The new climate movement

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This is a movement of hope, a new militant social movement against fossil fuels. It is no longer an environmental battle but a harsh cry for climate justice.

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This is a movement of hope, a new militant social movement against fossil fuels. It is no longer an environmental battle but a harsh cry for climate justice. 

Johan Malcorps is a senior member of the editorial board of the journal Oikos. He writes on the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, well-being and health.

No Pipelines

by Johan Malcorps
Green European Journal, December 4, 2014

Lima is currently hosting the 20th Conference of Parties (COP20), which runs from 30 November till 11 December 2014. There, at last, definite agreements should be made to fend off climate change. After the tragic failure of the Copenhagen climate summit (2009), observers see the Paris summit as the last chance.

UN Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon called on the world leaders on 23rd September 2014 with an urgent request not to spoil the opportunity of Lima. New promises were made. Next year will be the year of the truth. An unprecedented world-wide mobilization is taking place and citizens are shaking off their indifference and lethargic attitude.

On Sunday 21 September, 400,000 people marched through the streets of NY. It was the biggest climate demonstration ever, in the USA and beyond. Worldwide, some 675,000 people took to the streets. There were huge demonstrations in Berlin, Paris, Melbourne, Delhi, Bogotá and elsewhere.


Most remarkable was the crucial role played by social media in pushing so many people onto the streets, for which most credit should go to Avaaz, the online activist network of the global civil society. The documentary film Disruption shows how the new climate movement is a grassroots movement growing from indignation, since for example in the wealthy USA it is underprivileged Americans and people of colour who have appeared the most vulnerable to environmental catastrophes and who have been cynically abandoned by their governments.

At the same time, this is a movement of hope, a new militant social movement, which helps rebuild districts after climate destruction, which advocates a 100% clean energy and green jobs. It is also a movement which deliberately goes for confrontation and radically aims for the end of oil and gas drillings and the construction of pipelines. This is no longer an environmental battle but a harsh cry for climate justice. The film shows the local mobilization of African-Americans, Latinos, indigenous communities, workers, youth movements, groups of mothers and churches. They are all getting ready for a grim fight: “the fight of our lives.”

This changes everything

The roots of the new climate movement are to be found in the opposition against the exploitation of unconventional fuels in the USA and Canada. The last few years have seen pressure groups shoot up like mushrooms after rain. They oppose tar sand exploitation, fracking (hydraulic fracturing), mountain-top removal for mining, the construction of pipelines for the transport of crude oil, the establishment of export terminals or the erection of deep sea drilling stations.

Naomi Klein describes the movement in her book, This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate. The movement forms a worldwide front against the fossil fuel industry which is searching desperately for new gas and oil resources, even if shale gas or tar sand oil exploitation means sacrificing precious natural regions or if extraction threatens water resources, the environment and people’s health. To the oil and gas industries the race for these new resources is a matter of life or death. For them to admit that such resources are non-renewable comes down to signing their own death sentence. Therefore, they are grimly putting everything at stake to seize as many virgin territories as possible, to fight the local population in new ‘sacrifice zones’, ignoring basic rights of indigenous peoples while using violence if necessary and putting pressure on politicians. In order to secure the transportation of the new oil, new mega projects are needed such as the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Typical of the new protest movement is that it no longer aims for compromise. Why sacrifice good land to new drilling initiatives if science tells us that 80% of all fossil fuels should remain underground: “Leave the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, the tar sands in the land” is the new rallying cry.

It’s time for a new radical mass movement

So it is time for a new mass movement. Worldwide. This new grassroots movement needs a clear program. No technical abracadabra, no pragmatic compromises. On the contrary, it needs straightforward language and targets which tell us what’s what, which translate urgency into concrete action, which offer hope and the prospect of rescue.

80% of fossil fuels should remain in the soil

If we are to prevent the total disruption of the climate, we should stick to maximum global warming of 2° Celsius. We are told so by the IPCC climate reports. This means that between 2000 and 2050 no more than 886 Gigatons of CO2 can be emitted. However, the overall CO2 emission potential of all known fossil fuel reserves is as many as 2,795 Gigatons, i.e. five times as much. In order for the 2°C limit to be respected, 80% of all reserves should remain in the soil.

This implies that the interests of the fossil fuel industry and those of humanity can no longer be reconciled. We are in for a worldwide battle for life. The big energy concerns and authoritarian regimes, who totally depend on the income from fossil fuels for their survival, are tightening their stranglehold on international politics and economy.

Because of the increasing scarcity of conventional fossil fuels, it has become much more lucrative for them to exploit unconventional resources (such as tar sand, shale oil and shale gas) and explore new locations, e.g. in the North Pole, in the deep sea. The environmental and climate costs, however, are immense.

