Panel 5: Climate Justice



Panel 5: Climate Justice

The Paradox of Activist Capital: Stumbling Our Way Toward Climate Justice?

Bobby Wengronowitz, Boston College

This paper explores the idea and value of activist capital—a subcultural form of capital that operates in organizations and groups fighting for social change. Using climate justice organizing in Boston as a backdrop, the author demonstrates the inherent paradox of activist capital and why organizations are so intent on obtaining it (more).

The Climate Justice Movement and the Economy Since 2000

Stefan Gaarsmand Jacobsen, Copenhagen Business School

This paper will sift through output of prominent writers and activists that call for fundamental economic change to prevent irrevocable climate change events. It argues that the concept of climate justice, an expanding idea this century, is capable of carrying both the technical and political apparatus necessary for a broader mobilization and an ensuing displacement of global economic power relations (more).

Coping with the COPs, and the Search for Climate Justice

Emily Williams, UC Santa Barbara

Emily Williams works with the Climate Hazards Group in Geography at UCSB and is a co-founder of the Climate Justice Project. She has attended COPs 19, 20, and 21. Her focus is on climate justice, and her research interests are in the interdisciplinary study of climate science, social science, and policy (more).

Q & A

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11 replies
  1. Stefan Gaarsmand Jacobsen, Copenhagen Business School says:

    Dear all, thanks for watching and listening. Please feel free to engage with any aspect of my talk. I am especially interested in discussing issues concerning notions that morality can be a driver in climate activism – which seems prevalent in US activist circles and often catalyzed by comparisons with the abolitionist movement. However, when dealing with highly political struggles in ‘technical’ realm of global warming, does ‘moralization’ actually work as a way to mobilize broader? What are recent experiences with the mixing of political and ethical ideas in activist circles? Are there different ways of making claims to being a morally strong movement that have different responses and consequences to activists?

    • Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

      I really do think this is the difficult question. (Actually, my interdisciplinary climate change doctoral program has a blog and I just wrote on this messaging issue, although not in an activist context: Obviously, different people will respond to different kinds of motivational cues and framings. Personally, I worry that moralization framings make activists look naive, and also that they might fragment activist communities (because the vegans will shame the vegetarians etc). In the context of climate change, where everyone is responsible for *some* emissions, it is even more difficult to hold a purist position.

    • John Foran says:

      As one of the co-organizers for this revolutionary conference — I truly believe it will reduce an enormous amount of emissions as it takes hold among academics in years to come — I am so delighted to see this conversation blossoming, directed to all the authors of this panel in such a genuine exchange — already incomparably better than the vast majority of face-to-face post-presentation discussion sessions I have ever witnessed (maybe I go to the wrong conferences 😉

      On the point about the power of appealing to morality that is raised here, I only have time to recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, Wen Stephenson’s book, What We are Fighting for Now is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015). I have literally just finished reading some forty two-page book reviews of it by students in my undergraduate Sociology/Environmental Studies class at UCSB, “Climate Justice” and many of them took this message away and were directly inspired by what they had read. With their permission, I intend to post some of these reviews on the website of the Climate Justice Project, to which both Emily Williams from this panel and Corrie Ellis from another panel, contribute as well, at

  2. Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

    Hi Emily,
    Thanks for your excellent presentation. You appear to conclude your paper by suggesting that ‘justice begins at home’ with climate justice not possible while other forms of injustice continue ‘at home’. I think this echoes much in the climate policy development literature around whether climate policy should be driven from a ‘top-down’ or a ‘bottom-up’ approach (eg Rayner 2010). Do you think governments should be prioritising international climate justice agreements or localised forms of climate justice that could act as a ‘model’ for action?
    As an aside, I can’t help but feel that there were two significant points to be taken from your presentation: the absence of a climate justice treaty and at the same time a ‘seat at the table’ for fossil fuel representatives in the COP21 negotiations. I think this alone speaks volumes of the relationship between justice and economics as driving forces in these negotiations (sadly).

    • Emily Williams says:

      Hi Genevieve,

      Really wonderful points! In response to your question regarding international climate justice agreements versus localized forms of climate justice, I lean toward the latter. I do believe governments have a real role in facilitating the just transition, that role being freeing up the space for the transition to happen in the first place. For instance, the presence of international trade deals, including NAFTA, takes precedence over any kind of international climate treaty we could create and if a clause in the climate treaty would negate the free trade allotments (as it certainly would), it allows for companies to sue governments. Another example that is very relevant to the US (but also definitely present around the world) is the power of the lobbying dollar in influencing climate policy and funneling subsidies to industries that would otherwise be unprofitable/noncompetitive. In my view, the government is perfectly equipped to deal with these structural blocks to the just transition. I believe that, then, what you call localized forms of climate justice can happen (when they are allowed to develop without being thwarted by blocks such as big oil). These include local energy cooperatives, cities and counties having the jurisdiction to block carbon-intensive and extractive energy practices, etc.

