Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth. Source: Flickr

A climate of dissent: From campaigning to direct action

With so many governments delaying or backtracking on climate action, a new movement has resolved to take matters into its own hands.

Samuel Martín-Sosa* explains how the Glasgow Agreement intends to set the agenda by creating an inventory of polluting infrastructure and through direct action.

The COVID-19 pandemic came at a historic moment of social mobilisation against the climate crisis. The half a million people who demonstrated on the streets of Madrid during the UN’s COP25 climate conference, in December 2019, was the icing on a months-long journey.

Last year, the climate emergency jumped from the streets – where new movements such as Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and By2020WeRiseUp suddenly emerged – to the institutions, with several national and regional governments and parliaments officially declaring a “climate emergency”, while a “green wave” was observed at the 2019 European Parliament elections. In the movement for climate justice there was a certain feeling that the mobilisations had led to a qualitative leap that brought us into a new phase of climate activism.

While protesters were causing gridlock outside, negotiations at the COP25 reached an impasse and came to a standstill that led to a disappointing non-outcome. The contrast between the dynamism on the streets and the ossification in the corridors of power made one thing clear to us: civil society cannot continue waiting. We need to take the lead and take responsibility for action.

Then COVID-19 lockdowns arrived and COP26 was delayed by a year. But the climate crisis has not stopped. What is more, bailouts of polluters, dirty companies, banks that finance the fossil fuels sector, airlines and the automotive industry are troubling signs for the future of climate.

People for planet

A tremendously interesting initiative has emerged: the Glasgow Agreement-Peoples’ Climate Commitment (named for the venue of the forthcoming COP26).

This new movement seeks to abandon the focus on advocating for institutional and political change as the single and main route of action. Faced with institutional impotence, the agreement aims to create a counter power in which organisations and social movements develop their own plan of action and commit to carrying out the emission reductions that governments continue to stall and delay.

In a recently published book, former United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres and her adviser Tom Rivett-Carnac state: “Civil disobedience is not only a moral choice, it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics.”

In fact, nonviolent direct actions have already gained increasing prominence in recent months after the realisation that time is running out. Therefore, the main tool of the Glasgow Agreement will be nonviolent civil disobedience.

The signatory organisations undertake to produce inventories of present and projected infrastructures and sectors within a certain timeframe, listing as a priority which should be closed first. Alongside these national inventories, signatories must present action strategies, describing their closure plans. The initiative generates a joint agenda and framework for signatory organisations in the same country and also relies on solidarity between organisations to carry out inventories and action strategies, including international solidarity. It also allows for cross-border action when, for example, it involves the infrastructure of a company in one country that generates emissions in another.

Legitimising dissent

It is necessary to clarify that participating in the initiative does not necessarily mean that each organisation is obliged to practise civil disobedience, much less that it has to abandon the institutional struggle. It is simply about recognising a wider space for self-organisation and about legitimising these disobedient practices. The Glasgow Agreement will need to bring together organisations that are technically good at conducting inventories with organisations and movements that focus on action on the ground.

Working on concrete infrastructures has the value of anchoring emissions to concrete facilities. Talking about percentages of CO2 in the atmosphere moves the focus away from the sources on land to the air above. In contrast, talking about infrastructure brings the debate on the origin of these emissions back down to Earth.

Moreover, this activism will not only focus on the COP and other political gatherings but it is a year-round work in progress. That said, the COP26, whenever it takes places in 2021, will be an important milestone around which the Glasgow Agreement will gain momentum.

Climate justice for all

The narrative framework of the initiative revolves around climate justice, understanding this as a social and political demand that advocates the redistribution of power, knowledge and well-being.

From this perspective, climate justice recognises the interdependence of all species, integrates the care economy and advocates a just transition for working people employed in sectors that must necessarily be dismantled. It also acknowledges the historical and ecological debt to the communities of the Global South and the need for reparations. In addition, it recognises the need to recover and value the knowledge of indigenous communities.

The discussions around the context of the agreement are taking place now and will continue over the coming months. There is already a draft text, but the work is ongoing and continuously evolving through assemblies and working groups. The idea is for the agreement to be signed around December 2020, sticking to the original timing of the COP26.

The intention is to send a clear signal that a pandemic should not and cannot be used as an excuse to stall climate action.


* Samuel Martín-Sosa is international coordinator at Ecologistas en Acción in Spain