? It’s a big question that is increasingly being asked and is being asked here in Paris more and more, particularly by the civil society groups all around the big conference. If we continue our economic development unchanged, if fossil fuels continue to be the lifeblood of our economy, there’s a 50 percent probability that the world will warm by 6 or 7 degrees over the next century. The consequences of warming of that magnitude are almost beyond our imagination. Let’s think what a world warmed by 2 or 3 degrees might look like. It would be a world with hostile climate, powerful storms, raging floods and prolonged droughts. I’ve seen the consequence of this with my own eyes in many places I’ve been to. I was first elected to Parliament in 1983. And during that time—and I take no personal responsibility for it—things have got considerably worse all around the world—violent flooding and more frequent hurricanes all over the world; Hurricane Katrina, which wrecked New Orleans, and I know Naomi experienced that firsthand; and I’ve seen with my own eyes what’s happening in North Africa, in Chile, in the Middle East and Australia, getting drier, with millions more people finding it difficult to get water or to sustain the agriculture on which their communities have lived.

Just this week, today in Britain, there are furious floods. The towns in the northwest of Cockermouth, Keswick and Carlisle are being flooded yet again, and much damage has been done. Houses have been lost. Businesses have been lost. And people are put at serious risk. These floods, these storms are consistent with scientific warnings of the effect of global warming of unpredictable storms that will happen in Britain, as indeed will happen in many other parts of the world. Last year, the British prime minister promised that there was—money is no object in dealing with flooding—itself is a consequence, I believe, of the destruction of our environment. But this has proved to be a false promise. Last year, our government slashed spending on flood defenses and looks like it might do that again. It’s failed to deliver on those promises. We achieved a consensus in my party with the—with many, on how we dealt with the floods after 2007.

But I think we should just pause for one moment to recognize that when a major disaster happens anywhere in the world—a fire, an earthquake, a typhoon, a tsunami or flooding and unpredictable storms—who helps people? Who helps support people? Who helps to put out the fires, pump out the homes and all the other things? It’s the firefighters, the police, the emergency services, and sometimes the armed forces. In other words, it is the public sector workers who are actually there to help out. Privatization of public services is not a solution to these issues.

But this world is also a world of war. The Institute of Strategic Studies at UNICEF has shown that rising temperatures will fuel conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. If humans suck their planet dry, they will end up with no choice but to fight. And above all, it will be a war that people will suffer if climate change is not addressed with ambition and imagination. We cannot just allow the rich and the powerful to get hold of all the world’s natural resources and further impoverish the poorest because of climate change, because of environmental destruction.

If this goes on, it’s going to be a world where millions become refugees, forced to leave their homes to try and seek a survival and hopefully, from their point of view, a better life, many unsafe in their own homes through flooding, drought or war. Others will seek to escape just because they can no longer survive. These issues have to be addressed. They’re not solved by barbed wire fences around the richest countries and the richest continents of the world. They’re solved by addressing the issues that cause the refugee flow in the first place. Don’t blame the victims.

If we imagine this world is not a remote possibility, I ask to think again. And I ask the leaders that are here in Paris and beyond to think very carefully about what they’re doing this week, what decisions they come to at the end of the week, and whether or not we are going to make progress towards a more sustainable planet, or are we going to go on continuing to go in the wrong direction.

This affects other things, as well, and it’s quite interesting looking at the words of bankers and financial institutions. I mentioned the IMF a moment ago. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned—I quote—"Once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late."

We’ve been warned also about destruction of our ecosystem. Industrial farming of single crops in very large parts of the world, some of which has been encouraged by IMF and other programs, destroys biodiversity. In the U.S.A., water tables are falling. Bees are being wiped out because of chemical-intensive farming. And indeed, in my own country, in Britain, there is a crisis of the bee population and a crisis in many other places. It is a symbol of what we’re doing to destroy biodiversity that bee populations are so rapidly declining in so many parts of the world. We can’t survive without insects. We can’t survive without bees. We can’t survive without defending, supporting and improving the levels of biodiversity, particularly in areas of mono-agriculture.

Stores of carbon further—further fueling global warming, with all its devastating consequences, are very, very important. If we allow those carbon storage—the natural carbon storage of forests to be destroyed, then we all suffer. The whole planet suffers. And so it is a matter of defending forests, and defending it to the best of our ability, but also expanding tree cover the world over.

A person who inspired me much in my life has been Chico Mendes, who found his work difficult as he was trying to protect the Amazon rainforest. He knew the Amazon rainforest was valuable, not only of its own right, because it was essential to tackling the warming of our planet. And he was very thoughtful towards the end of his life. He said this: "At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity itself." What a brave man. What brilliant words he spoke at that time.

And that’s what we’re doing here today in Paris. We’re learning from Chico Mendes. We want governments, trade unionists, activists and other people to join with us, that fight to save humanity from a world of war, flooding and drought, which is actually very close and getting closer. We have to apply our minds to the problems of climate change. We must not only use our imagination to paint the world we do not want, even if we are perilously close to it. We also must use our imagination to address the world we want to create. We are not doom merchants. We are people saying there is a future, there is a good future, but if we carry on as we are, that future will not be available. We need to bring people with us, which leads me to my second question: What do we want the future to look like?

