New Year's Resolutions for the Climate Justice Movements

As much of the world launches into 2016 determined to uphold personal resolutions such as quitting smoking, going to the gym, and calling home more often, social movements are also pondering what collective changes they'd like to make.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

As much of the world launches into 2016 determined to uphold personal resolutions such as quitting smoking, going to the gym, and calling home more often, social movements are also pondering what collective changes they'd like to make. In the spirit of lofty goal-setting that pervades time of year, here are some thoughts on a few steps that would help the climate justice movements bring home a resounding 2016 victory for people and the planet.

The very definition of a social movement is that it fights for a set of ideals or values, some of which can be reflected in policy changes. The climate justice movements are dreaming of and fighting for a new world, the exact shape of which none of us knows. As such, reflection is important: not just within our local struggles, but also at a macro level.

2015 rattled by in a series of victories and losses. We achieved a lot this year, building on the work of previous years (and decades). To name but a few wins: the Keystone XL pipeline was finally rejected; the Pope came out against carbon markets in his epic encyclical; over $2.6 trillion was divested from fossil fuels; thousands of people shut down a coal mine in Germany in the daring Ende Galaende protest; hundreds of thousands of people mobilized for climate action at various moments throughout the year; the bans of fracking continued to stack up; Pacific Warriors continued to blockade coal; the Ogoni people won a court case against Shell, and Dutch citizens won a court case against their government.

On the other side of the same coin, there were shadows cast upon our work, not least of all the reality of living with 1 degree warming which saw unprecedented flooding in India, South America, and the UK, heatwaves throughout Asia and the Middle East, lakes and drying up in Bolivia in what was the warmest year on record. 2015 also saw the continued rise of State violence, in particular the murders of land defenders and indigenous women, the #ExxonKnew and emissions-testing scandals that only further proved the lack of trust we should have in industries with a vested interest in polluting, the apparent signing of the TPP trade deal, and the general insistence of many western governments to go against their citizens and do things like lift oil export bans or grant concessions for fracking. Then there was, of course, also the mixed-bag of the Paris Agreement, which apparently sends a "market signal" that fossil fuels are on the way out, but offers absolutely no detailed commitment to guarantee this.

While there are no quick and easy wins, here are some recommended resolutions for this coming year, in the hopes that 2016 will see the various movements for environmental and social justice more disruptive to the status quo than ever. And unlike those ill-fated personal pledges to lose weight and call home, we hope to keep these "New Year's resolutions" past February.

Integrate and escalate with other struggles
Although most people who "work on climate" recognize it is a cross-cutting issue, the rest of the world does not. Correspondingly, climate activists and the climate movement have, like it or not, become siloed off from the very struggles that they need to be deeply involved in. Many have become stranded in the increasingly apolitical, click-bait work of online "communications," or in the obscure depths of national or international policy. I don't say this to denigrate this work -- it is essential -- but just to question if departmentalising and specialising climate activism has lead us to lose sight of bigger pictures.

In my mind, the best way forward for the climate movement is to connect with the struggles that matter to people: land, food, energy, extraction, water, health, transport, development, poverty, or some combination of many issues. Connecting with other struggles doesn't mean adopting bad-ally habits. Appropriating the "movement moments" of our allies, such as the Ferguson protests, to shout about climate change is not okay. What connecting struggles does mean is a lot of humble solidarity and support work. It's not easy, but it can be done. Climate change is, in many ways, a manifestation of multiple systemic problems and injustices that people have been resisting for a long time. When reaching out, the climate justice movements need to remember that. Many groups are of course already doing this and more connections between struggles are being made every day -- in 2016 this needs to become the norm rather than the exception.

Use diversity as strength
Part of the reason that right-wing ideology has taken hold in the mainstream is that while it presents a broadly united front, the left is utterly fractured. That's not news to anyone, I know, but why then is the Left still so divided? Jamaican-British activist, academic, and father of cultural-studies Stuart Hall talked about the need to foster an ability to live with difference, to work together through our differences for a common cause. We seem to be finding that difficult.

The climate justice struggle has many fronts; Keystone XL, the WTO, land and food rights, international finance, and that fracking well that just popped up in your mother's back yard. All these fronts are fundamentally part of the same fight. Unfortunately we have a tendency to think whatever fight we happen to be engaged in is the most important one, we squabble over funding and the scraps of media coverage we're given and don't respect that a diversity of fronts and tactics is the only way anyone has ever really won.

This work is going to look different depending on where you stand in the movement. Big brand NGOs and technical experts have some serious soul searching to do about why they keep on losing the climate fight. They need to focus on building the movement rather than their brands, and they need to do a way better job of respecting and supporting those who are already doing so. Those who are doing the grassroots work have a moral high-ground, but sometimes display a hesitation (understandably) to treat allies like allies by calling them in instead of tearing them down. Everyone saw the way some sections of the movements gleefully reacted when Greenpeace made their big mistake in Peru. It was an incredibly stupid thing to have done, clearly, but what strategic advantage did we gain by joining forces with right-wing commentators to publicly and lavishly slam them? Whose narratives about environmentalists being anti-people did we inadvertently lend credence to? Why did we not instead work towards giving Big Green concrete steps to improve accountability?

