Urban climate insurgency refers to the ensemble of grassroots initiatives aiming to tackle climate change from a radical point of view. Insurgency in this case does not imply violence but rather refers to the radical rejection of the current socioecological system. While explicitly challenging planetary ecocide and climate-change effects, these forms of insurgency target all policies that make the urban condition yet more precarious, demonstrating that climate mobilization is inherently intersectional. The focus here is on the urban dimension of this global climate insurgency that unsettles the dichotomy between rural and urban. It is on the urban terrain, already fissured by racial capitalism but also traversed by antiracist and promigrant movements, that the climate emergency becomes a climate and social justice issue. This introductory essay offers a fresh approach to the new municipalist project and digs into its environmental agenda. From New York to Mälmo, from Rio de Janiero to Istanbul, passing through Jakarta, Bangalore, and Naples, this special issue explores the articulation of radical climate-change politics, the materialization of climate injustices, and grassroots reactions to these injustices in the urban sphere.
On December 1, 2020, Indian police arrested Bilkis Dadi, one of the most prominent activists of the women-led Shaheen Bagh protests against the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) exclusionary citizenship act, on her way to join a massive encampment of farmers on the border of the nation's capital city. “We are daughters of farmers,” Dadi said, and therefore “we will go to support the farmers in the protest today.”1 Farmers, who constitute more than 50 percent of India's population, have been pushed beyond the breaking point. After months spent camping in the cold and rain on the outskirts of Delhi in an effort to get the government of Narendra Modi to repeal a trio of laws intended to privatize the agricultural sector, they decided to take their protest into the center of the country's capital city. On January 26, 2021, on the day India celebrates the anniversary of its inception as a constitutional republic, more than 150,000 tractors and hundreds of thousands more protesters on foot set out from the farmers’ encampments on the fringes of the city for a peaceful march toward the nation's centers of power. Modi's efforts to stop the protest using legal injunctions had failed, but the leaders of farmer unions had agreed to keep the protesters on police-approved routes through the city outskirts—ensuring that the protest would not disrupt official celebrations. The farmers were having none of it. At the city's border with the village of Ghazipur, site of one of the farmer encampments, tractors pushed aside a shipping container placed on the road by the Delhi police.2 Elsewhere, police responded with thick clouds of tear gas and baton charges as farmers tried to march off the capital's ring road and push toward the city center. Delhi police commanders placed officers with assault rifles across key routes into the city but the farmers refused to be kept out of the symbolic heart of the city. By noon, farmers had breached the Red Fort, the iconic palace that once served as the residence of India's Mughal emperors.
The day's events in Delhi, and the months of peaceful protests on the city's outskirts that preceded them, should be seen as the latest instance of an increasingly important global phenomenon that we call the urban climate insurgency. With this term we refer to the ensemble of grassroots initiatives that aim to tackle climate change from a radical point of view and take the city as the primary locus of action in doing so. In our vocabulary, insurgent does not imply violence but rather refers to the radical rejection of the current socio-ecological system. Urban climate insurgency does not follow the rules of the game; it does not legitimize the current climate regime through the paraphernalia of participatory tools that are designed to anesthetize anger and social mobilization. Employing Salvatore Paolo De Rosa's words in his article for this special issue, climate insurgency rebels against “the current post-political condition that attempts to foreclose politicization and evacuate dissent through apparent participation and technocratic expertise in the context of a non-disputed market-based socio-economic organization.” It is insurgent because it clashes with mainstream climate policies, acknowledging that the climate crisis is not a mistake of the system but is the evidence that the system is deeply rotten and must be changed. Mobilizing farmers and their allies by the hundreds of thousands, the protests in India are the biggest civil society protests in the world, but they are far from being the only example of contemporary urban climate insurgency. In order to understand the full extent of the insurgency, it is important to understand that the climate emergency3 forms a political unconscious that is a constitutive feature of all contemporary public events. This means that urban climate insurgency should be seen as a spectrum, inclusive of uprisings that explicitly challenge planetary ecocide, on the one end, but extending all the way to protests that target austerity policies that make the urban condition yet more precarious, on the other end. As Marco Armiero and AbdouMaliq Simone and Solomon Benjamin demonstrate in their articles, the urban climate insurgency should, in other words, have been seen as an inherently intersectional form of mobilization.
