Let’s burn the planet! (or maybe not?)

We urgently need to rebuild a powerful climate justice movement for system change

Some news from mainstream media outlets from just a few days, and I wonder what we – the climate justice movement – are waiting for:

  • Nearly half of existing fossil fuel production sites need to be shut down early if global heating is to be limited to 1.5C, the internationally agreed goal for avoiding climate catastrophe, according to a new scientific study.” (The Guardian, 17 May 2022)

  • The world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are quietly planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts, a Guardian investigation shows.

    The exclusive data shows these firms are in effect placing multibillion-dollar bets against humanity halting global heating. Their huge investments in new fossil fuel production could pay off only if countries fail to rapidly slash carbon emissions, which scientists say is vital.“ (The Guardian, 11 May 2022)

  • "There is great potential in Africa, but I would say that it's got to be very limited in the short-term because gas projects take time to materialise," she says.

    But in the medium- and long-term, "you will see greater investment to increase the capacity to bring more gas out of the ground and bring them to Europe".” (BBC News, 16 May 2022)

  • The Europe Gas Crisis Tracker identifies 26 LNG terminals, terminal expansion projects, and floating storage and regasification units (FSRUs) in ten European countries, 22 of which have been announced, proposed or revived since February 2022.

    Despite some gaps in project information, these projects would boost import capacity by at least 152 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/y), at a cost of at least 6 billion euros.

    This potential capacity increase is significantly at odds with recent analysis showing that the EU has enough gas import capacity – both operating and in development prior to the war in Ukraine – to get off Russian gas.” (Global Energy Motor, 16 May 2022)

While the scientific evidence is getting ever stronger that we have to get out of all fossil fuels as soon as possible, that a big chunk of committed reservers and production capacities (that is, fossil fuel reserves for which an investment decisions has already been made) need to stay in the ground, thus leading to “stranded assets”, the fossil fuel industry is using the Ukraine war as an opportunity to push through new gas and other fossil fuel products, as if climate change did not exist. “Let’s burn the planet”, seems to be their motto, “and reap benefits as long as we can. Who cares what come after.

We know we can’t trust our governments, and we can’t trust the UN process within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Paris Agreement and the COP process) either. Neither our governments, nor the UN process (which, in the end, is a government process) will limit climate change to anything near 1.5ºC. We know that, and we knew that before COP26 in Glasgow, or before the Paris Agreement. But, what are we going to do about it?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic (remember?), we had the vision of a climate uprising – remember By 2020 We Rise Up? We talked about closing the gap between our analisys and what climate science tells us, and our actions. I don’t think we really were ambitious enough. I don’t think we did talk enough about the need for system change, for degrowth, for a very profound change of our cisheteropatriarchal capitalist, extractivist and productivist system. But, we made a start.

Then, to follow on from By 2020 We Rise Up, came the Glasgow Agreement (nothing to do with the COP process), and the signing organisations assumed (and committed themselves to): “Taking into their own hands the need to collectively cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep fossil fuels in the ground.

While participating in the Glasgow Agreement, organisations will maintain their main focus away from institutional struggle - namely from negotiations with governments and the United Nations;

The agreement text mentioned as one of the main tools civil disobedience. The agreement was launched in November 2020, but actions have been far from ambitious. A day of action against Total (with low participation), three climate caravans, and now plans for some emergency response. Do we cut greenhouse gas emissions this way? I doubt it.

So, what do we do? How can we get back on track? How can we rebuild a powerful climate justice movement?

Be honest about the challenge

It’s easy to talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% until 2030 and to net zero by 2050, but what does that actually mean? During the first year of the COVID pandemic (2020), CO2 emissions only dropped by 6.4%, according to an article in Nature from 15 January 2021, and they had already almost rebounded to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020. As a comparison, the UN Environment Programme said in November 2019 that global emissions would be to drop by 7.6% annually for the decade 2020-2030. Even with COVID-lockdowns we did not get to that, and since, they have returned to increasing year by year. So, by now we are probably talking of emission reductions of 10% annually between now (!) and 2030. Do we think we can achieve that by replacing fossil fuels with renewables, and petrol/diesel cars with electric cars? Do we think we can achieve this and stick with the economic paradigm of perpetual economic growth? Dream on.

