From the July-August 2019 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
Schoolchildren continue to hold Fridays for Future strikes weekly across the world, demanding “that governments immediately provide a safe pathway to stay within 1.5°C of global heating.” Begun last August, the school strikes reached crescendos with two global youth climate strikes on March 15 and May 24. A week of actions is planned for September just before the UN climate summit.
Their message begins with the simple statement: “Our house is on fire.”
In the second global climate strike, diverse events were held in 2,350 places across the planet, bringing out over 1.8 million youth and supporters. In many cities of Europe and Latin America, major streets and bridges were packed by the young people who came out. Over 320,000 turned out in Germany alone.
Parliaments and government buildings were besieged from Wellington, New Zealand, to Odessa, Ukraine. Several hundred youths held a die-in for 11 minutes in New York’s Times Square, symbolizing 11 years in which to avoid a disastrous climate tipping point.
PROTESTS SPAN THE GLOBE
Where protests were prohibited, as in Russia, individual teenagers held separate vigils. In Guilin, China, 16-year-old Howey Ou held a daily climate strike for a week until the police stopped her. Vanessa Vash continued the climate strike she has been holding in Kampala, Uganda, since the beginning of the year.
In Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and more than a dozen other African countries, the second global climate strike was followed the next day by hundreds of actions for Africa Vuka Day “to stop the development of fossil fuels infrastructure within Africa” and “to show the determination of the People of Africa to free themselves from foreign domination and exploitation.” They asked, “Whose development, exactly?”
Forty-seven of the youth activists released a statement for the climate strike day that said, in part:
“We have learned that if we don’t start acting for our future, nobody else will make the first move….Emissions must drop rapidly—so that by the time we are in our mid- and late-20s we are living in a completely transformed world….But to change everything, we need everyone. It is time for all of us to unleash mass resistance.”
They called for adults as well as children to join in a week of actions Sept. 20-27 culminating in a general strike for the climate.
CHILDREN CREATING A FUTURE
The strikes reveal the resolve of a generation in the face of an existential emergency. Despite the colossal forces with which climate deniers have tried to bury the truth, a wave of children born in the 21st century has arisen to wash their filth away.
They are telling the world that business as usual spells their doom—and not only business as usual but the meager measures gathered under the umbrella of the Paris Agreement, celebrated by the establishment and those with little imagination as the greatest accomplishment in the decades-long shuffle to do something about the climate crisis, or at least to appear to.
Seizing every opportunity to speak out, graduating high schoolers organized Class of 0000 (classof0000.com), with hundreds of valedictorians and others with speaking roles at graduation ceremonies pledging to read a message about the urgency of the climate crisis, including: “Zero emissions. Zero excuses. Zero time to waste.”
Showing the success of the climate denial campaign, many cowardly administrators banned the message as “too political.” Silently allowing the future of humanity to be destroyed is allegedly not political. The stereotyped anodyne commencement speech is also political, but it’s a politics of acceptance of the status quo, acquiescing with the destruction of all we hold dear.
The global climate strikes were kicked off last year by Greta Thunberg, then 15 years old, who had been inspired by the activism and eloquence of students who survived the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Undeterred by jaded leftists dismissive of the Parkland students’ pleas for gun control, Thunberg tuned into their passionate message that they were not going to sit by while this society’s political representatives and economic powers did nothing to halt the threats to the future of young people.
“This movement had to happen,” Thunberg and seven other teenage girls wrote in their manifesto for the first global climate strike. “[Politicians] don’t want to face the facts—we need to change the system if we are to try to act on the climate crisis….The kind of changes that need to happen mean everyone recognizing that this is a crisis and committing to radical transformations. We strongly believe that we can fight off the most damaging effects of climate change—but we have to act now.”
They say outright that they don’t have all the answers. What remains crucial is the reaching for a revolutionary direction that already ferments within the movement.
Extinction Rebellion, with some roots in the Occupy movement, formed at about the same time Thunberg was beginning her school strike, and drew strength and inspiration as the latter went international. Most dramatically, Extinction Rebellion shut down major portions of London in April. That was the largest of a number of actions, not only in the UK, but in about 30 other countries, beginning last year and not over yet.
Under the combined impact of the youth strikes, Extinction Rebellion actions, and Thunberg’s public shaming of the UK Parliament, the latter passed a resolution declaring a climate state of emergency. The Irish Parliament soon followed, as no doubt will some others. While these resolutions changed no policies or practices, they reflect the pressure these climate movements have brought to bear.
NEEDED REVOLUTION FROM BELOW
Extinction Rebellion does not only want a state of emergency declared. They call for a “Citizens’ Assembly” to draw up the actual plans and policies to transform society so as to deal with the ecological crisis and decarbonize the economy in an equitable way. Such assemblies, especially if they are called into being as an adviser to existing governments, would not automatically escape the laws of motion of this capitalistic society or likely start a revolution; rather, citizens’ assemblies capable of embodying the revolutionary aspirations of the masses could only arise as part of a revolution from below.
But the demand does arise from a key problem: if the capitalist state declares a climate emergency, it does not give up its claim to determine how the emergency is addressed. The world is already adapting to the growing fallout of climate change, and that process will continue one way or another, either in a militaristic, police-state, authoritarian, gated-community, wall-building way under the control of a small elite, or in a human way under the control of the masses.