Be pragmatic and idealistic at the same time
In spite of all the cynicism, many activists are actually highly idealistic, to the point of it being a burden on them, their work, and any hopes of building a popular movement for climate justice. Crushed dreams and burnout makes for a lousy movement. If we're to have any hope of doing that, we'll need to leave behind some of our notions of ideological purity. This is not say that we should compromise on our ideals or demands -- I'm not repeating tired tropes of "focusing on what's politically possible" -- but we need to be wary of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. There's no contradiction in having ideals that are not lived up to but for which you constantly strive. We need to envision the way forward to achieving our objectives, including all the milestones and incremental steps of getting there.

For example, the global mobilizations of the past 2 years were some such milestones: 400,000 were on the streets of New York in September 2014, close to 600,000 mobilized around the world in November 2015. The mainstream of the marches tended to lack a sharp analysis about the root causes of the crisis, sure, but I saw many people who were clearly protesting neoliberal capitalism, I saw impacted communities at the front of the march (either by invitation or their own justified insistence), and an important/impressive diversity of movements represented. Everyone centrally involved would freely admit that it wasn't perfect. There were numerous problematic aspects -- subway ads appealing to Wall Street banksters to 'join the fight'; Avaaz attempting to take all the credit; not to mention the non-existent or pathetically weak and "leader-focused" demands.

But a lot of the public criticism of the mobilization was also unhelpful -- especially in NYC iin 2014 where it came merely days beforehand and from people who had not tried to collaborate with the organisers in order to better the message/route/whatever else they had issue with in the preceding months. You can have all the analysis you like and spend all your time cynically blogging away, but unless you're actually mobilising people or constructively engaging with the groups who are, what good are you really doing? Armchair activism is easy; what we need to do is actively reconcile differences in ideals, strategies, and tactics for building the type of movements needed.

Get over the EGO and NGO politics
A huge drag on movement building is the prevalence of some massive egos and the persistence of NGO in-fighting over brand recognition and funding, as well as the NGO-ization of struggle more broadly. Of course egos exist in any movement, the personal is always political, and as humans we are (thankfully) not purely logical, but our apparent inability to overcome or at least live with certain differences of opinion, our inclination to get personal and fight publicly when things get heated, and the pressure to advance brands rather than the overall movement all stand in the way of ever achieving climate justice.

There are times when splitting apart becomes necessary, where creating distinct structures is the only way to capture the breadth of the climate movements. This played out at the UNFCCC in 2007, when the western NGO driven Climate Action Network and the southern movement driven Climate Justice Now! created two separate spaces for environmental groups to work at the UN. The fact that these two groups split apart from one another doesn't mean they can't and shouldn't work together. The last few years have seen many organisations and movements within these two networks putting down their weapons and working together to build power across movements and hold one another accountable internally. We'd like to see more of that happen in different spaces this coming year.

As a species we seem to have a thing for leaders. In the climate movements, the urge for memes and trends lead us to splashing certain people's faces and words all over the internet, but then we get annoyed and jealous when they are identified by the media as leaders or spokespeople. Leaders, especially charismatic ones, can be useful -- to a point. Within the movements we have to recognise and exploit the strategic potential of having spokespeople and leaders instead of idolizing and/or resenting them. We should remember that leaders are (or should be) propelled into that role by the movement in order to serve the movement, we should look for and train leaders who understand accountability even more than they do talking points.

Remember: the best way to undermine false solutions is to propose real ones
I'm not one for the "if you don't have the solution you should just keep quiet" attitude which is often used to dismiss dissenting voices, but I do think that not having solutions -- clear and compelling solutions -- is bad strategy. For one, it makes resisting the false solutions that much harder. It allows the cleverer corporate agents a drop of undeserved legitimacy as they further muddy the water.

What would outcomes that supported climate justice look like? Even if they're not "politically possible" right now, what are the real solutions that would get us to where we need to be? How do those solutions interact across struggles and scales? Campaigners also have a responsibility to advance solutions that work, not just the ones that already have a catchy tag-line: to find real, sometimes un-sexy sounding, solutions, and make them accessible, popular, and well-messaged.

We don't need to reinvent the wheel -- lots of people have been advocating for equitable solutions for a long time, but they have fallen on deaf ears with many supposed allies. Some of their real solutions include forcing national governments to implement their fair share of pollution cuts and climate finance, setting up global renewable energy programmes, and reinvesting divested dollars in new local energy and food cooperatives controlled by communities. The work of the Stockholm Environment Institute and others to develop such approaches helps us have solutions that are both idealistic and possible.

We should also be supporting campaigns that may not sound like climate solutions at first, but which build local community power and control, such as campaigns for livable wages, service-industry unions, dismantling the school to prison pipeline, and universal basic incomes. Building and popularizing solutions that are not contradictory across progressive movements is key part of that all-important united front. We'll all be a hell of a lot stronger for it.

The coming year is going to see a lot of soul-searching among the "international climate movement" in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement. Do we jailbreak the parts of the movements that have been stuck inside the UNFCCC? How do we best use the Agreement, weak though it is, to hold governments to account, to demand more from them? What do we do if (when) that hope in the State to deal with the climate crisis proves insufficient?

Thousands of people came to Paris, sucked into the energy of COP21. Some were activists from other struggles, or other arenas of the climate struggle. More were climate-profiteers, climate-deniers, or simply UN careerists. Both the weakness of the agreement and the degree to which it was celebrated show us that in the narrative battle, progressive movements remain fragmented. Victory remains distant. But this is not a struggle with a guaranteed outcome either way. And while the struggle continues, we can always find ways to make our success (a just and livable world for all) more likely. This New Year let that be our resolution.

Go To Homepage

Before You Go

Popular in the Community