By Sophie Squire
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Which strategy can save the planet from climate breakdown?

This article is over 1 years, 3 months old
Activists in the climate movement spoke to Socialist Worker about how best to fight worsening environmental breakdown
Issue 2820
Climate actvisst with Insulate britain being arrested while they stage a direct action to block roads to heathrow airport

Insulate Britain activists block roads by Heathrow airport last year (Picture: Guy Smallman) climate

Scorching heat, ­wildfires and floods underline the urgency of the climate crisis. But how do we force action, and stop the relentless drive towards destruction flowing from an economy based on fossil fuels?

For Roger Hallam, founder of Extinction Rebellion (XR), activists must stop pretending they are making a difference at the moment and embrace genuinely disruptive methods.  In an open letter to XR earlier this year, Hallam said “The unimaginable is about to happen and the world will never be the same again. Nothing. Nothing at all compares to this.”

He added that members of the group are currently “failing” and that “You have the numbers, you could win, but you are all hedging. “To succeed you will have to ­challenge your family relationships, risk your job, and give up your social status. You will have to resist to the point of arrest and imprisonment. And not stop. You are failing because you are not telling ­yourselves this truth.” 

Hallam’s views on direct action are partly the inspiration for activists in Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain. But there are other pulls on these movements. Sensing they need to grow bigger, Just Stop Oil has entered into a campaigning alliance with Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace & Justice Project. But that could lead to a move away from some forms of confrontation with the state.

Other activists are saying overtly that putting on a more respectable face is the best way to win change.  Another leading member of XR, Rupert Read, has repeatedly argued for a “moderate flank strategy”.

He wrote in July, “the most effective thing to do now is to meet people where they are and bring the majority with us. The radical flank is not capable of doing this.

“There’s been such pushback against the radical flank that it’s not now credible to suppose that it can actually win.” 

Electoral projects like the Green Party are also seeing an influx of members.  All of this highlights that there is a broader debate going on in the climate movement about what it will really take to get change.

And this argument is likely to be important as both XR and Just Stop Oil prepare to take to the streets in September and October.

Socialist Worker spoke to three activists in the climate movement about what tactics are needed to win.

‘We are serious about battling within the system’

Nathalie Bienfait, The first-ever Green Party councillor in Tower Hamlets, east London

Change is happening, but it’s not happening fast enough. 

We have tried to change the system from the inside. But this hasn’t been enough to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming. 

But I will say that despite this, the Green Party has progressed in the right direction. We now have over 600 councillors across Britain. 

We had an influx of over 1,000 members in a single month recently. Of course, it’s tough to say why definitively, but I think it was a mix of the heatwaves and the Labour Party and Keir Starmer’s stance on strikes.  

As Labour pushes towards the centre, more people are deciding to join us. We had the same kind of influx of new members during and after the Cop26 climate conference. 

There needs to be more of us to argue for policies that take the climate crisis seriously in government.  

We are serious about battling within the system and fighting for things like the nationalisation of the energy industry, especially as people’s bills continue to rise.

This is a practical thing we can fight for in the here and now. Nobody should be forced to go to foodbanks.

Our relationship with other climate groups is also important. All of my colleagues in the borough have strong connections with groups like XR, Friends of the Earth and local campaigns like Stop the Silvertown Tunnel. 

The civil disobedience approach we have seen in recent years communicates the urgency of the climate crisis and is highly effective. More effective than the political approach. 

And so, I think it’s my job as a Green Party councillor to facilitate these actions.

Councillors can help activists access petitions and bring their demands to those in positions of power. We need not just say we’re working together to make a change. We actually have to do it. 

I know this system is screwed up, but it is the system we are in, and we must work with it.  

I’m not expecting a revolution at the moment, and I don’t think we should wait for it either. There are very practical things that we can do now, and if we don’t, we will stand on the wrong side of history. 

As a councillor, I have a moral responsibility to fight as hard as possible because I have been elected to do this. Everyone has a role to play, and this is mine. 

Every small action helps, whether it is texting someone or putting up a poster. We all have to be part of this fight.

‘To create change we need civil disobedience’

Indigo, member of Just Stop Oil

I joined Just Stop Oil because I realised we need to take rapid action to save humanity from the climate crisis.  I signed all these petitions, and I had been on many marches. I even met with my MP. 

But we have just two or three years to stop the worst effects of climate change, and none of this alone addresses the urgency with which we need to act.   To create this change, we must do what others have done throughout history. We need thousands of people to take part in acts of civil disobedience. 

We’ve tried traditional means, and one march a year just isn’t enough anymore. People feel betrayed by their government, especially young people.  They now see that there is no place they’d rather be than blocking the machine that is a death sentence—the fossil fuel industry. 

To get to this point, activists have a day-long training session that helps them understand what they’ll be prepared to do. 

Of course people that join in with direct action know they’ll be arrested, but they see that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  Hundreds of activists in Just Stop Oil have already been arrested, creating a massive backlog in the courts. Some activists are currently imprisoned. 