Consider the Indian farmer protests as an example of this intersectional quality of the urban climate insurgency. The overt intent of the farmers’ demonstrations was to agitate for repeal of a set of laws rammed through the Indian Parliament in September 2020 by the right-wing BJP regime. These laws aim to dismantle the independence-era system of government regulation that assures farmers are paid a “minimum support price” (MSP) for their crops, thereby protecting the farmers, as well as the general public, from the vicissitudes of the free market, both local and global.4 Although the government markets buy only one-third of the crops produced in India, the MSP acts as a benchmark figure that impacts negotiations for prices throughout the agricultural sector. Under the new laws, farmers would be allowed to sell their produce directly to private buyers rather than at the state-regulated marketplace, to enter into legal contracts with private companies for their crops before harvest, and to hoard grain until prices increase. Farmers have been outraged by the swift passage of the laws, arguing that they would allow large corporations to displace the small traders who currently dominate the government-operated marketplaces, drastically shifting the balance of power and curtailing farmers’ capacity to negotiate fair prices for their crops. Since more than 50 percent of the Indian population works in the agricultural sector, the privatization of agricultural markets has stark implications for the country as a whole.
Behind this battle over the privatization of agriculture lies the climate emergency. In India over the last half century, extreme weather events, particularly extreme precipitation, have tripled in number. Rainfall has grown less frequent, but when rains come they are torrential and frequently destroy crops. Since roughly half of India's farmers are too poor to afford irrigation and therefore depend on rain-fed agriculture, increasing weather extremes translate into intense economic vulnerability. But even more well-off farmers are in crisis, since they typically attempt to cope with weather extremes by increasing the use of expensive inputs like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, which degrades the quality of soil and lowers groundwater levels.5 The upshot is decreasing productivity and growing debt levels, as farmers spend more to grow less. Their efforts to switch to less risky crops ironically lead to overproduction and the crashing of prices for both major and minor crops. As a result of this vicious economic cycle, Indian agriculture exhibits the same instability and extremes as the weather conditions imposed by the climate emergency. Caught in this climate vice, farmers have demanded increases in the minimum support price set by the government, but the Modi regime has instead decided that it is unsustainable for the government to continue to subsidize an uncompetitive sector. Cut loose by the state, farmers face impossible choices. Increasing numbers have been taking their own lives. The climate insurgency in Delhi is a defiant antithesis to such gestures of hopelessness.
The protests of Indian farmers in Delhi conform closely to the paradigm of “environmentalism of the poor” laid out by Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez Alier in their seminal book Varieties of Environmentalism. In this work, Guha and Martínez Alier argue that environmental protests in India pit “ecosystem people” (communities that depend heavily on local natural resources) against “omnivores” (individuals and communities with the social power to control and use far-flung resources).6 For Guha and Martínez Alier, the history of “development” in India is the story of resource capture by omnivores, a process that is resisted by ecosystem people; examples they document include the struggle of tribal peoples against displacement caused by dams, and the resistance of peasants to diversion of forests and grazing lands to industrial uses. In the course of these struggles against displacement, ecosystem people typically deploy exceptional creative forms of direct-action protest that combine both a utilitarian and an expressive dimension. Protesters, that is, both try to shut down business as usual and to articulate why the social inequalities that subtend their dispossession are morally repugnant.7 In the cases documented by Guha and Martínez Alier, this almost always involves invasion of the urban areas where the majority of omnivores live by large groups of rurally based ecosystem people. The encampments of Indian farmers outside Delhi and their marches into the city center on particularly symbolic days typifies the protest repertoire of ecosystem people.
