Of #Manchester, #climate and solidarity. Interview with Prof Julia Steinberger

Last week Professor Julia Steinberger (@JKSteinberger) released a video in support of the students going on strike about climate inaction.

She kindly answered the following questions from Manchester Climate Monthly.


1.  According to your video, Nicola Sturgeon said she was both shamed and inspired to take action by the strikers. How do we (all) make sure that that inspiration lasts and turns into real action?

I think we have to keep learning much more about social movements and struggles, and what makes them enduring, inventive and eventually successful. I believe I’m speaking for most of us when I say that this part of our education is sorely lacking, and that we don’t have enough reference points of practical knowledge regarding past examples, their tactics, challenges, victories and failures. Many social movements have had periods of apparently massive failures and adversity (the “then they fight you” part of Gandhi‘s trajectory of social justice movements) before becoming resurgent and eventually victorious. Specifically, I believe that we need to turn mobilisation into organisation, i.e. large spectacular demonstrations must also become catalysts for a range of on-the-ground efforts and durable groups of advocacy and action which are both geographical and topically focused.

I am very encouraged by the efforts to get city councils to declare climate emergencies, [see climateemergencymanchester.net]  because these are explicitly seen as a tool for longer term engagement. Nothing will be solved overnight by a city council declaring climate emergency, but these declarations are brilliant tools for highlighting inconsistencies: between the policies supported by city councils and the long term health and existence of their inhabitants under climate change.
Climate emergency is incompatible with motorway and airport expansions, inefficient building plans with no renewable energy generation, private parking, wasteful car-based developments etc: it should be used to stop these and roll them back. Climate emergency declarations give the people mobilised by the climate protests a voice and a place to stand in concrete local debates, and hopefully to join up with specific efforts (making cities car-free and good for bikes/public transit, deploying renewables and energy democracy throughout their area, collective efforts for energy-efficient housing, vegan food production/consumption, climate conscious education, entertainment and workplaces, etc etc etc).

2. What would a responsible Council do in respect to climate striking? What is Manchester City Council not doing that it should be doing?

That’s a really interesting question. I think a responsible Council would set up communications with the striking students to make sure that their demands are met, and to ensure good common processes moving forward. The students have legitimate, vital and urgent demands, and simply saying “stay at school, debate these topics in class or school assemblies, and don’t bother us grown-ups any more, or at least until you become of voting age or get elected yourselves” is completely unacceptable from the perspective of democracy and responsible governance, as well as from the perspective of the necessity of radical urgent action on climate change. Unfortunately, the stance of Manchester City Council has been mixed so far: they should be encouraged to change, and in fact must be persuaded to change to take the climate striking students extremely seriously indeed.

A responsible Council would build on the momentum of the student strikes, and the wide social engagement they represent, to set up working groups on large challenges we face (effectively mini-citizens assemblies). It would harness the energy and local engagement of the students to build support and face the challenge of becoming climate-compatible cities: car-free, energy efficient, plant-based food supplies, renewably-energized, supporting virtual and low-carbon technologies. This can (and must) be done, but it requires facing and fundamentally changing existing ways of doing government business, including the existing dominance of car-based culture. A responsible Council would work with the students and its population to educate, debate, and face the immense challenge that becoming consistent with future survival in an age of climate change implies.

I have great hopes for Manchester, because its councillors and MPs have shown a willingness to learn and be educated, including by the students and climate researchers, and because it’s a city with a scrappy “can-do, must-do” attitude, with an unparalleled history of social justice struggles (voting, worker’s rights, women’s rights & suffrage, LGBT rights, immigrant rights …). I believe that once our population, students and politicians understand that climate change is the next (and possibly most daunting) chapter of the social justice struggle, they will develop a large appetite for leading the immense and necessary transformation. But perhaps I’m being over-optimistic. In any case, those of us who are climate-aware, starting with the students, must keep pushing hard, so that the politicians – either leading or following – have no choice but to come along for the ride.

3. What practical support do you think adults in general and academics in particular should be doing to support/alongside the youth climate strikers?

I think we need to see ourselves as being at the service of climate-striking students, so start from their perspective (of needing to loudly communicate and spur the world to urgent action so they can survive in the coming decades). What do they want or need from us? Communication, debate, tools for arguments, structures for organising, initiatives for local engagement, resources for loud mobilisation? Do they want to build awareness and activism for the need for green jobs and a sustainable future that they can participate in, like the extraordinarily successful youth-led Sunrise Movement in the USA? Do they want to lobby politicians, gain voices in the media, change the school curriculum, influence business and private sector? All of the above? Then our job has to be to help them in any way possible, with expertise, contacts, reflection on past and ongoing efforts. And we should avoid any impulse to water down their enthusiasm or message – I’ve heard of parent groups who asked fossil-fuel supporting politicians to come speak to climate strike events.
I’ve also heard of some groups trying to co-opt or divert the direction of the student’s activism, by trying to focus the students on green consumerism, or small-scale interventions (like recycling or using less plastic, rather than the types of changes required to really reduce emissions at scale). That kind of thing should be completely unacceptable.