In short, me, you, I’m sure, want a more equal world, a more just world, a world in which people can breathe clean air and drink clean water, a world of breathtaking diversity of natural life is preserved. There are species being made extinct now whose existence we hardly know of. There are unknown species of fish at the bottom of the ocean that are being destroyed without ever being named by humankind and by human scientists. A world in which people are not forced to leave their homes through war or natural disasters. A world of peace and security. These things are possible, but we have to bend ourselves to achieve it.

In that world, all of the energy we produce will come from renewable sources. All of our public transport will be run on renewable energy. All of our homes and buildings will be energy-efficient. It’s a world where businesses are products and services that we don’t even know of yet. They’re doing so with lower energy costs and lower operating costs. It’s a question of mentality, of efficiency, of what our society is about. The air will be cleaner. Our society will not be one in which you live—where you live is based on the quality of the air you breathe. Everybody will have clean air. That world is not beyond our reach. But the sheer scale of it must not dent our optimism. By shaping it so is an enormous responsibility that no leader anywhere deserves the name unless they’re doing everything in their power to attain it. We need people—leaders in communities, members of communities, activists all over—to speak out, with imagination, with hope, with determination, to achieve that kind of thing.

Ask again what governments can do. We want a world where governments shape rules which promote public goods, where governments protect the ultimate public good of a stable climate, in which humanity can survive and prosper. To do that, we need a state, a government, that invests, an entrepreneurial state which does not wage war with markets, but shapes them. All too often we forget that it is rules set out by the state which allows markets to flourish. We need to think very carefully about that and the effect that has on the environment. We can and we should shape the goods on our marketplace, so we can start making the right choices for our future. We need carbon budgeting to be the centerpiece of trade and commerce, including in trade treaties and trade agreements. That budgeting must have reducing thresholds that take the planet back to sustainable levels of carbon dioxide emissions. The carbon that aviation and shipping produce must be taxed. They must pay their full share of the carbon footprints they carry. As Naomi so often emphasized, governments have a duty to achieve and secure our common good. There is no greater common good than preserving the natural world on which we depend. It’s something everyone can do.

But governments should not be the only actors on the stage. They cannot achieve the world we want alone. It’s not just a question of demanding things of others. It’s what we do ourself. It’s all of us who makes those things. So that means being confident of technology, not being frightened of technology, but using technology, using technology to be more efficient in energy, more efficient in production, more efficient in the services that we want. We have amazing powers of connectivity amongst humankind, and it’s got better through Internet, got better through computers. That’s not a problem. That’s a potential resource for the future, where people can share ideas and share experiences and share technology.

We want to form a coalition of the willing, a coalition of those willing to live within the Earth’s sustainable limits. We want to start by democratizing energy. Germany is a good example on this. In seven years, Germany has turned an energy market dominated by just four big corporations into one in which 2 million citizens are suppliers, and 190 towns and cities taking their local grids into democratic, social ownership. A democratization of energy creates new and secure jobs for the many. Three-quarters of all jobs in Germany’s energy transition are now involved in turning homes into energy zero buildings. In a perfect circle, clean air, clean environment, democracy in the way you produce it, and more jobs and more development as a result of creating a better, cleaner, safer environment—that, surely, is the world that we want to live in.

In Britain, we have 50 of our local authorities. All, I’m proud to say, Labour-run, have pledged to eradicate carbon emissions in their areas, coordinated by Lisa Nandy, our shadowy energy and climate change secretary of state, who’s here tonight joining in this meeting and this debate, and is attending the conference on climate change at the present time. Cities, big city in the Midlands like Nottingham, local government taking control over the generation of energy. There are opportunities that renewables offer to democratize the control and generation of energy. When you democratize control and development of anything, you unlock people’s imagination and their spirit, and an awful lot of other things become possible as a result of that. Together, we achieve a lot. If we live in a world of blame culture, we don’t achieve anything else except looking for somebody else to blame for the next problem that comes along. In a world that we want, ordinary people, activists, trade unionists will have the power to shape that future, not just through government, but through the democracy that I’m talking about.

So I turn now to the third question I want to put to you: How do we get there, to this world which is sustainable, that does defend and protect our environment, that does understand the limits of what we do? A just transition for workers is the first point, because climate change has to address the fact we—we, as activists in climate change, have to address the fact that the effects of it don’t fall evenly on everybody. Workers tend to suffer from it. The poorest suffer the most. The most desperately poor suffer the most. So, we have to look at the fault lines that exist across the world, and in creating a cleaner economy, jobs must not be hacked, and working families must not be penalized as a result of it. That requires an interventionist approach by government that is prepared to protect the living standards of people as they convert to a more—excuse me, a more sustainable economy. Thank you very much. Is it clean, sustainable water? How do you know? But it isn’t just about rhetoric. A greener world can also be a more just, more equal and a much fairer world.

