An Audacious Toolkit: Actions Against Climate Breakdown (Part 2: D is for Divest)

Taking the first step towards acting against climate breakdown and ecological crisis can be daunting, but it’s essential that we all learn to do it, in our own ways. In Part 1, I highlighted the importance of collective action, including

  • A for Advocacy (climate communication),
  • B for Barricade (keeping fossil fuels in the ground) and
  • C for Civil Disobedience (acting to change government direction).

But there are (at least) three more letters to the alphabet of collective climate action, read on …

Becoming part of something bigger

If you are new to collective action, the first step is probably the most difficult one. It involves reaching out: picking up the phone, writing an email, contacting someone on facebook or twitter. Your goal here is to find ways to participate actively, to talk to others, prepare actions, build a movement. You will be asked to come to a meeting (easy!) or organize one yourself (harder, but surprisingly do-able, lots of practical support exists).

And once you’re at that meeting, or in that group, congratulations! You are now part of something bigger.

Any work within a group involves learning, discussion and compromise, dealing with diverse personality types, and trying to make progress in murky situations where the “best” way forward is unknowable in advance. The only general guidance I can give here is to insist that your group is led on a basis of kindness, mutual respect and good humour, is welcoming to newcomers of all horizons, provides you with avenues for action (not just endless internal meetings!), and is not given to being over-distracted by purity, perfection or circular firing squads. (Basically, avoid the People’s Front of Judea!)

And once you are acting, congratulations! You are now an activist: you are acting to change the course of history, rather than being a simple bystander to disaster.

As you navigate these new spheres, you will be making friends and comrades, people who are ready to join you and work together for a better world. People who will stick with you and your family, who will become shining lights in your life in dark moments to come. It’s more than worth it: it’s life-giving.

What types of actions will you want to engage in? Three broad categories were covered in Part 1 of this series (Advocacy, Barricade and Civil Disobedience), three more are described below.

Three more letters for the Alphabet of Collective Climate Action

D is for Divest

Divestment is the financial equivalent of keeping fossil fuels in the ground (where they all should stay): it means cutting off the monetary pipeline to fossil industries. Why do we need to do this? Better late than never, this week the International Energy Agency made a clear and uncompromising statement: building anything that emits CO2 is utterly incompatible with addressing climate change and maintaining a planet where human survival and civilization is possible.

But fossil fuel industries are still planning and building, right now:

  • new extractive facilities (such as the Preston New Road fracking site just north of where I live in Manchester);
  • new transportation facilities, such the Trans Mountain pipeline in Canada;
  • new fossil-fueled power plants to produce electricity for industry.

According to a recent study, the fossil infrastructure expansion of multiple countries threatens to put global warming on course to over 5 degrees C, a level incompatible with human civilization, and possibly even human survival. Why, right when we should be shutting down all fossil power plants, pipelines, planes and pits, is this sector still expanding?

The answer is simple: it’s the money, honey. The fossil industry has investment money, which it needs to continue its deadly activities. These investment flows are legacies of past investments and subsidies, as well as evidence of criminal corruption at the highest levels of our government (a politician who maintains cash flows to the fossil industry is prioritizing short term profits to the richest predatory a$$holes on earth, and is putting you, your friends and your families in deadly danger — there is simply no other way to put it). The level of public subsidies to fossil fuel industries is shockingly high, reaching 6.5% of global GDP. If we just stopped subsidizing the fossil industry, and put the same level of support to renewable energy, we’d be well on our way to turning the tide on climate change.

