Reality check: Where is the climate justice movement at the end of the pandemic? – Sinan Eden

§1. During the pandemic, the climate movement stagnated and normalized at the same time. The momentum of the climate strikes of 2019 was lost, while the institutional mechanisms (such as the European Green Deal, Biden’s climate plan, China’s carbon neutrality commitment) stepped in and up. Getting out of the pandemic, the climate movement is weaker and the climate policies are stronger. This is a problem, because those “stronger” climate policies are taking us to collapse. While governments pledge for carbon neutrality in 2050, with the current trends our carbon budget will end already during this decade. So, how did we get here? If things are horribly bad, how are we not coming out stronger from the confinement?

§2. My main proposition is that the climate justice movement was inflicted by an unnecessary shyness during the pandemic. We backed down from our disruptive capacity and worked on insisting on our narrative to be part of the crisis response.

This was caused by three misconceptions on our side.

§3. For one thing, we thought people would stay at home. We thought that climate – the most pressing topic just a couple of months before the pandemic – would not mobilize people under confinement restrictions. Real life proved us wrong. People took to the streets in hundreds of thousands.

This is just a glimpse at the lockdown period. Looking at the diversity of countries and topics, we can easily conclude that COVID-19 was not a pause for social movements. If it was a pause for the climate justice movement, that was because we made that choice. The society was not only ready to be mobilized but was also actively mobilizing.

§4. Secondly, we thought we should have stayed home. At the height of the pandemic, even our base was insisting on staying at home. That was because our base has been middle-class, but this position was framed as caring for the more vulnerable among us. The vulnerable among us, in fact, were still going to work and were still dying from climate breakdown.

The government was holding emergency meetings every day and holding press conferences every second day. The police was not staying home and was in fact on the streets. The emissions continued, the polluters were bailed. We decided to stay in. We did not adjust our strategy according to what our adversaries were doing.

§5. Deep down, we thought we could wait a little bit. This is my third explanation for our mistake. We delegated the health crisis to the government. Why did we do that? Why did we believe that the government was the right entity to solve the health crisis? Of all movements, the climate movement should be the most informed and most experienced in not trusting governments on solving crises. And instead, we let them deal with it. We waited out.

§6. To be fair, comparing well-organized actions with spontaneous mobilizations is a bit of a stretch. Our mass actions require some degree of clarity on travel restrictions as well as training in real-life. Extinction Rebellion filled the space with the Rebellion of One, while Ende Gelände managed to organize mass actions under extremely uncertain conditions.

Even so, I’d dare say that our frame of thinking was tuned to be contained. We thought “Given the lockdown, what can we do?”; this was a question of what was logistically possible as well as what would be acceptable. We did not think of possibilities outside of the lockdown itself. We were not prepared to and nor calling for mass mobilizations like the ones I listed above.

§7. Following the internal debates, I am not sure if movement organizers actually drew these lessons from the last years. While the politicians will continue announcing that “they got this” while pushing us to climate chaos, the climate justice movement cannot afford to put its disruptive capacity on hold.

I find this important for two reasons. One, because zoonotic spillovers (and therefore similar pandemics) are expected to become more frequent with capitalism, so we can end up having to live through this again soon. Two, because a world in collapse is a world in states of emergency where we may be tempted to assume that climate mobilizations would be off topic.

§8. One upside of the pandemic was that the climate justice movement’s maturing period coincided with its reflective period. So the structural connections were explored and the movement became more intersectional and more anti-systemic (to the degree that the March 2022 action of Fridays for Future was called People Not Profit). Ramping up ambition, we are readier to face our task with more honesty.

§9. My broad conclusions, then, are the following basic questions. Do we trust the ruling class? Do we trust them our future and our present? If so, why? If not, then why did we stay at home?


N.B. This is an “insider” text. I’m not “criticizing” the movement. Please read this note as my self-critique rather than a ramble on how others did things all wrong.

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