Towards Paris 2015: Some questions for how we organise in the youth climate movement

How the world responds to climate change in the next three years will shape the future of our planet. Climate change is the playing field on which all other social justice struggles are now being fought. I really feel that this is one of those “where were you” points in history. In years to come future generations will ask us what we were doing when we needed to stop the climate crisis. But it’s also a point to stop and reflect, or at least to try and get better at reflecting as we go. Some important questions for how we organise include:

  • How do we build an inclusive and diverse climate movement?

  • How do we communicate our message effectively?

  • How do we work strategically for climate justice?

These are questions I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on, and I’d like to share some thoughts here.

  1. How do we build an inclusive and diverse climate movement?

The chance to be involved in climate activism with young people across Europe is an enormous privilege which not many people get. As a young, white man who has had good educational opportunities I can expect to be very comfortable in the activism and policy spaces where the climate movement operates. I can expect to have my opinion listened to and generally respected, even if if you do not agree with me. When I enter political or policy making arenas I can expect others there to look mostly like me; white men who have had good educational opportunities. The European environmental movement is remarkably homogeneous. That is to say, those engaged often have a similar, privileged background. It is important for our work towards a more just, equitable and sustainable world to make ourselves aware of our privileges. This the first challenge I want to highlight. Our work as climate activists calls for huge changes to the way the world works in order to respond to the climate crisis. But the fact is that we are often amongst the greatest benefactors of how the world works right now. You can see how this could be a conflict of interest! Unless we are actively challenging the structures which give us our privilege then we are helping to maintain them. Practically, this means things like asking ‘why?’ when we find ourselves in rooms full of privilaged, white young people in our climate work- and then working to create more representative spaces.

Duncan Meisel of writes about the need to build an intersectional movement, one that crosses boundaries to link of all kinds of social and environmental injustices. Our responsibility as climate activists is to ensure that all those who are affected by climate change are supported and empowered to be heard in the conversation, not just those who are as privileged as us. That includes people of colour, Travellers, Roma and Sinti, and marginalised and economically disadvantaged communities. We also need to reflect on how we reinforce gender inequality and patriarchy in our ways of working. By asking this tough question we have the opportunity to strengthen our movement, support greater participation and more diverse perspectives on climate justice.

  1. How do we communicate our message effectively?

We need to tell the story of climate justice in a way that helps others to come to terms with climate change and begin to take action. We’re involved in climate activism, I hope, because we believe that climate change is the greatest threat to social justice, human rights and the earth’s eco-system ever seen. We have seen the evidence from science and believe in the need to take action. But why are so many others not active to solve climate change? I read recently in Organising Cools the Planet the theory that climate sceptics and the Right in general are very convincing because they can tell stories that provide easy solutions to people’s fears and worries. If we are going to support people to come to terms with climate change and begin to take action we need to start creating spaces in our communities where we can have a dialogue, where people can come to terms with their fears and start to embrace alternatives. This is a slow but necessary process.

We also need to think about how we communicate in our campaigns. In the UK the Common Cause research group has shown that negative messages will often fail to motivate people to change, and in fact can reinforce the negative values we are trying to challenge. Think about it: who likes to be criticised for the choices they have made? We unconsciously justify our choices even when they are unjust or unsustainable. We need to be careful about the use of ‘naming and shaming’ in our campaigning. That is necessary at times, but we need to also be able to tell the positive story of alternatives, of sustainable and just communities.

  1. How do we work strategically for climate justice?

I guess the first two questions have began to look at this last one already Here I want to share some quick thoughts:

  • Be aware of our privileges and work to create a diverse climate movement. Just solutions can only be created by including those most affected, and when it comes to climate change they are most often excluded from the debate.

  • Think about how we communicate to help people feel safe about expressing their fears and coming to terms with climate change.

  • Think about actions you can take at all levels, local, regional, national and . It is ok to want to work at different levels, but how can they compliment each other? How can we push for the same objectives no matter what level we want to work on?

  • We need more people to be engaged in more activism! In the youth climate movement we are often very good at “high level” campaigning and lobbying. That is important but it will not be effective without joining up the other levels. How do we work at local level to push up?

  • Political processes are made to seem intimidating, we need to break them down. And the truth is everyone is pretending to know what they are doing when they don’t.

  • Protest is important, but there are other tactics. Who are our allies? Enemies? Blockers? Who do we need to convince/push? What needs to happen in the background before the protest to move the political process?

  • Learning by doing is better than learning then doing. We all make mistakes.

  • Engage in dialogue, build alliances- create our climate movement!

What does all this mean practically?

Good question. These thoughts are written not to say ‘this is how it’s done’, but as part of a process of sense making I am going through. I am trying to deal with these questions in a few specific ways:

1. Working to build alliances between social justice and environmental concerns in Ireland, particularly in my work with the Community Workers’ Co-operative and Young Friends of the Earth Ireland and through my work as a PhD student.

2. Supporting a project to highlight the lack of a gender perspective in Irish environmental and climate policy and to highlight the role, voices and stories of some pretty amazing women activists in Irish environmentalism.

3. Working to find funding that could support marginalised young people, particularly from the Global South, to participate in climate activism and the UNFCCC process.

I invite any readers to reflect on these questions for their own work and feel free to get in touch, here or on Twitter (@jamiecgorman). I would be really happy to have these conversations as we organise towards Paris in 2015!

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