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Greens Can Be the Political Voice of the Climate Movement

By Bas Eickhout

Many of those taking to the streets to protest against injustice and inequality are disillusioned with party politics and institutions. So how can Green elected representatives at the European level show that they share these concerns and that they can be a credible voice to represent citizens in the political arena?

Europe Has Been Left Behind

What is your diagnosis of the current status of the international climate change negotiations in light of the most recent developments?

With regards to the international negotiations, it’s interesting to see that, increasingly, Europe is no longer a driving force behind the process but is becoming more of a delaying force. At least, that is the danger we are in. The most interesting development is in China, where it seems as though the Chinese government is going to enact tough regulation on coal-fired power plants, for example by bringing in very strict emissions standards. Admittedly, this is driven by air pollution, not climate change per se. Nevertheless, it will have a tremendous impact on the negotiations because, if China is really going to get tough on its emissions, then they can promise this on the international stage and totally change the dynamics of the negotiations. Compared to Copenhagen, the biggest change is the position of China and the fact that Europe is internally divided and not able to be a leader in the international negotiations.

Where do you think this change in the European approach stems from, and how might this be affected by the new EU Parliament and Commission?

Well, I think that remains to be seen but there are several reasons we could mention for the change in Europe’s role. First is of course the economic crisis, the euro crisis, which has totally taken up the attention and activity of the member states and their politicians, so that climate is not a priority but rather is put on the back-burner.

Secondly, Central European countries, led by Poland, have been taking a far more prominent role, but some have also been driving the negotiations in a more negative way.

The third reason is a more general reluctance from member states to give the EU a strong mandate for climate and energy. This is mainly driven by the United Kingdom. For example, they might be outspoken on climate but they don’t want anything at all on renewables or efficiency. They are pushing for there to be unanimity on any further decisions on climate change which restricts ‘Brussels’ more and more. The Netherlands and France are also moving this way, taking a more Eurosceptic line. Altogether, this is bringing Europe to a standstill on climate change negotiations, which is really painful one year away from Paris.

We have to get to the hearts of people and that’s why we have to talk more about empowerment, about democratisation. Giving people a say about your energy.

Could a stronger position on behalf of China or more pressure coming from alliances of developing countries reinvigorate the process? Or is that too optimistic?

I am starting to become more optimistic about the global negotiations than the European negotiations. As well as China, another big player is the United States. There you really see that more social movements are becoming very active on the issue of climate change. Of course, there was the climate march we saw in September with hundreds of thousands of people. From the European perspective, you could say that it was not so successful, certainly in terms of numbers. It seems as if in the US, the focus of the previous Occupy movement has moved towards climate activism, with a similar message, one about equality and disappointment in politics, and asking politicians to act. Although the political system is very polarised which makes change difficult, it seems the climate debate there is changing and this social movement is also bringing more momentum. This, together with developments in China and other developing countries gives the feeling that something could happen in Paris.

Bridging the Gap: Greens and Social Movements

What do you think that Greens can be doing to create better relations with these movements and to build on the momentum that is there, in order to mobilise a greater number of people?

If you focus on climate alone, it is difficult to get a lot of attention in Europe because of the economic situation. But if you focus on the energy debate, there what is key is that the push for renewables is also about empowering societies, to take control of their own energy supply, and this is where we converge with the social movements. The idea is that renewables are a force that is leading to the decentralisation of our energy supply, which is also a democratisation of energy. That is exactly the argument that will get more people active and enthusiastic. And that is really the positive message that we, as Greens, are working on, to make this campaign more part of a social movement and not only a climate movement per se.

What do you see as new emerging trends and tools, for example social media or digital campaigning in general, which could be useful for encouraging social movements?

There are so many social movements at the moment, working on different things, but they are all frustrated by the political elite, who don’t seem to understand why people are losing their faith in politics. They see politics as driven by big business and big corporations who have direct links with politicians to get their agenda across while the people are disempowered. You see this by the fact that many NGOs are active on TTIP, financial issues, banking regulations, and so on, as well as climate change.

We need to link up those forces more as they have different focuses but also a common concern. The Greens are theoretically the force that could unite them because we are one of the few forces who still see the potential of global politics, and who want to change the system through politics. We are not anti-politics, we do believe in political solutions, but at the same time, we are also not part of the political mainstream. So in that sense, the Greens have a unique position and could be the link between politics and all those social movements. Of course, this can be done partly through social media but there is already a lot of activity in this area and somehow we have to strengthen the link to the Greens as the political voice of the social movements. Because although we might be disappointed and prefer a world without politics, in the end most of the people realise that we still do need a political voice and Greens aspire to becoming this voice for social movements. I think that’s also part of a trend towards a more modern way of doing politics, which is becoming less and less about membership of a political party.

