Climate movement today
It is just four years on from the global mass mobilisations of young people inspired by Swedish climate activist and Friday for Futures (FFF) founder Greta Thunberg. It is estimated that four million plus took part in those marches—to date, the largest climate protest in history. In Dublin, tens of thousands of students and young people skipped classes for a mass protest in the city. The previous year saw the birth of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and its pledge for mass civil disobedience to fight the climate crisis.
Considering the scale and acceleration of the climate crisis, it was understandable if revolutionaries believed that the ‘climate movement’ would deepen and spread in response to the crisis.
Covid, war, and a cost-of-living crisis got in the way since then; so any attempt at predicting where next for the climate movement is on uncertain ground. This article is not going to attempt to be predictive. I don’t know what may happen next, but I believe the ideas and debates among the ecosocialist left will be important in the coming period. Those ideas are already finding an audience among an increasingly radicalised section of the youth strikers. Other ideas and trends can also get a foothold and determine the outcome of future events and struggles, including the Half-Earth belief that human beings are a blight on the planet, which may gain renewed prominence.1 Or ideas doubling down on market and tech solutions, seeking to derail or deradicalise the movement in the years ahead, as they have in the past.
In early March this year however, the first signs of a reawakening of the movement came with the Fridays For Future (FFF) global strike on the theme of fossil fuel finance. That saw over 113 demonstrations in Europe, over 100 across North America and dozens elsewhere across the globe.2 While significant, this pales in comparison with 2019 when over 2,000 separate demos took place in Europe and more than 1,000 in North America, alongside significant mobilization in South America, Africa and Asia.3
I’d argue that there is another aspect, equally as important as the numerical difference, that distinguishes the mass protests of 2019 from the current smaller resurgence of the movement. While 2019 articulated the panic and anger at the scale of the unfolding crisis and the inaction of elites, 2023 appears to do something very different. An open letter from strikers published in the Guardian in 2019 captured the mood then4 stating: “We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing us in the future, we, the young people, will make change happen by ourselves.”
This year, by contrast, the global protests targeted the financing of fossil fuel projects globally. The FFF International site declared “The capitalist system continuously puts profit over people. Corporations’ greed for more profit is driving the destruction of ecosystems and the climate… The global North’s fossil finance is the cause of the climate crisis, neo-colonial exploitation wars and human rights violations. Fossil fuel corporations like Shell, Total, Repsol, Perenco or Chevron can only realise these projects because of money that is provided to them by banks, insurers and investors”.5
Thunberg, when publicising her ‘Climate book’ last year was as explicit in naming capitalism as the cause: “The only known civilization in the universe” cannot be left to the stewardship of “capitalist consumerism and market economics”.
It is worth acknowledging the shift that has occurred. Just four years ago, there was a general demand to be listened to and for action; whereas now the focus has translated into identifying capital and corporations as the primary mover in the crisis. When People Before Profit representatives met with FFF last year as part of the school strikers’ outreach to all political parties, it was astonishing to witness the young strikers’ radicalism. They refused to accept carbon taxes on ordinary people or any reliance on future technologies or markets as solutions.
This is a far cry from the mainstream NGOs and Green parties who have essentially gone along with the neo-liberal project here and across much of the Western world. The acceptance of market and capital priorities may be couched in terms of ‘we don’t have time for a revolution’ by some of them, but its lineage is longer than the present short-time scale for radical action on climate. It dates back to the 1980’s when large swathes of the environmental movement made its peace with capital and saw the main task ahead as reconciling environmental goals to profit imperatives; it continued into the 1990’s and 2000’s; ‘neo liberalising nature’6 gave birth to carbon markets, carbon taxes and market solutions of various sorts to the threat of the future habitability of the planet.
A strategy based on reconciling climate action and market needs has, and will, inevitably fail. The fact that significant numbers of young climate activists identify capitalism as the cause of the crisis is important and a sign that ecosocialist ideas and debates have begun to move the narrative in environmental circles beyond its traditional bounds.
[I]t was astonishing to witness the young strikers’ radicalism. They refused to accept carbon taxes on ordinary people or any reliance on future technologies or markets as solutions.
So what next?
