Organizing Cools The Planet - Part 2

Organize for Climate Justice

Joshua Kahn Russel is also writer of "Organizing Cools the Planet"

Organizing Cools The Planet offers a challenge to all concerned about the ecological crisis: find your frontline. This booklet weaves together stories, analysis, organizing tools, and provocative questions, to offer a snapshot of the North American Climate Justice movement and provide pathways for readers to participate in it. Authors share hard lessons learned, reflect on strategy, and grapple with the challenges of their roles as organizers who do not come from “frontline communities” but work to build a movement big enough for everyone and led by the priorities and solutions of low-income people, communities of color, Indigenous, youth, and other constituencies most directly impacted by the crisis. Rooted in the authors’ experiences organizing in local, national, and international arenas, they challenge readers to look at the scale of ecological collapse with open eyes, without falling prey to disempowering doomsday narratives. This booklet is for anyone who wants to build a movement with the resiliency to navigate one of the most rapid transitions in human history.These are the times to grow our souls.


Chapter two: Climate Justice and Organizing

Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that, despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.

—Grace Lee Boggs

People are taking action on climate change in all sorts of ways, from federal green jobs bills to international debates around ecological debt to reparations. Since “climate” has become a banner for a wide variety of intersecting issues and problems, “Climate Justice” has emerged as a particular way of understanding problems, solutions, and pathways for change. While Climate Justice is not the only useful framework to engage the ecological crisis, it is especially meaningful when it is used as a specific framework, not as a vague marriage of the concepts of “justice” and “climate action.” 

Defining climate justice

Climate Justice is not a static concept. It’s still evolving as we write this.27 Climate Justice is a fluid framework developed by social movements around the world, with identifiable roots from the movements whose shoulders we stand on.

Instead of writing our own definition of Climate Justice, we’d like to offer a few definitions that others have posed that have contributed to our understanding and the national conversation: From Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative: Roots in Environmental Justice: “Climate Justice is a vision to dissolve and alleviate the unequal burdens created by climate change. As a form of environmental justice, climate justice is the fair treatment of all people and freedom from discrimination with the creation of policies and projects that address climate change and the systems that create climate change and perpetuate discrimination.”

From Demanding Climate Justice section of Hoodwinked in the Hothouse, published by Rising Tide North America:28 Climate Justice as Evaluative Model: “Climate Justice is a struggle over land, forest, water, culture, food sovereignty, collective and social rights; it is a struggle that considers “justice” at the basis of any solution; a struggle that supports climate solutions found in the practices and knowledge of those already fighting to protect and defend their livelihoods and the environment; a struggle that insists on a genuine systematic transformation in order to tackle the real causes of climate change… Climate Justice addresses four key themes: root causes, rights, reparations and participatory democracy.”

From Global Justice Ecology Project: Climate Justice as Global Justice: “The historical responsibility for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions lies with the industrialized countries of the Global North. Even though the primary responsibility of the North to reduce emissions has been recognized in the UN Climate Convention, the production and consumption habits of industrialized countries like the United States continue to threaten the survival of humanity and biodiversity globally. It is imperative that the North urgently shifts to a low carbon economy. At the same time, in order to avoid the damaging carbon intensive model of industrialization, countries of the Global South are entitled to resources and technology to make a transition to a low-carbon economy that does not continue to subject them to crushing poverty. Indigenous Peoples, peasant communities, fisherfolk, and especially women in these communities, have been able to live harmoniously and sustainably with the Earth for millennia. They are now not only the most affected by climate change, but also the most affected by its false solutions, such as agrofuels, mega-dams, genetic modification, tree plantations and carbon offset schemes.”
From Indigenous Environmental Network:
Four Principles for Climate Justice:29 “Industrialized society must redefine its relationship with the sacredness of Mother Earth” 
1. Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground
2. Demand Real and Effective Solutions
3. Industrialized – Developed Countries Take Responsibility
4. Living in a Good Way on Mother Earth
We encourage you to read the full descriptions of these principles, and we want to highlight the fourth one, “Living in a Good Way on Mother Earth.” Indigenous peoples have offered an analysis around our human disconnection from Nature as a key element of ecological collapse. This approach has been recently advocated inside the United Nations by Bolivia’s concept of “buen vivir,”30 an Indigenous principle of living in dynamic balance with each other and the Earth.31 As part of the feedback process in writing this booklet, Tom Goldtooth from the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) shared with us the Dakota Indigenous concept of “Mitakuye Owasin,” which means, “We are all related.” He elaborates, “It is about humanity restructuring its relationships to the sacredness of Mother Earth, to community and to nature. The industrialized world has removed humanity from nature that requires a need for organizers to be intentional on restorative justice strategies on reframing our relationship to the Circle of Life, Mother Earth and our cosmovision.”
A few assumptions across all of these definitions are:
1) Rights-based framework: using a rights-based framework in organizing means advocating not just for individual liberties, but for collective rights of groups such as Indigenous peoples. In the United States in particular, we are accustomed to thinking that individual rights are protected by the government or enshrined in international human rights laws.32 But Tom Goldtooth explains that this framework has been part of “colonial mindset that has disregarded the self-determination and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, including our right to own and control our lands, territories and resources, our right to free, prior and informed consent, our cultural identity, and other issues.” He tells us, “the big push for the last twenty years for Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and globally in our organizing is pushing for our collective rights as peoples (with the ‘s’), as a fundamental way to have self determination.”33 Tom gives us this example: The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights state that all peoples have the right to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” But because the term “peoples” is nonspecific, its application has been in dispute. National governments oppose use of the term “peoples” in regards to Indigenous peoples because they fear its association with the right of secession and independent statehood. 

