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Asad Rehman on climate justice: ‘Now we see these arguments blow’

ASad Rehman, who emerged as a key figure in the coalition of activists who took to the streets at last month’s climate change summit in Glasgow, admits he was “somewhat reluctant environmentalist”.

Rehman – the director of the charity War on Want – has lunch in an East London cafe and says he cut his teeth as a young working-class man who fought the National Front in his hometown of Burnley in the 1970s and 1980s. , he initially saw the environmental movement as distant and largely irrelevant to the causes he championed.

“It was supposed to be like saving polar bears or whatever, and to really be a concern only for middle-class white environmentalists.”

But as his political work expanded — from the miners’ strike to the Stephen Lawrence campaign, the police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes to various social justice campaigns in the global south — his mind changed. He began to realize that the climate crisis—and the injustice it caused—was not so much a distant, technical issue that others had to worry about, but was central to everything he fought for.

“I was really struck… about racial justice, about economic and social justice, [the climate and ecological crisis] was an embodiment of all these problems. At the same time, it was also clear to me that it was something that would make these things worse… it wasn’t rocket science, you just had to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”

Rehman said he was influenced by social justice movements in the south of the world, which often saw the climate crisis in different terms than mainstream environmental NGOs in the UK, Europe and North America.

“They had a very different way of talking about climate — they saw it as an essential part of the larger anti-colonial struggle.”

In Glasgow, at the UN Climate Change Summit, Rehman was at the forefront of a global network of Indigenous activists, civil society campaigners, trade unionists, anti-racists and youth climate strikers who put that perspective at the heart of the debate.

Under the banner of the Cop26 coalition, the activists made sure to put climate justice, rather than simply environmental awareness, at the center, with activists, deputies and many politicians recognizing that the climate emergency could not be solved without addressing the underlying economic system that is causing it. .

“We’ve spent years and years building the movement,” Rehman said. “Making the argument that this is a systemic crisis, that it’s about racialized capitalism, argue that you can’t understand the climate crisis without understanding that there’s an arc from slavery to colonialism and imperialism to the climate crisis… see those arguments break through.”

The origins of this climate justice movement go back more than a decade. In 2007, Rehman recalls sitting under a tree in Bali, where that year’s UN climate summit was being held, and discussing what to do next with dozens of prosecutors from around the world.

The activists had become increasingly disillusioned with an approach that – as they saw it – had been dominated by powerful Western countries, global corporations and mainstream NGOs.

We then decided to launch a network that would move the fight forward, not only in the climate talks, but also on the ground and on the streetssaid Rehman. “We wanted to build a diverse movement to put justice – social, environmental, racial and gender – first and be a powerful voice to hold rich countries accountable for causing the crisis.”

Rehman says that a key moment for this embryonic movement two years later on the Copenhagen Climate Summit, with climate justice campaigners calling for a 1C warming target, versus wealthier countries pushing for a 2C target.

Lumumba DI-Aping, ambassador to the G77 countries, photographed in 2009 at the Cop15 summit in Copenhagen. Photo: Jens N Rgaard Larsen/AFP/Getty Images

As the meeting concluded in turmoil, Lumumba Di-Aping, then chairman of the G77 group of 130 developing countries, made a tearful appeal, saying, “2C is a death sentence for Africa.”

Rehman says the moment revealed wealthy governments “calculated that sacrificing black, brown, and indigenous people was more acceptable than anything that threatened their economic interests.”

Fast forward 14 years, and while the notion of climate justice that came to the fore at the ad hoc meeting in Bali was central to this year’s Cop26, Rehman is clear about the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

“This is a historic moment in human history… as profound and far-reaching as the Industrial Revolution. What people need to realize is that fundamental change is happening — the real question is what kind of transformation we’re going to have and who it’s going to serve.”

People organize a protest against climate justice in Glasgow on November 12.
People organize a protest against climate justice in Glasgow on November 12. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

This overt politicization of the climate emergency has upset the feathers of mainstream environmentalism and politicians. Critics argue that by saying that the climate crisis cannot be solved without tackling and rewiring the global economy, you are misrepresenting yourself, with catastrophic consequences.

But Rehman has no remorse. He argues that “fossil fuels and the logic of extraction and exploitation” are intertwined with the fabric of the economic order and so to tackle emissions, you have to tackle the system of capitalism that creates these and other crises simultaneously, by putting ‘justice and fairness’ at the center of the campaign.

“[I would say to critics] in 26 years of your strategy to deal with this crisis show me how your theory has worked … You have tried your way again and again and again and it failed because how do you simultaneously transform the global economy if you sign trade agreements that lock in the power of multinationals and companies in fossil fuels, while financial institutions at the global level continue to bank on fossil fuels and the food and energy systems that go with them?”

He says the only way to “make that equation work” would be to subject “three quarters of the world’s population to real disaster” and the global north to chaos, inequality and militarism.

Protesters at the Cop26 conference last month.
Protesters at the Cop26 conference last month. Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“If that’s not the future you want, if you don’t want to accept that for yourself and your children, then we need to ask ourselves how are we going to transform an economy focused on growth and profit-making from materials and labor in a meaningful way?”

Despite the magnitude of the task, Rehman says the growing recognition of the systemic nature of the crisis and the connections being made between movements in the south and those in the north means the climate justice movement has never been stronger.

The key in the coming months, he says, will be to make the climate crisis relevant to ordinary people’s lives – about warm homes, free public transport and clean air – and to build solidarity.

“Winning on the climate will never be possible with environmentalists alone; we have to build a social license for the change that is needed and that means bringing in other movements – the labor movement, people working for economic justice and poverty, you have to bring in the energy of Black Lives Matter, migrant rights groups.”

Rehman finishes his lunch as it starts to rain and remembers the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.

“This is what the union movement did 100 years ago when it convinced people that something better is possible, that things can and will change,” he said. “That is the task we now face… Building power is about collective action, about solidarity and it can be done.”