School children at the global climate strike

This article is part of a series – The Decade We Must Win – examining the successes and failures of social movements and the left since the financial crash, and exploring how we can win transformative change by the end of the 2020s. You can read the rest of the series here.

2020 has been a year known for a lot. The thought of huge youth strikes reminiscent of the September 2019 week of action probably isn’t the first to pop into your head. It’s easy to chalk this up to the global pandemic, move on and hope for some good demos next year. But if COVID-19 is really the reason why the central youth strike movement fell apart in England and Cymru in 2020, it doesn’t explain how so many other protest movements stayed energised, with mobilisations across the island throughout the summer from all sides of the political scene. The global pandemic even managed to kickstart an anti-mask protest movement – although I don’t doubt that many opposing the enforcement of mask wearing would have found something else to focus on in other circumstances.

The story of the youth strike movement, and particularly how it got to where it is, has something more to tell us. I’m not a political scientist or a particularly experienced activist, but I was there to see the implosion happen before my own eyes. The coronavirus pandemic was the last of many nails in the youth striker coffin, blighted by factional and regional splits, institutional racism, rapidly dwindling strike turnout and more. Arguments about what our stance on capitalism should be or how regional funds should best be allotted meant that it often felt more like a Socialist Workers’ Party committee on how to lay out a meeting room than an actual organisation.

The dust from much of this has yet to settle, and an examination of what went wrong in the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) would take up a whole book, so I’ll spare you a full recount. There is a lot of fantastic work by climate activists of colour on the issue of institutional racism in white-dominated activist spaces that I really recommend you take a look at and listen to. The consequences of widespread racism in the youth strike movement will be long lasting and severe on many levels, harming both the individuals affected and the wider movement.

The presence of inaccurate, racist and harmful analyses in the overwhelmingly white and middle class youth strike movement is also dangerous on a practical level. Any theory of change or strategy built on what is essentially an objectively false understanding of the world is hugely unlikely to go anywhere. Racist explanations of the climate crisis (such as overpopulation narratives, or blaming formerly colonised countries for their development whilst ignoring the legacy of American and European historical emissions) aren’t accurate, and so it’s pointless to try to use them to find solutions.

Did the youth strike movement have any successes in England and in Cymru? It could certainly be argued that the youth strikes played a major role in bringing the environmental movement back onto the streets (and in a slightly less culty way than Extinction Rebellion). Much UK-based climate justice activism at the start of the 21st century was based around policy and lobbying on the one hand (such as the Green Alliance or the Green Party itself), and direct action and protest camps on the other. The surge in interest that came during 2019 let the movement explode back onto the streets of our towns and cities, outside NGO offices and in treetop encampments.

The youth strikes radicalised many young people, teaching many of us that “saving the planet” would take a little more than recycling and turning off the lights. The Know your Rights sessions organised to support the protests taught people about safer protesting, legal rights and how to deal with the police. A whole new generation of young people were brought into wider protest movements such as the Stop Trump Coalition, antifascist work, and campaigning in the 2019 General Election.

Perhaps most notable is the role of youth strikers in the movement to overturn the A Level and GCSE result algorithm this summer, where the government was forced to U-turn after student led protests across the countries, many of which were led by youth strikers. UKSCN London even helped to organise a Know Your Rights training to prepare students for the week of protest. On a practical level, UKSCN has produced many effective and competent organisers capable of staging fairly successful protests at very short notice. When they’re not depressed or burnt out, these youth strike veterans may well prove invaluable to whatever struggles the future holds.

What’s next? If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that we ran out of time to “prevent” the consequences of the climate crisis years ago, that we’re already “too late”, since the moment this crisis started killing people. But ten years late is still better than twenty when it comes to taking action for climate justice. Naomi Klein’s concept of the shock doctrine explains how environmental disasters are used to further entrench the power of capital and predatory transnational corporations. The worsening climate crisis will mean more disaster capitalism and more (particularly Black, Brown, Queer, Working Class and Disabled) people losing their homes and their lives to not-so-natural catastrophes. As the number of people displaced by this crisis grows, the far right will only get stronger and efforts to combat the climate crisis will become more and more difficult.

When I came into this movement I thought we’d be home by Christmas, that we’d get the necessary concessions from the government and all go back to school with a lovely, safe planet (to be fair, I don’t think many people were as naïve as me). But what we face isn’t a quick battle, it’s a war of attrition – meaning it can’t be won simply by getting a certain law passed or a certain politician elected. There are no quick, easy fixes – as much as politicians like Emmanuel Macron may wish there were. From dismantling fossil fuel infrastructure and the prison-industrial complex and police forces that silence dissent and protect the profit and capital of planet-killing corporations to radically altering our democracies to put power in the hands of local people through direct participation; systemic problems need systemic solutions.

The struggle for climate justice began four hundred, five hundred years ago with Indigenous peoples across the world resisting European colonialism and genocide, and continues today. I’m no military tactician, but my history coursework on the Spanish Civil War taught me that you cannot win a war of attrition if you can’t stick it out for the long term. We need to focus on building capacity to fight and campaign, bringing together the various branches of the climate justice movement in England, Cymru and beyond to form sustained, decentralised, inclusive and democratic structures that will build a new society from the rotting carcass of the old.

Not only does this mean building our capacity to go on the offensive against the fossil fuel industry and collaborator governments, but also to simply survive. The future looks very bleak, with the Tories looking to clamp down on protest rights, job losses, inequality and a climate crisis that gets worse by the day. There will be losses and there will be suffering, but the more we do to prepare the better our chances will be. We need to build infrastructure of mutual aid and support, which must include the redistribution of wealth – ensuring that we keep each other safe at a time when the government really doesn’t seem all that fussed about safety.

The COP26 Coalition is organising on this basis in the UK right now, seeking to build an unstoppable movement that will hold the Tories and their mates to account at COP26 in Glasgow and beyond. We need to be there for each other, more than ever. We can fight the greed and hatred of the vultures with love and solidarity. We can do this through cross-movement organisations like the COP26 Coalition. That is where I feel the future of Britain’s climate justice movement must be as we head further into the 2020s.

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This article is part of a series – The Decade We Must Win – examining the successes and failures of social movements and the left since the financial crash, and exploring how we can win transformative change by the end of the 2020s. You can read the rest of the series here.

Image credit: Stephen Smith – Creative Commons