Between hope and despair: we are rising up for the climate in 2020
2019 closed with a COP25 without significant results. Four years after the "historic" Paris Agreement, we are still not committed enough to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. In fact, we are heading for a rise of more than 3°C, most likely surpassing several tipping points and triggering even greater and more catastrophic warming.
However, 2019 was also the year of the greatest climate mobilization. Since the IPCC report of October 2018, which warned us that "global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate", something has changed. We have changed something.
Already during 2018 we talked about the need to close the gap between our diagnosis - the climate emergency - and our action. With that goal in mind, I went with hope to the Global Quorum in Malaga in October 2018, but I returned home in despair. Because behind the radical discourse of systemic collapse there was the usual response: training, more environmental education and awareness, which meant a giant gap between diagnosis and action. Where was the uprising then?
But other spaces emerged that also took up this challenge of closing the gap: By 2020 We Rise Up at the European level (born out of Climate Justice Action), Extinction Rebellion (at that time only in the UK) and the student strikes. Something was happening that did give hope. We were organizing something to nurture our hope and change the world, putting life at the center.
Hope: We are mobilizing.
Our progress in 2019 offers reason for hope. While in 2018 we could not talk about a climate justice movement or any meaningful mobilization in the streets, we now can. 2019 began by creating Extinction Rebellion Spain, with a first meeting in Madrid in January, and we have begun to create 2020 Climate Rebellion (By 2020 We Rise Up in Spain and Portugal), which was born in a meeting in February 2019.
In between, there was the first worldwide strike, organized by the students (these things don't just happen) at the level of the Spanish state: the climate 15M. Only one month later, as Extinction Rebellion we launched our first action of civil disobedience during the first week of rebellion by blocking the Repsol headquarters in Madrid; a small first action, but an important step.
In July of last year we took part in the 2020 Climate Rebellion at the Camp-in-Gas camp in Portugal, training and taking part in another civil disobedience action. And we trained trainers, organizing trainings in non-violent direct action and civil disobedience in a multitude of cities in the Spanish state.
Already during the week of 20-27 September we organized a multitude of actions throughout the country, as part of the mobilization for a second worldwide strike. On 30 September we blocked the Palacio de San Telmo in Seville, the seat of the Junta de Andalucía. And on 7 October, during the first wave of By 2020 We Rise Up and the second week of rebellion by XR, we blocked the bridge of Raimundo Fernandez de Villaverde near Nuevos Ministerios with 300 people, and set up the climate camp in front of the Ministry of Ecological Transition. First glimpses of rebellion, still small, but what act of rebellion does not begin with small acts of disobedience?
We closed the year with the mobilization on 6 December. Half a million people marched in Madrid on the Climate March. In only four weeks, an impressive organization was achieved. And the social summit for the climate was mounted, an important meeting space; we were closing the gap between our diagnosis of an emergency and our action. We were working to rise up, for the climate, for life, nourishing our hope, learning along the way.
Despair: The climate and ecological emergency is accelerating
While these mobilizations were taking place, the increasingly worrying news kept happening.
Throughout the year, several reports were published on the accelerated melting of the Arctic, with serious consequences for permafrost in the Siberian tundra, and the melting of Antarctica, which has accelerated by 280% in the last four decades. Especially striking were the thousands of fires in the Amazon rainforest, and they were not the only ones: Siberia and Alaska, Indonesia, Angola and Congo, and now in Australia.
The climate change already underway has increased the intensity of these fires, and at the same time they are destroying the rainforest and other forests and emitting enormous amounts of CO2. In May, the Intergovernmental Science and Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its devastating report on global biodiversity, alerting us to the risk of a million species disappearing in the coming decades.
Another devastating report came out in November, alerting us that more than half of the climate tipping points identified a decade ago are now "active". Co-author Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, noted that "it is not only human pressures on Earth that continue to increase to unprecedented levels. It is also that as science advances, we must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self amplifies global warming. This is what we are now beginning to see, already at 1°C of global warming".
