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How a global ‘climate non-cooperation campaign’ could strike at the heart of fossil capital

If we want to overcome our current extractive regimes, we need to become ungovernable

EnvironmentSocial Movements

Demonstration during the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as the Copenhagen Summit, in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 17, 2009. Photo by Kris Krüg/Flickr.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in February, painted a stark portrait of worsening global warming and the concomitant risks to organized human life on this planet. To its credit, mainstream media communicated these dire warnings—warnings of extreme heat, flooding, and drought, famine, and even war—effectively. As The Guardian put it, it was the “‘bleakest warning yet’ on [the] impacts of climate breakdown.” In a front page headline, the New York Times asserted that “Time Is Running Out to Fix Climate.”

If you’ve been paying attention, though, you might remember that most previous IPCC reports communicated similarly dire information, and were even reported on with similarly desperate rhetoric. In 2021, when the first part of the Sixth Assessment report was published, we were told that “Major climate changes [are] inevitable and irreversible.”

In 2018, after the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C was published, the Times wrote that the report “paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought.”

And of course, as far back as 1988, the year the IPCC was formed, the Times headlined its front page with a graph of increasing global temperature and the words, “Global Warming Has Begun.”

Climate science has advanced tremendously since the 1980s, of course, and there is no doubt that each new IPCC report does add to the global consensus on climate change. But atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane and any number of other devastating metrics have advanced tremendously since then, too.

In fact, more than half of all anthropogenic carbon emissions ever released have been emitted since the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.

That dissonance—or, to put it bluntly, that utter failure of international climate negotiations to make even the smallest difference—is what’s inspiring climate scientists to become activists. It’s also what inspired a group of IPCC authors to publish a paper calling for a climate science strike.

Drs. Bruce Glavovic, Timothy Smith, and Iain White argue that science and society are inherently in a symbiosis—what they call an unwritten “science-society contract.” We invest in and pursue science predominantly because we believe it will benefit society; science, in turn, does its part to drive positive change. With climate science, they argue that this contract has been broken. We have 40 years of “settled” climate science establishing global warming as a clear, present, and well-understood danger on top of more than a century of corroborating research.

In spite of all that, and in spite of the ostensible acceptance of that science by decision-makers, virtually no progress has been made towards mitigating climate change. Climate scientists keep producing more and better research, improving our understanding of the phenomenon and its impacts, but not fundamentally changing the course of action prescribed—ending the use of fossil fuels. As such, the contract has been broken. These scientists propose to force the hands of decision-makers by going on strike. No more research. No more IPCC reports. Nothing.

It may seem crazy: wouldn’t we want to keep improving our understanding of a process that is fundamentally transforming life on our only home planet? Of course we would, but the primary goal of climate change research has always been (and must continue to be) to halt it to the best of our ability. But every IPCC report has been followed by the same series of headlines pronouncing short timelines and narrowing windows for action that are forgotten as soon as the next news cycle rolls around. Every COP is billed as the one at which we’ll get serious about climate action but ends with governments and oil companies patting themselves on the back for a new series of meaningless commitments. At some point, continuing down those paths only serves to legitimize the institutional framework that is utterly failing to restore our futures.

That said, what evidence do we have that a science strike would drive change? The authors don’t offer an answer to that; their argument is more along the lines of, “we’ve tried everything else and nothing has worked.” Fair enough. But here is where the “science-society contract” frame falls short: while scientific research has undoubtedly improved the lives of many people, it has also served as a tool of imperialism, power, and accumulation. Asserting that science on the whole exists in some kind of quid pro quo relationship centered around its benefits to society obscures the power dynamics governing who benefits from scientific research.

These dynamics—undergirded by the capitalist drive for accumulation and the resultant extreme wealth inequality of the modern era—are what is blocking climate action. So the question becomes not “how do we fix the science-society contract?” but rather “how do we overcome the governing powers in order to begin to work towards mitigating climate change and ecological collapse?” Some people benefit from perpetuating the global economic and governance system that is causing climate change. Virtually everyone else—most immediately the billions of people in the Global South, but increasingly even those of us living in the wealthier countries of the Global North—is a victim.

The installation “Come Hell or High Water” by British artist Michael Pinsky shows a fleet of semi-submerged cars in the River Tyne in 2006. Photo by Akuppa John Wigham/Flickr.

In other words, the bottom 90 percent (by wealth) on Earth are victims of a repressive regime of globalized capitalism. Our quality of life, our lifespans, and the very potential of our futures happening at all are rapidly diminishing while the ultrarich accumulate more and more wealth. This lens allows us to look to the past for lessons from successful challenges to repressive regimes like India’s independence campaign and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Both of these previous revolutions—which is ultimately what these movements were, and what’s needed today—employed a diversity of tactics including mass mobilization in what are broadly termed “non-cooperation campaigns.” Essentially, people refused to participate in the repressive regime in whatever way they could. The umbrella of non-cooperation included financial disinvestment (like the fossil fuel divestment movement today), general strikes, student strikes, rent strikes, purposeful abdication of roles in government, boycotts of electoral processes, and more.

One key lesson from these campaigns and others was the importance of coordination; of the existence of a unified umbrella holding together the pieces of non-cooperation. Climate divestment has grown beyond any of its founders’ (or its critics’) wildest dreams. Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture school strike campaign has drawn more than 14 million strikers across 213 countries. Millions have joined climate protests around the world. But while we regularly refer to a nebulous “climate movement,” there remains no broader climate non-cooperation campaign. Divestment, ongoing student strikes, and protests are rarely connected as part of the same, cohesive campaign to withdraw support from the repressive regime of fossil capitalism.

In the early 2000s, Palestinian organizations and international allies had organized a number of divestment campaigns and boycotts against the Israeli regime, but these, like the climate movement today, were largely atomized and uncoordinated. In 2005, one year after the International Court of Justice ruled Israel had violated international law, Palestinian organizations issued a coordinated global call that initiated the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, drawing together a wide variety of existing tactics into one, cohesive movement with a unified vision.

Glavovic, Smith, and White’s science strike proposal is on the right track, but without becoming part of a more intentionally coordinated fossil fuel non-cooperation campaign, it’s doomed to the same failure as every other tactic activists, scientists, and climate-vulnerable peoples have tried over the last forty years. One can easily imagine a world that marches on blindly, IPCC be damned, or one where a mob of fossil fuel-funded scientists cross the picket line and the fossil fuel-funded media fails to even report there was a strike.

The impacts of climate change itself appear to be exceeding even our worst case expectations, but the regime of fossil capitalism has no interest in a change of course. The Canadian government just released its new emissions reduction plan that involves growing oil sands production by 25 percent through 2030. In British Columbia, the two dominant parties are in the legislature fighting over who supports LNG expansion more. Around the world, governments are not just passing the buck on climate action, but actively doubling down on fossil fuel expansion.

To rebuild our future, we need to learn from the past: if we want to overcome fossil capitalism, we need to become ungovernable. We all have a role to play in that.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in Squamish, BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.

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