Coping Out: What Will It Take to Overcome the Environmental Movement's Impasse?
Coping Out: What Will It Take to Overcome the Environmental Movement's Impasse?
By Nicholas Beuret /

The activist part of me is pissed off at the French government for banning the protest marches that planned to target the UN Climate Change conference (known as the COP21) in Paris this December. It would have been amazing to see thousands of people taking to the streets demanding climate justice and breaking the stale grey commentary surrounding international climate change politics. That bit of me hopes the protests still go ahead.

But another part of me hopes no one turns up at all, and is actually glad the marches won’t happen. Not out of despair, or in some sneering ultra-left sense, but because the environmental movement is stuck and protests like the ones planned for the COP are part of the reason for the current impasse. I hope people don’t turn up because, in the end, spectacular protests such as these are making things worse.

Despite 20 years of activism…

We are heading towards a 3-4C global temperature rise. Despite creative actions, grassroots climate movements and committed NGO campaigns (and even some government action) climate change hasn’t been stopped. Sure enough, we shouldn’t dismiss what has been achieved. That climate change might be limited to 3-4C is actually an achievement, which has happened largely due to the campaigns of environmentalists and the emergence of a strong public belief that climate change has to be tackled by governments. But it’s not enough, not by a long shot. It is not enough according to the standards governments, scientists and activists hold themselves to. A 3-4C rise in global temperatures is actually disastrously bad.

The red line many in the climate movement have been pushing is a maximum increase of no more than 2C – a rise which is possibly too dangerous already. The maths of staying below 2C relies on global emissions peaking this year. What is becoming increasingly clear is that it is probably too late to stay below a 2C rise in global temperatures.

Despite 20 years of activism climate politics is stuck. Climate change is a problem so big, so complicated (everything has to change) and so urgent (it has to happen now, now, now) that for the most part the environmental movement finds itself with few options for action. Because climate change means changing everything, any progress on a small, local or even regional scale feels inadequate. Because it’s so complicated it seems resistant to democratic politics – just imagine what it is going to take to get everyone to agree on how we are going to solve the problem, even on a local scale. Because it’s so urgent there is no time for negotiating with people, a third of whom don’t think climate change is all that serious anyway. It is for all these messy, difficult reasons that climate change protests take the form of mass spectacular actions like the ones planned for the Paris COP21.

The COP21 protest isn’t so different to the actions that happened at COP15 in 2009, or any of the ones before that. It’s also not so different from Climate Camp or, going further back, most of the summit protests of the anti-globalisation movement. In each case you had a symbol of a global problem around which people could mobilise, and in each case you had no real opportunity to affect the thing being protested against. What happened in each case – and what will continue to happen – is what we could call ‘militant lobbying’. These actions were/are stunts intending to put pressure on governments to act, even when carried out in the name of anti-state politics or anti-authoritarian practice. They can’t be anything else.

While they are almost always billed as direct actions, what makes an action ‘direct’ is its capacity to disrupt or stop something without recourse to some other power. A useful example would be the anti-roads movement in the UK. The government of the day had scheduled a massive programme of road construction, often through existing neighbourhoods or woods. People banded together to form local campaigns against the specific roads, and created a number of action camps which physically blocked road construction. One by one the camps fell, but not before costing the government large sums of money and slowing the project down immensely. In the end the disruption became too much and the government cancelled most of the programme.

We can contrast the anti-roads movement with the planned actions at COP21. In Paris, at best they will block some delegates from leaving a meeting that will have concluded, the content of which will have largely been decided over the prior months of negotiations. Which means the planned protests won’t affect the outcome, and won’t affect climate change in any way directly either. The action is and can only be intended to put pressure on governments to make a stronger agreement. But then, given the scale, complexity and urgency of climate change, who else could possibly deal with it as an issue?

There’s no solving climate change.

At this stage, with ecological catastrophe looming on the horizon, it looks like the environmental movement has little choice but to try to move governments to act. But the reasons for needing governments to act are the same reasons we can’t expect much more from them than they have already done.