Earlier that month, in an unprecedented event, more than 11,000 scientists from over 150 countries warned of a climate emergency and demanded "huge changes in the way our global society works and its interaction with natural ecosystems".
While a year earlier, in November 2018, the UN Environment Programme said that "countries must urgently triple their commitments to reduce global warming to 2°C", a year later this same institution said that "the ambition of the Paris Accord must be increased fivefold to avoid a climate catastrophe": "Unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030, the world will not achieve the objective of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels set out in the Paris Agreement". Two weeks later, COP25 ended without new commitments or significant agreements. A disaster.
Despair and doubts. Doubts about whether, although we are mobilizing to close the gap between diagnosis and action, this gap is opening up even more. Doubts that increase despair.
Hope for 2020
Although all these reports and data are a sufficient basis for despair (I myself admit to having started the year in that state), it is important to also realize our progress, our small successes, and to build the uprising of 2020 on them.
As a survey carried out for El País shows, we have changed awareness: "59.5% consider that it is 'very urgent' to take measures to combat climate change. 31% say it is 'quite urgent'. In other words, nine out of ten Spaniards believe it is 'urgent' to take a step forward".
And we have changed the political discourse. Now it is almost mainstream to talk about "climate emergency" and the need to take strong measures (the practice is different). We have achieved a multitude of declarations of climate emergency: Catalonia in May 2019, Seville in July 2019, the Congress in September 2019, Barcelona from 1 January 2020 and the Government this Tuesday, among others.
Unfortunately, except in exceptional cases, these declarations have remained empty, without a minimum change in the policies related to CO2 emissions. Airport expansion projects continue (Barcelona, Malaga, Seville, and there are plans for Madrid), despite the climate emergency. The promotion of tourism and economic growth continues. "Climate emergency" in discourse, " business as usual" in practice.
But within our movements we have managed to install the idea of an escalation of tactics and the need for forceful civil disobedience. Although not all collectives and organisations can take a step towards disobedience (towards an uprising), few doubt the need. Furthermore, within our movements we have built a clear discourse on the need for climate justice, systemic change and the need to continue to pursue intersectionality in building a movement of movements. And, although we are far from achieving this, we have laid some of the foundations to continue building it.
We start 2020, therefore, with a much more powerful base, with more experience and with more mobilization. So much so that it is now possible to imagine ourselves rising up (for real) this year. It will be a huge effort, but this climate uprising is already part of our imagination for 2020. Let's organize it!
Which way to go? (strategic questions)
But which way should we go in 2020? How far should we go to prevent climate catastrophe? Do we only have eleven months until the end of 2020 to succeed?
Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said that "rapid progress is needed to reduce emissions as much as possible in 2020 and then boost nationally determined contributions by bringing about major transformations of economies and societies. We need to catch up with the years we put off. If we don't do this, the 1.5°C target will be out of reach by 2030".
Without a doubt, 2020 will be a key year, as Andersen says. The IPCC report of October 2018 already spoke of the need for a peak in emissions in 2020. Moving from an annual increase in emissions (albeit of 2%) to an annual reduction of 7.6% seems impossible. It is unlikely that these 7.6% can be achieved in 2020, nor in 2021. But, to achieve the necessary emission reductions from 2021 or 2022, ecological and economic policy has to change radically, and decisions have to be taken in 2020.
COP26, in late November in Scotland, will only be a verification point for important decisions taken earlier by national governments. In other words, increasing the pressure in November would be too late. We need to rise up more forcefully before then. However, this is not a question of total success or failure. From 2021 we will have a long struggle to keep up the pressure to bring about the necessary systemic change.
Then we shall rise up this year! But how? Increasing support is important, but not enough. Support is not the same as active participation. And participation in what? Demonstrations like the one on 6 December are important, but not enough. "Holiday protests don't stop the war," said Arundhati Roy about the protests against the Iraq war on 15 February 2003, much less will they end the climate emergency. This is why we talk about the need for an escalation of tactics and an uprising for the climate.
