Fighting for social change in a time of climate crisis

Sydney Climate Strike on September 20. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

As the climate crisis pushes the planet past certain tipping points, inequality between the rich and the poor continues to grow. At the same time, we are also witnessing a resurgence in protests and resistance.

In September, more than 4 million people in about 150 countries participated in the global Climate Strike. This built on the million-strong global student climate strike in March and was followed by Extinction Rebellion’s international Week of Rebellion in October, in which thousands of people participated in disruptive protests demanding radical climate action.

We have also seen the rise of people power movements in the Global South, such as in Lebanon, Chile, Iraq, Algeria and Haiti, demanding democracy, economic justice and an end to corruption and oppression.

It would be a mistake to see the mass climate protests as disconnected from these revolts against injustice. They have something in common: they are examples of people challenging the entrenched rule of the capitalist elites responsible for both the climate crisis and gross economic inequality.

All of which raises the question: what type of political vision and mass movement do we need to address the climate crisis and inequality?

Addressing a rally in Denver, United States, in October, Swedish high school activist Greta Thunberg spoke about the attitude movements should take towards these elites. She said we should “tell them, if they won’t do it, we will … the world is waking up and we are the change. The change is coming whether you like it or not.”

This is the kind of boldness our movements need.

We need more mass protests that bring greater numbers of people on board. We also need to build alliances within and between workers, indigenous communities, movements in the Global South and all those sectors most affected by the climate crisis and inequality.

History shows it is not through lobbying, petitioning or appealing to those in power that change occurs — only organised, sustained mass struggle can bring about the future we require.

This is what we are seeing today in Chile, Hong Kong and Lebanon, where mass pressure from below has forced the ruling elites to give some concessions. Nevertheless, movements there understand their struggles are far from over.

All these struggles have been met with severe state repression. This is because the ruling class will go to any length to protect its interests. Organisation, solidarity and the power of sheer numbers is the best defence against growing authoritarianism and repression.

A key method for building numbers is seeking to link up different struggles to jointly confront the system as a whole.

In the end, the people signing off on planetary destruction are the same people who send refugees to be tortured in offshore detention camps and the same ones ordering the destruction of sacred Aboriginal trees in Djab Wurrung country — and all for the same purpose: profits.

To defeat them, we need to move beyond just protesting to building political organisations capable of collectivising knowledge and advance the overall interests of these movements. Such an organisation is critical for coming up with a much-needed vision of the kind of society we want.

But such a political organisation would also need to develop demands that can advance the interests of the movements now. This could include demands such as putting the energy industry into public ownership, or pushing for an expansion of public investment in housing, health and education.

Such demands need to steer clear of false solutions that don’t directly challenge the power of the rich and that see the system as part of the answer rather than the problem.

As the climate crisis and global economic inequality intensify, the need to build a mass movement against the rich and powerful becomes more urgent — a movement for a fundamentally different society that puts people before profit.

[Jacob Andrewartha is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]