School climate strikes in London, February 2019. Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA

Climate justice: why we need a minister to connect with activist movements

The UK Labour Party recently announced it has created a new shadow minister for climate justice. Danielle Rowley has been appointed to the role and her job, according to press reports, will involve liaising with activist movements. As someone who has studied these groups for 30 years, this raises several intriguing questions for me about the relationship between the government and grassroots environmental movements.

The unfolding climate emergency – so dramatically brought to the public’s attention by activist group Extinction Rebellion and the school climate strikes – provides the immediate context for such an announcement. However, UK society is also suffering from austerity policies that have resulted in more homelessness, child poverty, environmental degradation and so on – all of which are exacerbated by climate change. Any meaningful response to these problems will have to address the climate crisis while also being mindful of social justice. The appointment of a shadow minister for climate justice should be understood in this light.

The idea of “climate justice” emerged from grassroots struggles for land and the environment in the developing world. Its advocates combine principles of democratic accountability and participation, ecological sustainability and social justice. In particular, climate justice rejects many current capitalist approaches to climate change such as carbon markets, and argues for keeping remaining fossil fuels in the ground. It poses creative solutions such as renewable energies, localised organic food production and “green” jobs.

Any government that wishes to meaningfully address the challenges posed by climate change will need to take seriously a climate justice agenda and be committed to it. The appointment of a shadow minister for climate justice is a belated beginning.

However, as fossil fuel extraction continues and the climate crisis deepens, so environmental protests have increased. Some, such as Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes, demand more urgent climate action. Others, such as the anti-fracking campaigns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, highlight the problems that arise when trying to balance ecological and community concerns, business interests and government policy.

Protesters successfully held up plans to frack in Balcombe, West Sussex in 2013. Randi Sokoloff / Shutterstock

So what would a climate justice agenda look like? In the UK, it would mean a rapid transition to low or zero-carbon economies and lifestyles. Government policy and investment would focus on renewable energy, more sustainable transport, industry and land-use, as well as an ambitious “green new deal” on employment. It is likely that all this would bring government policy into confrontation with corporate interests and the leverage applied by corporate lobbying, trade unions and political party donations.

It is here that the relationship between the government and environmental movements will be critical. Environmental protest is never only oppositional. The key is always to attempt to transform society, not least by influencing government policy – for example through the promotion of workable alternatives.

Any relationship between grassroots mobilisations and the government – friendly or hostile – will create new arenas of social action. Sometimes that works to promote climate justice alternatives “on the ground”. A good example of this comes from Germany, where grassroots anti-nuclear activism in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the emergence of a renewable energy sector largely controlled by local cooperatives. Sometimes it works to constrain climate justice alternatives – although anti-roads activism in the UK during the 1990s slowed down road building for a while, green transport remains in its infancy.

Climate activism, 1996. Good at stopping roads, bad at promoting electric cars. Tim Ockenden/PA

Environmental movements that do collaborate with the state always run the risk that their demands may get appropriated by the existing system in a way that neutralises their transformative potential. Therefore an engagement with the state only makes sense in a situation where a progressive social transformation might actually take place. Otherwise it is pointless.

Even if the Labour Party does come to power in the near future, and there is suddenly a serious chance of that progressive social transformation, environmental movements will remain crucial. Pledges made in opposition do not always turn into government policies, and ongoing mobilisations would be required to make sure a Labour government sticks to its promises.

In any case, climate justice cannot and should not wait upon the government to act. Grassroots struggles from below will remain a critical force that both create alternatives and, through protest, encourage the state to engage and negotiate. Such a relationship – in essence keeping the government honest – has the potential to enable a serious agenda of climate justice.


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