It is not enough to demand that something be done. Something is already being done: not the needed decarbonization of the economy, of course, and not the measures that are needed to protect the world’s poorest and most oppressed, the island nations like Tuvalu and the low-lying coastal areas like much of Bangladesh that are at risk of disappearing under rising seas, and the poor people and people of color who are the bulk of those most impacted by disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. But a lot has been done already.
WALL IN THE WORLD OR TRANSFORM IT
The Pentagon has been planning for future waves of hundreds of millions of climate refugees and for fortification of its military bases susceptible to flooding. For decades oil companies have raised their ocean drilling platforms to prepare for rising seas at the very time they have funded vicious climate denial campaigns.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is sending aid to the Midwest, except to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which is still suffering from the recent bomb cyclone—just as Trump has personally led the effort to minimize aid to Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo triumphantly declared that “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” at the Arctic Council meeting in May, at the very time that he was sabotaging the Council with his intransigent refusal to allow any mention of climate change, preventing it, for the first time, from issuing a joint declaration.
The European Right is pushing ever more monstrous ways to block refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia from settling in Europe. Yes, plenty is being done to prepare for a future of climate crisis, but what is being built is a lifeboat for the powerful, the scaffolding for a genocidal, fascist world order.
The movement’s growth is largely driven by the fact that the climate crisis is increasingly evident. Just since the last issue of N&L, more disastrous flooding and tornados hit Texas and the Midwest, deadly heat waves have hit the western U.S. and India, hundreds of wildfires broke out in California, a second powerful cyclone hit Mozambique and another cyclone forced millions to evacuate in India and Bangladesh.
As if the youth needed more proof of the urgency of radical transformation, the world keeps pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and keeps doing it faster. Oil, coal, and natural gas companies keep expanding their extraction of what the world needs to stop extracting, and they do it with the support of most governments worldwide. The same companies are producing more and more plastic, just when the crisis proportions of plastic production are being widely recognized—and here again another treaty was agreed to by almost all the world’s governments except the U.S. That treaty, however, only encompasses efforts to control and reduce plastic waste, rather than winding down its production.
ONLY A TOTAL CHANGE WILL DO
This spring’s report on biodiversity and extinctions from UN scientists underscores the fact that climate change is not the only massive ecological crisis facing humanity, and that decarbonization is not enough. Last year, the UN scientific panel on climate change called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Robert Watson, who headed the panel of scientists that released the report on biodiversity, summed it up in similar terms:
“[I]t is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global. Through ‘transformative change,’ nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably—this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”
Watson stressed the complexity of the crisis, which underscores the depth of transformation required, when he wrote, “We cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.”
Trump and the Republicans keep pressing on the throttle as the Hummer approaches the cliff. But Democratic Party alternatives try to cut the needed transformative change into bite-size pragmatic pieces that will never add up to a solution to humanity’s existential crisis. Forced to move left by the green new deal’s popularity, all the Democratic presidential candidates are pushing versions of green capitalism, mainly focused on subsidizing industry, including for most nuclear power.
Joe Biden called for a “clean energy revolution,” which, however, includes tax credits for carbon capture—a lifeline for fossil fuels—a plank copied from the Carbon Capture Coalition, an industry front group for oil and coal companies like Shell, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, which roped in a few of the more conservative environmental groups and union bureaucracies. Biden’s climate advisor Heather Zichal helped push fracking under Obama and then made millions off the gas industry.
Elizabeth Warren’s climate response centers on (1) “hardening the military” so it can “lead the fight” and (2) “economic patriotism” centering on development, manufacture and export of technology.
The boldest position on the Democratic Party left is the green new deal, which is supported by many self-described socialists in and outside the party, including Bernie Sanders. Seeing the need for a drastic and rapid transformation of the economy, it is no accident that the green new deal’s model is the 1930s state intervention to save crumbling capitalism and the militarization of the economy for World War II, rather than revolution from below, which has the greatest potential of all to transform the economy and society as a whole.
The May European Union elections reflected the same pressures, as Green parties made big gains and most left and right parties tried to look greener. The greening revealed contradictions as well, and especially the dangers if calling for massive state action and declarations of emergency get separated from an overall liberatory direction.
Globally, the far right has both pushed and fed off of the ideology of climate denial, but a part of Europe’s far right has tacked to incorporate the climate crisis into their anti-immigrant hysteria. France’s National Rally party declared, “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally.” Some in the party contend that environmental crisis should be the focus of European politics, projecting a Fortress Europa as a lifeboat excluding climate refugees, whose numbers are expected to reach hundreds of millions in a few decades. Mette Frederiksen, Denmark’s “left” social democratic prime-minister-in-waiting, rode to election victory on a comparable green xenophobic stance.
The urgency of the climate and extinction crisis has brought new attention to the inherent contradictions of capitalism, the appeal of socialism as well as false alternatives from state-capitalist planning to the pretended anti-capitalism of Fortress Europa. The idea of revolution is in the air. What is crucial is for the movements around the climate emergency to resist false alternatives and keep moving in a liberatory direction in thought as well as in action.