The climatic and political contradictions playing out in India are typical of conditions affecting growing segments of the global population. Particularly among the peoples of the Global South, the worsening climate emergency is driving the proliferation and increasing political prominence of urban insurgencies around the world. These insurgencies sometimes are driven by protesters from rural areas but often are organized by large numbers of people who live in cities, many of whom are what Guha and Martínez Alier call “environmental refugees”—people pushed off their ancestral lands by forms of elite enclosure, as well as, increasingly, climate breakdown. From hunger riots in Santiago, Chile, in May 2020 to protests in Ecuador against rapid removal of oil subsidies to the detriment of the urban poor, from huge marches in the favelas of São Paulo to the state governor's palace by masses of people demanding economic support to anticurfew protests by slumdwellers in Nairobi, examples of urban uprisings over the last year alone are legion. As these examples suggest, the uprisings don't simply involve rural people, such as Indian farmers, bringing their plight to the attention of urban elites through various forms of direct action. The urban climate insurgency is also constituted by those urbanized masses whose life conditions are growing more precarious as a result of what we would characterize as a compound crisis: rampant economic and social inequality, waves of austerity and privatization, draconian state repression, and increasingly threatening climatic extremes such as life-threatening heat and dangerous flooding.8
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these conditions, generating a crisis of brutal ferocity in which the most basic conditions of social reproduction were stripped from ever-larger numbers of people around the globe. The pandemic played out as an intensification of what Evan Calder Williams has characterized as the mode of combined and uneven apocalypse of contemporary late capitalism, a shift from apocalypse as an instant, universal, one-off event to an archipelago of zones of infernal breakdown.9 City dwellers, who by definition have been stripped of the relative autonomy from capitalist markets that characterizes the rural peasantry, proved particularly vulnerable to this combined and uneven apocalypse, as the thin margins that allowed them to purchase food were suddenly torn asunder, and bare survival became the horizon of everyday life. As Andreas Malm pointed out in his discussion of the Arab Spring, inability to access food has a famous capacity to radicalize: as access to the means of basic subsistence becomes a function of the unequal distribution of wealth, the ruling regime tends to be perceived less as a guarantee than as a threat to the bodily metabolism of its people.10 Under such conditions, the ruling regime risks losing all legitimacy, while the people, faced with starvation, come to feel they have nothing to lose. Similarly, in this special issue, contributors such as Armiero, Lise Sedrez, and Roberta Biasillo argue that the unequal exposure to environmental threats—be it toxic contamination or floods—politicizes subaltern communities. If climate change is not the sole factor in sparking contemporary uprisings, it is increasingly a key ingredient in a planetary urban powder keg.
Given the intensifying prospects for combined and uneven apocalypse on an urban scale, we would argue that the city is an increasingly key site for insurrection—and, further, that the climate emergency is a constitutive feature of these insurrections, whether this is overtly declared or not. The importance of the urban scale in climate politics may seem counterintuitive given the long-standing opposition between cities and nature. Typically, cities and nature are perceived as geographical and cultural opposites, with cities seen as manufactured social creations while nature is seen as a space outside of human creation.11 The climate emergency makes rejection of this stale dichotomy imperative. Cities are at the core of what radical environmental thinkers call the Capitalocene: the era when the capitalist system's frenetic drive toward incessant growth through the accumulation of capital has dramatically destabilized Earth systems.12 According to the United Nations, cities are responsible for up to 75 percent of contemporary carbon emissions and 60 percent of resource use, with transport and buildings among the largest contributors to greenhouse gases.13 Yet cities and the urban scale have been remarkably invisible in discussions of the climate emergency. Carbon emissions, for example, are most often reported on through national statistics, or in terms of per capita individual emissions that are themselves tabulated based on a nation-state framework. But since most of the world's cities are in low-lying coastal areas, urban populations are at the forefront of the climate emergency as seas rise and anthropogenic environmental disasters strike.
We do not mean, of course, to suggest that all contemporary climate-justice struggles have a predominantly urban dimension. The founding of the Sacred Stone Camp by Ladonna Bravebull Allard at the Standing Rock Reservation to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline catalyzed awareness and solidarity actions around the world in support of global Indigenous struggles against a new wave of extreme extraction. Movements of the world's peasants and smallholding farmers for food sovereignty and against capitalist agriculture are also key to addressing the climate emergency.14 The resistance of communities of fisherfolk against the corporate enclosure of the oceanic commons is another example of nonurban struggles with a strong environmental dimension. And, finally, the Red Nation's Red Deal articulates demands for anticapitalism and decolonization that straddle urban and rural spaces.15 We could enumerate other instances of such nonurban environmental conflicts; nonetheless, many contemporary social movements—even when they are not founded on explicit demands of a right to the city—have a primarily urban dimension.