Academics in particular should:
(a) work with students, going into schools to teach and discuss climate issues, not once or twice, but on an ongoing basis;
(b) work with teachers and parents who are concerned and want to move things forward as well;
(c) provide public support, communication materials, put our networks at the disposal of the students;
(d) give them realistic historical guidance on the kinds of social movements which have achieved success in the past – on the great promise but also great sacrifices of non-violent civil disobedience, for example;
(e) and generally I wish that academics would see themselves as having a new boss: Greta Thunberg and her millions of friends. We will do our best work not for the Research Councils or the University Vice Chancellors or the Research Excellence Framework or any of these established and fossilized ways of directing research: we will do our best work for the students, by answering their questions and helping their actions and goals.

4. What are the root causes, in your opinion, for the 30 years of failure by so-called “adults” on climate change?

Another good question! I ask myself that one every day, and hope that the layers of answers help us accelerate towards a next 30 years of incredibly successful action. I think the answer has many dimensions, and plays out differently according to the spheres of “grown-up” activities (academia, politics, business, living daily life), but have common root causes. For a more comprehensive discussion of this, I would recommend your readers look at “The Collapse of Western Civilization – A View From the Future” by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway.

The root causes of failure, in my view, are first of all a complete misunderstanding of corruption, and how thoroughly fossil-fuelled industries had corrupted our various spheres of work and influence. Scientists thought they could simply inform policy-makers of the dangerous reality of climate change for commensurate action to be taken: nothing could have been more deluded. Scientists really believed that scientific information would be enough to stop the fossil fuel industries from their deadly business model, but of course those industries, in many cases, already understood the scientific reality, and had decided to fight tooth & nail to preserve their profits. The resulting unequal war of corruption, disinformation, climate denial and so on is still playing out, and the fossil fuel industry has been overwhelmingly victorious so far.

The second root cause of failure is that we did not understand the scope of our own ignorance in terms of social movements and social change. The scale and rate of change demanded from our industrial societies is immense: almost overnight, in a few short years, we have to go cold turkey on coal, gas, oil (and also most animal products). That requires more than technological change and a few economic incentives: it implies profound social change as well.

This means a huge effort should be directed at communication, mobilisation, organisation, building a new consensus and new determination for a large social movement for survival. The fact that this was not understood by scientists and others who saw the climate challenge clearly is a fatal failure of our technocratic culture. Decades were lost trying to convince a small number of timid politicians to implement taxes on carbon emissions, when those decades would have been much better spent (and to be fair were in fact spent in this way by many enlightened activists and advocates) in taking the cause of climate change straight to the general public: mobilising against extraction of fossil fuels, like fracking in Lancashire and coal mining in Cumbria, and transforming every aspect of our society to allow our children to grow up in a livable world.

5. Anything else you’d like to say.
Thanks but I think I’ve already gone on for far too long! As Mark Twain said, if I’d had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter. Thanks for your questions and I hope the answers are at least thought provoking, and help us all, students, parents, teachers, politicians, researchers, advance in our own thinking on this in these desperate times.



Prof. Julia Steinberger researches and teaches in the  interdisciplinary areas of Ecological Economics and Industrial  Ecology. Her research examines the connections between resource use  (energy and materials, greenhouse gas emissions) and societal  performance (economic activity and human well-being). She is interested  in quantifying the current and historical linkages between resource use and socioeconomic parameters, and identifying alternative development pathways to guide the necessary transition to a low carbon  society. She is the recipient of a Leverhulme Research Leadership Award for her research project ‘Living Well Within Limits’  <http://lili.leeds.ac.uk/>investigating how universal human well-being  might be achieved within planetary boundaries. She is Lead Author for  the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report with Working Group 3.

Before coming to the University of Leeds in 2011, Prof. Steinberger was a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna (SEC), where she investigated sustainable cities and the links between  material use and economic performance. She has held postdoctoral  positions at the Universities of Lausanne and Zurich, and obtained her  PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has published  over 40 internationally peer-reviewed articles since 2009 in journals  including Nature Climate Change, Nature Sustainability, WIRES-Climate  Change, Environmental Science & Technology, PLOS ONE and Environmental  Research Letters.


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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5 Responses to Of #Manchester, #climate and solidarity. Interview with Prof Julia Steinberger

  1. Jenny says:

    “Grassroots education” is required but this takes time and effort. How do you get the general public to trust you, (rather than believe the propaganda) and motivate them to start educating themselves?

  2. Sam Gunsch says:

    Prof. Steinburger, please permit me to introduce you to like-minded USA’s Jane McAlevey: EXCERPT: ‘ During the past forty years, environmental groups have relied on advocacy, mobilizing, and legal strategies instead of doing the much harder, more powerful work of building a mass movement. The result has been an environmental movement with little in the way of a popular base, easily scapegoated as elitist, and thus lacking the power needed to win.’ https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/03/green-new-deal-union-organizing-jobs

  3. Pingback: Climate & Ecological Emergency Newsletter 1 | Declare a Climate Emergency

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