§0. The leading questions for this note are: Where is the climate justice movement? Are we winning? Are we closer to winning?1
I will address them under a time frame of one year, and I will be alternating my viewpoint through the historical method of analysis. I will be looking at today from the point of view of January 2020, at today from the point of view of ten years later, at the year 2020 from the point of view of January 2020, and at the year 2020 from the point of view of today. The location of the observation point and the location of the observed point will introduce different sets of political, strategic, tactical and moral standards for the conversation.2
§1. Looking back at 2020, we should start by acknowledging that we lost momentum before the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring 2020 mobilizations were generally expected to be relatively smaller, while various collectives have struggled to reinvent their tactics.
As the sociopolitical atmosphere was paralyzed by the pandemic, we failed to relaunch momentum and found ourselves as “one among many” issues to deal with.
§2. Movement capacity has diminished not only in terms of numbers on the streets and radicality, but also in terms of leaders and organizers. Some of this loss is natural and expected, as the novelty element brought in not only the committed but also the curious.
§2.1. As a matter of fact, the climate justice movement has been rather successful in consolidating its organizational capacity and is now facing a different kind of conundrum: we have too many organizers for the amount of people we are mobilizing. So far, this has only led to frustration, but it contains the risk of leading to marginalization.
The Movement for Black Lives showed that people are still interested in mobilizing for justice, so it’s not a “generalized” sense of societal passivity.
We should therefore continue thinking novelty and innovation in our communication and tactics.
§2.2. The pandemic resulted in a reduced radicality and mobilization, and for no good reason.
It made progressives into defenders of the status quo, as the climate justice movement aligned with government policies on containing the pandemic in support of science- and evidence-based policies. The lock-down measures were at most criticized for not being good enough or not being fair, while mostly the climate action was just communicating existing government recommendations.
While one year ago we shouted “How dare you?!” to these same governments for ignoring basic climate science, while these are the exact same institutions who failed us miserably, intentionally and systematically on all social justice issues, we somehow decided that this time they were going to do the right thing. This time, they would pursue public interest. This time, they would put people before profit.
This was major failure that will have long-term effects.
Our entire point that all current political institutions were climate denialists in action and guilty of carrying us toward runaway climate crisis is now dissolved in our complicity.
The longer the governments tried to “balance” economy and public health, the more this became true. Our discourse slowly merged into a larger block that contains the main actors we were fighting against a year ago.
And then came the US elections and made it even worse, as tactical considerations allied the climate justice movement to the neoliberal agenda.
§3. Looking at the COVID-19 pandemic, some climate organizations seriously toned down climate discourse – an absolutely ridiculous move. Others found ways of articulating joint demands (just recovery, bailout the future, defund the police, etc.).
Some sustained radical action (Ende Gelände, Shell Must Fall, and the Anti-bodies action in Lisbon, to name a few). Otherwise, most actions were rather symbolic or low-profile or “digital”, without any disruptive perspective.
§4. Our house is on fire.
The period at the end of this last sentence is the key to [the possibility of] winning.
It cannot be replaced with a comma. It’s not “Our house is on fire, but the pandemic …”; it’s not “Our house is on fire, yet given the context …” .
All commas dilute the meaning of the sentence.
The year 2021 will be the year to fight for that one dot.
It’s our ultimate answer.
“The economy…” – Our house is on fire.
“Many people are sick…” – Our house is on fire.
“A realistic approach today…” – Our house is on fire.
The split between who understands that our house is on fire and who doesn’t (“tell the truth” as the Extinction Rebellion had reminded everyone) will be the main line of discussion.
We need to collect our collective anger and direct it toward the system, without being distracted by secondary issues.
The period at the end of that sentence is crucial for any strategic thinking.
§5. We lost an entire year of climate action in 2020.
We have a total of 8 years. We lost one of them. We lost more than 12% of our available time.3
Emission cuts cannot wait. And therefore, we cannot wait.
§6. The notion that the climate justice struggle would exist despite the pandemic or after the pandemic is false. If we let the politicians who “dealt” with the climate crisis deal with the pandemic, then the pandemic will never end and at the same time we will lose precious time for climate action.
The ruling class did not stop ruling. The security forces did not give in their monopoly on violence, and in fact gained more liberties through normalized states of emergency. We also cannot stop.
The climate justice struggle must exist within the pandemic.
§7. In terms of narrative framework, an anti-systemic public services and basic rights discourse based on what is essential still seems to be the most useful political tool at our hands.4
§8. In terms of movement tactics, we still need to look at the immediate impacts of the pandemic.
§8.1. The lock-down had an immediate impact on our work, which is to exasperate polarization. Our societies are now much more atomized. For months, everyone solely relied on their closest friends and families. For months, we lost contact of “acquaintances”, of colleagues, of that neighbor we would say hi every morning in the cafe, of that person in the library who would keep an eye on our stuff while we fetched some water… We lost our secondary and tertiary social layers. Add to this the algorithms of social media, the entire society is transformed into a set of separated bubbles.
This will make our communication, our outreach and our mobilization much more difficult, even if the pandemic ended tonight.
§8.2. There is yet another lateral effect of the pandemic. Since everything in capitalism is filtered through “the economy,” the disruptive impact of the pandemic has implied and will continue to imply bankruptcies and bailouts.
During 2021, there will probably be less talk on new fossil fuel projects and more talk on what should happen to existing infrastructures and existing companies. Besides oil, gas, coal and airline companies, banks may also be part of this conversation soon,5 which connects well to the narrative framework of paragraph 7.
§9. A short-term action plan for the beginning of 2021 could then pass through the following stages.
January: Make sure there is consensus in your ranks about the statement “Our house is on fire.”, its full meaning and – most importantly – the period at the of it.
February/March: Set the movement agenda for 2021. Establish targets and tactics for Spring, and build a long-term movement building strategy until Autumn through the Peoples’ Climate Agenda process of the Glasgow Agreement.
For Spring, call for real-life mass action with concrete and immediate demands. (Commit to calling off the action if your demands are met.)
1 These are the same questions as the “reality check”s I published here earlier, and are therefore subject to the same limitations, namely that this is a personal evaluation of where we are at, as the climate justice movement, in comparison to last year and that most of my analysis is focused on Portugal but some is applicable to Europe at the least.
2 For instance, from the point of view of a teenager in the 2060s, a pandemic that lasted a couple of years is no excuse for climate inaction in any standards.
3 I believe that not enough people understood the meaning of IPCC’s 1.5ºC report. Under its soothing tone relying on non-existing negative emissions schemes lies the our actual carbon budget. If emissions continue equal, we consume all of our budget by 2028. If they fall 7% every year like they did in 2020 due to the pandemic, we consume our budget by 2035. (While emissions did fall during 2020 due to disruption in consumption patterns, there was so far no structural change in production patterns and therefore there is no reason to avoid a rebound effect.) See Carbon Budget Calculator for the 1.5ºC carbon budget.
4 See Reality check: turbulent times for the climate justice movement, 18 June 2020.
5 Investment in the cheapest options in the hope of an economic rebound would then follow, but this would probably be less of a hot topic for the first half of the year.