Alex Evans

The climate movement we need right now

Alex Evans is one of the most thoughtful campaigners in the UK (see this FP2P review of his book, The Myth Gap). Here he is reflecting on the aftermath of the Glasgow climate summit on his Larger Us blog (I’ve made a few cuts to the original to get it a bit closer to blog length).

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 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 institutionsprivate 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.

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. 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.

7. Have conversations. 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.

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?

P.S. From Duncan: for a very different take on ‘Where Next’, see George Monbiot’s twitter thread, which I’ve put in the comments. Plus a great contribution from Katy Chakrabortty.

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5 Responses to “The climate movement we need right now”
  1. Thanks Duncan for this blog and especially talking about the book by Alex. I will read it.
    I also wanted to say that shelf life for any so called movement is very short and increasingly urban too. This is my observation- we can explore this.
    Having just completed another climate justice walk and met at least 4000 people including a range of students across Britain, the recommendation here resonates with me.
    One student in Windermere told me when I said, “what will I do, if no leader wants to meet me and receive more than two thousand cards with messages I received from them”
    The young student ,about 9 years or so said “Stand outside the door and keep knocking until they open the door”-tells you a lot.
    The travel across Britain- meeting so many people and learning from 22 hosts was anything but extraordinary
    As an independent climate justice activist, I have always looked for and tried my best to cooperate and compliment the work of others and doing so it ensures continuity, traction and sustainability.
    The sad thing is I do not write a book.
    But the process with the Coffee growers did provide a path breaking book and the process of sustainable Coffee along with the emergence of new leadership became an important outcome in the Western Ghats in India, though I will be the first to concede that the evolution is a work in progress and often fragile.
    Likewise, the second walk in Western Ghats in association with Fairtrade has resulted in a beginning for the Fair Trade town movement and the beginning of a fresh and new narrative on and about Fair Trade in India.
    Lastly, during this walk one of the respected activist and leader of civic movement from Luton, of South Asian origin, said this to me-” We are proud of you Push- because you are one of us and not white”! Tells you so much.
    There is much ,much more, from this walk and others I can share -if you have time for a foot soldier like me.

  2. Duncan Green

    George Monbiot sets out a different, opposed position to Alex in a twitter thread, which I’ve turned back into text here:
    ‘Some prominent people are now arguing that, for climate movements to succeed, they have to reach across the political spectrum, appealing to conservative as much as radical and liberal values. I believe this reflects a mistaken theory of change. This thread seeks to explain why.
    The big shift in the past year is the emergence of a truly global climate movement, and the sense that its leadership is now coming from the Global South. This is as it should be: poor nations are hit hardest by climate breakdown and their voices have for too long been unheard.
    This is where hope lies. A global crisis demands a genuinely global response, led by those on the front lines of the disaster, and this is what is happening, at great speed. It’s hard to see the necessary shift happening any other way.
    But just as we see this movement building, we are told we also need to appeal to conservatives in the rich world. If conservatism here means anything, it means sustaining the power and dominance of the rich nations, and of rich people within the rich nations.
    At the heart of the global movement is the notion of climate justice. This means, among other things, that the remaining carbon budget is distributed fairly, that polluting nations pay compensation for loss and damage, and that the rich no longer live at the expense of the poor.
    These ideas are fundamentally at odds with the conservative mindset, which seeks to preserve inequality and to claim the lion’s share of rights and resources for a privileged minority.
    In other words, you can’t have both. You can’t have a genuinely global climate movement that appeals to people who want to preserve minority privilege in the rich nations. You have to choose.
    But this is by no means the end of the problem. To understand the other ways in which the theory of change is flawed, think of one of the most successful recent movements:
    Imagine that its leading lights had said “we also have to appeal to sexists.” Imagine they had trimmed their message to accommodate existing attitudes. How effective would they have been? How would they have inspired women to rise up and generate the wave of change?
    Similarly, you might imagine how successful the civil rights movement would have been if it had sought to appeal to racists, or the anti-apartheid movement if it had tried to accommodate the views of people who wanted to sustain minority rule.
    OK, you might ask, so what do we do about people with a fundamentally different worldview? We don’t. As a wide range of observational studies and, now, a set of empirical results, suggests, you need to reach ~25% of the population to trigger societal change.
    This is the fundamental principle behind effective movements: you build a committed minority until it passes a social tipping point. You don’t appeal to the status quo. You change the status quo.
    #MeToo did not achieve total victory. Sexism, misogyny and sexual assault still happen. But those who seek to defend or dismiss them now look like dinosaurs. Their groups are islands in a sea of change, whereas it was previously the victims who were isolated and shunned.
    The power of #MeToo, the civil rights and the anti-apartheid movements, was that they did not compromise. They didn’t call for a little less sexism or racism or apartheid. They called for them to end. It was their clarity and commitment that inspired people to join them.
    But the most important aspect of #MeToo, from the point of view of the climate movement, was its speed. Other examples of a remarkably swift change in attitudes and practices include the general cessation of smoking and the decline of homophobia. Speed, for us, is of the essence.
    Rapid change is caused by committed minorities reaching a critical threshold, at which point social tipping occurs. Just as it is no longer acceptable in most settings to be a sexual assault conservative, it will no longer be acceptable to be a climate injustice conservative.
    How do we reach the critical threshold (roughly 25%)? By inspiring people to join us. How do we inspire people? By showing our commitment. How do we show it? By refusing to dilute our message. OUR AIM IS NOT TO APPEAL TO THE STATUS QUO, BUT TO CHANGE IT.

