§1. We can trace the history of the climate justice movement back to 2007, but in its initial form it was designed to depend on creating pressure on the UN summits: when in 2009 the COP15 in Copenhagen collapsed (or was made to collapse by Obama and others), the movement also collapsed. So most people generally refer to the movement that took off in 2015 with its own strategic agenda beyond the COP21 in Paris. That movement built a considerable disruptive capability that reached a tipping point in 2019 and exploded. Currently, in late 2021, the movement’s capacity is still larger than it was in 2018 but it diminished since the peak of the wave.
So now some of us our facing a downward slope while politicians are declaring themselves as climate leaders. As much as we shout that they are shamelessly lying, we still need to acknowledge that some things are qualitatively different after the wave. We must come to terms with our victories and failures, since climate crisis is not going to be out of fashion – not during this century at least – and in fact will produce more and more waves.
So the question is: how do we conceive and conceptualize progress, while we know we are desperately failing?
§2. We must start with the truth.
There is currently no energy transition happening. Renewable energy sources are not replacing fossil fuels. The demand for all fossil fuels is on the rise, rebounding further upwards after 2020. What we are observing is an energy expansion: all energy sources are expanding, renewable and fossil alike. The fossil fuel industry is receiving 9.5 million euros of fiscal and financial support, per minute.
After years of active denial, capitalism is finally realizing that the movement is too big to ignore and is therefore aiming to co-opt its demands into a green growth discourse. It is easy for us activists to point out that the governments are outright lying and using the climate crisis as a pretext for diverting public funds to multinational corporations. Yet it is less easy to deal with the frustration when governments and corporations greenwash their image and the public seems to start thinking that everything is under control.
We are heading towards a 3ºC warming by the end of the century, if all governments fulfil all their commitments in honest ways. We are currently inhabiting a 1.1ºC warmer planet. So, to limit warming to 1.5ºC, an additional increase of 0.4ºC would be sufficient. Instead, we are looking at a 1.9ºC additional warming. That’s an error of 375%.
In short, we are failing.
§3. The question, then, is not whether we are failing or not. The question is how badly we are failing, and how to keep up the fight.
Some things are changing. Rather than a 3.5ºC warming by the end of the century, which was the state of affairs in 2015, now the climate policies are pointing towards a 3ºC scenario. This is due to a combination of developments, like the European Green Deal, the Climate Plan of the Biden administration and China’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.
First of all, the governments are lying about “net emissions”. Second of all, they are lying about their commitments because they don’t write those commitments into law, which means a change of winds in the political environment could erase them overnight. Thirdly, and most importantly, all these plans guarantee run-away climate change: an irreversible, self-reinforcing climate breakdown where each degree of warming brings about the next degree of warming.
But fighting still matters.
A mental exercise on historical perspectives may help.
Imagine you are in 2050. It can be 2ºC warmer, or 3ºC warmer, or 4ºC warmer. In all these cases, the tipping point of climate chaos was passed. Yet, whether it is 3ºC or 4ºC warmer matters. Remember Alan Kurdi? Please remember Alan Kurdi.
Alan was a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background who drowned on 2 September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea along with his mother and brother.
Never forget Alan Kurdi.
The difference between a 2ºC warmer world and a 3ºC warmer world is the difference between having tens of Alans every year or hundreds of Alans every year.
Every degree that we push down saves hundreds of millions of lives, avoids millions of cases of sexual violence, saves hundreds of millions from starvation. If we cross the point of no return, it ultimately does not matter, because human civilization as we know it will collapse. But it does matter for those hundreds of millions of toddlers who will be alive in 2050.
We cannot lie to ourselves and find comfort in incremental improvements. But we should also humbly celebrate the lives we already saved.
§4. What did we really do? In Portugal, the movement achieved quite a few things since 2015. In none of the cases was it the movement alone who won. In almost none of the cases did the victory look like what we wanted it to be. Yet, we are learning and we are growing.
The earlier climate movement (2015-2018) successfully stopped 15 oil and gas projects throughout the country. Back in 2018, Climáximo calculated the carbon footprint of this struggle. Updating the calculations now, we can see that around 1000 people mobilized to stop the projects that were supposed to start in 2016 and as of 2021 this amounts to 64.000 tonnes of CO2 left in the ground. If we add in the fact that the contracts got cancelled (rather than a mere postponement in the project calendars), we would add another two years of delay and reach at 185.000 tonnes of CO2. So, each person who mobilized against oil and gas in Portugal saved the country 185 tonnes of emissions in five years, or 37 tonnes per year. Think about this for a moment. The average annual per capita emissions in Portugal is around 6 tonnes of CO2. Struggling against oil and gas has been seven times more effective than not existing.
This victory was the result of a militant local struggle and cannot possibly be explained without it. Yet it was never announced as a movement victory. The contracts were silently taken down from government websites. The decree law that encourages such projects was not repealed. But it was our victory anyway.
The second story is about how, for decades, each government would promise to close down the coal power plants in three elections’ time (and never during their mandate). The Socialist Party government was also talking about a time frame of a decade or more. Then came the 2019 wave. Then they decided to close down the Sines coal power plant in 2021 and the Pego coal power plant in 2022. This was the result of the international climate mobilizations and was accompanied by the international political changes, particularly the European funding for corporations that would accelerate closing of carbon intensive infrastructures. A total of 10 million tonnes of annual emissions were cut with the closing down the two power plants. This victory was even more ambiguous for the movement, as the workers were left behind without any solutions. A brief opportunity for an alliance was missed, and both sides (climate activists and the workers) ended up disappointed with the process.1
A third story is the expansion of public transport facilities. The combined transport pass for urban areas and the newly announced national railway plan are 1) completely insufficient, 2) inexplicable without the climate movement and 3) results of decades-long struggles with diverse social and political actors.
These all happened. They wouldn’t have happened without the climate justice movement. They were unimaginable and “unrealistic” a couple of years before they happened. We, everyone in the movement, contributed to them.
§5. So what does it all mean?
It means we are absolutely failing.
We can still win.
But we are also failing less.
Even through run-away climate change, organizing and mobilizing will continue saving lives. Even when it’s too late to win, it will never be too late to fight.
1 The closing down of Galp’s oil refinery in Matosinhos does not enter into this list. Galp simply transferred production to another refinery due to economic considerations in the post-pandemic context. Neither the government nor the company framed this move as part of an energy transition.
This article was written during the course Ecology of Social Movements in Ulex, in October 2021.