This email interview below, conducted with Elidh Robb, a climate activist currently based in Brussels, takes a slightly different format from the usual ones. Elidh was sent the questions as a batch, and replied. I (Marc Hudson, editor of MCFly) replied and then Elidh had the opportunity to respond. This was done early last week, before the Madrid COP (number 25 – the clue is in the number) ended as a damp squib.
The issues raised here – about what the climate “movement” (if such a beast can be said to exist) focuses on next, how it deploys its limited resources, are crucial. If you have comments – especially disagreements – please use the comments field!
- Who are you, what do you ‘do’ around climate change (that’s the easy one).
My name is Eilidh Robb, I’m 24 years old and originally from Scotland, although I’m now living in Brussels. For the last three years I’ve been volunteering with the UK Youth Climate Coalition in various roles, campaigning at the national and international level. Alongside this I completed a Masters degree in Global Environmental Law & Governance, and I now work for an environmental NGO in Belgium.
My name is Marc Hudson. I am old – I remember clearly the climate change issue (or ‘the greenhouse effect’ as it was then also known) back in 1988. Since 1991 I have been convinced that our species would not respond with the necessary actions. I’ve recently completed a PhD at the University of Manchester, which looked at how Australian incumbent actors stopped and then watered down carbon pricing between 1989 and 2011. As well as doing Manchester Climate Monthly (since 2011, and before that Manchester Climate Fortnightly 2008-2010) I am actively involved in a group called Climate Emergency Manchester.
- What has been the value/use/outcome of the UNFCCC process in general over the last almost-30 years?
Eilidh: In both my experience, and learning (having studied the UNFCCC) the UN climate talks like most international level negotiations are a double edged sword. On the one hand, and particularly having attended 4 conferences myself, it’s impossible not to be furious and frustrated at the lack of ambition, progress and urgency when watching national representatives argue over a single word. However, on the other hand, this space (although definitely not perfect) is a really unique opportunity to change the way we approach the climate emergency globally, and although it has a long way to go, this kind of global agreement to actually get up and do something is pretty significant. What this process lacks in radical ambition it makes up for in setting precedent and forcing global governments to recognise that this issue won’t simply go away.
Marc: If you measure it by opportunities for fine speeches and activist opportunities, a massive success. If you measure it by how much effect it has had on human emissions of greenhouse gases, its failure has been tragic (and if the consequences weren’t so biblical, I’d use the word comical).
I’d also argue that if the UNFCCC process were fit for purpose for global-movement-building, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I’d point to research [“The ‘efficacy dilemma’of transnational climate activism: the case of COP21 ” by Joost De Moor (full disclosure, Joost is a colleague/friend) about the failure of the Paris process to build that international movement. I think that it COULD be, but it hasn’t been, and that the tail might be wagging the dog- because we can do these stunts, and we have done them – we think that we should…
Eilidh: You’ve certainly got a point there. The UNFCCC process can seem like, and to a large extent is, a performance of global “giving a shit”. But I’d like to think I’m perhaps more hopeful that this performance is having an impact.
It’s not a perfect process by any means, but since the Convention was created in 1992, the way that global leaders have come together to deal with this gargantuan problem has been improving. Slowly, but surely – and I think I have faith in activists to help push that change in the right direction, and quickly.
- What in your opinion are the benefits and pitfalls of ‘activist’/social movement involvement in the COP process?
Activism in the COP space is unique. It is very reactive and often sits in stark contrast to the rest of the activities happening at the UNFCCC. But in my opinion, it’s still slightly plagued with technical focus and technical specifics that mean we fail to acknowledge the full reality of the climate emergency, and the extent of the risk we are creating for the worlds most vulnerable by not taking action.
That’s definitely not to say that actions focused on climate justice, reparations, and the full extent of the problem don’t happen – they do, and are often really wonderful examples of global solidarity and support, with representatives from communities already impacted by climate change taking front and centre. But the media and national governments are failing to see these actions in the same way they do technical recommendations, and while both are important, I would love the climate activist movement to be able to break-though the media circus and carry the inspiring messages of global solidarity to people not involved, or unaware of the technicalities of the COP process.
Marc: I agree the COP actions often get bogged down in the technicalities – activists want to show that they are not rent-a-mob, that they do actually understand the nuances of the policy debates. The media are unlikely to ever give them a fair hearing, for reasons that Herman and Chomsky refer to in their “Propaganda model” of media in democratic socieites.
To take a step back from the climate issue – Back in the late 1990s the so-called “anti-globalisation” movement was in full swing. One major tactic was to attempt to blockade meetings of the G8, the IMF, the World Bank and so on. This process came to be known as “summit-hopping”, and a critique of it emerged. Those who had the knowledge, the networks, the time, the physicality, the arrestabililty to attend these summits and gain activist status tokens, tended to be, oddly enough – white, middle-class, able-bodied, westerners with university educations (of course there were exceptions). Meanwhile, in their home cities, campaigns against gentrification, local air quality, police brutality, community centre closures were struggling to get anyone involved…. I don’t think, fwiw, that the critique of summit-hopping is outdated. In fact, in 2005, after the G8 Summit in Scotland, the Camp for Climate Action emerged… However, 4 years later, those people…. summit-hoped to the COP at Copenhagen…
Eilidh: I take your point there, but I’m hopeful that the mainstreaming of the climate crisis is starting to persuade global leaders and industry to always expect resistance. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to get leaders to sit up and notice, than to plaster the crisis across the sky!
