How Climate Activists are Getting it Wrong

Climate Champions, or Roadblocks?

As most of the world realises, climate change is real, potentially catastrophic, and caused/exacerbated by human activity (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions).  The evidence is overwhelming. 

Climate change should be an apolitical issue.  It affects all people, regardless of location, economic status, or political stripe, and demands action from all people.  Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions should be a non-partisan, politically neutral, shared necessity.  Should be. 

There are opponents, usually on the conservative side of the spectrum, who resist any reasonable action on climate.   Among this group of detractors, deniers and do-nothings are those who dismiss climate activists as politically driven opportunists – wanting more to advance a socialist revolution rather than to save the planet.  How can they say this?  Because climate activists are doing everything they can to portray climate action as an element of a socialist revolution.  Their objective appears to be a radical transformation of society (i.e. “System Change”), bundling action on climate with action on social issues.  They aren’t helping.  Instead of convincing those who need to be convinced that combatting climate change is not a radical idea, the activists seem hell-bent on making it a radical idea. 

How not to run a climate change demonstration

Case in point – the recent Climate Strike.  Last month I was one of tens of thousands who attended a Climate Strike demonstration in Toronto, and one of over 6 million (according to The Guardian) who participated in the event worldwide.   I thought that I would add my voice to the demand that all world leaders seriously address what has become the most important issue facing the world’s population. 

Probably like most people attending the climate strike, I expected to participate in a demonstration focused on demanding action on climate change.   I thought that given the gravity of the issue, the pressing need for immediate action, and the continuing deflection and indifference shown by some of the world’s leaders (especially in the US, but also here in Canada) that the event would be a massive show of force involving people from all walks of life, demanding action, now!

There was a lot of attention paid to the need for action.  But, only some of the action called for was directly related to climate change.  During the course of 3-4 hours spent standing in front of the Ontario Legislature, listening to speakers, or marching through downtown streets, I was urged to support the following causes, all in the name of “Climate Justice”:

  • A fair ($15) minimum wage
  • No-cost public services, including health, dental and pharma care, post-secondary tuition, and public transit
  • Open migration
  • Higher taxation of rich individuals and corporate entities
  • Indigenous sovereignty
  • Justice for Tibetans
  • Restitution for the people of Grassy Narrows (an indigenous community poisoned by industrial waste)
  • Banning of single use plastics
  • An end to imperialism and colonialism
  • Inclusion of disenfranchised people in mainstream environmental movements
  • Animal rights, including conversion to a vegan diet
  • Nationalization of oil companies
  • Hands off Venezuela
  • An end to capitalism – “system change”

And, action on climate change.

Yes, climate action was by far the most prominent issue featured.  But, it certainly wasn’t the only issue being pushed.  Among the wish-list of left-wing causes, only some had more than a loose connection with the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs).   It was as if action on climate change came with a list of conditions and/or pre-requisites. 

Doubters and deniers regularly dismiss climate activists as a bunch of radical leftists, inventing a climate crisis in order to impose a vast array of socialist policies. So, it doesn’t advance the cause when the largest event in support of climate action links that action to an overthrow of capitalist society, and to a vast array of socialist policies.  At best, the power and urgency of the message to take action on climate is diluted.  At worst, people who may want to support efforts to reduce GHGs but bristle at the idea of a “system change” are alienated.

The Green New Deal

Loading up the climate issue with somewhat extraneous matters isn’t really a new phenomenon.  Look to the Green New Deal (GND), which originated about 12 years ago.  The original premise was that a massive conversion to a green infrastructure can and should be spearheaded by government, much like the massive public works that were a cornerstone of the original New Deal in the 1930s.  Governments could fund a transformation to a low carbon infrastructure, and thousands of new jobs would result.  Good.  But, by 2019, when the GND was developed as a resolution to the US Congress, the proposal had swelled with other issues and objectives.  In addition to climate change, the GND now seeks to address such items as anti-labour practices, wage stagnation, income disparity, and various “systemic injustices.” The resolution includes not only environmental goals, but social justice goals. 

A version of the GND has crossed the border into Canada.  Here, we don’t have the history of the original New Deal in the Great Depression, but we do have a history of public spending to develop infrastructure.  It wouldn’t be a huge leap to advocate for governments to fund a transformation to a low carbon, green infrastructure.  But, just as in the US, the backers of a GND over-reach.  They want to cure many of society’s ills in one comprehensive proposal, that also happens to include action on climate change.

According to the Council of Canadians, a GND should not only strive for a fossil fuel-free economy, it should address workers’ rights, indigenous self-determination, social justice and equity, migrant and refugee rights, taxation of billionaires and corporations, opposition to white supremacists and the far right, and even “postal service transformation.”  The COC’s template for Green New Deal communities even includes a resolution that “police funding be drastically reduced and redistributed towards community health and safety initiatives led by Black, Indigenous, and racialized community organizations.”  No matter what one thinks of policing in Canada, why the hell is it relevant to mitigating climate change?  

Given the rather overloaded expectations for a GND, is there any wonder that there’s push-back? And where there’s push-back, there’s little action on what should be the core of any initiative to combat climate change – reduction of greenhouse gases. 

Why not System Change?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sympathetic to many of the social causes being pushed along with climate action.  But, like Michael Mann (eminent climate scientist, and proponent of drastic climate action) I do not accept that addressing climate change must be tied to solving major social problems at the same time – or that a “system change” is a prerequisite to reducing GHGs.    Like Elissa Slotkin (Rep., Michigan), who campaigned on the urgent need to combat climate change, I do not see why a plan to fix the climate needs to include a federal job guarantee, or why we need massive social change to reduce emissions. 

The linking of climate action with system change is counterproductive.  Combatting a warming planet is more than enough of a challenge to take on by itself.   

So where to? Focus.

Even in the US, which somehow elected a leader who still dismisses climate change as a Chinese-led hoax, and who scoffs that climate activists “want to ban hamburgers and airplanes,” support for climate action is large and growing.  About 60% of adults see climate change as affecting their local communities, and two-thirds see their federal government as not doing enough to address global climate change (Pew Research).  Over 70% of likely voters under 30 disapprove of Trump’s position and performance on climate (Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics survey).  In Canada, climate change was one of the top election issues, and two-thirds of voters supported parties whose platforms were progressive regarding GHG reductions. 

There are fewer and fewer people willing to stand up and argue that climate change is either not happening, or that GHG emissions are not the cause.  So why is there still a reluctance to fully pursue and embrace realistic solutions?  Perhaps it’s because the loudest voices in the room are pushing not for climate action, but for “climate justice”, which loads up what should be a purely environmental issue with advocacy for social justice – human rights, equality, and more than a dash of punishing the capitalist entities which are blamed for getting us into this collective mess.  This isn’t helping – the more that’s loaded onto the climate action cart, the harder it is to push the cart forward.

Here’s a suggestion:  let’s clear out the extraneous issues, proposals and causes, and focus on climate. Just climate.  Develop and implement clear initiatives for reducing greenhouse gases.  Establish a green energy grid.  Reduce fossil fuel consumption.  Stop burning vast acreages of forest. Put a steep price on carbon so its use is heavily discouraged.

Stay on point.  Eyes on the prize. 

Save the revolution for another day.

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