We must therefore show that to address climate change, we also have to address global inequality. Defeating the menace of global warming will not only improve the prospects of our children and grandchildren, but improve our lives here and now. That inequality is, at one level, global—yes, obviously—but it’s also within nation states, as well. The nation states contain the greatest inequality within them, and the poorest nations to the richest nations have the most grotesque levels of inequality. Inequality is a waste of human resources. Inequality is fundamentally wrong. And inequality also means that a minority of rich people are able to consume the most, damage the environment the most, while the very poorest in the poorest parts of the world do the least environmental damage but suffer the most of the consequences of flooding and rising sea levels.

So we have to be inclusive in environmental politics of working people organized through trade unions. This is as much a trade union and a working-class issue as any other issue that we face in our lives. So we must used technology to improve things. By using good technology, we can create well-paid and secure jobs for the future. We can develop industries that don’t pollute. And we can also protect those that are in industries that are polluting, as they transit towards a more sustainable future. Don’t allow workers to be blamed for pollution. Sort it out and recognize those that cause the pollution are those that have actually been making the most money out of it for a very long time.

Governments must invest in the skills and technologies we need to take advantage of the millions of new jobs that a low-carbon sector can create. Unfortunately, my own government is Britain, and Britain is taking this backwards. They don’t understand the huge industrial and economic opportunities that low-carbon sectors offer. I’ll give you a few examples. They’ve cut support for the solar and onshore wind sectors. They’ve scrapped the Green Deal, which was used to insulate homes throughout the country. They’ve failed to invest in carbon capture storage. And they continue to subsidize dirty diesel generators and give new tax breaks to the oil and gas industry. They do not understand that investment and borrowing can enable future generations to contribute to the upfront costs of shaping a fairer and greener world. This is the perfect moment to invest, a time when interest rates are low, even by any commercial standard, and the cost of borrowing is as low as it’s ever been. Instead, we should therefore be cutting emissions in Britain by 100 percent, not just 80 percent, by 2050. We should commit to eradicating coal from our energy mix by the early 2020s. We should reverse the government’s attack on feed-in tariffs to protect and promote solar industry. This is something that labor introduced in the past, which was a huge benefit to expanding the use of PV cells throughout the whole country.

I welcome an open and honest engagement here in Paris between the U.S.A. and China. We need national legislators to understand that they have a duty to ensure that agreements made in Paris, if they are good agreements, are actually carried out through national legislation. There is a bit of a history here of governments turning up at international climate talks, making agreements, then going back and not bothering to put them through their own national parliament, so the agreements actually become legally quite meaningless. We’ve got to see this thing through. That’s what civil society is there for. My country must pay its fair share of climate finance to developing countries. The 100 billion fund has to be achieved, even if it’s going to be strongly opposed by some. The acknowledgment that loss and damage from climate change has brought for others as they leapfrog over an economy driven by fossil fuels towards a clean economy, these things are possible.

Now, beyond Paris, we must ensure that there are effective mechanisms in place for the re-evaluation of our carbon reduction targets. These re-evaluations should not just be left open, but should be made mandatory, so after Paris we don’t just go away and say, "Well, Paris was good," and move on and think about something else. We’ve got to stay the course and stick at it. Governments all over the world must not only commit public investment to clean energy, but channel private investment into it, too. They must use the whole policy framework to direct investment and shape markets.

It’s about democratizing energy. I’ve talked about towns and cities, activists and trade unionists coming together, shaping tomorrow’s future. We’ve got to localize contributions to energy and water security, shaping sustainable food and farming. That means, for example, looking at the causes of flooding, which are complicated. They’re not simple. Cause of flooding: yes, unpredictable rainfall; yes, unpredictable storms; but also the building on floodplains, the destruction of forests in upland areas—in Europe, particularly, the destruction of upland peat bogs, which allow to—allow very fast runoff of water, which in turn creates serious flooding problems downstream. It’s a complicated mix of things, but it’s about our attitude towards the environment and our attitude towards the problems that we all face. Technology exists in a way that we’ve never known before. Unlocking that science, unlocking that potential and fairly sharing that technology and that science all around the world will mean that everyone can contribute to it.

So the message tonight is actually quite simple. It is that the world we want is not only possible, it’s actually within our grasp. Every one of us in this room can work to achieve this together. I was elected leader of my party in Britain essentially on a message of hope, that there is a world we can have, together, through our collective effort, through democracy and through investment. Remember, that’s something we must all work for and never forget.

I want to call for a world where we do not continue destroying our environment, but remember we have to live within the limits of environmental sustainability. There are many poets and many writers and many people that have spoken of the beauty of nature and the diversity of nature. And many of those have turned themselves into great campaigners, to defend indigenous people, to defend sustainable societies and lifestyles, to defend forests and defend people who are actually the greatest custodians of the world’s natural resources and the importance of defending our eco and biodiversity. A person that I admire greatly is Arundhati Roy, fantastic campaigner, fearless activist in everything she’s done. And the words she said—and I’ll finish with this—is: "Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. ... [O]n a quiet day, ... I can hear her breathing." Thank you very much.

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