  3. Katy Chakrabortty

    “Where next for climate?” has been on my mind a lot as Oxfam GB prepares to think what next for its Climate Justice Strategy. Been following this exchange with interest.

    First thing to note is the curiousness of a debate that takes a project management approach to a movement. Rather than ask ‘what do I think the movement should do next?’ it is probably more useful to think about the entire eco-system, you as an actor within it, and what you are well situated to do next. That aside, the theories of change are still useful to debate and we can all hope for an ecosystem that falls into place as we would wish it.

    Fundamentally agree with much of what Alex argues. Would add ‘don’t fall into a hypocrisy frame’, even against opponents. It is of course madness that delegates use private jets to come to COP, but to throw hypocrisy mud too much benefits climate action sceptics the most (Oh you want to end fossil fuels but didn’t I see you near a diesel car last Tuesday?) and is the mirror of the purity tests to entry.

    Where I question Alex is in the scale of the change he is imagining. The analogy (made in a twitter response to George Monbiot) with the equal marriage laws, or even in his original prompt of losing the the Brexit vote doesn’t, in my opinion, come close to the kind of scale and permanence of shift that is required to tackle climate change in a way that is also globally socially just. Consider instead if activists had decided not to ask to join the sacred institution of marriage, but to abolish it as a patriarchal institution, now and forever, globally, and you are getting closer to the task.

    Monbiot does write about reform on a huge scale, and whilst Alex rightly talks about including non-white people in the movement, Monbiot talks about something truly led by the global south which is I think the power shift needed. However, I fundamentally share Alex’s worry that any wins on climate can easily be undermined by vested interests mercilessly exploiting a sense of democratic deficit in these high handed green policies when people’s lives start to change.

    I don’t think this is going to be solved just by talking about climate across the existing Westminster-centric political divide. I don’t think this is about elections. It is about a much more fundamental democracy that that. The democratic deficit is real, and affects many more issues than climate. If I were putting money on the thing that was needed to secure climate action, it would be radical shifts in democracy.

    A new movement for climate would make democracy campaigners their fellow travellers. It would throw its weight behind citizen assembles in a big way. Exposure to the urgency and complexity of decision making on decarbonisation would be transformational. Starting with more nationally, but at other levels too. And yes of course these should be around the world.
    It would also be about creative localisation. I love seeng the evidence of The Doughnut being used by councils, companies, cities to rethink their policies. A flourishing of fora for democratically experimenting with how we can organise society differently is vital. (For fascinating thoughts on how people may have done this social experimentation over thousands of years read Davids Graeber and Wengrow: The Dawn of Everything.)
    We would also fully push for lowering the voting age. 16 is a no-brainer. 11 when kids start senior school could be good. I am not sure about 6, but this is certainly persuasive!

    The climate movement has to be the democracy movement – but not our pallid and underwhelming current democracy. One things movements can never do is defend the status quo.

    (Yes, yes I have completely broken my own first rule)

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