In addition, the climate emergency manifests on urban terrain already fissured deeply by the unequal and exploitative geographies produced by racial capitalism. Precisely as described in this volume by Sedrez and Biasillo, Ashley Dawson and Macarena Gómez-Barris, and Simone and Benjamin, new forms of climate apartheid arise as extreme inequalities resulting from decades of redlining, gentrification, and forced displacement intensify vulnerabilities to climate-change-related crises such as searing urban heat or serial flooding, all while the global elites who are most responsible for carbon emissions retreat to safer sites.16 Climate apartheid requires ideologies of violent othering.17 As Naomi Klein puts it, “Fossil fuels require sacrifice zones: they always have. You can't have a system built on sacrificial places and sacrificial people unless intellectual theories that justify their sacrifice exist and persist.”18 As the climate emergency deepens, discourses used for centuries to dehumanize others while legitimating the extractive violence of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy increasingly target those whose lives are most menaced and who are displaced by fossil capitalism. Malthusian fears about impending waves of climate refugees become core doctrines of official state discourse. Climate apartheid thus builds on the suffusion of the public sphere by fear, a trend that is key to the success of contemporary extreme right-wing parties.19 In the post-9/11 age, it has been easy to poison public discourse with fear and, of course, with its corollaries—that is, with a growing apparatus of control, surveillance, and meticulous classification. Xenophobia, homo- and transphobia, and blatant racism are probably the most dramatic effects of this political investment in fear. Walls at the borders and closed ports are the emblems of this phobic politics, transmitting in stark visual form the oppressive sense of terror that is permeating individual and collective lives in this new millennium. On a microscale, these infrastructures of fear appear to be embedded in the fabric of contemporary urban life with video surveillance, gated communities, armed guards, and de facto off-limits zones. The enduring resonance of this fear-mongering was evident when Donald Trump labeled cities such as Seattle and New York “anarchist jurisdictions” following the nonviolent Black Lives Matter protests of summer and autumn 2020.20
While manufacturing and intensifying anxieties against any form of diversity, authoritarian populists have deployed a strategy of disavowal for the climate emergency. From Donald Trump in the United States to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Matteo Salvini in Italy, contemporary right-wing leaders have refused to acknowledge the gravity—or even the existence—of the climate emergency. Right-wing politicians have often ridiculed warnings about the climate crisis from scientists and environmentalists, blaming them for spreading unnecessary anxieties among people and prattling on about environmentalists’ job-killing policies. Fear of migrants or nonbinary sexual identities but trust in pipelines, dams, and nuclear power plants—this is the odd reality of regimes that want people both scared and oblivious. After all, this is less contradictory than one might think: the (re)production of fears against those who “do not belong” is meant to channel frustrations and anger away from progressive forms of social struggles. In this special issue, both Sinan Erensü, Barış İne, and Yaşar Adnan Adanalı and Simone and Benjamin discuss the ways in which conservative articulations of belonging are intertwined with place-making processes and discourses. But within the far-right netherworld, this politics of fear is metastasizing into an overt eco-fascism, a toxic ideology that marries a Malthusian acknowledgment of environmental limits with violent white supremacist efforts to purify the nation.21
Given the prominence of this politics of fear,22 and its successful capture of political power in many contemporary nations, it is not surprising that a global network of progressive cities has decided to coalesce under the banner “Fearless Cities.” In the context of authoritarian populism and xenophobia, fearless cities stand for welcoming policies and solidarity toward migrants. However, their project is wider than that of advocacy on behalf of migrants. In the face of crisis and despair, fearless cities imagine themselves as spaces for nurturing “human rights, democracy, and the common good.”23 Hope over fear is the main message of the project, one that overlaps with the new municipalist agenda being articulated by social movements in cities around the globe. Although rooted in the European context, fearless cities are appearing everywhere. In June 2017, the political “confluence” Barcelona en Comú hosted the first international Fearless Cities summit, bringing together more than seven hundred officially registered participants from six continents. Regional Fearless Cities gatherings have occurred throughout 2018 in Warsaw, New York, Brussels, and Valparaiso. The 2019 global gathering demonstrated the breadth of municipalist movements: Zagreb je Naš in Croatia, Miasto Jes Nasze in Warsaw, Cooperation Richmond in California, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Ne Davimo Beograd in Belgrade, the Autonomous Government of Rojava, Cambiamo Messina dal Basso in Messina, Movimiento Autonomista in Valparaíso, Ciudad Futura in Rosario, Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, Beirut Madinati from Lebanon, and a number of other Spanish cities such as Marea Atlantica in A Coruña and Zaragoza en Común in Zaragoza.24 The most visible example of how this movement spun off outside Europe is that of the sanctuary cities in the United States—that is, municipalities, but also counties and states, that resisted Trump's anti-immigrant policies.25 Tellingly, the map of the sanctuary cities overlaps, at least partially, with that of the cities that have declared their commitment to the Paris Agreement.