To this day, government policies threaten the basic existence of Indigenous peoples. In international discussions, organized Indigenous groups have consistently argued for the development of new international documents addressing the specific needs of the world’s Indigenous peoples. This is why IEN and other climate justice activists support the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).34 The Declaration sets the minimum international standards for the protection and promotion of the rights of Indigenous peoples. It is a declaration and therefore not legally binding unless organizers can support campaigns for the full implementation of UNDRIP within their national governments. Tom warns us that “if the Declaration is not implemented, Indigenous peoples will continue to be oppressed, marginalized and exploited within mitigation and adaptation measures of domestic and international climate change polices.”
Gopal Dayeneni from Movement Generation described to us further how a rights-based framework is leveraged in our day-to-day political organizing: “When we do local or regional organizing, we can advance collective rights and unenumerated rights, such as the Rights of Nature or the Rights of Mother Earth, as frameworks for policy and action. Rights do not have to be recognized or ratified by the U.S. government for us to know, intuitively, that they are rights—or to build consciousness, policy, and action in our communities that protect and advance those rights.”
2) Justice as central: In this context, justice means that communities who have suffered at the expense of our planet-trashing economy do not suffer in order for carbon-reductions to occur. Climate Justice is compelling because we do not simply hold up “justice” as a moral obligation, but as a pragmatic pathway forward. Many of the communities who have been left out of “development” have maintained ecological stewardship and lived in balance for centuries. Climate solutions that are not populist and serving the needs of disenfranchised peoples will fail. Conversely, climate solutions that serve the needs of those most affected will benefit everyone.
3) “Emergency Mode” Trojan Horse: Climate Justice looks at the scale of the crisis with open eyes. We have no illusions about how urgent and massive our challenges are. Yet, it is also underpinned by the long-view approach to social transformation. The mentality of “urgency and crisis” is often misused as an excuse to ignore justice concerns and make unprincipled compromises that affect the most marginalized communities. In this sense, it was used to justify a Kerry-Boxer climate bill in 2009 that actually made the problem worse with huge giveaways to the oil and gas industry, or the Copenhagen Accord that the United States used to hijack the democratic process in the United Nations Conference of Parties in 2009. In both of these cases, pieces of legislation that actually took us backwards, were pitched as “better than nothing.”
These arguments fall flat, of course, when you evaluate the destructive impacts of these false solutions. While it’s true that “we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Climate Justice clarifies just what “the good” actually means through clear principles that look at real impacts on vulnerable communities on the ground. “Emergency Mode” organizing informs what is often called “political realism.” But fighting for changes that actually hurt us, simply because they seem more politically viable, is a losing strategy. Let’s look below at a strategic approach to climate justice that unpacks what it really means to be “politically realistic.”

