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Building the climate movement: is another world possible?

How can we articulate a vision for a progressive climate future?

Steve Rushton
17 June 2015
Climate march

Can we bring diverse strands together? Flickr/DB Young. Some rights reserved.

Humanity is on a collision course with climatic disaster, whilst the vast majority of people are suffering unprecedented inequality and political disempowerment due to the same capitalist system that is causing climate change.

Wealth to population graph.jpg

Above, the graph shows income inequality. The red line of best fit tells how 6 billion people (85%) are in what is considered the global working or precariatclass, with assets below $5,000, many nearer severe poverty; the quick steepening to the right shows how a few do okay and even fewer do extremely well from the system; there are 12 million millionaires (1.7%) and 85 are predicted to soon collectively have more than the poorest 3.5 billion.

But what is the relevance of this for climate change?

Studies show a person’s carbon footprint rises with their wealth. If we think of the very richest, these people own the means of climate change; their investments are in big oil and the military industrial complex, extractive industries like mining and so on. I have explored the link between wealth and climate in more depth recently, suggesting to tackle climate change we need to challenge the power of billionaires. The global 1% push money into political lobbying, academia, corporate news, advertising and other means; all to maintain their position at the top, make them even richer by ensure that all their carbon assets are sold.

The extremely rich’s plan, known as free market capitalism, is in full swing. On every indicator the gap between rich and poor is widening. So the rich get richer, more powerful and this makes it more likely that they will make use all their carbon assets (that are in the ground) – leaving the earth’s climate, clean water supplies and other ecological commons in such a bad state that survival will only be guaranteed for them, the very richest.

The challenge for the global climate movement is immense. On the positive side, it can draw upon an overwhelming majority of people, who could gain from decisive action. There are numerous models and means to tackle climate change. Transforming to a renewable energy future could make things far better for the majority, for instance with community-owned renewables, insulated homes and good mass transport systems. Broadly speaking, remove fossil fuels and billionaires’ asset bases would crumble, along with their wasteful levels of consumption and political power.

Of course change is being resisted by the extremely rich and powerful people. With them, many others act to maintain the status quo, even if it is not in their interests. The system manufactures consent, for instance through the billionaires’ grip on media and the neoliberal dogma that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA).

Around the world, movements are developed further, the inspiring People’s Agreement on Climate Change written in Bolivia is one example. But how can the climate movement in Britain escalate, broaden and join in with making another world possible?

Lessons from Scotland

Scotland’s indyref created space for progressive ideas to flourish, beyond the straitjacket that has constrained mainstream political imagination since Thatcher. TINA instead becomes TAPAS: there are plenty of alternative systems. A participatory movement of hope lifted the Yes vote in Scotland to 45%, far beyond the expected outcome.

Real sustainability was central in the dialogue from the movement energised by the Radical Independence Campaign, Green Yes and Women For Independence and (although less radical) the SNP. The conversation considered a fairer, more inclusive, more egalitarian and ecologically in tune society from mass canvassing, street stalls, meetings and books like the Wee Blue Book and Common Weal. Indyref reached society, for instance with the progressive discussion coming from and held in the schemes (working class areas).

In reaction, the establishment turned the fear taps to maximum, orchestrated by corporate media and a political Project Fear campaign. Although the No narrowly won the day, most believe Independence is inevitable. The momentum continues, with non-corporate news flourishing and growing. If you imagine a similar broadly progressive participatory dialogue happening across the rest of the UK, it makes tackling climate change seem a lot more realistic.

Common Weal’s Robin McAlpine called it a Butterfly Rebellion, explaining how people using DIY diverse and creative tactics can undermine the establishment. The enduring march or flutter of Scots is shown in the way it has shifted the SNP national government to reject Westminster to new ideological levels, epitomised by the moratorium on fracking and complete rejection of austerity.

