“For too long the people in power have gotten away with basically not doing anything to stop the climate and ecological breakdown. They have gotten away with stealing our future and selling it for profit. But we young people are waking up and we promise we will not let you get away with it anymore.” - Greta Thunberg, Austrian World Summit, May 28, 2019
We live in unusual, exciting and interesting times. 15 year old Swedish climate justice activist Greta Thunberg started her own one person weekly climate strike protest nine months ago – and now she is a regularly invited guest at the largest meetings of government and corporate leaders, who all know she will admonish them for creating and maintaining the climate crisis. They hope her presence neutralizes criticism against them, while she has used the opportunities for popular education and agitation which has lead to more than 1.6 million people participating in the May 24 Global Climate Strike in more than 1600 towns and cities in over 125 countries.
While Greta herself is exceptional in her ability to condense the arguments and urgency of the climate crisis to promote increasing action, the fact that her climate strikes have exploded across the world is also very much due to the explosive situation we are currently living in. Students, young people, professionals, working class, middle class, professionals and everyone in between are getting involved in the climate justice movement in large numbers around the world.
But it hasn't yet been enough. Damian Carrington's January 25, 2019, Guardian newspaper article titled, “ ‘Worrying’ rise in global CO2 forecast for 2019” summarized that “Levels of the greenhouse gas have not been as high as today for 3-5million years when the global temperature was 2-3C warmer and the sea level was 10-20 metres higher. Climate action must be increased fivefold to limit warming to the 1.5C rise above pre-industrial levels that scientists advise, according to the UN. But the past four years have been the hottest on record and global emissions are rising again after a brief pause.”
So while Greta and many others have been able to convince hundreds of thousands of people to take action, the capitalist politicians at the big international gatherings have obviously not changed. We urgently need to find a way to put all the growing dynamism of many different strains of the climate justice movement together to be truly effective at saving the planet.
What Are We Working With?
The ongoing climate crisis has created a huge organizing opportunity for us because it attacks everyone indiscriminately. Poor, working and oppressed people are the most vulnerable and feel the effects most drastically, but the growing wildfires don't care about the median income of the neighbourhoods they torch, neither do rising sea levels disappearing coasts. This crisis touches more than the traditional base of social justice movements.
The movement has also shown itself to be necessarily internationalist in character. The struggles of people against massive resource extraction projects are startlingly similar between places like Standing Rock, North Dakota and the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil. No one country, an no one group, will be able to solve the climate crisis by itself - by its nature, the struggle for a sustainable world requires international cooperation, solidarity and more importantly unity across borders in order to become a powerful and effective force.
In Canada, the United States, and other colonized countries, defending the environment has also meant defending the rights of Indigenous Nations to self-determination. Indigenous Nations defending their traditional territories often form the frontlines and focal points of the movement. Standing Rock in North Dakota was a crucial example of the potential for resistance when Indigenous Nations begin to be supported by non-Indigenous movements as well. It challenges the very foundation of these capitalist countries at home and abroad, as well as the economic system they use to exploit people and the land.
We Need to Meet People Where They're At
Given the obvious urgency and potential of the climate justice movement, it's understandable that groups and individuals will want to demand radical political demands and tactics be used immediately and exclusively. Mass rallies have a powerful effect on peoples understanding of power and unity and more importantly to develop their own leadership, and also of undermining the legitimacy of governments and corporations which claim they are acting in the people's interests. These are often specific to opposing a particular project, not the entire capitalist system. However, even relatively low-key public organizing against absurd projects like the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion invariably ends up exposing the limitations of capitalist democracy. People learn through the struggle – we need to make sure they have an opportunity to make an initial connection.
The Long Haul
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, won the last Federal election campaign on a slogan of “Real Change Now” and by making a point of emphasizing combating climate change as a top priority. In the end, he has kept former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's climate target of a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030 – and isn’t even close to meeting them. The United Nations IPCC report warns that CO2 emissions must decline by about 45% between 2010 and 2030 and hit net zero in 2050 to avoid catastrophic and likely irreversible consequences.
The upcoming October Federal Election is a great opportunity to point out Prime Minister Trudeau's failings, and also emphasize the urgency of the climate crisis. Politicians will be out in public, and politics will be on the agenda far more than usual. We must take advantage of the opening.
However, we cannot build a movement based around an election campaign or any of the current mainstream political parties. A committed mass movement with its own independent action program is ultimately the only alternative to win.
It's an important sign that federal political parties in Canada are currently trying to outbid each other on who has the most ambitious climate plan, but the corporate interests at stake for maintaining the current economic and climate status quo are too strong and entrenched to be solved by one election. If we aren't clear that we are building a long term mass movement, then we are headed for demobilization and demoralization at a time we cannot afford it.
We Need to Keep Pushing
“We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.” - Greta Thunberg, COP 24 United Nations Climate Conference, December 2018
If a 15 year old is now able to get up on one of the biggest stages in the world and call into question the legitimacy of the capitalist economic system we have always been told is inevitable, then something important is happening. Our ideas and issues are getting a more positive and broader response from people of all walks of life. There's a strong case to be made that we can't create a sustainable world by chasing after each new project, but by confronting the structures which create a situation when corporate profits are prioritized above people and planet – regardless of the obviously drastic consequences. We need to continue making it!
Worker People Can Play a Decisive Role
Finally, it's important to recognize the important role workers, especially those involved in fossil fuel industries, can and should play in the overall climate justice movement. Imagine the public impact it would have if these workers were protesting or on strike – demanding that their employers transition to renewable energy and guarantee long term and sustainable employment? If they refused to build the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion? They are already in constant confrontation with employers over safety, wages, and working conditions – and have no reason to see oil corporations as being “on their side”. It will take patience and persistence to convince workers that they have a lot more in common with climate activists than they do with oil company executives – but the strategic importance is worth the continued effort.
It might sound contradictory to on one hand push for prioritizing united mass actions on common climate demands, while with the other pushing to elevate the political consciousness of the movement as a whole. To acknowledge the important leadership of students and young people in the climate justice movement, to understand its deep impact on most sectors of society, and to promote the importance of appealing to directly to workers. It's not about trying to find some “happy medium” in between everything, it's about being objective about where the movement is, where it needs to go, and the strategy and tactics we need to get it there. Our challenge is immense, but we are growing on all sides, and we have a whole world to win!
Follow Thomas Davies on Twitter: @thomasdavies59
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