Escalation: Where next for the climate action movement?

Ben Wray

All social movements face major strategic debates, but few so urgently as today’s climate action movement – David Jamieson speaks to climate activists and academics about where next for the movement

THE international climate movement has come a long way in a very short time.

Consciousness about the destruction modern industry has wrought on the planet through global warming and wider environmental destruction has been growing for decades – often the thankless burden born by isolated scientists and marginalised political radicals.

Periodically, mass movements have emerged. Protests from Seattle to London 20 years ago saw tens of thousands rage against global corporate degradation of the natural world.

Ten years later, at the 2009 UN Copenhagen climate summit the mass movement came up against an intransigent elite, airing plenty of rhetoric but giving little ground.

But another decade on, in 2018 and 2019, the movement came into its own. In Britain, as in many other countries, a dual development helped to spirit growing scientific concern over rising temperatures and predictions of much worse to come, particularly after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world had just ten to 12 years to make giant leaps in carbon emissions reduction.

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Across Europe, Extinction Rebellion, a street level mass movement for action on climate change was soon joined by a generation of school strikers, inspired by the example of a 15 year old Swede, Greta Thunberg, who publicly abandoned school studies asserting they were meaningless in the face of impending disaster.

With time running out, the movement can ill afford further dress-rehearsals. It must forge a winning strategy this round, or the fear is there will not be future ones.

Nancy Baijonauth is one of those who answered Thunberg’s call to action. A student at All Saints Secondary in Glasgow, she joined a school strike on 15 February.

“After that I got involved in organising and other things like media and outreach,” she says.

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“I’ve been going to the protests and me and one of my friends organised a kind of protest in Kelvingrove park on Saturdays to try and engage with more people and actually talk to the public.

“I think it’s been really successful. Ever since Greta, lots of people have been getting involved. And I feel like a lot of people, especially people in my generation, want to do something and this is a way to do something when you can’t vote.

“I feel like there’s been a lot of discussion, about this kind of thing. I feel like a lot of people are talking about it in the media. Like with the UK declaring a Climate Emergency.

“Politicians are now listening to us and we are doing our job in pressuring them to make change.”

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It is one of the movement’s stand out successes so far that politicians have been forced to announce the Climate Emergency, including in Holyrood and Westminster.

The announcement though “isn’t the be all and end all”.

“It’s just the beginning – the first step in acknowledging the crisis and then doing something about it,” says Baijonauth.

“Politicians have waited way too long, and they just want to keep ignoring the issue because they don’t see it as important enough”

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“According to the IPCC we need to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2030. But even if we did that, we are still going to get a warming. The effects are something that is already happening, it’s not something that is in the future. In developing countries all around the world people are already dying, starving, migrating because they are unable to live in these conditions.

The strategy needed, she adds, is social change, not just individual lifestyle choices: “People like me, we can change our lifestyles. But if not everyone is doing it nothing will change.”

“I think we need social change. Everyone being part of the change and we need to work together.”

Dr Anna Fisk is an academic at the University of Glasgow and an activist in Extinction Rebellion Scotland. She believes the movement must maintain pressure on the streets.

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She says: “It’s really important that we keep the pressure up and keep the momentum. We are getting a lot more attention than we were even six months ago. So we need to carry on with disruptive action that really puts pressure on the government, not just accepting that saying ‘climate emergency’ is meaningful – it needs to be backed up by legally binding policy measures.”

The next step in this project, says Fisk, is the Climate Citizen’s Assembly.

“In Scotland we’ve been making quite a lot of progress with a Citizen’s Assembly campaign which is going to be announced on 20 June with full details.”

The climate crisis is also, Fisk believes, a democratic crisis for the whole social order – one that requires “a radical re-imagining of democracy”.

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“Because of the nature of short electoral cycles, because parties appeal to what they think voters want to hear, and because of their concern over party funding, it’s really important that a decision this vital is taken out of the party political sphere. It’s important that they are responding to advice from experts and thinking about what is scientifically necessary rather than just politically attractive or expedient.”

“In lots of ways our democracy is broken and citizen’s assemblies have been shown to be really effective in lots of different places around the world.”

Decision making must be separated from “this ‘God’ of the economy and economic growth that most of the parties are still so wedded to”, and the assembly must make “binding decisions” that “politicians can’t just take or leave”.

But how, ultimately, does divorce from the prerogatives of this ‘God’ take place?

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Ewan Kerr, a lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University working on a PhD about the relationship between the trade union movement and environmentalism, argues that the environmental movement must develop an understanding of what it is up against and what it will take to win.

The capitalist state’s priority, the “legitimation and accumulation” of capital, he says, comes up forcefully against the environmental movement’s designs.

“Some in the environmental movement are adapting to that by becoming ‘insider’ groups, advising policy makers”.

The extent of their influence is “debateable” Kerr says, focusing on campaigns against plastics, for instance: “but this is a very minor step forward.”

“This isn’t a problem that is going to be solved purely through parliamentary means. There needs to be that social movement component. A social movement is only as strong as the ideas that underpin it. Extinction Rebellion is a good example of that. I don’t want to criticise them too much, but the dearth of underpinning ideological ideas is significant.

“There are sections that are anti-capitalist and will critique the state, but there are large sections that won’t. If your only strategy is to lobby politicians and do fairly symbolic one day strikes, you are going to come up against problems.”

“Until Extinction Rebellion engage with the workers’ movement, I can’t see much way forward for them. It’s only the trade union and the labour movement that have got the power where it actually matters, to explode the framework of bourgeois society.”

“A real general strike can only be followed-through with the participation of the workers’ movement”.

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Kerr is well aware of the call by Thunberg herself for a general strike over the climate crisis. Some workers have been welcoming of the new youth movements across Europe. Italian Unions awarded Thunberg an honorary membership. But this support is tempered by a fear that workers could be made to bear the brunt of any green transition through job losses.

Fisk acknowledges that it is a suspicion which the environmental movement must work to remedy.

“It’s important that we do better at listening to workers and their knowledge – to their own rich histories of struggle,” she says. “I see what we are doing as being very much part of a workers’ movement, we are, most of us, workers ourselves. That’s something in Scotland and particularly in Glasgow that we are looking to; work with unions and things like that.

“I think general strikes could bring something more powerful to civil disobedience strand of direct action that Extinction Rebellion is focussed on.”

One thing remains clear, an escalation against the state and big business is required, and on a short time frame. Whether this coalition can be assembled quickly enough will be determined by the dynamism of a still growing movement.

Picture: Goran Horvat 

CS FORUM 30 MAY: Climate Emergency: How do we turn words into actions?