For people like me, who are among the least affected by the unfolding climate crisis, and are in the privileged position of being paid to figure out a way to address it, there are times that make the reality and urgency of rising global average temperatures come alive. The last month has been one of those times, and a trigger for some deep reflection.
I have scrolled and scrolled through Italian social media accounts taking in the many shocking videos and images of thunderstorms in Veneto (hammered by hailstones the size of apples), tornados in Milan, wildfires raging across the entire map of Sicily, and I have listened to stories from my parents in my hometown in Umbria who had been enduring temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade.
Going through all that, questions would come to mind: “What am I doing about this? Am I doing enough? Should I be doing something different?” Then I would put my work hat on and think similarly: “How should our team or organization respond to this? Should we stick to our existing course or do something different? We knew impacts like these would be coming, so what is this changing, if anything, in how we approach our work?”
For the last 10 years I have been leading 350.org’s work in Europe, and have focused a lot of my thinking and work on how to build a more powerful movement. Reflecting on this period of time my questions became broader still. I started wondering if we as a climate movement — concerned citizens, NGOs, grassroots groups, what you would call civil society — are doing enough, here in Europe, right now.
I know for a fact that governments, by and large, are not doing anything close to what is required, but are we putting enough pressure on them? Are we bringing this reality and urgency to their doorsteps? Are we bringing enough people on board to take action and increase that pressure, shifting the systems, culture, policies, money and other parts of the puzzle that need to shift to make a significant dent in the issue of our times? But most importantly, are we doing it any less or more effectively than how we’ve been doing it before, and where is there room to improve?
It was going quite well, until it didn’t
Over the last 10 years or so, from the lead up to the Paris Agreement until now, the climate movement has made great advances in putting the climate crisis on the map of the general public. In the latest Eurobarometer survey, “93 percent of E.U. citizens see climate change as a serious problem.”
The movement has also made significant progress in linking fossil fuel emissions to the climate crisis. Many people now understand that taking action on climate means moving from fossil fuels to renewables. This is a big achievement: beyond our movement “bubble,” people know we have a problem, know what is causing it, and (broadly) know how to fix it.
2019 marked the most recent peak in the movement’s momentum. Impactful mobilizations by Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion shaped European politics at the May elections of a new European Parliament. In September of that year, we built on that wave of rising public concern, and 350.org helped coordinate the largest climate mobilization in history, seeing 7.6 million people take to the streets around the world.
Then the momentum subsided. The COVID pandemic took front stage in 2020, and hindered the movement’s ability to exist and affect change — namely being able to meet in person and show up for collective action in public. In 2021, 350.org offered a space to regroup and seize the opportunity to rebuild our economies, through its Global Just Recovery Gathering.
As momentum was building up again, in early 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and another global crisis unfolded. The significant interruption of our gas supply offered an opportunity to rethink our energy provision. But governments, heavily lobbied by the fossil fuel interests, pulled us in the reverse direction instead: announcing deals with former African colonies, boosting their gas extraction and production infrastructure.
The energy crisis, despite the spiraling cost of living, has not weakened the public mandate for a transition from fossil fuels to renewables. The problem is that base of public support hasn’t expanded, and it hasn’t turned from passive support into active action to drive change at the scale that’s required.
Looking inside the black box that is the climate movement, understanding its actors and relationships, might help explain why.
Under the hood: a fractured movement
When people outside the movement think about the climate movement these days, they see, for the most part, different groups that largely share a similar approach — Letzte Generation, Ultima Generazione and Just Stop Oil, or JSO.
A Letzten Generation blockade in Berlin in June 2022. (Wikimedia/Stefan Müller)
JSO-type groups do important work. They have succeeded at keeping climate on the front pages in recent years, with a constant stream of disobedient actions. They have provided an outlet for people who feel like taking action that is commensurate with the scale of the crisis we’re in. And they have nailed down format and branding in a way that is replicable, accessible and easily identifiable.
A climate movement with JSO and similar organizations as its only visible tip, however, is a movement that doesn’t effectively expand beyond its base. It’s a movement that opens itself up to constant battles with the political and media establishment that we can’t win. It allows politicians and commentators to routinely cherry-pick JSO’s actions as representative of the movement as a whole, painting them as extremist hippies, naive and opposed to the interests of working people.