- What are the main threats and opportunities with the Glasgow COP, the first one to be held on UK soil?
Eilidh: Glasgow is going to be interesting. At the UN level 2020 will be the first year for actually putting what they promised into practice. That means national egos will be enormous, and backhanded compliments rife. For the UK in particular I think we can expect a lot of sickening self-congratulation (I’d advice taking a drink each time they say “world leaders”) and quite an uncomfortable UK focus, given the global reality of the climate crisis.
Apart from the usual political nonsense, Glasgow COP is going to be a really critical time for UK activists to come together in ways that we haven’t really before. It’s going to force us to learn form those who understand the UNFCCC circus, but also listen to those who see beyond the UN and can look to the bigger picture of climate justice. For me, my biggest concern going into COP26 is that UK activists will get so caught up in our own national whirlwind of Brexit, “Clean Growth” and the UK’s pitfalls in terms of climate action, that we will loose sight of the gross reality. The UK is historically responsible for one of the largest shares in greenhouse gas emissions globally, and we are stinking rich as a result – yet, to this day, we continue to fund fossil fuel projects in the global south under the UK Foreign Aid budget. Do we have NO shame?
My hope is that activists will not erase the voices of those who will be most impacted by the UK, and other Global North countries failure to act. I hope to hear no one pulling the “China Card” and instead seeing activists coming together globally to raise the voices of the vulnerable, and less represented in both our own British societies, and globally. The UK needs to take some BIG responsibility, and we should not lose sight of this global responsibility as we call for action!
Marc: I think Glasgow will be, in the short term the “salvation” of the UK climate organisations currently active (I would hesitate to use the word ‘movement’ to describe them- I don’t think they are that co-ordinated or collaborative). I think Glasgow will give them the opportunity to appear to be co-ordinated.
And I think Glasgow will suck most of the oxygen out of the room for other debates, other issues, for the nitty-gritty of movement-building as opposed to mobilising.
And so many hopes and expectations will be pinned on Glasgow that it cannot possibly meet them. And that dashing of expectations, combined with physical and mental exhaustion following what by then will be over two years of high intensity activism for many, will probably (not certainly – only probably) lead to a crisis for many, where they burn out and walk away, leaving a small rump of demoralised activists trying to maintain momentum, probably futilely.
Eilidh: I agree, placing too much emphasis on Glasgow is not useful nor helpful. But luckily there has been talk among many activists I work with of creating a longer-term vision of collaborative work between UK activists. Striving specifically to see Glasgow as the start of the work, not the end – trying to account for burnout, defeat, and disillusionment.
Maybe it’s because I’m not at COP this year and I’ve forgotten the realities of its exhaustion, frustration and rage – but I think if UK activists can start to look around them to international allies, it could be an energising moment rather than demoralising.
- What else should “activists” be doing, in terms of non-COP activity.
Eilidh: Well, I’ve already hinted that we have a global role to play in this crisis. The UK needs to do SO MUCH MORE, and we need to ramp up the political pressure so that our governments feel embarrassed. And not just about holding a disposable coffee cup Boris… That means joining together to put pressure on areas that we can change, and starting to fill gaps on policies we haven’t yet done enough on: like air travel, housing, and waste.
I would love to see activists coming together across the country to learn from each other, inspire one another and welcome our global allies with open arms – recognising the inherent social injustices tied up in the climate crisis and re-energising and supporting one another in what is going to be a long and hard fought fight.
Marc: I think we should talk about what we do between 9 and 20 November 2020 in our own towns and cities. How do we turn the media attention on climate change during those two weeks (and there will be attention), onto local issues around refufee rights, biodiversity, air quality, climate mitigation, adaptation, social justice, gender justice. How can we make it easier rather than harder for people who want to get involved without having to buy a coach/train ticket to Glasgow, find accommodation, worry about getting arrested, use up scarce annual leave etc etc.
To be clear – I think this won’t happen. The emotional needs, the organisational norms, the institutional momentum is behind big marches and other set pieces in Glasgow at the end of the next year. That will, in my opinion, be a disaster, but I am now inured to social movement stupidity, since for all my adult life, social movement organisations have been failing to cope with the horror that is climate change.
Eilidh: It will be hard, I don’t think anyone is underestimating that. But I like to think your vision is not as far away as you think. At the UK Youth Climate Coalition we’ve been strategizing a lot, and while we cannot pretend to make huge waves of impact, we want to focus on creating resources and skill shares to make the COP more accessible, more relatable and more meaningful for local people – so that they too can see the global impacts of this crisis we are living in. Our plan doesn’t fix all the problems, but I think it’s a good place to start.