The next steps towards a new kind of climate movement

The next steps towards a new kind of climate movement

It’s no secret that the climate movement has been going through an existential crisis. Decades of alarming scientific papers and thousands of presentations on the dire consequences of delaying caps on greenhouse gas emissions culminated in collapse and despair at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. This collapse drove many activists back to the grassroots struggles they came from, and many climate communicators back to the drawing board about how to talk about the most pressing challenge of our time.

The first lesson communicators learned after Copenhagen was that the language we were using to tell this story — parts per million of CO2, emissions trajectories, and predictive modeling — was simply not working. While all of these things are terribly important, they are so disconnected from the everyday lives of most people around the world that our efforts were mostly in vain. We learned (though some of us are still learning) to stop bickering with climate deniers about scientific certainty and start talking about things that matter to people: dirty energy, food, climate impacts, healthy communities, and most of all, justice.

The second lesson we learned was to change our audience. For years, most climate campaigners I knew agonized over getting the arguments just right, thinking that if we could make a compelling enough case for action, political leaders would step up and tackle climate change for us. This assumption belies a fundamental misunderstanding about where power lies and how we can tip the scales in our favor. Politicians called our bluff, they put on a show in 2009 and told us how important climate was to them, but upon the tiniest bit of pressure from fossil fuel lobbyists, they caved. We had no mass movement to hold them accountable for that sell-out. We learned that we had focus on building and supporting the kind of grassroots movements that brought about mass change in the past.

The third lesson we learned was to play better with others. It is no secret that the traditional environmental movement has longstanding tensions around the world with Indigenous, racial justice, labour, and feminist movements (and many others). When climate change first came on many of our radars, we saw it as an environmental issue alone that could be dealt with by a mostly white, mostly wealthy, and mostly male-led movement. In learning that we had to build grassroots power to win, we also came to learn that we needed to start healing old wounds between those who are our best allies, those who coincidentally are at the greatest risk from climate catastrophe.

The final lesson I’ll mention (I know there are many more) is one that we are just starting to figure out: Communicating climate change doesn’t happen in a void. We can write perfect press releases, do slam-dunk interviews and debates, and make stirring speeches, but unless we are walking the talk, our words are hollow. Our communication needs to align with our organizing strategy. If students are going to step up and call on their campuses to divest from fossil fuels, we need to help them amplify their stories. If Indigenous communities are going to defend their lands from dirty energy expansion, we must help show why their rights matter so much to everyone. If workers trapped in dirty energy jobs are calling for massive investments in dignified work that supports healthy communities, we have a duty to show that those solutions are within our reach.

This July, we’re taking the next steps towards what author Naomi Klein called “Canada’s new climate movement.” We’re telling a story that starts with justice for those most impacted; that shows how creating good work, clean jobs, and healthy communities isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the necessary thing to do; and that acknowledges that our fight is possible because we have solutions and we know who is responsible for causing this crisis. On July 5th, and dozens of other groups are organizing the March for Jobs, Justice & the Climate in Toronto, ON, click here for more info.

Can’t make it to Toronto? Click here to find an action near you on July 4th.

Graham Reeder is the communications coordinator in Canada for

image via (cc) Tzeporah Berman