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What the pandemic tells us about the politics of the climate crisis

In many ways the 2020 pandemic is a rehearsal of the climate crisis. Indeed in many ways the 2020 pandemic is the first part of the climate crisis, the first of many global crises that are coming our way, all linked to the twenty-first century climate and ecological emergency that is upon us.

And so this crisis can teach us something about the crises to come. Specifically I think it can teach us something about how politically right wing governments react to crises like this, and what that means for climate activism. The UK/English Conservative government have failed us repeatedly in this crisis, and that failure is not just about incompetence, it is very much about ideology.

The fact that the same mistake has been made twice, in both the spring and the autumn, of going into a lockdown much too late, shows us the basic response to crises is to do nothing. Again this is not a matter of incompetence but ideology. The right wing ideology is to do nothing that disrupts the "normal" functioning of the economy/free market. Everything has to keep going, tomorrow must be much the same as today, with a bit of "economic growth". This is despite the fact that even on the market's own terms small disruption earlier is better than larger disruption later. But no, the imagination of the right is that things have to keep going on as they have before, the market keeps flowing, and we need to make sure that it does. This is the fundamentalism of post-Thatcherite neoliberalism. It is an ideology that is incapable of adapting to large systematic crises, and yet is is the ideology that has ruled the world for the last forty years.

What does that mean for the climate crisis? It means that right wing governments will not act on the climate crisis until it is too late. They will not act until it is unignorable, until whole cities in their own countries are wiped off the map and the citizens start asking - "what are you doing about this?" They will not act until scientists sit them down and say "this will kill hundreds of thousands of people in the next few months". But unlike in a pandemic, instant action will not solve the problem. In a pandemic instant government action today can save lives in the next two months, but instant action today on the climate crisis will not actually have an effect until forty years later.

Right wing governments will never act on a crisis if that acting goes against their foundational ideology of free market fundamentalism. This is why I think the messaging of Extinction Rebellion is deeply politically na├»ve. Extinction Rebellion believe that a right wing government will enact the results of a citizen's assembly even if that involves massive state intervention in the market (which it obviously must do). They won't, which is why I have been frustrated at no apparent change of messaging and tactics since last year's election. Though in a hung parliament perhaps many things are possible, in a parliament with a comfortable Conservative majority many things aren't. 

Extinction Rebellion, even through last year's election remained naively "neutral" continuing with the usual actions through the election. Now I'm not suggesting that XR should become party political, but they could have said to all the activists "we are now suspending our activities and we suggest you judge for yourself who is most likely to act on the climate crisis and go campaign like hell for those representatives."

Instead Extinction Rebellion seem to have their own fundamentalism in believing that citizens assemblies can replace representative democratic institutions, forgetting that the conclusions of citizens assemblies can only be implemented if consented to by representative parliaments and governments. 

I often quote the words I once heard Bill Mckibben say, "I thought I was in an argument about climate change, it took me twenty years to realise I was in a war. And we are losing the war." I think for all the apparent radicalism and "rebellion" of XR it still believes we are in an argument, not a war, and that the argument can be solved by citizens' assemblies. I believe that vastly underestimates the powers that are stacked against us - the powers of corporations and political and economic institutions that rule the world.

These things will not shift until there is massive democratic pressure to do so. This will require massive movements on the streets (not just thousands but hundreds of thousands), arguments communicated and won in the public sphere, powerful moral and spiritual persuasion, and, yes, left-of-centre politicians winning elections. Citizens' assemblies are not a replacement for any of these things, they are simply one tool to be used once all these things are in place. 

We are in a war (not an argument) and we are losing. The 2020 pandemic is a warning that shows us just how powerful (and literally deadly) the enemy is. We need to pay attention to that and adapt accordingly. We need to be able to name the enemy more clearly and show how that enemy - free market fundamentalism and its disciples - are also the cause of our other ills - poverty, colonialism, austerity, worker exploitation, homelessness. It is this joined-up thinking that will allow climate activism to become a movement for justice for all, and it's that that makes it a mass movement with a powerful moral argument - and not just the concern of white middle class vegetarians. 


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