Greta Thunberg secured her place in history when she spoke at the UN – not as a polite participant, but as an accusing prosecutor.
By that time, her story was already taking on mythical proportions. In less than a year, her school strike stand had encouraged millions to push past the passivity and despair smothering environmental activism. By initiating what became mass global demonstrations, she became a symbol of hope for the future of humanity. She was the natural representative of her generation at the UN Climate Summit in New York.
There’s a close correlation between the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the frequency of useless “climate summits” called by the global ruling classes. Some will still remember the 2015 Paris climate summit, mostly because Donald Trump so ostentatiously withdrew from its agreements. But who remembers the 2014 Lima climate summit, or Warsaw’s in 2013? Durban, Bali, Berlin, Kyoto and Rio de Janeiro have all hosted similar events, stretching back to the early 1990s.
Attending climate summits is nice work if you can get it: senior state officials and their entourages have spent the last couple of decades flying to scenic locations all around the world, networking and enjoying all the perks of diplomatic travel. When it’s time to go home, they issue a statement reiterating that one day they simply must do something about all this climate change stuff. It’s a little like a global gang of kidnappers setting off every few years to attend an all-expenses-paid global kidnappers’ summit to issue a statement about how sooner or later they probably should let go of all those hostages.
For a young activist like Greta Thunberg – feted by the liberal press, at the head of a major protest movement but relatively disconnected from broader activist networks – flashy summits might be seductive. You’ve got the ear of the powerful because of your activism. And now you are their honoured guest: the key decision makers who control the world are listening to you. Everyone’s in the room together, apparently ready to learn from one another. Let the best ideas prevail!
If Thunberg allows the bloated imperialist bureaucracy of the UN to rehabilitate its image by harnessing her moral integrity, she stands to gain a lot personally. Desperate politicians such as Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau have raced to schedule photo opportunities with her. For individuals like Thunberg, it’s much harder to resist co-option by the elite if you don’t have a vision for global change that goes beyond agreements of the powerful.
In her short life of activism, Thunberg has not yet been sharply tested. But whatever comes next, and however her trajectory unfolds, it will be to her eternal credit that she refused such co-option in New York. She came not to bring peace, but a sword. She used her UN platform to focus attention on the assembled perpetrators. Her speech will probably be remembered most of all for her catchcry: “How dare you?” It provided a welcome model of righteous anger to a movement that can at times seem obsequious. It recognised that climate change is happening in a society divided into perpetrators and victims, and in which the perpetrators hold big-ticket summits to mollify the victims.
Thunberg has form. “I don’t care about being popular”, she told a similar gathering in Poland last year. “It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few ... We have not come here to beg world leaders to care ... We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”
Thunberg is no revolutionary, but socialists could learn much from the way she uses official platforms to disrupt the cosy environments into which she has been invited. To the extent that she can, she speaks to the millions who aren’t there: to encourage her supporters to apportion blame to the world’s rulers, and to see them as enemies. In this, she is more advanced than many of her supporters around the world.
International summits like those hosted at the UN create an illusion: that our elite rulers have transcended the petty concerns of day-to-day political battles. Humanity’s enlightened leaders have come together to act in the common good of all. We ordinary people aren’t supposed to debate politics in our daily lives: sharp political debate is the job of professional politicians, and it takes place in parliament. And that debate is itself left behind when it’s time for a very serious summit to discuss climate change. Climate change, many climate activists will tell you, is “above politics”.
“It is absolutely imperative that we not make [climate change] a political issue”, according to the wisdom of Arnold Schwarzenegger. “This is not the right versus the left because there is no liberal air or conservative air. We all breathe the same air.” Similarly, the editors of New Scientist, following the wave of Extinction Rebellion-led protests in April, wrote: “It is tempting ... to modulate [climate] action through the prism of pre-existing beliefs: of right versus left, of individual versus collective, of market versus state. But climate change is, emphatically, not a political issue”. The founders of climate change action network Extinction Rebellion have also declared the crisis “beyond politics”, a belief that underpins their call for the creation of “citizens’ assemblies” made up of randomly chosen people with no background in professional politics to deal with the issue.
The climate crisis is caused by human activity. Its solution will require an enormous transformation of the entire planet’s social organisation. Its direct perpetrators are still financing misinformation campaigns and encouraging conspiracy theories to deflect attention from the truth. What does it mean to say such a crisis is “above politics”?
In some ways, rejecting “politics” is the beginning of wisdom. Mainstream parliamentary politics has comprehensively failed humanity. Politicians have proven themselves unable to deal with the climate crisis. Some have flagrantly denied the truth, acted as paid shills for the fossil fuel industry and promoted conspiracy theories to benefit the polluting businesses that fund their election campaigns. Others have hypocritically asserted their passionate belief in the need for climate action, only to promote discredited, ineffectual market-based scams while jetting from summit to summit. In election after election, brazenly evil climate deniers take on hypocritical do-nothings.
In capitalism, strict boundaries are placed on politics. You can engage in politics according to certain rules: mostly by electing representatives to state institutions. Politics –fighting and forcing the world to be different – is restricted to the office-holders of the capitalist state. Ordinary people aren’t meant to do “politics” themselves – say, by taking strike action to demand social change. “Politics” is reserved for those highly paid politicians, their consultants and advisers, who together command the armies, the police and the spy agencies that keep the whole world in chains.
All capitalist politicians, left and right, are committed to maintaining this state of affairs. But that system is creating a crisis it cannot resolve. So capitalist politics, exemplified by the gatherings of climate criminals in their many summits, looks more and more like an insulting farce. No matter how much politicians huff and puff, debate and even denounce each other, as long as their system remains, the destruction of the natural world will continue. We need to build a movement that can smash up the social, economic and political structures that have created the impending climate disaster.
This is why calls like those of the New Scientist editors to transcend divisions of “right versus left, of individual versus collective, of market versus state” are an impediment to achieving climate justice. For decades, too many have believed that market-based policies, the adjustment of individual habits and the enlightened actions of state officials are the best hope we have. Those ideas urgently need to be defeated, and the strategies associated with them abandoned.
Other equally political questions are coming to the fore as the crisis develops: will the climate movement be internationalist and pro-migrant, or will it accept harsher borders? Will it seek the support of the capitalist class, or confront and defeat it? Some want to ignore social divisions, hoping that society can be reorganised along ecologically sustainable lines despite them. That is impossible. Some hope that by simply presenting the evidence to the powerful, we can prove to those who run the system that they have a moral obligation to act. The past three decades show that to be false. They can’t be enlightened: they must be swept aside.
The climate crisis isn’t “above politics”. Capitalist politics has caused it, and we need anti-capitalist politics to end it. We don’t need more enlightened governments, or more summits of the elite. That kind of “politics” must be rejected. We need something different: an alternative to fight for, a sense of who are our allies and enemies and an understanding of what tactics and strategies are needed to win.
What’s the alternative? A society that isn’t run for the accumulation of profits. A world in which people can collectively decide how we live and interact with nature. Our enemies are those who work to protect the power of the wealthy few. Our tactics and strategies must build the collective power of the oppressed and exploited. We don’t want to join hands with elites at their summits or write policies with them in their parliaments: we make common cause among the oppressed, organise ourselves and fight to overthrow those who have trashed the planet.
We reject the “politics” that means seeking power in capitalist society, but we want every act of defiance, resistance, and rebellion to be part of a broader battle for a new society. That’s politics of a revolutionary kind.