As record temperatures continue to be broken on a regular basis and climate disasters become all the more frequent, Kieran Allen takes stock of how best the environmental movement can respond.
Everyone is talking about the weather. And no wonder, because we have entered the era of climate catastrophe. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, global temperatures are likely to surge to record levels in the next five years.
But where is the environmental movement? And why, asked Andreas Malm, is it ‘gentle and mild in the extreme’?
Maybe it has been lulled into quietude by a shift in strategy by the large corporations. In the past, companies like Exxon, sponsored climate change denial movements, funded their think tanks and promoted doubt, much as the tobacco industry did in the past. But this has been replaced with climate hypocrisy and blah blah blah. Doublespeak is not simply a matter of individual moral dissonance. It does not arise because a CEO might personally want to ‘go green’ while presiding over the bottom line. It is a strategy.
In 2020, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, issued a famous note proclaiming that ‘climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.’ Yet two years later, BlackRock closed a $15 billion investment deal with Saudi pipelines. Exxon Mobil has pledged to meet a zero emissions target for 2050 but its shareholders voted against trying to reduce emissions at all. McDonald’s, one of the largest beef purchasers, is responsible for greater emissions than Hungary and Poland put together. But it proudly displays its ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ programme. The pattern is clear – talk green and continue with ‘business as usual’.
However, this strategy hardly explains the passivity of the environmental movement. After all, the term ‘greenwashing’ is on everyone’s lips. We need to look at something else.
Green Party Betrayal: A Europe-wide Phenomenon
For decades, there was an implicit bargain at the heart of the environmental movement. A militant flank engaged in direct action while Green parties played an electoral game to effect practical change. It was understood that the respectable Greens might cultivate an ambiguity towards direct action for electoral reasons. But this has now fallen apart because of the sheer scale of the Green betrayal.
Green parties have joined governments in six different countries, but their record has been appalling. In Germany, the former pacifist Greens have become the most enthusiastic war mongers since the war in Ukraine began. Alongside that has gone an acceptance of Liquefied Natural Gas terminals and the re-opening of coal mines. The final straw for many activists came when the Greens supported police action against a climate camp which opposed the opening of a lignite mine in Lutzerath. In Ireland, the Greens have voted down proposals to ban further data centres even though they are expected to guzzle nearly 30% of Irish energy by 2030. They have dropped their ban on LNGs and, incredibly, have denounced a call for free public transport.
The Return of Direct Action?
These betrayals have disorientated the environmental movement and one response has been a return to the tactics of direct action. Andreas Malm’s book. How to Blow up a Pipeline, encapsulates this spirit and it is particularly good at challenging the ‘strategic pacifism’ and stance that the movement should be ‘neither left nor right’. The shift towards direct action is extremely healthy but it raises three key questions.
First, what is the objective? Is it to achieve publicity and so that governments are embarrassed into doing something? Or is it part of a wider strategy to uproot global capitalism?
Second, and related to the above, is it to be permanently based on minorities of committed activists or have an orientation to winning the working class population? An extreme example of the former – since admitted as a mistake – was the action by two XR activists on the London Underground during rush hour. Less extreme but nonetheless significant strategically was the direct action against Penny’s in order to highlight fast fashion, as happened in Ireland a few years ago.
Third, is the target for direct action to be the luxury consumption of individuals or the profit making activities of corporations? Surprisingly, Malm’s focus is on the former rather than on the activities of corporations. True, his main target is the luxury consumption of the rich, such as their ownership of gas guzzling SUVs. (Unfortunately, 55% of cars sold in Ireland were SUVs so ownership goes beyond the very rich). However, private consumption in general has an impact.
Building Towards Mass Action
Socialists need to intervene in this debate with distinct proposals on strategy. The worst outcome would be that the disorientation of the environmental movement feeds into a climate of despair and pessimism. (There are already suggestions that Ireland can benefit from a new tourist model that makes travel to colder climates more desirable – so sit back and accept it).
A focus on direct action is positive as it breaks from the norm of conventional political action. It should be orientated to winning majority working class support. It should be part of a strategy that embraces a just transition. This means targeting the corporations which are the primary emitters of greenhouse gases and which define the ‘choices’ we are presented with for consumption.
A focus on individuals dovetails with the neoliberal paradigm which assumes that behaviour is changed by pricing policies. So, the Irish Greens, for example, suggest that carbon taxes will reduce car usage even though there was no evidence that it declined with recent price hikes. A focus on corporations leads logically to an anti-capitalist strategy and enables the movement to gain wider support.
In 2019, there was a global climate strike which involved one million people in 125 countries. It was a great start but it needs to be repeated and built on. And we need an organisation to help carry it out.
When George Bush threatened to invade Iraq in 2003, the European Social Forum held a convention in Florence to issue a call for a massive day of action in February 2003. The convention brought together unions, political parties, NGO and social movements. It resulted in the biggest global mobilisation against war ever seen.
We are in an even more serious situation today. We need a return to international days of action which target corporations. We need more global climate strikes. We need another European Social Forum. And this time, let’s not stop with a one day action – we need to continue with militant direct action.