      Re: the ‘seat at the table’ for fossil fuel representatives — you are absolutely correct. Especially given that the COP is a consensus-based process, such companies are able to elbow their way into the negotiations and declare their interests should rival those of individual parties/countries.


  3. Ewan Kingston, Duke University says:

    Hi Bobby… that was an interesting and very clear talk, thanks. I hadn’t thought of the concept of “activist capital” before but it is intriguing. People talk about “social capital” but is part of Bourdieu’s point that capital is developed within particular (often well circumscribed fields) so “social capital” can’t always be transmitted from one field to another?

    I wonder if you might also find some resources in the literature on “engaged buddhism” which, at its best promises to be a model of compassionate activism.

    A small question. Where did you get those maps regarding historic emissions and vulnerability. They are very dramatic!


    • Bobby Wengronowitz, Boston College says:

      Thanks, Ewan!
      Social capital from one field can certainly be used as a resource in another, though different social connections will be more or less valuable as one moves into a different field. How social capital is brought into the activist field is a really important question, especially if one is trying to build a mass movement like many are around climate justice.

      I know engaged buddhism through Thích Nhất Hạnh and Joanna Macy, but haven’t looked at the literature around this in a few years–so thanks for the thought! Any lit in particular you were thinking of?

      The carbon map is a great resource. Check it out:

      • Ewan Kingston, Duke University says:

        Thanks Bobby, that’s helpful. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular re: engaged Buddhism – I haven’t looked at that literature myself in any depth. I know there was a collection edited by Christopher S. Queen from 2000, but since then i don’t know if there’s been much going on.

  4. Danen, Dalhousie U says:

    Hi Bobby,

    Your talk made me wonder about the ways that activists’ critiques of capitalism should be self-reflexively brought to bear on “activist-capital,” which you point out is something that mirrors the exclusionary, hierarchical tendencies inherent in any form of capitalism. To continue the capitalist metaphor, if those who have invested in activism are hostile to those who have not yet made the same investments (temporal, emotional, intellectual, capital, etc), then such exclusionary activist behavior continues to repulse new investors in the activist cause. I like your open-armed activist stance (which seems clearly differentiated from clenched-fist activism), which points towards a more socialist or anarchist way of being, grounded in the fact that a lot of activist resources (like knowledge) are easily shared and duplicated (and don’t need to be hoarded in exclusionary ways). Are you familiar with other published work(s) that combine critiques of exclusionary activist capital with the need to motivate more people to be concerned with activism?

    • Bobby Wengronowitz, Boston College says:

      Hi Danen!
      Thanks for sharing. A central question is how one moves toward a self-reflexive position. Most activist practices happen without much intentional thought, they “just happen” like the practices of practically every person. So, for example, to be able to trace the way that one participates in a chant might require not only thinking about the chant and how one performs it, but also going back to their first protest song and what happened there or even the person’s earliest experience with group song. To understand what something like a song does in practice and to actually intervene and change it (say someone thought it might be exclusionary to a certain kind of person) requires this kind of reflexivity but then it would also require enough activist capital to be able to come up with something that works better. It would require enough social capital so that some people will know the person and join the intervention. It would require a habitus relatively at ease in a demonstration, which in itself probably requires plenty of experiences in activist social spaces. Perhaps there is no chance to change it in situ because songs were already chosen in advance when this person who would like to intervene wasn’t present. And I think this is all just barely scratching the surface.
      I think we have lots of material that critiques exclusionary forms of activism (I’m thinking INCITE! and a great deal of material from other feminists and folks of color). But I think we have a lot less that criticizes activist practices from a perspective of solidarity that contributes to building the kind of mass movement we need. Ewan Kingston (above) had said engaged Buddhism might be one way forward, and I’m interested in exploring that. Do you have any ideas, Danen?

      • Danen, Dalhousie U says:

        I am very sympathetic to the principles of engaged Buddhism, but I worry about such branding causing instant schisms in activist groups (“Why not engaged Christianity?” or “Why not engaged atheism?” do seem like inevitable responses in my home town, which could lead to unnecessary conflict between those equally “engaged”). On the issue of criticizing activism from a place of solidarity (and as you aptly say, “building toward the mass movement we need”), I have thought of one suggestion that was brought to mind by your use of Bourdieu – it’s not very new, but I often find myself falling back on the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy, and his book *The Inoperative Community* in particular. Nancy’s stance is set up in relation to activists’ movements from the 20th century, but in the same way that I think we have a lot to learn from the successes and failures of past activist movements, I think Nancy’s discussion of “community” is still worth studying as a great framework for understanding relations to each other. Nancy puts love (in explosive multiplicities) at heart of sociality (in communication and communities), and the loving focus of his communal activist goals still strikes me as highly valuable philosophizing. Following your notes on the importance of compassion in your video, the sort of mass movement towards justice that we’re looking for is one that calls for a greater personal and cultural practice of communal, engaged loving.

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