Let’s face it: the challenge is huge. Humankind never before faced the challenge to have to profoundly transform the way societies and economies work in just a few years, maybe a decade, maybe two (but we need to be on the right way within a few years). Some ecologist like to talk about “Marshall Plans” and war-like efforts. But these are top down solutions (as was the COVID response: lockdowns, militarisation, repression…). What we really need is different. It is a change of the paradigm guiding our society. Both, during war or the COVID pandemic, the expectation of (most) people was/is something like “well, this is a crisis, an emergency, so I need to do x now (or need to not do y), but once it’s over everything will return to normal, or even be better”. We are in a very different situation. We are not talking about reducing consumption for a few years, but for ever. A paradigm shift. A new way to look at what wellbeing means, what a good life means.

That means, we need a positive vision. How do we envision a (non-capitalist) society that consumes much less, but which provides wellbeing to everyone (people and other animals)? How can the economy in such a society be organised – locally, regionally, globally? How do we envision a society that is really democractic? How do we envision social, environmental and gender justice?

We need a vision that can empower and engage people, and we need to talk about the challenge, about that our way of life is destroying the planet, and it doesn’t even make anyone happy.

Take serious the “justice” bit of climate justice

“Justice” sounds nice, but if we just talk about “climate justice” because it sounds nice, then we are missing something really important. Black American lesbian feminist Audre Lorde famously saidThere is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”. So, let’s talk about what that means.

Yes, our way of life is fucking up the climate. But it’s also fucking up a lot of people. The gap between rich and poor is widening globally, and also within the supposedly “rich” countries of the north, whose wealth has been built on the exploitation of the rest of the world (and of nature).

In January 2020, The Guardian reported: “Inequality has reached unprecedented levels, with more than 70% of the global population living in countries where the wealth gap is growing, according to a new UN report.” And: “The income gap has been exacerbated by the climate crisis. The report estimates that the gap between the richest and poorest 10% of the global population is 25% larger than it would be in a world without global warming.

The Inequality Report 2022 states: “Global inequalities seem to be about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century. Indeed, the share of income presently captured by the poorest half of the world’s people is about half what it was in 1820, before the great divergence between Western countries and their colonies.

That means we can’t talk about climate without talking about social justice. But also, we urgently need to enter into a dialogue with social justice movements (within our countries and globally), as the old solutions of a social democratic welfare state depend on indefinite economic growth, so that there are enough breadcrumbs that fall off the table of the rich to be “re”-distributed. Nowadays, the rich even consume their breadcrumbs, and there is nothing that can be re-distributed.

Yes, our way of life is fucking up the climate, but cisheteropatriarchy is also fucking up a lot of people – women, queers, and any other gender non-conforming people. The climate emergency is a result of cisheteropatriarchy, and more specifically of hegemonic masculinity and the thinking the “man” (!) can control everything, that “we” (men) can make everything happen. The ominpotence of masculinity has created the threat of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons, war (such as in Ukraine now), nuclear power and accidents (remember Chernobyl? Remember Fukushima?) and the climate emergency, and is now looking and technical fixes, from carbon capture and storage (CCS) to geoengineering (fucking up our climate even more). At the same time, we know that women globally are already paying the price for climate chaos much more than men, and LGBTIQA+ people also do suffer especifically in situations of emergency (such as climate change induced flooding or hurricanes), as emergency shelters are usually heteronormative and binary spaces, and do not provide safe spaces for LGBTIQA+ people.

That means climate justice needs to be queer and feminist, or it won’t be justice.

