by Ferrial Adam
“The climate movement needs to shift gears from what has been a largely symbolic movement to one that is directly disrupting destructive industries. (…) Our movement needs to judge its progress not by how many media hits our action got nor how many people read our blogs, but by how many power plants we’ve put out of business..” (Rising Tide North America 2010: 10)
Balance of forces
Politically the world seems to be leaning to the right – from Trump to Bolsonaro to Modi to Ramaphosa to Jinping. People across the world are saying enough is enough – Chile, Bolivia, Hong Kong, Lebanon are just a few examples.
The world is facing some of the worst climate shocks in history with extreme fires (California, Australia), water shortages (South Africa and the rest of Africa), floods (India) and droughts (South Africa, East Africa). At the same time there is a growing climate movement. Young and old are resorting to direct actions to stop big polluting companies and countries.
The Climate Justice (CJ) arena is fragmented in South Africa and has resulted in a weak CJ movement. There are two key reasons for this – the first is the ideological differences between the mainstream organisations fighting climate change and the more radical justice groups that have called for systemic changes as a solution to climate change. The second challenge is the perception that “climate change” is all about the environment and thus has been largely left to the environmental organisations.
The Climate Justice Charter (CJC) process is an attempt to revive and build the CJ movement. In the past few years, it is clear that the climate crisis has arrived. We have to take the science seriously to understand its dangers. The world is now experiencing a 1.2-degree Celsius increase in planetary temperature since before the industrial revolution. Carbon concentration in the atmosphere is at over 410 parts per million above the 350-ppm safe level. This is leading to extreme weather events or climate shocks. South Africa’s drought is a climate shock and it is not over.
A strong, vibrant, courageous and creative Climate Justice Movement is needed in South Africa. We must learn from past mistakes to ensure that the CJM is a force that will affect change.
Where have we come from: the road from EJ to CJ
From a Western context, the concept of environmental justice emerged from the USA in the 1980s – when activists put a spotlight on the exposure of poor and black communities to high levels of environmental risks and toxic pollution. In the global south, people have been defending the commons for over 500 years from colonial and industrial powers. The one constant between the two is that environmental injustices were about power relations. (Holifield 2001;; Martinez-Alier et al. 2016)
In South Africa, environmental organisations under apartheid were also advocates for sanctions against multinationals supporting the regime. The issue of environmental injustice was linked directly to the apartheid government and its policies. The earliest reference to “environmental justice” can be traced to a conference held in 1992 where the Environmental Justice Networking Forum (EJNF) was established (Hallowes 1993).
The adoption of the term EJ was an important moment for the EJ movement in SA. It was before the first democratic elections and environmental issues at the time were largely regarded as a ‘white, middle class’ interest with a focus on conservation. The EJ agenda grew as an alternative to this view and incorporated broader social justice and “brown” issues such as health, employment, education and sanitation. (Cock 2004)
The EJ movement has been weak and has failed to gain the attention from left leaning social justice organizations. The Climate Justice movement has the potential to bridge the gap. Climate change has pushed environmental justice to include broader considerations of both environment and justice. And has developed a strong connection between the polluting industries and the direct impacts of climate change. (Schlosberg 2013)
When did Climate Justice (CJ) take root?
“climate injustice = those who are least responsible for climate change suffer its gravest consequences”. The climate movement has changed fundamentally in recent years. It emerged as a response or need for a civil society voice on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). A large umbrella group called the Climate Action Network was created in 1989 “to coordinate the NGO response” (Busby 2010: 107) to the work of the UNFCCC. Since that formation there has been a definite radicalisation in the network with a shift to building a climate movement. The history of the term “climate justice” can be traced to as early as 2000. In 2009, the Climate Justice Action Network was formed during the run-up to the Copenhagen UNFCCC Summit. It proposed civil disobedience and direct action during the summit, and many climate activists used the slogan ‘system change not climate change’. Ironically, it was at the failed Copenhagen meeting (COP 15) that there was a crucial shift from speaking about climate change to a focus on climate justice that resulted into two separate groups and organisations – Climate Justice Now and Climate Action Network. There was agreement that humankind is responsible for the changes in the climate of the planet that will have catastrophic effects should they go unchecked, but they disagreed on how to tackle climate change. The climate justice group (Via Campesina) called for complete system change and rejected false solutions such as Clean development Mechanism and other green economy solutions, while the Climate Action Network (WWF, Greenpeace, Oxfam to name a few) took a more moderate approach and were open to working with polluting industries and supporting the green economy. This divide weakened the struggle against climate change from an international to a local organizing level and was felt in South Africa with the two groups of SACAN and CJN!SA. A pivotal moment for the Climate Justice Movement was the alternative summit hosted by Bolivia in April 2010, where the “People’s Agreement” calling for climate justice was adopted. The debates at this alternative summit was significant to the climate justice movement.
The call for Climate Justice promises a renewed grassroots response to the climate crisis. Climate justice has the potential to bring the movement back to its radical roots. As such, it can provide concrete action at local levels and importantly offer solutions from below.
Second, the climate justice frame is broader in its appeal, allowing the movement to connect to broader social justice movements. At the same time, a new phase of symbolic climate activism, committed to raising the alarm, has come to the fore such as #FridaysForFuture and Extinction Rebellion. However, it is important we engage in active and conscious national climate justice movement building based on our own historical experience of mass struggle, our common vision and approach to climate justice in South Africa while deepening international solidarity.
