This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in lockdowns throughout the world, including Denmark. However, the points it raises about the co-option of the climate movement by the forces of the establishment remain unchanged – and are all the more relevant given the global health emergency posed by COVID-19.
It has been eighteen months since the global climate movement erupted. But now, in Denmark, this spontaneous movement based on the revolutionary anger of the youth has been largely taken over by the ruling class and its political henchmen. How could this happen and what does it mean for future events?
The climate movement around Fridays For Future (FFF) was set in motion by then 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg in August 2018 and since spread like wildfire among the very young in the west. The enormous consequences of the climate crisis were for the young people an extremely clear illustration of the fact that something is fundamentally wrong in the current system. For decades, politicians had been talking about doing something about the problem, about action and about “green” change. And for just as long, nothing has happened, while the forecasts of the climate scientists become increasingly bleak. The climate issue showed that the profit motive trumps everything in the current system; even humanity's survival.
The international youth movement shook the ruling class. Like the boy in the famous tale of the Emperor's new clothes, the young people on the streets exposed the degeneracy of the establishment. They showed that the halls and corridors of bourgeois parliamentarism are little more than impotent talking shops. UN conferences are no different. The movement highlighted that the free market was not only unable to solve the climate crisis, but that its profit motive was its direct cause of this crisis.
If you can't beat them, join them
Had the climate movement erupted during a period of general upturn in capitalism, it would have been completely ignored by the ruling class. But it didn’t. The movement erupted at a critical time. For decades, capitalism has meant austerity for the masses and obscene wealth for the ruling minority. The legitimacy of the system itself is being called into question by wider and wider layers of society and the movement became a focal point for this rising anger. So the ruling class had to respond. At countless international meetings of the world's elite, the need to address the climate crisis was discussed – not so much for the sake of the climate, but because of the fear of social explosions. Confronting the movement with repression to drive the youth back into the classrooms was ruled out. It would have accelerated the already rapid radicalisation process, and pushed a whole generation of young people towards militant conclusions. No, the reaction had to take a more cunning form.
The ruling minority has hundreds of years of experience in dominating the majority and a long list of methods of dealing with protest movements. “If you can't beat them, join them“, was the solution chosen in this particular instance. Instead of confrontation, the ruling class went along with the young people and praised them to high heaven. They accepted the more vague statements of intent and long-term targets: “Yes, a green transition is essential (but it cannot cost money or cut into our profits.)” “Yes, we must become climate neutral (at some point in the future when my political career is over, and you have forgotten all about it).” The establishment became a nice soft pillow for the youth to beat, while draining their revolutionary energy. It gave rise to some rather strange scenes: the more Greta Thunberg attacked the elite from the platform in Davos, the louder they clapped.
At the same time, there was also a noticeable shift in the political arena. Suddenly, almost all parties turned green – even the most reactionary. The Conservative government in the UK under Theresa May declared in summer 2019 that the country would be “climate neutral” by 2050. So did many other governments around the world. In Denmark, one party after another agreed on the same target along with the sub-target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent in 2030, compared to 1990 levels. There was a sacred national unity between parties that had been in disagreement shortly before, many of whom, like the Liberals and the Conservatives, had for generations been the main defenders of the polluting companies. Now almost all parties in the Danish parliament supported the supposedly “radical” target of 70 percent reduction in 2030.
The sudden turn of the political elite had a disorienting effect on the movement. The former enemy was now apparently on the same side as the movement. Even the deeply reactionary Federation of Danish Industry supported the new government's seemingly ambitious 70 percent reduction target. Was this really the historic victory that all the political parties declared it to be?
Among the NGOs, and socialist parties, the jubilation would not end, and it was thus also brought into the leadership of the FFF. Neither of these organisations paused to ask why we saw this seeming about-turn of the entire establishment, the right-wing parties and the business world, and if the promises were real.
In actual fact, the climate act in Denmark is nothing but hot air. First and foremost it measures the emissions in accordance with the rules of the UN Kyoto Protocol, which does not include emissions from import/export, air transport and (very important in Denmark's case) not even from offshore and shipping, the latter being a sector which accounts for half of Denmark's greenhouse gas emissions.