Yes, our way of life is fucking up the climate, but racism and colonialism are also fucking up a lot of people. Let’s talk about racism in our societies, about death in the Mediterranean, about deportation, about Frontex and the Fortress Europe. Let’s talk about the history of colonialism and slavery, and how this still impacts racialised people all over the world and contributes to global inequality.

Our fight against runaway climate change needs to include fighting against racism and white privilege, within our countries and on a global scale. A new “green” extractivism which again will condemn countries of the global South to being providers for raw minerals (lithium for batteries for electric cars) to the benefit of the global north cannot be the way out of the climate emergency. Rather, let’s talk about restorative justice on a global scale, and reparations for centuries of colonialism and slavery. Let’s talk about why our movements are made up mostly of while, middle class and privileged people – even though we might choose to live precarious lives, but that doesn’t mean we’re not privileged. Let’s talk about what decolonialism and building racial justice means for our movement.

Let’s talk about revolution

And finally the tables are starting to turn. Talking about a revolution”, sings Tracy Chapman in her song “Talking ‘bout a revolution” in 1988. Unfortunately, that revolution didn’t come, and today we talk about revolution even less – not even as a whisper in the welfare lines, as in Tracy Chapman’s song.

But we need to talk about revolution. I’m tired of the polite talk of “just transition”. Let’s talk about revolution. Let’s talk about confronting power.

In his book Change the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway writes: “For over a hundred years, the revolutionary enthusiasm of young people has been channelled into building the party or into learning to shoot guns, for over a hundred years the dreams of those who have wanted a world fit for humanity have been bureaucratised and militarised, all for the winning of state power by a government that could then be accused of "betraying" the movement that put it there. "Betrayal" has been a key word for the left over the last century as one government after another has been accused of "betraying" the ideals of its supporters, until now the notion of betrayal itself has become so tired that there is nothing left but a shrug of "of course". Rather than look to so many betrayals for an explanation, perhaps we need to look at the very notion that society can be changed through the winning of state power.” Podemos in Spain anyone? The Green Party in Germany anyone?

And: “The only way in which the idea of revolution can be maintained is by raising the stakes. The problem of the traditional concept of revolution is perhaps not that it aimed too high, but that it aimed too low. The notion of capturing positions of power, whether it be governmental power or more dispersed positions of power in society, misses the point that the aim of the revolution is to dissolve relations of power, to create a society based on the mutual recognition of people's dignity. What has failed is the notion that revolution means capturing power in order to abolish power. What is now on the agenda is the much more demanding notion of a direct attack on power relations. The only way in which revolution can now be imagined is not as the conquest of power but as the dissolution of power.

So, let’s talk ‘bout revolution, seriously. Let’s talk about the need for radical change, for system change. Forget about “just transition” – there is no just transition in a cisheteropatriarchal capitalist society. Let’s turn the tables, but without creating new relations of power.

That means, we don’t want to take over the existing institutions, we need to create new ones. Institutions are never neutral. They have been created for a purpose – and the purpose of the institutions we have is to maintain power, to facilitate the smooth running of a capitalist society, of the destruction of the basis of life on earth. There is no point in taking over these institutions.

We need to create something new. We need to build new institutions – new forms of democracy, of organising our societies and economies – from the bottom up. This is imagining revolution as a dissolution of power.

Organise, dramatise, polarise

Talking ‘bout a revolution is just empty talk if we don’t start to organise. And that doesn’t mean building yet another party, after so many betrayals, as John Holloway writes. Organising in the sense of community organising, of starting to powerful alliances locally. Building intersectionality into our movements, building alliances from the bottom up between the climate justice movement, migrant movements, the (trans)feminist movement, queer movements, social justice movements, student and youth movements, movements for housing rights, etc. This will require dialogue, listening to each other and learning from each other. What does social justice mean in the face of the climate emergency? What is the role of trade unions? What society do we want? And how do we get there?