The problem is urgent, but it’s taken 20 years to get to this point and it seems doubtful there will suddenly be a change in international relations allowing for rapid global decarbonisation. The problem is global, so countries can’t go it alone but have to work through torturously slow international negotiations. And finally everything has to change, including ending capitalism, something no state, no matter how green, will ever do voluntarily. To keep this in perspective, it took the threat of an armed communist insurgency in Europe to bring about the NHS and the welfare state. What would it take to push governments towards a low carbon, no growth economy?

Government seems like the only option, except it’s no real option: this is where we are stuck. So, perhaps undoing the triad of urgency, complexity and global scale might help to un-stick the problem.

The only solution we have – getting governments to act – isn’t going to work, definitely not in time to arrest climate change before we get to 2C. Put the urgency to one side, just for a moment, and start by saying we’ll be living with a 3-4C rise in all likelihood. What would it mean to start from there?

The atmosphere is a factory…

It would mean asking two questions: how do we limit climate change and how do we live with it justly?

At first glance climate change looks too big and complicated to tackle on anything other than a global scale. But that’s a mistake in perspective. All complex processes, especially global ones, emerge out of specific places. Climate change is produced bit-by-bit, place-by-place. You can start to arrest climate change by disrupting its processes of production.

Imagine a factory. You don’t have to occupy the whole factory floor in order to disrupt production. You just have to find the right spot – a choke point of production, an essential assembly line, or that crucial workshop. Strikes, occupations and sabotage; all of these are asymmetrical tactics that have worked for as long as there have been factories.

Or we could think about capitalism itself. You can’t blockade capitalism, but you can wear it down as a global system place-by-place, strike by strike, occupation by occupation. It’s only global because it is made global. And it can and must be unmade.

Climate change is just as susceptible. I’m willing to bet that one of its weak points is energy infrastructure: the old power stations, the ones not yet built, the mines, refineries, pipelines and container ports. Each can be disrupted, and each disruption will have a knock on effect, forcing a reaction from corporations and government, creating another process we can intervene in and potentially reshaping how our energy is produced, distributed and used.

Taking this approach means creating different organisational forms than the ones we have used for the past decade. It would mean going back to the blockading organisations we had in the 1990s – in the UK at least; much of the rest of the world never gave them up. We would no longer have to be focused on building massive spectacular events but on creating the infrastructure to organise at a local level for years at a time. We would need to be skilled not so much in media work but in training blockaders and maintaining blockades. We would need to become radical organisers, not activists.

Working in specific places over long periods of time would necessarily mean having those hard conversations about what the future should look like; about who should and will pay for the transition; about jobs, migration, wars and pollution. It would mean being able (and having no choice but) to make space for debate and grassroots democracy. In other words, it’s an opportunity to treat climate change as a matter of justice, starting in a meaningful way with people we might not agree with or might find it difficult to talk to.

But here’s the catch. What this means is not only changing how we do climate politics, but also giving up on our sense of the future as a looming catastrophe. A hotter planet will be grim, but – perversely – making sure it doesn’t get too grim might depend on letting go of our sense of urgency and making time and space for the deeper and longer direct action campaigns that used to characterise the environmental movement in the UK.

I suspect many in the movement already agree with me – a return to the blockading movements of the 1990s would be welcomed. Any yet I can also imagine people saying ‘yes, but why not both?’

There can’t be both because given the choice between a beautiful riot with a thousand people in Paris that will get you home in time for tea or a year long campaign with a dozen other people and a dog in the Midlands in the mud, most people will choose Paris. Because it’s dead sexy. There can’t be both because there aren’t an endless number of people involved in environmental politics, and we need to make choices if we are to have any impact on climate change at all. And there can’t be both because in the end protests like the COP give people a false hope in governments which actually make our job that much harder.

Governments won’t fix climate change any more than they have. If we want to stop things getting really grim – if we want to move into a future in which the climate is changing with any sense of justice – then we need to do it ourselves.

Photo: Kris Krüg/Flickr

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Coping Out: What Will It Take to Overcome the Environmental Movement's Impasse?