The urgent global climate revolt we need

September 29, 2022
Activists march through Xochimilco, Mexico, protesting against corporations
Activists march through Xochimilco, Mexico, protesting against corporations plundering water and resources. Photo: Tamara Pearson

Our worldhome is critically ill and on fire, but politicians and the economically powerful are fluffing about with rockets; gleefully banning abortion; spending US$932 billion on new oil and gas fields; and goofing around with carbon trading, as though our living conditions and survival were a leisurely card game.

On our side, we are marching and meeting, but our levels of organisation and resistance are vastly disproportionate to the anger and concern we feel and the urgency of the situation. We should be shutting down the fossil fuel industry. We should be striking in much larger numbers and ending Coca-Cola.

Globally, we are worried and terrified. Scientists are screaming that all the climate records have been broken and it is now or never. Many of us are already living through water scarcity, increased food prices as farmers struggle with longer dry seasons, unprecedented fires and floods, mental health issues and illness or death from overheating.

Surveys show that the majority of people see climate change as an emergency. A United Nations survey, conducted last year across 50 countries and 1.2 million people, found that 64% believe that. About 59% of those people believe the world should do everything necessary and urgently, and that it can. In an Ipsos survey this year spanning 31 countries, 68% of people said governments and businesses need to act now or risk failing future generations. Pew found that people believe climate change is the top global threat, and concern in wealthier countries has increased significantly over the past decade.

Despite this, only a tiny proportion of these people are actively standing up to governments and big business. Here are eight of the reasons why, and what can be done.

1. Fossil fuel dependence and consumerism habits: The global economy has a structural addiction to fossil fuels. In many cities and regions, cars are the only option, and fossil fuels provide 80% of the global energy supply. Society is organised around a consumerist lifestyle — this means that many people may want to do better for the environment, but are unable to imagine life without fossil fuels or the over-production of unnecessary goods. Plastic production (usually from crude oil or gas) has doubled in the past two decades, but most people can’t get by without supermarkets and shops and their single-use packaging and plastic goods.

People want to believe that electric vehicles and recycling are solutions, because they don’t involve moving away from these addictions or much sacrifice. In the United States, passenger cars are responsible for 58% of emissions, but cars there also represent status and mobility, so people find it hard to demand we move on to functioning public transport instead.

2. Climate change seems abstract and academic: Climate research and reports often focus on the statistics, and what will happen in the distant future, without exact dates. While this sort of research is powerful and important, for a mother in Mexico looking for her disappeared child, it can seem abstract and removed from her reality and daily life. Even people in Somalia, suffering four years of drought and a lack of food, may find data about the next month and next year and the causes of their situation more relevant.

Though most people realise the enormity of climate change, they are often dealing with other issues that feel more pressing, because they are more immediate, like financial concerns or health issues. Noam Chomsky noted that short-term interests prevail over existential crises.

The current immoral economic system can seem too amorphous and overwhelming to take on. Abstract information about the distant past or future can lead us to think, but more concrete information tends to trigger a sense of urgency and the need to act.

3. Family and individual needs before communities and humanity: People prefer to focus on what feels doable. Further, we live in an economic system that encourages competition and individual self-interest. With privatised and inaccessible basic social services, as well as racism, sexism and classism, most people feel abandoned by the society they live in, while families or other small social groups often seem to be supportive. So, for busy and exploited people, dedicating what little free time they have to family rather than risky causes and the needs of society, is an understandable choice.

4. Someone else’s responsibility: Climate change is complex and borderless, with its causes and impacts often taking place in different parts of the world. So there is some ambiguity about who is responsible for solutions. Common people are already disempowered and exhausted and may feel like this is the job of governments and international organisations rather than theirs. Alienated from politics and economic decision-making, most people don’t believe they are capable of doing anything significant, and that this catastrophe is out of their hands.

5. Misinformation and low political literacy: Most people don’t understand the intricacies of how global economics and power works, or how industry, inequality and imperialism factor into climate change. A lot of people would love to change things, but don’t know how to. And other very well-intentioned people believe that a few basil plants, recycling or living off-grid is enough. Information deprivation — largely a product of a mainstream media industry that defends the status quo and avoids context — makes it hard for people to take more serious action.

6. Disorganisation: Vanuatu has called for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, which is so far endorsed by over 60 cities. Youth recently held relatively small protests in 450 locations around the world, and other activists are pushing to make ecocide a crime. We are capable of being bold and of coordinating, but movements are also fragmented, small and disconnected from the most vulnerable sectors of society, or arising from them but isolated, unsure how to go beyond marches, forums, and symbolic strikes. There is a lack of preparedness for bigger actions that challenge the power structures promoting environmental destruction.