While this new municipalist project has been studied from many points of view, its environmental agenda remains quite unresearched.26 This gap is even more relevant when one considers the growing interest in multilevel governance in climate change policies and, specifically, in the role of cities in the elaboration of mitigation and adaptation strategies. The smart city is perhaps the most popular version of this urban discourse on climate change. For philanthropic foundations with an urban focus such as C40,27 a blend of technological innovations and entrepreneurship, combined with the scientification of political decision-making, seems to be the best solution to foster “greener or more efficient cities that are simultaneously engines for economic growth.”28 Scholars have demonstrated how “techno-ecological fixes” as tools to face climate crises are used to justify “crypto-colonialism.”29 First, they play into ongoing narratives of “green grabbing,” where local claims to resources are liquidated for green investments. Second, technology perpetuates North-South trade and investment inequalities. And third, a new power asymmetry is enabled by the technology through data colonialism and surveillance capitalism. Massive Asian smart-city projects have been deemed the materialization of a “new colonialism” due to the undermining of local culture and overlooking communities.30 The smart-city approach to climate resilience is never placeless and produces so-called franchise colonial dynamics. Indeed, such urban planning practices act as proxies for global financial and technological elites and almost always involve displacement of “informal” settlements.31
Other aspects of the urban efforts to tackle climate change are less explored, including how radical cities and social movements located therein are addressing climate change. Take Black Lives Matter, for instance. The movement might at first sight have little to do with the climate emergency, with policy documents such as the Vision for Black Lives focused on abolition of the carceral state and defunding of police forces.32 Nonetheless, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) is highly aware of the intersectional character of the compound crisis. A recent M4BL teach-in, for example, highlights the “dual crisis” of climate change and COVID-19, and links this crisis to other aspects of the climate emergency that disproportionately affect Black people, including climate gentrification, environmental contamination, energy poverty, and displacement and forced migration, among other issues.33 To challenge this compound crisis, M4BL calls for climate reparations and a Red, Black, and Green New Deal.
In this special issue we explore the articulation of radical climate change politics and materialization of climate justice at the city level, a topic finally receiving well-deserved attention.34 As we have seen, our notion of urban climate insurgency refers to grassroots movements that arise in cities in the grip of the intensifying climate emergency, as well as in cities targeted by insurgent movements that spring up in rural areas thrown into crisis by climate change. We employ the city in a double-edged way, considering it as both an institutional and a spatial scale of analysis. In other words, we research municipal governments and their climate policies as well as grassroots initiatives practiced at the urban scale. As the majority of humanity has moved to cities over the last half century, questions of the urban environment and of urban governance have become increasingly central to social and political conflicts across the Global North and South. In addition, with right-wing populist governments in control of many national governments, struggles for economic equality, political inclusion, and climate justice have taken on increasing prominence on the urban scale.
What repertoire of protest characterizes the urban climate insurgency? Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez Alier have suggested that the “environmentalism of the poor” is characterized by strategies of direct action with three key goals: demonstrations of collective strength (e.g., mass demonstrations in key sites of power); disruptions of economic life (e.g., sit-down strikes); and acts intended to put moral pressure on specific powerful individuals or on the state as a whole (e.g., indefinite hunger strikes).35 For Guha and Martínez Alier, these direct action tactics play out crucially in cities, sites of concentrated state power, media focus, and symbolic resonance. In the essays that follow, contributors track the protest strategies adopted by movements mobilizing in urban spaces over the last decade or so. From Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring, to the Puerta del Sol and Spain's Indignados, Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Mong Kok and Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution, and Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street, the occupation of public spaces in cities has been a pivotal strategy for disparate movements over the last decade or so.
