Climate activism and cities: a shared agenda

In the second blog in our series considering the role social movements play in promoting climate action, Anna Walnycki reflects on where the climate movement and inclusive cities agenda meet, and why climate activists should look South to learn from long-standing urban community actors.

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7 February 2020

Anna Walnycki is a senior researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group

A road in Kibera informal settlement

The impacts of climate change will increasingly heighten poverty and worsen living conditions for low-income urban communities such as this one in Nairobi (Photo: Ninara, via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0)

A young man stands feet firmly rooted in a crowd of thousands, paralysing parts of the city as they call on the government to respond to their demands. This is a non-violent protest, but the young man does not fear being arrested for his cause. 

Elsewhere in the same city, 3,000 children dump bags of rubbish at local government offices, highlighting the city’s failure to deal with waste effectively.

These are not actions by Extinction Rebellion (XR), indigenous water protectors in North Dakota or the global School Strike for Climate movement. This is 1970s Mumbai.

Evolving beyond direct action

The young man in the crowd is Jockin Arputham, a homeless carpenter arrested more than 70 times for peaceful civil disobedience. He went on to be a founder of the first national federation of slumdwellers and co-founder of Slum Dwellers International.

In 2014, Jockin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has helped hundreds of thousands in cities around the world to demand their rights from government through peaceful action, cooperation and dialogue.

Also in this series

Blog: COP25 policy and activism: we deserved better – Sejal Patel reflects on COP25, both as a researcher seeking to influence policy and as an individual passionate about climate justice

In 2020, there are SDI federations in cities across 32 countries throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. They support community-led responses and building partnerships with city authorities, seeking to tackle urban poverty and – increasingly – climate change.

SDI’s agile approach and story could offer lessons to the global climate movement as it considers its next steps.

Different methods; same destination?

In many countries, XR and the school strikes have captured the public imagination where previous warnings from experts failed to gain traction.

More than 6,000 people occupied five London bridges to support XR’s first ‘Rebellion Day’ in 2018. Simultaneously, XR occupied Greenpeace’s London offices to demand the NGO take a more radical approach to the climate emergency.

Subsequent actions have been championed by teachers, doctors, lawyers, mothers and grandparents. In 2019, the British government met the first of XR’s three core demands by declaring a climate emergency.

The three principle demands are largely aligned with the objectives of existing green movements and NGOs. The third demand – that climate decisions should be made through participative, inclusive means – has strong correlation with IIED’s approach.

Working to our strengths

XR, among others, has inspired public momentum at a pace and scale that is forcing established climate change institutions in Europe and the United States to re-examine our roles and how we engage with social movements.

However, XR has also faced criticism, for disruptive tactics, lack of diversity and other issues. Its leading voices acknowledge there is work to do on the movement as well as by the movement.

Perhaps this is where longer established players in the climate justice field, including NGOs, can support the public push for action? And loudly show solidarity with the global South.

Cities where climate justice cannot wait

The climate movement has grown globally as the effects become more visible, especially in urban areas. Forest fires descending on wealthy urban centres such as Los Angeles and Sydney receive vast global coverage.

But it remains low-income urban communities in the global South that suffer the brunt of environmental injustices. Climate change has been intensifying urban poverty, particularly in informal settlements, for some time.

If you live in an unplanned low-lying settlement in Dar es Salaam, one of Tanzania’s fastest-growing cities, with inadequate housing and sanitation, changing weather patterns are not a fear for the future. One heavy rain can wash away your limited shelter and destroy your means to a livelihood.

The pervasive poverty and inequality found in cities, as elsewhere, form part of a global system that fosters inertia instead of tackling climate change.

However, there are opportunities to raise awareness about the links between adaptation, mitigation and inclusive urban development, and to develop collective, replicable approaches to support climate resilience in settlements and cities – in both the global South and North.

Urban communities respond to the climate challenge

Research (PDF) undertaken by IIED and SDI for C40 discusses SDI’s work in Mukuru, Nairobi, where communities take part in holistic settlement-wide slum upgrading processes.

Designed to deliver climate-resilient, inclusive and low-carbon development, process outcomes include better access to housing, basic services and livelihoods.

While the 1970s may have called for direct action, this approach is predicated on well-organised communities working in partnership with local government.

Progressive alliances for 2020

As a British social movement, XR has a significant platform to engage with the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow later this year. But it will require new tactics and alliances to be fully effective.

Climate activists can look to organisations in the urban South as they seek ways forward. But we all have a role to play, including NGOs and governments.

If we are striving for inclusive global climate justice, we must nurture nimble alliances that bring diverse but like-minded groups together. We must challenge ourselves – together and separately – by asking:

  • Can climate NGOs support dialogues between social movements that are responding to climate change in rural and urban communities in the UK and global South? 
  • Do we really understand how climate change and climate injustices affect different groups around the world?
  • Which replicable approaches can support climate resilience and adaptation in settlements and cities, and what role is there for social movements, NGOs, and local and national governments in these processes?
  • What would an inclusive global platform of green social movements look like, and how could it usefully engage with COP26?

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