[Climate and Energy Justice] Grassroots Climate Justice
Grassroots Global Justice Alliance was a key actor in organizing the 2014 people’s climate mobilization in New York City. In this past COP meeting, they were part of the “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm” (It Takes Roots) delegation. As the Korean environmental movement prepares to re-jump start its climate justice movement, it seemed a great opportunity to talk with Cindy Wiesner, its national coordinator, about the climate justice movement in the US and globally the COP 21 and extract some of their lessons. Climate Justice Cindy explains that the environmental justice movement emerged to address the economic blind spots of an environmental movement focused on the environment but not the impacted people. Just as the environmental justice movement seeks justice and solutions for the directly impacted, so does the climate justice movement. While the goal of shutting down extractive economies and industries is fundamentally the same with other environmental organizations, those in the climate justice movement also consider the economic origins and impact:
“The Sierra Club has been touting celebrations shutting 150 coal plants in the US. One of the things we say is that there is a politics of geography. Often the coal plants are the economic lifeline of that whole community. If you shut down a coal plant, without thinking about what happens to those workers, to that community, to that region in a very serious way then, that’s not really a success.”
By organizing locally those first and most affected by climate change – “the poor nations and within that people of color, globally and in the United States” – climate justice struggles ensure “a just transition” that address their needs.
Supplant the Old with the New The Black Mesa Water Coalition is an inspiring example of a climate justice struggle. It began its struggle in 2011, and its goals are to close down the coal mines in the Black Mesa Native Indigenous reservation, hold the coal company responsible for the damage they have done, and build an economy around renewable energy. Instead of simply closing down the coal plants which employ 10,000 mostly indigenous workers, the struggle focuses on “a just transition” to a renewable energy based local economy. As part of its “Our Power Campaign,” GGJ connects these struggles for a “just transition” with the student led investment/divestment campaigns targeting university investments in polluting companies. “We have to not just invest in clean energy but reinvest in those communities where a lot of that damage actually originally took place. Places like Black Mesa Water Coalition, so that money can actually go back to communities so that it can create alternatives.”
Winning requires changing local government rules by shutting down loopholes that companies exploit and creating greater community participation. It also involves building broad coalitions. “We have to work with labor with the environmentalists, the other racial and economic justice sectors not doing work around the environment…We work with people that we have political differences with, tactical differences with…It’s important to think about what is the bigger we.”
Paris A year before the COP 21, as soon as Paris was chosen as the site, over a hundred French civil society organizations (from labor movements to farmers to the faith sector, from progressive to radical) came together. On August 2014, they invited about 50 international organizations, including Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and Climate Justice Alliance, to be a part of Climate Coalition 21. The purpose was building and strengthening the movement independent of the COP meetings and mobilizing before and during the COP 21 to raise a different perspective. Its plan of escalating actions from the end of November to December 12 “all got turned on its head on November 13th with the attacks.” The state of emergency proposed for 12 days was extended to three months making it illegal for more than two people to hold a sign. Despite the “deep disorientation” from the protest ban, civil society organized a variety of protests from the symbolic shoe action by AVAAZ, to the 10,000 people chain defying the ban. The mobilizations were dedicated to climate change and peace to honor the victims of the attacks. The protesters were driven by the irrepressible “need to stand up against the illegitimate criminalization of protest. We had a right to protest when our lives were being negotiated away.”
Post Paris Many organizations came to Paris with little illusions about the COP negotiations. As expected the Paris agreement yielded little and was deemed a failure: While “200 countries agreeing something was wrong was historic,” the agreement’s non-binding nature that fails to hold developed countries accountable was “a failure for humanity, impacted people, and the planet.” “Hijacked by corporate interests,” the agreement focused on technological fixes, and treaty schemes that would result in land grabs and violate indigenous people’s rights. As regards to civil society, “I don’t think we came out as Climate Coalition 21 stronger out of the Paris agreement, but I feel good about It Takes Roots and the Via Campesina and the fisherfolk the role of impacted communities was made clear.”
Unity Amidst Division If civil society is to exert pressure on future COP negotiations, it will have to unite. Cindy explains the various dividing lines:
“Probably the biggest dividing line is carbon markets. ‘We don’t have viable alternatives this is what we have. Let’s work to reform it.’ That’s one huge dividing line. ‘REDD, Climate Smart Agriculture. This is what we have. Let’s try to make it work. Indigenous people should be paid for protecting their forests.’ There’s the folks that really believe in the COP process and don’t really believe an alternative is viable. That’s another dividing line. Then there’s the folks that see it as strictly ecological. And don’t necessarily see it connected to other social and economic issues.”
Despite the dividing lines the French effort to create unity “was huge: over 150 organizations including international ones. That was not an easy task. There is a lot there to really examine the broad front approach (what do you gain what do you give up).”
Advice to Other Movements “At the end of the day it is important to build critical consciousness around climate change and look at it from an intersectional perspective…The UN is an important contested space, but we also have to work outside that space. One of the things that has been important to us is connecting with other sectors, particularly the racial and gender justice. To broaden it beyond the people that traditionally care about the environment.
There will be strategic conversations whether regionally or hemispherically. That is something to keep paying attention to. The next COP meeting will be in Morocco. The people in the Americas, the people in the Arab world will begin to have those discussions. The tricky part is having these conversations. How do they end up being influenced and shared back to folks at the local level?
I feel very hopeful. I feel very inspired by the It Takes Roots Delegation. Our movements represent a vision for life and resilience. One of the things we are clear about is a continued call for mobilization at the local, national, and regional level. The Paris agreement falls way short of where we need to be. We are aligning with the system change not climate change perspective. We have to be able to have those discussions and conversations at all levels.”
 Cindy Wiesner is the national coordinator of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance which “connects the dots” (through education and analysis) for its 58 mass based member organizations and serves as a bridge to international movements. Its framework “no war, no warming, build an economy for the people and the planet” reflects its roots in the anti-globalization, anti-racism, independent worker center, and environmental justice movements.