7. Lack of hope: Because big companies are causing the problem and most governments’ climate measures are non-existent or pathetic, demanding they act feels hopeless, yet taking away their power seems impossible. Based on its track record, few people believe the COP27 in November will reach significant or binding agreements.

At the same time, life experience has bestowed heavy amounts of apathy on most oppressed peoples. Many have fought, but few have won. There is a permanent emergency of injustice and inequality, but the suffering of the majority world has been normalised and climate change is quickly joining the long list of things that are tolerated.

8. Fear: Really confronting the powers that are causing the damage, when they are the ones with the money, guns and prisons, is hard — especially when people are dealing with income and job insecurity, undocumented status, violence at home and other unsafe situations. That climate scientists are arrested, but criminal corporations are given tax breaks, is a strong message.

What can be done?

So what can we do to get to the point where people are emboldened and empowered enough to shut down genocidal corporations?

The first thing is remembering and reminding others that there are realistic, practical things that can be done to slow down and stop climate destruction. Protecting the environment is completely feasible and realistic. In the US, for example, it would only take 2–3% of gross domestic product to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conditions for reducing emissions by 2030. Chomsky and Robert Pollin argue that spending on and planning sustainable energy, as well as reducing oil, coal and natural gas consumption, would involve less money and work than the World War II effort.

Already, activism has led to significant gains, and these should be broadcast more and emphasised. Before the pandemic, global protests put climate change measures on the top of the media agenda. Movements in the US have applied enough pressure that climate legislation is now a serious measure, rather than on the fringe. Here in Mexico, Indigenous peoples shut down a water bottling plant and ran it as a community centre. We don’t always see the impact of a single march on the day it happens, but sustaining the pro-environment movement will be worth it.

Shift discourse and condemn the fossil fuel industry

About 6.5 million people die each year from air pollution. There is no moral need to dial down how we talk about this. Companies in the fossil fuel industry are profiting from death and environmental destruction. They are organised criminals, elitist genocidal mafia.

The discourse bar for most non-profits and the UN is too low. They are too polite, too scared of confronting criminal behaviour and of naming the corporations and governments that are responsible. By putting their reputation and funding first, they embrace mediocrity. There is an institutional and deliberate reluctance to grapple with the morally corrupt economic system we are dominated by that puts profits before life.

Among us, we can keep upcycling clothing, but the bulk of our energy needs to go into bold, structural demands. In addition, we need to take climate facts out of the abstract, and talk about next month and next year. We should link the short term to the long term for the sake of depth and understanding but talk more about long-term hope and the short-term, immediate problems people are facing — thereby making climate change very concrete for them.

Embrace boldness and sacrifice

It’s time to abandon any meekness, and — despite the discomfort — challenge the life-threatening attitudes or behaviour of any who minimise the situation. We have to stand up for the planet as though our own home were on fire — because it is. That means accepting some personal sacrifices, such as demanding public transport replace cars, even if that is a little less convenient. Our agitation should make cars unfashionable and criminal corporations even less so. Central London already has congestion pricing, many countries punish littering: it is utterly logical and urgent that contaminating entities — particularly the big ones — be punished.

Speaking up also means letting politics (i.e. the struggle for justice) into everyday conversations, work life, family debates, pub chats and social media statements. The unpopularity of politics is merely a device to retain decision-making for an elite few, while people with public positions such as actors, doctors, teachers and waiters, are meant to promote the unjust status quo by avoiding speaking out about any social changes needed. But politics is survival, and is for everyone.

Grow the global movement

Strategies and plans will depend on regional situations and needs. But we can all become climate defenders, doing what we can, with what we have. We can tie ourselves to the headquarters of the biggest criminal corporations, and when the scientists do that in our city, we can go out and join them instead of just tweeting about it.

What we need though, is one huge, bold victory. Lock up the COP27 until it finally makes a solid real decision, stop Coca-Cola deliveries and shut down pipelines. Look at all the past victories and step them up a notch so that there is not just hope, but a map forward.

Climate change is disrupting and harming our lives, so we need to disrupt and force change, with shutdowns, strikes, take-overs, marches, roadblocks and more.

[Tamara Pearson is a journalist in Puebla, Mexico, and the author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog. Twitter: @pajaritaroja.]

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