A louder “we need to get off fossil fuels” message is more needed than ever. At the same time, it brings diminishing returns of effectiveness in building public support and getting people to take action. A tactic of civil disobedience is as critical as ever, but it is open to trivialization when its most widespread utilization is not connected to a wider strategy of (unbranded) popular uprising. Its isolated use risks harming more than helping the communities it professes to support.
On the less visible part of the spectrum are other grassroots climate justice groups in the movement. A lot of them find themselves in defensive mode having to fight all of the new fossil fuel infrastructure being planned. But there’s also little energy or capacity or vision for European coordination among them, with the possible exception of an increasingly effective anti-gas coordination, and international solidarity around the StopEACOP campaign.
The few projects that attempt generating some kind of European movement convergence (e.g. by2020weriseup, End Fossil or Climate Justice Action) haven’t been breaking through — with limited visibility and impact beyond movement circles. European coordination is more needed than ever, and at the same time I don’t think I remember in the last decade a period in which groups across Europe have been more isolated from each other.
Fridays for Future has not regained the momentum it had in 2019. Although it has engaged in a key strategic intervention together with NGOs and other grassroots groups to stop finance flows to fossil fuels, and has built important alliances in Germany with transport unions under the #WirFahrenZusammen (We Ride Together) campaign banner. Meanwhile in France, Les Soulèvements de la Terre, or Earth Uprising, and Dernière Rénovation have been able to absorb lots of movement energy and achieve disruptive mass mobilization with public backing. But other than the international wave of support against the “eco-terrorists” pushback by French authorities, these are success stories that have not been able to break through national boundaries.
As for other groups in the movement, even when we do work that breaks through the wider challenges our movement is facing at the moment, the impact is small-scale and fails to acquire the kind of national or international resonance as JSO-type groups do — and I include in this 350 itself, which certainly has considerable room for improvement.
Let me be clear: I applaud every person, group or network in the wider movement taking action. It is not my place to tell any of them whether their tactics or strategies are right or wrong; that kind of assessment, and any adjustments that follow, can only come through self-reflection and deep deliberation, not opinion pieces. XR UK’s decision earlier this year to significantly shift its approach, prioritizing “relationships over roadblocks” is an excellent example of that self-reflection being done in public (and further changes might follow, following recent deliberations.)
I strongly believe in the principle of “diversity of tactics,” in its nonviolent connotation. Mine is more of a “yes, and…” than a summary judgment telling any particular group what to do or not to do. But the balance of efforts, the way they connect to each other and their interplay, their different roles in a cohesive movement ecosystem, and how that ecosystem as a whole shifts its boundaries — that’s where there is an opportunity for change.
In other words, everyone’s hard and important work is failing to link up effectively into a larger push, and the political reality we’re doing this work in makes it even more challenging.
The right’s crackdown on climate activism
It’s a climate movement truism: One of the biggest obstacles to climate action and progress towards a more just and sustainable living on our planet are right-wing and far-right governments. We know why: In some cases, they are packed with outright climate denialists, amplifying and supporting the decades-long campaign of obfuscation perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry. They have been trying to convince the public that everything is fine and that there is no reason to stop continuous expansion and consumption of fossil fuels.
In other cases, they wear the more subtle clothes of climate delayers — professing the importance of addressing the climate crisis in their rhetoric, but in reality calling for a more “pragmatic” approach. In Europe we regularly see them using the gas crisis as an excuse to support expanding fossil gas infrastructure and delaying the just transition to fairer, healthier and more prosperous communities that is decades overdue.
Equally worryingly, as right and far-right governments have taken office across Europe, there’s another emergent pattern to their approach — the most significant crackdown on climate activism that we’ve ever witnessed before. We experience this through increased surveillance and pre-emptive arrests, harsher sentencing and the deployment of dangerous rhetoric that stokes public division and incites abuse of climate activists. We see this most visibly in the increasingly significant restrictions to the right to protest.
This affects us all, whether we’re marching for climate action or any other progressive cause. And it places the greatest burden on the brave people from marginalized communities who lead the fight for social and economic justice — from the most recent policing bill in the U.K., to police raids in Germany, France and beyond. JSO-type groups are usually the first intended target. They are seen as an easy excuse to crack down on the movement (and other progressive movements) as a whole — especially its most marginalized groups, where the repression hits hardest.
