Mobilising a counter-hegemonic climate movement

As concerned citizens mobilise for climate change demonstrations across the world, never has it been more important to embrace a collective demand for ‘system change’ as the surest way to limit global warming and ensure environmental sustainability.


More than two decades after international climate change negotiations officially began, governments have made little progress towards implementing a response that is commensurate with the scale of the crisis. Not only have policymakers all but failed to ensure that global warming will not exceed the two degree target, emissions have soared by 61% since 1990 and scientists predict a rise of between four and six degrees by the end of the century. With a robust outcome for a post-Kyoto treaty looking increasingly unlikely in 2015, the upcoming climate summit in New York can be seen as a desperate attempt by the UN Secretary General to shore up fading political will amongst world leaders.

Pushing for effective government action is also a key objective for the 1000+ civil society organisations that have co-organised The People’s Climate March on the 20-21 September. There are already indications that the rally could signal a decisive turning point in public engagement on this critical issue. More than 100,000 citizens are expected to trail through the streets of New York, and four times as many have already signed Avaaz’s pledge to march in countries across the world – making this potentially the largest climate change demonstration in history. In an article written for Tom Dispatch, three of the event’s key organisers explained that the goal of the mobilisation was to “show that public opinion on climate change has reached a tipping point--that there is a loud, organized, and powerful movement of people in this country who are going to force our politicians to take action on this crisis.”

Far from being a standalone event however, the march is the focal point in an ongoing process designed to build a more effective global climate movement. For example, in a bid to reinforce the campaign’s core message and inspire wider public engagement, the informative and rousing documentary ‘Disruption’ has been released ahead of the demonstration and is freely available to watch online. A far more provocative strategy is scheduled for the day after the march, when a ‘sea of bodies’ will flood Wall Street in an act of non-violent civil disobedience in heart of America’s financial district.

There can be little doubt that the size and influence of the global climate movement is on the rise, most notably in North America, across Europe and in Australia. In particular, campaign groups such as 350.org have proven to be effective at mobilising citizens on environmental causes such as fossil fuel divestment campaigns and halting the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Public concern about the failure of governments to stem global warming is also more palpable, especially since many millions of people are now experiencing first-hand the dire impacts of extreme weather patterns. Despite these trends, the real question is whether September’s global climate demonstrations can build on this momentum to end two decades of political lethargy and shift climate policy in the necessary direction.

As researchers have clearly demonstrated, the scale of public protest on a wide range of local, national and global issues is on an upward trajectory. However, civil society’s influence over environmental policy remains a formidable challenge at a time when a powerful minority of businesses, politicians and high-net-worth individuals maintain business as usual and prevent the reforms that the climate crisis demands. As Robert Weissman (President of Public Citizen) and Annie Leonard (Executive Director for Greenpeace US) explain, “Congress has become a platform for climate change denialists and has endeavored to block any meaningful federal government action…Energy and natural resource companies spent more than $142 million on the 2012 federal elections. Last year, they spent more than $350 million lobbying -- and that was their lowest total in the past half dozen years!”

Clearly, the undemocratic concentration of political power wielded by major corporations has grave ramifications for climate policy - especially when these companies have a vested interest in profiting from the fossil fuel industry. The ability of big business to corrupt the democratic process and capture public policy is well documented, and spreads beyond individual governments to include regional and global governance bodies such as the United Nations. Last year’s international climate change negotiations in Poland, for example, were sponsored by companies whose profits are largely dependent on the continued use of dirty fuels, including some of the world’s biggest energy, mining and aviation companies.  

Embracing system change on a shared planet

As long as policy decisions face undue influence from the corporate sector, international attempts to mitigate climate change and reverse decades of environmental abuse are likely to remain dangerously insufficient. It’s within this context that more than 330 civil society organisations and people’s movements published a joint statement denouncing the corporate takeover of the upcoming UN Climate Summit. The declaration represents the voice of an estimated 200 million concerned citizens and warns against the prominent role that corporations have been assigned during the talks, as well as the ‘false’ (profit-oriented) solutions to climate change that these companies typically pursue.

Perhaps most importantly, the statement advocates for wholesale systemic change as an overarching demand, remarking that “the industrial model of increased extraction and productivism for the profit of a few is the prime cause of the problem.” The document goes on to stipulate that we need “a new system that seeks harmony between humans and nature and not an endless growth model that the capitalist system promotes in order to make more and more profit.” The measures outlined in the statement include achieving binding international commitments to keep warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade, and leaving more than 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground – objectives that would necessitate a metamorphosis in public policy. Together with the call to localise production and consumption where possible, develop community-owned forms of renewable energy, and dismantle the war industry and military infrastructure, the statement succinctly encapsulates civil society’s growing demand for comprehensive structural reform on a global scale.   

The mounting call for system change has also been given a significant boost by Naomi Klein in her latest book ‘This Changes Everything’. The activist and bestselling author presents a stark choice between two mutually exclusive options: maintaining capitalism or saving planet earth. The problem, as Klein rightly identifies, lies in our continuing fixation on economic growth and corporate profit, an environmentally damaging and unjust free trade regime, and the pursuit of market-based solutions to our ecological problems. These broad ideological measures remain central tenets of neoliberalism and they fundamentally conflict with the solutions needed to address global warming. Klein maintains that the only way to preventing runaway climate change is not by returning to Keynesian policies, but through a root and branch reconstruction of our global economic system.

Across the world, an increasing number of environmentalists, global justice activists and concerned citizens hold the view that transformative structural change is the only viable route to sharing the planet more equitably and sustainably. For there to be any chance of overcoming corporate hegemony over climate policy, it is therefore imperative that this rising demand for a wholesale reorganisation of our economic systems becomes a clarion call during the people’s climate march and catalyses a wider public debate on the need to change almost everything.   

Photo credit: Andrew, flickr creative commons