Bolder, faster, together poses the question: How can we all take responsibility for the past, navigate a turbulent present and co-operate to protect future generations? Follow along as this series, co-ordinated by the Transition Innovation Group at Community Foundations of Canada, explores the deep societal transformation already underway and accelerating in Canada and around the world.

“Climate and social justice,” “system change not climate change,” and simply “enough is enough” were among the messages of the posters young demonstrators hoisted when they marched outside COP26 in Glasgow on Nov. 5. This demonstration of 25,000 coincided with the climate conference’s Youth and Public Empowerment Day where select youth activists were invited inside to share their pleas that world leaders turn empty promises into immediate action to protect the planet and their futures.

Post-COP26, it seems leaders didn’t heed these rallying cries. There has been widespread criticism that the incremental steps in the Glasgow Climate Pact — see “phasing down” of coalwon’t be enough to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 C, which will lead to irreparable impacts like dramatic flooding of low-lying areas. The COP delegates demonstrated the consequence of a political class largely beholden to the fossil fuel industry.

Greta Thunberg of Fridays For Future, who mobilized the COP26 youth protest, was one of many who blasted the conference as a failure and a “Global North greenwash festival.” More notably, Thunberg implored world leaders to recognize we can’t solve our environmental crises without addressing the root of the problem: extractive economies and inequities dating to colonialism.

Thunberg’s call to widen our lens on the climate crisis to consider the systems that uphold oppression and injustice — like colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy — is in line with the youth climate activist zeitgeist. These youth see climate justice, not just halting climate change, as their goal. More broadly, this awakening signals a shifting public narrative around social change and how we must achieve it.

In Canada, as we grapple with crises like COVID-19, Indigenous reconciliation, racial injustice, the growing wealth gap, ecosystem collapse, the housing crisis, precarious work and the climate emergency, one thing is becoming clearer: these issues are inextricably linked and have common causes and complementary solutions.

To solve these cascading issues, bold systems change, including widespread policy change, that challenges the foundations of our current economic system is non-negotiable. Changes like wealth taxes, shifting subsidies from carbon-intensive to low-carbon sectors, circular economic solutions, massive investments in all forms of infrastructure, and new consumption regulations are needed.

Social change has always stood in the way of bold systems change. It has been the limiting reagent. By social change, we mean a shift in collective will to move in a particular direction. Chemistry teaches the limiting reagent is the ingredient first consumed in a chemical reaction, which limits how much product can be formed.

As the pandemic has shown, social change ultimately determines the degree of permission granted to our leaders to take drastic action. Yet, when it comes to the climate crisis, social change is the missing ingredient. To catalyze the degree of change required, we need broad social change to help fundamentally challenge and redefine our economic system in a way that prevents further degradation of our natural environment.

While we’re in an all-hands-on-deck moment, the community sector (charities, non-profits, social enterprises, and foundations) — with deep community connections and awareness of how social issues intersect — has an integral role in supporting a successful societal transition.

To battle the climate crisis, we need widespread policy change that challenges the foundations of our economic system, write @ml_baldwin and @devikashah. #ClimateCrisis #ActOnClimate #ClimateJustice #ClimateAction #transition #transformation

Tim Draimin, senior fellow at Community Foundations of Canada, explains philanthropic organizations like endowed foundations “should be the research and development for front-line work around social change.” He adds while there are organizations supporting practical aspects of climate action — like Green Economy Canada, a non-profit that supports organizations with plans to reduce their carbon footprint and get to net-zero — it’s equally important for the community sector to support citizen mobilization and reinforce democratic values.

The importance of people-powered movements to create social change is well documented. In his analysis of COP26 and the path forward, environmental and political activist George Monbiot referenced the rule of 25 per cent as the magic number of engaged citizens required to change cultural norms and influence government and industry. He argues that “just as the complex natural systems on which our lives depend can flip suddenly from one state to another, so can the systems that humans have created.”

So how to tip the scales? One way is through building partnerships between the community sector and grassroots organizations to support movements required for social change. But it can be challenging to plug in. Many grassroots initiatives don’t have charitable status, so it’s often difficult to secure donations.

Even so, there are opportunities for the community sector to forge new relationships by providing unrestricted funding or incubating grassroots organizations on their journey to become registered charities. For example, Community Foundations of Canada hosts the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund, which provides infrastructure support while an all-Indigenous advisory group retains control of governance.

In Québec, the Climate Justice Organizing HUB is one non-profit filling the gap of supporting grassroots organizations working towards climate justice. The HUB is a “support structure designed around the needs of grassroots social movement organizers in so-called Canada,'' offering capacity-building resources for youth organizers. The HUB receives support from both micro-funding and working with NGOs, and ENGOs that lend expertise and resources.

Among the networks and groups advised by the HUB, the student youth climate movement in Quebec is the largest and most vocal. This tight-knit group of student associations is known for its extensive organizing, most notably turning out 500,000 people to the streets of Montreal during 2019’s global climate strike, inspired by the Fridays For Future movement.

Tom Liacas, founding director of the Climate Justice Organizing HUB, explains all student organizations in Canada are grappling with the same issues as the international movement. Canadian youth are showing up on the front lines for intersecting issues like Black Lives Matter, defund the police, migrant worker rights and Indigenous justice movements such as Land Back. By turning out for the crises of our times, they are role models for us all.

At COP26, world leaders demonstrated the failure of trying to solve the climate crisis while maintaining business as usual. To pave the way for an equitable transition out of the climate crisis, post-COVID, the real innovation required is to nurture and invest in inclusive, equitable and people-powered networks and movements to instigate social change.

The more of this limiting reagent we have to work with, the more permission will be granted for bold systems change solutions.

Devika Shah is the executive director of Environment Funders Canada. Michelle Baldwin is senior adviser, transformation, at Community Foundations of Canada.