So, from an external perspective, when the climate movement is contending for attention and support in the public sphere, it’s facing three challenges.
- The personal stakes and risks of taking escalated action are higher than ever.
- During a period of overlapping crises, the movement has to contend with the appeal of stability, security and continuity presented by the governing political forces. (They contend that “this is not the moment to radically change how we source our energy and power our economies.”)
- Progressive parliamentary forces that could be a vehicle for a radical alternative are weak, with center-left parties increasingly turning into more palatable versions of right-wing ones, and therefore unable and unwilling to push back against these landscape shifts.
How does our movement respond to those challenges?
Rethinking the climate movement
Movements led by those who are most affected by an issue are strongest. This much I know and believe to be true — even a cursory look through the last few centuries of human history shows us this. In the last couple of decades, our movement here in Europe has experienced a fundamental, ongoing shift to recognize that the frontline communities in the Global South are the leaders of this struggle. These communities have done the least to cause the crisis yet are suffering the most, and are responding to it with power and creativity.
Historically in Europe, our climate concerns have been largely theoretical as opposed to being the result of lived experience. And this has largely been expressed by a white, middle-class, urban demographic of environmentalists — certainly when it came to visibility, strategy and funding. The elements of the movement that reflect and express the views of a more diverse base, and pursue an intersectional approach, based on a lived experience of injustice are not yet the in the mainstream. They are still marginalized when it comes to whose voices are being heard, who has power and resources, and who sets the wider direction of the movement.
But recently we’ve seen another fundamental, ongoing shift. Climate impacts are hitting much closer to home than we’ve ever experienced in Europe. Farmers and fishers dealing with crop and livestock failures. And people everywhere — particularly those who are more vulnerable as a consequence of their age, health, living and economic conditions — are experiencing their lives and livelihoods being ruined by heatwaves and floods. Workers in the fossil fuel economy are nervously watching and waiting as their career horizons are dramatically shortened — without support from the oil and gas giants that employ them and continue to rake in record profits.
The base, or at least potential base, of all those who we would consider as most affected by the climate crisis, has been shifting. As of August 2023, the frontlines of the climate movement are in Vanuatu where plans are underway to relocate dozens of villages to safer land. And to a much lesser extent, they are also in the wildfires ravaging Sicily, the areas of France where unprecedented freezing temperatures are destroying large swathes of vineyards, and in homes of pensioners in Manchester who can’t afford to keep the heat on during winter.
These are new frontlines of the climate crisis on our continent, and I don’t think our movement has fully internalized this fundamental shift in its boundaries. People of color, those on lower incomes, and other marginalized communities are the ones who suffer those impacts first and hardest.
This means that one of the most important strategic questions we need to ask ourselves right now is: How can we connect and organize with those frontlines, elevate their voices, build their power, and expand the conception of who is at the visible tip of our movement?
For our movement to win we have to broaden our scope by ensuring that communities from those frontlines are given the space and resources to lead, strategize and be the main representatives of our collective vision. We need a renewed commitment to campaigning that delivers a concrete, radical, but achievable alternative vision to our fossil fuel economy. One that addresses our transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and also access and affordability of energy. A vision of and a pathway towards resilient communities, who adapt more effectively to the ever-increasing devastation that rising temperatures will bring about on our continent and in other regions.
And let’s be honest, this approach needs more than the movement to take the lead in its own transformation. It requires funders and well-resourced NGOs to be accountable for their power — and decisions made with that power — that have shaped our movement. They need to move resources into groups and networks that embody this shift, connect across issues and do the deep organizing with those frontline communities, but also are connected together by a movement-wide strategy that can achieve scale. So that next time energy companies announce record-breaking quarterly profits, it’s not just the usual climate groups who shout at them with anger, but it’s a wider popular uprising of people who have the most to lose and gain from the way our energy system works.
Let me be clear. What it will take to regain momentum and power goes beyond a new injection of energy and determination in the face of unfolding and demoralizing climate disasters. There instead needs to be a significant rethink of who is the climate movement, what are the issues it deals with, how it embraces those new frontlines, and in what way its different parts relate to each other. This is not a calling out, it’s a calling in — into a different movement.
