Asad Rehman, who emerged as a key figure among the coalition of activists who took to the streets during last month’s climate summit in Glasgow, admits to being “somewhat of a reluctant environmentalist”.
Tucking into his lunch in a cafe in east London, Rehman – the director of the charity War on Want – says having cut his teeth as a young, working-class man fighting the National Front in his home town of Burnley during the 70s and 80s, he initially saw the environment movement as remote and largely irrelevant to the causes he was championing.
“It was framed as about saving polar bears or whatever, and of really only being a concern to white, middle class 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 view changed. He began to realise that far from being a distant, technical problem for others to worry about, the climate crisis – and the injustice it created – were central to everything he was fighting for.
“I was really struck … on racial justice, on economic and social justice, [the climate and ecological crisis]All of these issues were embodied in the person of this woman. At the same time, it was also clear to me that it was something that would exacerbate these things … it was not rocket science, you just needed to join the dots.”
Rehman stated that he was influenced and influenced by social justice movements from the global south. These movements often saw climate crisis in a different way to mainstream environmental organizations in the UK, Europe, and North America.
“They had a very different way of talking about climate – they saw it as part and parcel of the bigger anti-colonial fight.”
Rehman was in Glasgow at the UN Climate Summit, where he was part of a global network that included indigenous activists, civil society campaigners and trade unionists. This perspective was central to the debate.
The banner of the Cop26Coalition, activists ensured that climate justice, not just environmentalism, was the centre stage with activists, delegates, and many politicians realizing that the climate crisis cannot be solved without addressing its underlying economic system.
“We have spent years and years building the movement,” said Rehman. “Making the argument that this is a systemic crisis, that it is about racialised capitalism, making the case that you cannot understand the climate crisis without understanding that there is an arch from slavery to colonialism and imperialism to the climate crisis … Now we are seeing those arguments cut through.”
This climate justice movement has roots that go back more than a decade. In 2007, Rehman remembers sitting under a tree in Bali, where that year’s UN climate summit was being held, discussing what to do next with dozens of justice campaigners from around the world.
The activists had become increasingly disillusioned with an approach that – as they saw it – had become dominated by powerful western countries, global corporations and mainstream NGOs.
“The network was launched and we decided to launch it. That would make it possible to fight not only in climate talks, but also on ground and in the streets.,” Rehman. “We wanted to build a diverse movement to put justice – social, ecological, racial and gender – at its heart, and be a powerful voice to hold rich countries to account for causing the crisis.”
Rehman said that the crucial moment for this embryonic move was two years later at The Copenhagen climate summit, Climate justice campaigners are calling to have a 1C warming target, while richer nations are pushing for a 2C target.
As the gathering closed in turmoil Lumumba Di-Aping, the then chair of the G77 group of 130 developing countries, made a tearful appeal, saying: “2C is a death sentence for Africa.”
Rehman says that moment revealed that rich governments were “calculating that sacrificing black, brown and indigenous people was more acceptable than anything that threatened their economic interests”.
Fast-forward 14 years, and although the notion of climate justice that came to prominence at the ad hoc meeting in Bali was central to this year’s Cop26, Rehman is clear-eyed about the scale of the challenges and opportunities that still lie ahead.
“This is an epoch moment in human history … as profound and far reaching as the industrial revolution. What people need to realise is that fundamental change is happening – the real question is what kind of transformation we are going to get and who will it serve.”
The politicization of the climate emergency has caused a stir within the mainstream environmental movement and among politicians. Critics claim that by stating that the climate crisis cannot solve itself without addressing the global economy and rewiring it, you are setting yourself up for failure with devastating consequences.
Rehman is not a repentant. He argues that “fossil fuels and the logic of extraction and exploitation” are woven into the fabric of the economic order and therefore to tackle emissions you need to address the system of capitalism that creates them and other crises simultaneously, putting “justice and equity” at the heart of the campaign.
“[I would say to critics] demonstrate to me in 26 years of your strategy to tackle this crisis how your theory has worked … You have tried your way again and again and again, and it has not delivered, because how do you transition the global economy when at the same time you are signing trade deals locking in the power of fossil fuel multinationals and corporations, when you have financial institutions at a global level continuing to bank on fossil fuels and the food and energy systems that go with that?”
He says the only way to “make that equation work” would be to “consign three-quarters of the world’s population to genuine disaster” and the global north to chaos, inequality and militarism.
“If that is not the future you want, if you are not willing to accept that for yourself and your children, we have to ask how are we going to transition an economy that is geared to growth and extraction of profit from materials and labour in a meaningful way?”
Rehman said that despite the enormity of the task, the climate justice movement is stronger than ever because of the growing recognition of its systemic nature and the connections being made between movements in the global north and those in south.
The key in the coming months, he argues, will be to make the climate crisis relevant to the lives of ordinary people – about warm homes, free public transport and clean air – and to build solidarity.
“Winning on the climate is never going to be possible with environmentalists alone; we need to build social licence for the change that is needed and that means bringing in other movements – the labour movement, people working on economic justice and poverty, you have to bring in the energy of Black Lives Matter, migrant rights groups.”
Rehman finishes his lunch in the rain and recalls the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
“This is what the trade union movement did 100 years ago when it convinced people that something better is possible, that things can and do change,” he said. “That is the task facing us now … Building power is about collective action, about solidarity and it can be done.”