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The climate movement we need right now

With Glasgow done and 1.5 degrees on life support, what kind of climate activism do we need from here on out?

By Alex Evans — 16th Nov · 15 min read

With Glasgow done and 1.5 degrees on “life support”, what kind of climate movement do we need from here on out?

For some leading voices on climate activism, like Bill McKibben or George Monbiot, the answer seems to be: more of the same. More shouting, more civil disobedience, more marches in the streets. And perhaps they’re right.

But it’s also worth asking: might we need a different kind of climate movement at this point? I’ve been thinking about that a lot since writing a recent blog post on the risks of polarising public opinion on climate change – and others have been chewing on it too. 

Here in the UK, Extinction Rebellion’s Rupert Read has done a long and thoughtful essay on why climate activism now needs a “moderate flank”. In the US, meanwhile, Sunrise veterans Johnathan Guy and Sam Zacher penned a great piece for Jacobin on “what the Sunrise movement can do better”. And it turns out there’s a lot of commonality across their analyses. Three points stand out.

Where we are

1. Sunrise and XR have achieved a lot. In the US, Guy and Zacher note, Sunrise has “effectively popularised and refocused public discourse around the Green New Deal” – with many of its core policies now enjoying majority public support (and, we can now add, Biden’s infrastructure and climate bill passed into law). 

Same story in the UK. Read argues XR has “shifted the terms of debate on climate breakdown, dramatically altering public opinion” (see also this) – and that it can can claim some credit for Theresa May’s landmark legislation for a net zero emissions target, as well as Parliament creating a citizens’ assembly on climate.

2. But now they’re hitting diminishing returns. For all of XR’s successes in 2019, Read says, it’s now “marginal in terms of numbers, in terms of ongoing impact, and in terms of deep structural change or influence. To pretend otherwise is dangerous, akin to denialism about reality.”

In the US, according to Guy and Zacher, “Sunrise’s tactical repertoire is running up against hard limits”. Big marches in May and June “received little to no media coverage”. While Sunrise’s model was great for setting a political agenda, they continue, it has “clear limitations” on the very different aim of “winning and implementing policy over the long term”.

3. Further progress depends on broadening the coalition. The battle against climate can’t be won just by firing up the progressive activists that form Sunrise and XR’s base. As George Marshall puts it, climate is “far too large to be solved without a near-total commitment across society”.

So Guy and Zacher think Sunrise needs to “penetrate a much broader cross section of the population” and “focus on developing a mass base of support at local levels”. In the UK, meanwhile, Read flags the need for groups that “change the world using less confrontational strategies, trying to manifest the change they want to see, and thus to activate swathes of potential rebels who are looking for something more positive, and by and large less illegal”. So where does that take us?

What next?

If they’re right, and we do need to look at different ways of organising at this point, then what might that look like? Here are ten thoughts.

1. Don’t alienate people we need to win over. Direct action is an invaluable tool for political movements. As Green New Deal Rising’s Fatima Ibrahim observed in a great piece a month ago, history offers no shortage of examples of how disruptive action can create political space for change.

But we need to take care about who gets disrupted. Actions targeting financial institutions, private jets, or the City of London are hard to argue with. But when actions target – and alienate – people whom we need to win over, that’s a whole different story. 

XR provided a perfect example of this with its catastrophic Canning Town action, when it blocked rush hour tube trains in a working class area of London – leading to what Read calls a “massive, perhaps permanent tarnishing of XR’s reputation”. Insulate Britain‘s actions blocking roads (ignoring even a tearful woman trying to reach her sick mother) is a similar story. We need to be a lot smarter than this.

2. To appeal to a broad spectrum, be a broad spectrum. Guy and Zacher are blunt that “Sunrise is socially dis-embedded from American society”, given its “largely affluent, highly educated, and metropolitan membership”.

That rings true for XR too. I was involved in its protests in Leeds in the summer of 2019, and noted afterwards that our members looked “a lot like the stereotypical eco-activists of popular imagination and media caricature” (‘Glastonbury x Waitrose’, as someone put it at the time). 

From here on out, climate activism needs to be visibly drawn from a far wider range of membership – less white, less middle class, less urban. Polling shows that climate matters to all political segments, not just progressive activists. But we’ll struggle to recruit people from that broad cross-section unless we work hard to ensure that we look like a broad cross-section.

3. Don’t set purity tests as a condition of entry. Last week a friend (and veteran campaigner) was marching with climate activists in Glasgow, and saw a PETA placard reading “shut up about climate change if you eat meat”. These kind of ‘purity tests’ that set out to delineate an enlightened in-group from a not-good-enough out-group, are exactly the kind of thing we don’t need if we’re trying to build a big tent that welcomes people in.

More broadly, we’ll also struggle to appeal to a broad spectrum of people if we not only link climate to all kinds of other issues, but also demand that people take exactly the same view as we do if they want to be part of our movement. Rupert Read again:

“If you demand commitment to open borders (or to signing up to all aspects and 100% of the trans rights agenda, or to the doctrine that our society is ‘white supremacist’ etc.) as conditions for entry to the climate movement, do not be surprised if the movement remains small, marginal and does not actually win.”

4. Offer more ways of being involved. From the get-go, XR placed massive emphasis on getting arrested as the central requirement of meaningful participation. This was never a smart theory of change (see this great piece by Nafeez Ahmed), but also drastically limited XR’s appeal to potential members – whether because of work or family responsibilities, or because of blunt considerations of safety, especially for people of colour.