In my view, the unique properties of the climate crisis and capitalism make only two things certain. Firstly, accumulating CO2 will drive more extreme weather shifts and wreak greater havoc as the years progress. Unlike war or a specific economic crisis, there is no prospect of the crisis averting or lessening—given what we know about the science.7
Secondly, given what we understand about capitalism, it is improbable, if not impossible, that the current system will find any way to deal with or take the measures needed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the scale or pace needed. Climate joins a list of planetary boundaries that are being breached with no sign that an economic system based on growth and accumulation can deal with any of them.8
Indeed, some 30 years on from Kyoto, and after 27 COPs and various treaties and lofty proclamations, there are no signs of any reduction in overall GHG emissions. Last year, according to the IEA, more CO2 was emitted than at any time in human history.9 The war in Ukraine has unleashed a renewed surge in fossil fuel infrastructure that is likely to rip away any hopes of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 or even 2 degrees.10 In the meantime, the hope of liberals that rational science could trump denialism is again on the backfoot with a growth in outright climate denial and a marriage between resurgent far-right movements and climate scepticism and denial.11
Much of the coming climate chaos is already baked into the earth’s systems and will play out in historic extremes and destruction. These future events will not only unleash huge suffering but will likely deepen the radicalisation we see, and will inevitably bring massive class struggles.
It is because of this that the debates, discussions, and strategies among the left become important. There is much in the traditions of the revolutionary left and working-class history, including our critique of capitalism and the capacity of workers to challenge capital, that can be central to the debates within the climate movement in the coming years.
While this year’s FFFs may have been smaller than 2019, there is every reason to hope that future mobilisations will grow and that sections of the movement will seek increasingly radical answers. Other ideas and trends can also get a foothold and determine the outcome of future events and struggles, including the Half-Earth belief that human beings are a blight on the planet, which may gain renewed prominence.1 Or ideas doubling down on market and tech solutions seeking to derail or deradicalise the movement in the years ahead as they have in the past. In that context, the debates around nonviolence /mass mobilisation /direct action /acts of sabotage etc. will be crucial.
The shift in thinking among many youth activists is driven not only by the scale of the crisis and its radicalising effects but at least partially by the fact that the revolutionary left has joined in and participated in many of these movements in recent years. The challenge to mainstream environmental thinking has not just been in academia or theory but on the streets and amidst actual campaigns.
the radical left had a record of being serious about climate and fighting against fossil fuel extraction and exploration meant our opposition to carbon taxes couldn’t be dismissed as anti-climate action.
Role of socialists in the climate movement
PBP members were among the most enthusiastic in getting involved and supporting the setting up of an Irish section of Extinction Rebellion (XR). That didn’t entail subscribing to the flawed analysis of mass movements and their success as espoused by Hallam or others12 it did however, involve joining and supporting protests and actions; and actively engaging with those ideas from inside the movement. Similarly, our members have been deeply involved in local anti-mining and anti-LNG campaigns.
The importance of being inside the climate movement is illustrated well by the debate about the impact of carbon taxes on individual behaviour. There is near universal and unquestioning support amongst mainstream environmentalists and greens about carbon taxes in Ireland. This was backed up by a plethora of mainstream economic academic papers. Opposition was seen as anti-environmental or driven by deniers and sceptics. The fact that the radical left had a record of being serious about climate and fighting against fossil fuel extraction and exploration meant our opposition to carbon taxes couldn’t be dismissed as anti-climate action by the mainstream green movement. That meant exposing the neoliberal thinking behind carbon taxes while also pointing out that such measures would not reduce emissions on the scale or time needed and that they shifted the blame for rising emissions onto individual behaviour. Crucially it meant opposition to such measures wasn’t restricted to the far right or conservatives who simply didn’t want to take climate action of any sort or saw it all as a hoax.
Another crucial debate within climate movements for the Left is an ongoing attempt to conflate those critical of market mechanisms with what is labelled ‘doomism’.13 This should be clearly seen as a rear-guard effort by those who have utterly failed to deliver climate action within the framework of capitalism and markets over decades. There are, of course, real ‘doomists’ who counsel that all is lost, and they must be fought against as debilitating and playing into the hands of fossil fuel interests. But recent arguments among many academics and NGOs go well beyond arguing against doomists—to try to ridicule those on the left who identify capitalism and neoliberalism as a cause and not the solution to the crisis.14 In a sense, this is an effort to derail the radicalisation of the young generation of climate activists; and to cut them off from an anti-capitalist critique by presenting it as ‘doomism’ and unrealistic. Again, the role of socialists and revolutionaries in fighting back against this will be crucial in the coming years.
One side of the coin is having the credibility to intervene in debates within the movement. The other is having the credibility to bring climate concerns into the working-class movement. Here the debates around degrowth, and whether we need tactics of sabotage, are important for the left to be clear on.