Especially within Extinction Rebellion there is a lot of talk about the 3.5% of the population that should be activated (based on the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan). In Spain 3.5% would mean 1.65 million people actively participating. But what should these 3.5% of the population do? In an interview Erica Chenoweth answers this question: "It sounds like a very small number, but in absolute terms it is an impressive number of people. In the U.S., that would be about 11.5 million people today. Could you imagine if 11.5 million people - that's about three times the size of the Women's March in 2017 - were doing something like mass non-cooperation on a sustained basis for nine to 18 months? Things would be totally different in this country". In ours, too.
That is, we are not just talking about participation in demonstrations or one-off actions. The challenge is even greater. In order to activate this 3.5% we would have to unleash a pretty big whirlwind. But we may not need that 3.5% in 2020, since our goal (for this year) is not systemic change (not yet). The goal is to get our governments to make decisions to initiate profound changes in the economy and to initiate emission reductions of around 7.6-8% annually from 2021.
In order to achieve these decisions, what are the main forces preventing them, and where should we act and exert pressure? I will point out some ideas, although I think a more in-depth analysis would be important.
- The (fossil) energy industry and its infrastructure. This industry has its interests in the exploitation of fossil energy reserves, and the value of these companies is largely based on the value of their oil, gas, and coal reserves. According to Bill McKibben, one of the founders of 350.org, "we have to keep 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves underground". If governments really took strong measures to reduce emissions - that is, to reduce fossil fuels - the value of those reserves would collapse, and with it the value of these companies (reserves that are left underground have no economic value).
- The financial industry (banks, investment funds and other large investors). This industry is the one that finances extractive industries, both fossil energy and minerals. Despite their nice words, in practice these big banks have increased investments in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement. According to a report by the NGO BankTrack, they have risen from 612 billion dollars in 2016 to 654 billion in 2018. With our money, therefore, the banks are financing the collapse of our climate.
- The "god" of growth. Although we have changed the discourse on the climate emergency, we have not managed to defeat the real god: economic growth. A report by the European Union's Environment Office in July 2019 makes this clear: "The conclusion is both overwhelmingly clear and sobering: not only is there no empirical evidence to support a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on a scale close to that needed to address environmental degradation, but also, and perhaps most importantly, such a decoupling seems unlikely to occur in the future". Despite this, we are not yet talking openly about abolishing this god of growth, and I think it would be important to take some first steps in this direction during 2020.
- Dismantle false solutions: This last point is related to false solutions that are being promoted by the elites, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos: the Green New Deal or other forms of green capitalism, the Fourth Industrial Revolution or other solutions based on techno-fantasies. With the advance of the climate emergency and our mobilization, the elites will increasingly promote these false solutions, and we should be prepared to denounce them.
With our actions of rebellion, i.e. our actions of disobedience, we should disrupt the functioning of these aspects of the current system. It is no good putting on good spectacles like a DISCOBEDIENCE or similar in the centre of Madrid. We should attack the nerves of the extractivist and productivist system and block its infrastructures in a coordinated way. The Tsunami Democràtic should seem small and irrelevant. Here is the challenge, and it is no small one.
It is difficult to maintain or rediscover hope in times of climate and ecological emergency. It is difficult to find the energy to fight without hope. Where then can this hope be taken from, and what could it be nourished from, when scientific reports are increasingly alarming and decisive action to reduce emissions is still pending? Time, our time, is running out. We are fucked.
Perhaps in these times of despair and climate and ecological emergency we can learn something from queer movements. In the AIDS crisis in the United States in the 1990s, the homophobic context meant that the loss of queer lives was not understood as worthy of mourning, preventing people from going through the pain and accepting these losses. Similarly, perhaps we should accept our mourning for lost species, habitats and ecosystems, which in our Western culture are not worthy of mourning, and acknowledge that mourning in order to transform our pain and anger into militancy.
The queer movement Act UP created the slogan "silence = death", which allowed to turn this mourning and pain for the loss of loved ones into rage. Perhaps in these times where our own extinction is possible the slogan "rebellion or extinction" comes to express something similar, and allows us to transform our pain into rage, into energy for the uprising for the climate and for our life. We have no other alternative.