It could perhaps be said that the tactic of occupation is not that new. In the history of social movements and labor unions, the act of occupying has been both a defensive and a prefigurative strategy. Workers have occupied factories to resist their closure as well as to experiment with forms of self-management.36 Peasants have occupied lands against big landowners, resisting enclosures and expropriation and sometimes trying to build alternative communities on such reappropriated land.37 The occupation of buildings to fight eviction and secure affordable houses has also been part of a long-standing repertoire of social mobilization, sometimes producing new forms of living in common.38 Sometimes the occupation of specific spaces and infrastructures has brought a halt to activities that were considered harmful to the environment and communities; these are the kind of stories told by De Rosa and Erensü et al. about Gothenburg and Istanbul.39 In Italy, for instance, the word and practice of “occupazione” is strongly connected to the autonomist tradition and the radical nonmainstream left.40 Over the last decade, this long-lasting and quite rich tradition of social movements squatting/taking control of buildings, factories, lands, and public spaces has often been reduced to the very specific experience of the Occupy movement, with its iconic camp in Wall Street. While offering a potentially rich venue for public dialogue and new forms of direct democracy, the Occupy experiments were also entrenched in a series of limitations that seemed to have reproduced racial, class, and gender inequalities. With all the best intentions, the slogans of the movement, “occupy” and “we are the 99 percent,” revealed the weak engagement of the movement with the issues of coloniality and intersectional diversities, which, indeed, were not represented in most of those experiences.41 As Joanne Barker notes, Indigenous dispossession was the historical precondition for Wall Street itself—a street with a wall built by the Dutch, in part, to keep the Lenape people out of their homeland in what became lower Manhattan.42
Evidently, most of these occupation experiments, especially those in public spaces, are fragile almost by definition and destined to be swept away by police repression. But if instead we consider the broader range of social movements that have arisen in the last decades, including the farmer protests in India we discussed at the outset, but also indigenous movements, Black Lives Matter, Fridays for Future, and Ni una menos, we can have a better sense of the contribution of grassroots mobilization to the dismantling of neoliberal orthodoxies, hegemonic for the previous three decades. Although not all directly engaged with climate change issues, those movements have developed forms of social networking that have proven to be a key element in mutual aid in the context of the climate emergency. Indeed, in 2012 the activists who were engaged in the Occupy Wall Street movement decided to react to the destruction brought to New York City by Hurricane Sandy, relocating from the financial district to Brooklyn and Queens and in the process giving birth to the Occupy Sandy movement.43 In this special issue Marco Armiero illustrates how Marxist autonomous radical activists in Naples, Italy, mobilized first around toxicity and environmental justice and then around climate change in a positive osmotic relationship between their political allegiances and new practices and concepts.
Often, those movements have recognized that “no is not enough” and that the evacuation of the space of institutionalized politics simply allows the right wing to cement its power. This has led to the growth of what we referred to above as the new municipalism: in cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Naples, and Jackson, Mississippi, social movements that began their lives fighting existing political institutions around issues such as the global housing crisis have now fought their way to political power. But this transition has not necessarily dulled their insurgent edge. In a case such as Barcelona en Comú, the social movement is attempting to transform the institutions of urban governance while holding onto its base in popular mobilization for participatory democracy.
The experiments initiated by the new municipalism, including cutting-edge plans for climate action, are reshaping people's sense of what is politically possible. The Fearless Cities network has helped to translate the sense of the possible sparked by this new municipalism beyond the traditional upscaling to the national level through the establishment of transnational connections between radical cities. One of the most prominent characteristics of this new municipalism is what might be called an “intersectional climate politics—”the recognition, that is, that struggles for adequate housing, for the right to mobility in the city, for food justice, and even for the defense of migrants are all related to the fight around the climate emergency. Cities built for the rich will never be just or sustainable. The demands articulated by the Movement for Black Lives are characteristic of this intersectional politics: for Black Lives Matter, demands for reparations include recognition of the systematic harm done to Black communities by environmental racism, food apartheid, housing discrimination, and racial capitalism more broadly. The Movement for Black Lives insists on divestment from “exploitative forces, including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance, and exploitative corporations,” and, instead of such oppression and extraction, “investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities.”44
The frictions arising from the interactions between social inequalities and climate change politics have manifested themselves quite dramatically in a couple of iconic episodes of the most recent urban insurgencies. In Paris the so-called Yellow Vests Movement has mobilized against the introduction of a measure that was supposed to reduce CO2 emissions by increasing the cost of fuel for cars. Some have argued that this was a demonstration of the lack of popular consensus on climate change policies. Instead, from an urban climate insurgency point of view, it was a demonstration only that there cannot be any climate consensus on policies securing class, race, and gender privileges under the umbrella of the climate emergency. Who will pay the bill for the ecological transition is not a secondary problem.45 In London, the radical environmentalist movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) clashed with commuters while disrupting the public transportation services of the subway; the image of a white male activist hitting a Black commuter was a clear manifestation of some underlying blindness regarding race, class, and gender present in a movement like Extinction Rebellion.46 The Brixton flowers incident was then a further demonstration of the blindness of the movement toward class and race inequalities.47
These various examples of urban climate insurgency make clear that climate policy is no longer the exclusive province of national governments, international agreements, and panels of experts. On top of this, “Alternative ideas of climate urbanism emerg[ing] from insurgent attempts at reclaiming urban commons and public space ideas . . . do not always match institutional efforts to shape urban environments,” as Vanesa Castán Broto and Enora Robin argued recently.48 Despite the fact that the city has traditionally been represented as the antithesis of nature, we argue in this special issue that it is currently a key terrain for environmental struggle.
