The State of the Movement

350.org
5 min readFeb 16, 2024

A contribution by 350.org’s movement support team, February 2024

Bad mood?

The climate justice movement has achieved a lot over the last decade. From billions divested from fossil fuels to fossil fuel infrastructure development canceled, through local authorities and whole countries deciding to go (at least partially) fossil-free, the mobilizations from the climate movement haven’t been in vain. Eventually, phasing out fossil fuels has become a front-and-center discussion in the UN climate talks (with more than 130 states backing the necessity to phase out all fossil fuels at the last COP).

But this is not enough, especially amidst devastating climate impacts, to be in a celebratory mood.

Despair, exhaustion, and burnout are recurring emotions and challenges that climate activists face. Climate mobilizations peaked in 2019.

Everywhere, including from within the movement, our relevance and role are questioned: if there’s no major climate movement at the exact time we need one, then isn’t it because climate justice groups aren’t working enough?

The challenge of fragmentation: a hidden strength?

The years 2015–2019 were times of unification — the climate movement was thriving and mobilizing around shared opportunities: COP21 Paris in 2015, Breakfree, and the global climate strikes, amongst others. There was a feeling that the movement as a whole and all of its components were articulated and loosely coordinated to go in a shared direction.

2020–2023 were years of fragmentation — COVID & lockdown, alongside the rising feeling of despair and powerlessness, tore us apart.

The global political trends are adding a layer of worries: the rise of the far-right, which embodies some sort of ‘reversed intersectionality’ (the far right is combining climate denial with racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc.), puts the few progressive achievements that we have secured at risk of a deep and severe backlash.

The movement is further fragmented between those who consider that it is vital to work at the global level & to invest in international arenas and those who think that these arenas are a diversion. The energy in the movement is rather on the side of giving up on international arenas — besides Fridays for Future, the most recent groups do not engage at all with the UN climate talks.

This situation fosters division between those who consider that more radicality and purity are needed and those who are convinced that we still need to grow the base of the movement.

According to movement theorist Bill Moyer, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, for this stage of despair and fragmentation is one that every successful movement has gone through: “[this stage] is often a difficult time for activists. The excitement, high hopes, big demonstrations, nonviolent action, and media coverage of the take-off stage have subsided. Activists believe that the movement is losing and local efforts are futile(…). The movement gets co-opted by the powerholders, either through collusion or compromises by reformer activists that undercut the achievement of critical movement goals.” Activists often long for the “old days” of mass action.

Fragmentation is part of the movement’s road to success — and too often, we tend to confuse fragmentation and diversity. We are more diverse and, henceforth, more intersectional. That diversity is a strength, even if it makes it harder to collaborate and coordinate strategies, narratives, and moments. When the movement was small and oppositional, it was easy to hold the coalition together. Now, it breaks apart under the weight of which way forward is the best.

Addressing today’s affects

Today’s dominating affect seems to be one of powerlessness: it looks like we’ve individually and collectively lost agency and power over any decision that affects our lives. This is one of the many reasons why the far right is thriving: its leaders are actively addressing this affect by telling us that we can reclaim power over our lives — by closing borders, increasing hatred, breaking with anything that seems at the same time consensual and too complex for us to grasp (e.g., climate change).

This feeling of powerlessness explains why the most recent surge in climate activism has such a heavy focus on tactics rather than on strategies: what matters currently most is to actually do something.

Powerlessness is reinforced by growing defiance towards established organizations — through a combination of a generational trend and a generalized mistrust in NGOs, Unions, mainstream organizations, etc. To many activists, disruption means breaking down with business as usual AND with disruption as usual. Rightfully so, NGOs are sometimes perceived as being too slow to move, having cold feet when it comes to developing bold strategies, interested in protecting their brand more than doing what transformational change requires, etc.

It’s helpful for us to remember that this feeling of powerlessness is not unique to the climate movement — or just social movements. The pandemic has left great isolation and a wake of dispirited souls. Religious leaders are talking about “The Great Resignation.” Nurses see colleagues burning out at astounding rates. Anywhere where people interact and provide emotional support, there is a heavy weight and burden. So, our condition is not entirely separated from the reality all humans are facing.

Perspectives for the Climate Movement

We need to collectively find ways to provide the movement with joint perspectives — in such a situation, a shared timeline is always a good starting point. One approach would henceforth be to work on a compelling mobilization arc, from now until the COP in Brazil, that would connect global moments with mobilizations and causes that are most relevant in local contexts.

It will require a combination of global mobilizations, bridging groups & causes; moments focused on deepening the movements skills (the mass training, fellowships, etc.); providing resources for a new wave of distributed campaigning; institutional work (including with allies in the COP process: AOSIS, COP30 presidency); offering mass training opportunities; etc.

But we can’t pretend that global mobilization can happen like they did in the recent past: we have lost our capacity to convene a global moment almost “just like that” out of the blue. More than ever, these moments have to be built from the bottom up. This is obviously a challenge (because global moments are needed to trigger the global transformation that we need) and an opportunity since it will mean that the upcoming global moments will likely be more rooted than past moments: we’re in dire need of translocal moments more than transnational or global ones.

Our approach to intersectionality and climate justice is being challenged as well: the current context (let alone the ongoing genocide in Palestine) calls for strong solidarity and an approach that keeps on connecting struggles rather than for one that is single-issued. Yet the dire climate impacts are a daily reminder that we need to remain disciplined and strategically focused if we want to succeed in securing both a phase-out from all fossil fuels & a clear pathway towards a people-owned renewable future. Combining expanded solidarity with discipline: what’s missing in the movement is not tactical creativity (for tactical creativity is already happening everywhere) but strategy.

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