The good news is that we, each and every one of us, can cut off this cash flow, here and around the world. The fossil divestment movement is one of the most effective and successful forms of collective action on climate change; it is gaining in leaps and bounds, and you can participate at all levels:

  • Your personal or business bank account, if it’s in any old bank, might well be contributing to destroying the planet. You can check at “Fossil Banks No Thanks”, and then find a more future-compatible alternative. Many excellent ethical and fossil-free banks exist around the world: there is no reason why, by this evening, your money couldn’t be taken out of fossil hands and put into positive alternatives.
  • Your pension fund and state social security are probably invested in fossil fuels: you & your colleagues can join up to make sure that the investment you are making for your old age isn’t in fact destroying future life on earth (logic!). Many pension funds have already divested.
  • Your employer. You can influence the investments made by your employers and show that your work is not tied to the future of the fossil industry. In the UK, many universities have already divested from fossil fuels, for instance (although sadly not my own! Shame on you, University of Leeds!), thereby demonstrating their coherent commitment to future human civilization.
  • Your city, region and national government investment. You can influence these in multitudes of ways, including campaigns through schools (this is a good way to start talking about climate change and getting students positively involved), community & sports groups (friends of local park, dog walkers, pub quiz, cricket players: they all have in common a wish for survival), and so on. Many cities, regions and even countries have already divested from fossil fuels, and more are planning to do so. They can all use your advocacy and help — the movement comes from below. Even if individual politicians want to do something on their own, they will be able to do nothing without vocal constituents (you!) shouting out their encouragement.
You get the idea: the sooner we turn off the money spigot to the fossil industry, the sooner their plans for expansion, and even continuation of current emissions, become nonviable.

E is for Election

Stick figures represent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (sorry!) and a mash-up of Caroline Lucas & Molly Scott-Cato (even more sorry!) because my artistic skillz are EXTREMELY limited … if you have better ones, and this pains you, you might want to help illustrate future posts? Thx.

I have to admit it! I’ve been oscillating between existential doom and euphoric giddiness for the past two weeks (a nice change from pure existential doom, it must be said). In the last month, I have witnessed the build up of a beautiful, diverse, committed, passionate, creative, non-violent civil disobedience movement on climate breakdown and ecological crisis in the UK (where I normally live and work): the Extinction Rebellion. That part really belongs in Part 1 of this series, on Civil Disobedience, but it’s so exciting, it’s worth mentioning over and over.

Thousands Extinction Rebellion activists risk arrest & bring London to a standstill, 17/11/2018.

And in the last two weeks, we had the the midterm elections in the USA. I am a US citizen, and I was able to vote for Ayanna Pressley, a young, progressive Black woman as my Representative, and she WON. I can’t even tell you what that means. Even better, other young, diverse, people of color and eco-social progressives won ALL OVER. (That’s a thing we have now in the USA! Eco-socialism. Amazing!) And top of the pack, on climate action and social justice, is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Watch this video of her supporting civil disobedience on her first day on Capitol Hill, fall in love, come back to read the rest?

Representative Ocasio-Cortez supporting Green New Deal activists.

And she is not alone. Earlier that day, incoming Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American and one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to the US Congress, gave a rousing & touching speech to the Sunrise Movement Green New Deal activists (the same ones occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office in the clip above). Now you’re in love with two amazing women, but please do keep reading?

Representative Tlaib giving a speech to Green New Deal activists.

So E is for Election. You can demand that your representatives, councilors, mayors & MPs, sign up to ambitious and socially just platforms, like the criteria for the Green New Deal, that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put forward: including transitioning to 100% renewable energy within 10 years, and a green job guarantee program. You can have representatives who are also activists, and engage in civil disobedience, like Molly Scott-Cato explains here.

You can use the ballot box, initiatives and referendums to push forward an eco-social agenda, as Andrea Chalupa and Sarah Kendzior advocate in this incredible episode of their podcast Gaslit Nation:

Every election and ballot initiative is a golden opportunity to advocate for climate action: to educate, to mobilize, to build a local movement and support. And remember that in weeks, months and decades ahead, the strength of your community bonds, the face-to-face links and conversations (even when you don’t agree!) will make a difference in how strongly you can protect yourselves from the social, economic and environmental climate damage to come.

And perhaps most importantly, you can run for office yourself. Yes, you. Who? YOU. For which office? Whichever you want!