Three well-defined actions are presenting themselves: ending all subsidies to fossil fuels, a ban on the use of unconventional fuels and the abolition of all investments in the fossil fuel industry. The third, especially, captivates our minds. The divestment movement started at American universities. And recently, the philanthropic foundation of the Rockefeller family announced they have stopped investing in fossil fuels. In Belgium, FAIRFIN has defended such initiatives for some time now. It is up to individual citizens, the environmental movement, trade unions, pension funds, and also governments to address banks and financial institutions and demand that they should no longer invest in polluting and climate threatening activities. What about the Flemish universities?

The need for a global climate/energy package

Clear objectives are needed for the reduction of greenhouse gases worldwide. Europe must not give in to the oil lobby. The European environmental movements are insisting on a 55% European emission reduction by 2030, and 95% by 2050. This is mandatory if we take the climate problem seriously. They also demand ambitious legally binding objectives for energy reduction and renewable energy. Only then can Europe take the lead again at the Paris climate summit at the end of next year.

It would be best to aim for an internationally binding climate agreement. However, our ambitions are likely to be hung on voluntary agreements. This need not be disastrous if each participating country sets the bar high enough. President Obama’s recent decision to considerably reduce the emissions of energy plants, and China’s resolution to embark on a low-carbon economy, are raising hopes again on the international climate scene.

The polluter (the fossil fuel industry) should pay

Strict norms, however, will not lead to results fast enough if at the same time there is no substantial rise in the price of CO2. The polluter should pay. This is, first of all, the fossil fuel industry itself. Cynically, we are now facing the situation that as oil is becoming more scarce, oil prices are rising and oil multinationals are making more profits. The five biggest oil companies made a profit of as much as 900 billion dollars between 2001 and 2010. Other sectors that keep opting for fossil fuels and thus delaying their transition to low-carbon solutions should also pay their share.

The question is how to charge the costs of pollution. Can the European CO2 emission trade scheme be reformed in such a way that it will become a powerful system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently? Many doubt it.

The whole ETS system has become a laughable process of bargaining. Which confronts us with the inescapable but essential question: will a mechanism of purchasing and exchanging, or rather: haggling emission rights, not inevitably result in undesirable effects or even total failure? Isn’t the extreme trust in market mechanisms absolutely unacceptable? The price of CO2 on the CO2 market now fluctuates around 4 Euros, whereas it should be 30 Euros if it is to be operational at all.

Energy specialists have been telling us for years that a CO2/energy tax would be so much simpler and more efficient. The returns could be partly used to lower the cost of labor in the developed countries. The largest part, however, should be spent on reducing our outstanding ecological debts to the South.

Negotiate globally, but act locally

The 21st century will be the century of the cities. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities and the large metropolises can make the difference. If they opt for the transition to sustainability, the others will follow. One example is the global cities association ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), connecting as many as 1200 local cities and regions. And there is also the Covenant of Mayors grouping European signatory cities to take action.

Cities are challenged to build up resilience against climate change. They are also prioritizing their commitment to taking measures that can still fend off the effects of warming. Besides, 80% of greenhouse gases are emitted in and by cities. Therefore, solutions should originate there. In Belgium, cities such as Ghent, Leuven and Mechelen and the Provinces of Limburg and Flemish Brabant are taking the lead. They aim for a low-carbon future, for a climate neutral city or province. There is still a long way to go, though. Abroad, cities such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Hamburg, Freiburg, Portland are already showing what is possible if long term sustainable choices are made.

Energy production managed by the community

Opposed to the offensive of the fossil fuel industry, a totally different model is emerging – decentralized and distributive energy production. Sun, wind and water power are public goods within everybody’s reach at increasingly lower costs thanks to the fast development of clean technologies. Private citizens become the owners of solar panels or participate in wind turbines or other forms of clean energy production at the local level. In Germany, private individuals and co-operatives already own 40% of energy production facilities.

In the future, a more important role will be allocated to cities and towns in the local energy transition. Communal energy projects that opt for local production of green energy or for their own production, networks and storage systems can be complementary to projects that are managed by the commons?

There is a wealth of spontaneous initiatives. The matter is urgent, however. Organizing the transition of the community with the help of a grassroots movement of citizens and groups, as well as with public officers, the civil society and politicians, is an efficient method. The Transition Towns movement of Rob Hopkins shows what bottom-up change can achieve, as citizens pull local governments along.

A new movement, but one with a political agenda

The new transition movement for the energy sector, and by extension, for the whole of the economy and society, is a bottom-up process steered also by segments of the government and the civil society. Ambitions are high, however. It would be rather naïve to think that a transition like this can move on very smoothly without any resistance. On the contrary, transition means war. The established powers are fiercely resisting. True transition must be coerced. Not only in ideas labs and workshops, but in the streets, through actions, by bending monetary flows.

The good news is that these actions are indeed emerging. And even better news is that we can now offer them a focus. So they will not remain sterile like so many actions by Occupy, the Indignados and others. Their actions raised much-needed awareness but were too easily seized by the mainstream system. It is now up to the new climate movement to go to the very end, to engage in active politics. And not to give up until the last drill has been silenced and the last oil pump has stopped nodding.