The contributions in this special issue explore, expand, and ground questions such as, how do the understandings and experiments of grassroots urban movements struggling for climate justice differ from those of movements unfolding at other scales? In what ways does the urban scale help catalyze more-radical struggles? What are the obstacles that such movements encounter on the terrain of the global city? If, as Henri Lefebvre argued, urbanization is the key form of contemporary capitalism, to what extent do the peculiar characteristics of contemporary extreme cities help generate struggles both for survival in slum ecologies and for more just and sustainable cities to come?
Finally, we do not intend to assume that an urban politics for climate emergency is always a radical, egalitarian one. While contemporary right-wing populism and neofascist movements have certainly achieved bold yet fragile victories at national scales in places such as the United States, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, and the Philippines, to take just a few examples, these movements also have gained purchase on urban terrain in various places. In Brazil, for example, the recent rise of the right began with public protests in cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo against failures and inefficiencies in public services like urban transit systems. Very quickly, however, these popular protests were hijacked by the right into protests against political “corruption” that came to target the Workers’ Party, leading to a constitutional coup against President Dilma Rousseff. What makes urban terrain fertile for such right-wing movements? As the climate emergency intensifies, leading to greater numbers of climate refugees (both within and across national borders), how can progressive urban movements counter and head off the unfolding of xenophobia within particular cities through expanding notions of urban citizenship?49 What role can a progressive municipalist politics and antifa mobilization play in challenging the growth of such movements? These are some of the debates we would like to ground with the set of articles in this special issue complementing one another in more than one way.
Following this introduction, the special issue opens with the contribution of AbdouMaliq Simone and Solomon Benjamin on “majority urban politics” in times of climate emergencies with empirical attention to pro-poor politics in northern Jakarta and land occupations by low-income residents in Bangalore. In exploring the multilayered complexities in these two cases, Simone and Benjamin advance ideas on how to reformulate an urban life worth living in times of climate crisis. In doing so, they also extend the critique of “an imposition of fixity, measurability and transparency” of urban communities and challenges “involving a variety of institutional actors, from consulting firms, NGOs, university-based institutes and think tanks, and even activists.”
The second contribution to this issue is the work of Ashley Dawson and Macarena Gómez-Barris on grassroots, postextractivist responses to energy colonialism, uneven burdens, and democratic control of energy. By focusing on the cases of UPROSE, Brooklyn's oldest Latinx community- based organization in the United States, and YASunidos in Ecuador, Dawson and Gómez-Barris propose the idea of energy states that hinges on a “radical interdependency that could be legislated by a substantially altered state apparatus during the implementation of a new energy paradigm.” Positioning the focus succinctly on the contemporary Green New Deal discussions, this contribution calls for a postextractivist future in which land rights, social and multispecies justice, and antiracist social movements will be at center stage.
The third contribution comes from Marco Armiero, who takes us to the trash-filled streets of Naples, Italy, at the height of an urban garbage crisis. Focusing on how the embodied experience of contamination led to a political renewal, a novel force creating resisting communities and activist knowledge, Armiero's contribution shows the parallels and continuity between urban waste and urban climate-justice activism in a time when radical grassroots movements are increasingly waging intersectional struggles. In particular, Armiero explores how the category of Biocide, elaborated by the antitoxic activists, has provided them with the analytical tools needed to embrace climate change from an insurgency perspective.
In the fourth contribution of the special issue, Lise Sedrez and Roberta Biasillo shift focus to the multispecies alliance for ecological justice in one of the most troubled favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Through their focus on landslides and other climate-related disasters in Morro da Babilônia, Sedrez and Biasillo problematize the sociopolitical and symbolic marginalization of favela dwellers and demonstrate how community-based groups in the favela rose to prominence as social and ecological protagonists. Using oral history, memories, and narratives, this piece argues that community-led reforestation initiatives contribute to “environmentalization of social struggles,” in which the communities with high awareness of what is at stake take the lead in, against, and beyond the state and other nonstate actors. Their proposal of a multispecies alliance from the social margins of the city resonates with what David Pellow in his interview calls a “multispecies abolition democracy.”
