What the Climate Movement Needs to Win

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The Colorado Fire burns along Highway 1 near Big Sur, Calif., Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

In the past year, we’ve experienced climate catastrophes on a greater scale than ever in recorded history. This has included the heat dome in Canada that resulted in hundreds of deaths, floods in Germany obliterating entire towns, the highest recorded temperatures in Moscow, typhoons across the Philippines, catastrophic wildfires in Greece, and hurricanes making impact to a degree never seen before in regions they’ve hardly touched previously. We now look towards more wildfires, a likely massive oncoming smoke season, destructive heatwaves in the Indian subcontinent, and runaway effects on ecology globally.

But, these days, to point to individual disasters fails to do the impact of climate change justice. We are nearing a new phase of history itself – not just where climate disasters are more common, but where the whole of human society has to adapt itself to a changed planet.

People are increasingly turning to fringe media stunts to get attention for climate change while leadership repeatedly fails to take action. One example of this is a climate activist that pelted the Mona Lisa with cake at the end of May to draw attention to the crisis at hand. Allegedly, the activist yelled “Think of the planet! . . . There are people who are destroying the planet, think about that! . . . That’s why I did it!” as he was dragged away by security. 

Stunts like this, while they do cause a buzz for a period, ultimately do little to pressure world leaders to enact the necessary change and don’t inspire the kinds of broader action necessary to achieve the former. The frustration that fuels these stunts is completely understandable, though. In the United States, the Democrats have shown a total disinterest in attacking climate change, and have even accelerated it by expanding oil and natural gas drilling. 

If elected officials won’t act without the threat of a movement upon them, this begs the question: what DOES a climate movement need to win?

1. A Program That Speaks to the Needs of Working People

A strong program and demands that speak to the core of the struggle that people are facing is the difference between speaking to hundreds and speaking to millions – and the climate movement needs millions.

A Green New Deal, with a jobs program for a fully-renewable energy grid, was a real start in the right direction. It tied the interests of working people together with the climate and pointed toward the need for organized labor to take up this struggle, as well as showing the scope of what was necessary to start to fight climate change.

At this point in the game, we need a more comprehensive set of key demands speaking to the moment that we’re in – that is to say, climate disasters aren’t just on the horizon, but they are very much here. We need a program that responds to disasters as they happen, one that is inclusive of relocation funds for working people in affected areas. We need to shore up infrastructure capable of standing up to catastrophes and build disaster-resistant affordable housing, and reduce heat-capturing of cities. We need green, effective, and accessible public transportation spanning across the country, not just focusing on major metropolitans or regions where the rich live and the poor have been pushed out. We need a massive reforestation effort enacted to begin capturing carbon. And this only scratches the surface!

Most crucially, we need this program to be based on not taking a dime from working people and instead taxing the rich. For years, corporations have propagandized that “individual action” was responsible for killing the planet and a strategy of taking shorter showers, recycling, and composting at home would solve the problem. Not only was this a complete falsehood, the push to popularize this line of thinking cost the effort to stop climate change decades.

Capitalism, with its wasteful industry and ceaseless chasing of profit, caused this crisis – and it’s the capitalists that must pay for it. 

2. Militant Tactics to Exact Real, Not Theoretical, Pressure

Over the last decade, we’ve largely seen two types of actions – large marches like at COP26 and the 2014 climate march and then fringe groups that held smaller actions before being swept out by police, such as Keystone XL.

Both of these things create a kind of “theoretical” pressure. The amassing of thousands in the street demonstrates clearly how many people care and are willing to fight. It can temporarily disrupt day-to-day life, but as we learned during the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020, street protests alone – without a sustained movement with democratic structures and an escalation plan – are not enough to exact real concessions from those in power. The small actions that threaten to occupy refineries, oil pipelines, and factories point towards the impact of shutting those things down, but can almost never do it successfully for a sustained period of time.

We’ve seen the ferocity with which the police and state will defend private industry and profit over the interests of wider society, with the “No DAPL” movement of 2016 being a prime example. As hundreds of activists gathered in Standing Rock, the entire country looked on in horror as the government tear gassed and arrested protesters en masse through the winter rather than cancel the pipeline that was slated to demolish the historical and religious sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

A successful climate movement will need to use a combination of tactics, including mass action and civil disobedience. But the most important thing will be that the movement has genuine democratic structures so we can discuss and debate tactics and strategy. This will often need to include occupations like we saw at Standing Rock, but a successful occupation of a factory or pipeline will need to include thousands, not hundreds.

Crucially, the movement needs to develop demands that mobilize the wider working class, including paid job retraining for workers currently in polluting industries with the guarantee of well-paid union jobs carrying out a green transition. It will be the workers currently in polluting industries that ultimately have the most power to shut down production and demand a green transition.

3. We Need a Clean Break from the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party has willfully ignored any opportunities to enact change and save lives in favor of maintaining relationships with (and getting money from) corporate America. Biden’s time in office has been absolutely disastrous for the environment, with his plans to turn public lands back over to big oil being just the tip of the rapidly-melting iceberg.

Meanwhile, climate organizations like Sunrise Movement have shamefully provided left cover for Biden, and DSA members in office have refused to withhold their votes in order to force action. 

A successful climate movement cannot be drawn into the world of Democratic Party politics, where action on climate change is traded away to play nice with Republicans. If the climate movement has any hope of winning necessary climate demands, our political strategy must be one that includes candidates running on an independent basis that are held accountable to the program of the movement, and with its primary emphasis on building a mass movement on the outside that forces Congress’s hand.

So, Now What?

Alongside a strong program, militant action, and a clean break from the Democrats, we must take stock of how we got here in the first place.

Climate change is a natural result of an economy that is driven by profit, rather than democratically planning the best path forward for the planet and society. Karl Marx once argued that exploitation of the planet was as natural to capitalism as exploiting working people, and the period we’re in has done nothing if not prove that. As we watch climate disasters unfold, we also see those most at risk of exploitation impacted at much higher levels than anyone else. 

To truly “de-warm” the planet and prevent future ecological catastrophes, a planned economy based on democratic ownership of society, a socialist society, is imperative. This is the only way that we can take back the huge corporations that are destroying the planet and develop a system so that everyone has sustainable jobs that balance the needs of people and protect the planet. It’s also the only way that we can truly protect communities from natural disasters by developing safe and affordable housing, organized evacuation plans, and more with working people in mind – not the profit margins of the rich that will never feel the burn of the climate crisis the way we do.