A climate justice strategic framework

The three-circles approach 35 isn’t so much “a strategy” as a framework to develop different complimentary social movement strategies.36 One way we like to think about it relates to the relationship between different frontlines acting in different arenas (examples we gave earlier included local policy, corporate accountability, international policy, and local institution building) using different methods: grassroots organizing, corporate and finance campaigning, base building, media spectacle, political advocacy, etc. Given the current state of ecological crises, this framework can be used to help our organizations, alliances, and movements identify what we believe is materially and culturally necessary (top circle), assess what is currently politically realistic (middle circle), and identify the false solutions that are being put forth by forces with an interest in maintaining the current system (bottom circle). The arrows indicate strategies for making change: winning space to advance our agenda, pushing false solutions off the table, etc.
The first circle:
We must identify what is materially and culturally necessary to ensure climate justice. If social movements don’t define our visions, we will be stuck in a defensive/reactive posture. Our vision should not be limited by what is politically realistic even if we can’t yet win the totality of that vision. Still, some components of what is materially and culturally necessary do overlap with what is politically realistic.
The second circle:
The location of the politically realistic circle is fluid. It is influenced by the balance of forces in whatever arena of struggle you’re using the circle to define, which are influenced by social movements, the power of corporations, the current state of the world, etc. It is the role of social movements to move more of what is materially and culturally necessary down into the politically realistic circle.37 And to push the false solutions out of what is politically realistic.
The first overlap:
Just because there is overlap between “politically realistic” and “what we really need” doesn’t mean that we will get it. And if we only focus on that narrow space, we don’t inherently extend our influence to bring in more of our agenda into that space. We have to engage in a variety of spaces to advance that agenda. If we don’t say what we really want, we will never get it. So, for example, a total ban on all new fossil fuels exploration and exploitation is not at all politically realistic in 2012, but we don’t want to wait until material conditions become so bad that it becomes viable (because at that point, the false solutions will have colonized all the space for what is politically realistic). We have to find ways to advance that agenda now, so that it can become politically realistic. For example, employing strategies that target tar sands as a vulnerable link in the fossil fuels chain, or fighting for protection of pristine ecosystems from new exploration.
The second overlap:
What we really need and false solutions never overlap. What goes in each circle depends on your worldview, what you believe, and the groups you are aligned with.
The circles are not to be seen as to scale:
The top and bottom circles do not occupy the same amount of space and do not employ the same strategies. Aligning the circles is an important part of the exercise. It allows for a snapshot of the state of play. Then we can talk about what we might move from the top circle into the overlapping space. 

Understanding the interlocking frontlines: 
Some of our organizations may locate their work (i.e. their organizational mission) in the “what we really need” circle, and not yet in the “politically realistic” overlap. They are working from a place of building out the viability of our solutions, making them compelling and useful, and trying to push them down into political realism. Others may be working from the “politically realistic” circle, working on policy, and trying to infuse justice principles in it, thereby pulling the first circle down. Others yet might be working on confronting the polluters and false solutions, pushing them out of the national conversation, or out of their community. Each of these different locations map to different arenas we work in and approaches we use. Navigating your location is an element of understanding your role as an organizer and depends on where your frontline
27 For some of the most recent peoples’ statements on Climate Justice, see the Final Declaration
of the Social Movements Assembly at the World Social Forum 2011, February 10, Dakar, Senegal,
28 The authors of the piece cited are Movement Generation, Carbon Trade Watch, and Rising Tide.
29 For full descriptions of these four principles, see
31 This is expressed in the outcome of the Cochabamba Peoples’ Agreement and the draft Universal
Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, adopted by a consensus process of thirty-five thousand
people that converged at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother
Earth, April 22, 2010, Cochabamba, Bolivia.
32 Such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. December 10, 1948.
33 This was made quite plain to Joshua when speaking to Jonathan Pershing, the lead U.S. negotiator
at the UN Climate talks in 2008 in Poland, who said that the U.S. would not sign onto any climate treaty
that recognizes Indigenous peoples (plural) instead of people (singular), because the implications for U.S.
domestic policy when addressing Native American land rights and treaties would shift dramatically.
34 After taking more than twenty years to draft and agree, on June 29, 2006, the United Nations
Human Rights Council adopted the UNDRIP.
35 This tool was developed by Gopal Dayaneni, Dave Henson, Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, Jason
Negrón-Gonzales, Mateo Nube, and Carla Pérez for the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project.
36 See page 48 for more on Social Movement Strategy.
37 “Politically realistic” does not exclusively refer to policy, it can also refer to the viability of any objective,
like community resource-sharing, winning concessions from corporations, local governance, etc.