Learning lessons from our struggles for solidarity
While the shift from climate change to climate justice is an important one and has the potential to build a strong movement, we must learn from past experiences. In South Africa, there have been numerous movements that were active at various point in history. There are three key aspects that must be borne in mind when developing movements in South Africa. First the national liberation movement has not emancipated South Africa. Merely creating a few rich people is not liberation when the vast majority still suffer. Part of the reason for this is that the liberation movement abandoned its own vision and programmatic commitments as contained in the Freedom Charter. Many who joined the struggle believed in the Charter, but its aspirations have not been realised and hence we have a continuity of economic apartheid. Second is what was witnessed with the Treatment Action Campaign. The movement was weakened by the dependency on donor funding and the lack of reciprocating support to other groups and organisations. The third aspect was learnt from the fall of the Anti-Privatisation Forum. The move from a loose alliance to a structure led to community group-entrepreneurship. As people competed for resources, it was clear that they were motivated by self-enrichment rather than the principles of the movement. There were also instances of sexual harassment and sexism. Without a conscious understanding of feminist practice at all levels of the organisation women will always be disempowered. The strength of both movements was the development of strong principles and operating rules.
Theory of Transformation from Below
We are running out of time and large-scale societal change has to happen fast. A corrupt state, a failing economy and increasing climate shocks have to be addressed at once. This means we have to build from within, alongside and beyond the current system. Building from below is the frontline. Local leadership is crucial. Power has to be constituted through advancing different forms of disruption (symbolic, strategic and systemic pathway building) informed by the Climate Justice Charter. We have to raise consciousness in our society, #gridlockcarbon capital and advance alternatives at the same time. We are not a lobby group or a front for a party. We are an independent and conscious grassroots movement seeking to shift society towards fundamental socio-ecological transformation, so we survive catastrophic climate change.
What should a movement look like in SA?
The Climate Justice movement must have ‘soft coordination’ and be a loose alliance of communities, groups, organisations and individuals. It is a given but should be repeated that such a movement must operate in a transparent, inclusive, open and democratic manner. There must be representation of people from all walks of life informed by gender, race and class.
Its central sphere of operation must be the local where climate shocks will be and are the worst. Its basic unit should be a Climate Justice Forum, in a community, involving organisations and individuals. It should convene regularly to organise, campaign and advance the climate justice struggle. Such a forum should also convene community imbizos/assemblies to rally the community.
At a national level it should convene at least two forums, per year, at which an annual common program of disruption (involving symbolic, strategic and systemic pathway building), to advance the Climate Justice Charter, is agreed, political education happens, and strategic perspectives elaborated. All of these national priorities must be informed by local campaigns, struggles and the offerings of partner organisations that might operate on other levels.
The national level should be convened by a rotating secretariat, made up three alliance partners, willing to volunteer to convene the movement nationally for a year. Such a secretariat should have convening authority, derive its mandate from the national forums and renew its role in such forums, if partners want to continue serving the movement. They would also serve as the media spokespersons of the movement nationally. Locally every forum should engage the media.
One of the most divisive elements in any structure is the issue of funding. We need to move away from donor driven to grassroots and programmatic self-organising. This means resources must be understood as more than money but includes human capacity, community support, commoning (like seed banks) and more. In addition, grassroots financial sustainability must be developed, each network partner must contribute what they can in terms of resourcing and common fundraising initiatives must be agreed to like an online climate justice newspaper or community food sovereignty markets, for example. We need to bring together old methods of mobilising (door-to-door, cake sales to fund campaigns) with new knowledge, energy and experience (social media, creative arts/theatre)
A Movement Guided by Principles
Climate Justice links human rights and transformative change to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable while sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its resolution equitably and fairly.
Climate justice is informed by science but must consider the context within which we operate as many South Africans often feel locked out of the knowledge, disconnected or uninformed.
Some principles that may be considered for a grassroots driven climate justice movement:
1. Unite and build convergences in the climate justice struggle amongst movements and community organisations. Red has to become green and green has to become red. Moreover, the strength, contribution and independence of each network partner must be acknowledged and encouraged;
2. Active commitment to advancing the Climate Justice Charter vision, goals and practices;
3. Actively struggle for decarbonisation of society, including fossil fuel phase out to prevent a 1.5°C overshoot but in a manner that prioritises the needs of workers, affected communities and the most vulnerable;
4. Advance systemic alternatives in communities, villages, towns, cities and workplaces as part of the just transition to bring down emissions, build resilience, ensure climate disaster relief and speedy regeneration of destroyed life supporting systems;
5. Ensure community and workplace participation in the deep just transition;
6. Democratise science and ensure ongoing education, consciousness raising and popular empowerment;
7. Affirm respect for local knowledge, language and experience
8. Practice collective, radical non-racialism and gender conscious leadership at all levels of the movement;
9. Democratic deliberation through debate, reflecting on practice, sharing experience, learning exchanges, research and movement forums at local and national level.
Some questions for debate:
1. What lessons can we learn from the South African national liberation struggle about movement building?
2. What lessons can we learn from post-apartheid movements regarding movement building?
3. Why is the creation of a climate justice movement necessary for South Africa?
4. How should such a movement operate institutionally, so it does not take away from grassroots driven power and politics?
5. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed principles?
6. What is missing from the perspective advanced in this document?