‘Handshake activism’ won’t defuse the climate emergency

Bill McKibben

The nation

If a historian were charting the climate movement, it would likely have culminated in September 2019, when some 7 million mostly young people took to the streets in thousands of cities around the world.

Reading the stories that have poured in from around the world is poignant and, in some cases, heartbreaking (Dom Phillips was providing updates for The Guardian
from Brazil, where indigenous groups congregated; this week, a suspect admitted to killing Phillips while reporting in the Amazon).

I watched from behind the scenes at a stage set up on the New York Battery, where Greta Thunberg – whose school strike helped spark this massive wave of climate action – summed up the situation for a quarter of a million people flooding the streets from lower Manhattan: “If you are one of this small group of people who feel threatened by us, we have very bad news for you, because this is just the beginning. Change is coming, let them want it or not.

This groundswell has given rise to numerous commitments: one company after another has committed to reaching “net zero”, for example. But the next 30 months were difficult. First, the pandemic has driven organizers off the streets and onto Zoom, which has dampened the movement’s momentum: By the time the nations reached Glasgow last fall, Thunberg was accurately describing their offerings as “blah, blah, blah “. And now the war in Ukraine, and with it soaring gas prices, has diverted attention and set up a complicated (though by no means entirely bad) dynamic for clean energy activists.

So it seemed like a good time to sit down with two of the world’s most dynamic climate activists: Germany’s Luisa Neubauer, 26, who organized her nation as part of the Greta-inspired Fridays for Future movement, and veteran South African leader Kumi Naidoo, 57, who from his early days as an anti-apartheid campaigner to his tenure as head of Greenpeace International, has always been committed. (This interview was conducted by The nation and Deutsche Welle on behalf of the Covering Climate Now global media collaboration.)

“At the start of the war,” Neubauer said, “a lot of people thought, ‘Well, now everything is on the table. We will accelerate renewable energy. We will increase fossil-free energy, because it’s clear that to love renewable energy, you don’t have to be a climate activist or an eco-nerd. Just slightly hate Putin and slightly love democracies, freedom and security. But as the conflict continues, “I think we are now seeing an almost negative reaction from fossil fuels in places like Germany,” Neubauer said. “The Fossil Expansion [is] really happening. There are new drillings going on on the North Sea coast.

The ability of the fossil fuel industry to constantly regroup, says Naidoo, is a reminder that “the system works exactly as it was designed to work. It was to benefit a handful of people at the top: to give the people in the middle a little more so that they feel they have a vested interest in defending this system. For years, he added, “we used to say things like, the economic system is broken; the energy system is broken; the agricultural system is spoken. But, quite frankly, after more than four decades of activism, I must humbly say that I misread that, in fact, the system was not broken at all.

So how do you make this system work instead to achieve change on the scale demanded by science and justice? As Naidoo said, this “must be a time of extreme honesty, extreme courage, extreme audacity. If activism says, ‘This can’t be the status quo, this can’t be the government as usual,” then surely we have to say to ourselves, “It can’t be activism as usual.”

The two, in fact, have been quite candid about the campaign not working. In the beginning, Neubauer said, “I was doing something that I would now in retrospect call ‘handshake activism.’ something you may be very attached to, but you also have a strong desire to meet an important minister, shake his hand, take a picture and prove that you have actually done something.

“The mistake my generation of activists made was that we confused access with influence,” Naidoo said. “We have access [that] allowed a government official, minister or CEO of a large company to tick a box indicating that “civil society has been consulted”. And, quite honestly, it also meant that, for many of us who were engaging in these interactions…[we could] claim easy wins.

Neither Naidoo nor Neubauer, of course, claimed to have a foolproof formula for moving forward, but both had ideas. Too many governments, they pointed out, have become authoritarian, limiting the space for protest. “We see that there is a deliberate strategy not only of repression but of oppression,” Neubauer said.

It ranges from the blunt (the Indian government jailing its junior climate colleague Disha Ravi for activism) to the more subtle: Germany’s new prime minister (and theoretically a little green g), Olof Scholz, apparently comparing climate protesters to Nazis . Faced with such political backsliding, they each reminded activists to focus some of their firepower on the financial system as well.

“There are very few accelerated change strategies available to us,” Naidoo said. “Really very little. One of them is going extremely hard, extremely deliberately, extremely strategically against all forms of funding. The fossil fuel divestment movement — which now stands at $40 trillion committed by pension funds and university endowments — “is going very well,” he said, but it “can be turbocharged and do much better.”

The ability of banks and financial institutions to resist public opinion may be “fragile”, Neubauer said, citing recent successes in scaring banks and insurers away from the proposed East African crude oil pipeline. East. The potential insurance companies for the pipeline “pulled out after five tweets. Many, many banks pulled out. And I think what made a big difference with a project was half a gigatonne [of carbon].”

As activists go after individual financial institutions, Naidoo said, they must also go after central banks: “I think,” he said, “we can convince the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and all regulatory banks that it is not only in the climate interest, but in the economic interest of investors that they should not lead them down a path of investing in carbon locked assets.

The two activists also insisted that it was mandatory to think about the environment “through a lens of justice”. “We need to energize intersectionality,” Naidoo said. Years ago, when he was new to the job at Greenpeace, “I said” as far as I’m concerned, the fight to end poverty and inequality and the fight against climate change can, must and must be considered as two facets. of the same room.’ But it took work to get that message across even within the organization he led. “It’s something that I think requires a change of mentality on the [part] of activists. »

According to Neubauer, this broader environmentalism must include people sometimes seen as adversaries. Often, she says, she will be asked if it is right to cost coal miners their jobs to preserve a livable climate. “And I say, ‘Is it just for a car [worker at] VW or a pipeline builder, or someone who works in a coal mine… working all day, every day, to pay the bill at the end of the month, knowing that means working against the security of the future , children. Is it right to put people [in] this location?”

A powerful weapon, she added, could be that older people are increasingly joining the movement through groups like Third Act. “Open the space for people who look back on their lives and wonder what I’m leaving for my children, my grandchildren – I think there’s so much to gain from this.” People “need to talk to the children and their grandchildren,” she added. “Because we need to stop this trend so that every generation gets lost. You know, kids move out, and they forget what their parents taught them, and they start their own lives. Intergenerational conversations could be a ‘superpower,’ she said.

“We need to create multiple ways for people to participate,” Naidoo said, not just “how those of us in full-time jobs in civil society imagine it. We need to think about the where people are and how people may be able to participate and enter [the
movement]. Only when we have sufficient numbers, far beyond what we are capable of mobilizing right now, will our political and business leaders finally be pushed to the urgency the situation demands.

Art and music, even gaming platforms, are a pathway, he said. “One of the things that’s missing the most right now is… imagination. We need to get people to imagine that turning the tide is within reach,” Naidoo said. , the window of opportunity is small and it is closing fast, but let’s be very clear: this moment in history we find ourselves in is one where we must say that pessimism is a luxury that we simply cannot allow ourselves, and that whatever happens the pessimism of our analysis may be at different times, we can best overcome this pessimism through the optimism of our creativity, our energy and our actions that seek to make things change – even if we don’t win the fight immediately the next day.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration bolstering coverage of the climate story.


Founder of the 350.org climate change campaign and Scholar-in-Residence at Middlebury College

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