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Has lockdown been good for the UK climate movement?

In conversation with youth activist Dominique Palmer

Illustration by Tinuke Fagborun @tinuke.illustration

2019 was an insane year for climate action. Led by frontline and youth activists, three consecutive global strikes for climate mobilised over 6 million people across 150 countries. Politicians were forced to pay attention as the sheer volume of the youth voice ensured that it could no longer go unheard.

And then, the pandemic hit. Just as many climate organisers felt like they were on the cusp of real change, action was forced to a halt. Conferences and actions were cancelled, politicians re-prioritised, and people had to stay off the streets. It was a huge blow to the many organisers who had burnt themselves out during the action of the previous year, which then unfortunately resulted in very little comparatively.

But when I sat down with Dominique Palmer, 20 year old public speaker and climate justice organiser with UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) and Fridays for Future International, I was met with a refreshing perspective. “It’s really been a useful time to reflect on my activism, and for all of us in general to think about how we can maintain this movement.”

Illustration by Tinuke Fagborun @tinuke.illustration

“We’ve been able to focus on international campaigns in a way we hadn’t before, working with activists globally, including those on the frontlines. It has really centred international solidarity into our spaces and given us more time to work on inclusivity.”

In the last few years, the climate movement in the UK could definitely have done with a bit more space for reflection. We’ve seen what the absence of this can do with XR rushing into actions which alienate other climate and social justice campaigners – marginalising racial justice, migrant justice and working-class organisers through poorly planned tactics. To a lesser extent, UKSCN struggled to maintain momentum and a non-hierarchical structure as it exploded in size and faced inevitable disagreement over long-term political organising strategies. In the mass mobilisations of 2019, the rush for action left people behind. As we try to build a UK climate justice movement which actively works to dismantle systems of oppression, we can’t continue to repeat these same mistakes. Time is short, but one silver lining of this godforsaken pandemic is that it has forced climate organisers to pause and reconsider priorities.

“We are in this situation where we can’t take to the streets, and it is a perfect opportunity for the broader climate movement to really reflect on their activism. Really focusing on inclusivity in these climate spaces, unlearning prejudices and working to combat the narrative that climate activism doesn’t address social issues adequately.” This is the first of many blockages to action that Dominique deftly diagnoses in the climate space; “if we don’t address these issues we will just hit this wall again and momentum will continue to die out. It’s about working with those who are disproportionately impacted by this crisis who don’t currently feel welcome in climate spaces”.

She cites the tokenisation of Black and Indigenous campaigners without inclusion in decision-making spaces. A recent example is Keir Starmer’s tweet boasting a meeting with the UK’s ‘leading climate and environmental campaigners’ where all the faces were very old and very white. “A deeper understanding of truly equitable solutions for the future is needed,” Dominiquer says. “Capitalism and colonialism, exploitation of people and the planet are so embedded into our systems. If we don’t change that we will just end up with short-term solutions that still exploit people in the Global South.”

As a young, Black woman and talented communicator, Dominique explains how the combination of activism with UKSCN alongside the national lockdown gave her space to realise the importance of her voice. “When I first became aware of the crisis I was stuck because of the bubble that I had been in… Before the pandemic, I didn’t even consider using my personal platform to speak out on because I did a lot of work on other organisations’ social media. But this has been a great chance for me to speak from my personal perspective on climate justice because I have my own unique experiences.”

Lockdown has also allowed the youth movement, often leading the way when it comes to centring justice in their climate activism, to assess their shortcomings concerning accessibility. “People who were not able to do physical activism before have actually found this time really useful,” Dominique explains to me, “It’s raised the conversation of accessibility in our spaces and this will remain central to our movement beyond the pandemic”. For people with disabilities disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, their inclusion is essential in mobilising for truly equitable solutions.

While the UK youth climate movement is re-energising and reflecting on how to best move forward, action has slowed. Nevertheless, Dominique stands as an excellent reminder of what the movement has provided the UK even as students are unable to strike: a generation of politically engaged, vocal young people who understand what grassroots activism can do.

“It’s been a journey, but in this space I’ve been able to regain my confidence, in knowing that I can actually make a difference. It feels like my eyes have just opened.” Dominique describes how her rising climate anxiety was soothed when joining the movement; “when you’re surrounded by people fighting for the same thing, you feel there is hope.” For so many young people, the school strikes were an avenue into political thinking on their own terms, and provided access to learning experiences outside of limited curriculums. “Academia can narrow your vision, just learning theories and literature from old white men… I realised how much more there is to be applied in our attempts to achieve justice.”

Indeed, Dominique is realistic in her assessment of the climate movement: “It feels like the movement has reached a peak in attracting those already interested. We need to build back momentum into the climate movement and engage a new audience.” As Launch and Press Coordinator for Climate Live, a collaboration between youth strikers, artists, activists and scientists to bring global climate concerts in over 40 countries, she is excited about the potential to re-energise the space. “Music really has the power to unite people. [Climate Live] can be used as a platform to educate those on the crisis through amplifying the voices of those on the frontlines, and therefore engaging more people to apply pressure to world leaders right before COP26.”

“It also highlights how the typical image of activism is limited. We don’t just need speakers. Behind them are so many people doing the work to support the movement – grassroots activists, artists, creators. There really is space for everyone and I’m excited at the opportunity to highlight this”.

Dominique is an optimistic and level-headed organiser, able to clearly communicate a vision for the climate movement which understands its shortcomings without losing faith in its potential. As a climate activist myself, her calm take on the current status of the movement is energising – perhaps we all needed this moment to take stock of what actually needs to be done to realise the equitable future we are fighting for. We have been forced into a moment of reflection – let’s actually use it.

Illustration by Tinuke Fagborun @tinuke.illustration
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