Review: Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice

‘Climate justice is shorthand for a new society and economy which guarantees prosperity for all people, not just the wealthy few. As much as it is an existential threat, the climate crisis is a historic opportunity.’ Jackson Howarth speaks to Labour For a Green New Deal co-founder Chris Saltmarsh about his new book – a justice oriented, solutions focussed retelling of the climate crisis ‘with the politics put back in’.

On this day, exactly two years ago, a cheer rang out across the Brighton Hilton Metropole auditorium as delegates from the UK’s Labour Party overwhelmingly passed a motion calling for a ‘Green New Deal’. This was to be a comprehensive collection of ‘joined up’ policies, proposing massive investment and the nationalisation of core industries to guarantee a rapid, socially just, green transition. For Chris Saltmarsh and the fledgling organisation he had helped set up – Labour for a Green New Deal – it was quite the achievement. After six months of drumming up support, consolidating over 120 motions submitted by as many Constituency Labour Parties and reassuring the unions, a Green New Deal would be put to the public.

Though their socialistic Green New Deal appears to have been largely popular, Labour ultimately lost the 2019 election – and their radical leadership with it. This week, on the eve of the first in-person Labour Party Conference since 2019, Labour leader Keir Starmer initially ruled out Saltmarsh and Co.’s latest motion because it ‘covers more than one subject’ (as such a Green New Deal surely must), before reversing the decision at the last minute. This then, is the context in which Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice, Saltmarsh’s new book, bursts onto the scene. On one hand, with his organisation on less fertile ground, you could see the text as an attempt to drum up broader support for a Green New Deal, both within and without the Left. In truth, there’s more to this refreshing little book than that. Burnt embarks on a quest to reframe the climate crisis – putting the long-neglected political aspects ‘back in’. It’s a noble endeavour in its own right, but it’s also a nifty trick – only once the long-neglected, inherently political causes (and consequences) of the climate crisis have been acknowledged do the right solutions present themselves. With this, Burnt situates amongst other recent ‘political’ environmental primers, distinguishing itself as a particularly accessible little guide to climate justice, with a pragmatic focus on solutions (by way of a Green New Deal) and how to go about securing them.

Burnt situates amongst other recent ‘political’ environmental primers, distinguishing itself as a particularly accessible little guide to climate justice

Burnt begins broadly, with something that we can all (largely) agree on. In his open, conversational style, Saltmarsh starts by painting a vivid picture of the climate crisis and the urgency it demands. Yet this is no ‘penguins and polar bears’ portrayal – Burnt is overwhelmingly about people. Weaving in key ideas from the political and environmental landscape, Saltmarsh attacks the idea of ‘the Anthropocene’ – the human age – for obscuring the fact that we aren’t all equally responsible for drastic changes forced upon our planet. From there, he launches into a discussion of justice (or the lack of it), which is summed up relatively simply: ‘The impacts of climate change are distributed unfairly so that those who have contributed the least to the crisis are hit the hardest’. Rather than getting bogged down in definitions, the book slowly develops a picture of climate justice from a collection of ‘negatives’ – analysing and layering relevant instances of injustice as the chapters progress. So what’s driving this crisis? Saltmarsh lays blame at the feet of our runaway capitalistic economy (especially in its modern neoliberal incarnation), which prioritises profit above all other values, including the social and environmental. He mounts a searing critique of fossil corporations, who remain deeply embedded in our economy, profiting from our demise. Even beyond fossil capitalism, Burnt describes a ‘powerful class solidarity between fractions of capital, collaborating to… mutually sustain the capitalist system they depend on’, with little compelling them to do anything but uphold the status quo. The answer, for Saltmarsh, is state power – warts and all. Only the state has the power to rein in ‘capital’, placing large areas of the economy under public control (preferably as part of a Green New Deal).

Burnt oscillates between rousing calls to bring down the ‘fat cats’ responsible for the climate crisis, and more sophisticated analysis of an out of control, hydra-esque system, where for every head vanquished, another takes its place

After starting with a broadly appealing discussion of the climate crisis, this whistle-stop tour of socialistic political economy raises questions about who this book is actually for. Burnt’s analysis of capitalism will clearly be more palatable to those who are already largely on board with left wing economics – it’s fairly uncompromising, and it intends to be. Speaking to Saltmarsh, he explains that he wanted the book to have wide appeal, but he also wanted to be crystal clear – ‘bordering on crude’ – about what exactly is driving this crisis. As a result, Burnt oscillates between rousing calls to bring down the ‘fat cats’ responsible for the climate crisis, and more sophisticated analysis of an out of control, hydra-esque system, where for every head vanquished, another takes its place. Some readers will find Saltmarsh’s attempts to ‘take humanity off the hook’ reassuring, or galvansing. Others who don’t agree with Burnt’s underlying arguments aren’t necessarily going to find themselves convinced. For example, given the book’s fairly homogenous treatment of the various ‘fractions’ (or forces) of capitalism, those with faith in green innovation will be left wondering about the fate of green corporations (especially those who have not directly emerged from the greenwashing efforts of fossil corporations). Likewise, those with questions about the extent to which capital needs to be reined in will also be left guessing. To be clear, Saltmarsh rules out outright revolution, but at various points, he argues for the need to ‘force capital to decarbonise’, to bring ‘as many industries into the public sphere as possible’, and even for ‘stripping the profit motive out of the economy’ altogether. Still, Saltmarsh never set out to answer some of the biggest questions in political economy. Regardless of how far you think we should go to subdue capital, the problems he identifies must be addressed. At the end of the day, Burnt convincingly argues that to address the climate crisis our capitalistic system needs an overhaul – and that the state is the only entity powerful enough to make that happen.

Burnt might be more useful to less traditionally ‘political’ environmentalists

With that in mind, the Burnt might be more useful to less traditionally ‘political’ environmentalists, drawn in by a desire to learn more about climate justice and a Green New Deal. Saltmarsh has a wealth of experience talking to environmentalists of all colours, having cut his teeth working on environmental campaigns and direct action projects, and it shows. The chapters dissecting environmentalism (which look to the School Strikes for hope and put the useful (but limited) role of protest groups like Extinction Rebellion into perspective) are where the book really hits its stride. Burnt is at its strongest as it works to persuade ‘anarchistic’, ‘beyond-politics’ environmentalists to get serious about state power, and the book will undoubtedly be useful to anyone else looking to better reconcile their environmentalism and their politics. Saltmarsh and his colleagues ultimately came out of the UK’s 2019 election ‘burnt.’ In the grand scheme of things, they’d come relatively close. There had, at least, been a chance to put a Green New Deal to the public, and it wasn’t for nothing - ‘we came out of it with a left and a climate movement that are more serious about state power’ Saltmarsh tells me. Though they failed to capture state power, Burnt shows that lessons have been learnt. Saltmarsh explains that ‘we can’t wait for socialism for climate justice’. Rather than hoping for the perfect election, Burnt urges us to help create the right conditions. It encourages us to build a movement – a robust social and political scaffolding, coherently combining the efforts of local groups, direct action, empowered unions, and effective party politics to force governments and corporations to change course. Such a movement must always keep a ‘good eye’ on winning state power while being able to withstand defeat, and push for a comprehensive, far reaching Green New Deal (unlike the watered down facsimiles we’ve seen in Europe and the US). In Saltmash’s words: ‘The clock is ticking. We better get on with it. ’