But the repression won’t stop us because the situation is so bad and horrific that people conclude it’s worth it.  The critical thing that we’re also trying to show is that when those in power lock climate activists up, they show their true colours. They show they’d rather lock ordinary people up than stop new oil and gas. 

Direct action, to us, is the last resort. It’s when you use your body as a protest. Although it can be scary, you feel a strong sense of community and know in your heart why you are doing it.  When you take part in direct action, you feel like you’re not politely asking for change. You’re demanding it. 

We do need to build this movement bigger, but I also think that small groups of people taking part in direct action with a clear message can be effective in bringing about change.  It took only 120 people in Insulate Britain to bring the M25 to a halt several times over seven weeks. 

With energy prices soaring, their demand to insulate homes will now sound very sensible to millions.  In the autumn Just Stop Oil will come together with other groups and begin an open-ended campaign of civil disobedience, protest and direct action. 

We hope that we can add to the pressure that is currently being put on the government.  And we’re hoping that by coming together, we can fight our common enemy—the greed of the fossil fuel companies who want to bring about the end of the world.

‘Link with the strikes’

Bruce Murphy is a Just Stop Oil activist in Manchester 

The climate movement must be there on the pickets fighting our common enemy. We must clarify that we have much more in common than what divides us. 

Meeting strikers on RMT picket lines in Manchester was an important moment for me. I met one striker who was so confident I thought he must have been an organiser. He later told me this was his first time on strike. 

Coordinating our action as part of Just Stop Oil with strikes will be necessary. I think that pressing on pressure points at the same time is a good way to force the government to make the change. 

But what is it that we want? Our main demand in Just Stop Oil is to stop all new fossil fuel projects, but we also have several other demands that go along with that. 

We want free or cheap public transport, the mass retrofitting and insulating of homes. We want proper taxation of billionaires and a sensible cap on our energy bills. 

To get this we need more collaboration and a diverse set of tactics. Already we have started door-knocking and canvassing to get the word out. 

What I would say to socialists is we need you in this movement. We need your knowledge and connections with the trade union movement especially. One thing you can do is get a Just Stop Oil member to speak in your union branch meeting.  

Now is the time for courage, bravery and militancy. We have to make people believe that they have the power to change things.

‘The climate movement is best when it mobilises big numbers’

Martin Empson, Author of Socialism or Extinction, and member of the Socialist Workers Party

Despite the growing threat, the world is going backwards on climate change. The rhetoric of politicians at the Glasgow Cop26 UN climate conference last year has been forgotten as the cost of living crisis and inflation are leading governments to try to protect profits.

Liz Truss, favourite to be the next prime minister, has complained about there being “too many solar farms” in the countryside.  She was environment minister during David Cameron’s premiership and oversaw cuts to subsidies for solar power. Her opponent Rishi Sunak has consistently voted against measures to reduce emissions.

At the same time, fossil fuel companies are driving ahead with plans to expand oil extraction. Shell has decided to start the development of the Jackdaw oil field in the North Sea.

In the face of this threat, we need a re-energised climate movement that takes on fossil fuel capitalism and links this struggle to broader social issues. This is why it was so important to see climate activists on RMT and CWU union picket lines recently.

We need to link together struggles. The fights over the cost of living, against racism and for better low carbon social infrastructure—such as public transport—are connected.

On rail picket lines, many activists were making obvious links between the importance of railways and a low carbon transport system.  Socialists need to develop this. The latest, updated edition of the Million Climate Jobs report by the Campaign Against Climate Change is a tool for this.

The strikes do not just highlight our shared struggles. They show how we can win. It is clear that whichever Tory wins the leadership election, they will not deliver the action on climate change we urgently need.

The strikes show how workers’ power can stop the profits of big business. By using this power, workers can force governments to deliver real change—or even kick them out. Climate activists’ direct action is an inspiration and should be applauded. But direct action is even more effective when workers are involved. 

Small groups of activists can block fossil fuel infrastructure for a couple of hours, sometimes days.  If workers down tools, they can shut down a coal mine or an oil refinery indefinitely—because their labour keeps them running in the first place. 

And mass action on the streets has the potential power to shut down the system.  In 2019 student climate strikes inspired millions of workers. The September 2019 climate strike saw groups of workers join protests collectively. 

Now workers themselves are striking. A renewed climate movement would raise confidence further and help place environmental demands at the heart of workers’ struggles.

The climate movement is at its most potent when it mobilises big numbers on the streets.  Extinction Rebellion, the climate strikes and the mobilisations around Cop26 showed that millions of workers wanted radical action. 

Socialists must replenish their commitment to these struggles and continue to build the movement against climate change. A mass militant environmental movement and workers’ strikes would be a powerful force that can defeat the Tories and begin the process of challenging fossil fuel capitalism itself.

Join XR’s latest rebellion 10-13 September, Marble Arch, London. For more details go to – Next UK Rebellion – Extinction Rebellion UK

And join Just Stop Oil as it begins its occupation of Westminster from 1 October. For more details go to – Just Stop Oil – No More Oil and Gas

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