“Handshake Activism” Won’t Defuse the Climate Emergency

We need to mobilize many more people from all walks of life, say climate activists Kumi Naidoo and Luisa Neubauer.

If a historian were charting the climate movement, she’d probably set its highwater mark so far as September of 2019, when something like 7 million people, most of them young, took to the streets of thousands of cities around the world. 

To read the accounts that flooded in from around the world is poignant and in some cases heartbreaking (Dom Phillips was providing the updates for the Guardian from Brazil, where Indigenous groups were rallying; today he is missing and feared murdered somewhere in the Amazon). I was watching from the wings of a stage set up on New York’s Battery, where Greta Thunberg—whose school strike had helped spur this massive wave of climate action—summed up the situation for a quarter million people flooding the streets of lower Manhattan: “If you belong to that small group of people who feel threatened by us, we have some very bad news for you, because this is only the beginning. Change is coming whether they like it or not.” 

That groundswell yielded many commitments: One company after another vowed to go “net zero,” for instance. But the intervening 30 months have been tough. First the pandemic chased organizers off the streets and on to Zoom, which put a brake on movement momentum: By the time nations reached Glasgow last autumn, Thunberg was accurately describing their offerings as “blah, blah, blah.” And now the Ukraine war, and with it spiking gas prices, has diverted attention and set up a complicated (though by no means entirely bad) dynamic for clean energy campaigners. 

It seemed a good moment, then, to sit down with two of the world’s most dynamic climate activists: the 26-year-old German Luisa Neubauer, who organized her nation as part of the Greta-inspired Fridays for Future movement, and the veteran South African leader Kumi Naidoo, 57, who from his earliest days as an anti-apartheid campaigner to his tenure running Greenpeace International has always been engaged. 

“At the beginning of the war,” said Neubauer, “lots of people thought, ‘Well, now it’s all on the table. We will ramp up for renewables. We will ramp up fossil-free energy, because it’s clear that to like renewables you don’t have to be a climate activist or eco-nerd. It’s enough to kind of mildly dislike Putin and mildly like democracies and freedom and safety.” But as the conflict has continued, “I think now we’re seeing almost a fossil fuel backlash in places like Germany,” Neubauer said, “the fossil expansion [is] really happening. There’s new drilling happening in the North Sea coast.”

The ability of the fossil fuel industry to constantly regroup, says Naidoo, is a reminder that “the system is performing exactly how the system was designed to perform. It was to benefit a handful of people at the top: Give the people at the middle a little bit more so that they will feel that they have a vested interest to defend that system.” For years, he added, “we used to say things like, the economic system is broken; the energy system is broken; the agricultural system is spoken. But, quite frankly, after more than four decades of activism, I must humbly say that I read it wrong, that actually the system was not broken at all.”

So how do we instead work that system to get change on the scale science demands and justice requires? As Naidoo put it, this “has to be a time of extreme honesty, extreme courage, extreme boldness. If activism is saying, ‘It cannot be business as usual, it cannot be government as usual,’ then surely we must be saying to ourselves, ‘It cannot be activism as usual.’”

Both, in fact, were quite candid about the campaigning that doesn’t work. At the start, said Neubauer, “I was doing something which I would now retrospectively call ‘handshake activism.’ It is this kind of activism that looks very, very good on your CV. It is something that you might be very dedicated to, but you’re also very keen to meet an important minister, to shake their hand and take a photo and prove that you’ve actually done something.”

“The mistake my generation of activists made was that we mistook access for influence,” said Naidoo. “We got access [which] allowed some government official or minister or CEO of a big company to tick off a box saying ‘civil society consulted.’ And, quite honestly, it also meant that, for many of us who were engaging in those interactions… [to] claim easy victories.”

