Climate catastrophe: why firefighters need a Socialist Green New Deal

Matt Wrack

A Socialist Green New Deal is a set of words that has been mentioned a lot and I’m sure will continue to be, especially over the coming week at Labour conference. But it should be more than a slogan or a soundbite. It represents the central plank of any serious effort to address climate change in this country and internationally. That’s especially true from the perspective of firefighters, who experience the effects of climate change on a day-to-day basis. For them, tackling climate change, and how we do that, is an immediate industrial issue as well as a huge political challenge. That’s the approach we are building on within the Fire Brigades Union. It’s part of our discussion with our members, with our sister unions across the world and within the labour movement at home.

The case for a Socialist Green New Deal is built on an underlying idea – the idea that we cannot wait around for climate change to be resolved by big business or by other market-based measures. As much as anything else, 40 years of politicians relying on these methods, and nothing happening, shows us that they will not work. A Socialist Green New Deal builds a programme around the alternative to waiting: taking democratic public ownership and control of key resources in the fight against climate change, as well as mass public investment in green resources and jobs.

The brutal reality is that what drives decision-making in this economy is not public wellbeing or concern about the future of the planet; rather, it is the endless, remorseless drive for profit, forced on by ruthless competition. So democratic public ownership and public investment needs to be central to tackling the climate crisis. Decisions on jobs, investment and policy need to be driven by the needs of the majority and by democratic debate. That means huge changes to our economy and our society – but fundamental change is exactly what is needed. The scale of the political challenge should not mean we retreat and fail to face up to it.

All of which can, of course, sound remote from the fire station or from the daily lives of other workers. We need to make these discussions relevant to ordinary people. In the FBU, we are seeking to make the case for a Socialist Green New Deal directly relevant to firefighters’ employment conditions, such as the need for investing in fire and rescue services, fighting privatisation and repealing the anti-trade union laws. We know from our experience that firefighters – in the UK and abroad – are increasingly confronted by wildfires and floods on an unprecedented scale. We also know that there is clear and established evidence linking climate change to their increased prevalence.

These incidents are devastating for the communities affected and can also be deadly for firefighters. For example, wildfires often spread rapidly over vast areas. They are notoriously unpredictable and there is serious risk of firefighters becoming quickly overwhelmed and perishing from smoke inhalation or burns. In 2013, 20 members of Arizona’s fire department went to fight a wildfire at Yarnell Hill. Just one of them returned alive. These sort of stark facts bring home to us the impact climate change is having within our profession on a global scale.

Climate change is an industrial issue for firefighters. Presenting our motion on a Socialist Green New Deal motion at Labour conference is absolutely part of this, and we want to work with others in our movement and beyond it. I am pleased that the conference arrangements committee has reversed its decision to rule the Labour for a Green New Deal motion ‘out of order’, on the grounds that by covering a national care service and universal broadband it “covered more than one subject”. The climate crisis, by its very nature and by the scale of the threat posed, requires a broad and integrated response, covering many areas of policy.

We are looking forward to Labour conference as an opportunity to fight for causes that are directly important to our members. As part of this, the Fire Brigades Union and LabourList will hold a joint fringe event, Climate Catastrophe: The Case for a Socialist Green New Deal. I, and several excellent campaigners including John McDonnell MP, Zarah Sultana MP and Kate Hicks of Labour for a Green New Deal, will be there, and I look forward to what should be a robust and forward-thinking discussion.

Our panel event ‘Climate Catastrophe: The Case for a Socialist Green New Deal’ will take place in the Ambassador Room, Hilton Brighton Metropole, at 12.30pm on Monday 27th September. Chaired by Zarah Sultana MP, this panel is made up of John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington; Rebecca Long-Bailey, MP for Salford and Eccles; Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary; and Kate Hicks of Labour for a Green New Deal.

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