While we may have issues with any individual action (e.g. XR disrupting trains in London or protests at Pennys in Dublin etc), the tradition we come from has had similar debates for many decades—if not since the birth of the labour movement. Every strike is lambasted as causing disruption to ‘ordinary people’ and every set of strikers are attacked as being ‘selfish’. Hysterical attacks on protesters are not new. Within the movement, we can debate the tactics and strategies and push for actions that aim at the right targets while trying to win mass support. The choice for us is not between individual guerrilla action or a mass movement: It’s how do we cultivate a mass movement that can block new fossil fuel infrastructure?
It seems certain that at least two LNG port terminals will be planned in this state in the coming years. Stopping these won’t be within the capacity of a small dedicated group, regardless of how brave they are. It will require a mass movement which can link anger at climate failure with the wider failure to deliver public services or decent jobs.
A starting point for us is that we have absolutely no moral or pacifist tendencies about ‘violence’ in the abstract: we don’t ‘abhor all violence’, especially not the violence of the oppressed or those resisting the mass extinction of our species and life on earth. But within this, we do have qualifications about what actions can win and will garner mass support amongst the working class. Where is ‘violence’ to be aimed at?
While Andreas Malm’s recent work15 has been characterised as presenting a choice between ‘fatalism and sabotage’ (with Malm advocating sabotage),16 the revolutionary socialist tradition and the history of the working class points to a third option: revolutionary change that can ‘sabotage’ not a single pipeline or sector, but an entire economic and social system.
Within the movement, we can debate the tactics and strategies and push for actions that aim at the right targets while trying to win mass support.
The importance of class
I don’t have a master plan here, nor should we pretend we are the font of all wisdom. But our tradition knows how to build united fronts, where the power to challenge the fossil fuel sector lies; and that campaigns around the cost-of-living crisis and energy profiteering throw up debates about the need to renationalise energy and other key sectors. A fight against New Fortress Energy LNG could build a powerful constituency that includes energy unions, environmentalists, and campaigners against energy poverty.
The continued reliance on private investors and corporations to deliver offshore renewable energy is a perfect example of market failure and not, as often presented, a failure of state planning regulations. A campaign against new fossil fuel infrastructure can also offer alternative visions that reject the privatisation of clean energy, or any simple tech solutions to environmental destruction caused by capitalism.
There is much that revolutionaries can bring and debate within any emerging climate movement: not as a prescriptive plan for what happens next, but as a rich source of literature and memory of past struggles. I’m not suggesting we have all the answers, but the history of our class is replete with lessons for the climate movement today.
[O]nly the global working class has the capacity and agency to overthrow the rule of capital. And only the overthrow of capital can ultimately stop the threatened mass extinction of life.
Connected to the issues of how to build a mass movement to challenge fossil fuel capitalism, with potentially profound implications, are the debates around degrowth. This issue has been well debated in these pages;17 18 and most recently in a critical and illuminating review of Matt Huber’s book and his attack on the concept of degrowth.19
I will make just one observation on this because I don’t believe it can be overstated in the coming years. There are many weaknesses in Matt Huber’s book, not least its slightly Maoists-like suggestion that socialists take up positions in the energy sector and prepare for battle in the unions there! I found it hard to shake off the feeling that we were hoping to move the working class like pieces around a chessboard in a fight with the fossil fuel sector of capitalism. For all that, Huber’s central point restates one absolutely correct and vital claim: only the global working class has the capacity and agency to overthrow the rule of capital. And only the overthrow of capital can ultimately stop the threatened mass extinction of life.20
The working class remains a revolutionary class that potentially has the self-interests to prevent capital from propelling us ever faster toward the seventh mass extinction. It follows that whatever demands, theoretical concepts, frameworks or slogans we push or advocate on climate in the years ahead must understand that and have it before us as a guiding principle. On a practical level, the argument against LNGs, data centres, free public transport, various public goods like health or child and elderly care as well as the re-nationalisation of energy systems, can all be presented as arguments for degrowth. They can also be presented as things worth fighting for in our unions and communities because they will improve the lives of working-class people and our collective environment.
Many of us believe, perhaps more instinctively than scientifically, that a society controlled by the ‘associated producers’ would inevitably result in a decrease in the ‘material throughput’ needed to give all of humanity a decent existence. A real concern for me with the degrowth argument is a fear that ecosocialists adopt it in an act of near penance to the professional environmental class that Huber has described so acerbically. The environmental crimes of Stalinism, or previous failures of much of the left to take the environment seriously or to push a promethean agenda on nature, must be acknowledged of course. However, atonement for the past promethean sins of others should not be the guiding principle for a new generation of ecosocialists working out the next steps we need to take.
