Bringing questions of justice to the heart of struggles for climate action

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Image: Used with permission of Divest Waterloo.

Laura Hamilton is a climate activist who lives in Waterloo, Ontario. She began working on climate issues as a co-founder of Divest Waterloo, a group with an initial focus on encouraging divestment from fossil fuel industries. But as their understanding of the climate crisis deepened, the group came to realize that only an approach that centres justice would have a shot at making the kinds of changes that we need. Scott Neigh interviews Hamilton about Divest Waterloo and about the group's journey towards a focus on climate justice.

Hamilton's involvement in climate issues began in 2012 or 2013. She read an article by 350.org's Bill McKibben laying out the grim reality of the crisis more clearly than she had ever seen before, and a little later saw a film screening at her church that did the same thing. The film inspired Hamilton and three friends to start reading more about climate issues, talking with each other about them, and soon enough taking action together.

They decided to approach the issue with a focus on divestment, and called themselves Divest Waterloo. The idea of divestment is to get prominent institutions like churches, universities and museums, as well as individuals, to stop investing in fossil fuel industries. While that may not on its own have a direct financial impact on the companies in question, what it does is mobilize the moral authority of these institutions in a way that changes the political culture and puts pressure on politicians to act with a similar recognition of the harms that fossil fuel industries do. Hamilton and her collaborators also felt that it might be a useful angle for advancing climate-related conversations with more privileged and perhaps more politically conservative people.

A lot of their actions in their first few years were public education events of one sort or another -- speakers, panels, films, contests, and so on -- all designed to get people talking about divestment and about the climate crisis. Though they had relatively little success in convincing local institutions to divest, they were very successful in building a vibrant network and local popular momentum around the issue.

The focus of their work started to change in about 2015. They became very involved in organizing the big climate march that happened in Toronto in July of that year. Being part of organizing a major street demonstration introduced them to a whole different side of grassroots political work that became a regular part of their repertoire. Moreover, at around the same time they began to grapple with the reality that you cannot meaningfully or successfully build a climate movement without recognizing that narrowly conceived questions of emissions reduction are inevitably interconnected with broader questions of social, racial, gender and other forms of justice. Not that they had ever ignored such questions -- but they realized that they had to centre them.

Hamilton said, "Climate change is not a technological problem." She pointed to "an economy that’s ill equipped to deal with land and labour" and that is fundamentally based on relationships that are "extractive." She continued, "Really what climate change is, is it’s a relationship problem. And it’s our relationship with each other and with the land that is at the core." That means, at least in part, that the same system is both warming the planet and exploiting and oppressing human beings.

So the group transitioned into an approach known as climate justice. More and more of their work came to be done in collaboration and coalition. They were still doing plenty of public education, but covering a broader range of forms and focus. They began to get active in support of the struggle in those years by nearby Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in opposition to Enbridge’s Line 9 fossil fuel pipeline, as well as in other Indigenous anti-pipeline struggles. They took part in organizing a number of highly successful local climate marches. They have supported Indigenous water walkers, sponsored conversations about allyship, collaborated on a multi-event Indigenous storytelling initiative, hosted events about the Green New Deal, explored connections between militarism and climate change, marched for justice for Black lives, and so much more.

Today, they are not really organizing as Divest Waterloo any more but as part of an incipient (though not yet formalized, because of the pandemic) coalition with many other climate groups and justice-focused groups. Last year, this formation convinced all of the municipalities in their region to declare a climate emergency. And now, they are pushing these local governments for real action and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 in a way that centres the voices and experiences of marginalized people.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out their website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join their weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of Divest Waterloo.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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