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November 16, 2023

COP28: Why climate activism fails – and how to fix it

By Vladislav Kaim
Protests by France’s yellow vest protestors against the proposed fuel tax of Emmanuel Macron. This highlights the difficulty of climate campaigning in the face of the public’s personal financial concerns, which have increased post-Covid. (Photo: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg)
Protests by France’s yellow vest protestors against the proposed fuel tax of Emmanuel Macron. This highlights the difficulty of climate campaigning in the face of the public’s personal financial concerns, which have increased post-Covid. (Photo: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg)

Financial crises and wars are taking world leaders’ focus away from climate action, but the younger generation of activists are up to the challenge of putting it back on the global agenda

In 2023, it may feel that the world before the Covid-19 pandemic was far longer in the past than a mere five years ago. Then, 2019 saw the peak of Fridays for Future climate strikes and the rise of the new generation of the climate movement. Now, much of this action has quietened down. While some may interpret this as a sign of youth’s naivety, others may view it as confirmation that yet more concrete avenues for change are closing, and feel resigned the world is heading towards a global environmental catastrophe. 

Neither reaction does young people in the climate movement any favours. Nor does it provide a constructive insight into the lessons we can learn from our recent past, in order to fight for a better tomorrow in the new and more challenging present.

In many important ways, the pre-Covid era – where climate was consistently a key public concern, and there was sustained public mobilisation that gained the attention of the media and policymakers – was successful. It was a watershed moment in publicly highlighting the perils of not doing enough to keep global warming under 1.5C for current and future generations. “Green” parties rose in popularity and parliamentary representation globally, while young people’s expertise began to be noticed and acknowledged by national institutions and UN bodies alike.

However, after the fleeting hope of the “build back better” months of 2021, down came the hammer of inflation, followed by the devastating impact of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Even before that, the first few alarm bells began ringing in the form of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests in France and the long opposition to the CO₂ law in Switzerland, which was only recently approved in a national referendum – both examples of public resistance to the economic costs of carbon taxation. 

Advocating for climate action – where its costs are inevitably passed on to the population – is that much harder when large parts of those populations, including in the richest parts of the world, are in the grips of a cost of living crisis.

Upgrade necessary

The limits of an approach relying on moral suasion and the assumption of constant public mobilisation have been reached; an intellectual and political upgrade is needed. Its key part should be the ability to formulate and follow concrete interests.

The word “interests” has almost become taboo due to its association with the fossil fuel lobbyists, but surrendering its meaning to them is not the answer. Defining interests and objectives helps focus everybody’s attention and resources, sets clear accountability metrics and reinvigorates tired protest tactics by moving away from sloganeering and disruption for disruption’s sake, towards formulating sharper, more concise and actually implementable policy objectives.

The next component of such an upgrade is to recognise the normality of difference in interests and priorities between groups operating in different contexts. Disagreement is neither a tragedy nor a sign of injustice but, in fact, prevents our ideas from becoming stagnant. It nourishes the wider climate movement through additional capacity for intellectual exchange.

Thirdly, the relationship between the climate movement and democratic politics needs to be strengthened. This means a greater encouragement of, and support for, activists running for office, as well as impressing upon them the importance of building support beyond the inner city, and learning who the median voter in their country or locality is.

A firm embrace of democracy (with all its messiness and occasionally strange compromises) as the only setting in which success can be achieved prevents us getting stuck in our own echo chambers. It is the starting point for a much-needed broadening of the climate movement, especially among working class and rural populations.

A common cause

The ways in which young people engage have both increased and diversified: organising, running for office, advising policymakers, establishing or joining green businesses. All of these aspects are crucial. The implementation and outcome of a strategy are successful when those working on both the inside and the outside of established institutions cooperate for a common cause.

The increasingly glamorous guest lists and mediatisation of COP and other big summits might be alluring, but we, as a movement, must not be so blinded by the camera flashes that we forget that the main battlefield of climate action will always be found at home, amid a multitude of mundane but ultimately fateful choices.

For example, we need to get better at mastering the language in which many of today’s decisions on green transition are made – the financial lexicon of assets, liabilities, balance sheets and returns on investment – and demystifying it, so the public can exercise a true ownership over the process and its outcomes.

A successful model of climate activism in 2020s will build on the lessons of the pre-pandemic era, but it will also take a more strategic, diversified and grounded shape, with a clearer grasp of interests, accountability, and a full commitment to achieving a sustained democratic legitimacy.

Getting to this point will not be straightforward, but I believe in the ability of the multitude of bright minds and burning hearts in the youth climate movement to get it done – together with the parents and grandparents of today, who are making decisions with us in mind.

Vladislav Kaim is a Moldovan economist and sustainability advocate. He is a civil society and local authorities engagement specialist at TheCatalysts.io, and previously served as the UN secretary-general’s youth climate adviser.

A service from the Financial Times