The protests before the UN climate talks in Paris this winter can be a crucial staging post for our movement, writes Suzanne Jeffery.
We have a tendency to talk about climate change as something that will affect future generations. But think how old you will be by the end of this century, or how old your children or grandchildren will be. How old will you be in 30 years when we will have reached an irreversible tipping point in global warming?
The problem is not one for future generations but for our generation. And it will require a huge challenge to the system in order to bring about the kind of changes necessary to organise society sustainably.
In recent years there has been a growing and increasingly radical climate movement. One important expression of this has been the number of big climate demonstrations.
In September 2014 there were significant protests in towns and cities across the world, supported by major NGOs as well as many smaller grassroots organisations. They were organised to coincide with a United Nations summit on climate change and included a demonstration of 40,000 in London as well as possibly the biggest climate demonstration ever of 400,000 in New York.
In March this year 20,000 took to the streets of London for the Time to Act demonstration initiated by the Campaign Against Climate Change. This demonstration, like the others, was young, vibrant, diverse and radical. As part of the march thousands took part in a sit-down along Whitehall.
At the final rally trade unionists spoke alongside social justice campaigners, anti-fracking activists, anti-austerity activists, anti-racist campaigners, politicians and representatives of leading NGOs.
Anti-fracking campaigners have scored notable successes against companies such as Cuadrilla. In Balcombe in 2013 a high profile campaign, which included the setting up of a camp to block drilling, resulted in a great victory. Cuadrilla backed off, claiming it would no longer be drilling as a result of the unsuitability of the area’s geology.
But the real message was not lost on anti-fracking groups across the country — action works. Earlier this year a brilliant campaign in Lancashire with broad support from activists, trade unions, NGOs and councillors forced the local council to oppose planning permission for a new fracking site.
Calls for fossil fuel divestment are another important example. A strategy modelled on the anti-apartheid movement has built real momentum. Despite the campaign’s short life so far, important successes have been achieved — especially in areas where public funds are used such as universities and pension funds.
The astounding popularity of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, with its clear message that tackling climate change means tackling the system, further underlines the radicalisation that is taking place.
One reason for the burgeoning climate activism has been the urgency of the crisis in the context of continuing inaction — and worse — by those at the top of society. The climate issue parallels austerity.
Governments have prioritised the interests of those who caused the economic as well as the climate crisis, despite the consequences for ordinary people. Greater anger, deeper radicalisation and more involvement in activism have been the result.
The current Tory government and the previous coalition government provide clear examples of this. During the coalition government of 2010-2015, despite the initial rhetoric of being the “greenest government ever”, the reality was that it danced to the tune of the fossil fuel industry; an industry in which many in government had a personal interest.
Subsidies to renewable energy were cut in the early days of the government, significantly undermining the successful expansion of renewables in the UK. Meanwhile subsidies for the fossil fuel industry grew and special support was given to the hugely unpopular and environmentally dangerous fracking industry.
Faced with deep public opposition, David Cameron and George Osborne passed legislation which, among other things, allows the industry to frack under people’s homes without permission. At the same time lobbying by Tory MPs has resulted in the current Tory government banning the further development of onshore wind farms.
There is a now a wider understanding of what failure to tackle rising emissions means for us. In part this is a result of the more common experiences of climate change, particularly the growing number of extreme weather events.
Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York in 2012, was a wake-up call for significant sections of the progressive movement in the US. The failure of the country with the richest infrastructure in the world in the face of an extreme weather event and the misery experienced by the poorest people had a profound impact. For days, huge swathes of working class areas were left without any help or support from the state.
A similar although less dramatic impact was seen in Britain in response to the storms and floods of 2014. People watched as large areas of the country disappeared under water. Despite belated bluster by Cameron about money being no obstacle, millions began to recognise that those in power do little to help ordinary people deal with the devastation of extreme weather.
For many this has produced an understanding that climate change is a social justice issue. As with austerity, we are not “all in it together”. Climate change hits the poorest hardest, and the wealthiest in society are often willing to put their own interests ahead of the actions that could tackle the climate crisis.
The slogan “System change not climate change” expresses this understanding that the problem is not simply this or that policy but the entire system of capitalism.
The success of the One Million Climate Jobs campaign is one aspect of this broader radicalisation. It is popularising the understanding that jobs and the environment are not mutually exclusive and that working people are part of the solution rather than the problem.
The People’s Assembly demonstration in June 2015 saw climate activists demonstrate alongside anti-austerity activists and the climate issue is increasingly a central part of the wider struggle. This autumn is a crucial time for the movement. One reason is the UN climate talks in Paris in December.
These talks have greater significance because the Copenhagen Protocol, the disastrous statement of inaction which concluded the UN talks in 2009, will be reviewed. There will again be a focus on the willingness of the world’s leaders to commit to urgent action.
Many climate activists are determined not to make the same mistakes as they believe were made in Copenhagen. They argue that activists put too much misplaced faith in the Copenhagen talks having a positive outcome. Expectations were too high and the demonstrations were used simply as a stage army to support the lobbying efforts of the bigger NGOs. Hence when the talks failed this resulted in the collapse of the movement.
Today many activists argue that even if there is a deal agreed in Paris which commits states to legally binding emissions cuts, they will not be of the size and scale required to tackle the problem. It is essential to mobilise for Paris not as the end point, but rather as a key stage in building a bigger and more effective movement.
The initial plans were agreed at the World Social Forum in Tunis this year. They underline this strategy by highlighting two key dates for the movement. Firstly the weekend of 28/29 November, when activists have been asked to organise demonstrations and actions in their own countries. This is on the eve of the UN talks, and the actions are conceived to show the global strength of the movement and highlight that there is a solution to the climate crisis.
The second key date is Saturday 12 December. This date coincides with the end of the talks. Activists have been asked to come to Paris to show that, whatever the outcome of the talks, the movement will not go away. The hope is that, in contrast to Copenhagen, an energised and growing movement will leave Paris ready for the next stage of the battle.
In the UK plans are under way for a national demonstration in London on Sunday 29 November under the title The People’s March for Climate, Justice and Jobs. Many organisations have come behind this and the demands have initially been agreed to include opposition to fossil fuels and for renewable energy, support for climate jobs and justice for people.
This is an excellent step forward for the climate movement in the UK. There will also be transport to Paris for the actions on 12 December — and some activists are planning to cycle to Paris under the slogan “Time to cycle”.
In the coming weeks we must all do everything we can to build the demonstration on Sunday 29 November. In the run-up to the Time to Act demonstration in March fantastic mobilising meetings were organised in many towns and cities. These brought together networks of people that represented the growing diversity and radicalisation of the movement.
In the run-up to November we should aim to repeat this in every area, university and college, as well as inviting speakers into union branches. We should make sure we get transport booked and motions passed supporting the demonstration in November, getting delegations to Paris on 12 December and raising support for climate jobs.
This is an important opportunity to build a vibrant and radical climate movement that can play a part in challenging the system that is at the root of the problem: one which recognises that mass action has the power to win; one that is ready to make common cause with other struggles against the system; and one that has system change not climate change at its heart.