Likewise, the omission of imports leaves the door wide open to the same kind of creative accounting as has happened in the UK: The British government in 2019 announced that the UK's emissions had now reached 42 percent below 1990 levels and thus were brought on par with the year 1890! That sounds impressive. But this results covers the massive de-industrialisation Thatcher initiated to smash the British trade union movement. The winding up of British industry does not mean that the UK no longer needs industrial products. Production has just been moved outside the country. In this way, the UK has 'exported' its CO2 emitting production, to China in particular. In fact, the UK is the G7 country that net imports the most CO2 emissions per capita, in terms of commodity imports. From 1992 to 2007 alone, figures from the Office for National Statistics show that net imports of CO2 emissions per capita have increased from 1.7 tonnes to 5.1 tonnes. This increase cancels out almost all domestic progress in transitioning away from fossil fuels. Taking this fact into account, Britain's CO2 emissions today are only 10 percent and not 42 percent below what they were in 1990.
The new Danish Climate Act's method of calculation is like the British one, and thus can in no way give a true and fair view of Denmark's real greenhouse gas emissions.
Not only does the act only cover a fraction of the emissions, the act itself openly states that it probably WILL NOT be possible to reach its stated targets (70 percent in 2030 and “climate neutrality” in 2050). And that if this is the case, the state would have to use “flexible mechanisms and other means” to achieve the targets. In other words: quota manipulation etc., which has no effect at all in the real world. The climate act is nothing but a big hoax to fool the public in general and the youth in particular. But nevertheless, the NGOs and all the left parties in Denmark celebrated the climate act as if it was a miracle.
Within the movement, the green NGOs, such as GreenPeace, have become the extended arm of the establishment. For many years, the NGOs criticised governments and businesses for their pollution and inaction. Therefore, they had a certain authority in the eyes of many young people. But at the same time, the NGOs are dependent on the system. They are lobbyists in a dirty political game and are materially dependent on state aid as well as contributions from wealthy people – precisely the forces that stand in the way of solving the climate crisis. The NGOs have had a crucial role in marginalising the more revolutionary and anti-capitalist tendencies in the climate movement in Denmark. Their role has been to systematically undermine the radical and revolutionary demands of the youth and replace them with so-called “realistic” but completely toothless and indifferent demands such as the call for the government to promise to implement the aforementioned climate act.
The demagogy of the ruling class and increasing influence of the NGOs within the movement has had a major effect. The movement in Denmark has changed significantly. The first major demonstrations were spontaneous in character. Revolutionary policies were extremely well received and young people flocked to our revolutionary slogans and banners. Organisational committees were set up to coordinate the FFF movement, and here the NGOs acted quickly. With the help of their professional apparatus and financial resources, they effectively took over large parts of this organisational infrastructure and the leading bodies that were often not democratically elected. From here, they went on to depoliticise the movement with the excuse that it should embrace the broad public and not push anyone away.
The leadership of the FFF in Denmark banned all political flags, banners and symbols as well as leafleting at the demonstrations. They even threatened to report the members of our organisation, Revolutionære Socialister, to the police if the organisation tried to participate in the protests visibly. Of course, we didn’t comply with these ludicrous demands. As we wrote in an open letter to the FFF on 19 September:
“We cannot stress strongly enough how harmful we think the idea of ‘political neutrality’ is. Climate struggle is, by definition, political. The fight against catastrophic climate change is about how to organize our society; how we should produce; what our infrastructure should look like; who has to pay for the green conversion. It is about what interests should determine the development of society – the interests of profit or the interests of the people. These are deeply political issues. Climate struggle, we believe, is the struggle for a world for the benefit of the 99 percent of its population against the 1 percent that today profits from exploiting our environment and destroying welfare. It's class struggle.
“To declare the climate fight politically neutral is, at best, naive and, at worst, dishonest. The idea of an unpolitical climate fight that should not offend anybody helps ‘greenwash’ organizations like Dansk Industri when they suddenly declare themselves green and present a ‘green’ 2030 plan, arguing for the necessity of cutting the top tax rates of the rich, abolishing the student grants system and to accelerate the extraction of the Arctic's natural resources – all in the name of financing the green transition.
“Unless the system is identified as responsible for man-made climate change, it is our view that the climate fight is being reduced from a powerful movement that challenges the system to a question of ‘political consumption’: the liberal idea that money is our ballot; that by consuming climate friendly we can change the world. And vice versa: If the world does not change, if greenhouse gas emissions do not stop, then it is the individual's responsibility, the individual's fault. This course, we believe, is not only completely impotent but directly counterproductive. ”
With the more-political and radical voices marginalised, there was a vacuum to be filled. The more radical youth had to be contained. Thus entered Extinction Rebellion (XR). This seemingly radical organisation that was “doing something, here and now” acted as nothing but a left cover for the forces of status quo. In Denmark, professional XR recruitment videos were even shown on big screens at the FFF climate demonstrations. Hiding behind their radical rhetoric, XR is trying to paper over the class divide, which is the most important element in the climate question: the line between the economically exploited who are also the ones who will be at the receiving end of any catastrophic climate change, and the exploiters who have been leaching on the former and the environment for 200 years, and have every interest in preserving the status quo. But XR presents the question as if we are all in this together, which is reflected in the ridiculous appeal for collaboration even with such reactionary forces as the landlords and the police.