To appeal to a broad spectrum of people, a future climate movement needs to offer more ways to be involved and feel part of the groundswell, above all with low barriers to entry – starting with the personal commitments and moving out towards the systemic. Let’s take a closer look at what that journey could involve.

5. Start with personal action. Climate activists can sometimes be dismissive of the significance of personal actions. We see them as insufficient at best, and at worst as a distraction from the larger work of securing systemic change. And if it were a binary choice of either personal change or systemic change, then of course systemic would be the way to go. In reality, though, it’s not that simple.

What we risk overlooking here is the role of personal action in helping to bring about that systemic change. For one thing, starting with what people can do in their own lives begins to build a sense of agency – a vital foundation for anything else, especially when the issue we’re up against so often feels overwhelming and we feel so powerless.

And for another, personal actions matter as a way of showing we mean it. Climate delayers love nothing more than to point out the hypocrisy of climate campaigners who fly, eat meat or whatever. But that will be less and less effective the more of us are not only walking the walk, but doing so as part of a movement.

6. Build small groups. Here at Larger Us, we’re a bit obsessive about small groups, not least because of how often they’re the building bricks for movements. Small, face to face groups of people (“primary groups”, as sociologists like to call them) build loyalty like almost nothing else – one reason why armies have for thousands of years organised themselves into platoon sized units.

Hardly a surprise, then, that movements that last often use primary groups as their foundation. People thrive on the sense of belonging that they engender, which in turn acts as a ‘glue’ to keep people engaged for the long term. 

Climate activism can be rich in these kinds of small, often place-based groups. Think of XR’s ‘affinity groups’; the groups of classmates that made the school strikes happen; or the local groups at the heart of Friends of the Earth’s Climate Action Groups. There’s a crucial lesson here that we need to remember for the future, not least because so much of the action needed – on housing, transport, nature and more – will be local.

7. Have conversations. Something else those small groups will be good for: fanning out across the country, street by street, to have conversations with people about climate change (and maybe also to offer help when floods or storms or heat waves strike, further underlining why we need to take radical action immediately).

There’s a ton of evidence from academic research on ‘deep canvassing’ that it’s conversations – not facts, data, or pie charts – that change people’s minds and determine what they think about political issues, especially when those issues are charged or polarising. 

We need conversations like that on climate change. Everywhere. Now. We know that the concern about climate change is there, across the political spectrum. But that concern needs to be activated, fired up, organised. Conversations are how we’ll do this – but it will require us to rethink our idea of campaigning, and the infrastructure we need in order to do it.

8. Elections, elections, elections. As our focus shifts from agenda setting to how to hold governments to the task of a decades-long transition, protest will only get us so far. What we really need is power to get governments to do what we want. And that means tipping the balance of elections.

Our most important task of all is to show politicians that a critical mass of us across the political spectrum want radical action on climate – really want it, as opposed to the “thin yes” of people merely expressing a view when asked in opinion polls – and that climate is the issue on which their fortunes will depend at the next election. 

How? Pledges would be a good start. Imagine if, rather than getting arrested, the keystone action of our movement were to sign a pledge that commits us to voting for whoever offers the most radical climate action come election time. These pledges could then be aggregated at district / constituency and national level to show candidates just how many votes are up for grabs if they get serious. 

But pledges alone won’t be enough. We also have to prove that we’ll make good on them – which means that we also need a get-out-the-vote operation the like of which any political party would die for. One that’s there to be claimed by whichever party offers our movement the most ambitious action on climate change.

9. Don’t get boxed in on the left. Let’s be clear, though: to make this strategy work, we need to bring right wing voters into our movement and pitch our message to right of centre as well as left of centre parties. Here’s why.

If everyone in our movement is on the left, then all we can really do is attack centre left parties like Labour or the Democrats from the left – which means, in electoral terms, threatening to stay home or to vote for candidates who have no chance of winning in a First Past The Post system but can certainly lose the election for the centre left (hi Ralph Nader; hi Green Party).

Of course, there are good arguments for showing centre left leaders that they shouldn’t take our votes for granted. But think about the political calculus this leaves for parties on the right of politics. Sure, they could raise their game on climate and try to steal votes from further left on the political spectrum. But they’re unlikely to try that hard if they know the potential defectors all lean left. Far more likely that they reach for the popcorn and chuckle heartily as the left eats itself.

If, by contrast, you have a climate movement that really does stretch across the political spectrum, then that’s a whole other ballgame. Suddenly people on the right are sitting up much straighter, figuring that voters are involved who they actually need to worry about. And with more options for whom to vote for, climate voters can make much more credible threats about why no politician should take them for granted.

10. Let’s hear it for entryism! Finally, one last thought while we’re on the subject of right of centre parties. If you’ve been keeping half an eye on British politics over the last few years, you may have noticed that interesting things can happen inside political parties when a whole lot of new members suddenly join – bringing with them new perspectives, new policy agendas, and new votes to cast in party leadership elections or constituency level candidate selections. In the US, too, Sunrise and its allies at Justice Democrats have shown how much can be achieved by running from the left in Democrat party primaries.

Mischievous strategists must surely be asking themselves what might unfold if this started happening to other parties too. The Conservatives have well under 200,000 members at this point – a fifth as many people as belong to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. So the question isn’t so much, why don’t climate activists take it over. It’s more like…

…why haven’t they done so already?

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