Neither Naidoo nor Neubauer, obviously, claimed to have a foolproof formula going forward, but both had ideas. Too many governments, they pointed out, have grown authoritarian, limiting the space for protest. “We are seeing that there is deliberate strategy into not just repressing, but oppressing,” said Neubauer. It ranges from the heavy-handed (the Indian government jailing her youth climate colleague Disha Ravi for activism) to more subtle: Germany’s new (and theoretically small-g green) premier Olof Scholz being accused of comparing climate protesters to Nazis. In the face of such political backsliding, they each reminded campaigners to also focus some of their firepower on the financial system. 

“There are very few accelerated change strategies that are available to us,” said Naidoo. “Really very few. One of them is going extremely hard, extremely purposefully, exceedingly strategically against all forms of finance.” The fossil fuel divestment movement—now at $40 trillion committed by pension funds and university endowments—is “going great,” he said, but it “can be turbocharged and do much better.” The ability of banks and financial institutions to resist public opinion may be “fragile,” said Neubauer, citing recent successes in scaring banks and insurers away from the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project. Potential insurance carriers for the pipeline “pulled out after five tweets. Many, many banks pulled out. And I think what made a big difference with a project, that’s half a gigaton [of carbon].”

As campaigners take on individual financial institutions, said Naidoo, they also need to go after central banks: I think, he said, “we can convince the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and all the regulatory banks, that it is not only in the climate interest, but in the economic interest of the investors that they shouldn’t be leading them down a road of investing in stranded carbon assets.” 

Both activists also insisted that thinking about the environment “through a justice lens” was mandatory. “We need to turbocharge intersectionality,” Naidoo said. Years ago, when he was new on the job at Greenpeace, “I said ‘as far as I’m concerned, the struggle to end poverty and inequality and the struggle to address climate change can, must, and should be seen as two sides of the same coin.’” But it took work to get that message across even within the organization he ran. “It’s something that, I think, needs a mentality shift on the [part] of activists.” 

According to Neubauer, that expanded environmentalism needs to include people sometimes thought of as adversaries. Often, she said, she’ll be asked if it’s fair to cost coal miners their jobs to preserve a livable climate. “And I say, ‘Is it fair for a car [worker at] VW or a constructor of pipelines, or someone working in a coal mine… to work all day, every day, to pay the bill at the end of the month, knowing that means working against the security of the future, of the children. Is it fair to put people [in] that place?”

A potent weapon, she added, could be older people increasingly joining the movement through groups like Third Act. “Open the space for people who are looking back on their lives and wonder what I’m leaving to my children, my grandchildren — I think there’s so much to gain from that.” People “need to talk to the children and their grandchildren,” she added. “Because we need to stop this tendency for each generation to lose each other. You know, children move out and they forget what their parents taught them, and they start their own life.” Intergenerational conversations could be a “superpower,” she said.

We have to create multiple ways that people can participate,” said Naidoo, not just “how those of us, sitting in full-time civil society jobs, imagine it to be. We have to be thinking about where people are and how people can be enabled to participate and enter [the movement]. Only when we have sufficient numbers, substantially larger than we are able to mobilize at this moment, will our political and business leaders eventually be pushed to the urgency that the situation calls for.” 

Art and music—even gaming platforms—are one way in, he said. “One of the things that is most missing at the moment is… imagination. We’ve got to get people to imagine that it is within our grasp to turn this thing around,” said Naidoo. “True, the window of opportunity is small and it’s closing fast, but let’s be very clear: This moment of history that we find ourselves in is one where we have to say that pessimism is a luxury that we simply cannot afford, and that whatever the pessimism of our analysis might be at different moments, we can overcome that pessimism best by the optimism of our creativity, of our energy, and of our actions that seek to make change—even if we don’t win the struggle immediately the next day.”

Speed is the crucial question, since unlike most political questions climate change comes with a time limit. “It’s very clear the transitions are happening,” says Neubauer. “We will decarbonize. We will get out of fossil fuels. The question is just when? I mean, fast enough? And will it be just enough? These are the things we have to turn around—now.”

Bill McKibben is the Schumann distinguished scholar at Middlebury College. He is the founder of Third Act, organizing people over 60 for progressive change. His most recent book is Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.