Throughout 2015, I had a hard time explaining my feeling about the Paris climate talks. Friends and allies would excitedly ask me if I was going and I’d force a smile and explain that no, I had been to enough United Nations climate meetings. The truth was that after more than five years of attending and watching U.N. climate talks, the whole thing had started to feel like the climate movement had gotten itself stuck in a time-warp and we were living the same two weeks over and over again every year.
As I watched the Paris talks unfold, the whole thing started to feel like the movie Groundhog Day. If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, the basic premise is that Bill Murray plays a weatherman who gets caught in a time loop, reliving the same day in rural Pennsylvania over and over. Just looking at the major actions, each one seemed to be a repeat of something from the past. Red lines in Doha and red lines in Paris. Sit-ins and walk-outs year after year from Copenhagen to Durban to Rio to Warsaw. I was reminded of something a friend told me about the Doha talks — the outcome was so predictable that he wrote press releases months in advance and the only change he had to make to the one about the final reaction was the date.
Nevertheless, there is good news. About halfway through Groundhog Day, Bill Murray realizes that his only way out of the time warp is to become a better person. In Paris, it feels like the climate movement — the collective Bill Murray in this analogy — have reached a similar point. On the one hand, it’s great news because coming out of Paris it feels like we’ve crested a hill. On the other hand, it’s awful because from the top of this hill, we can now see the mountain peak we have to ascend. In Groundhog Day terms, it’s great because we know how to get out, but since time isn’t standing still, we can’t afford to keep repeating history over and over. So, with that in mind, here are three suggestions for ways the climate movement can break free.
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1. We need to redefine what climate leadership means
For years, the climate movement has viewed it’s principle opponents as people and institutions who deny the existence of climate change. In this context, a culture of desperation was born in much of the climate movement, where the need to win something, anything, on climate became so strong that we clamored to amplify and validate almost any politician willing to even admit the reality of climate change. Modest steps and half measures were answered with so much applause from much of the climate movement that even the most valid criticisms and questions were drowned out. The simple fact was that a lot of us felt like we desperately needed something to applaud.
Now the needle has moved on climate change, and while we can debate the merits of the Paris climate agreement, one thing that we can’t ignore is that these talks marked the end of the politics of outright climate denial. This year saw a U.S. president reject the Keystone XL pipeline on climate grounds, as well as over $3 trillion divested from fossil fuels. It also had tar sands company CEOs touting their “climate leadership.” Clearly, things are changing for the better.
Going into 2016, politicians and CEOs want the title of “climate leader,” and right now they’re getting it without really having to work for it. Whether it’s Jerry Brown in California allowing fracking across the state or Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledging to support a 1.5 degree Celsius ceiling on temperature rise while allowing tar sands pipelines to be approved without climate considerations, climate leadership has become such a hollow measure that you can be a climate hero one day and an oil baron the next.
That’s why this movement needs to redefine what climate leadership is by raising the bar for what we, as a movement, will applaud. Governments and politicians are not fragile children in need of constant reassurance from the climate movement. They are decision makers who by and large are not moving fast enough to do what it takes to leave fossil fuels in the ground and facilitate a justice-based transition to 100 percent clean energy. It’s 2016, politicians don’t need the climate movement to apologize for them not doing enough, they need us to organize to force them to do more.
2. We need to get real about climate justice
The outcomes of climate talks can often be seen as a kind of “movement barometer” measuring the amount of pressure that the climate movement is putting on politicians around the globe. Looking at the outcome of the Paris talks through this lens is useful because it helps us recognize that a commitment to a 1.5 degree climate target was only achieved because of the growing power of the global climate movement — and that’s something to celebrate.
By the same measure, though, we need to accept that in the Paris outcome indigenous rights, human rights and women’s rights have all been moved to sections of the text where they aren’t legally protected. On top of this, support for the most vulnerable people in the Paris outcome isn’t anywhere near what a just and fair deal would look like. If we are going to celebrate a 1.5 degree target as a victory for this movement, we also have to acknowledge where we fell short. Coming out of Paris, the biggest losses landed on the laps of the most vulnerable people, communities and nations, and in my eyes that means we still have a long way to go to get real about the justice part of climate justice.
