Reality check: turbulent times for the climate justice movement – Sinan Eden

This is a personal evaluation of where we are at, as the climate justice movement, in comparison to last year when I wrote a similar piece. Most of my analysis is focused on Portugal but some is applicable to Europe at the least.


This has been a long year with many ups and downs, nationally and internationally. I am writing this piece as an overall evaluation of the entire year which starts with the first wave of mobilizations of By 2020 We Rise Up in September 2019, goes through COP-26 in Madrid (November 2019) and the World Economic Failure (January 2020, the second wave of By 2020 We Rise Up), and finishes with the activities within the COVID-19 pandemic period such as Galp Must Fall the protest “Resgatar o Futuro, Não o Lucro.”

Are we winning?

No.

In September 2019, the Portuguese climate jobs campaign launched a just transition plan consisting of 10 measures we must win during this legislative term in order for us to have a chance of avoiding climate chaos. We achieved none of the 10 measures, and we didn’t even come close to any prospect of achieving them.

Are we close to winning?

No.

The Global Climate Strike in September put 40 000 people on the streets of Portugal, of which some 300 joined a road blockade in Lisbon. The mass mobilizations necessary to win are most probably ten times bigger than our best days, which means that we will have to reinvent our movement several times around in the following years.

Moreover, it is not even clear if that peak mobilization can be a reference point for the post-COVID-19 social context.

Are we closer to winning?

Last year, I answered this question as follows: “Never been so close to losing, and never been so close to winning.” This year, I am less sure.

Through the pandemic and then the Black Lives Matter protests, the climate justice movement gained organizational resilience to deal with stressful and complex situations involving demobilization, a paralyzed social context, state violence accompanied with civilian militia. We were “lucky” to be part of this process “outside” of our field of action: a deepening climate crisis implies infrastructure failure, social unrest and conflict, and oppression; our movement must be prepared to deal with stress and uncertainty continuously. The public health crisis and the anti-racist movements highlighted how these can look like, in a situation where we were not the main actors (we were, at best, allies to public health workers and racialized communities).

On the other hand, this process also reduced our capacity drastically.

That is why I do not know if we are closer to winning now than one year ago.

Can we relaunch the 2019 momentum?

Yes.

The public health crisis is now unfolding into an economic crisis accompanied by a social crisis. So far, the ruling class does not seem to have a coherent action plan. The recent developments may have reduced our capacities, but they also paralyzed and will continue to paralyze the ruling power.

If we can consolidate our ranks rapidly, the near future will open up opportunities unimaginable today.

What is missing?

Firstly, the tendency of the climate justice movement to talk about fossil fuels and emissions is politically irrelevant at the moment and must be framed in a larger crisis context.

We are now in good conditions to defend essential work and public services as an overarching slogan that can include the diverse effects of the crises. The climate justice movement knows very well how to talk about what is essential for our societies: a livable planet is exactly what we were talking about for years.

Secondly, COVID-19 has been a punch in the face for all our societies and in particular for our movements. The first psychological response to the new context was to relativize the criterion of success: instead of asking if we were successful, activists started talking about whether they were successful given the context. This is a climate denialist approach. The pandemic did not suspend climate deadlines. Our failure to radically transform the social structures cannot be blamed at a both living and non-living thing of a diameter of 0.00000012 m (120 nanometers). We need to get back to telling the truth (to ourselves, to start with) and embrace the state of climate emergency in which we continue living.

A proposal for a short-term action plan

Planning is particularly crucial in times of uncertainty as it is the only political tool to avoid a derailed, degenerated or unfocused movement. The plans for the upcoming months must have enough flexibility to accommodate diverse unpredictable scenarios, while maintaining a clear strategic direction.

1) Set the tone

Throughout the summer, take to the streets against all policies that aim at establishing the climate chaos normal.

Broaden the narrative for system change. Create leadership for a public services and basic rights program that aims at decommodifying healthcare, education, housing, food, energy and transport. This is not a mere movement of movements framework where everyone talks about their topic: if the economic crisis triggers a social crisis, we all need to be conversant on all topics.

2) Autumn: Mass mobilizations

With the public services and basic rights narrative, call for mass mobilizations in autumn. Diversify tactics and targets to test possible cracks in the status quo.

3) November: Establish the movement commitment.

In November, launch the Glasgow Agreement to reclaim the initiative from governments and international institutions and create an alternative tool for action and articulation for the climate justice movement.

4) Recruit and plan: December/January

Consolidate your capacities by organizing activist trainings on different levels: climate activism schools for newcomers, strategy trainings for the less experienced, and skillshare for everyone.

Have strategy meetings based on built-up trust among activists. Explore and establish plans to launch at the annual National Gathering on Climate Justice.

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