To avoid catastrophic climate change we need to change everything—we need a different kind of system.
And most of the tens of thousands of protesters who attended the protests against Cop26 last weekend would agree.
“System change, not climate change” has increasingly become one of the most popular slogans on climate demonstrations in recent years.
The popularity of this phrase—and the ideas behind it—are down to the work of the left within the climate movement.
Another sign that the movement is radicalising is that many mainstream forces are copying language from the movements on the streets.
Increasingly NGOs and even some politicians are using more radical sounding phrases.
Former US president Barack Obama at Cop26 told young people to “stay angry” about climate change.
But his conclusion wasn’t so radical—don’t be “too pure” and “Vote like your life depends on it.”
Such speeches are a deliberate effort to head off an assault on capitalism itself. The message from Obama and the NGOs is that the movement must direct its focus towards politics suitable within the existing system.
System change is reduced to system reform. Instead of doing away with the system, it becomes a plea to sustain it.
On the protests last week, socialists, Extinction Rebellion, Labour, Green Party members, trade unionists and more marched alongside various NGOs.
And there were many people on the demonstrations who don’t back any particular group.
Unity in action is powerful. But just celebrating a vibrant movement is not enough.
There is a battle of ideas within the movement. At the People’s Summit, organised by the Cop26 coalition, that began after the protests on 6 November, there were arguments about what system change means.
For some of the speakers at the summit, it means greener jobs for workers achieved through cooperation with businesses and governments.
For others it means a Green New Deal within the confines of the current system.
But others recognise that the target has to be the bosses’ relentless drive for profits that plunges us towards disaster.
As the writer Andreas Malm puts it, “There can be no doubt that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it.
“Of their own accord, under their inner compulsion, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end.”
“System change” is a call for the end to fossil fuel capitalism that destroys the planet.
The slogan, “System change, not climate change” must always come with the recognition that it is capitalism that has to go, and we need a revolution to get there.