Since Copenhagen, a lot of the climate movement has shifted it’s language in support of frontline communities and a justice-based and systemic approach to climate change. It’s the sort of shift that made something like the People’s Climate March possible. But, by the same token, it’s telling that if you line up reaction statements to the outcome of Paris, the most impacted peoples were more critical of the deal than mainstream organizations, which were far more celebratory.
There, of course, is no easy solution to this challenge, but it starts with recognizing that climate justice needs to be more than a buzzword. This is going to mean some serious soul searching for the climate movement in 2016, and spending more time listening to, digesting and doing the work to deepen our commitment to acting on, not just speaking to, justice.
3. The climate movement needs to move beyond the environmental movement
One of the worst things that ever happened to climate change was the moment it became viewed as an environmental problem. It narrowed the focus of one of the broadest, farthest-reaching social justice issues of our time and placed the responsibility for tackling it in the hands of a movement that frankly, isn’t up to the task alone.
In 2016, we need to leave environmentalism behind and begin to experiment with what a real climate movement can be, because honestly, it might be the only chance we actually have to turn #KeepItInTheGround from a hashtag into a strategy.
The modern environmental movement, for the most part, has very “elite” strategies. Organizing, mass mobilization and direct action have primarily been seen as tools to facilitate lobbying and negotiation strategies, which for a movement bred from a conservation ethic has meant getting to the table with corporations and government in order to achieve a compromise. This strategy has been successful at winning a lot of crucial environmental victories, but it’s also come at the cost of building a genuine movement, and it won’t be enough if we’re going to get serious about meeting the climate challenge.
One major challenge is that the environmental movement is made up mostly of big organizations. It’s like an ecosystem where every organism is an apex predator. They can exist with one another, but quickly devour smaller organisms and groups, and while that may mean the ecosystem can exist, it’s far from healthy and certainly not diverse. For the climate movement to be successful, we need a movement ecosystem that’s as dynamic and full as the rainforest. We need to make room, and a big part of that is going to mean rethinking our strategies and campaigns.
One of the biggest problems with approaching climate change the way the environmental movement has approached other issues is that there is no negotiating with physics. If we acknowledge that the vast majority of fossil fuels need to be left in the ground for a safe climate, then we can’t compromise with an industry that’s business model is built on extracting and burning as much as it can. It’s not even that we don’t want to, it’s that science says we can’t.
This means that the goal of getting to the table with politicians and industry doesn’t make sense, because we’re never going to be at that table in good faith, and neither is the industry. We also need to acknowledge and remember that when it comes to climate change, the table has been rotted to the core from over three decades of fossil fuel interests polluting our politics. With this in mind, the goal may need to shift from organizing to the table to organizing the table to the people, where we can balance the scales of fossil fuel interests with genuine, mass people power.
Building the kind of movement with the power to make this happen is going to require a lot of people that have helped to make this movement what it is to play outside our comfort zones in 2016, myself included. It’s also going to mean taking the time to learn from other movements. Whether that’s the fierce and undeniably courageous work of Black Lives Matter organizers, the rooted justice-based solutions work of the Our Power campaign or the protean, viral nature of movements like Occupy, we need these lessons to update our strategies. The climate movement also needs to spend more time learning the history of movements for civil rights to stopping nuclear proliferation.
If we approach learning from these movements not just as harvesting their best ideas, but building relationships, this could also be our best means to find the “fault lines” of our movements. Through this we can get beyond the politics of token solidarity and dig deep to build the kind of transformative power that a climate movement really demands.
As was the case for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the only way to break free from the time loop was to learn from his mistakes and refuse to repeat them. Whether it’s the United Nations climate talks, election cycles or meetings upon meetings, a lot of this movement feels like a time warp, and the true test isn’t whether or not we get everything right, but if we learn, evolve and innovate to take on new challenges.