Demands for an unprecedented transformation of society have moved from the fringe ideas of eco-socialists to the mainstream debate in the Global North in the past year.
The “Green New Deal” is gaining traction both among US Democrats and the UK’s Labour Party. There’s a growing desire for positive and visionary ideas, and a growing recognition of the scale and time frame of the challenge.
Read 'System change and internationalism' tomorrow.
We can see the same desire in the explosion of “Extinction Rebellion” and the phenomenal School Strike 4 Climate. These initiatives have emerged in different ways and represent different, and internally diverse politics, but they all speak to the same tendency: a profound sense of panic among people in the Global North.
There is much to praise and be heartened by in these shifting politics, but there are is a danger of missteps which could roll back the modest advances climate justice movements have made in the past few decades, and even contribute to the political forces we oppose.
We need to debate the strategic value of the choices being made. We cannot afford to be uncritical, nor nihilistic.
For years, while climate justice movements fought to show climate change as a real and present danger resulting from a rigged economic system, and to build people power to change the system, NGOs from the Global North used their superior access, resources, and media connections to call for pragmatism and reform.
But the breakdown of climate and other natural systems is occurring faster and with worse impacts than predicted, including in Europe and North America. And we are starting to see more urgency in the words of those same northern NGOs and more coverage in the media generally.
The IPCC’s Special Report on the Global Warming of 1.5℃ broke through in the north, with newspapers carrying headlines like “12 years left to save the world” (although the report itself did not say that).
Amid the resultant clamour for “climate action”, demands for “climate justice” have sometimes been drowned out.
“Climate justice” is usually divorced from the international context in which it was born, and stripped of its specific principles and demands - developed in democratic processes such as the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth - that make climate change a question of justice rather than a quibble about emissions.
To her credit, Greta Thunberg does speak about equity and is clear that the “sufferings of the many” in the south underwrite the “luxury of the few” in the North.
She has said that to avoid the end of human civilisation will require a massive overhaul of the dominant economic logic, and in particular the logic of consumerism that has developed over the past century in the north and is now being exported worldwide.
But her points in this regard are frequently overlooked and it is often only the urgency in her message that gets picked up. This is no fault of Greta.
Rather, it is the fault of the Global North’s mainstream NGOs who have conditioned mainstream media to ignore the need for just and systemic responses in favour of unhelpful, sensationalist “X years to save the world” headlines.
History shows us that far-right movements have experience in mobilising the idea of ecological preservation alongside nationalist exceptionalism.
A recent Buzzfeed exposé suggested the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had been willing to "get into bed" with paramilitary human rights violators to help their vision of preserving an ahistorical and dehumanised “nature”.
With these tendencies in mind, it would be extremely irresponsible to demand an urgent and robust response to climate change without qualifications as to what kind of action is it to be carried out, on what terms, and by whom.
We might feel a growing sense of panic but we need to keep cool heads. Declaring a state of ecological emergency can provide another excuse for making “tough choices” about who lives and who dies and who must sacrifice.
State of emergency
Others have pointed out how many countries, including the US, have been in a constant “state of emergency” for decades.
As Casey Williams writes in The Outline: “The history of such emergencies shows that they result in the expansion of repressive state power, short-circuiting political debate in favor of urgent, often militarized action to protect narrowly national interests, permitting governments to selfishly marginalise affected people even further.”
It may seem far-off, but we can already see, amid the clamour for climate action, support for dangerous distractions such as geoengineering and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).
These unproven technologies are likely to profit corporations while hurting people, driving biodiversity loss, and contributing to chronic hunger.
They are vigorously opposed by climate justice movements who point out that “net-zero emissions” as a demand leaves the door open to such false solutions and creates perverse incentives to carry on with extractivism as normal.
The threat of the current moment is that we end up reinforcing a dangerous “action at any cost” dynamic.
One of the slogans of the climate justice movement is “system change, not climate change” because climate change is but one expression of wider and deeper systemic issues which need addressing. Climate breakdown makes changing the system even more necessary of course.
The fight for climate justice is not only about cutting carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases, it is about the fundamental transformation of the systems that govern and underpin our lives.
The fossil fuel-dominated energy system leaves one billion people with little or no electricity. It’s not enough to change the fuel source of such a system. We need a people’s owned and controlled, decentralised energy system, based on sources of energy that are not only clean and renewable, but also safe.
Though we might not want to grapple with this emergent reality, even large scale solar and wind rely on the extraction of materials, and sometimes the coercion and displacement of communities.
So it’s time to rethink the entire system of producing and consuming energy, including the question of ownership.
Inequality and exploitation
Our current and cruel food system is another major source of greenhouse gas emissions – and it sees roughly one third of all food produced go to waste while close to a billion people go hungry each year.
Transport, housing and urban design are comparable in that they don’t actually serve the real needs of the majority of people while at the same time being incredibly polluting.
Our entire economic system fosters inequality between and within nations while exploiting natural resources in a manner and rate that is leading to ecological collapse.
All these sectors must be radically restructured through a rapid, just transition to systems that serve the needs of peoples rather than profit.
There’s not really any choice: we must live within the limits of local ecosystems and ultimately with the whole Earth system. We can’t just swap coal for solar and beef for soya and carry on with business as usual.
A Green New Deal tied to economic growth is useless to us. As thinkers such as Jason Hickel constantly remind us, resources must be more fairly shared between the many and the few, while consumption itself must be scaled down.
Fundamentally we require different ways of relating to each other and the world, and many such alternatives already exist in the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, as well as in the sub-cultures and movements for alternatives of people living in industrial civilisation.
It is important and encouraging that the new climate politics, embodied in the Green New Deal and School Strike For Climate, is not talking narrowly about “environmental” issues, but rather speaks as to many interrelated issues which cannot be addressed in isolation.
There are no environmental issues which are not also social issues, and vice versa.
The new climate politics must make no accomodation to those who seek to preserve the system intact, with either the fuel source changed, or some minor stops put on the most extreme vulgarities. The emperor has no clothes, as even striking school children now say, and no amount of fig leaves will make it otherwise.
Nathan Thanki is co-coordinator of the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, a network of over 250 groups around the world struggling for system change. He also coordinates the climate justice constituency at the United Nations climate change negotiations and is a co-founder of The World of 1℃, a communications initiative which aims to improve ecological literacy and promote climate justice framing.
A version of this article was first published on Open Democracy. Read System change and internationalism tomorrow.
Image: Climate justice activists from Nepal, Peru, Germany, the USA and the Philippines marching in Bonn during COP23. © Claire Miranda, Asian People's Movement on debt & Development.