Bristol Climate Summit Takes Steps Towards United Climate Movement

Hundreds of activists, campaigners and politicians took part in Bristol’s first Climate Summit on Saturday to build a united climate movement. 

The event (on May 7) was a sell-out and around 250 people packed into The Station on Silver Street, with dozens more joining a livestream, to hear a packed schedule of speakers including former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn MP and Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer.  

An organiser of the summit, Huw Williams, of Bristol Climate Justice Coalition, said the event follows on from the protests last November during COP26 in Glasgow, such as one in Bristol in which unions led thousands through the city centre. 

He said: ‘This is about understanding the world, discussing that, but also thinking about what can we do to start mobilising against what’s taking place.’

With a varied selection of speakers across the afternoon, Huw said his hopes for the event included creating a much more diverse climate movement.

‘We want it to be very clear that we are full solidarity with all refugees. All refugees wherever they come from. That we are going to combat and resist racism. That we oppose imperialism and wars, and we think that we need a movement that not just looks at the effect of climate change but actually in the end gets to its very source,’ he said. 

Key themes of the summit were global climate justice and a just transition. The tension between activists who want to see rapid climate action, and trade unionists who want to ensure workers are leading the way on climate action was apparent at points, such as when a speaker from Unite was heckled for the union’s support of Bristol Airport expansion. 

There were disagreements also between those who pursue electoral politics and some activists, especially, but by no means exclusively younger activists, who see direct action as a far more effective method of achieving change. 

A woman stands whilst four others sit to her left and right. One of them is Jeremy Corbyn.
Salena Williams (standing) of the Bristol Climate Justice Coalition introduces the summit and the first panel. Image: James Ward.

The summit was split into an opening plenary followed by three simultaneous workshops before a concluding panel session. 

The highlight of the first session was undoubtedly Jeremy Corbyn who, in a slight change to the advertised running order, joined the opening plenary instead of the closing session due to other commitments in London in the evening. 

Unassuming on his arrival, dressed in a yellow short-sleeve shirt and a flat cap, Jeremy nevertheless delivered a powerful speech touching on the need for a just transition and the arguments for socialism today. 

Jeremy spoke on the need to live in a ‘cleaner, greener, safer world’ and stressed that the sacrifices needed to achieve that must come from those at the top not those at the bottom. 

The 2019 Labour Party Manifesto made reference to the Green Industrial Revolution, which Jeremy said was about: ‘public investment to protect jobs while you convert [polluting] industries. The jobs that can be created, not by introducing fracking but by onshore and offshore wind. By heat pumps, by geothermal energy. There’s a whole lot of places where you can make jobs.’

He went on to say that support for such policies comes from ‘job protection and conversion’ within polluting industries rather than ‘punishing’ people who happen to work in such industries. 

‘It is not their fault they’re dangerous or polluting. It is the fault of those that own the companies and make the profits from them that they’re dangerous and polluting and we need to make sure that message comes across very clearly indeed,’ he said. 

Gareth Lowe of Unite Union spoke of the ‘climate journeys’ that we are all on, both as individuals and within industries and places of work. 

He said that any transition away fossil fuels without workers on side is not a just transition and that employees of polluting companies must be given a leading voice in any changes. 

Challenged on Unite’s support for Bristol Airport expansion, an extremely environmentally damaging project approved by government planning inspectors following a heated campaign throughout 2020 and 2021, Gareth said that the union had to take a ‘holistic’ approach and that there are ‘nuanced arguments’ around the issue. 

Finally, Giovanna Lewis of the Portland Incinerator Campaign Dorset, spoke about protest, saying ‘we need a world where good honest non-violent protest is legal.’ 

Due to technical issues, South African activist and scholar Trevor Ngwane was unable to join via a livestream from Johannesburg. 

Jeremy Corbny stands
Headline speaker Jeremy Corbyn addresses the room on issues including the Green New Deal. Image: James Ward.

From 3pm the summit split into three different workshops. 

Steve Clarke of Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN) and Suzanne Jeffrey of Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) spoke about the need for a just transition, particularly in the context of airport expansion and the impact not only on the climate but on those who work in the aviation sector. 

A workshop on climate justice saw Seb Munoz of War on Want, Jean Blaylock and Global Justice Now and Faisa Mahamud and Stand Up to Racism Bristol discuss the climate crisis from the perspective of global justice and the impacts of the crisis as they are already being experienced in the Global South. 

A third workshop saw Hussain Said, a legal representative of refugees and Shelley Asquith of Stop the War discuss energy, war, militarisation and the climate crisis. 

The final panel are introduced by Loz Hennessy (centre) of the National Education Union. Image: James Ward.

The closing session brought a wide array of groups to speak about their work and to inspire the crowd into further action. 

Ruth Nortey of the Black and Green Ambassadors programme spoke of her experiences as a climate campaigner and a Black disabled woman.  

‘I represent three of those groups that are going to be most vulnerable, that are most affected by the climate crisis,’ said Ruth. 

She said that disabled people are often excluded from the climate movement or only included as an afterthought. The climate movement needs to be ‘more inclusive and more accessible to everybody and that more Black and brown people and disabled people are at the forefront of these discussions,’ she added. 

Alina Sladkiewicz of XR Youth spoke of the power of youth movements to envisage different futures, but warned against “youth washing”, which she defined as the practise of politicians paying lip service to young people and exploiting them for photo opportunities without conceding to their demands. 

‘It’s not enough to just invite young people in, you have to listen to their demands,’ said Alina. 

The final speech of the day was given to Carla Denyer, co-leader of the Green Party who defended her chosen path of electoral politics as a way of making change against those who see it as a dead end compared to more direct tactics of protest. 

Pointing the way: Carla Denyer gives the final speech of the afternoon, and a call to take part in electoral politics.
Image: James Ward.

Denyer herself started as a campaigner for climate, workers’ rights and peace. But, she said, she became tired of ‘standing on the outside of city hall’ and asking politicians to help. This motivated her to challenge those politicians directly by standing in elections. 

‘I still believe that the role of protest and non-violent direct action is crucial to any healthy democracy. That combination of people on the outside pushing for change and those of us on the inside trying to turn those demands into workable policy, that’s the magic formula,’ Denyer said. 

In final remarks to the room, and the final remarks of the summit, Denyer encouraged others to follow her and stand for election. Denyer herself, currently a councillor in Bristol, will compete to be MP for Bristol West at the next general election. 

‘I’m here to say that one of the routes, not the only one, but one of the routes, to fighting for our future is joining me, stand for election yourself,’ said Denyer, adding: ‘Frustrated by who’s in charge? Replace them.’

The summit came to a close just after 5pm and the hall cleared with a buzz of excitement. Lasting a mere few hours, it was never going to result in seismic changes. But the concentration of so many committed activists, organisers, trade unionists and politicians under one roof and a common banner gives hope that a new climate movement – with a truly just transition at its core – may be closer than we think. 

The next meeting of the Bristol Climate Justice Coalition takes place on May 24 at the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft at 6.45pm. All are welcome to join, share ideas and plan.

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