“Climate and social justice”, “system change, not climate change” and simply “enough is enough”, were among the messages on the posters that young protesters hoisted as they marched past COP26 in Glasgow on November 5. The 25,000-person event coincided with the climate conference’s Youth and Public Empowerment Day, where selected young activists were invited to share their calls for world leaders to turn empty promises into immediate actions to protect the planet and their future.
After COP26, it seems that leaders ignored these rallying cries. There have been many criticisms that the gradual steps of the Glasgow Climate Pact – see ‘coal phase-out’ – will not be enough to stop global temperatures from rising above 1.5C, which will lead to irreparable impacts such as dramatic flooding of low-lying areas. COP delegates demonstrated the consequence of a political class largely indebted to the fossil fuel industry.
Greta Thunberg of Fridays For Future, who mobilized the COP26 youth protest, was one of many to call the conference a failure and a “global greenwashing festival of the North”. Specifically, Thunberg implored world leaders to recognize that we cannot solve our environmental crises without tackling the root of the problem: extractive economies and inequalities dating back to colonialism.
Thunberg’s call for broadening our lens on the climate crisis to consider systems that maintain oppression and injustice — such as colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy — is in keeping with the zeitgeist of young activists for the climate. These young people see climate justice, not just stopping climate change, as their goal. More broadly, this awakening signals a changing public narrative around social change and how we need to achieve it.
In Canada, as we grapple with crises like COVID-19, Indigenous reconciliation, racial injustice, growing wealth gap, ecosystem collapse, housing crisis, precarious work and the climate emergency, one thing is becoming clearer: these problems are inextricably linked and have common causes and complementary solutions.
To solve these cascading problems, bold system change, including broad-based policy change, that challenges the foundations of our current economic system is non-negotiable. Changes such as wealth taxes, shifting subsidies from high-carbon to low-carbon sectors, circular economic solutions, massive investment in all forms of infrastructure, and new regulations for consumption are necessary.
Social change has always stood in the way of bold systemic change. It was the limiting reactant. By social change, we mean a change in the collective will to move in a particular direction. Chemistry teaches that the limiting reactant is the ingredient consumed first in a chemical reaction, which limits the amount of product that can be formed.
As the pandemic has shown, social change ultimately determines the degree of license given to our leaders to take drastic action. Yet when it comes to the climate crisis, social change is the missing ingredient. To catalyze the degree of change required, we need broad social change to help fundamentally question and redefine our economic system in ways that prevent further degradation of our natural environment.
As we are in a time when everyone is on deck, the community sector (charities, nonprofits, social enterprises and foundations) – with deep community ties and an awareness of how social issues are intersect – has an essential role to play in supporting a successful societal transition.
Tim Draimin, senior fellow at Community Foundations of Canada, explains that philanthropic organizations like endowed foundations “should be research and development for frontline work around social change.” He adds that while there are organizations that support the practical aspects of climate action — like Green Economy Canada, a nonprofit that supports organizations with plans to reduce their carbon footprint and reach net zero — it is equally important for the community sector to support citizen mobilization. and strengthen democratic values.
To tackle the climate crisis, we need widespread political change that challenges the foundations of our economic system, write @ml_baldwin and @devikashah. #ClimateCrisis #ActOnClimate #ClimateJustice #ClimateAction #transition #transformation
The importance of grassroots movements in creating social change is well documented. In his analysis of COP26 and the way forward, environmental and political activist George Monbiot referred to the 25% rule as the magic number of engaged citizens needed to change cultural norms and influence government and industry. . He argues that “just as the complex natural systems on which our lives depend can suddenly switch from one state to another, so can the systems that humans have created”.
So how do you tip the balance? One way is to build partnerships between the community sector and grassroots organizations to support the movements needed for social change. But it can be difficult to connect. Many local initiatives do not have charitable status, so it is often difficult to obtain donations.
Still, there are opportunities for the community sector to forge new relationships by providing unrestricted funding or incubating local organizations on their journey to becoming registered charities. For example, Community Foundations of Canada hosts the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund, which provides infrastructure support while an all-Indigenous advisory group retains governance control.
In Quebec, the Climate Justice Organizing HUB is a non-profit organization that fills the void by supporting local organizations working for climate justice. The HUB is a “support structure designed around the needs of local social movement organizers in so-called Canada,” offering capacity-building resources for young organizers. The HUB receives support from both micro-funding and collaboration with NGOs and ENGOs who provide expertise and resources.
Among the networks and groups advised by the HUB, the young student climate movement in Quebec is the largest and most vocal. This tight-knit group of student unions is known for its intensive organizing, including taking 500,000 people to the streets of Montreal during the 2019 Global Climate Strike, inspired by the Fridays For Future movement.
Tom Liacas, founding director of the Climate Justice Organizing HUB, explains that all student organizations in Canada are grappling with the same issues as the international movement. Young Canadians are coming to the frontlines for intersecting issues such as Black Lives Matter, police defunding, migrant worker rights and Indigenous justice movements such as Land Back. By participating in the crises of our time, they are role models for all of us.
At COP26, world leaders demonstrated the failure of trying to solve the climate crisis while maintaining the status quo. To pave the way for a just transition out of the climate crisis, post-COVID, the real innovation required is to nurture and invest in inclusive, equitable and people-centered networks and movements to drive social change.
The more we have to work with this limiting reagent, the more permissions we will grant for bold system-changing solutions.
Devika Shah is the Executive Director of Environment Funders Canada. Michelle Baldwin is Senior Advisor, Transformation, at Community Foundations of Canada.