A movement configuration that gives us a decent chance to win might look like this:
- A broad, unbranded, alliance of sectoral organizations that regularly and visibly disrupt public life, demanding a radical change of pace and direction in the government’s approach to the energy and climate crisis. This would be a mix of workers’ unions and other civil society membership organizations. Imagine the Women’s Institute in the U.K., AVIS in Italy, Deutscher Alpenverein in Germany, the FNV Overheid public services union in the Netherlands, and even the membership of the Barcelona football club. The point being: A small number of leaders of large membership organizations aligned around a public-facing movement strategy would result in large displays of public pressure not attributable to any single “troublemaker” organization or leader.
- A light coordination group, to ensure coherence with timelines, narrative and movement symbols for properly integrated and disruptive actions. This could include key people in those membership organizations together with people and groups that sit at the intersection of various spaces in the movement — for example, across NGOs, grassroots groups, civil society and funders. This group should bring a global analysis to the fight, and have the global connections to link up European movements’ efforts to other movement activity elsewhere, including concrete solidarity action in opposition to European companies and funding perpetuating fossil fuel destruction abroad. Some groups at national levels have attempted (and are attempting, like Ende Gelände in Germany in its most recent bold concept paper) something similar. Other movement allies like the Gastivists have been doing pioneering work in connecting and educating groups working on cost of living, energy and climate crises across the region. 350.org has played a convening or leading role in similar regional and global spaces in the past, and we could do it again.
- A European school of climate disobedience, perhaps with JSO and similar groups using their expertise to organize mass trainings for membership organizations and others in the general public.
- A digital-savvy onboarding clearinghouse, which gives a basic “movement kit” to people willing to step up and take action. It would then invite them to connect to the clearly sign-posted groups in the movement that might be the best fit for their skills, interest and geographic location. Something developed with the expertise of Green New Deal Rising in the U.K. (whose welcome calls and overall onboarding process is one of the most effective ones I’ve seen in the movement).
- Organized frontlines and strong connections of trust between them and NGOs. Groups in Europe have already organized themselves along the new movement boundaries I’ve been describing. Groups like Alianza Contra la Pobreza Energética in Spain which came from tenant organizing and is working at the intersection of energy and housing issues. Or groups in the Global South like the Pacific Climate Warriors whose leading role has influenced a Pacific-wide governmental call for community-centered renewable energy.
- A deep and properly resourced organizing and leadership development operation, one that does the painstaking, complex work to build relationships with the new frontline communities. A swarm of organizers who build alignment of vision, do political education work and support leadership within those communities to become leadership in the movement as a whole. An effort that connects with organized frontlines, and helps shift the movement center of gravity towards them. This will bring those local organizing efforts into a network or at least provide connections and support.
- A research/policy/advocacy core group of organizations that bring movement demands into political spaces, making sure that although we embrace a diversity of tactics and approaches, our inside and outside games are connected, aligned and coordinated.
This outline is less of a blueprint and more of a map of exploration. It will take our collective capacity to pull our heads out of the current moment, out of our own areas of focus, and look at the whole picture to re-assess the journey we’re taking.
We’ll need to reflect on the relative weight of the different parts of our system. For example, do we need a different balance of tactics across the movement? In different phases of the year? We must also consider the places where we need to build and celebrate strengths versus those where we need to critically address weaknesses. We’ll need to reimagine our collective identity, from “activists” to a new language describing the broader base of people here in Europe with very personal material stakes in the movement’s success.
Through its relationships and structure, we’ll need to make our movement more resilient and adaptable to upcoming crises. We simply can’t afford setbacks any time a new catastrophic health or geopolitical development takes front stage.
The iterations of the climate movement of previous years are not the movements that will win the struggle today. It’s not just going to be the climate movement of “staying below 1.5 degrees,” nor just the climate movement of “keep fossil fuels in the ground,” and not just the one that helped us win against coal plants or achieve fracking bans.
We need to be all of those and also build a climate movement that connects across energy poverty, climate impacts, dignity for migrant lives and trans people. A movement that takes action in Europe in recognition and reparation of the historical debt and wound we’ve inflicted to the Global South, and the wounds we’re inflicting to our geographically nearest communities. That climate movement is much more diverse and cross-issue, grounded in people’s daily lives, full of hope and vision, with new frontiers and frontlines who take its lead.
It is our responsibility and duty to build it.