The new youth climate movements represent a new phase in the struggle against climate breakdown.
Starting today, we will see the largest worldwide climate mobilisation in the history of the planet for a week.
Millions of young people across over 120 countries, including Pakistan, will flood out of schools, universities and workplaces into the streets for a global climate strike to demand that governments take radical action to address the ecological crisis and rein in carbon emissions before it is too late to reverse the damage, a point scientists say we will reach in less than 10 years.
Among the most remarkable things about the climate strike and the movement behind it is the startlingly young age of its leadership. Most among them – like the solemn and resolute teenager Greta Thunberg – we would ordinarily consider children.
Yet somehow, millions of these school-going children from around the world have managed to act collectively, through Fridays For Future school strikes, to force the attention of policymakers and the public towards the impending ecological collapse they appeared intent on ignoring.
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The students are joined by other youth-led climate movements like the Extinction Rebellion (XR), which uses civil disobedience and non-violent resistance to demand governments agree to an accelerated time frame to achieve zero carbon emissions (by 2025), halt biodiversity loss and institute a citizen-led decision-making model to guide and monitor the process.
This April, demonstrations by XR paralysed London for 11 days, and led to the United Kingdom parliament becoming one of the first in the world to declare a climate emergency.
While the climate movement is still in its nascent stages in Pakistan, there are signs of rising domestic concern as the crisis begins to hit home. Just two months ago, farmers from Thatta marched in the hundreds to protest rising sea levels, lack of water access and the destruction of the Indus Delta from upstream dam construction. This week, marches are being organised by thousands in over 30 cities in the biggest mobilisation on the climate in Pakistani history.
So, what is distinct about these new climate movements and what lessons can we glean from them about how to address the crisis facing us?
It is fair to say that the new movements represent an ongoing shift in global consciousness about the dangerous impact humanity is having on the planet.
For decades, climate scientists and a fringe green movement were the only groups sounding the alarm on the climate as the majority of society went about its business unconcerned and political leaders paid lip service to the cause.
In recent years, however, global public opinion on the climate crisis appears to have undergone a perceptible shift, in what psychiatrist Robert Lifton has referred to as the climate swerve.
The increased frequency and scale of climate-related natural disasters have provided ordinary people around the world with a visible and terrifying template for imagining what future climate catastrophe might look like.
The ecologist John Bellamy Foster relates this shift to an emergent species consciousness: an increasing sense of universalist identification with humanity and even other species, one that appears to be driving the new climate protests and fueling their urgency.
In many ways, this is a generational shift; it is young people – whose lives will be most affected by the climate crisis – who are increasingly speaking of a shared global material reality, rejecting the tentativeness and ideological conservatism of their parents’ generation and asserting the need for large-scale international cooperation and direct action beyond boundaries of nation, race or religion.
It is this universalist consciousness and spirit of radical internationalism that will be necessary to tackle the immensely powerful economic and political interests – from the fossil fuel industry to large agribusiness to rightwing populists – that are spearheading planetary destruction.
The strikes represent a growing indictment of the economic system – capitalism – that is fundamentally responsible for the ecological crisis, as younger generations increasingly call into question the efficacy of the profit motive as the main governing principle of modern society.
The link between climate change and capitalism is now borne out by incontrovertible evidence – carbon records firmly establish the origins of global warming as directly traceable to the forces of expropriative production unleashed since the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, to the period of exponential growth following World War II, now known as the Great Acceleration.
This latter period, known as the golden age of the capitalist world economy, has witnessed unprecedented increases in fossil fuel combustion, carbon dioxide emissions, species extinctions, losses in biodiversity, ocean acidification, freshwater depletion and forest loss.
Capitalism fundamentally changed how humanity related to nature, viewing it not as a place with inherent boundaries within which human beings must co-exist with other species, but rather as a resource to be exploited and commodified in a process of endless economic expansion to enable unlimited acquisitive gain – often only for a select few.
Over 150 years ago, Karl Marx predicted that capitalism’s tendency for productive expansion in the search for greater profits – the madness of economic reason that fuels the pursuit of infinite growth from finite resources – would cause an irreparable rift in the inter-dependent metabolic relationship between human beings and the earth. Today, even the most stubborn opponents of Marxism would be hard-pressed to deny the truth of this claim.
Addressing the climate crisis will have to involve a radical rethinking of humanity’s place in and relationship with nature. This will require a fundamental break from the capitalist understanding of nature as a non-living exploitable resource towards one of co-evolution and inter-dependence.
The strikes are also an indictment of a political system – of the complete failure of the international Westphalian political order to respond to the ecological crisis.
Instead of devising collective solutions to avert ecological collapse, political leaders around the world have instead fiddled with half-hearted market mechanisms like carbon trading, or worse, enabled a majoritarian drift towards insular, rightwing populist nationalism at the worst possible historical moment.
As the reality of the climate crisis has begun to dawn on the world, those societies – like the United States – most responsible for the crisis have conveniently elevated into power nationalist strongmen like Donald Trump who publicly deny the reality of the crisis while willfully empowering the very industries that continue to recklessly aggravate ecological breakdown in the name of America First.
Similar populist nationalisms are on the rise in the subcontinent as nuclear-armed rivals face off against each other in defence of exaggerated notions of sovereignty, even as their immiserised populations face natural disasters, rising water shortages and unbreathable air.
The accelerated, deliberate destruction of the Amazon rainforest – known as the lungs of the planet for its immense role in global carbon absorption – to make way for export-oriented agri-business under the neo-fascist presidency of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is the clearest indication yet that rigid notions of state sovereignty and insular nationalism are increasingly tantamount to planetary suicide.
It is no surprise then that the new climate movements like XR call for a ‘transformation of the political system, society and economy to ones which maximise well-being and minimise harm’.