A Climate of Frustration

In the last GEJ edition on democracy, we explored the idea that people have not lost interest in politics but are finding a new way to engage in politics. Have the Greens lost their connection to the grassroots, and if so, how do we get it back and re-connect?

Partly, we lost it. Of course, the Greens gained a lot of success through being active at the political level, which is positive, as I say we believe in change through political solutions, but you also have to be careful not to become part of the political system which people are so annoyed about. I think, certainly in some countries, the Greens are not perceived any more as a different force but just as one of those political parties. So partly because of this we lost it, but also, and this is a bigger problem, because people are so disappointed in politics. They are not losing interest but they are losing faith, not in politics, but in policy-makers. And in this context of disappointment it is difficult to get them trusting again in a political party.

Interestingly, there was a very successful initiative organised by a Dutch foundation on climate, who started buying solar panels from China and selling them in the Netherlands, but without any dependence on any kinds of political subsidy schemes, as they were disappointed with the policy-makers and preferred to just ‘do it themselves’. When they participated in the climate march, despite initially not wanting to include politicians, in the end they realised they needed a political voice and so invited me to speak on stage. I thought that was a good success for the Greens in that, in the end, they overcame their own resistance and did link up with politicians and fortunately enough it was the Greens. This is the biggest challenge for us; how to overcome that resistance to politics. That is the one-billion dollar question: whether Greens can become that force. I think we can, I think we have the best papers for that, but how do we achieve it?

Greens are often criticised for relying on statistics in their political campaigning. Do you think that adopting ‘populism but with the right politics’ could be a potential strategy?

Populism manages to appeal to people’s feelings, at the heart, and not just the brains. Greens have a tendency to aim at the brains but we all know that the bigger movements come from the heart. So you could call that populism, but as I said the biggest difference is that we are not anti-politics, we don’t say “f*** the system” and give up on all politics. We are a movement who say ‘we should be your political voice’. We have to get to the hearts of people and that’s why we have to talk more about empowerment, about democratisation. Giving people a say about your energy. It’s kind of a symbol of empowering people. I think that is the heartbeat we need to address and I think that is key.

We are not anti-politics, we do believe in political solutions, but at the same time, we are also not part of the political mainstream. So in that sense, the Greens have a unique position.

Paris 2015 In Sight

Looking towards the next negotiations in Paris, do you think a mass mobilisation will make a difference in terms of the outcome? Or will it depend on bargaining between negotiators?

You need the mobilisation but it needs to come earlier on. If we only get a final march in Paris in the first week, then it will not majorly influence the negotiations any more, because leaders will try to do most of the work ahead of time and keep the last political decisions for Paris, and then you are more or less working in a fixed frame. That is of course why Greens are needed because, on the one hand, they should be the voice of what is happening on the streets but, at the same time, we need to be present to influence the negotiations.

At the moment, in our parliamentary work, we find the issue of energy dependency is really getting things moving politically. It may not be the one that is getting people immediately on the streets, but it could at least get the EU into a more central position in the negotiations for a better chance of successes in Paris. For me, those are two different strategies. You have the strategy towards the people, which needs to be happening now up to Paris, but also beyond because we all know the deal there will only be the start.

What role can locally-based initiatives such as the ‘Green City’ movement play in this discussion on energy?

The cities are often more linked to what people want than the higher-up politicians and that is the reason why we, the political group, but also the EGP [European Green Party] are trying to connect with these ‘Green cities’ that are doing these initiatives and where, most of the time, the Greens are well represented. It is important to support this to show that, despite the formal negotiations, which will get bogged down on percentages and legal texts that beyond that, what happens at the city level is promising and can achieve a lot, by becoming energy-neutral, carbon-neutral, and so on, independently of the formal targets. So that is also a part of our campaign, as well as connecting with our Green councillors, which we have quite a lot of, all over Europe.

With regards to the international negotiations, it’s interesting to see that, increasingly, Europe is no longer a driving force behind the process but is becoming more of a delaying force.

Where do you think Greens in the European Parliament should focus their efforts in the coming months to try and get the best possible outcome for a binding agreement?

It needs to be a combination of what we have discussed. You won’t have success at the European level unless you have the member states and the national parties with you, therefore we are in close cooperation with the EGP, which at the same time is trying to get the local councillors active.

Secondly, we are really focusing on positive campaigning around the empowerment of people around the energy issue. We want to show people working on local renewable energy projects that they are not alone, that it is happening all over Europe, to show that an energy transition is possible.

Thirdly, there is the parliamentary work, the political work that is trying to get more politicians on your side by focussing on linking climate change and energy security policies, to show that those two concerns can go hand-in-hand.

I think those three activities altogether should result in a campaign, which we then try to connect to NGOs who are active and then hopefully a bigger movement that could result in Europe becoming a driving force, instead of a braking force.

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Greens Can Be the Political Voice of the Climate Movement

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