Talking ‘bout a revolution means action, dramatic action, with a strategy. How do we dramatise the situation? One of the lessons we can learn from past movements for social change is that a key strategy is dramatisation and polarisation. Dramatisation highlights to the public that there is a moral choice to be made: for justice, for a planet worth living, or for destruction, and injustice. It is moral choices that move people from opposition to a movement's goal to becoming passive or active supporters of social change. Or, in other words:

Movement across this spectrum (from opposing the movement to being neutral to supporting it) isn’t always the result of conscious decision making. Often, people shift because an effective action reframes the basic moral questions behind an issue that is otherwise seen as too abstract or complex. It makes people emotionally connect to the issue and choose sides.

Polarisation diminishes the space of indifference, meaning it forces people to take sides. We need to organise to dramatise and polarise. We need to take actions which expose the moral dilemma, and make it easy for people to take “our” side, while at the same time building other relations that dissolve power.

The Glasgow Agreement set out with the stated objective to take emission reduction into our own hands. So, how do we do that?

For example, recentlyGerman climate activists turned off crude oil pipelines at five locations (...), demanding the country look for other ways to reduce its dependence on Russian gas than starting new fossil fuel-based infrastructure projects such as deep-sea drilling. (…) The activists entered the pipelines' emergency stations in teams of two and activated shut-off valves that allow the flow of oil and gas to be safely turned off in case of emergency.” Obviously, the valves can be opened again – but they can also be closed again … and again…

Or, a few years ago, “Protesters from Plane Stupid have chained themselves together on Heathrow's northern runway to demonstrate against a government commission's recommendation that the airport should get a third runway. According to reports, 12 of the climate change activists broke through a fence at about 3.30am and chained themselves together. The runway was closed for several hours. (...)

There are a lot of creative nonviolent ways we can shut down pipelines (without blowing them up), stop aviation, or … There are a lot of creative ways we can actively reduce emissions.

However, one-off actions like the ones above in the end remain symbolic. They help to dramatise and polarise, but in itself they won’t shut down dirty infrastructure of long. This would require coordinated and long-term nonviolent action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which can be considered an important moment for the US civil rights movement, lasted a little over a year… So, let’s get organising, strategising, planning ...

Build resilience

Talking about system change and revolution, about shutting down dirty infrastructure, and not just talking about it, but actually doing it, will mean repression in the form of arrests, fines, prison, … To be able to get serious we need to build a resilient movement – communities of resistance and support. That means solidarity when it comes to paying fines (and lawyers, and court fees), support when people face prison – supporting the persons going to prison, but also their friends, family, community.

Building resilience also means talking about our emotions, about our dispair, frustration, fears, and anger. It is a quite normal reaction to feal dispair in the face of climate inaction. How do we manage dispair and frustration, and turn them into anger, and channel this anger into energy for action? How do we, individually and collectively, deal with our fears when going into actions, or our anxiety caused by our knowledge about the consequences of runaway climate change?

Is there hope? Or, maybe, what does hope mean in times of a climate and social emergency?

John Holloway writes: “In the beginning is the scream. We scream.

When we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream. Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.

Our scream is not just a scream of horror. We scream not because we face certain death in the spider's web, but because we dream of freeing ourselves. We scream as we fall over the cliff not because we are resigned to being dashed on the rocks below but because we still hope that it might be otherwise.

Our scream is a refusal to accept. A refusal to accept that the spider will eat us, a refusal to accept that we shall be killed on the rocks, a refusal to accept the unacceptable. A refusal to accept the inevitability of increasing inequality, misery, exploitation and violence. A refusal to accept the truth of the untrue, a refusal to accept closure. Our scream is a refusal to wallow in being victims of oppression, a refusal to immerse ourselves in that 'left-wing melancholy' which is so characteristic of oppositional thought. It is a refusal to accept the role of Cassandra so readily adopted by left-wing intellectuals: predicting the downfall of the world while accepting that there is nothing we can do about it. Our scream is a scream to break windows, a refusal to be contained, an overflowing, a going beyond the pale, beyond the bounds of polite society.

Let’s stop being polite. Let’s scream! And don't burn the planet!