Their key demand in this respect is for the constitution of citizen’s assemblies on climate change – avenues for deliberative democracy with members from the public whose recommendations, arrived at through transparent and inclusive processes including expert advice, will be binding on the government.
While this is a nascent demand, the deliberative and participatory direction it points towards is an important consideration as we think about how to extricate decision-making about humanity’s future from the hands of destructive and willfully-blinded elites.
The new climate movements are increasingly centering the notion of justice in the fight against climate change.
This includes the possibility of the repayment of ecological debts to countries in the Global South, given the crisis is fundamentally a product of the high-carbon development path of rich nations over centuries under conditions of colonialism involving the relentless plunder of the raw material and natural resources of poorer nations at enormous ecological cost.
The United States, Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia alone have together contributed around 61 per cent of the total of carbon emissions to date. Ironically, the poorest nations (particularly those in hotter, low latitude regions) that have done the least to contribute to the crisis are both heavily financially indebted to financial institutions in the Global North and also facing the brunt of its impact.
Centring justice in the climate movement is also critical because ecological imperialism and environmental sabotage are facts of the present. Raw material extraction from poorer countries for the sole purpose of enabling trade for rich economies (accounting for 40pc of raw material extraction globally) continues unabated in the present, accelerating ecological damage and waste in the Global South in the process.
Even as the reality of the climate crisis has entered public knowledge, the dominant response of economic and military power structures in the North has been a greater emphasis on national and border security, and the exploration of measures to increase their own economic and political dominance.
Nowhere is this schizophrenic tendency more severe than in the US, which has rapidly expanded fossil fuel production through fracking technology in recent years as a cornerstone of its national security strategy. This process was initiated under President Barack Obama and accelerated thereafter with the Trump presidency willfully dismantling most regulations limiting fossil fuel expansion.
The US has now become the world’s leading fossil fuel producer in oil and natural gas, creating new pipelines that have locked in billions of tons of new carbon emissions over subsequent decades, in effect hastening ecological collapse.
The notion of climate justice is also important because of the unequal impacts of climate breakdown within societies. Marx saw the expropriation of nature under capitalism as intimately connected to the expropriation of human bodies and labour.
The commodification of nature has historically taken place in tandem with the usurpation of common property, the dispossession of indigenous communities, the institution of exploitative forms of labour relations or the exploitation of women’s labour under unequal relations of social reproduction in the patriarchal household.
Today, the brunt of the impact of climatic instability is also being borne by ordinary workers, farmers, women and minority groups suffering under natural disasters, infectious diseases, water shortages and contamination, loss of livelihoods and rising food insecurity.
Thus, the process of reversing ecological damage must necessarily involve restitution for those who have been its biggest casualties. This is part of the reasoning behind the Green New Deal proposals to address the climate crisis, which call for a just transition for workers to a decarbonised economy, through the creation of employment through state-led green manufacturing and infrastructure, as well as increased social provisioning for health care, housing, water, education and social security.
This may also offer a path ahead for developing countries (including Pakistan) to overcome de-industrialisation through public interventions tying ecological restoration to employment generation, and expansion of public services and infrastructure.
Finally, the new climate movements are calling for an overdue interrogation of current patterns of consumption, particularly by the privileged, be it the rising, conspicuous consumption of luxury commodities, dietary addictions to meat and dairy, or the overreliance on fuel-guzzling aviation.
The teenage activist Greta exemplified this impulse in her symbolic act of traveling from the UK to New York by boat to address the United Nations General Assembly on the climate crisis.
This reasoning is now implicit on all the fronts of the ecological crisis; large-scale behavioural change is necessary to avert disaster. However, it remains important to not fall into the trap of neoliberal individualism when considering this principle.
An emphasis on individual lifestyle changes rather than structural solutions has long been a diversionary tactic used by capitalist interests to avoid any accountability of their own disproportionate role in the crisis. Individual changes for ecologically-sensitive consumption alone will do little to address the crisis in the absence of organised collective action and the transformation of social and metabolic relations.
However, there is considerable merit in attempting to overcome the consumerist and competitive model of the self that has gradually taken root under capitalism. In order to reduce high-carbon patterns of industrial production, hold the powerful to account and push ecological restoration through collective political action, the development of a new subjectivity of citizenship and selfhood is essential, one that is based on a more naturally grounded, socially-embedded, inter-dependent and cooperative conception of the self.
The new climate movements represent hope; they are one of humanity’s last remaining attempts to avoid ecological catastrophe.
However, the task before them is enormous and they have yet to become truly representative in their composition or take root in the most affected societies. While the principal audience of these movements are rich nations (those who actually wield the power and the responsibility to arrest the collapse), there are urgent lessons countries like Pakistan need to take from this historical moment.
We remain committed to economic development strategies dependent on rising fossil fuel emissions, production patterns (including sugar, rice and textiles) that waste, drain and contaminate our scarce water resources, water management policies that have destroyed the Indus Delta and downstream communities and urban expansion patterns that have accelerated deforestation, destructive urban sprawl and mass destitution.
Perhaps most riskily, the state has limited the authority for decision-making about our ecology to a tiny civil-military elite and criminalised any questioning of the developmental consensus through accusations of treason, even as it expropriates the resources of ethnic minorities from Balochistan to Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Like other countries, Pakistan critically needs a strong climate justice movement that stands for ecological restoration, an expansion of the commons, regional and international cooperation, justice and restitution for exploited workers and communities, participatory and decentralised forms of decision-making and a more naturally and socially conscious conception of citizenship and selfhood.
Let us all wish this year’s protests can be the catalyst for that urgent process. Our collective future depends on it.
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Ammar Rashid is a researcher in social and economic development and public policy, and a political organiser for the Awami Workers Party. He tweets @ammarrashidt
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