In the rest of the UK alternative progressive movements are less cohesive and broad. Yet the parts are there. The alternative media is ever growing to create a non-corporate narrative; divestment movements and share activism are encouraging people to stop sponsoring the carbon intense system, with many groups targeting corporate sponsorship – to remove their social licence. There are growing street demonstrations for climate and many planned against austerity, plus there are new alternative co-op models of energy production and visionary ideas such as creating one million climate jobs, powerful as it has connected unions with climate campaigners.

Signs of hope

Arguably, one of the strongest movements is the anti-fracking and climate change direct activism. In the areas under threat from fracking, protection camps have galvanised communities, cutting across the social spectrum and through generations. Overall, you can see the anti-fracking movement’s success as it has all but halted the government’s plans for its fracking revolution.

Like the anti-frackers, the London housing movement is also surging, engaging working class and minorities communities in ways the climate movement needs to.

“London’s housing crisis is affecting a broad range of people, in the last 9 months you have seen particularly working class communities take militant direct action”, Katya Nasim from the Radical Housing Network tells me. She explains how the housing movement surged since the Focus E15 mother’s occupation, then Sweets Way Estate and Guinness Estate, with support from Aylesbury Tenants. She also tells me how it has combined with anti-gentrification and anti-racism struggles like #ReclaimBrixton.

She adds “The militant action has had a galvanising role: for example on the March for Homes demo earlier this year brought people out across tenure. E15 Mums led a march, with many young people challenging London’s high rents to others angry at the injustice of the system.”

Nasim explains how the movement is developing a shared critique. “From the network working closely together it is now articulating clearly that the housing crisis is a problem of capitalism.”

She tells me how the shared work is about practical and emotional solidarity, say in resisting evictions and is connecting online and in occupied spaces.

Like the indyref, the housing movement is also pushing a vision of the future. The Radical Housing Network has called a housing assembly, looking at how we can take back our cities. Nasim and I discuss how this is an obvious connection to the climate movement, to call for properly insulated affordable homes.

The call to reclaim the city connects with the recent election of Ada Colau, a leading housing activist and now the new Mayor of Barcelona, who won leading the democratic citizen platform Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common).

“Ada Colau has been an example for the last 5 years as leader of PAH, the platform for people affected by mortgages. She is well respected for fighting very hard and is about creating real change”, Tina Caballero tells me.

We speak on the day before the Spanish elections in late May, and Cabellero is hopeful about a potential Ada Colau victory. Caballero is a member of the new progressive Spanish party Podemos, one of the groups that support Barcelona en Comú and runs on a new participatory model. Podemos will look to build on its platform of popular support to win Spain’s General Elections later this year.

“In 2011 there were unprecedented protests in Spain’s streets, millions of people. But all these movements without political representation cannot bring any lasting or significant change,” Caballero says.

Later the same year, Spaniards went to the polls.

“The same thing happened as here recently, the right wing party won with a majority and that is why Podemos was born. We need a political representation, as this is the only thing we have to influence the 1% - the only thing between the markets and the people.”

Building alliances

Returning focus back to Scotland, it is worth noting that RIC has just joined calls for a new Scottish ‘Syriza style’ left alliance party. For the rest of the UK, Caballero predicts the Conservatives will replicate what the 2011 Spanish government did, attacking rights, attempting to outlaw protests and continue to attack migrants.

Caballero thinks the climate movement should integrate with the other movements for global justice. She gives me the example of how climate and feminism could connect, she is a spokesperson for the Feminist circle of Podemos.

“The feminist notion of sustainability and placing care at the centre of the economy fits perfectly with climate. It means advocating for care for life, and a life worth living is at the centre of the agenda.”

I ask Caballero about the direct democracy processes within Podemos and used in the Squares in 2011. I’m surprised to hear: “We totally borrowed those ideas from the UK, from climate camp.”

If the British climate movement is to succeed, it must draw upon an abundance of ideas, a diversity of tactics and start articulating more clearly a progressive climate future.

This article was originally published here, by Contributoria. 

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Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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