The fifth contribution of the special issue, by Sinan Erensü, Barış İne, and Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, critically analyzes the “urban greenery frenzy” of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's authoritarian regime in İstanbul, Turkey. Situating the everyday politics of urban-environmental aesthetics in a broader political-economic and symbolic transformation, Erensü and colleagues trace how authoritarian populism creates its narratives and counter-narratives over urban green spaces and how movements with radical claims for the right to the city, such as those demonstrated in the Gezi Park uprising, fight back. The article concludes by calling for further attention on “opening up municipal practices to Gezi style radical experimentation and financial and political priorities.”
The last contribution to this special issue, authored by Salvatore Paolo De Rosa, takes a situated urban political ecology approach in exploring the climate-justice direct-action coalition Fossilgasfällan in Sweden. Focusing on the debates on socio-ecological metabolism and urbanization, De Rosa offers “metabolic activism” understood as “grassroots eco-political engagements that aim to disrupt, block, occupy and ultimately transform capitalist-driven metabolic relations.” This notion is elaborated further through the case study of Fossilgasfällan, an organization that generated the first-ever blockade of fossil fuel infrastructure through direct action in Gothenburg.
Intersectionality and antiracist struggles are at the core of the interview with David N. Pellow, curated by Armiero and De Rosa. In the interview, Pellow reflects on the Central Coast Climate Justice Network (C3JN) and its effort to bridge antiracist and environmentalist struggles. The entire interview is focused on one of the key themes covered in this special issue: the unequal experience of climate change. Akin to what Simone and Benjamin argue in their article, Pellow also contrasts the white/Global North discourse on the “unprecedented existential crisis” of climate change with the histories of “genocide, colonialism, enslavement, and other forms of state and institutional violence that Black communities have endured.” The reference to rebellion as “a vision and practice of overthrowing the system and liberating people” perfectly fits with the climate insurgency at the very core of our collective reflection.
The Occupy Climate Change! collective would like to acknowledge FORMAS (Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development) for the support it provided the collective under the National Research Programme on Climate (Contract: 2017−01962_3).
While we employ the term “climate emergency” here, we also acknowledge that such framings are not without problems; see Nissen and Cretney, “Retrofitting an Emergency Approach to the Climate Crisis.”
For a detailed discussion of experiences from the Global South and agroecology's role in eco-socialist transformations, see also Ajl, A People's Green New Deal.
For a study on the political uses of fear on climate change in ordinary spaces, see Bettini, Beuret, and Turhan, “On the Frontlines of Fear.”
On the new municipalism see Barcelona En Comú, Fearless Cities, and Agustin, “New Municipalism as Space for Solidarity.”
“C40 is a network of the world's megacities committed to addressing climate change. C40 supports cities to collaborate effectively, share knowledge and drive meaningful, measurable and sustainable action on climate change” (C40 CITIES, “About”).
On the experience of self-managed factories see Atzeni and Ghigliani, “Labour Process and Decision-Making” and Azzellini, “Labour as a Commons.”
García-Lamarca's “From Occupying Plazas to Recuperating Housing” has explicitly connected the occupation of public spaces in the city with the occupations of buildings to foster affordable housing. On the prefigurative politics coming from squatted houses see Karaliotas and Kapsali, “Equals in Solidarity.”
An example is the case of the Zone à Défendre (ZAD), an area that was occupied by activists to prevent the construction of a gigantic airport near Nantes, in France. See Bulle, “A Zone to Defend.”
Dawson, Extreme Cities, chap. 6.
To know more about this accident see Gayle and Quinn, “Extinction Rebellion Rush-Hour Protest.” On Twitter, XR wrote, “We are engineers. We are lawyers. We are doctors. We are everyone” (XR UK, “XR Professionals”). XR's idea of who is everyone is quite telling. A radical but also constructive critique of the XR is in Wretched of the Earth, “An Open Letter.”
In October 2019 an Extinction Rebellion activist sent flowers and a card to the Brixton police precinct where he had been detained to thank the police for their professionalism and courtesy. Precisely at Brixton three Black men had died in custody. The social media discussion following this accident showed even more dramatically XR activists’ inability to acknowledge white privilege. See Blowe, “It Is Not Just a Bunch of Flowers.”