These manipulations of the movement have had an effect. The climate movement in Denmark is now a shadow of its former self. The dominance of the petty-bourgeois tendencies was clearly expressed by the so-called “Green Friday” demonstration on 29 November 2019 (on “Black Friday"), which in Copenhagen was a demonstration on a shopping street directed against all the people who wanted to buy goods at lower prices than usual. The demonstration became an embarrassing tribute to the liberal illusion of political consumption.
The number of participants in the demonstrations has also dropped steadily as the young people drew one of the following two conclusions: either they bought the narrative that the problem is being addressed by the politicians, NGOs and the business community; or, more likely, they concluded that it is of no use to spend their time and energy in the movement as it is now, since it makes no difference anyway. It's just more talk and circus without action.
The same processes in Denmark are visible in other countries as well. The climate movement has been declining throughout Europe for at least six months. With the decline of the radical movement and the international establishment's “green” offensive, the petty-bourgeois “green” forces are gaining ground. Riding on the momentum following the wave of the climate strikes, the Greens in Austria (under promises of green reforms) have thus entered a coalition government with the right-wing, conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) under Sebastian Kurz, who until recently was in government with the racist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). In Germany, there is now talk of the possibility of a green-conservative alliance. The combination of green and right-wing politics does not bode well. In the hands of the establishment, the “green agenda” is a battering ram against the working class. Within the framework of capitalism, it cannot be anything else. After all, we have to remember that the environmental movement originally started, not as a left but a conservative movement of trying to preserve isolated patches of nature for the enjoyment of the rich. Green policies, without a class basis, are not in themselves progressive, and can be extremely reactionary.
This was already illustrated a year ago when France's Liberal President Macron, with environmental protection as an excuse, introduced increased fuel taxes that hit the working class disproportionately hard, while the oil companies and the rich get one tax rebate after another. The response of the French working class and the lower strata of the middle class came promptly in the form of the movement of the yellow vests that have been on the streets ever since.
Take the fight to the ruling class
In the beginning the mass mobilisations on the climate issue were revolutionary in their outlook as expressed in the demand for “System change, not climate change”. It was this that made the movement dangerous to the ruling class. But the reason for the powerful movement (which peaked at 4 million on the streets in 125 cities around the world at the same time) was not so much the climate issue itself. The radicalism of the mass movements was an expression of the enormous frustration that has accumulated throughout society especially since the crisis of 2008. The climate issue became for a time a rallying point and expression of these frustrations among the youth. This was also the case in Denmark, until the movement was moderated and brought into safe channels.
As the lies and climate scams of the politicians, NGOs and bosses are revealed in the next period, it is possible that a movement may rise again. Because nothing is solved and the youth are still frustrated. And realising that the entire top of society has been lying to us and trying to manipulate us will inevitably result in greater anger. Not least if new extreme weather phenomena or disasters occur. But this anger against the establishment and the system could also find other channels than the climate movement, which has now been taken over by the forces of status quo.
Does this mean that all our energy has been wasted? That the young people have been striking and fighting in vain? Not at all! Thousands of very young people were brought to life politically and have opened their eyes to the bankruptcy of the system. The degeneration of the climate movement has been an excellent illustration of the constraints of staying within the framework of the current political system. It has been an important test of the various political tendencies and organisations.
If we are serious about the demand for “system change, not climate change", we must draw the necessary conclusions from the evolution of the movement. When the henchmen of the system, in spite of their obvious rottenness, prove capable of taking over the movement, it is only because they proved more class-conscious and better organised than our side. So act accordingly: study the mass movements and revolutionary experiences of the past; help build a stronger revolutionary organisation, immune to the manipulations of the bourgeoisie, to consciously overthrow this rotten profit-driven system that threatens the very existence of humanity. When looking at the ebbing of the climate movement our task is not to cry nor to laugh, but to learn from this experience. Take the fight to the ruling class and build the IMT.