School governor, dog catcher, overseer of traffic cones … it all counts. Or go straight for national office, like Alexandria did — what’s the worst that could happen? You could become part of this wave of eco-social action, and move the world steadily towards a course of survival. You don’t have to be young, or a woman, or of color (although of course those can’t hurt!), but you do have to have an appetite for talking to people, being brave, making connections, arguing your case and their case passionately against the strongest forces in the world. Go for it! Encourage your friends and colleagues to run for office, support the heck out of their campaigns. What’s the alternative? Simply that someone else will hold office: someone who cares less, is less competent, and will give the future of your community less of their commitment and power. So go for it.

L is for Lawsuit

L is for lawsuit, because it turns out the law is a strong force in our countries and international contexts. Who knew? Well, a whole bunch of ace human and environmental rights lawyers and legal experts knew, that’s who. They are the real-life Justice League of planet Earth. The legal challenges enforce action on climate change are multiple, and have won remarkable victories. Just this week, for example, the European Court declared a form of hidden subsidy from the UK government to fossil power plants to be illegal.

Not only are lawsuits effective in their own right, in compelling governments and agencies to act, but they raise the debate on climate action: they bring it into the media in a strong context of right and wrong [which is a refreshing departure from the usual media stories of enthusiasm for a specific technofix, belly-aching over economics costs of climate investments (when the economic cost of inaction is an entire livable planet, for Pete’s sake), or even worse, bringing climate deniers on the air to advance an agenda of environmental destruction for corporate profit].

You can get involved in supporting existing actions near you (including through fundraising: legal actions are not cheap), starting a new one as plaintiffs, or highlighting their arguments and victories when you are advocating for climate action. Below, a few of the most notable lawsuits and initiatives I’ve learned about recently. I am far (so, so, so very far) from an expert in any of this, so don’t be mad if I’ve left out a really important one please? Just leave it in links below, and I’ll add it when I get a chance.

  1. PlanB is a powerhouse UK group leading legal actions against the UK government on climate action and airport expansion.
  2. Urgenda won a climate case against the government in the Netherlands, compelling them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately. This case is groundbreaking, and made governments around the world sit up and take notice.
  3. Mission LifeForce is a relatively new organization in the UK, with an impressive line-up of support and a strong, well, mission. The other lawsuits discussed here are civil cases: Mission LifeForce seeks to bring criminal cases for the death and destruction resulting from fossil industries and government inaction, under the banner of an international crime of ecocide. Join them and their important work!
  4. Juliana vs. the United States, often known as the children’s climate lawsuit, is a legal challenge to the US government to act on climate change in line with its duty of care to children. It is brought by the Children’s Trust, along with Earth Guardians. Just weeks ago, it was allowed to go forward by the US supreme court.

The Juliana case brought to light a crystal clear example of why the lawsuit strategy is so important. In arguing against the case, and seeking for it to be simply dismissed, the US government argued “that there is no right to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life’ ”. As George Monbiot put it:

The clarity of children arguing in court for the right to a safe future life could not be a greater contrast to the lack of care and responsibility of their government. Lawsuits such as these not only have a great chance of effecting immediate action, through rulings or even just the anticipation of possible rulings, but they also force the position of government out into the open, where they can’t hide behind vague statements. A government, like Trump’s, or Theresa May’s, that abdicates all responsibility for protecting its current and future citizens, does not deserve deference. These lawsuits thus serve as further justification for a movement based on civil disobedience, since they expose governments fundamental interests as opposed to those of the people.

The Audacious Toolkit Climate Action Trilogy!

This post is Part 2 of a trilogy! Part 1, covering the crucial importance of collective action, and A is for Advocacy, B is for Barricade and C is for Civil Disobedience is linked here.

Part 3, on the connections between individual and collective action, and what kinds of individual action matter most, will come “soon” (where soon = the number of mornings I manage to wake up at 4am to work on this stuff, so probably in 2–3 weeks). [Update 26/11/2018: Part 3 is published here!]

In the mean time, if you want to read some other stuff I wrote, on climate change, capitalism and democracy, see here?

[Updated 20/11/2018 to add the Fossil Banks No Thanks section.]