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9 November 2021

In an age of “blah, blah, blah”, what should climate activism look like?

In calling for wide-reaching climate justice, protesters risk fuelling division – but their inclusiveness is inspirational.

By India Bourke and Phil Clarke Hill

GLASGOW – On Friday 5 November in George Square, Glasgow, the statue of James Watt, the engineer who helped birth the Industrial Revolution, gazed down thoughtfully from his plinth. Below were spread thousands of young climate protesters, outraged at the unforeseen consequences his fossil fuel era has left.

Leading the crowd were activists from indigenous territories and the Global South, adorned with feathers, beads and colourful traditional clothes. Inflatable dinosaurs and polar bears followed behind, together with marchers holding a sea of placards: “The wrong Amazon is burning” and “system change not climate change”, they read. One grey-haired woman carried a “recycled teenager” sign.

And while their global protest strategy is vibrant, the message that climate protests have unleashed on the world is brutally serious. “This is no longer a climate conference,” the Fridays For Future founder Greta Thunberg warned from the protest stage about the ongoing Cop26 summit. “This is now a Global North greenwash festival; a two-week long celebration of business as usual and ‘blah, blah, blah’.”

The anger is unsurprising. Although progress is being made on paper at this year’s conference (new national pledges on emissions reduction now offer a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming below a 1.8°C increase according to one analysis), scientists caution there is now a one in two chance of exceeding the dangerous 2°C rise. Ensuring warming stays within a safer 1.5°C is still not within reach.

[See also: Why the world is still on course for climate catastrophe]

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Yet such outright criticism is not easy for global leaders to hear, and the dismissal of the Cop process by protesters this weekend irked many inside the conference halls.

“This is the first Cop I’ve been to where the delegates are more afraid of the kids than the press,” reflected journalist Tom Friedman. While for Rwanda’s environment minister, the protesters are “just complaining just for complaining”.

There is some weight to the delegates concerns. While the UN talks are imperfect, they are also the only system that exists to marshal a global response to the climate crisis, prompting some to question how far outrage can go without breaking the movement’s strength.

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“Beware the slippery slope from cynicism to nihilism,” tweeted Michael E Mann after Friday’s march. “It leads to the same place as denialism: inaction.”

“I know that there’s a lot of frustration, there’s a lot of anger,” Victoria Alis, a young biologist from the Seychelles, told the New Statesman. “But we need to stay united.”

So how can activism better bridge the worlds of official and unofficial climate action? An array of initiatives at this year’s summit have attempted to provide an answer.

26-year-old Nisreen Elsaim is chair of the UN secretary-general’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, and chair of the Sudan Youth Organisation on Climate Change. She believes protesters must diversify their attention. “Being a full-time protester is not going to help anyone. Do your protests, but at the same time plant trees, build the capacity of the young people around you, raise the awareness of the community. It has to be a full package.”

New structures are also forming to help create better links. 20-year-old Susan Nakyung Lee is a coordinator for a new Global Citizens Assembly initiative, which brings together 100 volunteers from a diverse range of nations and occupations to create a “people’s declaration” for the planet. “The assembly is a way to answer those feelings of anger and betrayal that many of us on the street have been feeling these past few years,” Lee explained.

Assemblies like these have already become increasingly present in national climate movements. In 2020, calls for more participatory democracy led to the formation of Climate Assembly UK. In France, President Emmanuel Macron established a citizens’ convention to advise on his climate bill.

In the world of direct protest, some, such as former Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Rupert Read of the University of East Anglia, now advocate for a “massive multiform moderate flank” of activism. (Rather than solely disruptive actions such as those taken recently by Insulate Britain.)

However, the mood among activists at the summit also echoed and supported Thunberg’s words.

“Greta is absolutely right: we enter these climate negotiations at a very critical moment, we’re on the edge of catastrophe,” warned Asad Rehman, co-director of the Cop26 Coalition, which organised Saturday’s demonstration and brings together British groups campaigning on climate change. “The millions of people who will be coming out on the streets calling for climate justice need to be even stronger and more powerful. It needs to be our voices that are heard in those climate summits, not big business.”

Youth inclusion within the climate talks is too often stuck at the level of “tokenism”, said Elsaim. And while climate assemblies are helping strengthen the conversation among citizens at large, the little progress made so far suggests that, on their own, they are not yet enough. “There needs to be an escalating disruption of the status quo to force the truth of this issue over and over again into people’s hearts and minds,” argued George Barda, a UK Extinction Rebellion co-founder.  

The imperative for continued protest and criticism was also made most clearly this weekend by those on the front line of climate change. “How many more [Cop events] should they hold before they realise their inactions are destroying the planet?” asked Vanessa Nakate in a Glasgow speech on 5 November. She is from Kampala, Uganda, which has one of the fastest changing climates in the world. “People are dying, children are dropping out of school. We are in a crisis; we are in a disaster that is happening every day.”

Impassioned speeches from the Amazon indigenous youth of Ecuador and Brazil drove this point home. Helena Gualinga, 19, and others commemorated the deaths of hundreds of murdered land-defenders. “The children standing behind me, they are not supposed to have to do this in 20 years.”

[See also: Why Uganda’s story shows the need to put social justice at the heart of Cop26]

And even while progress made in Glasgow is promising, it is not certain to change lives on the ground, especially in the Global South. Governments pledged $1.7bn last week to help indigenous and local communities protect forests, but Chief Ninawa Inu Huni Kui, president of the Federation of Huni Kui Peoples of the Brazilian Amazon, told the New Statesman that only preventing further land grabs and oil extraction can bring longed-for security.

In the face of all this, climate protesters are reaching out beyond their traditional networks to make an inclusive call for climate justice. The weekend of 6-7 November saw groups representing trade unions, Black Lives Matter and Indian farmers out in force with the climate campaigners. Meanwhile, around the UK, a plethora of passionate groups are spearheading change: from the Stop Cambo campaign taking the government to court over North Sea oil exploitation, to the Green New Deal Rising’s support for the next generation of climate leaders.

In doing so, they may risk fuelling division, yet they are also ensuring that outrage continues to mix with inspiration. “We are sick of the blah, blah, blah,” said Nina Sostinky, a youth climate activist from Argentina, “but I’m excited to be standing here with you, thinking that the same activism I develop in my country, you are developing in yours.”