When a ‘climate election’ goes wrong
For many climate justice campaigners (including me) the December 2019 UK election felt like a moment of hope. The opposition Labour Party was offering climate policies that – while still not perfect – would have been an urgently needed step in the right direction. So, when Labour were defeated by the fossil-fuel friendly Conservative Party whose leader refused to even show up to a televised climate debate, it felt like a bitter blow.
But all is not lost. UK campaigners are far from alone in seeing an anti-environment government elected in the last few years, or having a supposed ‘climate election’ go horribly wrong. I sought advice from climate-justice organizers in Australia, the US and Brazil about how to carry on the fight under a hostile government – and win. Here’s what they told me:
‘Change doesn’t only come from the top’
Australia’s government has been led by the notoriously pro-coal and right-wing Liberal party since Anna Langford began campaigning for climate justice at the age of 16. Despite this – and the May 2019 election that unexpectedly returned the Liberals to power – she believes there are major victories that can be won by the climate movement.
One route is by using the power of other levels of government. ‘The Australian government was ranked the worst in the world at the Madrid climate summit, but if you look at our local state Victoria, it’s an entirely different story – we’ve got a ban on fracking, a renewable energy target, a transition plan to end native forest logging.
‘These are things that were won by grassroots organizing and campaigning, putting pressure on politicians at a local level. We’re now working on securing bold emissions reductions targets for Victoria for 2025 and 2030,’ she tells me.
This doesn’t just mean prompting sympathetic local governments in left-leaning areas into action – much of the organizing Langford was part of (with Friends of the Earth and Act on Climate) involved building opposition to fracking in traditionally conservative areas. By the end of the campaign, the local fracking ban was so popular that both Victoria’s Liberal and Labour parties were trying to claim credit for it.
‘Think outside election cycles’
National elections are complex and messy. Just because a climate-friendly policy was part of a losing election platform, doesn’t mean that policy is unpopular or can’t be achieved in some other way. Similarly, the election of a pro-fossil fuel government doesn’t mean there’s public support for their whole dirty energy agenda.
In Australia, the government is now under huge pressure on its climate policies in the face of unprecedented bushfires. In Brazil – where the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro was a major blow for environmental protection – indigenous resistance to the corporate exploitation of the Amazon remains strong, despite huge risks and the deaths of many frontline activists.
Meanwhile, the COESUS coalition of campaign groups has defied Bolsonaro’s pro-extractive agenda and won a fracking ban across the state of Paraná – meaning the largest shale gas reserve in Latin America will now remain unburned.
Kim Fraczek and Tom Ross from the Sane Energy Project in New York State gave me a list of reasons why the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was bad news for the climate (from his gutting of regulatory bodies to the greenlighting of new pipelines). But they also explained how, through a diversity of tactics, campaigners have stopped multiple fracked gas projects in New York State – including two pipelines, an export terminal and a power plant.
The latter was a classic case of environmental injustice, with polluting infrastructure proposed for a majority-community of colour in Sheridan Hollow. But the people there organized, built up wider support and won. And while these campaigns often have a tactical focus on making change at the state level, coalitions like the New York Energy Democracy Alliance are working with other groups around the US to change the wider narrative too.
‘Tackle the root causes and build solidarity’
While the election of Trump has been a boost to the fossil-fuel industry, these struggles existed long before 2016, driven by what Fraczek calls the ‘extractivist economy’ of the US. In some ways, these battles are now simply more visible, with the Trump government loudly supporting fossil fuel projects that were quietly backed by the Obama administration.
As Tom Ross puts it, ‘the idea that these are exceptional times is somewhat illusory. These are longstanding issues.’ To tackle them, we need to see the connections between the various crises facing us and build long-term alliances between different struggles.
Flavio Querogia from Parents for Future Brazil points to economic recession, government corruption, and collapsing public services as key factors that allowed the election of Bolsonaro in the first place. Unless we are working on building a future that tackles these problems too, the climate won’t seem like a big enough priority for many people – until it’s too late.
By making these connections and building solidarity (especially between climate campaign groups and more marginalized communities) our movements can become strong enough to win immediate victories and protect people from the worst impacts of government policies, while also changing the political landscape for the future.
As Anna Langford puts it, ‘In the time until the next election, we need to make anything that isn’t strong climate action politically impossible.’
We need to take the fight to all those who are pushing politics in the wrong direction, including the corporate interests who help prop up these destructive governments. In Brazil, campaigners are calling for international boycotts of companies complicit in the destruction of the Amazon. In Australia (and elsewhere), campaigns to erode the public image of the fossil-fuel industry and starve it of investment are starting to have a real impact.
‘There’s much to defend – but we can’t stay on the defensive’
‘We have to work at two levels. It’s dangerous to only stay on the defensive, trying to stop new extraction or bad climate policies. We need to have positive plans and ideas to move forward with as well,’ Anna explains.
Mariana Menezes from Parents for Future Brazil agrees: ‘Fighting to protect our environment means fighting for a whole new economy, a new way of life. It’s a huge transformation. So much of our work is about showing people that a different way, a better way, is possible.
‘It’s hard when people are losing hope, when we have this government, when we see indigenous people being killed, the trees being burned. But to keep fighting, we have to keep dreaming. We have to keep building this better future, and acting to make it real.’
Governments have power, but most of the things that happen in this world aren’t done by governments – they’re done by us, by the people. They happen in our communities. Elections matter. But no single election is going to doom us, or indeed save us. It’s the movements that we build, the struggles we support and the solutions we create every day – not just on polling days – that will ultimately make the future.
Danny Chivers is a climate change researcher, activist and performance poet. He is the author of the New Internationalist's The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change: The science, the solutions, the way forward.
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