How we connect climate struggles to the working class and build a movement rooted in our class is the first task; if ideas of degrowth help us build that, then all good. If, however, we end up adopting degrowth language which mirrors the moralising of middle class environmentalists with talk of ‘overall’ consumption, we may fail to connect with the only class which has the power to avert climate or environmental catastrophe. We would do well to keep in mind the point made by the late John Molyneux on this: growth is a compulsion that comes from the social relations of capital, that is why we have an ideology of growth. We don’t have growth because of an ideology: we have the ideology of growth because it is built into the system. It is a question of how you mobilise to change the system that gives birth to the ideology.21
Our lineage on this starts with Marx and his analysis of the capital’s metabolic rift with nature. The core vision of a future free of the rule of capital that inspired the revolutionary upheavals of the working class for over 100 years was neither promethean nor rapacious to nature.
Ultimately the future of the climate movement must be at the heart of the working-class. For socialists, our job is to ensure that the struggles of the class have climate action front and centre in the coming years.
Article originally published in Issue 10 of Rupture Magazine.
- ↩Climate & Capitalism, ‘Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing’, 2 october 2018, https://climateandcapitalism.com/2018/10/02/half-earth-a-biodiversity-solution-that-solves-nothing/
- ↩Fridays For Future, ‘Map of Climate Striking and Actions’, https://fridaysforfuture.org/action-map/map/
- ↩The Guardian, ‘Climate crisis: 6 million people join latest wave of global protests’, 27 September 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/27/climate-crisis-6-million-people-join-latest-wave-of-worldwide-protests
- ↩The Guardian, ‘Youth climate strikers: We are going to change the fate of humanity’, 1 March 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/01/youth-climate-strikers-we-are-going-to-change-the-fate-of-humanity
- ↩Fridays For Future, ‘Global Climate Strike March 3’, https://fridaysforfuture.org/march-3/
- ↩Noel Castree, ‘Neoliberalising Nature: The logics of Deregulation and Reregulation’, 2008. Environment and Planning A, Vol.40.
- ↩John Molyneux, ‘Capitalism in Decay—Dimensions of the Crisis’, November 2022, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/molyneux/2022/11/cap-decay.htm
- ↩Nature, ‘A safe operating space for humanity’, 23 September 2009, https://www.nature.com/articles/461472a
- ↩European Commission, ‘Global CO2 emissions rebounded to their highest level in history in 2021’, 14 October 2022, https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/jrc-news/global-co2-emissions-rebound-2021-after-temporary-reduction-during-covid19-lockdown-2022-10-14_en
- ↩Carbon Brief, ‘New fossil fuels incompatible’ with 1.5C goal, comprehensive analysis finds’, 23 October 2022, https://www.carbonbrief.org/new-fossil-fuels-incompatible-with-1-5c-goal-comprehensive-analysis-finds/
- ↩The Guardian, ‘ClimateScam: denialism claims flooding Twitter have scientists worried’. Climate denial and white supremacy (theecologist.org)
- ↩Kyle Matthews, ‘Social movements and the (mis)use of research: Extinction Rebellion and the 3.5% rule—The Commons’, (commonslibrary.org)
- ↩The Ecologist, ‘Strategies for the new climate war’, 8 April 2021, https://theecologist.org/2021/apr/08/strategies-new-climate-war
- ↩Owen mc Cormack, ‘Mann Overboard: Review of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet’, 22 February 2022, https://www.rebelnews.ie/2022/02/22/mann-overboard-review-of-the-new-climate-war-the-fight-to-take-back-our-planet/
- ↩Andreas Malm, ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’, 2021, Verso Books, London
- ↩The Nation, ‘Where Should the Climate Movement Go Next?’, 25 July 2022, https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/andreas-malm-climate-politics/
- ↩Rupture, ‘The necessity of ecosocialist degrowth’, 10 May 2022, https://rupture.ie/articles/necessity-degrowth
- ↩Rupture, ‘Degrowth: A response’, 4 December 2022, https://rupture.ie/articles/degrowth-a-response
- ↩Paul Murphy, ‘Quarter-Earth Reformism’, Magazine Issue 9 (Winter 2022)
- ↩Matt Huber, ‘Climate Change as Class Struggle’ , 2022, verso books, London
- ↩Rupture Radio, Quoted in ‘The case for eco-socialist degrowth’, 11 May 2022, https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/ruptureradio/episodes/Bonus-The-case-for-eco-socialist-degrowth—-meeting-recording-e1id89h